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homeschooling

Social Issues

an average homeschooler: high school textbooks

math

Elementary school and junior high were marked by a lot of experimentation with curriculum. My mother got a homeschool catalog in the mail, and she’d sit down and go through it, highlighting anything she thought was interesting, and I’d pick out a few things that I thought were cool, and that’s what we’d end up doing for electives. However, once we hit high school, I was focusing pretty intently on my piano, as well as my writing, so I wasn’t very interested in electives besides those two. We stuck with the core high school curriculum, and for the most part only used A Beka and BJUPress.

I have very clear memories of my high school experience. I remember the way all the books looked, I remember specific passages and illustrations. I remember quizzes and homework problems.

10th grade was A Beka biology, grammar, and history, BJUPress geometry and literature.

The biology was absolutely ridiculous, in retrospect. They argued a few things about evolutionary missing links that when I did research years later were either exaggerations or misrepresentations. They spent a lot of time presenting their version of evolutionary theory, and what they did was give me nothing more than a straw man. They made assertions about what evolutionists think that make evolutionists look patently ridiculous– the problem is, modern evolutionists haven’t thought or expressed any of those ideas in over a century in some cases. The textbook spends an inordinate amount of time building a case for philosophical Modernism– it doesn’t really have much to do with science, but it has everything to do with conservative and fundamentalist religion.

The grammar and vocabulary books were fine, for the most part, except that A Beka has a very particular agenda to push when it comes to grammar. All of their books explicitly teach prescriptive grammar, and condemns all dictionaries past Webster’s 3rd as absolutely corrupt. The BJUPress literature book taught the same attitude, haranguing almost any author past the 18th century for their amorality and relativism. In fact, the only author I read that could at all be described as post-modern would be T.S. Elliot, and he barely qualifies. I also don’t remember much — if anything– written by someone who wasn’t a white man. So, while most of my peers read books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye or 1984, I didn’t read any of them until I got to graduate school.

Both the A Beka biology book and the BJUPress geometry book made it absolutely clear that the only way a scientist can discover anything is if God allows it. Aside from it painting a dubious picture of God as well as leaving the impression that scientists are bumbling idiots stumbling around in the dark and God occasionally allows them to bump into something (a la endless lists of scientific discoveries that were made “by accident”), these books make it clear that the only possible way of finding truth is if you’re a Christian. Newton discovered his theory of gravity because he was a Christian (which, are you sure you want to claim this guy, A Beka?). There’s a whole chapter dedicated to “real Christian scientists” that is placed in direct opposition to their chapter of “evolutionist hacks.” I’m particularly bothered by this claim, because it’s feeding into Christian privilege and demeaning the hard work and abilities of most scientists.

And the history… well, calling A Beka textbooks “history” is almost laughable. I heard many of my professors and educators complain about “revisionist” history, but knowing what I know now about the material contained inside these textbooks just makes me shake my head. The Civil War is the “War Between the States” or “War of Northern Aggression,” and almost any discussion of the brutalizing horrors of chattel slavery is dismissed. They explain the concept of “Indian Giving” and paint the French-Indian War as something completely unprovoked by any of the English settlers. American history is completely white-washed. The chapter title for Africa in the World History book is un-ironically “The Dark Continent,” and the white-and-Western-centric point of view is hailed as the only truth and manifest destiny is praised. There are entire sections devoted to the evils of pluralism and multi-culturalism, and they call modern India “backwards.” In short, the only real purpose of their textbooks is indoctrination.

11th grade was more of the same, except I tried both Algebra I and chemistry. I read the chemistry textbook, but it was largely useless outside of the labs and experiments, and we couldn’t do any of those. I ended up basically reading the textbook for the first week and then not having anything else to do. This is the year when I spent most of my time reading books written by young earth creationists– I’ve always been fascinated by science, and this was the year that my frustration with school shot through the roof. As I’d gotten older, I’d gone through whole periods of wanting to be a veterinarian, a vulcanologist, a marine botanist, a cancer researcher, an astrophysicist– but this was the point when I started to realize that I couldn’t do any of that. This was the year I realized that my dreams of becoming a scientist were absolutely futile. And I knew it, because I was never going to have the science or math education to survive college.

There were a few factors playing into this– one of them being that I was being told by friends, by family, by my church, by the books I read, that women are not just limited to homemaking by the Bible, we’re limited to homemaking because we’re incapable of being anything else. I couldn’t be a scientist because women are bad at science and math.

Throw that into the pot of not being able to teach myself chemistry and algebra, and you’ve got a problem. I struggled through algebra every day, hiding in my room so I could cry in frustration because I didn’t understand anything the book was trying to teach me. I tried to ask my mother, but that turned out to be largely futile– my mother had to try to re-teach herself algebra from her foggy memories of high school every single time I asked her to help me, and she was incapable of teaching algebra to me in any other way except how she understood it. She didn’t understand algebra well enough to explain it to me in a way that I could understand. She didn’t know how to teach math.

This isn’t a reflection on my mother. My mother is brilliant. The problem is my mother was constantly fed the lie that you don’t have to know anything about teaching in order to teach your children. She didn’t know any different, and when we realized that I’d already met the math requirements under the umbrella school to graduate, we both gave up. I accepted my place as a woman and started preparing for a music degree instead of the science I’d always wanted, and my mother accepted what it seemed like I suddenly “wanted.”

My last year in high school my focus switched almost absolutely to practicing piano. I was enrolled with an incredibly demanding teacher and entering competitions like crazy, so school just sort of… fell apart. I whipped through all my English and history classes, half-assed my way through physics (we got the A Beka video tapes, but I didn’t do any of the homework and crammed for all the tests and did very badly– giving up my most recent goal of becoming an astrophysicist hurt a little too much to deal with it), took a “consumer math” course, and got accepted to a fundamentalist college.

I realize that this is more of a literature review than anything else, but I decided to talk about this facet of my high school experience today because both A Beka and BJUPress are still some of the largest distributors for homeschool textbooks, even today. Other curriculum, like Sonlight, are becoming popular, as are people just using the same textbooks as their local public school, but for the still-dominant religious homeschooling culture, A Beka and BJUPress are still popular.

Social Issues

an average homeschooler: junior high

girl with the black eye

Junior high was a difficult transitional phase. My mother and I continued fighting over school– some weeks, on a daily basis. Part of this was due to the fact that I’ve always been ferociously independent. I’m what my husband calls a “dirty rotten little rule follower,” but part of what that means to me is that I like to be left alone. You can trust me to do what I’m supposed to be doing (most of the time), and I intensely dislike being monitored. That came to the forefront, and something my mother and I struggled with all through 7th grade was my insistence that I can do this by myself. She was also dealing with my younger sister hitting 4th grade, and this is when my homeschooling experience radically changed– and when, in my impression, many homeschoolers make the same transition.

Junior high or early high school is when homeschoolers start teaching themselves.

Granted, this is not always true, but in my experience, it almost always is. There are as many reasons for this as there are homeschoolers– some of us come from huge families, and it’s impossible for parents to give older children the attention they need. Sometimes it’s because of situations like mine, when we start feeling that we can handle it without our parents. I think my reaction is a natural part of child development– I was, after all, 13 in 7th grade. However, in homeschooling culture, rebellion is not permitted to exist, and the natural independence that children start exerting around 13 is conflated with rebellion. For many of us, our teenage years were incredibly stifling— although many of us didn’t recognize it at the time. I certainly didn’t. I was extraordinarily proud of how I wasn’t going to be “one of those teenagers” who “think they know better than their parents.”

The only way my “teenager” stage was allowed to come out was in this way– in taking over my education. I started doing all of the work by myself and occasionally going to my mother with questions. This is enough of a pattern in homeschooling that some of the major homeschooling curricula distributors have created entire programs around it.

In 8th grade, we started using the A Beka Video school, although we chose not to use them for accreditation. It was insanely expensive and my parents could barely afford it, but it seemed to suit what I needed, and it had an incredibly good reputation among homeschoolers. At first it was amazing, and I ate the whole thing up. Toward the end of the year, though, the program was brutal and exhausting. The videos are not set up for homeschooling the way we were doing it. In order to really make the videos work, a teacher needed to be there with you– doing the reviews, checking homework, administering quizzes– or you’re just going to be sitting in front of a TV for six hours.

Eventually, I grew incredibly bored with the videos. When I started fast-forwarding through all of the homework checks and the quiz grading on the tapes as well as the classroom work sessions, I realized that there was rarely anything on the tapes that was actually teaching me anything. I stopped watching any of the videos for English and math, preferring to do the work on my own, and only watched the lecture portions of history and Bible (which, anyone remember Mr. McBride’s history classes? The day I met him I told him that I would save the best lessons and watch them during sleep overs. Seriously. We did that.). In short, by the spring quarter, the videos turned out to be a gigantic waste of money for us.

It also convinced me that I would absolutely hate school– that, along with taking the 7th grade standardized test, which I got extremely good marks on. My reading ability tested out of the park, and everything else was well above average. Those, combined, fed into what I believed about homeschooling compared to public schooling– homeschoolers are smarter, better educated, and more free-thinking than public school students. Public education can only result in stifling a child’s creativity, destroy their intellect beyond repair, and give them nothing more than socialist indoctrination.

So, we turned to Alpha Omega Switched on Schoolhouse for 9th grade. That turned out to be a disaster. The science for that year was physical science of some stripe, and they were trying to teach me how to convert units– except the units in the homework problems frequently weren’t measuring the same things– seriously, you can’t convert a unit of force into a unit of volume. I was so confused I asked my mother to look at it– she rolled her eyes and we stopped using the program in the middle of the year. My mother purchased other textbooks and I spent the rest of 9th grade playing catch-up.

Junior high, though, is mostly when I started understanding how much pressure I was under. I realized that one of the reasons why homeschooling is considered superior to all other forms of education is that homeschoolers are “better-educated” and “smarter.” We test better. We’re better-read. We’re more articulate. We can socialize with adults better. We spend a lot of time de-bunking homeschooling “myths” and “stereotypes“. We write whole tongue-in-cheek pieces answering “common questions about homeschooling.” And, in junior high, I became one of them. Suddenly, it was my job to convince everyone that I was fantastic. I had to get better grades. I had to read more books. Every single time I left the house I had to be ready to mount a defense for homeschooling.

All of that convinced me more than it convinced anyone else. It wasn’t that homeschooling and public education have different strengths, different weaknesses. Homeschooling had to be better in every conceivable way. And I had to be an example of that.

Social Issues

an average homeschooler: middle school

latin

Most of my elementary education was pretty amazing, I think. I don’t have very many clear memories, but most of it is just this fuzzy sense that it was pretty awesome and I loved it, especially when we were living in Iceland. I had a huge group of friends, I could learn whatever I wanted– in fact, I think the years we spent in Iceland were the happiest of my childhood. Part of that was we were going to an overseas military church, and that is a unique experience. The lines between church and family blurred.

When we got back to the States, though, everything was different.

One of the first unfortunate things that happened, I think, was the church we attended in New Mexico ostracized my mother in many ways because she decided to continue homeschooling us instead of enrolling us in the church school. She faced some pretty intense push back for that, for reasons I didn’t understand. How it affected my life was that I didn’t make friends with anyone at church, which deeply disappointed me. They were all friends with each other at school, so breaking into the 10-year-old’s clique proved too difficult for me to manage.

I didn’t do myself any favors with that, though. I think part of it was that I was hurt and angry over being unconsciously rejected by the kids at church, so the “well, I don’t need you anyway!” attitude became part of the equation. At one point I got a scorpion shoved down the back of my dress and I was done. I sat by myself after church ended and refused to speak to any of them.

That was really my first taste of the “us against them” mentality I would accept as the incontrovertible order of things once I was older. I was different because I was homeschooled. That was what made us separate.

When we transferred to Florida, one of the requirements my mother had for finding a church was other homeschool families. It wasn’t the only requirement, but I remember it being one of the biggest. We visited two churches, and I think one of the biggest reasons why we ultimately chose the church-cult was that a higher percentage of the families homeschooled. This also ended up being how we were cemented into the conservative Christian culture of homeschooling.

Let me make it clear: the conservative Christian/fundamentalist homeschooling culture was always present. In Iceland, many of the homeschooling families were extremely conservative. While the church was a far cry from fundamentalist, many of the people who attended it were. My mother began wearing skirts and destroyed all her Amy Grant and Steve Green CDs because the other homeschooling mothers she hung out with did. There was enormous pressure to conform, and we did. We were introduced to Michael and Debi Pearl in New Mexico, and the homeschooling families there helped inculcate in me many of the homeschooling stereotypes– especially a love for all things Pioneer and a Little House on the Prairie.

However, the church-cult was where I would spend more time than I have anywhere else, and it was where we got sucked even further into homeschooling culture. It was there that we started hearing the message homeschooling or bust, but messages like these weren’t being preached from the pulpit. It was in pamphlets and magazines that were being passed around by all the homeschooling moms. When I was in high school, I read a book called None Dare Call it Education, a book which spends a ridiculous amount of time wailing about how liberal Massachusetts is, and how public school is wrecking our great nation.

Almost all of the homeschooling material we received focused an awful lot of time on telling us how terrible every other kind of education is and how awesome we were for doing the “right thing.” It seems like most of the messages we got were all about building public education straw men than they were about helping homeschoolers do a good job educating their children.

It didn’t help that just like I had been ostracized by the kids at church in New Mexico we started ostracizing all the kids who weren’t homeschooled. There were three families where the children went to public school, and all of them left– some more quickly than others. I have vivid memories of hanging out at one of the girl’s house and being curious about her math textbook. She was confused when I asked if I could look at her textbooks, but I remember being blown away when I saw what they looked like. I had somehow believed that public schools “dumb down” the material, but what I found in those textbooks was far more advanced than what I was learning even though we were in the same grade. I remember struggling to come up with something to say– and then being deeply troubled by how much looking at those books had wrecked my perceptions.

It didn’t take me very long to come up with plenty of plausible explanations to explain the difference away. That experience was the first time I deliberately denied evidence that public school might– just maybe– be totally fine in favor of believing that being a homeschooler meant that I was superior.

I was twelve.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Middle school is where we first ran into problems with my education. Up until that point I remember being a pretty easy kid to homeschool. But when we hit middle school, all I can remember is either being incredibly bored or hating school. Eventually it got so bad that my mom decided that going through grade 5 was pointless since it was really just a re-cycle of grade 4, so I skipped from 4th grade to 6th grade.

That was the year my mom tried to mix things up. We tried Writing Strands and Saxon Math and I started studying Greek and Latin roots and logic. In some ways, it got me excited about school again, but that interest quickly faded. Me and my mother started struggling, and my frustration started increasing again, but this time it was because I couldn’t learn concepts as quickly as I’d become used to. Things like long division took me weeks to understand, and it made me an incredibly difficult student to deal with. There were days when my mother would throw up her hands and disappear into her bedroom, shouting “call me when you graduate from college!” I became resistant and stubborn, and both 6th and 7th grade were a struggle. I hated Saxon math so much I just refused to keep doing it.

At this point we fell into what I think is a pretty common homeschool trap. I don’t have a term for it, but it happens close to the end of the year. You spend the few months leading up to May or June barely doing any schoolwork at all because you’re sick of it and you don’t want to do it anymore, but you have to do something to finish so you throw together a quick compromise: if you do xyz, complete a few papers, and finish the last quarter of tests and quizzes you can be done for the year. So you spend the last few weeks cramming in all those tests and quizzes you forgot to take (grading many of them yourself and let’s be honest we usually cheated) and then hoo-ray it’s summertime.

Some homeschooling families are more disciplined than this, I know. But, from all the conversations I’ve had in the last eight years, disciplined homeschooling environments where projects were completed in a timely fashion and tests and quizzes were taken when they were supposed to, and you completed enough actual days? That is the exception, not the rule. The rule is much more haphazard and flexible– too flexible, really. And while the flexibility of homeschooling is one of the advantages, it’s also one of its drawbacks, too. Positive and negatives in homeschooling are usually two sides of the same coin.

Social Issues

an average homeschooler: the beginning

map

My first experience with school was HeadStart at a Department of Defense school, since my father was in the Air Force. I don’t have very many clear memories of this, although they’re mostly positive. I remember coloring a large squirrel, playing with blocks, and listening to stories. However, there were a few drawbacks.

One incident is actually my earliest memory of sexism. I was playing with wooden blocks–not a toy we had at home, so the only one I was really interested in at school– and I was building towers with another little boy. My parents had shown me concepts like having a wide base in order to build a tall tower, but the boy was stacking one block on top of another– not that I cared or was paying much attention, until he became angry that my tower was taller than his. I remember the teacher coming over and reprimanding me for “showing off” and how I shouldn’t do “boy things.”

I got reprimanded for “showing off” quite a bit, actually. I have always been a perfectionist and I’ve always been incredibly proud of my work. When I colored, I did it excruciatingly slowly and carefully– and turned out what I felt were “realistic” results with my childish attempts at shading and blending. Teachers would encourage me to “have more fun” and not to take things so seriously, which I remember being very confusing. I’ve also always been talkative, and I remember struggling to make friends and feeling that I was disliked, although I had a few good friends and playmates, although I don’t remember my closest friends being from school, but my neighborhood.

What my mother’s main concern about this time period was that I went to HeadStart being able to read, and then my reading skills not only did not progress, but instead regressed. I actually lost some of my ability to read, and my mother spent the summer catching me up to where I’d been before.

We were transferred to Iceland, and I think my first day at kindergarten was in the middle of the school year. Again, my memories of this are mostly positive. There was finger painting, which actually frustrated me because I felt that I wasn’t very “good” at it, and we did science experiments, and I think there was a school performance with singing. An interesting factor about attending a DOD school in Iceland was the cultural enrichment– every so often an Icelandic teacher would come in and teach us something about the country. Most of the time this was fairly simple– teaching us to count to 10 in Icelandic, some basic Icelandic history, some of what Iceland is known for (like their horses and fishing, the geizers and waterfalls).

However, one of the lessons was really confusing to me. The visiting teacher had us sit cross-legged on our reading mats, close our eyes, and to imagine a light coming to speak to us. She explained that the light we could see was an angel and he would allow us to talk to someone we’d known who had died. When I got home from school that day and tried to explain to my mother what I’d “learned,” her reaction was, of course, rather horrified. We’d practically held a séance in class. I didn’t go back to school, and that was when my mother officially began homeschooling me.

The first few years I don’t honestly remember much of my schooling. I have vague memories of the curriculum we used (something with a white cover and a blue shield), but I do remember the “school room” my mother set up. She converted a closet, putting in a desk, some shelves, and a large map on the wall. Sometimes we used the room, but I remember spending most of my school days in makeshift blanket forts (how awesome, right?). When I got a little bit older and started playing with the other kids in our apartment building, my mom made a little cross-stitch to hang on the door to let them know that I was doing schoolwork and couldn’t come out to play.

We had an incredibly active homeschool group in Iceland, and I remember it being very diverse. There were kids from a bunch of different churches, kids who didn’t go to church at all, and parents who were homeschooling in a bunch of different ways. Being at an overseas military base meant that your resources were limited, so you took advantage of what you had. I also continued playing with kids who were still enrolled in the DOD school– kids in my building, the children of my father’s co-workers, and because it was the military, the people I knew were Philippino, and Japanese, and African-American, and German. This time was spent eating baklava and fried seaweed, and I loved it.

Homeschooling in these early years was extremely good for me. I remember being frustrated at school because I wanted to advance further, ask more questions, and I could become incredibly– almost myopically–focused. Once I was curious about a topic– like how a bean grows in a plastic bag taped to a window– it was very difficult to keep me from dominating the next half hour, and I remember teachers being very frustrated with me because they just didn’t have that kind of time. A classroom setting, for me as a six-year-old, was not a good fit. Once I was liberated to do as much schoolwork as I wanted when I wanted and free to read anything I wanted to when I wanted to was incredible.

That actually created some interesting moments– there were days when I would whip through whole sections of my textbooks, and other days when I didn’t want to do schoolwork at all. My mother tried to get me to take it one lesson at a time, but I remember fighting with her about this and sneaking off to do more schoolwork. When I progressed to the point in my math where I was adding more than one column, my mother became incredibly confused at my answers– and then figured out that I was adding up each column separately and then answering 12+48 with 510 (carrying the one, apparently, was a confusing concept for a while).

When we moved back to the States and my mother had the opportunity to put me in public school, another DOD school, or the local church school, she decided to continue homeschooling me– and eventually my sister– because it had worked so well for me and I was obviously doing well. However, State-side homeschooling turned out to be a little different, and that’s where we started running into problems.

What I’ve found that’s a common pattern for most of the homeschoolers I’ve interacted with was that our parents had excellent reasons for starting to homeschool us. While part of why my mother started to homeschool me was religious, it turned out that the primary reason was that the typical classroom experience seemed to be holding me back, so we continued homeschooling because it seemed to be better for me.

However, what I’ve encountered is that once you start homeschooling and become entrenched in homeschooling culture, parents seem to be actively and preemptively discouraged from reevaluating that decision. Children’s educational needs change over time, and while it was obvious that homeschooling me was the best decision for me when I was young, we never really took a step back and asked if it was the best method for my later education. When I was old enough to perhaps ask the question if being homeschooled was what I wanted, I was already absolutely convinced that going to public or private school would be horribly disastrous.

Social Issues

an average homeschooler: introduction

first grade
[me, the first year I was homeschooled]

I’ve been avoiding writing about this. Even once I started planning out the series, I debated with myself for weeks over whether or not I wanted to write it out– and then post it. I’ve talked a lot about some of the other aspects of growing up in fundamentalism, but I’ve avoided talking about my experience with homeschooling for a few reasons. I’ve touched on it a few times, and I’ve even written posts for Homeschoolers Anonymous and for Leaving Fundamentalism. Even as I wrote those posts, I was hesitant about sharing them here, although I did eventually.

First of all, one of the reasons why I haven’t written about homeschooling is that my experience was nothing like what you can read about at H-A. My life was complicated, and the cult-church I grew up in made many things worse, but it was certainly not even approaching the nightmare of parents who could have refused to teach me to read or those who pull their kids out of school so that they can hide their abuse.

I would describe my homeschooling experience as fairly average. One of the beauties of homeschooling is that no one experience could be called truly average or representative, but in the past nine years since I’ve graduated I’ve been able to interact with hundreds of homeschoolers from all over the country. There are different sub-sets in homeschooling, with the conservative Christian/fundamentalist sub-set probably being the largest, even today (although other movements, like secular and unschooling, are gaining ground). Since conservative homeschooling environments are probably the largest and the most dominant (see: every single state-level homeschooling conference ever), I’m comfortable with viewing my experience as pretty middle-of-the-road. There are a few patterns– in how homeschooling is experienced, in how it is talked about by its advocates– and some of those are what this series is going to focus on.

My “average” experience is actually why I’ve decided to write this series, though. H-A has hundreds of stories now of educational neglect, of spiritual and physical abuse, and one of the very common arguments that people like R. L Stollar and Heather Doney are running into all over the place is that yes these experiences are awful but it’s not really homeschooling you’re talking about you’re really just talking about abuse and that’s present anywhere.

So while my church experience was definitely abusive, and while some of the things that were taught at church caused my parents to do some harmful things, my homeschooling experience was slightly detached from all of that. Up until this year, I would have described it in glowing terms. I believed my education was… well, superior. And while I haven’t completely changed my mind about that, I’ve come to realize that my “average” experience was lacking in some pretty big ways that do seem to be common among homeschoolers– religious and conservative homeschoolers, especially.

The second– and biggest– reason why I’ve hesitated writing about this was that talking about homeschooling inevitably means talking about my parents. If there were problems with my education, my educators were responsible. And while many of those problems can be shifted onto the myths and lies my parents were being fed by the homeschooling culture (which I’m going to talk about at length), I don’t have multiple teachers, principles, school boards, or lack of money to blame. I do my best not to drag my parents or my family into my blog, because this blog is about my journey, but I can’t talk about homeschooling in the same way that I can talk about my church-cult.

I love and respect my parents. They were doing what they honestly believed– thanks to the HSLDA, Vision Forum, and the endless homeschooling catalogs and flyers and books and magazines– to be the best thing for their children, and they did their research. They rejected a lot of the more damaging concepts you can find in Homeschooling Today. We rejected the form of homeschooling we laughingly referred to as “the goat-raisers” (incredibly large families, “homesteader” approach). They bought the highly-recommended curriculum, and they sacrificed a great deal of money to get it. They celebrated my successes and encouraged my dreams. I value everything my parents gave up in order to get me a good education, and this series in no way is meant to criticize them.

There were some very good things about my education that you can hear from a lot of other homeschoolers– a love of reading, unbridled curiosity, and plenty of time to explore. However, even those incredibly positive, valuable things have their downsides.

I’m going to be brutally honest, and sharing my experiences is going to be complicated, and messy, but as nuanced and balanced as I can make it. Hopefully, talking about my “average” experience will help open the door to a conversation about homeschooling that hasn’t really happened yet.

Social Issues

learning the words: education

schoolroom

Today’s guest post is from Georgia, a reader who grew up in the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, left that behind, pursued an education, and eventually became a lawyer. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

When my mother and father met, my mother talked to my father about the new movement she had heard of called homeschooling.  It was 1983 or so, and the only people who were homeschooling were, frankly, a bit weird. The homeschooling movement appealed to my father because he was concerned that the public schools were intentionally dumbing down students.  My mother was not a strong student, although she is bright; she found it too easy to tune out and stare out the window, and she wanted more direct control over her children’s education.  I think morality played a role in their decision, for sure.  But the idea that they were homeschooling in order to pursue a superior education was paramount.

My mother was really dedicated to legitimacy.  She bought the Mennonite curriculum, Rod & Staff, because instead of pictures or bright colors it had long pages of math problems.  She recorded every day’s activities in a set of record books, in case the government audited her and asked what she was doing. At this time, my mother said things like “Repetition is the key to learning!” and “Math will make you or break you in college!”  Both of these sayings are inaccurate, but demonstrate that she cared about sending us to college.  Sending me to college, even though I am female.

I don’t know what would have happened if we had stayed on this path.  I think it is not impossible that I would have been encouraged to go to a real college; with a different set of circumstances maybe I would have been one of those early homeschoolers who gets into Harvard and claims homeschooling created great success.

Instead, my parents moved from California to Georgia when I was nine.  My parents tried to find a non-denominational church they liked, but struggled.  One day, my mother was researching private schools (which she did every once in a while, although nothing ever came of it).  She found a church school in an unusual denomination called “independent fundamental Baptist.”  We tried it out.  My parents loved it.  The pastor was very charismatic and very committed to long sermons which were heavy on Biblical study.  Essentially, my parents viewed him as educated.

Interestingly, the pastor was a bit of an anomaly in his own denomination.  Guest pastors said things like “I don’t need man’s learning to tell me how to interpret God’s word.”  Our pastor was an intelligent man — he had studied to be an engineer before feeling God’s call.  But he overlaid the anti-educational ideas of his theology over his own commitment to scholarship.  Thus, the pastor prioritized finding the unaccredited Bible school of the moment which best aligned with every detail of his theology. The people who didn’t go to those schools were made to feel a bit second rate, a bit theologically suspect.

My family’s view of the role of women changed fairly radically with every year that they stayed with the IFB church.  My mother really fought against the church’s restrictions at first. But, as the years went on, she became more convicted that this was the correct way.  My family began to speak of my sister’s and my education as primarily a way to meet a husband at college and become a good mother, with a back-up career plan in case my husband died.  I convinced them to let me go to college at 16 because I had a boyfriend and my mother thought I probably would want to marry him soon, so I should speed up my education.

It was not in question whether I would go to an accredited school. How would I meet a husband who shared my values at a school outside my specific denomination? How would I gain the Biblical values necessary to true education at a secular institution?  I went to Pensacola Christian College for the 2002-03 school year.  Even this was a concession to education, because my the women in my youth group were going to Crown College for an early childhood education degree with a minor in music (so that they could marry preachers, play piano in church, and be able to conduct at least a Sunday school and maybe a church-sponsored preschool).

Truth be told, I didn’t actually understand what accreditation was.  I didn’t know that an unaccredited degree severely restricts educational options available, or that it essentially serves as a pipeline back into the church, the only place that will hire the graduates.  Until I was at PCC for a year, I had never heard about seniors graduating, going home, and working at Wal-Mart because they could do little else and they didn’t have a church school to fall back on.

I was disappointed and disillusioned by PCC.  I did not have to work at all to succeed in my classes.  I took twenty credit hours my spring semester, worked the maximum hours allowed at the bookstore, and still had significant time to spend with my friends.  I got a 4.0 that semester.  More importantly, I was in a crisis of faith, because the restrictions were absurd, and the students cruelly urged to turn against each other by the administration.  I heard about Liberty University in hushed tones from a fellow bookstore worker, who also kindly explained the importance of accreditation.  Without access to internet, and only able to call the phone number she gave me, I worked out a transfer.  I didn’t lose my credit hours because Liberty University was one of the very few accredited schools to accept credit hours from unaccredited institutions.

Many of the same problems still plagued me at Liberty. Although Liberty did not prioritize legalistic adherence to certain ideas like PCC, the school theology instead prioritized emotional response over argument and learning.  I continued to struggle to believe in God, or in the ideals my parents taught me. But I did begin to discover true education.  Some of my classes encouraged us to read texts which differed markedly from what we collectively were said to believe.  The purpose for exposing us to these texts was something like “analyze through a Christian lens” but I can’t really say I did that.  Instead, I read with interest and excitement.  I joined the debate team, which radically shifted my thinking at a basic level.  Through advocating positions I did not believe, I began to see statements and claims as a series of argumentative propositions — some better, some worse — and to apply a critical eye to things I had accepted as givens.

It’s not that I consider myself educated now because I ditched religiousness.  I think education is a commitment to process rather than a commitment to outcome.  The process of becoming educated involves informed consent — exposure to fair interpretations and original texts of other schools of thought, and a recognition that human beings have an imperfect grasp on Truth and must grope toward truth-little-t by exposing all ideas to rigorous argument and counter-argument.  For me, many of the principles I grew up with did not pass the tests of rigorous argument.  I have seen people who did satisfy themselves, or who have the capacity to bracket religiousness as something beyond the realm of logic and argument. But, it is hard for me to live with the not-knowing, and I envy without condescension those who have achieved some kind of balance between knowledge and faith.

Ultimately, I graduated with an accredited college degree. I took the LSAT on a whim and, because I test well, schools overlooked my questionable educational history.  When I mentioned to my parents that I had applied to Berkeley’s law school, my mother completely melted down.  She wrote me a letter which became infamous as the “Column A and Column B letter” among my friends.  Column A included items like “Have a strong marriage and be a submissive wife” “Homeschool children” “Write for the John Birch Society” “Defend persecuted Christians.”  Column B included items like “Prosecute companies for even small amounts of toxic waste” “Feminist marriage probably leading to divorce” “Children rebellious.”  When I chose to attend Vanderbilt law, my parents did kindly help me move into my new Nashville apartment.  We went to the corner store to pick up tape and the sweet Southern lady asked if we were moving in because I was going to Vanderbilt.  I said yes, and she said to my mother “You must be so proud.”  My mother made a face and said, “Kind of.”

I think she secretly became proud, though, over time, because I have heard from various sources that she likes to namedrop “my daughter the lawyer.”  And once, when I was having an emotional conversation with her about why I feared getting married because I wanted an easy escape if my husband engaged in physical abuse like she had suffered, she said, “What happened to me would never happen to you.  You are an educated woman.”

Uncategorized

guest post at Leaving Fundamentalism

bannekerbiologyliterature

I wrote a guest post on my experience with conservative Christian homeschooling textbooks for Jonny Scaramanga’s blog, Leaving Fundamentalism.

As a homeschooled child growing up in the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement in the rural South of America, my family depended on textbooks provided to the homeschooling movement by Christian publishers. We used a smattering from a variety of publishers– Bob Jones Univeristy Press, A Beka (distributed by Pensacola Christian College), Saxon Math, McGuffy’s Readers, Alpha & Omega, and a few others.

I was intensely proud of my homeschooled education. In many ways, it was a good one. I studied Latin, Greek, and logic all the way through high school. I had the freedom to read everything Jane Austen and Charles Dickens ever wrote before I was sixteen. In some ways, my education was solid. It was good enough to get me through a Master’s degree, at least.

In other ways . . . it was dreadful.

There are huge– monumentally huge– gaps in my education, and I’m not talking about the fact that many homeschoolers tend to struggle with science and mathematics.

The most glaring problem with Christian-published textbooks is that they’re wrong. Factually and ethically wrong . . .

You can read the rest of it here.

Theology

learning the words: legalism

chain link fence

Today’s guest post is from Timothy Swanson, who blogs about his literary explorations at Diary of an Autodidact. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

My family had been attending Bill Gothard’s seminars for a year or so, I believe, when my parents decided that we would join his home schooling program (we had homeschooled for many years prior to that– I had only one year of high school left by that time).

I objected to this decision for several reasons. One was that I had only a year left and didn’t want to make a change (I was allowed to finish, thankfully). One was that the program, which purported to make all learning based on and flow out of scripture, seemed to lack any clear academic organization and vision. It was more about indoctrination than real schooling. These objections were easy for me to articulate. I had the words for these concepts.

My bigger, overarching objection was more difficult. There was a word for it, but I was not allowed to use it, because it had been re-defined.

That word was legalism.

In the ultra-conservative Christian world, legalism has been re-defined to apply only to an extremely narrow concept: a belief that salvation can be earned.

It’s not that this definition is exactly wrong, but that it excludes much of what legalism really is. Conveniently, the narrow definition allowed us to say that other religions were legalistic, because good deeds would be weighed in determining one’s fate after death. Perhaps even Roman Catholics were legalistic. But “true” Christians could not be legalistic, because they acknowledged that only Christ could save.

But.

There were all kinds of rules in the Gothard system (and in the similar ultraconservative systems). These rules were called principles or standards— and they were necessary to achieve “God’s best.” So, Christians should never send their children to public or private school; girls must wear skirts, not pants; women shouldn’t work outside the home; Christians should only listen to certain music and read certain books; and on and on. Of course, this wasn’t legalism. We just wanted “God’s best” in our lives. Never mind that we were encouraged to judge those that did not adhere to all our standards as probably not being real Christians.

So, I couldn’t use legalism to describe a legalistic system or belief. The closest I could come was rigid. That word was inadequate because it allowed the focus to shift from the problematic system, which insisted that “God’s way” included many man-made rules beyond the commands of Christ, and placed the focus on other people within the system who were perhaps a bit “rigid” in their practices. We could be a little less “rigid” than them.

The real problem was the legalism, which insisted that following Christ was really a bunch of rules and cultural preferences. But I couldn’t say that, because legalism had been taken away from me.

Feminism

choices and being allowed to make them, part three

child abuse

I realize the claims I’m about to make here are going to upset some. Many of you are going to violently disagree with me, and I’m anticipating that. I’m not accusing the parents who hold to these ideas as abusers– they have no idea that the system they so fervently believe in as “biblical” is abusive. I’m making some very big, very broad claims, and I’m making them without nuance or complexity simply because of time constraints. There is a Polemical nature to what I’m saying, and I’m aware of that.

Shortly before I married Handsome, I was in his childhood home, kicking around with his younger brother. We’d just finished watching a movie, and we’d been discussing all sorts of interesting things– the merits of a Confederacy over a Republic, for example, and the meanings of oligarchy and aristocracy. Smart kid, right? Well, Handsome came downstairs, and I’m not sure how we got around to this, but we started talking about some of their mutual childhood memories; namely, how they were taught to respect their mother. Handsome and his brother started reminiscing about how their mother would “count” in order to get their attention.

When I say “count,” I’m talking about what we see in the grocery store every day: “I’m going to count to three,” and the child has the opportunity to respond within that time frame, or, well, consequences. That is not how their mother practiced it– she used it only as a means of getting attention, with no threat of consequences implied — but that’s the typical perception of “counting,” I think. Hopefully you agree.

When they started talking about this idea, I scoffed. Probably rolled my eyes, too. “We’re not doing that with our children,” I pronounced, quite firmly.

Handsome turned to me, genuinely confused by my obvious hostility to the idea. “Why not?”

“It’s just teaching them that they can disobey however they want to. That I don’t really mean it when I call them.”

He stared at me, clearly not following. “Huh?”

“Children need to obey their parents. They don’t get to define how and when they obey– we do.”

What followed was a rather intense discussion that, in retrospect on my part, didn’t make any sense. I started trying to argue that “counting” was inherently a threat, and I didn’t want to threaten my children, but somehow completely missed that the kind of authoritarian, totalitarian, dictator-style approach to parenting I was advocating was based on threats.

During our conversation, I started feeling very triggered, and I could feel a panic attack coming on, which perplexed me. Why was I reacting this way? Why was I spiraling out of control? I could feel myself start to tremble all over, and I knew I had to leave. I went up to my room, curled up on my bed and cried, completely not understanding why I was panicking, or even what had triggered me. What was going on? What had caused this? Why was I so upset, when Handsome had not done anything remotely triggering?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

At the time I attributed it to stress- it was a week before our wedding, and it had been a somewhat intense, although still friendly and open, conversation.

I know what it is now, although thinking about it is still very muddled. But, it is linked to the idea of instant, cheerful obedience that was advocated by nearly everyone I knew as a child and teenager. All the books we read taught it, and it was practiced by everyone in the community. Every child I knew had been taught since they were infants that they were to obey instantaneously and without question– and not just their parent. All children were required to obey all adults, and we could be punished by any adult immediately and with the direct approval by our parents.

My supposed “pastor”-‘s wife used to summon her children by whistling. She whistled through her teeth, and the sound was distinct, unmistakable, and loud. You could hear it from anywhere inside Wal-Mart, practically. Anytime she whistled, all of her children responded immediately— and in the sense of “immediately” that is the result of programming. Their response was so ingrained, so automatic, when they heard a whistle it was like watching Pavlov’s dogs. For all their talk about the evils of psychology, conservative religious disciplinarians sure jumped on board the behavioral modification and classical conditioning bandwagons.

Personally, I was taught to respond with a cheerful, respectful “yes ma’am,” to any demand, with the rationalization that it’s impossible for a child to say “yes ma’am” and try to fake respect if they’re not actually feeling it. I was required to drop anything I was doing the second I was summoned, because the summons was always more important than anything I was doing.

This continued into adulthood– I was still living with my parents, and had gotten home from an exhausting shift at work. All I wanted to do was curl up on the couch and watch the movie I’d rented when my mother called me into the office.

“Why?” I responded, believing it to be a reasonable response. I didn’t want to move. I was tired. I wanted to watch my movie and then go to bed.

“Just come here!”

“But why? I’m busy.”

“No, you’re not. Come here. I want to show you something.”

“What is it?”

“Just come here!” The frustration in her tone was escalating.

I realized at that point that if I was ever going to watch my movie I’d have to do whatever it was my mother wanted. When it turns out she wanted to show me a map because I’d gotten lost the day before, all I wanted to do was leave. Maps are completely useless to me– they make no sense, and unless I am actually driving on the road with one, all those little lines, squiggly and straight, mean absolutely nothing to me. My sense of direction is abysmal, and yes, it takes me a little while to figure out where I’m going and how to get there. But maps– they are worse than useless. But, they work really well for my mother. And, she was convinced, despite my protestations to the contrary, that if I just stared long and hard enough at the squiggly lines I wouldn’t get lost again.

She was the parent.

I was the child.

What I wanted to do didn’t matter. That I was tired didn’t matter. That I knew myself, my own capabilities and limits, didn’t matter. She knew how to help me, and she wanted to help me right now, no matter if I told her it was a waste of time or I was busy. I didn’t even get to define for myself if I was busy– that was determined by her. I don’t know what’s good for me, but because I’m her child, she does.

This is one of the biggest problems of the “Instant Obedience Doctrine.” No one grows out of it. Not parents, not children. And the children, fed since birth this dogma of absolute, unending, cheerful, complaint obedience to all authority, are implicitly indoctrinated against every outgrowing it.

This is why I believe that the Instant Obedience Doctrine (my term) is inherently abusive.

My parents didn’t abuse me with this doctrine. Our relationship is fine, although we’re having our problems adjusting to me being an independent, autonomous, free-thinking adult. It’s rough, but we’re doing it one day at a time.

The problem with the Instant Obedience Doctrine is that it grooms children to be abused. This is inescapable. Not every child brought up in this doctrine is being abused or will be abused, but it creates an entire system where abuse will be allowed to go unchecked, mainly because the child will have absolutely no concept of abuse. They will not have the ability to think of themselves as autonomous, as free agents, as having rights over their own bodies and what they get to do with them– because this idea is explicitly disavowed. Children do not have any ability to choose in this system– that ability is systematically taken away from them as part of “biblical child-rearing.” We have been taught since infancy that we are never, ever allowed to say “no” to an authority.

Oh, the people who teach this doctrine will pay lip-service to teaching their children about abuse. They’ll say that they’ve taught their children to tell them if someone touches them inappropriately, or if someone does something they don’t like. But the doctrine completely overrules this “stop gap” because the primary, foundational idea in this doctrine is that children are foolish, children are ignorant, and children must be corrected by authorities, usually through physical pain (corporal punishment).

This does unspeakable damage to everyone involved– the parents and the children. Because the children eventually grow up, and if they start asserting independence, like I am now, our relationships can be damaged, because the independence is sudden and unexpected. Expressing my own ideas, disagreeing with my parents can be very emotional, upsetting territory, because the point of the Instant Obedience Doctrine was to raise children who are ideological replicas of the parents. The fact that this doctrine essentially means that parents will never actually get to know who their own children are is completely lost in all the rhetoric.

And for many children brought up in this system, the biggest problem is that they have no access to any concept of being their own, independent person. That idea simply doesn’t exist. They exist to do the bidding of authorities. They are property. These narratives are internalized unconsciously by everyone involved in the process.

Again, not every child brought up in this system is physically or sexually abused by his or her parents, or even by other authority figures in their lives– but they are emotionally and psychologically abused by the fundamental notion that they do not belong to themselves, that they are incapable of making their own choices.

Social Issues

the supposed myth of teenaged adolescence

teenagers

I’ve talked a lot about the fundamentalist cult I was raised in, but something I don’t very frequently talk about here is my experience with the conservative religious homeschooling movement. For many people, the conservative religious homeschooling movement was what sucked their families into fundamentalist and cult-ish mental frameworks, but that’s not what happened for my family. My mother started homeschooling me because my kindergarten teacher held a séance in class, and the DoD school was the only educational option besides homeschooling. By the time we moved back Stateside and had more options, my mother realized that homeschooling was allowing me to excel academically in ways that other options wouldn’t– academically, that remained true through high school and college, although academic success came with its own drawbacks.

However, homeschooling was an integral part of the cult (those who didn’t homeschool received horrible condemnation), and the ideologies we embraced are consistent with a more mainstream homeschooling experience. Even for families that didn’t have children, or didn’t homeschool, the ideologies of the movement found its way into everyday interactions.

One of the popular elements of the conservative religious homeschooling movement that appeared in the church-cult was the belief that “teenage adolescence” is a modern societal construct and is a completely unnecessary stage. I can remember all the arguments for this vividly– how men and women married extremely young; in “fact,” women in early America very frequently married as soon as they got their periods at twelve or thirteen (this is false: the average age of marriage for a Puritan woman was 23, as young as 20 in South Carolina). Indentured servitude and apprenticeship were exalted as prime examples for how young men ought to behave– by learning a trade as young as 10 or 12 (and we were supposed to ignore the exploitative and abusive nature of child labor).

While teenage adolescence and the “delayed adolescence” seem to be results of our modern age, the concept that because it hasn’t been in practice since the Medieval ages makes it unhealthy . . .  bothers me, for what I hope are obvious reasons.

Being a teenager, for me, was a difficult experience. I was not an “adult,” so I was therefore not permitted to interact with or engage with adults except as an inferior child, so the other option was to interact with children– but as an adult. In my environment, this forced me to sit at the “children’s table” during social gatherings, acting as a monitor or babysitter, but neither was I permitted to act as a child in other settings. I was expected to behave as an adult, was given the responsibilities of an adult, but was not allowed to have any privileges of an adult. I was not permitted to go anywhere on my own, without my parents having explicit knowledge of exactly where I was going and when I was returning. The only time I was not with my parents I was being closely monitored by other parents.

I was not allowed to exercise the ability of making my own decisions about what I would wear (all clothing had to be tried on and approved by my father immediately following its purchase), how I would style my hair, if I could wear make-up, or when I would go to bed (I had a “bed time” of 9 o’clock until I was 16, and 10 o’clock until 18). I was not allowed to have a private space– my bedroom door was to remain open at all times, and I was discouraged from being in my room for extended periods. I could not “disappear” to my room when upset or hurt– it was considered a cowardly withdrawal, and I was forced to immediately control and dismiss my hurt feelings and interact with my family as if nothing had ever happened. There were many moments that I would curl into the fetal position on my bed and desperately wish that I could just get in my car and drive for an hour or two without explaining where I’d be going or when I’d be back.

Perhaps one of the most demeaning elements of my teenage experience was a nickname I earned during one of the few times I was allowed to interact with adults. We were playing cards, Phase 10, I think, and I did something that seemed “uppity” or arrogant to the adults at the table. I don’t remember what it was, but, the response of one of the adults at the table, a woman I admired greatly, was to call me “sub-adult.”

Unfortunately, this nick-name made the rounds among the other adults at church, and it continued to haunt me well into my twenties. The people who used it probably did so unthinkingly, and they had no idea how much it stung, how much it hurt, and how I had to fight back tears every time I heard it. It was used to remind me of my place– I was not an adult, but neither was I child, and neither was I allowed any of the attitudes, practices, relationships, or experiences of a teenager.

To me, being called “sub-adult” represented absolute failure because my success as an individual was measured by how “adult” I could be. I was well-behaved when I acted how an adult was expected to act. I was articulate because I could talk like an adult. I was responsible because I could shoulder the burdens of an adult. I was “good” in as much as I behaved as neither adult nor child nor teenager. I could not have angsty, emotional moments because that was what a “teenager” would do. I could not disagree with any adult, because that was perceived as “teenage rebellion.” “Teenagers” were the ones who thought they “knew better,” but they were obviously wrong. “Teenagers” made destructive decisions. Teenagers had crushes. Teenagers argued. Teenagers talked back. Teenagers disagreed. Teenagers wore outlandish clothes. Teenagers didn’t practice discernment. Teenagers were naïve. Teenagers were heedless, directionless, purposeless. Teenagers thought they were capable of being autonomous and independent. Being a “teenager” equaled being incomplete and unhealthy.

I had a childhood– a healthy, amazing childhood. My parents were, and are, amazing parents– I love them, and have a good relationship with them today. The problem is that by the time I was a teenager, we’d been in the fundamentalist cult for four years, and we had collectively bought into this idea that “being a teenager” was somehow a sub-standard way of approach to those years between twelve and twenty. I was immeasurably proud of my status in this environment– I can’t tell you how many times I parroted the line that “I already knew that my parents know more than me,” or that I’d never had a “rebellious phase.” I could take care of myself– I did all my own schoolwork with practically no supervision by highschool, I could cook, I could clean, I was amazingly dedicated to practicing piano, all with little or no pressure from my parents. But, somehow, perversely, I was also proud of the fact that I was inferior to adults and knew my place, and knew better than to question those who God had placed in authority above me. I respected the “hoary head.”

The biggest problem with all of this is that because I never practiced any sort of rebellion whatsoever, I was actively discouraging myself from developing my own thoughts and opinions about things. Oh, I would have told you that my beliefs were my own, that I knew what I believed for myself, but I would have been lying. I didn’t have individuality or autonomy. I listened to the music my parents listened to, or the music expressly approved by them. I watched the movies they watched. I held the political opinions they did. I argued what they argued. I didn’t have access to any of these things as myself, but as a “sub-adult” version of my parents.