“Progressive Homeschooling” is an Oxymoron

My new piece at Slate is a response to Astra Taylor's fascinating N+1 essay on "unschooling."

…[an] overheated hostility toward public schools runs throughout the new literature on liberal homeschooling, and reveals what is so fundamentally illiberal about the trend: It is rooted in distrust of the public sphere, in class privilege, and in the dated presumption that children hail from two-parent families, in which at least one parent can afford (and wants) to take significant time away from paid work in order to manage a process—education—that most parents entrust to the community at-large.

Take, for instance, Sonia Songha’s New York Times account of forming a preschool cooperative with six other brownstone-Brooklyn mothers, all of whom “said our children had basically never left our sides.” Indeed, in a recent Newsweek report, the education journalist Linda Perlstein noted a significant number of secular homeschoolers are also adherents of attachment parenting, the perennially controversial ideology defined by practices such as co-sleeping with one’s child and breast-feeding for far longer than typical, sometimes well beyond toddlerhood. Meanwhile, in suburban New Jersey, one “hippy” homeschooler told the local paper she feared exposing her kids to the presumably negative influences of teachers and peers. “I didn’t want my child being raised by someone else for eight hours out of the day,” she said.

Recent reports of teachers and teachers' aides in Los Angeles and New York molesting children only flame the fans of such fears. But these stories make news exactly because they are so rare; there's something creepy about giving in totally to terrors of the outside world harming one's child. In a country increasingly separated by cultural chasms—Christian conservatives vs. secular humanists; Tea Partiers vs. Occupiers—should we really encourage children to trust only their parents or those hand-selected by them, and to mistrust civic life and public institutions?

Slate pieces have a tight word limit, so I didn't have space to address Astra Taylor's discussion of the radical private school the Albany Free School, a 1960s holdover that embraces many of the practices of lefty homeschooling—the curriculum driven by children’s curiosity, the lack of strict discipline, the purposeful ignoring of state academic standards—while still offering students the social benefits of teachers and peers. The school serves some poor children, but it manages to do so by paying its teachers just $11,000 annually, a “stipend.” This is hardly a scalable model for national school reform. There simply aren't enough radical anarchist or trust-fund baby teachers willing to work for so little and also able to do a good job of it. Nationwide, 3.2 million teachers work in public schools; every day, about a sixth of the U.S. population either attends public school or goes to work inside public schools, which serve 90 percent of American children. 

Educating children–especially poor children–is ridiculously expensive. We need government involved to help foot the bill, and to bring best practices to scale.

Anyhow, I hope you head to Slate to check out the entire piece.

14 thoughts on ““Progressive Homeschooling” is an Oxymoron

  1. Godfrey Kimball

    Educating children–especially poor children–is ridiculously expensive. We need government involved to help foot the bill, and to bring best practices to scale.


    What is not really known, outside of educational circles, is that the blueprint for such fixes are there; we need only look at the “high school movement” of the early 20th century for our template on which to build

    Created via a grass roots movement around 1910, the US system of education was open to all, forgiving, without overtly rigorous standards, academic, and most importantly free.

    Even in the worst of the Depression, children, like my father had access to secondary education. And by 1940 he and millions like him had high school diplomas, culminating in an educated workforce of inestimable value during the second world war.

    Public education, education that is accessible, relevant and most importantly free, is incumbent for a progressively industrialized society.

    Maybe you could reference that in subsequent posts.

  2. LJM

    This is very confusing. The homeschooling parents I know (most of whom live paycheck to paycheck, by the way) support public education. I was a teacher for years and I support public education. But that doesn’t mean I don’t support giving all parents the choices they need to make the best decisions for their kids’ education.

    There are kooks and lunatics in the homeschool movement just as there are kooks and lunatics in the public schools. For every “hippy” homeschooler afraid to expose her kids to the real world, there’s a principal who suspends kids for bringing aspirin to school or special ed teachers who verbally abuse their students. It would be a poor argument against public schooling to simply point out all the terrible people who work in the public schools.

    Because, just like in homeschooling, most people working in public schools are decent, smart, hardworking people who care about kids.

    And the fact is that there are thousands upon thousands of happy, independent, involved adults who were homeschooled and unschooled. So, while it’s not for everyone, for people who enjoy it, it’s been proven to work.

    So why knock it?

  3. LJM

    I should add that to oppose homeschooling as a choice is essentially conservative. It is an argument for conformity in the most personal of choices. And, most conservative of all, it is not evidence based. It ignores the documented fact that homeschooling works for most of the people who choose it.

    It’s conservative in the same way it’s conservative to tell people they’re making a mistake if they don’t go to church. “Think of the children.” “Think of the community.” Liberals should reject this faith-based, emotional thinking.

    The article in Slate does its best to caricature homeschooling as something that well-off helicopter parents do and it ignores the thousands of middle class homeschooling families. That’s a terrible way to argue any point, especially when you’re trying to tell people that on one of the most important decisions they can make for their kids, they’re wrong.

    It would be just as arrogant and obnoxious for a homeschooling parent to tell a parent whose kids go to public school that they’re making the wrong choice. It’s like telling someone who was raised in the projects that they’re wrong to move their family to a better neighborhood, because the projects need them.

    Public school works for lots of kids. For them, it’s awesome. I’ve argued with homeschooling parents who think public school is bad for all kids. Well, that’s wrong. And the kids who thrive in public school can tell you it’s wrong. Just like the kids who homeschool can tell homeschooling opponents that they’re wrong.

    Ignoring kids when they’re telling you how they learn best is the very worst thing any adult who claims to care about education can do.

    It’s funny, but whenever people who are ideologically opposed to homeschooling try to describe it, or explain why kids who learn best at home should really be forced to learn somewhere else, they sound a lot like young-earth creationists talking about geology.

  4. LJM

    What the heck, let me continue.

    The Slate article, along with most anti-homeschooling arguments, completely ignores the families with special needs children. I taught in Special Ed for years and I have seen classes that were utterly incapable of meeting the needs of the students.

    Are you really going to tell the parents who choose to homeschool their special needs kids that they’re making a “big mistake?”

    Without ever having seen what their particular public school options are, do you really want to suggest to parents who live with daily challenges most of us can only imagine, who would love to know that there’s a place where they can trust that their children are happy and thriving so they can pursue professional ambitions, that they’re making a “big mistake” by sacrificing everything to give their kids what they need? It’s simply not a compassionate position to take.

    If you dig deep and really interact with families who have chosen to homeschool, for the huge variety of reasons with the huge variety of methods and approaches, I think you’ll see that, while it’s not a choice you’d make, it’s a choice that works wonders for many, many kids and their families.

  5. John

    The irony is that as you sneer at the privilege of progressives financially able to homeschool, you don’t seem at all aware how your own privileged upbringing, in a town with an average income significantly higher than the rest of the state, and today nearly twice the average American income, with a strong public school system, has shaped your views. In any case, I’m surprised that as an education journalist you haven’t noticed that most suburban schools in this country won’t do much in exposing their students to diversity.

    And how, from your perspective, was the cause of greater equality served by your choice to attend an elite private school like Columbia? Do you have some kind of mistrust of the public college system of New York? Frankly, as a progressive homeschooler who out of economic necessity attended community and state colleges, I’ll be damned if I’m going to take lectures from you.

  6. tim

    Hi! I just spent quite a bit of time dissecting your piece and posted it on slate. I was really eager that you should read it, so I’m posting it here too. As for the albany free school, there is one serious problem: lack of self-discipline. Apart from that, it sounds like a good school with hard-working teachers. And, honestly, breastfeeding and aattchment is kind of a non-issue, n’est-ce pas? It would take a lot of creativity to say that public school promote “the right way to raise kids”, without first defining what “the right way” is.

    Anyways heres what I wrote on slate:

    The article is trying to persuade rich people how to spend their money. The article states that homeschooling parents have unique homeschooling abilities, yet discourages parents from developing these unique abilities. Parents that do not develop their own unique abilities (i.e. homeschooling abilities) do not set a good role-model to their kids.

    This article assumes that only the state can provide a quality education. Thats crazy! It implies that it is better to go to a bad school and argue about how it should be run than to avoid the school entirely. Crazy! The article assumes that the only place to live in an integrated community is a high school. Nonsense. “Humanness of individuals” existed long before “public education”.

    The writer makes a big leap: Since the writer benefited from high school, everyone must benefit from high school. Is the writer sure she does not mean: “Seek out a quality education for your kids, at a quality institution, and I hope and wish that could be your local public school, like the opportunities I was fortunate to receive due to my own social class?”

    The article assumes that public schools have a monopoly on educating underprivileged kids. It assumes that neither underprivileged nor privileged parents have anything of value to pass on to their children. It assumes that homeschooling only works for for traditional 2 parent families and that public schools work for everyone.

    The writer criticizes overheated hostility, even while speaking in overheated pro-public rhetoric. It encourages parents to suppress their own “wants”. Example, if a parent desires to home-school their kids, this writer would discourage that as non-progressive, thus suppressing the parent as a creative individual.

    The article assumes that public schools are receptive to the arguments of parents, which may be true, I do not know. The article assumes that if something takes a lot of work, that is a good reason not to do it.

    The writer postulates that since rich kids marks do not suffer, then they should attend public school. Further, if a poor kid’s grades rise, then they should also attend public school. Implicitly stated is that if a students performance lowers in public school, and improves in other environments, they should pursue those environments if they are available. In my opinion, and in conclusion, one good way to approach education is through improving performance. Politics should be an unfortunate aside.

    Eagerly awaiting your reply,

  7. LJM

    JRAL comments on the Slate article:

    “Another important aspect of homeschooling for me: We get to fit in community service. We have volunteered 3 hours a week at a food pantry that caters to Hispanic immigrants (not only do we do something helpful, but the kids get to use their Spanish). And I like that I can coordinate lessons on topics I don’t think they would get in the public schools–for instance, Civil Rights. We did an intensive two-month study of slavery and the Civil Rights movement and then the following summer drove to Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, etc.”

    “I guess my point is that many articles paint homeschooling as a way to AVOID something bad (i.e. public school), but I see it as a way of reaching TOWARD something–a family learning experience. We don’t homeschool for any stereotypical philosophical reasons–such as attachment parenting, or problems with authorities teaching our kids. We homeschool because it works well with our family and it’s really, really fun.”

  8. Adam Bates

    Mistrust of the public sphere (i.e. the government) is illiberal? Talk about turning a concept on its head, our liberal forefathers must be turning over in their graves.

    Yes, if we’re remotely interested in the future of liberal society, we should be teaching our children to mistrust public institutions. Yes, we should do as much as we can to keep them from being institutionalized by the government for the majority of their childhood and adolescent lives. Yes, parents should take as active a role as they’re able in their child’s education.

    The subjugation of the individual for the benefit of society (an idea that pervades this article) is the true threat to liberal society. When the individual becomes little more than a cog in the machine, there is no liberty left to be had, and no education worth having.

    This is a pernicious piece of journalism, hopefully its impact will be only slight or, better still, counter-productive.

  9. A Critic

    “We need government involved to help foot the bill, and to bring best practices to scale.”

    There is an overwhelming and irrefutable body of evidence that public education serves to destroy the character of the individual student, to prevent them from learning and to prevent them being able to learn, to indoctrinate them to be loyal statists and obedient workers, and otherwise control their minds and their lives. ‘The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America’ is the best source that cites hundreds of original sources proving these facts. ‘An Underground History of American Education’ is an easier read that still contains a vast amount of documentation of the real purposes and methods and ends of the public education system.

    In consideration of the fact that it is a fraud designed to destroy children, how can any person who loves their children send them off to the idiot factories?

    “We ought to flood them with our kids, and then debate vociferously what they ought to be doing.”

    That is darkly rich in ironic humor, an amazing testament to the success of the school system in destroying your ability to think and reason.

  10. LJM

    Dana, I have no doubt that you have plenty of “ability to think and reason.” But you also have plenty of bias, both personal and ideological.

    I would say the same to anyone who opposed public school because they were libertarians who had a bad time in school.

    You really have to consider looking at education (learning, actually, which is rather different) from a different perspective. Go visit a large variety of homeschoolers (you can experience that variety in most homeschooling groups located in large cities), and talk to them. Talk to them about what their options truly are. Go walk around the public schools they’d rather not send their kids to.

    I appreciate your position on changing high school curricula so that it’s interesting and relevant to students, but like your position on homeschooling, the idea that we have to force kids (young adults, even) to stay in school until they’re 18, whether they like it or not, whether it’s good for them or not (it’s surely good for some as it’s surely not good for others), comes from a similar authoritarian and paternal view of how best to produce independent, educated adults (as if the state’s job is to make educated people, instead of giving everyone opportunities to become educated).

    It neglects the very basic and objective truth that people learn in different ways, while advocating for decreasing the variety of options kids need in order to learn in the ways that suit them best.

    I look forward to your response to your responses.

  11. Michelle

    I could say a lot about your article and how many marks it misses, but the most basic one is the premise of, when you don’t like how something is run, it is illiberal to exit from it in protest. Excuse me? Opting out of certain businesses who promote anti-gay legislation is illiberal? Opting out of banks that wanted to raise our fees is illiberal? (tell that one to the occupy movement). Opting out of going into an institution (a sit-in) is illiberal? Taking a stand against what you feel is oppressive behavior is illiberal? You really need to go back and learn what liberal means if that is truly your stance.

    For some of us, we are opposed to the way schools are set up in their entirety and we are taking a stand against them. It has nothing to do with teachers. Some of my closest friends are teachers but more than that, my children enjoy many classes with awesome teachers. In fact, these teachers actually enjoy and are enthusiastic about teaching every day because they get to teach happy, engaged, and interested children who can’t wait to come to class. You really need to do more research than one article and one co-op regarding what most of us homeschoolers days are like.

    On top of all this is the fact that you assume so many things about who homeschoolers are, i.e. middle to upper middle class with one parent able to stay home. I know single parents who homeschool. I know two working parents who homeschool. I know parents who do job share or find work from home and plenty are lower to lower middle class.

    The choice to homeschool is often like any other major life choice. It isn’t a matter of being lucky to do it, or having the convenience to do it, it is an active choice that is made regardless of all other factors. If you have to move to a smaller, cheaper house or even city, you do. If you have to work on off hours and barely see your spouse, you do. If you live with just less stuff because that is how you afford some of your childs favorite classes, then you do. There is nothing self centered in this form of education. It is an education in sacrifice and togetherness and being a part of a real life community. These are traits that might actually serve to one day inspire the school system to change. Give all the money we spend on public education equally distributed to every child in america and every family could find a way to provide an exciting education for their child. Or. Take that money and actually create real reform and see your numbers go up.

    That is the real American way. It is what liberalism is based in. Making change through the active protesting of an oppressive system.


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