Friday, April 13, 2007

DI vs. WL Smackdown!

There's a very interesting debate going on at Edspresso between a proponent of Whole Language and a proponent of Direct Instruction (aka "phonics"). Check it out.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Liberals, Christians, and Just Plain Homeschoolers

So I've gotten into an interesting discussion with Terry Mattingly over at GetReligion (a blog about religion and journalism) over the Malkin equation of homeschooler = Christian, where he apparently agrees with said equation, alas. Alas because I really like Mattingly's work, and especially his attention to unquestioned assumptions about religion made by the press in coverage of religious issues. I can't help feeling like he's really dropped the ball here, though.

He did, after defending Malkin by saying that this is a country where "about 95 percent" of homeschoolers are Christians (and therefore presumably it's okay to take a generic swipe at homeschoolers as being a specifically anti-Christian attack), retract the number in light of the famous NCES survey on motivations for homeschooling, which showed only a third of homeschoolers giving "religious or moral instruction" as their primary reason for teaching their own children.

But then Mattingly goes on to defend the equation anyway on the grounds that "homeschoolers ... is a term with, in the USA context, heavy religious baggage." Which is a maddening form of circular reasoning. Lots of people think homeschoolers are primarily religiously motivated; so it's defensible for journalists to defend, continue and encourage a simplistic equation between conservative Christians and homeschoolers. Even in a situation where it seems clear that someone was just carelessly thinking "So who would attack a school bus? Hmm, who would hate public schools? I know, homeschoolers!" Honestly if I had to pick any group as the persecuted target here, it would be the more radical unschoolers--not known for their religiosity--rather than Christians.

Oddly, Mattingly also makes the comment "I know ... that there are liberal homeschoolers." Odd because, to any homeschooler, it's obvious that he's continuing to accept the characterization from the conservative evangelical Christian wing of homeschooling that there are two groups: the Christian homeschoolers, and the "liberal" homeschoolers. What he's missing is that the great growth in homeschooling right now is with the middle class, frustrated at the continuing failures of the public schools they're paying such high taxes for, who are coming to see homeschooling as an alternative form of education with much better trained and educated teachers (themselves). "Liberal" and "conservative," "religious" and "secular" are just meaningless categories in this area.

I appeal--anecdotally, but I think representationally--to the little support group I'm a member of. We don't discuss politics much, but I know we're a mix of left-of-center and right-of-center (probably more the former, this being Austin after all); but even the lefties are annoyed at the Democrats for their bowing and scraping to the rabidly anti-homeschooling NEA and their idolization of public schools. Religious opinions range from the outright anti-religious, through the don't-mind but don't-care areligiosity dominant in the American middle class, to the practicing Episcopalian, Quaker, and Catholic (one of each). What we all have in common is a dedication to a seriously academic style of education--sometimes described, fairly inaccurately, as "classical education"--that is surging in popularity. The families signing on to homeschooling are no longer the religiously motivated (their numbers seem to have plateaued), nor the "liberals" (i.e. crunchy granola hippie unschoolers), but the dissatisfied middle class for whom the old categories are a non-issue. This is my experience looking around at which support groups are growing and which are fading, and it's backed up by the NCES statistics.

And Mattingly seems to have a glimpse of this: his observation that "[t]he interesting story, for me, is whether homeschoolers are evolving into a kind of under-the-radar 'tutor' system" is spot-on. And it's one good reason why, instead of acquiescing to "the public face of homeschooling"--that is, the conventional wisdom that reflects a previous generation, which is now only a caricature--he, as a journalist, should be looking at the facts on the ground. The "heavy religious baggage" will only be around so long as the media are determined to tote it.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Fibbing for Christ

Lots of discussion in the conservative Christian blogosphere about the New Jersey mock emergency drill featuring right-wing Christian terrorists. Another of the Michelle Malkin-fueled brouhahas, apparently. What interests me about it is the comparison Malkin makes in her column (emphases mine):
Three years ago, I wrote about a mock terrorism drill at a public school district in Muskegon County, Mich. Instead of Islamic terrorists, educators substituted Christian homeschoolers. Yes, Christian homeschoolers. Here was the description of the school drill plan:

"The exercise will simulate an attack by a fictitious radical group called Wackos Against Schools and Education who believe everyone should be homeschooled. Under the scenario, a bomb is placed on the bus and is detonated while the bus is traveling on Durham, causing the bus to land on its side and fill with smoke."

Flabbergasting, but true. In the wake of 9-11 and the jihadists' carnage against schoolchildren in Beslan, Russia, the school chose to prepare their students for an attack by Christian homeschooling "wackos," not Muslim suicide bombers.

Unfortunately, little has changed. Last month, New Jersey's Burlington Township High School held its own mock terrorism drill. "You perform as you practice," Superintendent Chris Manno told the Burlington County Times. "We need to practice under conditions as real as possible in order to evaluate our procedures and plans so that they're as effective as possible."
"Investigators described them as members of a right-wing fundamentalist group called the 'New Crusaders' who don't believe in separation of church and state. The mock gunmen went to the school seeking justice because the daughter of one had been expelled for praying before class." Upset Christian students reported on the drill to their parents.
So Malkin claims that, as her column title ("Why Christians in Terror Drills?") promises, we now have two school-attack drills featuring Christians as the terrorists. Except we don't.

The 2004 drill was all over the homeschooling blogosphere, of course; but didn't make so big a splash in Christian circles: because the terrorists were nowhere said, implied, or in any way indicated to be Christians. Malkin made that part up herself.

It's awfully hard to disabuse people of the notion that homeschoolers = right-wing evangelical/fundamentalist Christans when the right-wingers (Malkin, HSLDA, etc.) are working so hard to encourage it. But the most recent serious study (to which I may link when I'm not being too lazy to hunt it down) indicated that a majority of homeschoolers claim academic and not religious reasons as the primary reason for teaching their own children.

Anyway, now that the New Jersey terrorism drill has entered the internet institutional memory as all about Christians who happen to be homeschoolers, it's probably a lie that's here to stay. So let's look at another interesting aspect, the requisite apologies to the complainers.

Here's the "sorry" to the offended Christians:
A joint statement issued yesterday by Burlington Township municipal government and the school district said officials “regret any insensitivity that might have been inferred” by the scenario. “The scenario chosen was intended to be generic in nature and never intended to offend any group, affiliation or religious belief,” the statement said.

Public Safety Director Walter Corter said the scenario was created to represent “anybody who was an extremist and not dealing with reality,” and never specified “Christian terrorists” or other religious or ethnic groups. “Never once was religion mentioned. That was never our intent,” Corter said yesterday. “The whole point of the exercise was to further enhance our ability to protect the students, faculty and staff.”
If you buy that apology, I have a bridge to sell you. The scenario described "right-wing fundamendalist" "Crusaders" opposing "the separation of church and state" who were upset that a girl had been expelled for praying before class. But hey, they could just as easily have been disgruntled atheist civil libertarians defending the first amendment free exercise clause to the death. What rational person could take the description as implying Christians?

Now compare the non-apology for Christians to the groveling response made to homeschoolers three years ago:
The Muskegon Area Intermediate School District Tuesday issued a statement saying ... the MAISD "shared the disappointment of others when we learned the emergency preparedness drill referenced home-schoolers as the fictitious group responsible for a mock disaster. We apologize."

It said the MAISD and local school districts "were not aware of the scenario, and it was not shared with students or parents who took part in the exercise."

"We sincerely regret offending home-school educators. We believe that all parents are educators and do important work at home with their children," the statement said.
Well that's more like it. There's a school district that's had their switchboard closed down by angry phone calls, their e-mail inboxes filled, and their mailboxes clogged by critical letters from homeschooled sixth-graders who have had their penmanship and responsible citizenship lessons combined into a unit study for the day. Please, oh please, accept our heartfelt apologies and stop calling.

But there's a serious reason for the tidal-wave reaction that often takes public criticizers of homeschooling by surprise. If the Malkin-stirred hornet's nest of conservative Christians feels offended by the recent silly mock drill, offense--and possibly the warm glow of Still Being Persecuted--is all they feel. Homeschoolers see themselves cast as terrorists and get angry, but also deeply nervous. If you rounded up ten random Americans and asked them if Christianity should be made illegal, not one would say yes; it's unlikely that even one would think Christianity should be heavily restricted by the state. But the same group would have two or three people agreeing that homeschooling should be made illegal, and certainly more than five of the opinion that it should be heavily regulated by the state. This despite solid constitutional precedent reaching back a hundred years that protects the parental right to control and direct the education of our own children. We can't afford to let even silly, half-thought-out terrorist drill scenarios go; too many of us still remember homeschoolers going to jail.

And the more people like Malkin deliberately muddy the waters through lies and misrepresentations that cement in the public mind a false equation between homeschoolers and particular religious and political agendas, the more comfortable people become in supporting restrictive legislation. We may not be able to make the annoying right-wing fundies shut up, goes the thinking, but we can make their pet projects more difficult, and prevent their children from turning out like them.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Joy of Easter

And happy anniversary to me. Today is the twentieth anniversary of my Confirmation as a Catholic and my first reception of the Holy Eucharist. Prayers of thanksgiving to those who, prompted by the Holy Spirit, guided me to faith: Sr. Bettina of the Holy Cross Sisters, wherever you are; my dear friend A., who witnessed to me for years by her words and her joyful life what this whole Christianity thing was really about; E., who took me in hand to show me how to pray the rosary and have a few words with me about proper Catholic reverence.

Mary, Rosa Mystica, Rose of Sharon, my confirmation saint, pray and rejoice. Christus Resurrexit!