Homeschooling, Creationism, and Citizenship
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical
Education has become the hottest of topics in our public discourse. There is much talk about dropout rates, failing schools, the quality of teachers, and how falling standards in American education will eventually affect our ability to compete in the global marketplace. But absent from the debate is a phenomenon that has grown rapidly over the last few decades: homeschooling. In 2007, The US Department of Education estimated the number of homeschoolers at approximately 1.5 million–a larger population than charter school students, and marking an almost half-million increase from 2003.
Although homeschooling has exploded in popularity in recent decades, prior to the enactment of compulsory attendance laws in the nineteenth century, it was common for children to be taught at home. Today most homeschooling parents are conservative Christians who say religion is a primary reason for not enrolling their children in public school: a survey by the US Department of Education found that 83 percent cited providing religious or moral instruction as a major factor in their decision to homeschool, although other reasons were given, such as wanting to provide strong academics and keeping their children away from negative peer influences.
Oddly, the birth of the modern homeschool movement began with the countercultural left in the sixties. Educator John Holt was an advocate of “unschooling,” which he described as child-directed learning without the use of any specific curriculum. Although unschooling adherents were usually hippie types, a friend of Holt was Dr. Raymond Moore, a religious proponent of homeschooling.
An interview on the Phil Donahue Show in the seventies by Moore alongside Dr. James Dobson piqued interest in homeschooling among evangelical Christians. Christian homeschoolers were much more politically active and numerous than their leftist counterparts, and with the help of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), founded in 1983 by two homeschooling fathers, restrictions on homeschooling in many states were loosened.
However, homeschoolers are by no means a monolithic group. There is a strong minority of secular homeschoolers who have their own curricula, conventions, and organizations. Religious homeschoolers include students who attend secular public and private universities after graduation, those who attend religious colleges, and on the furthest end of orthodoxy you have followers of Christian Reconstructionist or Quiverfull philosophies, who often eschew college entirely.
Today, homeschooling regulations vary widely from state to state. On its website, HSLDA divides states into four categories: states not requiring parents to give any notice to authorities of their decision to homeschool, low regulation states that require parents to notify but have no further oversight, moderately regulated states that mandate parents submit test scores or other evaluations of student progress, and high-regulation states with additional requirements, such as curriculum approval or home visits by officials. The total number of states that have either no notification requirement or are labeled low-regulation is 24, while the number of high and moderate-regulation states is 26. However, in all cases, homeschooling allows parents the most control over their children’s education, more so than any other educational option, by allowing parents to choose which curricular materials their children will study.
The Homeschool Marketplace
As their numbers increased, an abundance of materials specifically targeting homeschoolers was published, particularly for the Christian majority. Curricula advertised as having a Christian perspective–often called “worldview” in homeschool lingo–are plentiful, such as Alpha Omega, Bob Jones University Press, A Beka, Apologia, My Father’s World, Veritas Press, Bright Ideas Press, and Christian Liberty Press. Although not as numerous as their religious counterparts, secular homeschoolers also have plenty of options, such as Calvert, Saxon, and Pandia Press, and some elect to use publishers often used in public schools, such as McGraw Hill.
So what does a Christian perspective mean? “A Biblical perspective of education would depend upon the Bible as its main textbook,” says Ellen Dana of the Moore Institute, founded by Dr. Raymond Moore. “That does not mean that the Bible is the only textbook you would see, it means that the concepts of the Word of God would be drawn into all the subjects that you’re teaching.” For instance, Alpha Omega offers a penmanship course that teaches students handwriting by writing out Bible verses. Many publishers also offer Bible studies along with subjects such as math, English, and history.
A brief survey of more conservative curricula reveals some differences in what would be taught in public schools, most notably in science and history. The importance of Christianity is emphasized in many texts. For instance, the second paragraph on the first page of Heritage Studies 5, published by Bob Jones University Press, reads, “The geographer who is not a Christian can discover the wonders of the world, but he will miss the wonderful testimony of God in nature. He will probably also draw some incorrect conclusions. If he accepts evolution as a fact, his estimation of time will be off by millions of years.”
In New World History and Geography: In Christian Perspective, a social studies textbook published by A Beka, stories of missionaries and the spreading of Christianity is woven heavily throughout the text. “Indians were made in the image of God, and after Adam’s fall they inherited fallen human natures. All are in need of Christ as their Savior. Some of the best friends of the Indians have been missionaries. . . . They knew that there is a God Who made the world and all that is in it, but they did not know what He is like. They thought there was one Great Spirit who ruled over many other gods or spirits. Their ignorance of God’s nature led them to the evils of idolatry.”
History is also told from a conservative political slant, and President Kennedy’s New Frontier program is described in negative terms: “Under President Kennedy, government welfare programs were expanded to gain more votes and expand the influence of liberal politicians. Because it is human nature to try to get something for nothing, Americans saw the government borrow more and more money to try to take care of people with needs.” The Clinton administration gets a worse review: “In many ways, Bill Clinton set the tone for America–one that denied principals of honesty and integrity. Many Americans throughout the 1990s turned to alcohol, drugs, and material goods to make them ‘happy.’ The crime rate increased in suburban and rural areas–where many Americans raised their families. Gambling was made legal in more areas of the country, and immoral behavior became even more popular.”
The issue of evolution continues to be an important issue for many evangelicals, and many homeschool science textbooks are written from a creationist viewpoint, such as Exploring Creation with Biology, published by Apologia, and the fourteen volume Wonders of Creation set and Dinosaurs by Design from the publishing house Master Books. Answers in Genesis is another company dedicated to creationist-themed products–for smaller children there is the The Days of Creation Art Book, and for older ones a complete curriculum titled God’s Design for Science. The company also offers a DVD questioning the validity of global warming titled Global Warming: A Scientific and Biblical Exposé of Climate Change.
In Biology: God’s Living Creation, also published by A Beka, credit is regularly given to God rather than evolutionary adaptations for scientific phenomena. Skin color differences are explained in this manner: Why did God just not instruct people to stay out of the sun? After all, Europeans went to Africa as missionaries and did not die from exposure to the sun. The answer to this question shows even more provision for man by his Creator. . . . There is a great balance between the need to be in the sunshine and the danger of getting too much ultraviolet radiation. God’s purpose in skin color becomes especially evident when all of this is known.
Advances in science are also attributed to God, as opposed to accomplishments of individual scientists. “Since the fall, man has struggled to conquer disease, one of the curses brought upon us by sin; however, only in the past two centuries has God allowed man to make great strides toward curing and preventing disease.” A few pages later, the concept of disease caused by sin continues: “The Bible clearly teaches that disease and death entered the world as a consequence of Adam’s sin. There is no clearer demonstration of this fact than the existence of venereal disease, which are almost always contracted through illicit sexual relations.” The book also contains chapters devoted to debunking evolution.
More Inclusive Voices
Not all curricula attempts to convey such specific conclusions. Sonlight, a literature-based curriculum created by John Holzmann, cautions parents on their website against purchasing Sonlight if they’re looking for a one-sided slant: Though we base our curriculum on evangelical interpretation of Scripture, we recognize that much of history is open to conflicting interpretations. We can’t present many nuances of historical eras in absolute terms. . . . So Sonlight refuses to speak as if there is only one interpretation of historical events. We do seek to give a fair representation of both (or more) sides of any issues concerning which we ourselves are in some doubt.
Their website also states that Sonlight strives to include views that are not necessarily white, American, and Christian. “We seek to show how things looked from the perspective of the peoples who were displaced by European colonists. And we discuss issues of racism (for example) not only as they may have impacted the American Civil War but in other contexts as well. Over the years, we’ve found that this desire for a balanced perspective sets us apart from a large segment of the homeschool curriculum community.. . . If you are looking for a broad-based, internationally-focused curriculum that is deeply committed to looking at issues from all sides, and if you can overlook some of our (usually unwitting) white American provincialisms, we expect we can provide the kind of educational program you are looking for. . . . But if you are looking for a program that will focus more completely on your particular cultural group–and that will speak more readily as an insider of that group–you will probably want to find another supplier.” A quick look at their high school civics course, for example, does indeed reveal mature selections such as John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
As opposed to other homeschool curricula that may have a more American or European-centric bias, Sonlight aims to educate students more holistically about world history. “While we love America and all the things it stands for . . . we’ve spent a lot of time reading about children who are caught in the bonds of slavery [or] people who got stuck in concentration camps,” says Sarita Holzmann, the wife of John Holzmann. “We want kids to recognize there’s a big world with lot of different things kids have experienced.”
Sonlight has largely had a positive reception among homeschoolers, Holzmann says, but some have responded negatively to their inclusive approach. “We never felt like we would be for everybody,” says Holzmann. “We just did things a little too differently. And not everybody’s comfortable with different.”
Unlike other curricula that is strictly creationist, Sonlight also includes both young and old Earth creationist thought–an issue that is hotly debated among homeschoolers. “Young Earthers believe that the Earth is about six thousand years old, and all the signs of aging that we see on the Earth are because catastrophes that have occurred,” explains Holzmann. “For example, the world wide flood that the Bible talks about in Genesis, that had a huge impact on scraping and shaping the Earth as it is.”
An old Earth view, by contrast, holds that God allowed evolutionary changes to happen over a long period of time. “Our instructor’s guides seek to touch on both of those sides, and for people who are firmly young earth that’s very offensive,” says Holzmann. However, scientists would undoubtedly take issue with creationism and evolution being given equal weight in a science course.
Susan Wise Bauer, a homeschooling mother and wife of a Christian minister who has authored her own history and language arts curricula, also strives for a balanced perspective in her materials. As a result Bauer finds both religious and secular homeschoolers use her work, although she had been criticized for not being “Christian enough.”
“We have been kind of polarizing,” says Bauer, who at the time of the interview had just come from a nonsectarian homeschooling conference that even included self-identified atheist and Wiccan homeschoolers. “It looks to me like now there’s a little bit of a shift going on in that the conservative evangelical homeschoolers were the first ones to really get in there and start doing grassroots organization, and for a long time [it] sort of felt like the movement kind of belonged to them . . . people who feel very strongly that homeschooling is and should be a Christian movement have not had a really positive response to what we do. But I think there have been many–increasingly over the past decade–many more homeschoolers who, even if they are or consider themselves to be conservative evangelical Christians, really are focused more on education and not on homeschooling as a way to keep their kids in this particular religious cultural space. And those parents have really just welcomed what we do with open arms.”
What is Neutrality?
While some curricula may encourage nuanced explorations of issues, others seek to train students to defend particular religious and social beliefs. For instance, Alpha Omega offers a Foundations of Living course that equips students “with sound biblical instruction to respond to tough situations they may encounter. This in-depth curriculum discusses the importance of having a faith-based worldview, including man’s purpose in the world, roles within the Christian family, dating, art, education, politics and more.”
The more viewpoint-specific curricula would undoubtedly draw accusations of indoctrination. However, some homeschool advocates feel that public schools offer their own brand of propaganda. “Indoctrination, if you want to use that term, is going on everywhere,” says TJ Schmidt of HSLDA. “The government schools [public schools are sometimes called government schools among homeschoolers] have their own perspective and their own agenda that they are providing, just as parents are wanting to provide their children with a foundation. But I think most homeschooling parents are providing their children with the opportunity to question, to grow. The perception that home education parents are raising up robots is I think unlikely. You give a child knowledge, and the tools to gain knowledge, and they’re going to obviously be able to make decisions for themselves. I think what many homeschooling parents don’t want is an environment that is often working against parents or an environment that is pushing an agenda and not in fact being honest about the agenda that they are pushing.”
Dr. Brian Ray, a founding member of the National Home Education Research Institute, also argues that public schools are far from neutral. “Curriculum in public schools is largely driven by university professors and state-run agencies that approve or disapprove what may or may not be in textbooks, in films, and so forth and so on,” says Ray. “After a little over a hundred years of institutional state-run schooling as we know it, the curriculum is clearly coming from a particular worldview/philosophy. There are many out there. There is a Muslim worldview. There is a New Age worldview. There is a secular humanist worldview. There is a Jewish worldview. There is a Biblical and Christian worldview. And whatever’s going on in public schools is not a Christian worldview. . . .A lot of people think public schools have no value system driving the curriculum. Well, that’s false. Every curriculum has a worldview driving it.”
Homeschooling and Citizenship
Many question if homeschooling is actually a mechanism for preventing children from encountering beliefs that conflict with their parents’, a question of particular interest in a country such as the United States, which has perhaps greater diversity of viewpoints and religions than anywhere else. It’s also particularly pertinent in our current fractionalized media climate, where unlike in previous generations, when everyone got the news from Walter Cronkite, people of all political stripes can choose to only consume information reinforcing their previously held opinions.
Rob Reich, a Stanford social scientist who has written about homeschooling, feels that in addition to notifying public authorities of an intent to homeschool and regular basic skills tests, there should also be curricular oversight of homeschooling. “I don’t have a detailed plan laid out, but the simple idea would be that when you homeschool, you have to submit your curricular materials to some body or agency or set of teachers in a publicly authorized agency,” says Reich. “You couldn’t just decide, for instance, not to teach math because your son or daughter didn’t seem to like math, or only teach them the particular religious account of creationism without exposing them to ideas of evolution.” An important note: Reich’s support of homeschool regulation doesn’t reflect a belief that American public schools are ideal, in fact, he’s been an outspoken critic of failing public schools and supports certain voucher programs.
“Parents are certainly permitted [and] free to teach their kids whatever they wish with respect to their own values and convictions,” says Reich. “So if they want to teach their kids that other people believe doctrines that are false or ones that will condemn them to hell or are corrupt or sinful, I think parents should have every freedom to do that. But what they must also do is allow their children to learn, if not through the parents then through someone else, that these other people, however sinful they are, are also their equals as citizens and are fully entitled to a participating voice and ideally to an equal place in deliberation on public policy and political affairs. If kids who are homeschooled only learn that which is in strict accordance with how their parents believe [and] never encounter the diverse views of others, much less engage with them, they seem to me to be at a civic disability because what they’ve not learned to do is interact with their fellow citizens on the basis of equal citizenship.”
Some homeschooling advocates, however, believe that the decision of how to present other perspectives and religions should be determined solely by parents. “[Children] should be taught in their own churches that we need to be tolerant of all those other faiths and to be told something about what they believe, and why we don’t believe that,” says Dana. “It’s [the job of ] the parents and the particular church of that family to do that work.”
Although the purpose of education in a democratic country is to prepare students for responsible citizenship, Ray feels public schools fall woefully short. “There is no research evidence anywhere that public school social interaction makes children better citizens,” says Ray. “Number two, there’s no research anywhere that suggests public school attendance reduces crime. . . . Third, the research shows that [of ] homeschooled children, the vast majority are interacting with people other than mom and dad and their brothers and sisters. If that’s what people are concerned about, they shouldn’t be concerned because they’re almost all doing things like co-ops and scouts and soccer teams and church groups and synagogue groups.”
However, because homeschooling gives parents the ultimate authority over their children’s education, there is a school of thought that holds that lack of exposure to differing viewpoints is actually an impediment to becoming an autonomous adult. “With little or no exposure to competing ideas or interaction with people whose convictions differ from their parents’, children who are homeschooled can be raised in an all encompassing or total environment that fails to develop their capacity to think for themselves,” writes Reich in his article “Why Homeschooling Should Be Regulated.”
“Parents can control the socialization of their children so completely as to instill inerrant beliefs in their own worldview or unquestioning obedience to their own or others’ authority . . . in short, children become unfree, unable to imagine other ways of living.”
Given the sheer number of homeschoolers, homeschooling likely will remain a permanent part of the American educational landscape. And there will continue to be those who believe a democratic state has a vested interest in regulating homeschooling, and homeschooling advocates who feel that individual parents should have unfettered choice as to what their children do or do not learn, free from government oversight.
In this sense, homeschooling represents a clashing of two ideals American culture holds in high regard: the individual’s freedom and right to live their lives and bring up their children according to their beliefs and customs, and the interest of the state in regulating education as a means to maintaining an informed citizenry and an environment of mutual respect of others, befitting of a pluralistic democracy. Only time will tell which ideal will prevail.
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