Much to the chagrin of experienced home educators, a large percentage of the general population still seems to think that homeschooling is a new educational model or even a fad. Driven by ill-informed and/or agenda-driven media reports, they mistakenly believe homeschooling to be a novel idea taken up recently by “religious weirdos” or wealthy, entitled elites. In fact, a lot of younger and prospective homeschoolers believe the same things because it’s all they’ve ever heard, causing them to wrestle with insecurity over their interest in home education. They worry that trying something “new” and “untested” might somehow damage their children’s growth and development.
Luckily for them, the cultural misconceptions – whether accidental or deliberate – couldn’t be further from the truth.
In point of fact, home-based learning – the practice of a child’s parents serving as his primary educators in all realms of life (physical, emotional, social/relational, spiritual, and intellectual/academic) – is as old as time and spans across all geographical regions and cultures. Though outsourcing a child’s education to paid strangers (i.e., school teachers) at younger and younger ages for more and more time each day and year is the current norm in many places, things haven’t always been as they are now. In fact, institutional schooling such as we currently know it – not homeschooling – is the actual social experiment.
In America, homeschooling in one form or another was practiced by all Native tribes and was the norm among European immigrants from the Pilgrims’ initial landing in 1620 all the way through the Civil War. Where community schools occasionally popped up during this time, children attended on a voluntary basis for a very limited amount of time, typically for only a few weeks during the winter and summer seasons and only between about age eight and 14. Parents of schooled children retained tight control over what and how teachers taught, and many never sent their kids at all. Yet literacy rates and overall educational accomplishment soared all throughout the colonial era and into the nation’s first century of existence as a republic, led by parents as their children’s main educators.
However, even as Americans spread their wings of independence after the Revolution, there remained an undercurrent of “loyalist” discontent – a cadre of individuals who longed for a return to monarchy and who shared that desire with their children and grandchildren. These parents often sent their children to European boarding schools, which had adopted Prussian ideals of militaristic structure and control. This European-trained oligarchy openly longed for European-style social stratification and a means of controlling the American “masses” for their own gain.
And they seized their opportunity to do so after the Civil War. Americans were stressed by the chaos the war had caused and longed for a return to stability. The oligarchy – led by the likes of Horace Mann, John Dewey, and the Rockefellers – took advantage of this and promoted compulsory, government-sponsored schooling as a solution, promising that if all children were taught the same things in the same (managed, regulated) way, the nation could “heal.” And, when waves of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe began streaming into America near the end of the 19th century, these same “progressive” elites used people’s fear of change to advance the cause of factory-style, government-controlled schooling even further.
Some states outlawed homeschooling outright, not because it had failed children, but merely to force resistant parents to send their children to the “public” schools. In other states, home education was never officially banned. But it became so rare as more and more families defaulted (under duress) to government schooling (or parochial schools begrudgingly tolerated by the oligarchs – as long as they adopted the public-school methods) that people thought it had been criminalized and eventually gave it up.
By the 1960s, however, the fallout from a system of institutional schooling that treated children like products on an assembly line and purposely marginalized parents and their values began to manifest. Parents from all political stripes – from counter-cultural liberals to religious conservatives and many in between – became frustrated when their concerns fell on (purposely) deaf bureaucratic ears. Through the 1970s and into the ‘80s, leaders from diverse backgrounds – John Holt and Raymond S. Moore most notably among them – began advocating for parents to take back control over their children’s education and eventually created an informal alliance that promoted a return to home-based learning. Following several protracted legal battles, homeschooling was – by 1993 – once again acknowledged as a legal means of education in every state.
It’s because homeschooling was dormant (though never completely dead) for about 80 years that people feel justified in saying it is “new” and “untested.” But, of course, a practice that has existed throughout time and across cultures and then predominated for 280 years of American history before taking a relatively short, coerced hiatus is neither new nor untested. Rather, it is a time-honored approach that was asleep for a time but has now been reawakened. And even if we only consider “modern homeschooling,” that movement is at least 50 years old; it’s obviously not “new.”
We homeschoolers must embrace our movement’s long, venerable history as we go forward. Even though we look “radical” compared to the current cultural norm, we can hold our heads high if we understand that our critics are simply ignorant of true history on this subject. We’re not walking away from tried-and-true educational practices and, thus, jeopardizing our kids’ well-being. No. We’re actually walking away from a dangerous experiment gone bad. And we’re returning to a rich, family-based lifestyle of holistic learning that’s been passed down for thousands of years all around the globe in order to fully meet our responsibility as parents.
You are called to educate your children at home according to your convictions and values because you know them better and love them more than anyone else on the planet ever could. Walk in confidence with the history of the ages behind you and your best dreams and hopes for your precious children ahead. Look back and go forth.
Gaither, Milton. Homeschool: An American History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Gatto, John Taylor. The Underground History of American Education. New York: The Oxford Village Press, 2001.
Murphy, Joseph. Homeschooling in America: Capturing and Assessing the Movement. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin, 2012.