When the school buses started running a few weeks ago, when the classrooms filled with students carrying new backpacks stuffed with supplies, my two youngest children stayed at home. We started another year of homeschooling.
There are nearly 2 million homeschooled students in the U.S. now. We’re not a tiny group on the fringes anymore: chances are good that you know someone who homeschools. I love it, myself. I’m in my thirteenth year and we’ve been through some rough patches, but I feel comfortable with it now. I’ve found my homeschooling groove. When young parents tell me they’re thinking about homeschooling themselves I am happy to answer questions, offer encouragement, andshow them the curriculum we use. But I’m not an evangelist for homeschooling: I know that it’s not the perfect answer for every family or every child. In fact, as I’ve written elsewhere, I have two children who are enrolled in public school right now. It’s a long story how we wound up a both/and family, but I’m comfortable with that, too.
Homeschooling has become so mainstream that I confess I’m taken by surprise when someone openly criticizes the path we’re on. Face to face, it almost never happens. What does happen, sometimes, is that a stranger will discover that we homeschool and question me at great length, in a way that makes me feel interrogated. This happened just last week at a doctor’s appointment. The nurse asked question after question: how does the state make sure they get their shots, and don’t you find it hard to be self-disciplined, and how do you make sure they have contact with other children, and do you have a teaching certificate? I’ve learned from wiser parents that if I answer the questions politely I often have the opportunity move past misconceptions. This nurse, in particular, was stunned when I told her that Bee is in a choir with 60 other homeschool children. “There are that many homeschoolers?” she replied, in amazement. Yes, and many more.
Tony Jones is a Christian blogger, author, and prominent figure in the Emerging Church movement. He’s a Progressive Christian who has, over the years, questioned and critiqued the traditional forms of institutional Christianity. I own a couple of his books. I’ve heard him speak. I’m not going to lie: it both shocked and saddened me to see Tony Jones attack homeschooling. “Attack” is not too strong a word. The post was entitled Death to Homeschooling? What’s his beef with us? Tony recounts the decision process he and his then-wife went through in deciding where there son should go to kindergarten. And Jones reached this decision:
But it seems to me that if I am truly committed to living a missional life, then I must enroll my kids in the public school….to withdraw my children from public education is to not play my (God-given) role as a missional member of society — like I can’t just choose to withhold my taxes.
It’s certainly right and honorable for Tony Jones to reach a conscientious decision about how his faith impacts his life choices, including where his son attends school. But he wasn’t just making the case for his decision. Remember that title, after all. The post is difficult to follow logically, with peculiar and unsupported claims - that unlike public school students homeschoolers don’t “learn how to learn”, for instance. But the central argument is that if “education is for all”, then
I don’t, as a Christian, have the option to “opt out” of the societal contract. Instead, I live under a mandate to be the most involved, missional societal participant that I can be. (all italics are Tony’s)
Here is my immediate reaction to that argument: Jones is saying that my children belong to the state just as much as my taxes do. I’ll avoid my usual tendency toward florid language and just say that I reject that idea. I reject it with all of my heart, soul, mind and strength. I also reject the idea that homeschoolers are opting out of anything except one educational option. Many homeschoolers (most?) are involved in the world, engaged in extracurricular activities, and serving their communities in a variety of ways.
In a follow-up post that was, if possible, even more condescending, Jones complained that “homeschoolers don’t understand ‘missional’”. So he shed some light for us:
Missional does not mean evangelism. Missional means showing Christlike compassion to other human beings and to all of creation…Missional means being the salt seasoning in the world, and you cannot be that seasoning (no matter your age) if you withdraw from society.
The girls and I missed a homeschool activity Monday but I was able to see the pictures on Facebook of their friends singing and dancing with the residents of a local nursing home. In that moment, were those children withdrawn from society? Were they demonstrating a lack of compassion for other human beings?
Dozens and dozens of homeschool parents – and, for that matter, public school parents – posted to Tony’s blog disagreeing with his sweeping condemnation of homeschooling. It was to no avail. For whatever reason, he’s got an inaccurate view of homeschooling – as grounded in reality as other kinds of bigotry – and he will not acknowledge any other view as valid. It’s his story and he’s sticking to it. But this particular charge, that homeschooling is not “missional”, that Christian homeschoolers are not being “salt and light” has been around for a long time. Sometimes it’s framed without the religious lingo. In that case, homeschooling is seen as undemocratic, elitist, a violation of the “social contract.” To not participate in public education tears at the fabric of our country. If this is true - if Tony is right that the public schools have as strong a claim on my children as the public coffers have on my tax dollars – maybe the DNC video was right: maybe we all “belong” to the government. The social contract is more than just an agreement between peers, after all. It’s the exchange of certain rights for services or protections. Maybe my children’s educational freedom is a price I pay for being an American citizen.
Well, you already know I don’t believe that, but Tony Jones seems to be arguing toward that end. I think he has a narrow and cramped vision of how we serve as salt and light in society, a view that is less Kingdom of God than civic idolatry. I’m going to let my response come from the first book I ever read about homeschooling, Family Matters. The author, David Guterson, is a former public school teacher and novelist (Snow Falling on Cedars) whose children were homeschooled. Guterson and his wife were not homeschooling for religious reasons, and you can see from this passage that he’d given careful thought to the role of public schools in society, and to the possibilities of homeschooling.
American parents, of course, have the right to mold the values and premises of their children – this right is also a responsibility no one should relinquish to the public schools without deliberate forethought – but most would agree, too, about the importance of nurturing in their children an open mind and an open heart. This is an obligation in a pluralistic society, a value, I think, we share as a people and one of those areas where the rights of individuals and the needs of society collide…The risk in promoting homeschooling is that we may promote bigotry and narrow-mindedness, too, meanwhile undermining an institution that could be vital to the battle against these forces – our public education system.
But schools have not been effective agents of consensus building. Nor must a society in which families take primary responsibility for education – a homeschooling society, if you will, based on cooperation between families and government – inevitably become fragmented. On the contrary, homeschooling can do much to promote the process of building a national consensus, beginning of course, by inspiring a consensus about the importance of family life. A homeschooling society might also nurture the kind of independent-minded, critical electorate our republic now desperately needs; it might infuse our tired democracy with a new grass-roots energy. Homeschooling could inspire a broader commitment to community service and allow for the maintenance of different cultural traditions within the American setting. It could also generate a new respect for diversity in values, pursuits, principles – and for the process of education itself. All of this, of course, is speculative and utopian. It is also worth considering.
What do you think? What is our moral obligation to society when it comes to educating our children? Must a “compassionate” Christian have their children enrolled in public school?