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It is a challenge to find a culture or era in which family-based learning has not been an essential and irreplaceable element of the education of children. Indeed, in many cultural and historical contexts, families (both nuclear and extended) have provided the bulk of children's educational training. Sometimes this has been the only way for children to receive sustained instruction in the skills required to attain social status or long-term socioeconomic security.
Children received home instruction for literacy from virtually the first moment of European settlement in North America. Whether the households were affluent or impoverished, ideological goals were paramount with this learning in the home. Parents taught the fundamentals of reading and writing so that children might be properly — and repeatedly — instructed in the tenets of religious orthodoxy. Children's book learning in the colonial period was not for the sake of acquiring critical thinking skills or developing core competencies of democratic citizenship. It was, rather, fundamentally religious training. If literacy was essential, it was to appreciate the enduring lessons of Christian scriptures, the only written texts of real significance in colonial homes. In homogeneous communities with an economy that was, by modern standards, quite primitive, this, along with basic math skills acquired from everyday life, sufficed.
For the most part, parents directed this inherently non-secular book learning; only the elite might have employed tutors. Children in colonial New England pored over catechisms and bibles in their homes, under the tutelage of their mothers and fathers. David Hall has suggested a peculiar division of literacy training between mothers and fathers, the former more often taking responsibility for reading, the latter for writing. "I learned to read of my mother," Increase Mather recalled. "I learned to write of Father." Reading aloud, along with reciting and memorizing, were critical parts of parents' instruction.
It would be a mistake, though, to equate this instruction in reading and writing in the home with schooling today, which constitutes comprehensive preparation for adult civic life and employment. In the colonial era, preparation for employment was mostly a matter of learning by doing in actual workplaces — that is, farms, craft shops, trading posts, and so on. Many children worked beside their parents and grew up in the "family business" — whatever the family did to make a living. Many parents, though, placed their children with other families or businesses as apprentices, to learn a trade, usually when the children were at an age not much higher than that for compulsory schooling today. There were not a great number of options for "careers," nor was there much of the individualistic sense we have today that every person should be free to pursue the occupation for which her or his talents and abilities are best suited. The focus was on survival, not fulfillment.
The at-home instruction, though, was viewed as of sufficient importance to the community that local authorities would mandate that parents keep the appropriate religious texts in their homes. In Massachusetts, officials periodically went from house to house to ensure families owned these texts. And parents who failed to train their children for a useful trade were likely to have the children simply taken away from them and placed by local officials in an apprenticeship with someone else. In that era, none would have objected to such government oversight on the grounds that it was infringing parental prerogative; that notion would arise much later in our history. The prevailing conception of parenthood, reflecting both the monarchical cultures from which colonists came and the normative prescriptions of the Bible, was very much about duties rather than rights, with the duties being owed principally to God and the community. Jeffrey Shulman explains: "What is deeply rooted in our legal traditions and social conscience is the idea that the state entrusts parents with custody of the child, and the concomitant rule that the state does so only as long as parents meet their legal duty to take proper care of the child." Thus, "the American colonies, and later states, developed a system of separating children from their undeserving parents" — that is, from those "not providing 'good breeding,' neglecting their formal education, not teaching a trade." The great early nineteenth-century jurists James Kent and Joseph Story spoke clearly of parenthood as a sacred trust that the state has given to those whom it assumes will best fulfill legal child-rearing duties.
On the other hand, no one ever spoke of universal standards or core competencies (other than in scripture). In an era long before one could purchase ready-made curricula through the mail or glean information from homeschooling websites, there probably were as many approaches to teaching children in and around the home as there were parents doing it. Mothers and fathers simply did the best they could with what little free time and resources they could muster.
In the antebellum South, most African Americans received no book learning. Custom (and, later, law) prohibited enslaved persons from learning to read and write, because "access to the written word, whether scriptural or political, revealed a world beyond bondage in which African Americans could imagine themselves free to think and behave as they chose," according to historian Heather Andrea Williams. Many enslaved adults and their children nevertheless undertook clandestine and ad hoc efforts to obtain literacy skills. "I have seen the Negroes up in the country going away under large oaks, and in secret places," one enslaved person later told an interviewer, "sitting in the woods with spelling books." This piecemeal academic training became an important "symbol of resistance," as Williams puts it.
In contrast to both African Americans and average white parents of that time period, Martha Laurens Ramsay approached the home education of her children from a position of privilege and in a systematic manner. The daughter of Henry Laurens, the wealthy South Carolina planter who at one point served as president of the Continental Congress, she took seriously her role as the primary educator of her children. One of her sons later wrote that she "studied with deep interest most of the esteemed practical treatises on education, both in French and English, that she might be better informed of the nature and extent" of her role as a teacher. Yet for Ramsay, too, one text was central to training children: "She taught them early to read their Bibles." This served the dual purpose of providing spiritual uplift and developing their literacy.
Benjamin Franklin's formative intellectual experiences also took place largely outside of school. Franklin impressed his father by learning to read at an early age ("I do not remember when I could not read," he later wrote). With the hope that he would pursue a career in the ministry, he was initially dispatched to a grammar school for instruction in writing and ciphering, but after only a few years the school proved to be too costly. Franklin wound up apprenticing as a printer under his brother James. Outside the confines of a school, Franklin still managed to learn, borrowing texts from a bookseller and devouring them late into the night. This autodidactic training was famously successful, and Franklin almost wore his lack of formal schooling as a badge of honor, a sign that he had succeeded through grit and guile rather than privilege. Franklin's experiences also showed that genuinely independent thinking (and not simply religious indoctrination) could flourish outside of regimented school environments.
Small-scale, makeshift home instruction continued throughout the nineteenth century, and sometimes the results were spectacularly successful. Thomas Edison, another famous polymath, succeeded without much formal school training. In the 1850s, Edison was abused both verbally and physically by his schoolmaster because, like many bored students before and after him, he doodled, daydreamed, and generally failed to cooperate with teachers. After only three months in school, he left for good when he overheard the man describe him as "addled." From there, Edison's mother took control of his education. Foreshadowing the post–World War II leftists who would rejuvenate homeschooling in the modern era, Mrs. Edison was, as one biographer put it, "determined that no formalism would cramp his style, no fetters hobble the free rein, the full sweep of his imagination." This approach clearly paid off, nurturing a singularly innovative mind.
Dorothy Reed Mendenhall, the first woman to graduate from Johns Hopkins Medical School and later an esteemed pediatrician, experienced the opposite pattern — homeschooling first, then attendance at a regular school. A combination of family misfortunes (including her own early illnesses) prevented her from receiving any formal schooling outside the home until she was a teenager. Yet she never believed home education had hindered her. "I am unconvinced," she later wrote, "of the value of grade schooling." Mendenhall believed younger children would be better served if allowed to devote their energies to things like physical development and organized play.
Illnesses such as those suffered by Mendenhall necessitated education in the home for many children. Theodore Roosevelt suffered from debilitating asthma and so received tutoring at home throughout his childhood and adolescence. Though he was instructed in a variety of subjects, including Latin and French, young "Teedie" (as the family called him) quickly developed a near-obsession with the study of natural history, and it remained a passion throughout the remainder of his life. (His family created an informal collection of specimens known as the "Roosevelt Museum of Natural History.") The tutoring that young Roosevelt received at home was supplemented by his family's frequent trips abroad. His traditional schooling only began when he entered Harvard as an undergraduate.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Margaret Mead likewise found intellectual engagement at home rather than at school. In her formative years, the pioneering anthropologist attended kindergarten and high school, but during the intervening years she was schooled at home by her grandmother. Such was the elder woman's influence that Mead devoted an entire chapter of her autobiography, Blackberry Winter, to their relationship. In that work, Mead wryly observes that her grandmother kept her out of school because she wanted the young woman to receive an adequate education.
In this earlier, formative period of American history, parents generally did not undertake home instruction with any sense of repudiating the state's authority or expertise in the realm of education. This was in part because in the prevailing view parents held authority themselves only by leave of the state, and in part because, in most places, the state's commitment to providing and regulating schooling was relatively tepid. In the hardscrabble world of many colonial settlements, the time and resources that might have been dedicated to educating children were instead diverted to keeping communities economically viable and secure from attack. Time spent ciphering in the schoolhouse would be time lost in the fields or the workshop.
Over time, more direct state control and coercion became prominent elements in the American educational landscape. Communities and colonies (and, later, states) gradually enacted laws mandating the construction and staffing of schools. There were some very early instances. In 1642, New Haven required "that a free schoole shall be sett vp in this towne." Massachusetts enacted general school laws in that year and again in 1647 that gave the colony a more direct role in providing that children be educated. The 1642 measure, lamenting "the great neglect of many parents and masters in training up their children in learning and labor," required parents to ensure that their children and apprentices were literate and understood the commonwealth's laws. The General Court appointed selectmen who were empowered to monitor these efforts. The 1647 law, memorably known as the "Old Deluder Satan Act," gave the state a more direct role in furnishing education, requiring towns of fifty or more families to hire a schoolmaster who would teach children to read and write (and thereby give them the intellectual tools necessary to understand the Bible and thus resist the devil). Although no one at the time understood it, here were the first moves toward universal compulsory education in the United States — and they were taken in response to the perceived shortcomings of parents as educators even when expectations were slight compared to those in the modern era.
The state's interest in, and control over, education grew as immigration and industrialization began to transform American society over the middle part of the nineteenth century. Fleeing economic turmoil and ideological repression, waves of immigrants poured into the United States from places like Ireland and Germany as well as southern and eastern Europe. These hardworking newcomers fueled the new nation's breakneck economic expansion, but they also threatened the social and cultural hegemony that had reigned throughout the colonial period. A land that was once rural and Protestant became increasingly urban and Catholic. Schools were increasingly seen as a vital means of assimilating and acculturating immigrant populations as well as maintaining social order. They were places where immigrant children could shed the alien customs of their forebears and learn to become properly American.
A band of reformers led by Horace Mann came to view the schools as a bulwark against the changes that appeared to be recasting, if not outright threatening, the core values that defined American society. From his post as the chair of the state board of education in Massachusetts, Mann pushed for the establishment of a system of common schools backed by the full fiscal and legal authority of the state. The schools would work to the benefit of both society broadly and students individually. Mann insisted that it was a "great, immutable principle of natural law" that every person possessed an "absolute right" to an education. Along with this came the "correlative duty of every government to see that the means of that education are provided for all." Thus, the earliest references to individual rights in connection with schooling in America were about the rights of children, not of parents.
The schools envisioned by Mann — staffed by well-trained, professional teachers — would provide consistent and rigorous academic training throughout the year. The results would be profound and far-reaching. Mann believed common schools could be a great equalizer, a "balance wheel of the social machinery." No longer would affluent students be able to further their advantages in society by having exclusive access to the best schools. Now, everyone, rich and poor alike, would have the chance to learn. Moreover, the schools would build character and instill discipline. Moral education would be paramount.
The purported benefits of the common-school system were manifold. Children would be prepared for economic and social advancement in an increasingly fluid society that was becoming less agrarian and more industrial. Moreover, such well-educated citizens would be better equipped to participate effectively in the democratic system that governed the nation. Implicit in this argument for the common schools was the notion that many families — especially immigrant families — were largely incapable of providing such crucial training for their children. Indeed, few parents then would themselves have had more than the basic literacy that sufficed in the preindustrial economy. Mann touted the importance of common schools by insisting that in order "to provide surer and better means for the education of their children," parents had an obligation to send their sons and daughters outside the home for formal academic instruction.
The common-school system Mann advocated took hold in the mid-nineteenth century and became more widespread in the decades after the Civil War. To be sure, meaningful reforms in schooling came more slowly in some places than others. Frontier communities often lacked the wherewithal to establish schools, and the attenuated nature of state power throughout the South often resulted in lackluster organization and administration of schooling. Nonetheless, in general, more and more children attended better schools and for longer periods of time.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Homeschooling"
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
Chapter One: Early Homeschooling
Chapter Two: The Birth of Modern Homeschooling
Chapter Three: Homeschooling Comes into Its Own
Chapter Four: Common Themes and Disparate Concerns I. Ruling Out Extreme Views
II. From Practice to Policy
Chapter Five: The State’s Role and Individuals’ Rights I. Dispelling the Illusion of State Nonintervention
II. Beginning Right A. Where to Find General Principles Relevant to Children’s Schooling?
B. Foundational Assumptions
Chapter Six: Getting Facts Straight I. Schooling and Basic Human Goods A. Cognitive/Intellectual Development
B. Knowledge and Beliefs
C. Social Interaction
D. Identity Formation
E. Family Relationships
F. Physical, Psychological, and Emotional Security
G. Equality II. Exceptional Children
Chapter Seven: The Regulation Question I. Where to Begin?
II. Interests That Could Justify Forcing Children to Leave Home
III. Is Regular School Attendance Necessary to Protect Those Interests of Children? A. Prohibition or Permission?
B. On What Conditions?
Conclusion: Past, Present, and Future in the Real World