Who are new wave home-schoolers? The ‘NewWavers’ come from the far left and the far right. On the right, I give you the Rick Santorums (see Andrew O'Hehir's Rick Santorum's Home School Hokum) and the Quiverfull. Full of the babies God ordained, and often short on formal education (see Kristin Rawl's Home Schooled and Illiterate) – they are certain about one thing, their kids are not going to suffer the indignity of exposure to secular humanism (i.e. David Goetsch's Liberal Lies About Homeschooling). On the left, the new-school homesteaders don't shy away from DIY parenting (see Dana Goldstein's Liberals Don't Home School Your Kids, Milton Gaither's Home Schooling Goes Mainstream and Margaret Heidenry's My Parents Were Home-Schooling Anarchists), this trend seems to coincide with the increasing desire to reconnect with the American frontier – à la Laura Ingalls – crafting beer cozies, planting tomatoes and fava beans in the yard, and practicing attachment parenting (full disclosure – I harbor a deep and abiding love for tomatoes, favas, and cozies of all kind). I'm oversimplifying, of course, but as the movement grows, it is certain that more transparency and debate are needed.
Why would these seemingly highly divergent families reach the same conclusion on childhood education? What is driving this exodus from the once revered public school system? The glue that binds is control. They may point to perceived gaps in curricula, or failing test scores, but these excuses conceal a much simpler desire, the desire to exert control. Control over what their progeny are exposed to, and a rejection of leaving it to outsiders to decide. These parents may want to insulate their children from assault by the Christianity-default, or unrestrained bullying, or they may wish to bury the kids in Veggie Tales and ABC Bible Verses, but they share in their desire to reject and circumvent government regulation and they have no qualms about their ability to be better educators than the professionals. But we have no way to know whether these children are learning at all, whether they are faring better or worse from a purely academic standpoint than their traditional-school counterparts.
More to the point, how is the desire to play an active role in one’s child’s education possibly anti-feminist? There are a multitude of reasons why I view this particular brand of homeschooling as anti-progressive, but the anti-feminist ramifications stem from one extremely simple truth. Mothers almost universally fill the position of 21st Century schoolmarm within the family. Educated, uneducated, wealthy, poor, professors, lawyers, waiters, salesmen and accountants – it is the mother who gives up her career/education/independence to educate the children and the father who labors to finance this luxury. This is not to say that homeschooling can never be progressive – or can never encourage gender equity - but this incarnation, reinforcing gender regressive modeling, is not going to succeed in in doing it. Putting aside the common arguments that women are either more innate nurturers, or that it is more practical to take women out of the workforce (as the maligned gender makes a mere 70¢ on her male counterpart’s dollar), placing women exclusively in the role of teacher-mother has the potential to weaken the social, familial and political advancements women have made.
Here are just a few reasons why. Returning mothers to the home to devote the entirety of their selves to their children subordinates women, albeit voluntarily in most cases (Quiverfull aside). It requiring her to be tethered to her children at all times. It broadcasts to the child that the mother is slave to the child’s needs – while the father has an identity that transcends the family. It ties intrinsically mother’s personhood to the role of motherhood. It teaches children that education is inextricably linked with being mothered, with possible consequences for the child’s education once she naturally seeks to establish maturity by rebelling against parental control. It would appear to inhibit in many cases the ability of both mother and child to develop a separate self, a life beyond their relationship.
Finally, the home-schooling mother is necessarily dependent on father for economic survival. This doesn’t just affect the balance of power in the marriage – but it fosters a feeling of entrapment in the way in which women were trapped by marriage before the feminist revolution. If the mother leaves the marriage, she loses her economic lifeline. Most likely she will now need to place the child in traditional school, and she will need to return to the workforce after prolonged absence. For the woman who has convinced herself that such actions are harmful to the child – as she must have – and who has been consumed by the role of mother so entirely, it will feel supremely selfish and ‘wrong’ to take this step.
Homeschooling parents are not right or wrong, they are not good or bad. Homeschooling can no doubt lead to positive outcomes for many children. But these issues, the ramifications for all involved, must be weighted against any perceived benefits to the child’s educational or social development. Moreover, regardless of all else, regulation is needed to ensure that these children are in fact receiving an education.