Sunday, September 23, 2012

'Out of Control': The Intersection Between Homeschooling and Feminism


A recent follower of Not Another Wave requested an article about homeschooling and feminism and well, aren’t you in luck? I was homeschooled for ten years and I happen to be a feminist. I should perhaps caveat this article by stating that I don’t usually discuss my homeschooling history with many people anymore. People tend to have very firm opinions on the subject, and out of all the topics to pick a fight with me about, home schooling hits my buttons. I got into too many fights about it, so I stopped telling people; this is the first time for me to publish my views on the subject in the volatile sphere of the Internet.

Homeschooling, by it’s nature, is a unique educational experience, every child who was a part of it probably had a very different experience in how they were taught and how they think about it now; to that end, this article will be more of a personal history about my experience with it and how that experience ties into my feminist values now.

To start, let’s cover the basics, three weeks into first grade my mother pulled me out of public school; I have a September birthday, so I’m always the youngest in my year and apparently, I was just too young for school, I was having difficulty sleeping and was obviously just not the happy kid I had been before. Now this was twenty years ago and homeschooling was still considered a very off-kilter thing to do; my mother fought against a lot of people in order to homeschool us, many believed she would forever disable to her children by not allowing them access to stable education and good socialization (nice, huh?).

So, from the time I was six years old until the end of my sophomore year of high school, I was homescshooled through a charter school known as Horizons (here’s a link to explain exactly what a charter school is). During the early years, we had small group classes in a variety of subjects with other homeschool children, once I reached high school age I started to attend larger group classes a few days a week. When I was fifteen I finished my high school credits and began attending a local community college; two years later I moved on to Brigham Young University and received a BA in Humanities and an MA in English literature.

Now, remember, during this time homeschool was a fledgling idea and the resources for homeschoolers were very slight—my mother can legitimately be considered a pioneer in the homeschooling movement in California. She helped to build up the charter we were associated with, also being a prominent voice in campaigning for parents’ rights in the state of California.

In many ways this article is more about my mother than anything else, since any consideration of my time spent homeschooling must feature the woman who implemented the lifestyle in my house, a lifestyle which would completely define my ideology in many ways. And while my mother would not use the term “feminist” to describe herself (mostly because of the negative associations that the word has) to me she is a brilliant example of feminism. My mother is without a doubt, the most independent and competent person I have ever met. She fiercely believes in social activism and responsibility for our political actions, hence, in California, state senators know her, California state laws have been the recipients of her input, and large insurance companies fear her.

I grew up marching on the state capital, going to protests, and watching my mother campaign for the things that she believed were important, whether it be to maintain our community garden, or fighting against the power-hungry machinations of one anti-homeschooling California Superintendent of Education (more on that story later).

My mother’s motto? “Never take no for an answer” and they were words she lived by. This leads me into the one of the first values my mother taught me: anti-authority. It didn’t matter the position of the person telling her “no”, if she believed that her cause was right, she would do everything in her power to accomplish that; my mother would never do something just because someone told her to.

Many years ago, Delain Eastin, the California Superintendent of Education, believed that homeschooling should be illegal and called homeschooling parents, “Out of control parents.” Big mistake. As it should be, my mother was livid, because what does “out of control” mean? Someone you can’t control.

Feminism has always been about stepping beyond the bounds of patriarchal control: control over women’s bodies, women’s choices, women’s education, women’s sexuality. The few who believe themselves to be gifted with the superiority to be in change often have the intention of superimposing their own beliefs upon the public, seemingly believing that the ability to raise a lot of money and pander to lobbyists as being a sign of their divine destiny to lead and “control” their constituents. Not in my home. And my mother taught me that.

Along with the anti-authority background came the importance of not following the crowd, the value of our unique identity, personal experience and beliefs was constantly reiterated, and my mother was proud of our non-conformist lifestyle. Case in point, do you remember the Power Rangers? During this period, Power Rangers were the thing, the thing that you had to watch. My mother, not wanting us to be like everyone else, believed we should only watch the show if it was something that we really liked, not just because everyone else was watching it.

Homeschooling often receives a bad rap as producing awkward or badly socialized children. To me, this is an offensive lie that pisses me off (hence all the fighting about homeschooling in my early years).  While there are PLENTY of seemingly awkward people who were homeschooled at some point in their childhood, you cannot tell me that there were not seemingly awkward people at your public school. Some people are just a little bit outside of social norms, who cares? And making broad generalizations that incorrectly characterize the way that they were brought up, is not only rude, it’s ignorant.

Today, there are hundreds of studies regarding the socialization of homeschool students versus traditionally schooled students (look here for a great bibliography). One of my favorite studies, completed by Larry Shyers, Ph.D (Comparison of Social Adjustment Between Home and Traditionally Schooled Students) states that homeschooled children actually have significantly less behavioral problems which stems from their more varied socialization with adults and children of other ages, rather than just with the children of their same age.

RANT: (In response to my confession of being homeschooled as a child, countless people have said to me, "You're very normal for a homeschooler." They say this with the nicest of intentions but it is one of the rudest, most condescending things that people can say. As if they are the authority on childhood socialization and as if they have a RIGHT to patronizingly pass off on my life and behavior.)

I remember when I was preparing to attend community college, many people warned me that I would struggle with culture shock. They were full of bullshit. Not only did I not struggle with culture shock (either from my “sheltered” childhood or from my “lack of socialization”) but I actually thrived in a college-type environment having learned from an early age how to be self-motivated in my education. In short, I was well-prepared and very successful at college and I have the transcripts to prove it.

In fact, homeschooling offered diverse educational opportunities: gymnastics, scuba diving, sailing, historical reenactments, whale watching, horseback riding, soccer, golf, swimming and a variety of other activities were all a part of my education. My mother fiercely believes that experience, whether in or out of the classroom, is the basis for any curriculum; that education is a lifestyle, not a twelve-year period of schooling.

Feminism requires social activism; it requires independent and strong-minded women who recognize the importance of education and the value of individual experience. It demands that we think outside of the box and seek to remove ourselves from the boundaries of control, those placed upon us by the expectations of society and the machinations of the government. It requires women and men who aren’t afraid to speak up for themselves and the dictates of their conscious. In many ways, homeschooling taught me those ideals.

During those early years my homeschool group once participated in a space exploration program, it was basically a simulation of a space flight (mission control and astronaut) with each child being placed in a different role and conducting tasks associated with that team. During the month of preparation classes for the experience I remember one of the teachers commiserating to another, “These home school kids really don’t do well with instructions, do they?”

While she intended it as a criticism of the way we had been educated, despite the fact that I am a teacher myself, I consider it to be a compliment. No, I don’t always follow instructions well, most of the time because I think that those instructions are stupid. Or sexist. And that is a good thing. That’s what keeps us free from the bonds of authority, governmental control, and patriarchy.

Sir Ken Robinson in one of my favorite Ted Talks, discussing public education and how it could be improved.


  1. My take (and you can tell me whether this seems fair or accurate) is that homeschooling gets that bad rap as a result of people being ignorant on what homeschooling entails. I've known a few incredibly awkward homeschooled kids but a) I knew them in high school through church, so I have no idea how they changed down the road, and b)they weren't homeschooled for educational reasons - they were homeschooled because their mothers worried about the corrupting influence of their classmates. Keep in mind, I'm talking rural New Hampshire towns here. One family took their kids out of an excellent, excellent school district (one of the best in the state, because it was public for the town but half private too) because one of the daughters came home from school swearing. But hey, I suspect this family was just awkward to begin with.

    Everyone I know who has homeschooled for educational reasons, it's been a different story, including the few people in that boat that I met while still in high school. But most kids who were homeschooled for educational reasons still interacted with multiple teachers and students, through programs such as the charter school you describe, or by attending a community college in place of high school.

    Honestly, I think the name "homeschooled" is misleading since it makes most people think of the socially isolated exceptions, rather than the more common community experience.

    1. Also, I think people tend to feel strongly in favor of whatever their experience was - I have no intention of homeschooling my own kids ever, but then perhaps I'd act differently if it was a choice between a terrible school system with over-packed classes and home school.

  2. I think that in many ways, homeschooling is like any educational situation, it really depends on the child. Some children excel in that environment, others do not, for me and my younger sister it was obviously a great choice.

    The thing about the "socially awkward" accusations that usually bothers me is that sure, the children who are accused of that are sometimes a bit odd, but is that such a bad thing? It makes us slightly uncomfortable because it's not what we're used to, but in some ways, isn't a positive that some people do operate a little left of "normal" in our intensely conformist society? Similarly, homeschooling probably has very little to with that awkwardness, since it might be something that their personality or family is just disposed to.

  3. Hello people who regularly read Rachel's blog. I'm Nathan and I was homeschooled. Rachel and I were homeschooled together. Now on with my comment.

    I will attempt to get as much in this as I can as quickly as possible because I need to be going to bed so don't expect anything polished.

    I usually don't get that whole "you're normal for a homeschooler". Usually I get "oh, now it all makes sense". For a while I wondered if I was weird. Now I've had time to observe my peers and I can say I am weird. I am a well adjusted polite man who has a moral compass founded in personal experience with the real world. That is weird. As for the fallacy at the root of this thought (that we are not well adjusted) it might be helpful to understand this basic point: Correlation does not imply causation. If you aren't familiar with that phrase it would be applied to this situation in this way: homeschoolers may be statistically less well adjusted than non-homeschoolers, but that may be because less well adjusted people are more likely to get homeschooled, not because homeschool leads to less well adjusted people. Even more simply, weird people get homeschooled, not homeschooled people get weird. I don't agree with that idea anyway (I haven't read the study above discounting it), but in order to explain the silliness of one premise I had to temporarily agree to the other.

    (Referring to the video...) I am a scientist so when people start talking about the idea of there not being a single correct idea I have to roll my eyes. It pains me to break it to the humanities types (no offense), but 2+2=4 and when you combine aluminum with rust and light it with a magnesium strip it creates a pretty cool light show as well as a pool of molten iron. That doesn't mean I don't appreciate creativity and the possibility of multiple answers and asking the question differently in the correct context, but that doesn't apply universally.

  4. Now something about my own story:

    I was in the second grade when mom started to get me into the third grade during math hour because second grade math was too easy. When I was in third grade I would go to the fourth grade during math hour and even that was too easy. To be honest my mother wasn't totally equipped to be teaching me because she had too many children she was homeschooling and I knew more about math than she did when I was 12. That's not to discount my mother by the way, I doubt very many non-math types remember their algebra 2. Even though my homeschooling wasn't optimal I was still at college when I was 14 and scored in the nation's 99th percentile in sophomore organic chemistry just after my eighteenth birthday while also getting an A in my second calculus class. Like Rachel I did a ton of stuff in my school years. I am scuba certified, learned horseback riding, fencing, took voice lessons, I have a 2nd degree black belt, an Eagle scout, I competed in Latin and Standard ballroom dances, I have 3 college degrees and I play Beethoven and Chopin on the piano to relax. I am 27 and despite having learned to do many more things than most of my peers I consider too much of my life wasted to video games and social drama. My history and English education wasn't anything special (my English education still isn't anything fancy, I'm sure my punctuation is a mess. In fact should that be a semi colon instead of comma?), but if I had been left to be taught in the standard schooling system my science and math potential would have been wasted and I doubt my English would be any better. This isn't unique to homeschooling. Private schools could just as easily be tailored for whatever your learning style, skill potential and goals are. From a public policy perspective if you want to have the sort of education that the two videos talk about you would argue on behalf of home, private and charter schools. But in the end public policy won't create successful education. Without the use of awful caps or bold I want to emphasize a very important truth. No person or persons is more responsible or more able to ensure the successful education of children than parents. Not politicians, not teachers. Parents. When you meet a messed up homeschooler it is highly improbably that the reason was his schooling. It was because of his rearing. Conversely, well adjusted homeschoolers aren't well adjusted because of their school, but because of their rearing. The exact same thing can be said of public schooled people as well. Schooling isn't the variable, parents are the variable.

    1. And yes, that should not have been a comma, and a semi-colon would have worked. Mind you, I think punctuation is a pretty minimal component of English education. If you ask most English teachers to list out what skills, topics and concepts we spend the most time teaching, punctuation usually won't make it very high on the list.

  5. Nathan, I think the responses you and Rachel get when you say you were home schooled illustrate to me even more clearly why this discussion belongs on a feminist blog - non-homeschoolers respond to Rachel not fitting their expectations by treating her like an exception, and they respond to you by using your story to reinforce the rule. Like so many of the stereotypes that feminists work against, this stereotype is pervasive just because of that assumption that if you fit the rule you prove it, and if you don't fit the rule - well, you're exception that proves the rule anyway.

    Of course, I see a few of your own stereotypes about humanities folks coming out to play. I guess none of us are immune to stereotype.

  6. Emily,

    Good point. Either way, people are set so they see their stereotypes of a certain lifestyle or way of thinking fulfilled (I'm sure we do our fair share of it here on the blog).

    It's unfortunate that any stray from the norm is immediately branded though. Homeschooling must make you weird, a few differences in behavior and you're socially awkward, think women should have equality and you must be a femi-nazi.

    Also, I do think some of your accusations about "humanities-types" was a bit unfair Nathan. No one accused any of the sciences as being backward. The point of the videos wasn't that the sciences should be devalued, but rather that all subjects (including the more non-standard ones) should be valued.

    And yes, while straight up math does require a right answer, a good portion of the sciences relies on a multitude of theories in an attempt to prove one phenomenon.

    1. On another note:


    2. I never accused anyone of accusing the sciences of being backward (I wasn't implying the humanities are backwards), neither did I imply that the videos were suggesting sciences should be devalued. What the first video did explicitly devalue however, is the one correct answer in the back of the book. As I said in my post the idea of more than one correct answer has it's place, just not universally. The sciences rely on a multitude of theories in an attempt to prove-the one correct answer which explains-one phenomenon. We only harbor multiple theories until the correct one is known.

      Sweet mother of mercy you would think I said humanities types are ugly! It was innocent teasing and I apologize if you are offended.