Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement
by Mitchell L. Stevens
Princeton, 2001

Explaining homeschooling is easier now. The ratio of wingnut to normal has improved, and I’ve gotten used to saying it. If I have to–and yes, just like everything else when you have a child, people intrude and ask rude questions–I say the school my daughter would have to attend is a bad school in a bad district in a bad state, at least for education.

Yes, we make a lot of sacrifices for it. Yes, you could do it if you had to; stop saying you couldn’t.

I would hear that about my legal field, too, and before that, going to law school while married. And before that, working in an all-male environment. And before that, minoring in a science among my liberal arts classmates (and majoring in a liberal art among my science classmates). Come to think of it, I hear “I could never do what you’re doing!” often, and it’s annoying every single time. It’s not like I’m walking on water. I think it’s supposed to be a compliment, but perhaps I’ll respond in the future with, “Really, you couldn’t? You’re pretty fucking incompetent, aren’t you?”

I just might. Warning: don’t approach me at OMSI.

Professor Stevens, a sociologist at Hamilton College when this was published and then professor at Stanford, compares religious and secular homeschooling in Kingdom of Children, a book published in 2001 and, therefore, somewhat dated. I purchased it because I was interested in the historical juxtaposition of Christian/secular homeschooling. And it is interesting, conceptually. Alas in practice, the book was an excruciating exercise in pro-fundamentalist bias.*

There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground for moderate or liberal Christians who are homeschooling, for any other religions, or for people who, of whatever faith, are homeschooling because they have to.

414ETZAP4ELThe first giveaway was the epigraph from Matthew (I was complaining to kH, saying, “It begins with a Bible quote!” and kH said, “What, suffer the children?” then recited it, and yes, it was Chapter 19:13-14).**

The second giveaway was that if it’s a good adjective, it goes to “godly” homeschoolers, and if it’s a bad adjective, it’s assigned to heathens, who are, by the author’s standards, apparently barely homeschooling anyway: they are disorganized and hippie-dippie-trippie and consist of women who breastfeed until their offspring are 15 and who don’t let their husbands lead the households like they should. (Note to the ladies: the author takes away points if you don’t think your husband should be the authoritarian figure of the Old Testament.)

I do think there was an effort made to overcome the bias in favor of Christian homeschooling over secular homeschooling, either because this was a dissertation that morphed into a book (and required a semblance of balance) or because he really tried, to the extent sociology can be balanced…which is another discussion altogether.

“The believers call their organizations ‘Christian,’ ‘godly,’ or ‘evangelical,’ as in Christian school, godly home, and evangelical church. Primers about how to live in these organizations can be purchased in religious bookstores, and the ideals that animate them can be heard from pulpits. On the other side of home education there are fewer such luxuries, but nevertheless breast-feeding at work, “peace on earth,” and the food co-op all seemed to go together somehow, components of a shared sensibility that many home schoolers said they felt but few could name.” (pp. 107-8)

I would like to take the opportunity to say that not only am I an atheist, I never breastfed, I haven’t signed up for a CSA, and I’m not sure if I remembered to donate to UNICEF yet this year. And I live in Portland. I’m expecting the tarring and feathering committee any moment now, but look at me, unapologetic!

I don’t know how many times kH face-palmed during the following, because he stopped being able to look up after the first sentence.

The great majority of the couples…differ markedly, however, in the extent to which they recognize motherhood as a social role distinct from the women who perform it and the children to whom it is obliged. As with their approaches to teaching,*** home schoolers’ approaches to motherhood fall into two broad categories. Some home schoolers [he means secular] tend not to talk very much about mothers, lending most of their attention to the kids. This creates a cognitive dilemma for some homeschool mothers, who find themselves doing a lot of work they have a hard time explaining.  (p. 76)

kH: “Oh, dear GOD.”****

Because yep. That’s qH the apostate, completely at a loss to describe what she’s doing while homeschooling.

Believers, on the other hand, have a lot to say about mothers. In fact, many of the believers’ most prominent homeschool advocates devote considerable energy to making sense of motherhood as a social category, independent of the particular women who do the job. Part of a larger script of idealized family relations, motherhood is a lead role in God’s plan for believers. (Idem.)

Which is to say, she knows exactly what she’s doing as a wife and mother: she’s obeying her husband.

I won’t go on. I couldn’t go on, actually, past page 108.

Three stars.

One for being a broad, if biased, history of the differences between Christian/secular homeschooling (although the homeschooling he describes doesn’t jibe with anything I’ve experienced, it was entertaining, especially once I realized you could turn bad adjective/good adjective into a drinking game or, perhaps, bingo).

One star for getting my husband to face-palm and invoke a deity. Repeatedly.

One star for using the Oxford comma. I realize that has nothing to do with the content, but I worship the Oxford comma above God and I’m reaching here.

*Howard Gardiner’s excerpt from the New York Review of Books was actually used as a back blurb:

In the press and on television, home-schoolers are portrayed mainly as white Americans of strong Christian background, most of whom are right-wing fundamentalists. Stevens’s study confirms this generic picture, yet…helps us go beyond it.

Man, I wish I knew what was in that ellipsis, but it’s too expensive a subscription for me.

**kH is a fundamentalist turned atheist who is my personal concordance, theology school, and parallel gospel go-to guy; I’m a PK who was never sold on the God business (but found the OT amusing reading during sermons) and didn’t read Paul until I had to in college. (Real quote from the 90s: “Hey, Paul is pretty good reading. Who knew?” kH: “I told you that years ago.”)

***TL:DR “Godly” homeschoolers are organized and awesome while non-believers let their children wander the streets like Dickensian waifs or play in dirt and call it “science.” Never mind that there is a field of science that involves playing in the dirt. Several, actually.

****kH wants me to point out that yes, this would be blasphemy if he were a Christian. I would like to point out that every time we pass something designated a “Christian Supply Store” he asks if we can buy Christians there.