This post reviews Quinn Cummings, The Year of Learning Dangerously: Adventures in Homeschooling (New York: Penguin, 2012).
I decided that since this book has been getting so much media attention I should review it. Cummings is a fascinating woman–Academy Award nominated child star, prolific blogger, and author of now two entertaining memoirs. This book, her most recent memoir, has been featured on the Diane Rehm Show, in Time Magazine, on Fox News, and all over the internet.
What, if anything, does it offer to homeschool researchers? Well, first it offers a lot of fun. Cummings is a very funny writer. I laughed out loud on many occasions as I was reading it, and paused more than once to read juicy passages to whoever was in shouting distance.
The book chronicles a year in Cummings’ life as she decides to homeschool her middle-school-aged only daughter. Most of the humor comes at Cummings’ own expense, as she mocks her own neuroses and failures. But along the way she also takes several trips to various homeschooling events, offering first-hand reportage along with jokes at the expense of a wide variety of homeschoolers–from unschoolers to fundamentalist Christians to classical homeschoolers to Roman Catholics. She crashes a Bill Gothard seminar, a homeschooling prom, and a homeschooling graduation ceremony, reporting what she sees, especially anything droll. The book reminded me most of Daniel Radosh’s similarly comical outsider’s look at Evangelicalism Rapture Ready!: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture.
Cummings doesn’t ground her observations of homeschool subcultures in much of the research on homeschooling at all. Occasionally she’ll drop a statistic from NCES, and she does have a brief section on the history of homeschooling that draws from a book by someone named “Milton Gaitner” (p. 44). But mostly the book is Cummings’ amusing account of her own antics and those of other homeschoolers.
In the midst of the mirth, however, there are some interesting insights. I’d like to mention two in particular. The first concerns her visit to the Bill Gothard seminar. Longtime readers of this blog will likely remember my multi-part review of Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. One of the questions of great concern to many outsiders who are watching nervously as these extremely, extremely conservative homeschoolers associated with the patriarchy movement have 10-20 children apiece is that in a few generations with demographics like that there will be millions of them, perhaps enough to undo much of the progress in human rights modern societies have achieved in recent centuries and especially since World War II. Well, Cummings went to a Gothard seminar, where she listened to one of the founders of the Christian patriarchy movement, who’s been in the business for over thirty years. But rather than the exponential growth you’d expect if every Gothardite were having 14 kids, who then became Gothardites themselves and had 14 kids, and so on, the gathering wasn’t really that impressive:
[Gothard] spoke almost wistfully of his first convention, where twenty thousand people filled an arena. We were, at most, two hundred families, with a surprisingly moderate average of three children each–fewer than one thousand followers, drawn from a region stretching from California to the Canadian border, and as far east as Arizona…. If the first few years of operation saw the Gothardites fill an arena, they should now be filling a dozen. But they weren’t. (p. 175)
The second observation I want to highlight took place at the homeschoolers’ prom. Cummings had wheedled her way into the prom as an observer/chaperone, mostly to see what a prom for homeschoolers looked like. Aside from the very conservative attire, the folk dancing, and the very aggressive adult supervision over any possible physical contact between the sexes, the prom seemed pretty normal. The girls seemed to be behaving like girls everywhere–squealing with their friends, retreating into the bathroom to work on their hair, in general having a great time together. But something just didn’t seem quite right:
Finally, I figured it out. It was the boys. They didn’t swagger. I have several friends with teenage sons. If more than three of them are together in one place and there is anything resembling estrogen in the air, they all begin to swagger. They can’t help it. And along with the swaggering comes the shoulder punching and the doofus shouting and it all becomes this lovely, loud dance to draw the attention of a person who is studiously ignoring them while twisting her hair and biting her lip in a winningly disinterested fashion. It’s sweet and obnoxious and utterly predictable. Except there were easily fifty young men down there, some alone, some with a date and some in groups, and not one was behaving like a stag in rut. Was this because they were homeschooled? Was it because they were socially conservative Christians? (p. 187)
In my book on homeschooling I made the possibly controversial point that for all their anti-feminist rhetoric, homeschoolers, and especially Christian homeschoolers, often embody many feminist ideals. One of these is the domestication of the male. I have not seen any rigorous academic study of the impact of homeschooling on males, but anecdotally speaking, what Cummings noticed at the prom rings true to me. Of course there are very masculine, sporty male homeschooled heroes like Tim Tebow, but many, probably most of the young men I’ve met who grew up homeschooled (and I meet a lot of them at the Christian college where I teach) have been very polite, gentle, domestic men. Some of them I’d even call effeminate (though not out loud). This would be a fascinating topic for study. I don’t know the first thing about the degree to which nurture can or cannot alter hormonal balance, but somebody versed in human physiology might construct a study by comparing, say, testosterone levels in homeschooled boys vs. boys attending conventional schools. Other researchers might look into the long-term consequences for young men’s development of spending so much time at home with their mothers. I have no idea what such studies would find, but they would surely be engrossing.
In closing, I should add that committed homeschoolers might find some of Cummings’ narrative a little insulting. As I said, she makes fun of herself most of all, but it is definitely true that she snuck into several homeschooler events for the sole purpose of getting material for a funny exposé. Homeschoolers who can laugh at themselves will likely take it in stride and enjoy. But some will surely be offended. I personally enjoyed reading it very much and can see why it is perhaps the most widely noticed book on homeschooling ever among the general public.