The New Counterculture

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

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