This post reviews Robert Kunzman, “Homeschooling and Religious Fundamentalism” in International Journal of Elementary Education 3, no. 1 (October 2010): 17-28. [Available here]
Kunzman, author of Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling and many articles on American homeschooling, here tries to explain why so many religious fundamentalists have found homeschooling an attractive educational option.
Kunzman begins with a brief history of American fundamentalism. As George Marsden’s magisterial Fundamentalism and American Culture argued, fundamentalism emerged as a conservative reaction against two modernizing trends in church and society in the late 19th and early 20th century: historical criticism of the Bible and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Fundamentalists understood such trends to threaten the viability of Christianity, and they appealed to the Biblical text as their authority over and against modern science, archaeology, and textual criticism. At first they tried to keep the entire nation faithful to their version of Chrsitianity, but failing that they at least sought to create their own parallel society full of institutions that would insulate their children against the acids of modernity.
By the 1970s, however, many Fundamentalists couldn’t take their relative cultural isolation any longer. Groups like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority began to call fundamentalists back to their historic efforts to purify the nation’s political and moral life. Again, however, fundamentalists felt that their efforts to return America to God were unsuccessful, and many of them again retreated into self-imposed ideological segregation. Homeschooling was one manifestation of this move. Even here, however, the dream remained alive of one day somehow using private, segregated child-rearing practices like homeschooling to raise up an army of Christian soldiers who would work to restore America to its God-ordained path.
The key organization in all of this for homeschooling has of course been HSLDA, the Home School Legal Defense Association, which has long organized and oriented the energies of its mostly conservative Protestant base. Kunzman notes, however, that groups such as Mormons, Muslims, Jews, Adventists, and Roman Catholics who tend to share some of the same fears about secularism, science, and modernism have similar networks.
So what is it about homeschooling that attracts so many fundamentalists and other religious conservatives? Kunzman thinks there are four things:
1. Cultural warfare–If the fundamentalist has the twin goals of insulating her children against secularism while at the same time preparing them for an adult life marked by efforts to restore America to God, homeschooling seems the perfect educational strategy. It allows for maximal seclusion from outsiders, for maximal networking with other like-minded families, and for plenty of time to repeatedly drive home fundamentalist civic values and political strategies. Kunzman has found that fundamentalist homeschoolers are often far more informed about and involved in the political process than the average American–but that this involvement is couched in adversarial terms that tends to paint the world in simple blacks and whites and seldom acknowledges that people with other points of view might have something valuable to say.
2. Suspicion of Government and Professional Authority–In the early 20th century fundamentalist values permeated many of the nation’s civic and business institutions. By the 1960s this was changing, leading many fundamentalists to share with those on the far-left (but for the exact opposite reason) an overall aversion to government and other social institutions. Homeschooling, with its antagonistic stance toward government education and educational professionals, fit this mood very well. It still does.
3. Focus on the Family–The core belief animating the fundamentalist political surge in the 1970s and ever since has been the idea that the “traditional” family is under attack by all sorts of misguided and even demonic political and social trends. This political commitment to the sacredness of the family bond leads naturally to something like homeschooling. James Dobson’s impact both on the larger political agenda of the religious right and on the move of conservative Protestants to homeschooling illustrates this synergy well.
4. Biblical World View–Fundamentalist Protestants believe that the Bible should be the basis for every aspect of life. It is not enough to add a Bible class to the secular curriculum. EVERY subject must be interpreted through the lens of Biblical truth. Clearly this cannot be done in public schools. And even many Christian schools, pursuant as they are after accreditation and other markers of worldly success, too often simply offer secular education plus chapel and Bible class. For many fundamentalists, homeschooling became the best way to ensure that every aspect of every subject their children learned was filtered through their understanding of the Bible.
Kunzman concludes his article with some insightful meditations on how non-fundamentalists should view this phenomenon. First he notes that in practice fundamentalists are quite diverse as to the degree to which they reject modern secular democracy. Second, he notes that the newer hybrid forms of education like cybercharters or part-time public schooling not only blur the distinction between homeschooling and schooling but also allow for increased interaction between homeschooled kids and others. Finally, while acknowledging that many homeschoolers do tend to patronize organizations that perpetuate a kind of groupthink indoctrination, it is also the case that these homeschoolers are wrestling with, shall we say, fundamental educational questions that most Americans don’t really think enough about. Fundamentalist parents know deep down that it’s not enough to just train a kid to be a culture-warrior. Their children will have to live and make a living in the real world. Their commitment to homeschooling leads them to think long and hard about the best way to prepare their children for that world–and the results of this thinking need to be heard in the broader national conversation.
As you can tell by my summary, I enjoyed this piece very much, doubtless in part because so much of what Kunzman says here came from my own work. I might have put a few of his points a bit differently (and indeed, my summary here sometimes does so!), but I think Kunzman here does a great job explaining why so many fundamentalists have found and continue to find homeschooling attractive.
But we already knew that. To my mind what homeschooling research really needs now is some sort of longitudinal study that tracks the children of these fundamentalist homeschoolers to see what they become. What percent stay fundamentalist? What percent rebel against their parents’ strictures and move toward secularism? What percent stay within Christianity but embrace a less combative version? What percent become even more politically radical than their parents? What percent become more tolerant? What percent go on to be homeschooling parents themsleves? How many children do they tend to have? And finally, how do the percentages here line up with fundamentalists who attended Christian schools and public schools? We know now why so many fundamentalists homeschool. Now we need to know whether it makes any difference.