“YOU CAN’T RELY ON SOMEBODY ELSE”: How Homeschooling Dads Think

Record: Lee Garth Vigilant, Lauren Wold Trefethren, and Tyler C. Anderson, “‘You Can’t Rely on Somebody Else to Teach Them Something they Don’t Believe’: Impressions of Legimitation Crisis and Socialization Control in the Narratives of Christian Homeschooling Fathers” in Humanity and Society 37, no. 3 (2013): 201-224. [Abstract Here]

Summary: Vigilant, a father of homeschooled children who is also a sociology professor at Minnesota State University Morehead, here joins with two non-homeschooling colleagues to present one of the first studies ever of homeschooling fathers.  Vigilant and his wife, who are African American, turned to homeschooling upon moving to Minnesota, which in his words ranks “among the worst states in the nation for the achievement gap between black and white students in mathematics and reading.” (p. 202)  Noting that the sociological literature on parental motivation focused nearly exclusively on mothers, Vigilant wanted to learn what fathers were doing and thinking about homeschooling.The article begins with a rather weak review of some homeschooling literature.  It picks up steam considerably when it begins to apply concepts from Pierre Bourdieu and Annette Lareau to discuss the phenomenon of middle class parents’ “concerted cultivation” of “cultural capital” among their children.  Vigilant and colleagues recognize that historically speaking public schooling has been, in Emile Durkheim’s words “an organized moral environment” whose chief purpose is to transmit adult values to children.  But for Christian homeschooling fathers, the values of the public school are no longer consonant with their own.

To learn more about homeschooling fathers Vigilant and colleagues conducted in-depth interviews with 21 white fathers from North Dakota and Minnesota, all of whom were recruited by appeals to a homeschooling support group and then by snowball requests from fathers responding to the first appeal.  Since Vigilant was himself a homeschooling father these long and wide-ranging interviews had an “intentional relaxed quality” that encouraged openness and full disclosure from the subjects.  Fifteen of these fathers were professionals of some sort.  Six worked blue-collar jobs.  Using a constructivist grounded theory “constant comparison method,”  the authors interviewed until they reached a saturation point where further interviews were yielding no new results.  They then induced generalizations from the data uncovered, coding for key concepts.

The major finding is that these 21 Christian homeschooling fathers see their primary role to be the creation of a “protective cocoon” around their children so that the moral influence on them is parental rather than societal.  This cocoon is similar to the middle class “concerted cultivation” documented by Lareau, but the goal is not academic success as much as it is moral conversion.  Fathers hope that by creating an environment of “total socialization” (p. 208) they can ensure that parental values are passed on to children, protecting them from the “corrosive influence of non-Christian, public school peers.” (p. 209)  Many of these fathers had had negative experiences in public school themselves (either bullying or moral temptations) and wanted to spare their kids what they had to go through.

Underlying this effort to create a moral cocoon is the belief that public schools have lost their legitimacy as authentic moral educators.  Vigilant and colleagues here appropriate  Jurgen Habermas’ concept of “Legitimation Crisis,” which Habermas himself applies to schooling, noting that “formal schooling is competing with family upbringing as early as the pre-school age.” (cited on p. 212)  Specifically, Vigilant and colleagues found that there are five reasons homeschooling fathers cite over and over for why public schools can no longer be trusted:

1. They believe that American public schools are “actively propagating an atheist/anti-Christian worldview.”

2. They believe that the main battleground in the “Culture Wars” between Christianity and secularism is the public school, and that Christianity has been losing for decades now, with disastrous results for American society.

3. They believe that public schools are not meeting the needs of gifted or learning disabled children.

4. They believe that public schools are too lax with discipline.

5. They believe that teachers use inflexible pedagogy because they are controlled by “an indolent bureaucracy.” (p. 212)

Each of these five points is described in detail with many lively quotations from the fathers under study.  The authors conclude by generalizing that while the sociological study of homeschooling mothers has found that they focus more on the daily grind of process and outcome, the fathers are the true ideologues, interpreting homeschooling not as a daily experience between parent and child but as a spiritual battle for the soul of the nation.

Appraisal:  Except for the weak lit review (which, among other problems, did not note that Jennifer Lois’ excellent book on mothers has a great chapter on fathers), this was a fascinating and rich article, delightful to read with its meaty and gripping quotations from these ideologically zealous fathers.  The usual caveats regarding lack of generalizability from a convenience sample apply here, but as a first foray into the minds of homeschooling fathers it is a winner.  Of course many fathers of homeschooled children, including the lead author, do not fit the white Fundamentalist Protestant stereotype, but I’d suggest that a solid majority at the very least do.  For this large group of fathers I think Vigilant has captured beautifully what they think and why they think it.





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One Response to “YOU CAN’T RELY ON SOMEBODY ELSE”: How Homeschooling Dads Think

  1. Anne Gregor says:

    I strongly believe that our children will benefit from closer relationships resulting from that path, and dads will benefit by really knowing their kids. Homeschooling dads rock! 🙂


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