This post reviews Jeff Humason, “Homeschoolers on Homeschooling: In Their Own Words” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Toledo, 2012) [available here]
Humason, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toledo with experience both as a public school teacher/administrator and as a Catholic homeschooling father of six (one of whom attends a public school), here presents the results of a series of interviews he conducted with several homeschooling parents to ascertain why they do what they do.
He begins with a survey of American educational history, both of institutional schooling and of the homeschooling movement that emerged as a reaction to it in the 1970s. He next explains why he went with in-depth interviews. Prior studies on parental motivation have tended to rely on surveys that reduce possible motivations to a few pre-established categories, asking parents simply to check which box applies to them. Humason believes that such an approach might miss the complexity of the issue. He wants instead to understand more deeply what is motivating homeschooling parents, in part so that public schools might possibly learn what they can do to win some of these families back.
Humason interviewed four married couples, all of whom had been homeschooling for at least ten years, to get their views. Several of these families (it is not clear how many) were friends of Humason’s prior to the study. He acknowledges that this convenience sample makes it impossible to generalize his findings. Of his four couples, three are White Catholics and one African American Muslim. All have five or more children. All are middle to upper-middle class, with a breadwinner father and a stay-at-home or part-time working mother. Each couple was interviewed for about an hour, asked a series of questions pertaining to their motivations for homeschooling and their perceptions of institutional schools.
The clear message all four of these families communicated to Humanson was that they were motivated mostly by a desire to maintain “parental control of what values their children learn,” accompanied by “serious concern about the ability of institutional schools to educate their children according to an acceptable standard of values.” (p. 67) When asked what institutional schools could possibly do to make themselves more attractive to these homeschooling families, most of the parents stressed that it wasn’t the act of institutional schooling itself that was necessarily the problem. The problem is that the broader culture has shifted away from conservative Christian values to a more pluralistic, or relativistic approach where all values are equally acceptable. So long as the public school system reflects this broader shift toward accomodating multiple perspectives on moral values, these families feel that they are a danger to their children. Over and over in the interview material one reads variations on the complaint that the schools no longer teach “moral absolutes.”
A secondary theme that was frequently mentioned was that institutional schools tend to “dumb down” the population. Even Catholic and Islamic schools, these parents believe, are just as committed to cultural relativism and intellectual mediocrity. The parents on the whole did not think there was any hope that schools would change, nor did they feel any personal responsibility to work toward that goal. They had left institutional schooling and the larger society it reflected utterly behind and no longer gave it any thought.
Finally, these homeschooling parents think very highly of other homeschoolers. They appreciate the fact that other homeschooling families provide their children with friends whose families share the same values. They especially appreciate how respectful and well-behaved homeschooled children are.
Humason is right of course that one can’t generalize from four anecdotes to an entire population. But his data is interesting to me nonetheless. Why? Because it’s so predictable. Here we have three Catholic families and one Muslim family, and the things these parents are saying are exactly the same things conservative Protestants say. The irony here is hard to miss. These conservatives are just as religiously diverse as is the American mainstream against which they have positioned themselves, and were any of them to win political power we’d be right back to the acrimony of previous centuries when these very religious groups were killing one another by the thousands. But Human’s study articulates the essential logic of conservative religious homeschooling. If a parent believes 1. that her views are the only true views, and 2. that the larger society does not share her views, and 3. that institutional schools reflect the larger society and thus cannot possibly embrace her views, then homeschooling almost has to follow. Homeschooling provides a way for these families to escape the pluralistic public square and to build sacred umbrellas around their (large) nuclear families. There are of course many other kinds of homeschoolers to whom these rationales will not apply, but for the religious conservative, I think Humason’s got it pretty much right even though all he did was interview his friends and a Muslim family he chanced upon.