This post reviews Philip Brand, The Neighbor’s Kid: A Cross-Country Journey in Search of What Education Means to Americans (Capital Research Center, 2010).
Brand, a young staffer at the Capital Research Center, a conservative non-profit best known for its opposition to labor unions and environmentalists, here recounts his experiences during the 2008-2009 school year when he and his brother took a road trip that led them across the entire United States four times. In route he visited dozens of different kinds of schools, including several homeschools.
Brand’s book is an interesting blend of personal reportage and educational policy talk. If you don’t know much about the Capital Research Center, it has long been a player in the world of conservative political activism. Educationally this means that it strongly supports efforts to privatize public education and opposes teacher unions. Brand himself has written several op eds on such issues for CRC.
The book includes visits to many, many important schools–lots of private schools and charter schools, including the Logos School in Moscow, Idaho, several Montessori schools, Oregon Connections Academy, and a KIPP school. Along the way he makes several stops to spend time with homeschooling families. That’s what I’ll focus on in this review.
In central Michigan Brand meets with two families, one a conservative Christian family with four children whose father, Sam Young, had been homeschooled himself. Sam introduces Brand to another homeschooling family who are doing it more for academic reasons. This happy circumstance allows Brand to explain how the movement was begun by two different sorts of people–Christian conservatives and left-learning secularists. He gives us a quick survey of Holt, the Moores, and unschooling. Brand also lets us know that he himself had been homeschooled as a child and that one of the goals of this book is to look for forms of education that allow parents to have “the most robust opportunity to exercise their natural authority in guiding their child’s upbringing.” (p. 29)
Next stop for homeschooling is a small town outside of Tulsa, OK, where Susan Strelow runs a large Christian cooperative called the Cornerstone Tutorial Center. Cornerstone has about 100 homeschooled kids who attend the wide array of classes it provides. Families pay for them as they need them. Some are taught by parents but some by hired teachers. The Center tries hard to avoid the testing/grading world of conventional schooling. Strelow even says that most students who attend don’t know what grade they’re in or how well they do in the classes relative to other students taking them. All of this gives Brand the opportunity to discuss standardized testing. His basic view is that they’re an inevitable part of the modern world, but he has a soft nostalgic spot for the good old days when “families and communities were more stable and ties more intimate,” making such quantitative measures unnecessary. (p. 119)
Finally, Brand visits two homeschooling families in Wichita, KS. The theme this time is Gattoesque rejection of industrial-style schooling. One of the homeschooling mothers is a trained Montessori teacher. The other has recently begun a classical school. Both seem to be religious though it isn’t particularly clear from Brand’s summary. He uses the encounter to talk about Gatto, and Montessori, and to conclude with a long quotation from Charles Murray (yes, the Bell Curveguy) about how government is behaving badly when it takes from families and communities their responsibilities for various functions.
Brand concludes his book with several prescriptions that one could have predicted he’d say before he even turned on his car. Like Charles Murray, he thinks it’s just impractical to expect all children to do well academically–half by definition will be below average. Like many conservatives, he thinks we need more school choice, especially vouchers. But Brand also strikes the communitarian note, arguing against conservative standbys like the accountability and standards movement, and against uniform curriculum requirements. In general Brand would like to see public policy try to help America recover some of that antebellum Tocquevillian, small-scale, can-do social spirit.
The book is clearly the work of a fledgling journalist, not a seasoned scholar. It’s readable but no particularly profound, and when Brand tries to leap from reportage to policy he doesn’t have much to say that hasn’t been said better by others. But the idea of the book is a cool one, and some of his reports are worth reading.
Regarding homeschooling itself there’s not much of interest for researchers other than perhaps Brand himself–a homeschooled kid who’s now trying to make a career for himself in the world of conservative think tanks and newspapers. His text reveals a young man who has kept to the conservative values with which he was raised but has learned to use his rhetorical skills to both inform and persuade his fellow Americans in a charitable, non-abrasive fashion. Brand’s policies may be culture-war flashpoints, but his rhetoric is disarming and appealing. Not sure how much homeschooling had to do with all of that, but it’s the main thing I take away from this book.