Homeschool: An American Historyis the first scholarly book-length treatment of its theme. Here I will give readers a sense of the book by sharing the table of contents and the book’s introduction.
Table of Contents:
1. The Family State, 1600-1776
2. The Family Nation, 1776-1860
3. The Eclipse of the Fireside, 1865-1930
4. Why Homeschooling Happened, 1945-1990
5. Three Homeschooling Pioneers
6. The Changing of the Guard, 1983-1998
7. Making it Legal
8. Homeschooling and the Return of Domestic Education, 1998-2008
This book is a history of education in the home in the United States. It is not just a history of the modern homeschool movement, though that movement plays a key role in the more recent history of education at home. It is a history of how the use of the home to educate children has changed and how it has remained the same from colonial times to the present. Taking such a long view allows us to correct some misconceptions about home education in the past and today. We need a book like this not least because advocates for and against homeschooling have often misrepresented the past in an effort to score political points. In the popular literature many historical misconceptions have circulated for so long that they have become commonplaces. Here are two of the most common.
On the one hand there is a tendency among some to understand the modern homeschooling movement as a simple continuation of a process of education that has existed from time immemorial. The past is raided for examples of people, especially famous and influential people, who were taught at home. This virtuous and venerable tradition of home education is contrasted with the more recent and pernicious model of compulsory government schooling, and finally the modern homeschooling movement is introduced, described as a return to the original American (or in some cases Western) model of education. Here is an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about, coming from Theodore Forstmann, an advocate for parental choice in education:
For the first 230 years of our history, parents, not government, were in charge…. Competence in reading, writing, and arithmetic was nearly universal at the time of the American Revolution. But by the mid-nineteenth century, a band of reformers led by Horace Mann of Massachusetts replaced our founding, free-market education system with a system of state-run education, with compulsory attendance and standardized curriculum.
Now there is something salutary in this perspective. It reminds us that the historiography of education as it was written by public school leaders in the early twentieth century was simply wrong in its failure to attend to the family’s role in education or to overstate the degree to which the American experiment nullified its reach. Though his own work later refuted this, a young Lawrence Cremin wrote in 1957 that “the European tradition of education centered in the family rather than in schools did not take root in the United States.” Homeschoolers know better and have compiled an admirable list of historic individuals whose biographies collectively demonstrate the educative significance of the family. As the early chapters of this book will illustrate, the family was in fact the very center of education in early America.
Yet this perspective, while accurately pointing out the anachronistic tendency of older histories of education to interpret the past as simply prolegomena to the public school, commits its own anachronism by reading current conflicts between family and State into the past. It doesn’t often recognize that the modern homeschooling movement is in many ways fundamentally different from earlier efforts to educate children in the home. One of the central questions this book will be addressing is why and how education in the home shifted from being something that was done as a matter of course, actively encouraged by government, to being an act, even a movement, of self-conscious political protest against government.
A second tendency in some of the homeschooling historical writing that deserves scrutiny is the growing hagiography of the homeschooling movement’s pioneers of the 1960s-1980s. While different homeschoolers have different pantheons of saints (largely based on religious affiliation), all seem to share the assumption that homeschooling was brought back into prominence through the writings and works of great individuals. Frequently cited names include J. R. Rushdoony, John Holt, Raymond and Dorothy Moore, Gregg Harris, Michael Farris, and Mary Pride. No doubt these and many other leaders played crucial roles in making the modern homeschooling movement what it was. All will be covered in this book. But emphasis on the life and work of such notables tends to obscure the larger social forces at play during these decades that might go some distance in explaining not only why these thinkers and activists believed what they did but why their views and initiatives met with such a strong grassroots response. It also misses the populist element, the reality that homeschooling’s gains have come largely from the labors of a large group of ordinary Americans, almost all of them women.
My task here then is two-fold. In the first place, I want to tell the history of education at home in the English Colonies and the United States in a way that does not anachronistically valorize home education, pitting the home against the school or the family against the government. My tale must consider both the astonishing diversity of forms in which education in the home took place and the broader context of American social history that informed these practices. Secondly, I must explain the emergence since World War II of the self-conscious homeschooling movement proper in a manner that goes beyond the “great man” history that has been typical of insider accounts by attending to both the cultural climate in which the movement was incubated and the grassroots activism of thousands of Americans who participated.
Fortunately, historians have for several decades now been producing excellent work in many fields that can help uncover some of these broader trends and themes. There are now well-developed literatures and entire sub-disciplines of American history devoted to the history of childhood, of the family, and of education. Though much of this literature is directly related to the topic of home education, until now no historian has explicitly made the connection. Professionals who spend their lives immersed in this historical world know that one of the most common complaints about the current state of affairs in American history is that there is so much good work being produced by so many scholars in such disparate fields that it has for some time been impossible to put it all together into one tidy synthesis. While there have certainly been intellectual currents of late that delight in the demise of older synthetic models of American history and look askance at any attempt to replace them, many professional historians do wish their work, often of the highest quality, could be made more accessible to the general reader. Good historical synthesis can play the role of bringing some of this high quality but often obscure historiography to more mainstream readers. That is one of the goals of this book.
The book is arranged chronologically, with separate chapters covering the standard periods of American history from colonial times to the present. Chapter one describes home education in the British colonies. Chapter two does the same from the American Revolution to the Civil War. Chapter three covers the postwar period through the New Deal. Beginning with chapter four the focus of the book narrows to the homeschooling movement. While other forms of education in the home certainly continued, the book does not dwell on such important topics as the use of tutors among the wealthy or for children with special needs. Chapter four lays out the broad cultural context within which the homeschooling movement was born. Chapter five looks in some detail at the work of three early leaders each of whom made lasting contributions to the movement. Chapter six describes the development of the movement’s infrastructure and organizations in all their complexity and controversy. Chapter seven comes to terms with the profound changes in homeschooling law the movement was able to secure. Chapter eight concludes with a look at recent developments in homeschooling, many of which are making homeschooling more and more like the domestic education of earlier centuries rather than a countercultural protest movement.
While sweeping generalizations are difficult to make for such a broad time span, I will hazard a few here. First, education in the home has indeed been a constant throughout the period, but its social meaning has changed dramatically. We will see, for example a gradual shift from the colonial period when civil government aggressively enforced a certain sort of home education to the slow and voluntary eclipse of home instruction by other institutions, to the antagonism between home and school that has been a hallmark of the homeschooling movement, and finally to an increasing hybridization of home and school today. In my view something truly revolutionary is happening with the homeschooling movement that can only be understood if we take the long view. Historian John Demos once wrote that the history of the family in America “has been a history of contraction and withdrawal; its central theme is the gradual surrender to other institutions of functions that once lay very much within the realm of family responsibility.” But in our own time we are seeing a reversal of this longstanding pattern. Homeschooling is only the most obvious example here. Others include the rise in popularity of house churches among some conservative Protestants, the preference for live-in nannies and “au pairs” over day care among those who can afford it, the fashion of home-births by midwives among many “crunchy” Americans, home-based hospice care, telecommuting, and the like. Some of the fuss over homeschooling may be due to the fact that it has been on the cutting edge of a larger renegotiation of the accepted boundaries between public and private, personal and institutional.
Secondly, while concern for the moral and spiritual well-being of children has also been constant in our history, it has been addressed in many different ways. Here again, the modern homeschooling movement is perhaps only the most obvious example of a larger trend. Since the late nineteenth century parents have looked to experts and their bestselling child-care manuals (and institutions like schools) for help in raising their children. But historic deference to expertise has eroded dramatically in recent years, and a new spirit of self-reliance can be detected in such disparate phenomena as the rapid rise of do-it-yourself home improvement stores, self-diagnosis of medical conditions through internet-based research, the valorization of independent film and music production, self-scanning checkout, online travel reservations, et cetera. In a culture that mocks record company executives, second-guesses doctors, distrusts professional contractors, and delights in smart shopping, it is not surprising that many parents think of themselves as the most qualified arbiters of their children’s moral development.
Thirdly, different answers have been given throughout our history to the question of what to do with children without parents or whose parents are deemed unfit by others. Several strategies have been devised to accommodate orphans, abused children, and other “unfortunates,” alternating between home-based remedies and institutionalization. Though it waxes and wanes, the home has regularly been called upon to educate other people’s children in the past, and it may yet be again in the future.
A final consistent theme throughout American history is the notion, held by most everyone, that the fate of the nation rests on the strength of its families. But Americans have had quite different ideas about how to strengthen the family. It was concern for the family that inspired progressive reformers in the twentieth century to push for extended schooling, and the same commitment has inspired thousands more recently to reject that schooling. Homeschooling advocates believed that government regulation threatened the foundations of the family. Government representatives feared that unregulated families posed a threat to vulnerable children. All parties wanted stable families with happy, well-educated children; they just had different visions for how to get there.
For the professional historian this book, especially the early chapters, may read too much like a summary of commonplaces readily available elsewhere. Specialists in the various fields in which I must dabble to tell this story will no doubt find some of what I say overly generalized and insufficiently complex. If there is one trend that can be said to characterize every field of American history, it is complexity. As historians probe more deeply into every period and region, using sources including literary evidence, demographic and other quantitative data, and visual and material product, it has become perilous to hazard even the most tentative of generalizations about the past, for exceptions and counterexamples seem to sprout up everywhere. What I produce here, then, is my best effort to draw from this enormously complex “microhistorical” literature a coherent narrative of home education. That more could be said and said better by other historians I have no doubt, and I hope many of them will be inspired to improve on what I attempt here. I have done my best to produce a book that the professionals will find faithful and that everyone will find interesting. Whether I succeed in either task will be for others to decide.
Finally, a note on terminology. There has not yet emerged a standardized term to name the homeschooling movement. In this book I will render the words home and school as a compound only when describing the effort to educate children in the home as a deliberate rejection of and alternative to institutional schooling. Otherwise I will use word phrases like “domestic instruction,” “home education,” and so forth interchangeably. Given this, you might say that the central question this book addresses is how we got from “home school” to “homeschool” and back again. To find out we must begin with home school.
 Theodore Forstmann, “Putting Parents in Charge” in First Things 115 (August/September 2001): 22.
 For examples of the ahistorical appropriation of historic notables to the cause see Mac Plent, An “A” in Life: Famous Home Schoolers (Farmingdale: Unschoolers Network, 1999), John Whitehead and Wendell Bird, Home Education and Constitutional Liberties (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1984), 22-25; Linda Dobson, Homeschoolers’ Success Stories (Roseville, CA: Prima, 2000), 7-24; and Olivia Loria, “Home Education,” The Education Revolution: The Website of AERO <http://www.educationrevolution.org/homedbyollor.html>. Lawrence Cremin, ed., The Republic and the School: Horace Mann on the Education of Free Men (New York: Teachers College, 1957), 80.
 For a detailed history of several of the great figures see Cheryl Seelhoff, “A Homeschooler’s History, Part I” Gentle Spirit Magazine 6, no. 9 (January 2000): 32-44, and “A Homeschooler’s History, Part II” Gentle Spirit Magazine 6, no.10 (April/May 2000): 66-70.
 On recent discussions of historical synthesis see Ian Tyrrell, “The Great Historical Jeremiad: The Problem of Specialization in American Historiography,” The History Teacher 33, no. 3 (May 2000): 371-393 and Allan Megill, “Fragmentation and the Future of Historiography,” American Historical Review 96, no. 3 (June 1991): 693-698.
 John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 183. On house churches see David Van Biema and Rita Healy, “There’s No Pulpit Like Home,” Time, 6 March 2006, 46-48. On nannies see Caitlin Flanagan, “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement,” Atlantic, March 2004, 109-128. On homebirth see Pamela E. Klassen, Blessed Events: Religion and Home Birth in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). On home care see Lisa Belkin, “A Virtual Retirement Home,” New York Times Magazine, 5 March 2006.
 On complexity in history see Lawrence W. Levine, “The Unpredictable Past: Reflections on Recent American Historiography,” American Historical Review 94, no. 3 (June 1989): 671-679. On the emergence and dominance of microhistory see Georg G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1997).