Hollis Schoolhouse in New HampshireLast week I wrote a bit of my personal, experiential observations of our local homeschool coop. So tonight I’m looking to make good on the promise I made that I’d write a follow-up that was more analytical and reflective. So be warned: this is more of an essay than the last piece, but I think it’s a useful exercise for me and perhaps for others as well.

As a preface to my analysis of Homeschooling, I should state up front what I feel the business of education is, or perhaps more accurately, what I believe it ought to be, whether it is college and university education, graduate education, or grade-school education. At the end of the day, my evaluation of education draws most of its inspiration from Wendell Berry, who has not really written systematically about his educational philosophy (so far as I know), but who nevertheless has plenty to say about it scattered throughout his writings. My thoughts on it, likewise, are directly related to my work in the academy, which is to say that it influences what I do in my teaching on the one hand and that my subjects of study shape the reasons I teach at all.

Like Berry, I see the education of young people as being centered on developing the creativity of the individual person in a way that encourages responsible action in the local community and the larger society as a whole. Education needs to embrace a role that leads students develop their humanity in relation to other people and to the physical land where they live. What we teach should be somehow connected to where we are in life (geographically and otherwise) and to where students are. Berry would say that education’s primary role is to instill knowledge that is experiential, relational, creative and imaginative, democratic, local in its orientation, and fundamentally interactive with the natural ecology of where we live. Just so. To the extent that education is individual-centered, I maintain that this individualism (in the classic liberal sense of developing the full potential of the student) is, nevertheless, rooted in the local community in that the “potential” is precisely the ability of the student to contribute to the life of the community through his or her own gifts, place, and so on. Finally, the purposes of education needs to encompass the concepts of goodness and wholeness, which is to say that we need to teach our young people the ability to judge what is good and whole.

Wendell BerryMuch of contemporary education, however, focuses on the development of “skills” that will make people productive not in their own local community, wherever that may be, but in the global industrial and consumer-capitalist economy. I agree again, here, with Berry, who argues that schools – by which Berry means public schools – are “mind dominated” by outside forces (the global industrial/capitalist doctrine) that essentially dictate what students are to take away from their education. In my work in New Testament, Judaism, Greco-Roman religion, Early Christianity, and Islam, scholars know this kind of imposed “mind domination” by the terms of “cultural hegemony,” stemming from work of Antonio Gramsci. Cultural hegemony is the essentially the ability of those in power (from small communities to global industry and national governments) to package thoughts. It is the ability to control “knowledge production” by packaging the hegmonic power’s ideology into the distillation and dissemination of culture.

Schools these days are the primary vehicles for perpetrating the cultural hegemony of the ruling power(s) of the age to young people. In speaking of public schools, Berry notes that the public school system’s primary role is to get students to acccept, obey, and believe the packaged thoughts and knowledge of global industrial capitalism that will be the dominant force for the rest of students’ lives. Berry was primarily speaking of public schools, but I believe that the same thing is happening in the private schools, the religious schools, charter schools and even in homeschools; despite the differences in subject content and pedagogy, I think that Berry’s critique is valid across the board; all of the types of schools are implicitly allied with the global capitalist ideology and strive to turn out students who will be “successful” in this system, regardless of their type of education or religious belief and practice. It is, in short, an education by imperialism and colonization of mind. (More on this in a bit.)

I want to look more at this business of cultural hegemony and the way power influences and controls knowledge production in the context of education’s role to teach judgment of the good and the whole and see whether or not homeschooling is much different from any other form of schooling in this regard. The educated individual needs to be able to recognize packaged thoughts and be able to judge them accordingly. Consumer capitalism, for example, thrives on its ability to convince people that they need things they do not need through various means of lies, half-truths, and other psychological deception. The educated citizen should be able to recognize these, judge them accordingly, and seek creative actions in response to with them according to the ethics of the local community and the ethical mores received in his or her schooling. The problem is, however, that the ethics of the community may be in tandem with the capitalist agenda, and certainly the same language of the hegemonic force of capitalism was exactly the language the person was schooled on. And here is where education has generally failed: it no longer promotes a critical language that can challenge the “rulers of this age,” as St. Paul would put it.

Here is where religious education generally and Christian homeschooling education come in. To their credit, both private religious education and Christian homeschooling recognize the failure of the public schools to foster a language that is critical of the powers and principalities of our age, and part of their objective is to provide one. The argument from advocates of these types of schooling is that the reason public schools no longer have that language is because the primary source for this critical language is the Bible, and we are no longer allowed to teach or even read the Bible in our schools. If we are going to challenge the agenda of the secular state, so the argument goes, the best thing to do is pull out of the public machines of knowledge production altogether and give students something else, specifically, an education centered around the Bible, rather than on the hegemony of secularism (so-called).

I think that these advocates are absolutely sincere and mean well, but ultimately this kind of schooling isn’t so much challenging the hegemonic speech of the powers so much as it is simply replacing it right from the start with another form of cultural hegemonic language. In practice, Christian education adopts much of the same strategy as the public school system. It, too, seeks to provide answers to questions that people never even knew they had, and all these answers are ostensibly to be found in the Bible. Additionally, much of Christian education, whether in schools or in homes, completely misses the mark in terms of what they think their form of education is trying to replace. In the minds of many who teach in alignment with the Christian educational mission, the problem isn’t global industrial capitalism at all; the problem is the agenda identified by the Religious Right in the 70’s and 80’s, which is liberal secularism. This isn’t the place to critique that agenda directly, except to say that this agenda is much more concerned with individual morals, and hardly at all with communal, let alone authentically Biblical, ethics. In any case, the upshot here is that the Christian education movement can be summarized by saying that it is driven by its mission to replace one form of culturally hegemonic education with another that is just as culturally hegemonic as the one it seeks to replace, and which has historically been every bit as exploitative, colonial, and imperial.

In fact, I think that this kind of colonizing of the mind is the primary issue, because it excludes serious engagement with points of view other than our own, which encourages additional colonizing of the minds of others on the one hand, or ghettoizing of our own worldviews on the other. The former is obviously a strategic ploy of an educational system that caters to the global capitalist economy, and was formerly the tactic of Christian educational missionary activity. Happily, Christian missions is largely abandoning the “colonizing” aspect, but the same is not true of Christian schooling generally. This colonizing of the mind is here accompanied by a ghettoizing worldview and mentality, an “us against everyone else” kind of psychology that precludes engaging other worldviews (including other Christian worldviews). This is obviously inherently undemocratic, and the way forward, I think, is for Christian schools to speak more of the legacy of exploitation and colonization that has been the single most pervasive theme in American history and possibly of institutional Christian history as well and not smother it over with either American Manifest Destiny as God’s chosen nation in the modern age on the one hand or justify it by appealing to the Great Commission on the other. In the schools now, the religion of market capitalism is combined with the apocalyptic, eschatological dispensationalism of the majority of evangelical Christian schooling to justify continued exploitation of both land and people to the ultimate ruin of both.

I suggest that adopting Berry’s notion of local community education is one way to begin an educational reversal here, and that homeschooling should play a vital role in this reversal. Berry believes that one of the most important elements of education ought to be lived experience of young people in the community, and he also recognizes that this experience is lacking in schools today. I concur with Berry here, and suggest that one of the main culprits for this is the impossibility of true neighborliness and community in today’s economy. The market capitalist economy dictates the necessity of a two income household, which keeps parents away from the home, neighborhood, and community and prevents a communal ethic from ever developing, and precludes the lived experience in that community that young people need for their own socialization into the community and their ethical development in it. Homeschooling, however, necessitates the opposite; at least one parent must be home to educate the student during the day. To my mind, this is a direct challenge to the market economy and the ideology it promotes, as well as the injustices it fosters on the global scale. To homeschool is to reject the two-income ideology of the our culture’s hegemonic model of knowledge production.

Berry also believes that the way out of the problem of lacking a language that is critical of the cultural hegemony is for students to study the exemplars of world literature. This is the issue of having a “canon” of literature that has been challenged for the last thirty or forty years. The public school system and higher education, in the interests of pluralism, have largely rejected the former canon and resist the possibility of new ones. Christian education, on the other hand, generally rejects the idea that pluralism can have anything positive to contribute to schooling, and promotes its own canon that is even more restrictive than the old canons. Thus, pluralism is the linchpin here. The former seeks to expand the literary canon to virtually any work to protect pluralism, while the latter seems to reduce it in order to defend against pluralism.

However, this is to generalize a bit much. In the last several decades, a movement known as “Classical-Christian Education” has sought to locate the Bible as its educational “norming norm,” as most Christian education does. The Classical-Christian approach, however, differs in that it expands its canon of literature to the great works of western antiquity. In this approach, there is a premium on engaging the Greco-Roman (and Egyptian and Near Eastern) classics, like Homer, Euripides, Gilgamesh, the Shipwrecked Sailor, and so on, and students begin reading these from an early age. At its best – there is always the temptation to reduce it all to apologetics – Classical Christian education seeks to how these ancient texts wrestled with what it meant to be human in the community one belonged in and the natural ecology and environment they lived in. The approach also uses the ancient classics as models for teaching the the Three R’s, which forces students to actually read and analyze the texts, rather than simply learn about them. Classical Christian education places a premium on the ability to use language critically and ethically, and use a “canon” of exemplars that far exceeds what many schools, public or private, religious or secular, actually use (if they use one at all).

While most Classical-Christian education takes place in established “Classical-Christian” private schools, many homeschools have adopted the Classical Christian model. While it’s not likely that any two homeschools will agree exactly on what “canon” to use for their students, that is to the better, because it still recognizes that the canon has value only in relation to the community that seeks to teach it. I think this is a promising development. Rather than center everything in the homeschool curriculum around the Protestant Bible, the homeschool is in an advantageous position to biblically engage the classics of world literature, whether it’s from New Kingdom Egypt, Classical Greece, Imperial Rome, Early Christianity in all its flavors, or Eastern and Asian classics. Here, the emphasis needs to be learning from the classics, just as much as we learn from the Bible, rather than simply about them.

The primary question that homeschool education has total freedom to ask, which is not normally asked by “institutional” education, is “how does this literature affect my community? What can we learn from it? Can it contribute toward local knowledge? Is it complicit in the cultural hegemony that we reject and resist? Is it critical of the values my community holds, and is that criticism justified?” These questions are best answered by the community, in the community, which is another advantage homeschooling has in that it does not have to be, and should not be, a solo enterprise. If the household exists and participates in the local community economy and ecology, it participates in it in relation with other households, whether they are homeschoolers or not. Under the best circumstances, homeschools optimally belong to coops, which are ideally situated to represent local concerns in the education of local young people. The problem is, as I wrote about last time, it seems that these coops exist mostly to enforce the packaged Biblical knowledge that, as I argued earlier, is not especially helpful in challenging the cultural hegemony of exploitation in the interests of industrial capitalism for a global market on the one hand and the Great Commission on the other. The coops can be so much more, and do not need to lose their Bible-centeredness in order to be that much more.

This brings me back to the role of the Bible in education. Because the public schools are not free to teach the Bible in order to have students learn from it (or even about it), religious and homeschool education have a distinct advantage for local education that needs to be pressed. Unfortunately, this “pressing” is, so far as I can observe, always parochial, sectarian, and dogmatic. Teaching the Bible means teaching “the truth.” It does; but it is truth in relation to other things, whether it is our land and community, or the land and community and worldviews of others. It is most emphatically not objective truth. Objective truth, such as it is, has no “concern for its relations to other subjects or to the world” (Berry, “The Loss of the University,” 90). The Bible has no role here, because, whatever else it is, it is intimately concerned with the relationship in the world. If the Bible is truth, it is in the sense that it must be read, studied, internalized, and learned from in order to understand the relationships between things. It should be fundamental in educating for judgment. When Christian schools reduce the Bible to an answer-book to questions we didn’t know we had, or to a collection of maxims and propositions that are valid at all times, for all times, we betray the essence of the traditions inherent in Scripture. We betray, for example, the relational truth of Torah, the prophetic critical vision of the Prophets, the relational ethics of Jesus, and the relational engagements between Israel/Church and the world that Paul spent so much of his life wrestling with. Homeschooling can, and perhaps should (at least Christian homeschooling) retain the Bible as its norming norm for local education, but it should be by using it less as prepackaged dogmatic hegemonic answers against the “secular school ideology” and more as an exemplar for prophetic critique and engagement with the powers and principalities of our age, just as the Prophets, Jesus, and Paul did. This may mean critique of the very Christian establishment it is part of, which to most evangelical homeschoolers is a sign that they must be doing something wrong. To the contrary, it is a sign that things are being done right.

Homeschooling therefore has potential, I think, to be a catalyst for the kind of local education that Berry, and I with him, imagine. It provides an opportunity not provided by public or private institutional schools to seriously engage with our local communities and to “think little,” as Berry might put it, where local knowledge, local ethics, community membership, and responsible citizenship are all derived from a relational (indeed, “pluralistic”) view of knowledge, truth, and judgment of the good and whole on the local, communal scale, and which provides a language that enables prophetic criticism of the rulers, powers, and principalities of this age, whether those powers are the Religious Right, the global market industrial economy, or the national government. Homeschooling is not there yet. But there is a golden opportunity for homeschooling to truly become a paradigm for local education and not simply a reactionary, ghettoizing protest movement that does little more than perpetuate a Christianized version of cultural hegemony. For those of us who homeschool in our communities, let us press our advantage while we yet have it.