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.


Blogger Darwin said...

I suppose my impressions are stale, in that it's more than a decade since I've been a homeschooler, and we haven't really got far enough with our own kids yet to have sought out groups in earnest. But at least given the dynamic I used to be familiar with, it seems like the 1/3 figure might be a little deceptive. If I had to guess, probably half of the specifically Catholic homeschooling group my family belonged to (certainly my folks) would have given academics as their primary reason for homeschooling. And I can think of a few other specifically religious homeschooling groups where the figure would probably be more like 75-80%.

Still, it is definately the case the homeschooling as a movement is far less uniformly conservative and religious than many people imagine. (Perhaps part of the reason for the misapprehension is that in certain conservative religious circles, it seems like 80+ percent of families homeschool -- but as homeschoolers should know: just because most religious conservatives homeschool does not mean that most homeschoolers are religious conservatives.)

Seems like the moral is: Most journalists are idiots about most topics. Science, religious, homeschooling, academia, medicine, history, linguistics, whatever your field is. Chances are that unless the reporter happens to be personally familiar with your field, they'll make a hash of it.

12:23 PM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...


Thanks for the comments. I think your observations match the survey data, which showed 72% of hsers giving "religious or moral instruction" as one of their reasons for hsing. But I don’t get why that would make the less-than-a-third figure for “primary reason” misleading.

There are a couple of points to be made here. One is that, even with the broad description "religious OR MORAL instruction," over a quarter of hsers declined to indicate it as a reason at all--secondary, tertiary, whtever. It's just a non-issue for nearly 30% of hsers.

Another point is that reasons tend to expand as you homeschool. Our initial, and still primary, reasons for hsing are academic; but having found religious instruction to be easier and more meaningful as a hser, I'd probably list it as one of my reasons on a survey. But when someone asks me if I homeschool for religious reasons, I say "no" because it's not a *sufficient* reason for hsing.

Third, and related, the question about reasons for hsing is always incomplete. The complete question would be "Why do you homeschool INSTEAD OF (x)." If you're a Catholic or Jewish hser, for example, you may ordinarily think of the question as "Why do you homeschool instead of enrolling your children in the parochial school/day school?" While evangelical Christians and media people always seem to think of the question as "Why do you homeschool instead of using the public school?" Those answering the former question are unlikely to think of themselves as hsing for "religious reasons" (academics, finances, and special needs are the usual responses), since the only alternatives they're realistically considering are also religious, while those answering the latter question are more likely to be looking at the religious/secular divide.

Anyway this is a long way of saying that, yes, many hsers may be actively religious (as are a majority of Americans, I believe), but that their religious beliefs are too incidental to make "homeschooler" a synonym for "conservative Christian" (ignoring the growing ranks of Jewish, Hindu, and neo-pagan hsers). If members of a specifically Catholic (using your example) support group say they're not hsing primarily for religious reasons, why not take them at their word, and assume that "homeschooler" is the interesting category rather than "Catholic"? Hsing is more popular in "alternative & weird" Austin than in (say) El Paso, and we even have a support group called "Austin Area Homeschoolers": but it would be strange to take those facts as evidence that when someone criticizes homeschoolers in Texas, they're *really* targeting Austinites.

10:06 AM  

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