I am in the midst of I Fired God: My Life Inside – and Escape From – the Secret World of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Cult, a memoir by Jocelyn R. Zichterman. It’s a fascinating book, and there are many things to pick apart and talk about, but Zichterman’s assessment of homeschooling really frustrated me as a former homeschooler. In the Independent Fundamental Baptist church (IFB), many families homeschool their children in order to emphasize IFB teachings. And there are many conservative Christian families – Catholic, Evangelical, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc. – who homeschool because they feel public education does not provide the moral framework they desire. Of these homeschoolers, Zichterman warns that “the government’s hands-off approach to homeschooling has enabled psychopaths” and led to a variety of tragedies not limited to physical abuse and neglect (I Fired God 148). Zichterman quotes statistics from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics that show “an overwhelming majority (83 percent) of homeschoolers mention faith as a driving force in their decision to opt out of more traditional educational settings” (149). These families attend homeschool conferences and lead literature that gives them “a generous dose of far-right religious rhetoric, biblical spanking, and a culture of secrecy” (151). Zichterman gives readers the impression that all homeschoolers are Bible-thumping, Hallelujah-shouting, hellfire and damnation Christians, many of whom are using homeschooling to further brainwash their children into an isolated society.
This is not true.
Zichterman is making statements based on her experiences of homeschooling, which are valid and constitute a part of the American homeschool community. Yet there are thousands of families who choose homeschooling for non-religious reasons such as limited access to quality public or private education, and mental or physical challenges of children. There are thousands of homeschoolers who do not keep their children at home to abuse them or to deprive them of a quality education and social life. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of homeschool networks around the country ranging from explicitly faith-based to proudly secular and everything in between.
On the one hand, Zichterman is correct in her assessment and warnings: many conservative Protestant Christians pushed homeschooling in the 1960s and 1970s (and today) because of perceived attacks on Christians in the education system. With a heavy emphasis on the home, some conservative Christian families are concerned with what they perceive to be an increasing secularization of public schools and felt they could provide a quality education rooted in their religious values; in some cases, homeschooling is the primary mode for the transmission of religious doctrine. These families are the ones Zichterman highlights, the ones who may use homeschooling to hide abuses or indoctrination. However, they are only ONE branch of the homeschool community.
There are many families across the United States, like my own, who choose to homeschool because they feel the public or private education they have access to is not the ideal environment for their children. I was homeschooled for nine years in a liberal family and am able to function in mainstream society (I do have a college degree from an only loosely affiliate UMC college). We stand in complete contrast to the picture Zichterman paints of the American homeschooler, and I would be lying if I said reading her critique stung a little. Just like Independent Fundamentalist Baptists are just one branch of the Christian community, so those abusive and brainwashing religious nuts are just one branch of the homeschool community.
So next time you meet a homeschooler – and you will, with more than 2 million of us around the country – don’t assume they are getting ready to spew a sermon. Treat them like you’d treat anyone who went to public or private school (and really, would you be appalled if someone told you they went to public school? I didn’t think so). We might have spent 7th grade focused on Ancient Egypt, and we may have called a family vacation through a dozen National Parks “a great learning experience,” but we still had to learn, we still hated homework (we just had it all the time), and we are just as likely to be as smart as you. We’re normal (mostly) and we’d appreciate if you would take what Zichterman says with a big ole grain of salt.