Thursday, January 8, 2015

On Homeschooling: Innoculation

When my mother decided to start homeschooling me (and later, my younger brother) she wanted to do it the "right" way.

This was back in '91, '92. At the time, we did not have the internet (That came in '98) and while we had a television, we didn't have access to a television station (less because religion and more because cable costs money and the local access channels came in via antenna and were mostly illegible). I was enrolled in the local public school for approximately half of first grade. I remember very little of this. Mostly the playground, the Candy Day, and how very much I enjoyed buying lunch from the cafeteria because it was something other than sandwiches. My mother, however, had a rather nasty run-in with my teacher--According to family lore Ms. Satoff started shouting at mom in the hallway because I couldn't do math problems in order--and that was the end of my public school career.

However, she had no clue how to homeschool, just that it was something she needed to do because we couldn't afford the alternative--private (and, naturally, Christian) school. So she went to the local bookstore and began buying whatever she could. Grade appropriate used textbooks that she chose without reguard for religious background. I remember a big workbook that was second and third grade material, all subjects together, and as long as I did two pages of math a day I was allowed to do as much of the rest of the subjects as I wanted (This book was approximately the size of a phone book. The math took an entire year to complete. The rest of the book didn't last very long). She bought new reading text books about once a month. These also did not last very long. She began to understand very quickly that, while information retention wasn't much of a problem for most subjects, math was definitely A Problem (all caps required) and that she probably needed to invent something resembling a lesson plan before I ran through everything else she'd bought in the first month.

This was when she started looking for help. And this was when she started running into what I consider to be a big, big problem.

At the time, all of the homeschooling resources locally were run and dominated by Christian groups. This, in and of itself, was not a problem. 99.999% of the local folks were congenial to a fault, your standard white Southerners who would sooner die than allow someone to feel uncomfortable. But when you have an unusual interest--and in the 90s, Homeschooling felt rather unusual--it becomes very easy for information on that interest to become highly centralized. That, in turn, allows the Powers that Be, so to speak, to control what information is delivered, as well as the tone and method of delivery.

The congenial Christian ladies here were all enamoured of several magazines. One of them was The Sycamore Tree, which I have yet to hear anything bad about and which simply delivered a listing of supplies, curriculum, lesson plans and educational toys. Getting the new magazines every month was like Christmas; I circled the things I wanted (princesses, castles and shiny science sets dominated) and looked forward to getting them. When you are seven, eight, and nine, it's difficult to understand that you're not ordering toys, especially when the workbooks were so much fun.

The other magazine my mother subscribed to was one called Homeschooling Today.

This one was the problem.

Once again, educational products dominated the pages. However, this magazine also reviewed information and offered opinions on how valuable each product was, and the emphasis was not on their educational quality but on their religious value--a judgement that is highly subjective, but that was presented as highly objective. An invisible standard that, in the magazine, at least, is never properly articulated, but to which everything is held.

We absorb most of our information as humans by osmosis. We go to spoken dialogue to confirm our own biases. We form those biases by what goes unspoken. There's a story that Whoopi Goldberg told about seeing Nichole Nichols in Star Trek for the first time, where she ran to her parents shouting "Mama, Mama, there's a black woman on TV and she ain't no maid," and how that moment defined something important for her. It isn't so much what Star Trek did as it is what everything else did. Everything else defined what her role would be by what it didn't let her be. There was a void in her experience that said so much more than any amount of racism ever could: You can't go here because there's no one like you here.

That's how those early homeschooling magazines were. Here's an ideal lesson for boys: Science, math, citizenship. Here's their role models: George Washington, George Patton, Buzz Aldren. Here's an ideal lesson for girls: How to sew. Role models? That's you, mom, so here's some advice on how to raise a good little girl. Boys get knights and castles. Girls get the princess locked in the castle. And there's a gigantic void where the alternative ought to be. I remember looking for girl cowboys, girl soldiers, girl knights. Nothing. There was one small paragraph and one small portrait about Joan of Arc in one history book, and I remember reading it over and over and over. One of my favorite movies as a young teen was Lee Lee Sobeski's Joan of Arc, not because it was a good movie, but because it was a girl commander.

And the magazine repeats it over and over: Here's the role for girls. Here's the role for boys. This is what a boy's book looks like. This is what a girl's story ought to be.

And then came the religious suggestions. Study this part. Study this story, because it's edifying. Study this. Make sure you address this part. Define your faith this way because it's the right way. Read this book, it's good. Read this one. Read this.

It's an attempt to develop a world in monotones by delivering only one color. Here's blue. Here's blue. Here's blue. Red, Green, Yellow, these are never even mentioned. It's hard to explain the massive vacuum where an alternative ought to be. It's not that it was railed against. It's that it wasn't even there. The words you'd need to identify the concept aren't permitted. Maybe subjects would be mentioned in hushed tones, a sort of hint at pearl clutching. This is a book with no hint of evolution. No sex education in this health book. This material is edifying for girls. But it never went so far as to actually define what was being avoided.

I am still relatively lukewarm about Harry Potter, but there was one aspect that I fell in love with immediately: the idea that avoiding a subject gives that subject power. Calling Voldemort He-who-must-not-be-named gave him power, made him so much more evil than simply saying the word ever could. That was how the homeschooling magazines worked. They inculcated a horror--not just a desire to avoid, but a horror of subjects--in the hearts of parents who didn't know any better simply by avoiding a topic.

I can't blame the parents at all, because my parents were there. Desperate. Ignorant. Frightened of doing wrong, of ruining their children, and facing an overwhelming opposition. Because oh, those magazines were so careful to validate the choice to homeschool, to educate on particulars, to soothe fears. And there was a great deal of good information in those magazines. Just enough truth to make you swallow the rest.

The result was that my mother worshipped this magazine. If she needed validation, there it was. If she needed information, she could likely find it. And she bought everything they said. To question any part of it was to call the entire thing into doubt.

I believe that my mother made the right choice by homeschooling us, but I also believe that Homeschooling Today, and the materials it advertised, were a poison pill coated in sugar. The best aspects of my education came, not from the magazines or the religious sources, but from secular resources and from my mother. The religious education I value wasn't some workbook or bible study, it was my mother having us create Fruit-of-the-Spirit baskets (Patience was grapes. I have no idea why) or having us act out the ten commandments and the crowning of King David (in which both myself and my brother were crowned. We had tie-dye robes and crowns made of oatmeal cannisters and tinfoil.) When my brother had even more trouble with math than I did, my mother created "Video-game math", in which a hand-drawn Megaman fought his way through stages involving multiplication tables and long division.

Many of the things that I regret came from the suggested materials. Books I hated were the ones recommended. The suggested religious studies left me believing that fantasy books were evil, and that I was committing a mortal sin by writing my own (I spent most of my earliest attempts at writing firmly convinced that they were damning me to Hell.) The gender education is something I am still working through.

Homeschooling is, and likely will continue to be, tied to religious inclinations. Having moral outrage for some aspect of a curriculum is generally the reason parents pull their kids from school, with underlying issues like abnormal learning styles or disabilities being the "reason beneath the reason", so to speak. Mom knew I was struggling with some subjects and was bored to tears in others. The shouting match with the teacher was just the final straw.

But a great number of people have hijacked homeschooling for their own reasons: To indoctrinate a generation into ideas and concepts that are so out-dated and (yes, kids) outrageous by the standards of the religion they claim to advocate. For several decades this movement chose to call themselves Christian Patriarchy. That name has only recently fallen out of favor, and it's not because their attitudes have changed.

And the path into it? It's not chosen by parents who want to live a life that limited. It's chosen by people--scared, frightened people with children, in over their heads and desperate--who aren't aware that the help being offered is, likely as not, rotten to the core.


  1. Very interesting! I have a number of adult friends who were homeschooled, all tied in with Christian teachings. One friend in particular was granted a great deal of freedom, to the point he moderated AOL chatrooms at 13 because his parents wanted to encourage him to "use computers" but had no idea what he was really doing (learning the list of every offensive word to ban in said chats was one of them, which I find so funny). Recently he tracked down an old homeschooling text book and we marveled at its exclusions. Let's just say it was "science" with a big focus on not giving out credit beyond the divine. That was their norm and he didn't question that until his later teen years. And then, boy did he question. You have to wonder the lasting effects of such teaching as many I know who were religiously-focused homeschooled are no longer in the faith they were raised in. Though that could be the crowd I run with. :)

    My hubz was homeschooled for a year for complicated reasons, and he thrived. Though his family was church-going, his texts were not primarily religious and his dad used materials approved by the state so the hubz graduated with an actual diploma not a GED. He never liked school but he loves learning, and home schooling worked for him. I would have been distraught to be pulled out of public school in high school. My friends! My activities! I didn't grow up in an overtly religious culture (my fam was God believing but not church attenders) so I'm so fascinated by the differences.

    1. It's very diverse, and a tricky subject to address. You have the secular homeschoolers--where the emphasis is on getting info in and not, you know, getting indoctrinated. You have the ultra-conservative religious groups where the main purpose is indoctrination, and you have everybody in between.

      With Christian-based homeschooling, we have the unique issue I've tried to address here: the whole thing's been hijacked by the people on the far end of the spectrum. So unless you go out of your way to avoid them--and many of them simply do not know this is there--you are going to be getting their opinions by a kind of intellectual osmosis. The more prone you are to the basic religious beliefs, the more likely you are to swallow the bullshit. And it's got nothing to do with the merits of the religion or not: when someone agrees with you on every point but one, and you want their approval for your behavior, you will modify your own beliefs to conform. It's how people work. You have to be aware of your tendancy to do this in order to combat it, and most people don't know how mailable they are.