Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Review: Write These Laws on Your Children

Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling by Robert Kunzman

This book was fascinating! I first read about it on Milton Gaither's blog. You can read what he thought about it in part 1 and part 2 of his review.

Mr. Kunzman has written a book that reminds me of an in-depth newspaper or magazine article, perhaps a series. He intersperses anecdotes and interview material with research he has done. In an admittedly random way, Mr. Kunzman found six homeschooling families in California, Vermont, Indiana, Oregon, and Tennessee. Given that these families allowed a researcher to come into their homes and observe their homeschooling days, he found a wide range of methods and abilities.

Mr. Kunzman is clear about his concerns regarding conservative Christian homeschoolers. He is mainly worried these parents are teaching their children to be warriors in the political arena to aggressively attack anyone who is not a conservative Christian, unwilling to accept any views other than their own as acceptable. He fears they are growing up without an understanding of a pluralistic society and the need for compromise for a successful democracy.

He says in the first chapter that he hopes to "illuminate some of [homeschooling's] underlying tensions."
I call them tensions not to imply some fundamental flaw in homeschooling, but rather that legitimate priorities often pull against one another. The freedom that homeschooling provides parents to shape teaching and learning, for example, holds both positive and negative possibilities ranging from enrichment to neglect. The desire to impart cherished values to one's children can be in tension with helping them learn to think for themselves. Striving for a society in harmony with one's religious values can clash with a democracy filled with diversity of thought and belief. And regulations aimed at protecting the interests of parents, children, and society can threaten the flexibility that makes homeschooling an effective learning experience for many children. Each of these tensions involves competing visions about the proper aims of education as well as the relationship between faith, freedom, and citizenship.
Given his obvious bias against conservative Christian homeschooling, if not homeschooling in general, Mr. Kunzman is wonderfully empathetic, understanding and even-handed in his descriptions of the families and of their responses to his interview and survey questions. In many cases, he openly admires the teaching skills of the (mainly) mothers and the strengths of homeschooling in general. When the families he is observing fall short (and, oh, some of them fall very short indeed!), he is surprisingly gentle in his discussion of their weaknesses.

The most glaring fault of his book is the lack of footnotes, end notes or any other kind of references. I know I'm biased and like to check sources, but I think it's a serious flaw in a book with as many statements in the text that were obviously researched. Without the references themselves, it's very difficult to say with certainty that they are legitimate though I have no real reason to believe they are not.

In some ways, we have much more in common with the families Mr. Kunzman is interviewing in this book than with the author. He repeatedly discusses his concerns with children being unable to compromise on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. Now, not everyone who reads this blog agrees with my feelings on these issues and I don't intend to start a discussion about them. I only want to point out that Mr. Kunzman is missing the point a bit here. On abortion at least, I am certainly not willing to compromise. As far as I'm concerned, this is not analogous to whether we will allow prayer at a flag pole outside a public school. It's more along the lines of a genocide. To expect me to agree to a legal compromise that allows abortion to continue in order to maintain some sort of acceptable order in the public square would be the same as expecting me to agree to a legal compromise that allows a person to be murdered every hour at the courthouse because it will keep the peace.

As I said, I don't want to start a discussion on whether my views of abortion are correct. I am only trying to explain why Mr. Kunzman's expectations in this particular issue are misguided. Compromises on other issues are certainly to be expected and desired in many cases.

I also felt like he was overly concerned with the fears that conservative Christian homeschooling parents would not want their children to learn to think for themselves, that they would not want them exposed to other cultures, thoughts and ideas. Every parent eventually wants children to learn to think for themselves. The struggle to find the right time to introduce new ideas and challenges is one we all face. Even the most protective of homeschooling parents Mr. Kunzman interviewed wanted their children to "choose Christ" rather than follow blindly.

Mr. Kunzman also continually wondered whether homeschooling parents would be willing to sacrifice some of their own freedoms with increased regulation to protect the homeschooled children who are being essentially educationally neglected, either purposely or through parents' ignorance. It seemed like none of the parents he interviewed were willing to accept additional regulation. I know many other homeschooling parents feel the same way. As someone who has worked at a non-profit focused on public education for a decade, I have mixed feelings here. I don't want the hassle of additional regulation for myself or my homeschool and recognize the inherent difficulties in determining what the baseline of necessary educational knowledge would be...however, I can see the validity of asking whether homeschooled children are learning the most basic concepts of reading and arithmetic. I would be most anxious to support legislation that offered assistance to families struggling rather than using tests or other methods to forbid homeschooling.
But the rise of homeschooling also holds implications that extend far beyond the phenomenon itself, raising fundamental questions about the purposes of education and the relationship between families, the state, and the society we share. 
This book is more like a sociological exploration of conservative Christian homeschooling by an outsider than a study. Mr. Kunzman does not make broad generalizations about the absolute need for regulation. He does not decry homeschooling in general or even the method of schooling by the conservative Christian families he visited. He doesn't seem to change his mind about anything after the experiences he had with six families over the course of two years but it also doesn't seem like he's determined to change the reader's mind, either.

I would be very interested in hearing what others have to say about this book.

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