Liberal Homeschoolers: What We Really Are

What kind of homeschoolers are we?  I’ve wrestled a bit with that question when asked by other homeschoolers, especially the ones who know exactly what sort they are.Some time back, I eschewed the title of secular homeschooler since while we use secular curriculum almost exclusively, our homeschooling certainly reflects our Unitarian Universalist beliefs. I’ve categorized us as eclectic homeschoolers and initially as emergency homeschoolers (school was just that bad for my older).  Certainly we are not unschoolers, nor are we classical, Charlotte Mason, or religious fundamentalist homeschoolers.  We dabbled in Montessori homeschooling, but not enough to take the name. Liberal homeschoolers might just be the right fit, if one were to label us at all.

Then Dana Goldstein had to taint that term with her recent article, “Liberals: Don’t Homeschool Your Kids,” which raised attention and a fair amount of ire to those who might like to claim that title. It seems to her that homeschooling comes in only two flavors: “the religious fundamentalist variety practiced by Michele Bachman and Rick Santorum” and something akin to unschooling with early college.  Not quite.  Being undefinable is part of being a homeschooler.  Many a parent has started with visions of children around the kitchen table huddled over lessons in textbooks by morning and running off to educational field trips in the afternoon only to end up, years later, focusing on “living books” combined with a moderate amount of NOVA,  and science experiments with the local co-op. The ardent unschooling parent is just as likely to end up with a child who craves order and direction, preferring workbooks to work in the garden. For many of us, it’s an ever-changing, hard-to-define process that defies labels.

Thank goodness Goldstein provided us with some definition along with a heap of scorn. “Could such a go-it-alone ideology ever be truly progressive — by which I mean, does homeschooling serve the interest not just of those who are doing it, but of society as a whole?” she muses. I don’t know if Goldstein has children, but I’d bet she hasn’t had a child who loved to learn shut down in the classroom, wishing he’d die rather than endure a poor fit (two years of different poor fits).  Do I care about public schools?  You bet.  Will I sacrifice my children to one that won’t meet their needs? No way.

She wanders from there into a stereotype of liberal homeschoolers as (and here she paraphrases education journalist Linda Perlstein) “adherents of attachment parenting, the perennially controversial ideology defined by practices such as co-sleeping with one’s child and breast-feeding for far longer than typical.”   I just might resemble that, at least since my second child was born. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Plenty of folks who would likely identify themselves as liberal homeschoolers, however, may have bottle-fed and slept separately.  Infancy practices hardly dictate homeschooling style.

The family of her article’s focus radically unschools, and this seems to be the style of homeschooling she’s calling “liberal.” Her sample size of one is a bit small for science — Astra Taylor, a filmmaker and writer at N+1 who actually chose to go to public high school, a point Goldstein somehow omits in her recounting of the empty days of Taylor’s youth.  Goldstein remarks on her “13 year of public education in one of the most diverse and progressive school districts in the United States,” listing the long line of public school teachers in her ancestry.  I’m delighted she had such a positive experience. She waxes poetically about “attending racially and socieoeconomically integrated schools.” Let’s face it. Most of us just don’t have all that happening in our local public school. Even if we did, it still may not be the best place for our children to learn. Kids are funny that way. What works for one just doesn’t always work for the next.  Parents know this.  Attentive parents adjust accordingly, which is why plenty of families have kids both in and out of school at the same time.

Her final claim is the most damning and certainly the most incorrect: “Lefty homeschoolers might be preaching sound social values to their children, but they aren’t practicing them.  If progressives want to improve schools, we shouldn’t empty them out.  We ought to flood them with our kids, and the debate vociferously what they ought to be doing.” Thanks for filling me in, Dana.  I thought by leaving the working world that I’d return to after my younger when to school that I’d be putting principles into action. As far as I can tell, I am. We do far more than discuss progressive values.  We volunteer through our (liberal) Unitarian Universalist Church, our local humane society, and our library. We certainly pay taxes that support our public schools, and I have yet to vote down a school millage item. I’m raising kids who know how to be in their community — they are equally comfortable with adults and children of all ages.

At home, my boys are in an environment that serves their set of needs that would be hard to meet in our public school.  She’s welcome to come to our local public school and explain the diverse, challenging, and downright frustrating array of needs my kids have and see where she gets. Goodness knows I tried with my first. It was exhausting and demoralizing for both of us, and plenty of our first year home was spent reigniting his joy of learning and facing his learning challenges that the school refused to acknowledge. I’m not alone in my reasons for bringing my child home — many a “liberal homeschooling” parent could tell a similar tale, as could many conservative parents.

But what is liberal homeschooling? I can only speak for myself, but I imagine it is homeschooling with the goal of educating a child who just might work to make society a bit better. To me, it means teaching an understanding of the world, with all its complexity and wonder, including the ugly underside of human workings. It means teaching history with a large lens not limited by faith or nationality. It means allowing them to see the work it takes to make this world better for all its inhabitants. As a liberal homeschooling parent, I strive to teach my children how to walk through the world with a compassionate heart, a civil tongue, and a thirst for justice. It means helping them to speak out where they see disrespect and unkindness and modeling kind speech that persistently speaks for those who cannot.

It’s not the books or lack of books that define liberal homeschooling.  It’s not the breastfeeding, co-sleeping, organic-food-buying behavior either. It’s a progressive way of living in this world in this hard time, a way of looking for a better future for all, liberal or conservative, homeschooling or not. It’s also now my answer to the question, “What method of homeschooling do you use?”  Thanks, Dana Goldstein, for pushing me towards defining what kind of homeschoolers we are.

18 thoughts on “Liberal Homeschoolers: What We Really Are

  1. Goldstein clearly has an agenda. What it is–who knows?
    Attacking home schoolers is convenient and easy, because we are a minority. Secular or Liberal home schoolers are a minority within a minority.

  2. “As a liberal homeschooling parent, I strive to teach my children how to walk through the world with a compassionate heart, a civil tongue, and a thirst for justice. It means helping them to speak out where they see disrespect and unkindness and modeling kind speech that persistently speaks for those who cannot.”

    Beautifully stated. And I have similar goals. Each of my 3 homeschooled children has taken a different path toward that goal and his/her own goals. We certainly can’t be pigeonholed except as liberals and proud liberals, at that.

    Ms.Goldstein suffers from a lack of imagination, I think.

    • Perhaps lack of imagination paired with a lack of true curiosity about what real liberal homeschoolers do are her troubles. It was the same old cry against homeschooling (no oversight, all up to parents, lack of diversity) with a twist of political perspective. While I appreciate that homeschooling beyond the fundamentalist evangelicals was recognized, it was the same old dis with a new twist.

  3. I am so tired of being blamed for the downfall of the public education system! We worked with the public school for three years, all while watching my son face belittling teachers, torturous piles of worksheets he had mastered years before and harassment from the Principal. Three years, because we believed in public school, supported the liberal idea of education for all and liked the notion of a diverse classroom. But none if it is worth the emotional toil my son suffered at the hands of the public school. We’ll take our liberal values and our high test scores and go home.

    • That’s a familiar story, T in CA. My older lasted four months in a public (gifted) program with a previous year in a private Montessori. I know others like you who worked longer and harder to make it work, and I applaud your dedication. In the end, though, sacrificing my child for the potential betterment of public education isn’t going to happen.

  4. Loved this bit: “It’s not the breastfeeding, co-sleeping, organic-food-buying behavior either. It’s a progressive way of living in this world in this hard time, a way of looking for a better future for all, liberal or conservative, homeschooling or not.”

    I’m frustrated by the recommendation of “if you want to change public education you should keep your kids there” because anyone who has ever actually tried to change anything (even the smallest of things!) bumps into a brick wall. I think homeschoolers ARE paving the way for change.

    • I can’t find anything in her writing that says Goldstein has kids. I’d strongly hold that, for the most part, people without kids should not write about how to raise them. Before I had my boys, I’d have laughed aloud at the prospect of homeschooling, possibly spouting some of what Goldstein did (although I’d like to think I wouldn’t have). Fast forward to two bad fits for school and no assistance from either the private or public school my older son attended, and here we are. I know others have tried harder, but we were done. And I can’t think of a single benefit to society our continued presence would have provided.

  5. Pingback: What Labels Are We Placing on Homeschoolers? | Mama of Letters

  6. Parents of kids with special needs get so much noise, it gets exhausting. This is just another judgmental, ill-informed voice. Good for you for rising above it all & doing what needs to be done for your kids. It’s heroic, really.

    P.S. I’m still trying to figure out what’s wrong with attachment parenting. It’s the right thing for many families – especially families with children whose nervous systems got the short end of the stick.

    • Thanks. I certainly don’t feel heroic, but I do feel dedicated to doing what’s best for my kids.

      I love your line, “…especially for families with children whose nervous systems got the short end of the stick.” The only way to soothe my younger was to have him on my body. His only peace was nursing…for years. His only sleep was when next to me. My older son self-weaned at 11 mos and could only sleep alone (yes, a wee bit of tactile defensiveness there), and attached meant, well, a bit more room but plenty of psychological attachment.

      • That’s the thing – people just don’t know about these issues. You followed your instincts & did what was right. You have those instincts for a reason! I’m glad you listened to them instead of all the opinions…they can drive a person crazy!

  7. Love this post. As someone who is brand new to homeschooling (first day was 10 days ago) it is great to find another Unitarian homeschooling mom of boys! I have 3 (5, 7 & 8 1/2). I’m heading over to check out your UU blog. I’m curious if you ever looked at Connect The Thoughts curriculum and if so what you thought of it. We’re using it and enjoying it, but I’m curious what another UU mom of boys thinks of it.

    • Welcome home! My older son used one Connect the Thoughts, Human Rights Abuses, some years ago. It was informative with fairly good questions requiring higher order thinking skills, which pleased me. We didn’t use it quite as the author intended, which is a highly independent, student-led way. We discussed the material, with far more of that occurring than writing. Given his age and dysgraphia, that was best for us. I’ve toyed with trying them again, but I just haven’t gotten to that yet. I’m glad you and yours are enjoying it. They certainly carry some fascinating titles.

      I’m glad as well to find another UU homeschooler. I look forward to hearing from you again.

  8. While I don’t think Goldberg’s opinion is worth my time or energy to reply directly to HER, mostly because she is completely ignorant of the facts of homeschooling, I was still likewise moved to write my own reply to her article.

    You can find it here:

    I couldn’t agree more that she is WAY off base here!
    Also, thanks so much for the blog…I’m enjoying it!

  9. The thing that killed me about the article was that it was as closed minded as what I have come to expect from the conservative media. Thank you for this response. I wanted to write my take on it, but gave up after realizing I couldn’t take the anger out of my tone

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