This post reviews Rachel E. Coleman, “Ideologues: Pedagogues, Pragmatics: A Case Study of the Homeschool Community in Delaware County, Indiana” (M.A. Thesis: Ball State University, 2010).
Rachel Coleman, a reader of this blog, graciously sent me a copy of her Master’s Thesis she just defended this month at Ball State University. It’s wonderful. In this post I’ll summarize it and stress its main contributions to our knowledge about homeschooling.
Coleman’s thesis consists of three chapters. The first chapter, on the national homeschool movement, I won’t dwell on, for it is mostly a summary of my book, and a good one at that. She prefers Jane Van Galen’s terminology for the two groupings of homeschoolers that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. Hence her title with the terms “Ideologues” and “Pedagogues.” I call them “Closed Communion” and “Open Communion” homeschoolers. Mitchell Stevens calls them “Believers” and “Inclusives.” Stevens and I don’t particularly like Van Galen’s terms because they suggest that only conservative Protestant homeschoolers are ideological and that only more liberal homeschoolers are concerned with pedagogy, but whatever. Since the early 2000s, these two groups have been joined by a group of homeschoolers Coleman calls “pragmatics,” who get into homeschooling not for ideological reasons but for more personal, pragmatic reasons. If you’ve read this blog or my own writing much you’ve heard that before. Coleman summarizes the history of the homeschooling movement as occurring in three phases: early cooperation between conservative Christians and liberal unschooler-types in the 1980s, followed by ideologue dominance as the conservative Protestants took over, followed by an emerging diversification today thanks largely to the internet’s role in facilitating information acquisition and communication between homeschoolers.
One interesting tidbit Coleman throws out in this first chapter is that she has found in her interviews of homeschoolers in Muncie that some who first begin to homeschool for pragmatic reasons are gradually radicalized–turned into ideologues–under the influence of other, more veteran homeschoolers. I’ve seen this myself but never really given it much thought. I’d extend her point and note that there are more than a few examples of mothers who began homeschooling without a religious agenda who are eventually converted to Christianity through the ministration of other homeschooling moms [others, however, are turned off by the overt proselytism with which they must contend once other homeschoolers find out they are not Christian].
Chapter two is where it really gets interesting. Coleman was able to get unique access into the homeschooling community of Delaware County because she was homeschooled herself and because she has for some years been offering Latin, Greek, and history classes to homeschoolers to help her pay for graduate school. Through a careful study of homeschooling networks along with extensive oral histories and immersion in local homeschooling literature, email lists, and so on, chapter 2 explains that everything I and others have written about homeschooling at the national level happened exactly as we said it did in Indiana in general and Delaware County in particular. That may not sound like much, but the chapter itself is a fascinating case study of how a few isolated homeschoolers from very different perspectives came together in the early 1980s to secure homeschooling legal freedom. They did this through a favorable Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Mazanec v. North Judson-San Pierre School Corporation (1985), which found that the Indiana school law’s “instruction equivalent” language applied to homeschooling. Indiana now has the most permissive policy possible for homeschooling, not even requiring registration. Coleman gives the most detailed treatment I’ve ever read of Indiana’s homeschooling history (though a bit more on the court case would have been nice), and a great discussion of the possible numbers of homeschoolers in that state from the 1980s to today.
She then hones in on Delaware County. Muncie, Indiana is in Delaware County. This is very significant, for Muncie is probably the most studied town in America, harkening back to the famous Middletown studies of Robert and Helen Lynd, first published in 1929 and 1937. The Lynds dubbed Muncie a near perfect example of average America and thus generalized about the entire nation from their careful study of this one location. Many, many sociologists have returned to Muncie over the years to do case studies of big trends or themes. Coleman’s thesis fits squarely into this tradition.
Coleman describes how early Muncie-area homeschoolers were influenced by John Holt and Raymond Moore and worked together across religious lines. But by the 1990s those lines had hardened considerably. In 1993 the Delaware County Christian Homeschool Association (DCCHA, later changed to DCCHC) was formed, a group I would call “closed communion,” and she calls Ideologue. In 1998 this already exclusively conservative Christian group amended its statement of faith to make it even more exclusive. Some disgruntled homeschoolers left and tried unsuccessfully to found an alternative group, but DCCHC continued to grow until its peak in 2001 with about 300 families in Delaware County, dominating the homeschooling scene and serving as the public face of homeschooling in the county and first contact for families thinking about starting. The DCCHC worked closely with the closed communion statewide Indiana group, which was closely affiliated with HSLDA.
But then came the internet. By 2005 the internet had transformed the way homeschoolers communicated, and especially the way prospective homeschoolers got information. DCCHC’s monopoly was broken. In 2005 the DCCHC disbanded, partly because its key leaders had graduated from homeschooling, partly because the internet took over its functions. As Coleman puts it, the internet has “democratized the flow of information, eliminating the role once played by gatekeepers such as the DCCHC.” (81)
It has also fragmented the homeschooling community in Delaware County. Upon the demise of the DCCHC, many smaller cooperatives and support groups have been formed, often along religious lines. These groups can be difficult find and join by outsiders since they tend to consist of networks of close friends.
At the state level a similar fragmentation has occurred. There are now statewide organizations for homeschoolers that do not require conservative Protestant beliefs. Perhaps because of this, the leading statewide organization and its annual convention have grown even more exclusively Christian in recent years. Coleman notes how over the last few years convention speakers and sessions are talking a lot less about legal issues (no legal sessions at all in 2009) but a lot more about things like Biblical worldviews and Scriptural parenting. So while it is easier now for a non-conservative Protestant homeschooler in Delaware county to get basic homeschooling information and find like-minded families, the increasingly insular Christian homeschoolers still dominate numerically and create an environment that those on the outside often find discriminatory.
Chapter three provides ethnographies of three families: one ideologue, one pedagogue, and one pragmatic. Coleman offers intimate descriptions of a typical day in each household and explains each family’s understanding of homeschooling. This is a really fun chapter to read. The ideologue family, with eight children total, are the classic homeschooling stereotype. They are politically very conservative, fill their days with worksheets inculcating absolute truth about young earth creationism and providential history along with math, reading, music, and foreign language. The children in this family attend a dizzying array of extra-curricular activities as well. The homeschool is clearly a Herculean task, and at its center is an obviously gifted and heroic mom. Coleman’s description echoes some of Rob Kunzman’s observations though, as it seems that sometimes the children do little more than slave away at worksheets and get a jaundiced understanding of much of the world’s knowledge. The household also borders on chaos much of the time, as mom’s attention is torn between babies and a bunch of boys who would rather goof off than fill out their worksheets.
The pedagogue is a real-live unschooler, which is a rare thing to read about in the scholarly literature. Coleman’s description details this mother’s frustration with the homeschooling community’s lack of diversity. It also recounts her struggles to maintain fidelity to her ideals when her children seem uninterested in Latin, math, or reading. The unschooling mom sometimes wavers in her commitment and wonders if she should impose some structure on her children, but she is encouraged to persevere by other unschoolers she talks with at gatherings (some of which are out-of-state).
Finally, the pragmatic family. Coleman had a harder time finding someone in this category who was willing to be a subject of her research. This family has no strong aversion to public education and has participated in one of Indiana’s cyber-charters. Their homeschooling is motivated not by aversion to secularism or to structured curriculum. The parents just wanted more time with their kids. They are Evangelical Christians though. Coleman doesn’t note this, but my own experience leads me to hypothesize that a very large number of families who choose the cybercharter option and who might fit into her “pragmatic” category are committed Christians, only not so conservative as many traditional homeschoolers. Anyway, these last two stories are a real contribution to the literature. Her Ideologue is very similar to some of the families described so well by Rob Kunzman. But he didn’t touch unschoolers or “pragmatics.”
I’d like to mention one final point about Coleman’s study that she doesn’t really emphasize, but it’s there in her evidence. Coleman interviewed several public school leaders, and while some of them were fairly positive about homeschooling, two noted that in their experience, it was often the problem kids who turned to homeschooling to avoid having to stay in school. She also mentioned how the pragmatic mom recalled not being “particularly impressed with the results” (119) of homeschooling she saw when she was a resident director at a Christian college. Coleman notes that her study focuses entirely on the homeschoolers who are networked. There are likely some in Delaware county whose children are not experiencing the rich educations being provided by the three families she profiles here. Given that Indiana has zero accountability for homeschooling, it could easily be the case that both the excellent homeschooling chronicled in this chapter and the impoverished “homeschooling” alluded to by the school leaders are happening in Muncie. We need some scholarly study of these hidden homeschoolers as well.
Overall this was a beautifully crafted thesis that ably summarized the scholarly literature and added to it with a case study of one county’s homeschooling politics and three fine ethnographies of different kinds of homeschoolers. Many sociologists have taken issue with the Lynds’ assertion that Muncie well represents average America. If it ever did (which is debatable) it clearly doesn’t today. But for the demographic that tends to choose homeschooling in large numbers, very conservative white Protestants, Muncie is a great representative, and Coleman’s study does it proud.