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.