Record:  Kenneth V. Anthony, “Declarations of Independence: Home School Families’ Perspectives on Education, the Common Good, and Diversity” in Current Issues in Education 16, no. 1 (February 2013): 1-15. [Abstract here]

Summary:  Anthony, Assistant Professor of Education at Mississippi University for Women, here continues a line of research on which he’s published before about the motivations of conservative Christian homeschooling parents who choose a classical approach.

In my review of his earlier work I describe the sample Anthony used in detail.  Here I’ll just note that it consists of only four homeschooling families, all from the same classical education cooperative in Mississippi.  In the previous work Anthony and his colleague Susie Burroughs made several important and interesting observations about this small group of parents.  The article before us today is more limited.  After some prolegomena where he touches on a range of topics from the philosophy of John Locke to the Supreme Court’s Wisconsin v. Yoder decision, Anthony describes how he is going to fill a gap in the literature by attending to the voices of homeschooling parents on two topics in particular–the “common good,” and “diversity,” both themes critics of homeschooling often employ in their arguments for increased regulation of homeschooling.

Anthony finds that his four fundamentalist Christian homeschoolers have a different conception of the common good than do homeschooling critics, and the basis of the difference is religion.  As one mother put it, “Our responsibilities are not to the common good.  Our responsibility is to raise godly children.” (p. 6)  These parents do believe that their homeschooling benefits the common good, but only because it shelters their children from the negative influences of the broader society so that when they become adults they will hopefully have a positive influence on that society.  Throughout the discussion it is clear that these parents are quite distrustful of the broader American mainstream and take an oppositional approach.  As one mother put it, “we are teaching things that I don’t think the other side wants our kids to know.” (p. 7)  The “common,” according to these parents, is not very good.

On the topic of diversity the parents don’t seem at all interested in the usual claim of public school advocates that children should be exposed to a wide range of people and ideas.  On the contrary, they think that what they are doing is diversity.  Where is the diversity if all children only attend one sort of school and are all exposed to the same books and ideas?  Homeschooling, according to these parents, provides two kinds of diversity.  First it shelters children from the negative social environment of the broader secular world, thus allowing them to grow up with different moral values than those of other children.  Second, it allows for unique curricular options, like the classical model these parents have chosen that emphasizes Latin grammar, biblical history, and Christian worldview.

Anthony concludes by repeating the themes of his parents’ comments, making it clear that he finds their points of view compelling.  Anthony thinks that their notion of diversity serves as a helpful corrective to public school monoculture, and he thinks their emphasis on religion squares with First Amendment jurisprudence like the Yoder decision.

Appraisal:  This paper is much weaker than Anthony and Burroughs’ excellent earlier work using this same sample.  This piece lacks the scholarly rigor of the earlier article, and Anthony comes off sounding less like a researcher and more like a culture war partisan.  Let me comment on three issues in particular.

First, Anthony’s repeated invocation of the name of John Locke as a philosopher whose ideas are reflected by these homeschoolers is slapdash.  For a more nuanced look at Locke’s ideas about the family see Jacqueline Pfeffer’s fine 2001 article in Polity.  Pfeffer shows how parenting for Locke is precisely about preparing children for the common good of rational participation in society.  The last thing Locke wants is the “hierarchical view of society” (p. 7) advocated by Anthony’s homeschoolers.  For Locke, parenting prepares children to become autonomous, property-holding adults who take their place alongside all other autonomous agents in the well ordered political society.  Anthony’s homeschoolers to me sound more like Filmerians than Lockeans.

Second, Anthony’s understanding of the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence is anemic.  The only case he mentions is Wisconsin v. Yoder, which he falsely claims “established that parents who home school primarily for religious reasons have a more fundamental right to home school than those who do so for other reasons.” (p. 2)  Yoder was a very specialized case involving the Amish.  The Court was very explicit that “probably few other religious groups or sects could make” similar claims, and that the decision was not at all intended “to undermine the general applicability of the State’s compulsory attendance statutes or to limit the power of the State to promulgate reasonable standards…”  The Yoder case was not about homeschooling in general, nor does it apply to any group other than the Amish.  A broader consideration of First Amendment issues pertaining to homeschooling would have to include a much wider array of decisions, decisions which have over the past several decades led to anything but clarity on the relationship between First Amendment free exercise and establishment claims and the education of children.  For good overviews of many of the issues raised in such jurisprudence see the archive at Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Center.

Finally, Anthony’s diversity argument is very weak.  To succeed it would need to demonstrate that the diversity these homeschoolers are offering is a qualitative good for the broader society.  Diversity in and of itself is not a priori a social good.  A diversity of views on the virtue of racial segregation, on the virtue of adult/child sexual congress, on the virtue of revenge killings, or any number of other topics would surely raise general condemnation.  The real question is whether or not the deliberate effort by parents like Anthony’s to sequester their children from mainstream cultural influences in an effort to inculcate fundamentalist Christian principles is a social benefit or a social plague.

Anthony, himself a conservative Christian, clearly believes it is a benefit.  Others who blame conservative Christianity for various cultural intolerances and so forth will see it as a plague.  My own view is that both camps are missing the real story.  Anthony thinks he’s filling in a gap with this account of parental attitudes.  He’s not.  We already have a lot of research on what homeschooling parents think.  The real gap in the literature is on how this educational approach actually plays out in the children over time.  Do conservative Christian homeschoolers succeed in raising up a new generation of conservative culture warriors or is there a regression to the mean over time?  My own hunch is the latter, but we need good longitudinal studies of the children of homeschooling parents to know for sure.

Milton Gaither, Messiah College, author of Homeschool: An American History.

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