Homeschooling


Lucifer FallsAs a homeschooling family, every year we’re confronted with the  task of buying curricula for various subjects; math, reading, grammar, and… science. As a homeschooling family involved in the local coop, there are, um, certain expectations revolving around the science curriculum. If you do it with the coop group, for example, it is a pretty standard, “creationist” science orientation. (And yes, I’m fully aware of the problem placing “creationist” and “science” right next to each other in the same sentence.) If you DON’T have your kid do their science with the coop, it’s assumed that you’re doing  creationism at home. At the very least, something Intelligent Design-ish.  But to actually teach evolution? If you’re going to do that, you might as well forget homeschooling altogether and just stick your kid into your local secular, democrat, hegemonic public school.

The Gorge Trail runs at the base of the glen.

The Gorge Trail runs at the base of the glen.

An anecdote: a few weekends back I spent a spectacular day at Robert Treman State Park in New York, which houses two glacial glens and some breathtaking gorges and waterfalls. You cannot but be stunned by the power of water and time and what it can do to rock.  I commented something to this effect; my 8 year old gets my drift and asks “how old is all this daddy?” Before being able to answer, the wife cuts in “oh, sometime between Adam and Noah, honey.” Well, yeah, that puts it in a context that the kid can understand and is still sufficiently vague enough to allow for a LOT of time. Fine, but when I pointed out that the glens were formed over a number of ice ages over two million years, well before “Adam,” I got the cynical “well, who knows if the earth is even that old anyway.”

Sigh.

Look, having been brought up fundamental Christian and who yet still is somehow wired to find elements of the sacred in the natural world, I have had a long struggle with evolution. But I can say this; I’m more unimpressed by religious responses to Darwin and evolution than I am by  evolution itself. Let me be clear: I take Darwin’s understanding to be a reasonably close approximation of how life has developed, and natural geological physics to be an equally fair approximation of the formation of planet earth as we now live in and experience it. In my own religious and academic development, I have gone from the combative creationist to the reluctant Intelligent Designist to a rather apathetic “science is science, and Bible is Bible, and ne’er shall the twain meet” approach. Now, not only do I find all three of these standard Christian “reactions” wide of the mark, but in reality irresponsible theologically as well as scientifically.

Part of the reason I’ve turned my back on these three so-called Christian/religious opposing positions is that I’ve come to realize that these, in fact, all give assent to the materialist skepticism promoted by the leading lights of neo-Darwinian evolutionary thought (namely Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Jay Gould) who have argued that religion, theology, and evolutionary science are fundamentally irreconcilable with each other. On this, Creationism, Intelligent Design, and “separatists” agree with their hostile critics, thus ceding the defining terms of the debate to their opponents. I no longer believe this starting point is even true, and as a result, I have to pull the rug out from under pseudo-scientific Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the separatist wall between church and scientia.

What this means is that I’m not signing off on a classically Christian fundamentalist oppostion curriculum for my school to teach (as homeschooling principal and Chair of the School Board) and I’m not signing off on my kids getting pseudo-science from the local coop (as the concerned, diligent parent). For the purposes of basic elementary education of my two kids, though, separatism is probably the best approach; teach Bible, teach science, and teach them both right and on their own disciplinary terms. In the meantime, during expeditions such as we love going on, I need to work on an evolutionary theology to make room for science in the concept of the sacred, and make room for the sacred in natural, scientific, evolutionary history. As a result, I’ve started a most fascinating powder-keg of a book by John F. Haught entitled God After Darwin. Highly, HIGHLY recommended. I’ll report back with some results as I make some headway.

Those of us who homeschool our kids through various conservative and evangelical organizations, curricula, worldview, and social networks know that we can’t be letting the liberal elite and the secular state determine our kids’ education and resulting secular enculturation. But what happens when we see those selfsame forces at work in our church? Why, homechurching of course!

Report: More Kids Being Home-Churched

Jacob wrestling with Angel of the LordSo tonight I’m giving a talk at our county public library on Judaism. I have the honor of distilling a 3,000 year old religious faith and tradition into one hour. (guffaw!)

The word is out, too. By this, I mean that apparently the chairwoman of the regional homeschooling association has learned that I’m doing this and is all excited. She got talking with some of the other homeschooling moms, who also got interested, and then they approached the wife to say how excited they are over this, began talking about having me offer classes in the homeschool co-op on world religions, give talks on the subject of Judaism and Islam and so forth at their monthly meetings, etc. Good vibes, for the most part. But… I got the “It will be so awesome (I’m thankful that I didn’t hear “wicked awesome”…) to hear someone talk about Judaism and these other religions from a Christian perspective. This is sooooo what we need!”

Wellllll….. I’m not sure how to take this. Or rather, I know exactly how I’m supposed to take this, and it kinda scares me a little bit. See, in the various circles I’m in (specifically the homeschooling one here), when the subject of world religions comes up at all, it’s always in the form of comparative apologetics. Religion X is compared with Christian doctrine and theological formulations (not Christian history, not phenomenology, symbolic imagery and iconography, ritual practices, and so on, unless it can be contrasted with Christian”orthodox” theology, doctrine, and practice), and the result of these comparisons and contrasts is as one would expect in sectarian education: We’ve got it right, and they’re off-base.

Ehhhhhh. That’s not what’s happening for this. But I feel the pressure from a demographic that is significant in the life of my family. I am there to introduce Judaism as a vibrant, living, beautiful religious faith and tradition to non-academics. I am not there to proselytize, criticize, denigrate, or even simply point out how Judaism differs from Christianity. To those informed in either tradition, the differences between them will be transparent. In fact, I have no plans to even mention Christianity except in historical context, and since this is only an hour, it will pretty much be a passing mention as a first century Jewish sect. (Rather like Josephus does in his work, actually.) Any real discussion of Judaism vis a vis Christianity will take place during the open Q+A session after the talk.

To the extent that, as Christian, this presentation will be “a Christian perspective” on a world religion, I think that Christians will – or should – recognize much in the Jewish concepts of God, the Book, and Israel. I strongly believe that serious interfaith dialog absolutely has to begin with establishing commonalities between them. I am making these the focus. And this is the aspect that I can envision frustrating my Christian, apologetically-oriented homeschooling folks potentially in the room. Evangelicals typically emphasize difference, and indeed are often afraid of having similarities in religion even pointed out, let alone discussed and engaged.

Not that there’s any shortage of “Christian perspectives” on world religions. They’re a dime a dozen, and in fact this has been going on in “orientalist” scholarship for several centuries. It’s easy enough to find. What I think makes this so exciting for these folks is the idea that it’s one of their own, someone they trust, and who they regard as being a competent authority on the subject, who is doing it. I’m more likely,launcelot.jpg perhaps, to be taken seriously than, say, a rabbi coming in to do exactly the same talk. So I welcome the opportunity. I just hope that the bridges that these types of events can potentially construct, that I seek to build, are open to everyone, and that others don’t plant a funny-looking old man demanding answers to the “questions three” before allowing others, who do not share their perspective, to cross.

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. (more…)

hsadventures.jpgIt has been quite a while since I’ve blogged on homeschooling (actually, a while since I’ve written much of anything substantial), but the time seems right for it here. For the past 2 months, while the missus was keeping us afloat with her holiday job, I’ve been juggling orals, prospectus-writing, grading, attending class, entertaining family for Thanksgiving and visiting family for other Christmas-related activities. But the big consumer of time was keeping the homefires burning, especially the homeschool activities. For us, this involves a “co-op” one day a week (for the uninitiated, a homeschool co-op is pretty much school electives in actual classes taught by homeschool parents), gym class on another day, AWANA for the kids, Ballet for one of them, swim lessons on another day, and the three R’s, science, history, and, yes, Bible-history (a.k.a. “western civ in antiquity”) etc every day.

In all this, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the whole homeschool phenomenon, the stereotypes that go with it, and rationale for it. Most of my “token thoughts” here are based on homeschooling as I experience it and observe it. I know, though, that there are many homeschooler and unschool families who do not fit the mold that this will show, and I hope that some of you folks will comment on your own stuff on this site.

1. In Christian evangelical homeschooling, it is definitely “mom-centered.” It was hilarious how so many of the moms had no idea what to do or what to say when I was anywhere in the area. Usually I was ignored by moms who have kids the same age as my own. One one occasion I was noticed working with another kid and one woman, after looking a bit shocked, snickered and said to me “oh, you must be the token homeschool dad.” Hence the title of the entry here. I find this pretty fascinating; most of these women are your standard and typical evangelical-borderline-fundamentalist moms who feel simultaneously that the world is out to get them and especially their kids, and yet are clearly uncomfortable around men, who they will readily assert are the absolute, biblical heads of their households. I’d have thought that my being around would show a bit of support to the more paranoid, that they’re not in this homeschooling endeavor alone, but it didn’t really seem to be the case. Not every woman there, though, was so standoffish; for the most part, I got on well with many of the teachers whose own kids had come and gone from their homes and who were now in college or in their own careers. Among these, I was heartily welcomed and encouraged to consider teaching for the coop next year. Which brings me to…

2. Because my wife has been involved with these groups now for three years, most of the moms have heard of me, or at least heard of what I do. I’m an academic, a scholar, Ph.D student, teacher at the University, etc, and my field is ancient religion, Bible, and Christianity in general. Which is, to most people in these circles, fascinating, because they think that my kids will get the best apologetically-oriented treatment of Biblical history out of all of them. Well, maybe, but when I’m actually around these folks, it’s a mixture of paranoia and curiosity. See, the Coop exists to help homeschooling parents (read: moms, in this case) teach things that they don’t feel qualified to teach. Science, for example, or advanced history classes, or classical ballet, music, and so on. Greek and Latin are very popular with high school students (or at least with their parents who sign them up for them). Obviously not everyone has a facility for these things. But “Bible” and “Bible history” are not offered. The Bible is an open book; anyone can do it, and for certain folks in these environments, no one, NO ONE, not even Sunday school teachers, will be teaching their kid Bible except for the homeschooling mom in the home, unless it meets the “kid tested, mother approved” criteria of evangelical, conservative, borderline-fundamentalist interpretation. Only way to make sure your kid is getting the Bible taught “right” is to do it yourself. Knowing the Bible, its history, and the history of periods it describes, is not necessarily a prerequisite.

I think it would be a hoot to teach a “How to Read the Bible” elective to the high school kids in the Coop. I may yet volunteer to do so, but I know that most likely it wouldn’t run because the parents would be afraid of it. Which brings me to …

3. I don’t think I’ve ever been around a group of more paranoid people in my life. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought that these folks are afraid of getting caught doing something illegal. (They’re not in any danger whatsoever.) I think this has something to do with the way I was received by a lot of the people in the Coop. I’m an outsider, even though my kids are there. I’m a dad (and it’s no secret in this particular group that there are MANY dads who simply go along with the moms on the whole homeschooling thing and refuse to allow the moms/teachers any curriculum budget), I’m an academic, I’m in “religion,” I go to a “liberal” church, and I had critical comments to make about the organization’s affiliation with the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) during a casual conversation with some other moms and teachers. The HSLDA traffics in paranoia (kinda like the Bush Administration, come to think of it) and fosters the prevailing notion that everyone outside the walls of the Coop building is out to get them, and that only the HSLDA is equipped to protect you from the public school truant officer. With this mentality, it’s no wonder that anyone who isn’t an insider in the organization (and I’m technically an insider!) is not to be trusted. I think this is a sad state of affairs, because the public school system (here, at least) is very accommodating to the homeschooling crowd and even has offered special needs services for students to whom it would benefit, only to be flatly rejected by the Coop boardmembers because no public school people are allowed on homeschool premises for member families.

4. On the positive note, I will say that at least in the subjects covered in the Coop, I’ve run into some of the brightest and inquisitive young people I’ve ever met. They are genuinely eager to learn, whether it’s Chess, Dance, Public Speaking, Chemistry, or Calculus. There’s even a darn good debate team. I honestly can’t sit here and say that the quality of what these kids are learning is inferior to what they would get anywhere else, public or private. Neither did I experience the ambiguous reception I felt from the moms; apparently this didn’t rub off onto the students, because I felt like they REALLY liked having me around, which is why I’m tempted to offer that “How to Read the Bible” class. And the stereotype that homeschool kids are social introverts is (again, at this place) totally off-base. These kids act their age, which is a good thing.

I think I’ll make this the first part of a three-part post. Next up will be more reflective on the entire homeschooling phenomenon, and the last one maybe I’ll do a post on Why I Homeschool at all (although I kind of covered this in my very first post for Aedificium way back in February of last year; other entries to the subject in the Homeschooling Tag cloud to the right). And I’m very anxious to hear, in comments, from anyone who does NOT homeschool within an evangelical framework, as well as why you do so, as well as from folks whose experiences are closer to my own.

In the spirit of “10 Reasons Why Men Should Not Be Ordained,” I give you “10 Reasons Why Public School is Better Than Homeschool,” which I discovered in my email inbox today. Hope the HSLDA doesn’t come after me.

Why Public Schooling Is Better Than Homeschooling ~
Scott Ott

1. Most parents were educated in the under funded public school system, and so are not smart enough to homeschool their own children.
2. Children who receive one-on-one homeschooling will learn more than others, giving them an unfair advantage in the marketplace. This is undemocratic.
3. How can children learn to defend themselves unless they have to fight off bullies on a daily basis?
4. Ridicule from other children is important to the socialization process.
5. Children in public schools can get more practice “Just Saying No” to drugs, cigarettes and alcohol.
6. Fluorescent lighting may have significant health benefits.
7. Publicly asking permission to go to the bathroom teaches young people their place in society.
8. The fashion industry depends upon the peer pressure that only public schools can generate.
9. Public schools foster cultural literacy, passing on important traditions like the singing of “Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg…”
10. Homeschooled children may not learn important office career skills, like how to sit still for six hours straight, skills which are easily transferred to careers in self-service gasoline stations, church boards, or Congress (second part of this by Benedict)

Nana’s 19th-century Family BibleRegular readers of this blog (and of others where I’ve left comments) know that we homeschool our kids and also that while I support teaching religions in schools I’m not so keen on teaching “The Bible.” (I have a feeling this could be a longish post. You are forewarned. 😉 ) And now, suddenly, I’m confronted with the necessity of choosing a homeschool curriculum that includes, of course, “The Bible,” for my second-grader.

Homeschool parents know that the three big clearing houses for educational supplies and curricula are Evangelical and/or Fundamentalist in orientation. Some of them, such as Bob Jones Press (representing the Fundamentalist wing), write their own stuff. Logos is another one that is very focused in its stuff, not necessarily following the Fundamentalist curriculum (it does not, in fact) but in its very particular conservative Reformed/Providential emphasis. Logos does not market itself as a “home school clearinghouse” so much as it does its “classical-Christian” educational program, but with a decidedly conservative evangelical slant toward providential history and historical biblicism. The third, and biggest, player here is Veritas Press. Officially, Veritas is “unaffiliated,” and they carry everything from Penguin Classics to classical apologetics. It is, however, very much an Evangelical outfit that places the Bible at the center of its educational philosophy and markets its material specifically for Christian schools and for Christian homeschools.

So, here’s my dilemma, and it is largely the same dilemma I have with the idea of teaching the Bible in public schools. The reason why I can’t support teaching Bible in public schools is primarily because in the public, government supported schools, the curriculum is written and backed by the state, which would be tantamount to officially endorsing, in fact officially creating, a state-sponsored, official interpretation of the Bible. Not only would this be unconstitutional, but, especially in the current political climate and in the US’s role in the global economy, it would be especially dangerous and undesirable. No thanks.

Even supposing that such a curriculum could be written that was as value-neutral and non-sectarian as humanly (heck, even divinely) possible, there is the issue of Who is going to teach this? What criteria of qualification to teach the Bible in a public school will satisfy the parents and students? It simply won’t work. Churches can’t even agree on a Bible curriculum. Fundamentalist parents would never permit their kids to be taught Bible by a biblical scholar of any denomination that isn’t Fundamentalist in its outlook no matter how conservative or pious that scholar might be. Evangelicals committed to an Evangelical worldview and interpretation of the Bible would be only slightly more accepting of the same figure. But even here it would be rather out of the question to accept a completely secular Bible teacher who is unaffiliated with any church and/or trained in a “secular” university. Mainline Protestants, as well as students whose families are not committed to any flavor of Christianity (to say nothing of Jewish or Muslim students) will reject a bible teacher from Bob Jones or Liberty. It goes both ways.

This brings us back to “Christian schools” and “Christian” homeschools and the curriculum. Christian schools largely arose in reaction to political decisions to not include (or no longer include) Bible in the public school curriculum. Over time, these schools became the training grounds for kids (again, see yesterday’s post) to combat rising tides of secularism and moral deficiency in the broader American culture, and the solution to this in Evangelicalism has been “more Bible!” and, especially in Fundamentalist schools, hyper-isolationism. So the schools continued to emphasize the centrality of the Bible in every aspect of the curriculum, and the curriculum for the Bible became the centerpiece of the entire endeavor. But here the problem is fully illustrated; the only Bible curricula out there for primary and secondary education are defined, written, supported, and distributed by Evangelical or Fundamentalist clearing houses and distributors like CBD, Veritas Press, Logos, and Bob Jones. It may not be the State, but the impression is that if you’re going to do Christian ed, you have to do it this way or it’s not Christian. There are, of course, much smaller places that do in fact have more mainline Bible curricula, but these are primarily geared towards Sunday Schools and not for large-scale, institutional Evangelical primary and secondary education.

For those of us who homeschool, who are Christian, and who are (at best) highly suspicious of the Evangelical agenda and of its particular spin on history and biblical interpretation, this creates an ethical dilemma. Indeed, homeschool teachers, by definition amateurs in most of the subjects in the curriculum (if not completely ignorant!) are more or less at the mercy of the defined curriculum they settle on, or, if done in a local cooperative network, on whatever the board of directors settles on. If you as the parent of a homeschooled child do not agree with the cooperative’s adopted curriculum for the Bible component, or don’t like the choices available to do it on your own, and lack the competency (or the time) to draw up your own curriculum, well, good luck to you.

As someone who emphasizes the need for local, community-oriented education and economy and who tries to resist our dependencies on large-scale, institutionalized forms of education and economics (see some of my earlier posts), homeschooling is perhaps the best option we have. Part of good stewardship is being a good steward to our children, and not simply to our land our our heritage. Small, local cooperative networks of homeschooling has tremendous potential to offer an education to our kids that advocates the kind of ethical education that is lacking elsewhere. It is, by necessity, local community oriented. However, I have not seen this, despite its potential. From what I can see, homeschooling goes either in the direction of individualism, whereby individual families insulate their kids from anything that could contaminate the indoctrination they are giving their kids, while coopting the word “education” in the process. Or it takes the approach of parochialism, where similar and largely like-minded homeschool parents band together in a kind of wagon circle to protect what’s inside from outside influences, including the influences of “formal education” that Christian schools have adopted from public schools. In such groups, I’ve learned from experience that it’s their way, or the highway. Their Bible curriculum is nothing short of the gospel, as defined by the experts in Christian education. Take it … or leave it. This isn’t local, community oriented education at this point. It’s ghettoizing indoctrination.

Now, I’m a classical historian, a biblical scholar, and historian of religions by training, was “brought-up-born-again,” an active member of a left-leaning mainline suburban church, and a certified lay minister in my denomination. Beloved wife is a former public school elementary teacher, private tutor, current Sunday school teacher, church elder, and chair of the children’s ed committee at said church, and she’s also a leader in our local SBC evangelical church’s MOPS and AWANA groups. If ever there should be a couple who could figure out a good history and Bible curriculum for kids, we’re it. What might this look like?

I don’t know yet, but we’re working on it. In the next few days, maybe, look for a post on some criteria that such a curriculum might contain. And as always, I’m happy to take suggestions.

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