The New Counterculture

The rapid growth of the home-schooling movement owes much to the energy and organizational skills of its Christian advocates

In the 1980s, when newspapers and magazines first started reporting on parents who had rejected school in favor of teaching their children at home, it seemed that the movement would never last—or if it lasted, would never grow. More and more mothers were working outside the home. More and more parents, especially in the upper middle class, were fretting about their children's pursuit of academic excellence and healthy socialization, while simultaneously outsourcing the management of both to recognized experts and paid caregivers. It did not seem an auspicious time for a movement that demanded the intensive labor of mothers willing to forgo careers and income; that set little store by certification, licensing, degrees, and other signifiers of professional expertise; that took pride in a kind of rustic do-it-yourselfism; and that, even in its large, conservative Christian wing, held fast to the progressive-educational notion of not rushing kids into academics too early. Like so many other self-conscious reversions to the way of our forebears, the home-schooling movement seemed destined to sputter out.

Instead it has developed over the past decade or so into a surprisingly vigorous counterculture. In 1985 about 50,000 children nationwide were learning at home. Current estimates range from 1.5 to 1.9 million. (The former is probably the more reliable number, though precision is hard to come by because neither the census nor any other national survey distinguishes between home-schooled children and others.) By comparison, charter schools—the most celebrated alternative in public schooling—enroll only about 350,000 students. Patricia Lines, a former Department of Education researcher who has studied home schooling since the mid-1980s, points to evidence, such as Florida's annual survey of home schoolers, suggesting that the population of kids learning at home is growing by 15 to 20 percent a year. Moreover, home schoolers as a group are extraordinarily committed—not only to educating their children as they see fit but also to building and sustaining organizations. They have founded thousands of local support groups across the country, along with an influential lobbying and legal-defense organization, dozens of publishers and curriculum suppliers, and six nationally circulated magazines. By now it seems reasonable to agree with Lines that "the rise of homeschooling is one of the most significant social trends of the past half century."

To understand why this should be so, it helps first of all to give up on the idea of home schooling as a throwback. It's true that mandatory school attendance is a relatively new phenomenon in the broad sweep of history, and that during the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries most American children acquired what learning they got—precious little if they came from laboring or farming families—at home. The first common schools in the United States were established in the 1840s, but it was not until the early twentieth century, in the first flush of Progressivism, that most states legislated compulsory education, and even then many of the laws covered only a few months of the year. It is true, as the Web site of the Home School Legal Defense Association reminds us, that "American history is full of men and women who were taught at home, from colonial patriot Patrick Henry to President John Quincy Adams to inventor Thomas Edison"—although many of them were taught not by parents but by tutors, which is rather a different thing.

Yet for all the claims that it is resurrecting a hallowed American tradition, for all its old-timey affections (the home-schooling activist Michael Farris once felt compelled to warn home schoolers against un-Christian bragging about baking their own bread), home schooling is a distinctly modern, even forward-looking movement. It is modern in some superficial ways, such as in its use of the Internet to pass along curricula and teaching tips and to create instant support networks. And it is modern in some deeper ways—for example, in its capacity to fulfill needs that could have arisen only in our present social circumstances. Those include the need many parents feel to shield their families from a commercial culture they regard as soulless, acquisitive, overly sexualized, and corrosive of family ties. And, as Mitchell Stevens shows in Kingdom of Children, his readable sociological survey of the movement, they include the needs of many American women, mostly conservative Christians, whose beliefs do not permit them to work outside the home but whose aspirations have nonetheless been shaped by feminism and its discontents.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

"A School's Life Without Rules" (Christian Science Monitor, May 8, 2001)
Behind the scenes at Britain's Summerhill. By Marjorie Coeyman

"John Holt: Teach Your Own Children ... At Home" (The Mother Earth News, July/August 1980)
The transcript of an interview with John Holt.

But that's to get ahead of the story. Though they tend to dominate it now, conservative Christians were not home schooling's pioneers. Its first inspiration came from 1960s leftists such as Ivan Illich, Paul Goodman, and A. S. Neill, the founder of the British free school at Summerhill. Many of these innovators started out as critics of subpar schools for the urban poor and became critics of formal education itself—tests, grades, curricula, the very idea that a specific body of knowledge ought to be transmitted from adults to children. Among them was a childless patrician writer named John Holt, who became the first home-schooling activist. Holt was born in New York City in 1923, and, although he later refused to say what schools he had attended, on the grounds that they had taught him nothing, his obituaries revealed that he had enrolled at Phillips Exeter Academy and graduated from Yale with a degree in industrial engineering. After a stint teaching fifth-graders at two private schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Holt emerged as an impassioned, slightly moony school reformer, the author of the best-selling diary-style books How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967). "What is essential is to realize that children learn independently, not in bunches," he wrote, "that they learn out of interest and curiosity, not to please or appease the adults in power, and that they ought to be in control of their own learning; deciding for themselves what they want to learn and how they want to learn it." Holt had a Salingeresque softness for kids, whom he regarded as superior in every way to adults. Children "are better at [learning] than we are," he said; left to their own devices, they would learn their little hearts out.

By the late 1970s Holt had abandoned any hope that schools themselves would allow children to learn what they wanted to at their own pace and in their own admirably childish spirit, and had begun urging parents to "unschool" at home. His timing was just right, because many former sixties radicals were by then turning to hearth and home. As the founder of a magazine called Growing Without Schooling, Holt went on to guide a loose congregation of hippie parents across the country as they took their children's education into their own experimental, studiously nonauthoritarian hands. These first home educators were suspicious of institutions, Rousseauvian in their pedagogy, and big on learning by doing, whether it was milking goats or weaving a wall hanging or digging a well. They were the kinds of people who thought of themselves as "alternative," who met one another at the food co-op or at La Leche League meetings or at folk-dance fundraisers for Guatemalan refugees. Their world, as Stevens puts it, was "a small world now, short on cash, physical plants, and new blood, but still a hotly idealistic and quietly optimistic place," and Holt's child-centered, liberationist teachings resonated there.

At the same time, two other critics of conventional schooling, Raymond and Dorothy Moore, were launching a campaign against sending children to school in the early grades. The Moores were educational researchers and Seventh-Day Adventists. As young parents living in Tokyo in the 1940s, they had kept their children out of school and had never regretted the decision. Schools, they argued, were factory-like places, from which the "instinctual" knowledge and casual intimacy of family was coldly, and disastrously, excluded. "The tendency for most schools and similar institutions is to make the child's program rigid," they wrote. "This is a necessary feature of mass production. The youngster's activity for much of the day is focused in a few square feet area around his desk, and timed out to the minute." The Moores believed that children were developmentally unable to conform to such routines or to benefit from formal academic instruction until they had reached the "integrated maturity level," which differed from child to child but might be as late as age ten or twelve. If children were hustled into school nonetheless, and then overlooked by busy teachers, the likely results were learning disabilities, nearsightedness, and behavior problems such as hyperactivity. In this the Moores sounded like Holt and other critics who regarded schools as engines of conformity, too big and impersonal to meet the needs of the individual child.

But the Moores were also harbingers of home schooling's quite different future. Unlike Holt and his followers, they were religious conservatives who worried that schools undercut the authority of parents and forced children to face peer pressure before they were able to withstand it. The Moores first gained a national reputation with a 1972 article in Harper's magazine. But their great breakthrough occurred in the early 1980s, when James Dobson started inviting the Moores to speak on his nationally syndicated radio program, Focus on the Family. With Dobson's immense reach, the Moores' message found an eager audience among the evangelicals and fundamentalists of the new Christian right. For these converts home schooling offered the possibility of editing out evolutionary theory, secular humanism, and other knowledge they abhorred, while reviving or reinventing a model of learning that encouraged children to cleave to their families and keep the blandishments of consumerism at arm's length. Conservative Christians understood that it was easier to strengthen the influence of families against that of pop culture if families had something explicit and comprehensive to do, and education was the obvious function.

Christian home schoolers brought new energy and much-improved organizational skills to the movement. It was thanks to them, and particularly to the Home School Legal Defense Association, that home schooling earned the legal status it enjoys today. The Constitution offers broad guarantees of parents' right to direct their children's education, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld those guarantees in cases involving, for example, the rights of the Old Order Amish and other religious minorities to keep their children out of public school. Still, in 1983 only four states had laws explicitly permitting home education. In the early days many of the Holtian "unschoolers" fashioned themselves as a kind of underground. (Holt himself, in one of his more distasteful analogies, championed the notion of a "new Underground Railroad to help children escape from schools.") Some unschoolers courted prosecution under truancy laws. Christian home schoolers, however, tended to want legal recognition for their interpretation of parents' rights, and they got it. By 1993 home education was legal in all fifty states, subject to varying degrees of regulation.

For a while the two wings of the movement cooperated, bound together by their mutual skepticism toward mainstream education. But by the early 1990s the unschoolers were complaining in their publications that conservative white Christians had become the face of the movement. This was true—for the simple reason that white Christians had become the overwhelming majority among home schoolers. In a 1995 study of home educators the sociologist Maralee Mayberry found that 84 percent believed the Bible was literally true, 78 percent said they went to church at least once a week, and 98 percent were white. Later studies have confirmed, as Stevens puts it, that home schooling is "statistically associated with white, religious, two-parent households." Home-schooling parents are not, as a rule, any wealthier than the American norm, but they do tend to have more years of education. (A sizable minority have teaching degrees.) And their families are larger than average: the majority have three or more children. Conservative Christians have become the new counterculture, far more vital than what remains of the 1960s version, and home schooling is their most successful alternative institution.

Despite its precipitate growth, however, comparatively little has been written about home schooling, and what there is tends to focus on more or less measurable outcomes for the kids. Do they make friends? Go to college? Feel like weirdoes? Learn what they're supposed to learn? Score well on standardized tests? On this last point, as it happens, the evidence is fairly strong, and coverage of it has helped to win a grudging social acceptance for teaching outside of school. The news that home-schooled kids had been dominating national spelling and geography bees, and that several surveys showed them scoring higher than the national average on standardized tests, including the SAT, got plenty of press.

In contrast, almost nothing has been written about home schooling as a social movement with its own utility for adults. Stevens, a professor of sociology at Hamilton College, spent ten years interviewing home-schooling families, watching them teach, pitching tents at their summer camps, hanging out at their conferences, and reading their publications. He has written a careful, intelligent book that fills that gap, seeking to explain "what homeschooling means to the people who do it." The book suffers, unfortunately, from the constraints of Stevens's discipline, at least as he interprets them. To protect the privacy of his subjects, he says, he resorts to pseudonyms and alters biographical details. At any rate, vivid descriptions of people and places don't seem to be his forte.

But his analysis is often fascinating, especially when it comes to what women who home school get out of it. Most of the women Stevens interviewed never seriously considered working outside the home after they had children. Full-time motherhood had in some cases been their goal and ideal since childhood, and was often inseparable from their conservative Protestant religious beliefs. To be a godly woman meant to put child-rearing above ambition and acquisition, and sound child-rearing required the devotion of steady, unfragmented attention. "Love is spelled T-I-M-E," as one home-schooling family's Web site puts it. "We give ourselves to our children while they are young and need our instruction ... By the time they complete the high school years they are firmly anchored in GOD'S WORD, and have learned to stand against the world."

Deeply immersed in these values as they were, however, the women Stevens interviewed were hardly immune to the more mainstream ideals of womanhood shaped in part by liberal feminism. Like their contemporaries who had chosen to combine outside careers with the raising of children, they felt the attractions of using their minds and education in systematic, diligent ways; of possessing a sense of purpose independent from their husbands'; and of avoiding the tedium of housecleaning. The daily life of, say, the stereotypical 1950s housewife, trussed up in an apron and a short strand of pearls, seemed pallid and irrelevant to them, too. They wanted, as several women told Stevens, to be recognized as more than "just moms." Home schooling was in some ways the perfect solution—a souped-up domesticity with higher stakes and more respect. Though it did not afford economic autonomy, it did offer an intellectual outlet. And it provided social, political, and even entrepreneurial opportunities—through the home-schooling movement's local associations; its frequent conferences, retreats, and multi-family field trips; and its expanding market for new teaching materials, guidebooks, and the like, many of which home-schooling mothers write.

It's true that the work is formidable—the basic care and feeding of young children is labor-intensive enough even when one is not solely responsible for educating them. And mother-teachers do seem to get more respect within the home-schooling world than teachers and child-care workers get in the larger world. This is particularly true in the Christian wing of the movement, where women's teaching role is seen as sanctified by God. "Women are admonished to be committed full-time to their children," Stevens observes, "but their submission to God's plan is also explicitly recognized and celebrated from pulpits and on the pages of [the movement's own] glossy magazines." Moreover, fathers are actively encouraged to help their wives in whatever way the wives find useful, since the job of training young minds is regarded as both singularly important and singularly demanding. Christian home schoolers are "refreshingly explicit about the human costs of raising children," Stevens found. "They devote considerable energy to explaining why children 'need' full-time mothers, and they also are careful to celebrate the doing of that work." (The unschoolers, in contrast, tended to celebrate the creativity of the child over the labors of the mother.)

In the end, Kingdom of Children suggests that the benefits of home schooling may be greater for women than for children or for society in general. To be fair, Stevens doesn't even pose the comparison. But it is surely worth some tentative evaluation—especially if the movement continues to grow. Home-schooled kids, I think it's fair to say, are all right. They do well on tests, and they go on to fancy colleges when they want to; admissions officers and professors like them because they are self-motivated and have good study habits. Home-schooled kids watch less television than their peers and—though this has not been measured—are, I suspect, less likely to be medicated with Ritalin and other drugs whose function has at least something to do with classroom management.

I don't think we need worry much about their socialization in the narrow sense, either. With the exception of a few wackos in the Idaho panhandle, home-schooling parents are not bent on isolating their children, and most home-schooled kids make friends through the Scouts or church groups or volunteering. Indeed, in a study conducted a few years ago the sociologists Christian Smith and David Sikkink found that home-schooling families are actually more enmeshed in their communities than public school families. They are more likely, for example, to have voted in the previous five years, participated in an ongoing community-service activity, or gone to the public library. And the few psychological studies that have looked at categories such as "self-concept" and sociability have detected no problems and some advantages for home-schooled kids. It would be ill-advised to set much store by such studies, given the difficulty of measuring something like self-concept, but at least they don't raise any alarms.

More difficult, I think, is the question of whether home schooling poses any sort of a problem for society—a threat to social cohesion, for example, or a brain drain from the public schools. Smith and Sikkink's study suggests that there is little reason to worry that home schooling diverts people from civic life. What may be more worrisome is the prospect that home schooling will attract new recruits motivated mainly by disenchantment with the quality of their public schools. There is some evidence that recent converts to home schooling fit this profile. In a Florida state survey conducted from 1995 to 1996, for example, "dissatisfaction with public school" edged out "religious" motivations for the first time as the leading reason for home schooling.

For ideologically or religiously motivated home schoolers, keeping their kids out of school is not a consumer's whim; it's the exercise of a constitutionally sanctioned right to guide their children's education in accordance with their most deeply held beliefs. And in a democratic society only considerations as profound as those are significant enough to outweigh the potential harm of sectarianism. The decision to home school also represents a complicated but reasonable compromise with the rest of us. Rather than agitate to get Darwinism out of the public schools, for example, conservative Christian home schoolers may opt to withdraw from them while continuing (for the most part) to pay taxes that support those schools and to participate in civic and political life. Moreover, as Stevens shows, home schooling offers some conservative Christian women, whose values prevent them from working outside the home, a measure of fulfillment and autonomy that they might not otherwise enjoy—a social good in itself. If the rest of us (people nursing vague beefs with the public schools, people without a powerful religious or ideological justification) started pulling our kids out of the schools, I doubt it would serve any social good at all.

Secular liberals may not much care for the particular forms of social capital that evangelicals and fundamentalists build, but build them they do. And if one shares the worry that the American citizenry is growing more selfish and monadic, the home schoolers' brand of civic participation is no small thing. Of course, one might argue that the home schoolers' activism is too narrow and self-interested to count as social capital. But that may be too narrow a way of thinking. As Smith and Sikkink argue,

American democracy thrives on the widespread participation of its citizens in a host of different kinds of associations that mediate between the individual and the state, often even when those associations are not manifestly political or liberal ... [T]he experience of association and participation itself tends to socialize, empower, and incorporate citizens in ways that stimulate democratic self-government, even if they involve some particularity and conflict in the process.

Besides, Christian home schoolers embody a coherent, living critique of mainstream education and child-rearing that can be bracing, a model of carefully negotiated, mildly irritating separateness, of being in but not of modern consumer society. For the rest of us, the tensions that creates may be the most useful thing about them.

Presented by

How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How a Psychedelic Masterpiece Is Made

A short documentary about Bruce Riley, an artist who paints abstract wonders with poured resin


Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.


How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.


A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple


What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In