Homeschooling and the Social Contract

image courtesy ehow.comWhen 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?


About Sharon Autenrieth

Wife, mom to 5, homeschooler, Christian Education Director, idealist, malcontent, follower of Jesus.
This entry was posted in education, homeschooling, religion, spirituality and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Homeschooling and the Social Contract

  1. Benjamin says:

    I think this guy sounds crazy and has gotten a little too big for his britches.


  2. Theresa says:

    It seems his argument would include kids who attend private school as well since those are not government funded. Is it an obligation to solely attend public education?


  3. jubilare says:

    My bias: I am a product of home-schooling. Being 30, homeschooling was not hugely popular when I was growing up. I’ve seen it work beautifully and I’ve seen it break down. My mother was a public school teacher in the 60’s and 70’s. My parents had some reservations about not putting us in public school, but eventually they decided to start us out at home and then let us make our own decisions. I chose home-schooling and my sibling chose a mix. I don’t espouse home-schooling as the “best way,” but it was a blessing to me and to others I know.

    I enjoy talking people through misconceptions, and over the years I have gotten used to the amazed stare and “what, you were home-schooled?” that comes from people who expect all home-schoolers to be socially inept or woefully undereducated. I have yet to come across someone who is more bigoted than curious, and therefore this post makes me very sad.

    I can understand, to some extent, where Jones is coming from. My parents worried that removing their children from a system they value would be to remove their support from that system. There is a problem there, or at least a potential problem. It seems, though, that Jones is recognizing a problem, but missing a massive part of the equation it belongs to. Without the rest of the equation, any “answer” to the problem is simply nonsense. Or so it seems to me.

    It is certainly possible to home school children in such a way that they are “withdrawn from society,” but I think it is very rare. On the contrary, as you point out, most of the home-schoolers I know are constantly out among people, doing things and being in the world. It seems horribly closed-minded to think that enrolling children in public schools is the only way for them to be part of their society… as if public-schooling is the whole world for a child, and that we must all run through the exact same system in order to be able to relate to each other. I believe public schools are very important, and I support their existence, but they aren’t for everyone and they have their flaws. Every form of schooling has flaws. One flaw I have noticed in public schooling is that it can isolate people by locking them into their age-group, never teaching them how to relate to the spectrum that is to be found in the world. I grew up spending time with people of all ages, many different ethnic groups, faiths and professions.

    Result? I am in the world. I have ALWAYS been in the world. Home school allowed me time and flexibility to have friends in home-school, public school, private school, and friends of every age-group living. I am grieved that Tony Jones has not seen this/does not believe it to be true. I hope that his experience widens enough to free him from his narrow understanding in this matter.


    • I’m always interested in hearing from those who’ve been homeschooled so thank you for sharing your experience! The real measure of my success as an educator will be in what my children say about it 10 or 20 years from now, I think. I share your concern about public school children being separated by age. When I first allowed myself to consider homeschooling I visited a secular homeschooling group and was impressed at how well the older and younger children played together, and how comfortable and respectful the kids seemed with adults.


      • jubilare says:

        My mother was raised in a public school with two rooms and all grades lumped in together. My father’s schooling was more metropolotin and more segregated. Of the two, it took him longer to socialize in the real world. There are problems inherant with segregation by age, though I know there are also challenges inherent in integration. I hope to see some attention given to the problem soon. It seems to me that I read an article, a while back, discussing the issue. If only I could remember where!

        I’m the product of the first home-school group in my area that did not require a “statement of faith” to join, and I have my mother, among others, to thank for that. 🙂

        I have some hopes that products of the homeschooling environment will bring new ideas into the public school environment and imrpove the system. Already I have several old classmates who are public school teachers.


      • That’s great – former homeschoolers becoming teachers, I mean. I was telling a Facebook friend that many of my homeschool mom friends are former public school teachers. Two of my oldest daughters former teachers are now homeschooling. It’s nice to see some former homeschoolers feel called in the other direction. And calling, of course, is what I value. The freedom to listen to God, or your conscience, or the best information available to you, and to make the decisions you believe are best for yourself and your family. I’m disturbed when any Christian goes beyond scripture to mandate the one-and-only Christian way to parent, or educate, etc.


  4. -Sedona Sam says:

    Wondering why in the Post-Dispatch article you chose to use such a prominent picture of school children saying the Pledge of Allegiance.


    • 1) Because it was at a school near my home – which I liked, even if only for my personal familiarity with that school. 2) Because when posting at Civil Religion it’s much easier to use a photo that has previously run in the P.D. – technically, it’s about half the work. 3) Because Tony Jones’ objection to homeschooling is rooted in the idea of civic responsibility, albeit from a Christian perspective, and the pledge is a certainly a symbol of shared society and assumed responsibilities toward the govt. and nation as a whole.
      Good enough?
      You know what I’M wondering? Why you do this hit and run thing. Why you demand that I explain myself – over and over and over, always looking for a reason to be suspicious – and yet you almost never acknowledge my responses. You never respond with the courtesy of saying, “Thanks for the explanation” or “That makes sense” or “I don’t agree, but I get what you’re saying”, or anything that shows that you realize another human being is involved. I have spent years now bending over backward to answer your questions. Could you start treating me with some modicum of courtesy, which includes not ALWAYS ASSUMING THE WORST ABOUT ME? If not, I’m done. I’ll just start deleting your little shots without reply.


      • -Sedona Sam says:


        You’ve previously expressed an aversion to the Pledge of Allegiance.

        Choosing that picture seems a contradiction to your belief.

        Sometimes a picture is just a picture… and sometimes it’s something more.

        So it had me wondering if there was some other meaning you were trying to express.

        More later…


      • I don’t say the pledge. I don’t have a problem with people who do. The picture would only contradict my beliefs if it sent a message that I don’t want to send – such as public schools are terrible, or homeschooling is terrible. Plenty of images out there that skew strongly for one side or the other.


  5. Pingback: Do Home Schoolers “Belong to the Government”? | Grumpy Opinions

  6. Bill says:

    Well said. I agree with you that Tony’s comments were bizarre and shockingly ignorant. I’m used to seeing self-appointed religious leaders pontificate in ignorance of their subject, but I didn’t expect it from Tony.
    Like you, we both homeschooled and sent a child to public school. It was what made best sense for our family and our children. Our daughter was homeschooled through high school and will graduate college this year. Our son went to public high school and graduated college last year.
    Our son had a smaller circle of close friends and chose to participate in few extracurricular events. Our homeschooled daughter ending up with close friends in all the local high schools as well as in her homeschool group. She was involved in lots of activities. Being homeschooled did not isolate her from society–it just meant she got her schooling at home.
    No point in me continuing to preach the choir, so I’ll stop.
    Great post.


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