The dark side of home schooling: creating soldiers for the culture war
By Katherine Stewart, Wednesday 8 May 2013 07.00 EDT
Several decades ago, political activists on the religious right began to put together an “ideology machine”. Home schooling was a big part of the plan. The idea was to breed and “train up” an army of culture warriors. We now are faced with the consequences of their actions, some of which are quite disturbing.
According to the Department of Education, the home schooling student population doubled in between 1999 and 2007, to 1.5 million students, and there is reason to think the growth has continued. Though families opt to home school for many different reasons, a large part of the growth has come from Christian fundamentalist sects. Children in that first wave are now old enough to talk about their experiences. In many cases, what they have to say is quite alarming.
When he was growing up in California, Ryan Lee Stollar was a stellar home schooling student. His oratory skills at got him invited to home schooling conferences around the country, where he debated public policy and spread the word about the “virtues” of an authentically Christian home school education.
Now 28, looking back on his childhood, it all seems like a delusion. As Stollar explains:
“The Christian home school subculture isn’t a children-first movement. It is, for all intents and purposes, an ideology-first movement. There is a massive, well-oiled machine of ideology that is churning out soldiers for the culture war. Home schooling is both the breeding ground – literally, when you consider the Quiverfull concept – and the training ground for this machinery. I say this as someone who was raised in that world.”
Too frequently, Stollar says, the consequences of putting ideology over children include anxiety, depression, distrust of authority, and issues around sexuality. This is evident from the testimonials that appear on Home schoolers Anonymous, the website that Stollar established, along with several partners.
Stollar’s own home schooling experience started off well. But over time, as his family became immersed in the world of Christian home schooling, his “education” became less straightforward and more ideological. “I particularly remember my science curriculum,” he says. “We used It Couldn’t Just Happen, which wasn’t really a science textbook. It was really just an apologetics textbook which taught students cliché refutations of evolutionism.”
Many parents start off home schooling with the intention of inculcating their children in a mainstream form of Christianity. However, as many HA bloggers report, it is easy to get sucked into the vortex of fundamentalist home schooling because extremists have cornered the market – running the conventions, publishing the curricula, setting up the blogs.
As HA blogger Julie Ann Smith, a Washington state mother of seven, says:
“If you are the average Christian home schooler with no agenda, and you have the choice between attending a secular home schooling convention and a Christian one, chances are you’ll choose the Christian convention. But they only allow certain speakers who follow their agenda. So you have no clue. What you don’t realize is that they are being run by Christian Reconstructionists.”
Smith is referring to the Calvinist movement, founded by Rousas John Rushdoony, that advocates a Christian takeover of the political system in order to “purify” the nation and cleanse it of the sin of secularism. Rushdoony taught that public schools – “statist education,” in his words – promote chaos, primitivism, and “a vast disintegration into the void”. He advocated home schooling as a way to rear a generation that could carry out the mission of retaking the nation for Christ.
Much of fundamentalist home schooling is driven by deeply sexist and patriarchal ideology. The Quiverfull movement teaches that women need to submit to their husbands and have as many babies as they possibly can. The effects of these ideas on children are devastating, as a glance at HA’s blogs show.
“The story of being home schooled was a story of being told to sit down and shut up. ‘An ideal woman is quiet and submissive,’ I was told time and time again,” writes Phoebe. “The silence and submission I was pushed into was ultimately a place of loneliness, bitterness and almost crippling insecurity.”
The fundamentalist home schooling world also advocates an extraordinarily authoritarian view of the parental role. Corporal punishment is frequently encouraged. The effects are, again, often quite devastating. “People who experienced authoritarian parents tend to turn into adults with poor boundaries,” writes one pseudonymous HA blogger. “It’s an extremely unsatisfying and unsustainable way to live.”
In America, we often take for granted that parents have an absolute right to decide how their children will be educated, but this leads us to overlook the fact that children have rights, too, and that we as a modern society are obligated to make sure that they get an education. Families should be allowed to pursue sensible homeschooling options, but current arrangements have allowed some families to replace education with fundamentalist indoctrination.
As the appearance of HA reminds us, the damage done by this kind of false education falls not just on our society as a whole, but on the children who are pumped through the ideology machine. They are the traumatized veterans of our culture wars. We should listen to their stories, and support them as they find their way forward.