Thoughts from an unintentional apostate

Some terms defined: When I use “homeschooling” or “movement” in this post, I am referring to the prevalent fundamentalist Christian segment of homeschooling. This is less a discussion about education regulations and child abuse than it is about the kind of communal expectations that I and many others experienced as homeschooled kids.

I didn’t know, when I woke up this morning, that I would be writing this; it is fresh and raw — please be gracious if I’m jumping about a bit. And, as always, feel free to ask questions in the comments. This is an important conversation that I hope we can all engage in and benefit from.

Kathryn Joyce has restarted a big discussion about homeschooling — specifically instances of abuse within the movement and how a number of kids from its first great generation are now as adults rising against its shortcomings — this week with her article The Homeschool Apostates. Joyce and the young leaders she quotes raise some important questions, and I overall agree with her thesis. Even if you don’t, I’d recommend reading the article.

A prominent response has come from Chris Jeub with Those Homeschool “Apostates,” and I’d recommend reading it, too. Jeub submits that Joyce is anti-homeschooling and overgeneralizing. I disagree with both of those assessments. Joyce does not suggest this is an invalid education choice nor does not claim her examples represent the majority. But despite my disagreement with those two points, I applaud Jeub’s response. He’s listening; he’s respectfully continuing the discussion; and he’s supporting acknowledging and fighting against abuse. He also asks why Joyce doesn’t use more empirical data to support her anecdotal evidence; a fair question in the realm of debate, though rather ironic in the context of a movement that avoids government interference.

There is one significant part of his post that struck me as very bizarre — and crucially indicative: he questions calling these former homeschoolers “apostates.” He suggests a better term would be “liberators.” Liberators is an apt description of the individuals and organizations Joyce references, but it is telling that he balks at the use of apostates. I’ll get back to why.

I should give some personal background here. I was homeschooled all the way from kindergarten through high school (with some classes and extracurriculars at a private school, and a community college). I have been active as neither an apostate nor a liberator, and this is the first I have written about being homeschooled. I am, overall, glad I was homeschooled; parts of it I hated, yes, but many parts I loved (listing the advantages falls outside the scope of this post, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some). I greatly appreciate my mother’s dedication to my brother and I; her heart was for us to have the best education, best childhood, possible, and I honor her for that.

My schooling was thorough; at the time, Idaho had basic standards homeschoolers were required to meet, and we far exceeded those. There was no abuse in my family. Legally speaking, I fully support homeschooling as an education option but believe state regulation is essential and good; those two statements are not incompatible.

My family was not Quiverfull — but we were surrounded by and steeped in fundamentalist, reconstructionist ideology. I picked up a lot of patriarchal and legalistic expectations from the co-ops we were part of — it is now, years later, that I am discovering my parents did not actually agree with or even notice a lot of that stuff, but I couldn’t discern that as a kid. From a young age, I had doubts about many of the theological and political ideas that come with the lifestyle but did not feel safe raising those questions.

In homeschooling communities, it is considered a faux pas at best and treachery at worst to criticize home education. There is a huge emphasis on solidarity. An unspoken threat goes something like this: If we criticize ourselves, that will invite outsiders to criticize us more severely. If we name failures, that will discredit ourselves. If we acknowledge the abuses of the few, that will give the big bad government excuses to invade and persecute us all. The HSLDA, though it has undoubtedly done much good helping families navigate rules and laws that vary state-by-state, only exacerbates this fearful mindset with isolated horror stories of parental rights and religious freedoms being violated. (I remember skimming the HSLDA newsletters and having an ominous sense that Bill Clinton was going to show up on my doorstep to bludgeon my family with an evolution textbook.) In a movement that mythologizes itself in terms of warfare and revolution, instances of federal misconduct confirm not only dystopian nightmares, but also that this is a battle — and the enemy is coming for us.

The obedience of children is highly prized in homeschooling communities. Kids must be well behaved — certainly better behaved than public-schoolers. Their obedience, after all, is the ultimate witness to the success and superiority of the lifestyle; their disobedience, the ultimate suicide.

It is promised that if parents raise their families correctly and biblically, the children will grow up to think just like them, and they will grow up to change the world (in the ways the movement leaders have predestined, of course); this is a culture war, after all, and children are the most powerful weapons, arrows against disbelief, secularism, and twerking. The greatest heartache and punishment is a child who grows up to have different values or vision than her parents.

This system does not allow for rebellion — and the fundie definition of rebellion is much broader than the dictionary’s. It can come in the form of spoken doubt, the wrong marks on a ballot, a lifted hemline.

I know just how many (not all, of course not all) homeschooling leaders and parents talk about “rebellious” children. I sat in their seminars and overheard their conversations and at times, in ways, internalized their perspectives. I have seen them judge the parenting techniques of other families based on a song the kids like, the spiritual state of an individual child based on the style of her jeans.

That Jeub, a homeschooling parent/advocate, does not see the term “apostate” as appropriate, is foreign to me. I, as a former homeschooled kid, find the name fitting, even obvious. When I initially read Joyce’s headline, before reading the article, I knew exactly what it was about and why she chose “apostate.” I knew exactly, because in the Christian homeschooling community, I have seen apostates declared for so little.

Let me be clear: I don’t hate homeschooling. I don’t hate fundamentalists. I don’t hate big families. I don’t hate God. (I don’t think Joyce does, either.) But because I suggest public schools can be an option too, that homeschooling is not the only or holiest way, because I allow for a Christianity broader than rigid gender codes, because I am publishing these thoughts, I am an apostate, I know I am.

Jeub says we aren’t apostates presumably because he doesn’t see us rejecting everything we were taught to believe, which is the general definition of an apostate. What he’s missing is that for ex-homeschooling kids, we don’t have to reject the entire system; all we have to do is ignore the commands to always, unquestioningly be silent, obey, and agree. By the rules of their game, that is cheating; that is unconscionable rebellion.

* * *

The leaders of the movement, they started this war, and we became its child soldiers. We never enlisted. We never converted. We were soldiers and saints by default. We kids who question the community now, we are apostates whether we want to be or not; we are traitors of a narrow kingdom and defectors from a culture war.

I’m not saying all this out of anger, but out of sadness — and hope for reform. I want to embrace all my peers who were isolated, silenced, afraid and tell them they are okay and heard and sacred. I want to sit down with all the parents, grasp their hands and say, I see you want the best for your child. I see your devotion; I honor your vision. But, too, I want the parents to notice the children’s battle scars, to listen to those who have grown up as wounded warriors. I want to abolish the label of apostate, yes, but to do that, the homeschooling leaders have to recognize that we are only behind enemy lines because of how they drew the battle lines.

Our parents saw their decision to homeschool as a strategy in a noble battle; they couldn’t see the burdens warfare puts on children. Our parents defined rules, more rules and more, for a better future; they couldn’t see the damage of growing up in a box.

So for the next generation, I am joining the apostates. I am calling out power and legalism and silencing. We can do better. We can make new songs with the war drums and heal these lifelong wounds. We can replant old battlefields, and find peace.

Were you homeschooled? What was your experience with the movement, good or bad?

For more:
Homeschoolers Anonymous
No Longer Quivering
An insightful twitter rant from Hännah Ettinger

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16 comments

  1. Whether apostate is the word or not, this post resonates with where I am as a homeschooled not trying to yell and scream and tear down anything by the same rules that make “it” what it is.

    That the following is disruptive is the crux, the point, and what makes that so much of this being driven by debaters interesting (if not ironic): “all we have to do is ignore the commands to always, unquestioningly be silent, obey, and agree. By the rules of their game, that is cheating; that is unconscionable rebellion.”

    I thank my parents for investing in debate like they did. Only later, I think, did they realize what a profound impact my debate coach had on me and that I lived a double-life during that time (actually mostly helping people and stuff, not doing illicit activities… which is one of the odd tensions of authority, where it begins to stop good behavior).

    As for the irony, perhaps it is that if you train people to think for themselves and practice research habits, a byproduct of debate, then at some point… maybe they will. That exactly this has happened is both the bucket of ice water for some parents and the saving grace of unintended consequences.

    What I love about where Jeub seems to be today is that he seems to realize the actions of an adult that came from his home are neither controllable nor predictable, and maybe that’s ok.

    1. Thanks for reading, Isaiah. The former-debaters aspect is quite intriguing. I did some debate in high school, too, and it seemed weird then to treat both sides of an issue equally, rather than throwing a bible verse out there and shutting it down, rather than just assuming there was one right side and the other wasn’t worth listening to or studying.

  2. Dan McDonald · · Reply

    Wonderfully expressed. You have written in the spirit of “Let us reason together.” Hopefully because of articles like this a younger generation will have a lot more input into decision making about such an important decision than those often made by parents of my generation. So many parents of your generation that chose to home-school could see only the good in home-schooling, which I say because I knew as friends many home-schooling parents. Your article is a helpful article to help parents now thinking of home-schooling children to ask themselves important questions. I think a lot of good can be done by discussing these issues in the sort of tone in which you address these issues in this piece.

    1. What encourages me about so many of the writing coming out of this is the tone of respect for each other. That’s something that isn’t always present. It gives me a lot of hope. Thanks for reading, Dan.

  3. Elizabeth · · Reply

    Oh man, Kate. This is right on. My story is much the same. My parents didn’t even want to homeschool and only ended up doing it because I was advanced and they felt they could provide a better education. But even though they kept me out of a lot of the co-ops, so much of this still seeped in. And now I’m hearing exactly the same thing, that they had no idea and do not agree with most of it.

    I think you’re right, apostate is the right word. I’m glad Jeub wasn’t part of forcing it on anybody, but it’s really what I was made to feel I would become if I ever changed. The strongest emotion I’ve felt as my beliefs have shifted is betrayal – that I’ve betrayed the movement or the culture. There was always them and us, and since I rejected a few doctrines, I’m automatically them, the enemies trying to destroy America.

    I was honestly a little shocked when my family didn’t reject me, because I thought that was the consequence, period. I had seen it and even applauded it as a kid. I thought that was just what happened. They were quite hurt that I would think that, but I don’t think they had any idea what I was hearing.

    I think healthy belief systems leave room for diversity of opinion, like “homeschooling is a good option and showed be allowed, but other options are also good and appropriate for other situations.” But within homeschooling, there was never any room for that, we never practiced doing that, so ANY deviation feels like we have betrayed the whole system. It’s a painful place to be, convinced that it’s right to move on but equally convinced we are traitors for doing so.

    1. Yes, I fully understanding that feeling of betrayal, Elizabeth. There are moments when I feel so guilty for becoming an alleged destroyer of America, too.

      I am glad your family received your convictions well. My family has too, and it gives me hope to hear of more families who are accepting.

  4. Fantastic, Kate. That is precisely the response I had to Chris Jeub’s comments. Thank you for writing it so well.

    And I am in the same boat of not having been raised that way, but still being very affected by it.

    1. Thanks for reading, Kristi-Joy!

  5. Kate, I homeschooled my five kids, and I saw exactly what you’re talking about. So many rules, such a tight box. It created mini-adults, and it also delayed maturity because they weren’t allowed to make decisions (let alone mistakes). I actually wrote a book to parents called, How Not to Lose Your Teen: Raising Kids Who Love God and You. Precisely because we saw so much of this. Sorry for the plug, but this book has helped families not raise scared rabbits, rebels or Pharisees. None of those are what Christ offers. :) Thanks for tackling this. Susan http://freedhearts.wordpress.com/susan-cottrell-books/

    1. Thanks, Susan. “It created mini-adults” — that’s so true, and what’s odd is that that is presented as a goal.

  6. […] do so. (You should also check out responses it inspired from Hännah Ettinger, Chris Jeub, and Kate Schell.) Don’t let the length scare you away. The piece is amazingly detailed, giving voice to a […]

  7. I actually had a great homeschool experience. That may be due to the fact that Southern California tends to be a more rebellious homeschooling region, or perhaps because I’m part of a later generation of homeschoolers (I graduated a few years ago). I was involved in debate from the time I was eleven until I graduated at 17, and I found it valuable for social as well as academic reasons. When I began attending community college, I found myself rather overprepared for rigorous honors classes and was able to transition from my “homeschool bubble” into the world of community college effortlessly. I’m now three semesters away from graduating with my BA and a double minor, and as each new life stage comes along, I find new ways to be grateful for the foundation homeschooling and speech and debate provided for me.

    But even though my experience (and the experiences of most of the couple hundred homeschooled debaters I knew) was pleasant, I’m aware that is not the case for plenty of homeschoolers across the nation. It angers me to read stories about fellow homeschoolers who literally had to flee the “community” in which they grew up–it’s even reminiscent of a bad Lifetime movie about polygamist cults or something. I certainly don’t want to belittle those stories, because they should be told and they should be heard. However, it is my hope that the abuses can be addressed in a constructive manner, rather than a destructive manner. Joyce’s article felt incredibly one-sided and smacked strongly of attack. I fully believe that homeschooling can and has been done successfully by many parents (my own included), yet Joyce does not make a distinction between parents who choose to educate their children at home and fundamentalist child abuse. As any good debater would tell you, it’s problematic when you don’t provide a clear definition of what you mean.

    In summary, I will be the first person to tell you that homeschooling is imperfect and that it’s not the only way to educate your children. I am angered and saddened by the experiences relayed by Joyce and others. But let’s be careful not to demonize an entire method of education when we really mean to expose abuses that are due to a poor execution. Doing so helps neither those who were harmed by homeschooling, nor those who benefited from it.

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective, A L. It sounds like you had a really well-rounded experience, and it’s important that your story is heard too! Homeschooling can be and often is great in many ways.

      I sympathize with the academic over-preparedness — some of the classes I took in college seemed painfully basic and repetitive. I am definitely grateful for the depth & privilege of my education.

      I am familiar enough with Joyce’s other writing that I didn’t need her to define terms or include disclaimers, but I can see where you’re coming from. She never says those stories are universal — but she never says they aren’t, either.

  8. All the negative things spoken here about home education could equally be put into context against public school . The system doesn’t allow for rebellion . In the late 50’s my mother in law was removed from her home at the age of 14 . Her mother had been working as a nurse, her shift started at 7 am sharp, elementary school started at 9am , and Jr High at 8am. My MIL was needed to make sure her younger sister made it to elementary because her mama was working . This was causing her to be tarty most days . The state removed her from her home , she was placed in foster care and received repeated sexual abuse in that foster home. Oh , but be sure she was on time for state school, that ” rebellion was squashed” So equally the Public School doesn’t allow for rebellion . As far as battle scars and wounded soldiers , you having been home schooled would have never sat in a school bus with a bunch of hyped up jr. boys prying on any shy girl who isn’t wearing the most up to date pair of shoes. There is a lot of abusive words and scenes I can muster up in my own memory of bus rides . And in these battle scenes you are alone, there is no older wiser person there to suggest a strategic move.
    And ,Ha , the danger of growing up in a box . Isn’t a school shaped like a box ? I have encouraged my children to shy away from the term ” homeschool “. And instead ,reply that they are receiving and uninstitutionalized childhood . The 15 yr old has noticed that when people find out he is not receiving a state funded education people want to know what curriculum he uses . They don’t ask his public schooled counterpart . We don’t shelter the minor people in our home . They can bust out Michael Scott quotes and know a few episodes of the Simpsons by heart. While riding bikes I have heard them play ” beer store” . The oldest boy listens to easy E and Metallica , yet can express how he enjoys the writing of C. S.Lewis over J.R.R. Tolkien , but feels Tolkien had such a unique writing style, he listens to philosophy pod casts from Oxford . Not because he’s made to , but because he has time. But ,nonetheless we have been pegged as skirt wearing ,really Christian, non cussing , homeschoolers . What we have tried to do is emphasize Christ . You can’t ever be good enough. In true Christianity there is some one out side of yourself that has fully paid for all your sins . It’s Christ! These stories of crazy recluse homeschool families are practicing a completely different religion . It is Christless Christianity.
    All children what ever mode of education will find fault . They are being failed in some way. This isn’t a call for greater monitoring . It is a call to recognize that we will all have our own unique story. And the story of Lauren and Jennifer , it sounds like the mama was just plain crazy, so if they had been in school , it would have been fights over grades and sports achievements . I’ve seen that from public school parents , parents wanting to shine through their kids . So they can list all their accomplishments in the yearly Christmas letter ( now on FB) . I think it is useful to expose the abuse of power in certain circles. As humans we just want to belong . We want to belong and be accepted . And in our journey it’s difficult to find where we fit in.

  9. Anonymous · · Reply

    Thank you for this article. It is important that homeschool families face the truth: Not all are good, healthy, or constructive. And conversely, not all public schooled kids are losers.

    As a single mother who raised two children in the public school system, I have had homeschooling friends confess their surprise that my kids turned out so well. I found this to be incredibly arrogant although I appreciated their admission.

    Any loving Christian home where the mother is well-educated and the family is emotionally healthy is very likely to turn out nice godly well-educated children.

    My homeschooling friends have far more messed up kids than my public school friends. Part of it is the inappropriate level of control I see them exercise in the lives of their kids. To me is is shocking to see parents monitoring their adult children’s quite times. No wonder their kids run off and go crazy.

  10. Well, to jump off the proverbial cliff, I come from a Quiverfull, homeschooling, conservative family (there’s an Oxford comma for you). I’m the 3rd oldest of 13 children and I participated in STOA speech and debate for three years. I also agree with most of what my parents have taught me over the years, so after going through the comments posted by the other readers of this article, I feel a bit like a fish out of water.
    I believe that most people miss (or at least don’t discuss) the fact that there are exceptions to their ideas. For some Christian families that I have seen, sadly the parents are overly controlling and restricting, not allowing any views other than theirs to appear in their children’s life. I do agree with you that this is wrong, and I have seem some horrific responses to what seemed to me to be innocent actions and questions. However, for the children that leave such families, I believe they also miss the reality that there are people in the Quiverfull movement that aren’t like their parents. There are fathers and mothers that take the time to teach their children not only about their views, but also about the views of everyone that disagrees with them, and then allow their children to choose their own course of life. My parents urge me often to come to them and talk whenever I have questions about anything I have learned, and also to confront them if I believe they are sinning against God. Yet I often see these parents lumped together and treated like jailers and tyrants. My own parents have been attacked by former homeschool children and other proponents of the apostate movement who think they are “saving” me and my siblings from “the abuse of the patriarchal family.” I am also starting to catch some flak myself for not severly diverting from my parent’s teachings, and have been labeled as a brainwashed robot when I offer my opinions on events. I have also seen many children begin to question their belief, not because they truly think it is wrong, but because so many of their peers tell them it must be. I know that not all of the members of this new freedom movement are like this, but I never see charges against the innocent on this side of the debate addressed in these conversations.
    In my research into this topic, I believe that most of the people on either side of the debate do not truly know what they are disagreeing with, what they themselves believe, or who they are talking to when advocate their cause. I’ll stand up against parental abuse and dogmatic restriction with the rest of you wherever I can, but I will also fight viciously against anyone who wants to blindly lambast me and mine. Not every homeschooler walks around with a sword and shield ready to hack at everything different from their life (we’re not the Croods). Know that not everyone on this side of the river will attempt to crucify or insult you if they meet you on the street. I would love to see people working to resolve the obvious issues we all face. Just don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater while doing so, and don’t allow the people around you do it either.

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