How Have Scholars Divided Homeschoolers into Groups?

The movie Mean Girls, which was released in 2003, tells the story of Cady, a teenage girl who was homeschooled until attending a public high school. The movie begins by presenting two common stereotypes of homeschoolers: a girl with glasses, braces, and long braids winning a spelling bee, and five tow-headed boys wearing overalls and sitting on hay bales, saying in unison, “and on the third day, God created the Remington bolt-action rifle, so that man could fight the dinosaurs and the homosexuals.” This portrayal reflects common stereotypes about homeschoolers, but it is perhaps just as important to note that these images are only presented so that Cady can reject them, declaring herself not like “those” homeschoolers.

Ideologues and Pedagogues

In her 1991 article “Ideologues and Pedagogues: Parents Who Teach Their Children at Home,” Jane Van Galen, a sociologist, argued that homeschooling parents were divided into two camps, which she called “ideologues” and “pedagogues.” According to Van Galen, the ideologues, which comprise the larger group, were Christian fundamentalists who objected to what they believed the public schools were teaching and wanted to instill their conservative political and religious beliefs in their children. Pedagogues, in contrast, homeschooled because they believed that children learned more naturally apart from formal schooling, which they believed stifled children’s innate curiosity and creativity.

Van Galen argued that ideologues’ and pedagogues’ different motivations and viewpoints affected nearly everything about how they homeschooled: ideologues saw government regulation of homeschooling as the encroachment of “secular humanism” while pedagogues are less troubled by such intervention; ideologues often use structured curricula and strict discipline with their children while pedagogues are more likely to try creative and innovative techniques, releasing their children from desks and workbooks. Van Galen developed her conceptions of the two groups over the course of a year and a half spent meeting and speaking with homeschooling families, and her interpretation of homeschooling as a movement made up of two distinct groups is echoed in later scholarship.

Believers and Inclusives

Mitchell Stevens, a sociologist, spent almost ten years studying homeschoolers in Illinois before publishing his 2001 book on homeschooling, Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement (Stevens, 2001). In his book, he looks in depth at the lives of homeschool families in Illinois, analyzing what he came to see as two distinct groups of homeschoolers and tracing the growth of national organizations as well as clashes between the two camps. Stevens argues that homeschooling is a social movement made up of a wide spectrum of individuals, but that most homeschoolers nevertheless fall into one of two groups, which he terms the believers and the inclusives. In his book, he sets out to determine who homeschoolers are and how this split occurred.

Stevens examines survey data on homeschoolers and then turns to the history of the movement, beginning with John Holt, an educational reformer who rebelled against formal schooling, and Raymond Moore, who taught that children were developmentally better off being educated at home for their first few years. Stevens carefully compares these two men’s views of the child: Holt believed in liberating the essential child and Moore believed in protecting the fragile child. These distinctions help to illuminate the difference between Stevens’ believers, who want to protect and nurture their children in what they believe is truth, and his inclusives, who want to set their children free to explore and create.

Stevens also looks at homeschool curriculum publishers, conventions, speakers, and organizations, both local and national. Stevens argues that the believers and the inclusive each formed their own organizations separate from each other, and that these organizations reflected the core difference between the two groups. The believers’ organizations were well-organized and hierarchical while the inclusives’ organizations were loosely-knit and democratic. Stevens looks at controversy and tension between the two groups’ organizations and argues that the believers’ came to dominate the homeschool world because of their better organization and mobilization. Stevens says that throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the number of Christians homeschooling increased dramatically, and that some inclusive resented what they saw as a takeover of their movement.

“Closed Communion” and “Open Communion”

In 2008, Milton Gaither, a historian of education, published the first historical treatment of the homeschool movement (Gaither, 2008). He begins with the colonies and traces the tradition of home education throughout the entirety of American history. Gaither distinguishes between “home schooling” and “homeschooling,” arguing that the home schooling is merely an educational option, as it was in the early American history and is becoming again today, while homeschooling is a deliberate alternative to and rejection of institutional schooling. Gaither traces the history of education in the home through four stages: government-encouraged home education in the colonies, the gradual eclipsing of the home by the public school, the antagonism between home and school that arose with the modern homeschool movement, and the hybridization of the home and school that he believes is taking place today.

Gaither goes into great depth regarding why the modern homeschooling movement emerged in the 1970s, and comes up with four reasons: countercultural sensibility becoming American sensibility, suburbanization that created a place for homeschooling to take place, the idealization of the child among both the left and right, and changes in public schools and families. Gaither examines the roots of the homeschool movement in the leftist hippie counterculture and in the new right fleeing the perceived teaching of secular humanism in public schools, arguing that both of these groups were intentionally rejecting institutional schooling, though for different reasons.

Gaither sees homeschooling as a grassroots movement and traces the growing fault lines between the two types of homeschoolers as support groups sprang up. While Van Galen called the two groups “ideologues” and “pedagogues” and Stevens called them “believers” and “inclusives,” Gaither calls the two groups “closed communion” and “open communion.” He chooses this terminology because conservative Christian homeschoolers who were intentionally leaving the “ungodly” public schools didn’t want to simply exchange one evil for another by joining support groups together with “ungodly” homeschoolers, and thus formed support groups that were “closed communion,” demanding adherence to statements of beliefs. According to Gaither, by 1990 the vast majority of homeschoolers were conservative Christians.

Gaither examines the various leaders of the homeschool movement and presents a fascinating look at the adversity between national and state open communion and closed communion homeschool groups, as well as the infighting that took place from time to time among various leaders in the closed communion community. Turning to the impact of John Holt and Raymond Moore on the homeschool movement in the 1970s and 1980s, Gaither adds a third influential figure: Rousas Rushdoony. He argues that Rushdoony, a Christian theologian and advocate of the homeschool movement, shaped Christian homeschoolers through his providentialist view of history, his reconstructionist politics, and his idea that the nation is mired in a conflict between a Biblical worldview and secular humanism. In addition, Gaither looks at the background of each of the various homeschool leaders who arose in the mid 1980s and 1990s, including Michael Farris, Brian Ray, Sue Welch, and Greg Harris, and at their impact on the homeschool movement.

Gaither finishes his book by asserting that, even as a still increasing number of Christians join the homeschool movement (in 2002 James Dobson called for all Christians to immediately remove their children from public schools), the movement itself was becoming accepted and mainstream. Gaither also looks at the growth of charter schools, cybercharters, and growing cooperation between homeschoolers and the schools. Homeschooling, he argues, is set to return to being “home schooling,” merely an accepted educational option. Gaither’s look at the homeschool movement is fascinating and informative, and will remain the definitive historical work on the movement for years to come.

Complicating the Picture

The most recent addition to scholarly literature on homeschooling is Jennifer Lois’ 2012 Home Is Where the School Is (Lois, 2012). In contrast to earlier scholars, Lois focuses specifically on homeschooling mothers. Perhaps the most notable thing about her work is that she categorizes these mothers slightly differently than previous scholars. Rather than dividing them into ideologues and pedagogues or believers and inclusives, she divides them into “first choice” and “second choice” homeschoolers. First choice homeschoolers, she says, are mothers who feel that they are called to homeschool, whether for conservative religious reasons or progressive pedagogical reasons. In fact, Lois’ work seems to suggest that both types of mothers similarly find root for their choice to homeschool in their common identities as mothers. Second choice homeschoolers, in contrast, are those who come to homeschooling after other educational methods fail their children. For these mothers, homeschooling is not an identity but rather a temporary educational options. Lois finds that first choice homeschooling mothers report higher levels of satisfaction and that second choice homeschooling mothers are likely to look forward to the day when their children are grown or back in school.

In many ways, “second choice homeschoolers” is simply another label for a group described in Rachel Coleman‘s 2010 master’s thesis, a history of a local homeschool community—the “pragmatics.” And indeed, Lois and Coleman both give credence to Gaither’s suggestion that as homeschooling becomes more and more accepted it will become simply one more educational choice rather than what what amounts to an act of protest. In other words, pragmatic homeschoolers come to homeschooling because it’s what works best for them and their children at that point in time, rather than because they believe either that institutional schooling is fundamentally flawed or that they are called by God to train up Christian children unsullied by the influences of the world.

There’s another complication here as well. As Eric Isenberg point out in a 2007 article, all of this dividing and categorizing is easier to do in studies that involve getting to know homeschooling families in an ethnographic way than it is when looking at homeschoolers quantitatively (Isenberg, 2007). Isenberg points out that there are numerous part-time homeschoolers, short term homeschoolers, and parents who homeschool one child but not another, information that seems to suggest that there is something to what Lois has called “second choice” homeschoolers and what Coleman called “pragmatics.” Further, Isenberg says that while the three main reasons people give for homeschooling are moral/religious, academic, and environmental (i.e. concern about the school environment), drawing conclusions from these numbers is difficult because there is overlap that makes differentiating between those homeschooling for religious and secular reasons can be complicated and tricky to quantify.

Of course, Isenberg does not reject entirely the idea that there are fundamental groupings of homeschoolers. He points out that religious homeschoolers are more likely to homeschool all of their children and significantly more likely to homeschool long term, suggesting the enduring importance of the believers. Isenberg also notes that public and private school options become more attractive and homeschooling less attractive in areas with large concentrations of evangelical Protestants, once again pointing to the importance of the believers. Further, Isenberg suggests that the questions in the survey data that he examines were not well designed—even a nonbeliever could mark that they homeschool to give their child a moral or religious education, for example—meaning that differences that may be more apparent to researchers like Stevens or Gaither may be obscured in the survey data. This suggests that we both need better survey data and also need to not underestimate the importance of actual field work.

Article published December 2013.

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