Record: Melissa Sherfinski, “Contextualizing the Tools of a Classical and Christian Homeschooling Mother-Teacher” in Curriculum Inquiry 4, no. 2 (March 2014): 169-203.
Summary: Sherfinski, a professor in West Virginia University’s College of Education and Human Services, has published widely on school reform issues ranging from class size reduction to universal pre-kindergarten programs. This is her first published article on homeschooling, though she has been delivering conference papers about homeschooling mothers since 2010.
In this piece Sherfinski profiles a single homeschooling mother pseudonymously named April Greene. Greene has two boys, ages 11 and 12, whom she has always homeschooled. Due to the influence of an older sister and another respected friend she has decided to embrace the classical education model currently in fashion among many Christian homeschoolers. Sherfinski calls her approach “Classical and Christian” throughout, which I’ll abbreviate as CC.
Sherfinski begins with a review of some of the literature on modern middle class American mothering, emphasizing especially the work of Jennifer Lois, a review of whose excellent book you can read here. She then turns to an orientation to the CC phenomenon, noting that classical texts dominate the bestseller list of homeschooling books on Amazon.com (which they do. As of this writing 8 of the 20 bestselling books were classical education-related, all but one by Susan Wise Bauer. The only thing more popular than classical ed is the Duggar family). She gives a solid history of the movement, drawing on, among other sources, this article by movement insider Peter Leithart, and makes the point made by others as well that Evangelicals are often approaching this curricular option with an expectation that it will enhance their children’s lives both spiritually and materially.
One unique spin Sherfinski puts on the account here is to stress the remarkable influence of mother-daughter team Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise in popularizing the classical education movement far beyond the small group of (mostly Calvinist) classical schools. Sherfinski cites Chris Perrin, who runs the popular CC curriculum provider Classical Academic Press, to claim that the vast majority of buyers of CC materials are homeschoolers (p. 197). Throughout their many works Wise and Bauer’s rhetoric is more gentle and welcoming than the often caustic and severe polemics of the males who dominate the classical school movement (Douglas Wilson being the standout example).
Next Sherfinski explains her study. Her larger project began with interviews of 14 mother-teachers. She then honed in on three of them for a more in-depth, year-long qualitative study, visiting their homes, taking meticulous field notes, doing in-depth interviews, and so forth. One of those three was April Greene.
All of the homeschooling mothers Sherfinski interviewed were deeply invested in their projects emotionally, eager to argue for the normalcy of what they were doing. They tended to think of their mother-teacher role as a 24 hour task upon which their self-image as good mothers and women depended. April was no different. For her in particular, however, the CC model offered her a way to “develop her identity as an intellectual and professional within the confines of her home.” (p.184) Yet this identity was not without tensions.
To get at these tensions Sherfinski provides two vignettes (she calls them “film clips”) taken from her research. In the first one April is trying to teach Latin to her boys, but since she doesn’t know any more than they do she has to run to her reference guide to try to figure out a thorny translation issue that has come up. Sherfinski narrates:
when April returned, I asked her if she had studied Latin herself, and how she keeps up with the boys’ lessons. Her face turned tired-looking, and then she stated that she has been keeping up one night ahead of the boys (the same could be said of mathematics instruction). (p.185)
Sherfinski summarizes, “For April, trying to be classical and Christian was emotionally exhausting…” (p.188).
The second vignette concerns a conversation April has with the boys during morning devotions. The Biblical passage under discussion is from the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Thessalonians. Sherfinski records a conversation between April and the boys about Paul’s compassion for and encouragement of the Thessalonians (noting a feminizing theme here). Sherfinski then explains how frequently the Christian part of the boys’ education doesn’t quit fit with the Classical part. The Golden Rule, which April had stressed in devotions, would have Christians treat others as they would want to be treated themselves. But April’s curriculum and teaching very clearly do not treat groups like Muslims or secularists with anything like the charity a Christian would hope Muslims and secularists would extend to Christians. Similarly, a disabled neighbor often needs ministrations which April and the boys provide, but doing so often means falling behind on the rigorous curriculum required by the Classical model. Sherfinski never quite says it like this, but there is a real tension between Aristotelian notions of virtue (‘proper pride’ for example) and Christian ones (‘humility’), tensions which hundreds of years of interaction between Christian and Greco-Roman Paganism have never resolved.
Sherfinski concludes by highlighting a few more of the tensions the mother-teacher and Christian-classical combinations create. As mother April enjoys watching her boys be silly (they like to watch The Simpsons despite their father’s occasional disapproval of the content), but as teacher she has to work hard to keep them on task. As a classicist she wants to teach the boys to think critically, but not about Christianity. CC offers her a strong curriculum, a workable pedagogy, and a firm identity as a Christian proud of her Western Civilization heritage, but it carries huge costs:
1. literal costs (classical curriculum and resources are expensive)
2. time (April’s own prep work to try to stay one day ahead of the boys plus her actual teaching)
3. loss of agency (the curriculum is so programmed that the boys seldom get to study what they want to)
4. limited perspective (the whole classical ed subculture has a very one-sided view about the superiority of Christian and Western ideas and values, and it’s extremely male-dominated)
5. isolation (since April is rural she has no local classical support group, and her family’s limited budget means she can’t access some of the better online resources)
6. gender burden (like happens in most homeschooling families, April’s husband does hardly anything to help).
Though the writing could be a little clearer, and a sample bigger than one would have been nice, what Sherfinski provides here reinforces beautifully some of the insights others have made about both classical education and the emotional lives of homeschooling mothers. Like Vigilant, she finds that fathers are more polemical and ideological about homeschooling than mothers. Like Lois, she finds that the act of homeschooling creates emotional strains among the women who do it, and that their husbands don’t help. Like Hahn she finds that parents choose the classical model more for what they think it can do for their kids than out of any real love of the Latin language. What’s new here is the keen articulation of some of the inconsistencies between the ideals of the classical model and the conservative Christian subculture that has embraced it. Dorothy Sayers was no Evangelical, and this model, if it is successful, will provide homeschooling children with critical faculties that might cause them to question the party line their mothers and textbooks are telling them. Inklings of that can be observed in some of Sherfinski’s examples of dialogue between the two boys and their mother. I’d love to read a follow-up study about where these boys are spiritually, intellectually, and materially in 20 years.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College