How homeschooling fits in the historical narrative of childhood
I’m reading this book that is so great that I almost want to start a reading group so we can discuss each chapter. It’s called Childhood in America, and it’s a 700-page anthology of three-page excerpts from scholarly writing about childhood.
Two of my favorites:
The Life of a Slave Child, by James W. C. Pennington. Written in 1849. He emphasizes that parents had no time to be with their kids and no ability to discipline their kids, so the only reliable interaction with adults slave kids had with adults were the overseers and the masters and they were abusive. The undermining of daily parenting was a new perspective for me.
Proceedings of the Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. Written in 1909. The discussion about whether or not children of poor parents should stay with the parents is surprising if not earnest. I, for one, had no idea how late in history the idea of keeping families together had emerged.
I’ve always been an avid reader of history. I am convinced my fascination stems from my need to feel like I belong. Understanding where we fit in a bigger story enhances our sense of belonging, and belonging is a key factor in our sense of well-being.
The more I become entrenched in homeschooling, the more I find myself reconstructing historical narrative so I understand where I fit. I don’t accept the idea that I’m on the fringe, raising my kids in some crazy fashion. I want to belong. To something.
So you can imagine how quickly I jumped to the section in Childhood in America that focuses on education. The section comes right after the section about work. Of course we know why: school emerged as a way to get kids out of factories.
There are, or course, obligatory articles by Jacob Riis about the plight of kids in the city with no one to take care of them. And there are diatribes about how terrible working environments were for children in factories. But there is a stunning article by sociologist Viviana Zelizer called The Changing Social Value of Children.
Zelizer writes about the time in history when it became clear that working in factories or on the street was totally inappropriate for children. At that point, children were earning 1/3 of the family income for urban families. Which means that convincing parents that their kids should not work was fighting the creation of a large financial gap. In a Rhode Island town dominated by a textile mill, the local paper estimated that removing children from the workforce would “create an immediate deficit of $135,000 a year.” I can only guess what that would be in today’s dollars, but you get the point.
Yet photos and stories continued pouring out of cities about children wasting away in terrible working conditions. So pundits started qualifying what it meant that children should not work. People said only the worst working conditions were a problem–that most situations were fine for working children. Southern newspapers especially, encouraged people to visit the cotton mills and see how child-friendly the working conditions were. The Textile Manufacturers Journal promoted factories as a way to help poor kids escape the squalor of their homes, if only during working hours.
And people started making moral arguments about why kids should work. There was a rallying cry around the Bible proverb: Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop. The argument was basically that if kids did not work, then they were idle, and surely this would not be good either. Children working all day granted their parents a sense of moral superiority.
So what happened? What finally changed it? The age limit for work was increased slowly. The workday was limited, slowly. The history of legal age for work in the US is actually the history of coming to terms with the idea that it is not appropriate to make a child support the family.
It blows me away how similar our situation is today, with school.
|There was clear evidence that child labor was squashing childhood.||There is clear evidence that schools are squashing childhood.|
|Parents were economically dependent on children working.||Parents are economically dependent on children going to school.|
|Communities were financially dependent on the money from factories.||Communities are financially dependent on the money from schools’ care of children.|
|People disregarded all evidence and said we can improve working life for children.||People disregard all evidence and say we can reform schools.|
|Parents questioned the judgment of parents who did not send their kids to work.||Parents question the judgment of parents who do not send their kids to school.|
|Legislation slowly chipped away at child labor.||?|
Look at the history of protecting children. Notice how parents resist change when it’s financially inconvenient? That’s what’s happening right now. With school.
I get frustrated and disoriented when people look at me like I’m some sort of parenting revolutionary. I don’t feel like a revolutionary. For more than a century we’ve been working to build a society that protects the emotional life of children. So homeschooling is not revolutionary at all. It is a natural continuation of the path American parents have been walking for generations. I am part of the American history of parenting. And I feel like I belong.
Do people look at you like you’re a parenting revolutionary? When? I imagine a quiet life on the farm with few around to cast judgmental looks.
It feels to me like we live today in a time of embracing, or at least tolerating, a wide range of modes of living as normal. At least compared to most of the 20th century. There was a big but narrow mainstream in everything back then, and it was much more important, almost crucial, to belong to it. But today, that bell curve has stretched way out, and lots of things fall under the tall part of it than ever did before. It’s freeing; it’s refreshing.
And so what is belonging anymore anyway? It’s not what it was in our 1960s-70s-80s childhoods, a conforming to the mainstream. Today it’s about figuring out who you are and then either finding, or creating, the community in which you inherently belong. Haven’t you done that, i.e., here?
Well said jim grey.
we unschool our kids and at first it was painfully lonely. you strangely feel like an outcast for thinking differently. but as you said, you find and create communities in which you belong and you realize you are not alone and what was once weak becomes stronger.
I love the chart!
One of the biggest judgments I get from public schoolers about why my kids and I shouldn’t homeschool is that I should be working from the inside to help reform our public schools. What? So, sacrifice my own kids’ childhood? My kids don’t have time for that.
The amazing thing, to me, is that now living up in BC, the public schools are changing in the Fall to represent the research-they’re all going to project-based learning. Bizarre to me how quickly some countries adjust and how others grip onto a sinking ship.
This is brilliant! I love the comparison chart. Would be great for an infographic :)
Yes! Awesome chart. Awesome post. Sharing.
I’d refrain from historical comparisons bc you’ll pick and choose what you like. No doubt main function of school is to educate but main reason parents cling is for convenience. I don’t like not having choice. I think I should at least be exempt school taxes bc most school money is federal anyway also my taxes. Why should I pay to prop up a system that failed me. I wish you’d write more on special Ed and your kids and what happened at school and legally bc many of us in that boat.
I have written a bunch about special ed here — try searching IEP on the blog. But the big thing to me is that there is no way to force compliance for any special ed anything. So you have to take legal action to get the school to agree, on paper, to give your kid what they are legally entitled to, and then you have to go to school almost every day to enforce it. To me, dealing with schools and special ed was a complete waste of time and money.
I have to admit the older I get, the more it irks me I have to pay to support other adult persons lifestyles! If it actually benefitted the kids that would be one thing, but it feels like my money goes to benefit school employees and parents more than anybody else.
Yes, I know what you mean – sometimes I think this whole free-daycare/school thing was just a way to paper over the fact that it now takes two parents working to keep the lights on and food in the fridge for most people. Despite the new gadgets we now have available, the middle class is shrinking the standard of living of most people is in decline. It does not make me “cynical” or “negative” to say this – it makes me truthful.
My co-workers with small children are always so glad when their kids start school because it means they can stop paying thousands of dollars a month for daycare. And yes, if their kids were really benefitting from being in school I might feel better about it, but it’s more institutional than educational in nature. A free parking spot for your kid all day, while you go out to earn a buck.
The economic issue of school is really interesting to me. I’m about to embark on a career as a public school teacher in Chicago, and it’s a rather uncomfortable field to be going into right now for various reasons. Beyond the mess that is the public school system in Chicago, I agree that school, specifically public school, is failing students and is not “fixable” in the sense of keeping the system and just changing small broken parts. And I think home schooling is great. But that doesn’t help the single parent working two jobs, without family support. What does she or he do with his kids? And what if parents don’t feel they have the education , or financial (or emotional) resources to support their kid through home schooling? I read this post after the one about unschooling an almost 18 year old, and the list of support his parents give him is out of reach for many families. I don’t think it’s ok to say it’s their problem to figure it out. I think if we have something that we think is good for kids, we should be trying to find ways of making it available to all kids. So what would that look like?
“I think if we have something that we think is good for kids, we should be trying to find ways of making it available to all kids. So what would that look like?”
Well, it wouldn’t look like the American school system.
You raise a serious point. How do we make something good available for all kids, when the way we make something good is through parental support, institutional access, and money? It’s a worthy goal. One of the things that hampers that goal is the short time our kids are kids, versus the long time it takes to create an institution. Parents are not going to spend their kids’ young lives creating institutions that aren’t going to benefit them. Sometimes we pass on institutions we created that did benefit them, but we have to start on an immediate time frame.
I think that if we take a serious look at it, we’ll find that homeschooling is no less egalitarian than schooling. Ten percent of kids across the country already get something other kids’ parents can’t afford, (private school), and the poorest kids don’t even get the same public schools the richest kids get. In my area, you can travel one mile and go from schools like jails to schools like country clubs.
We should all try to hold ourselves to a high moral standard, and as homeschoolers we should be conscious of trying to bring people of different backgrounds along with us. I know people who do this to the point of virtually adopting neighbor kids as homeschoolers. I keep the cost of the classes I run low enough that financial participation isn’t a burden for anyone. Private institutions we participate at are zealous about providing scholarships. My kids work and play next to kids who left the worst public schools in the city as well as kids who left the best area private schools to homeschool.
Recognize, though, that we homeschoolers hear the equality argument a lot – it comes right after the socialization argument. We’re read for it with facts, like the fact it’s entirely possible to homeschool a whole house full of kids on a shoestring budget. And remember that it would be preposterous to hold homeschoolers to a higher standard for equality than we hold the schools. Schools in this country are not egalitarian, not even public schools. We are doing better than that already.
I think you’ve hit upon a very significant insight, Penelope. We (adults) give lip service to children’s rights but are not really willing to stop wielding power over them. Children are the last major segment of society whom we can get away with making into psychological “poison containters” (google it), and compulsory schooling helps to normalize their powerlessness.
You might also like the book “Inventing the Child” by J. Zornado, which you can preview at http://bit.ly/1syQ6bF
From the back cover: “…Zornado explores the history and development of the concept of childhood… [He] argues that the stories we tell our children contain the ideologies of the dominant culture — which, more often than not, promote ‘happiness’ at all costs, materialism as the way to happiness, and above all, obedience to the dominant order.” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0415979668/?tag=ptrunk-20
Both child labor and compulsory schooling reinforce patterns of seeking “happiness” through consumption rather than the genuine happiness one experiences through self-empowerment and in mutually empowering partnerships.
I know you trash humanities degrees, but you have just made a really convincing argument as to their utility. As the holder of graduate degrees in children’s health (I know, you must think I’m foolish), you miss some really major points in the history of both children and labor that undermine your neatly constructed argument. Comparing our modern educational system to factory work at the turn of the century is just asinine. People didn’t take their kids out of factories because they were protecting their emotional life. They did so because organized labor, you know UNIONS, changed the fundamental economics of labor. There were also major changes in immigration law that cut back on the number of immigrants supplying a ready source of cheap available labor. And then we passed mandatory education legislation to Americanize the immigrant children. You leave out, or maybe didn’t know, that the vast majority of child laborers were the children of recent immigrants, many of whom had lived in rural eastern Europe before immigration. Kids worked on the farm so kids worked in factories. And where are the black children in the South in your narrative? Or are we just ignoring that whole situation? You know, the people who fought and continue to fight for an equal opportunity at the education you blithely opt out of.
You are certainly continuing in a proud (or I should a proud of itself) tradition and that is to overlay your choices with some sort of moral significance that they do not have to justify your abdication from any responsibility to make change. Homeschool your kids. Whatever. But holy hell do not say people who can’t do the same don’t do so because it’s financially “inconvenient”. Acknowledge that homeschooling is a choice that comes from privilege. Accept it and move on.
And let’s not forget that there are children dying by the boat load or being locked up in family detention centers around the country, risking their lives for the chance at an education. Pull your head out of your privileged life and wake up. A child potentially doing a worksheet or having shortened recess is not the same as a kid dying from a steam burn at 7. And FYI, you seem to be under the impression that child labor is a thing of the past. Pick up an issue of the Economist. It’s happening every day in every country around the world including this one. If your biggest concern is what kind of schooling your kid gets, you already won the lottery of life, as did your children. Make the world a better place and get a little perspective. This is just a gross and embarrassing comparison.
I think this is a way to get out of making complex decisions. Once you start telling people their concerns are privileged and therefore stupid, you will find you could say this about everything:
Should you buy bottled drinking water?
Is algebra useful?
Should kids go to summer camp away from home?
Should you take a better job with a longer commute?
Is sleeping on memory foam good for your back?
All these questions exist is a life that is not war-torn, impoverished and rife with famine. But that doesn’t mean they are bad questions. In fact, life would be incredibly one-dimensional if we allowed ourselves only to focus on life-or-death questions.
People who feel comfortable approaching complex issues can think of both famine and the fantasy at the same time.
You might want to read about the Mechai Pattana School in Thailand. I’ve been reading about it in the book ‘Countdown’ by Alan Weisman.
The students take classes in math, science, languages, and other subjects, but they also participate in running the school and keeping it clean – they even serve on the school board. There is a 1:5 teacher-student ratio.
Students start and run their own businesses, help run the local resort, and teach elderly villagers how to read.
It just struck me that this sounds an awful lot like homeschooling, but with everyone participating.
The goals of the school are “to turn students into social entrepreneurs and philanthropists” – to help keep their own villages thriving. They are learning how to be contributing members of their own communities instead of being isolated away from those communities all day.
Plus the school is made of bamboo, which I thought was cool.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could just throw off the yoke of the federal department of education and organize things like this in our own communities? If they can do it Thailand, why couldn’t we do it in the USA?
I just want to say that I had fun clicking on the “related posts”, and going through all those comments from 2-4 years ago made me nostalgic.
Where have those previous commenters like Heather Sanders gone? And it was fun seeing that commenter/bostonian was always an in-depth contributor to the comments section even back then.
Aw shucks. Thanks for the encouragement, YMKAS.
Yeah, I’ve liked this blog for a while. I don’t have to agree with people all the time to enjoy having a conversation with them. I just have to hear interesting things. And I tend to here.
In terms of the topic at hand, it’s clear to me that the question mark in the then/now grid can be replaced with identical text to that at the left.
We mustn’t forget that the legality of homeschooling in most places is of recent vintage. It is legal (though reporting requirements vary) in all 50 states now, whereas a century ago it was illegal almost everywhere. This didn’t happen overnight, or by accident. People fought for this.
This is recent history. The years when states adopted legislation bringing homeschooling out of the dark are not mired in the depths of antiquity:
1982: Arizona, Mississippi
1983: Wisconsin, Montana
1984: Georgia, Lousiana, Rhode Island, Virginia
1985: Arkansas, Florida, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington, Wyoming
1987: Maryland, Minnesota, Vermont, West Virginia
1988: Colorado, New York, South Carolina, North Carolina, Pennsylvania
1989: North Dakota, Hawaii, Maine, Ohio
1990: New Hampshire, Connecticut
In other states, such as mine, legislation doesn’t address homeschooling, but the right to homeschool rests entirely on case law of similarly recent vintage. In Massachusetts, we all owe a debt to the parents and lawyers who fought through “Care and Protection of Charles” in 1987.
And of course your kid’s new school has a neat place in history.
There’s a good article about child labor back in the day in “Why Children Work” by Helen Todd. They worked because their fathers were dead or disabled. In 1910. And they were treated better at work than at school.
Of course schooling is all about breaking children to factory discipline. They found that post-pubescent males could not be broken to factory discipline. Back in the day.
And I think that the ruling class likes the idea of women working for taxable wages with their children put in government child-custodial facilities rather than raising their own children in the community of women outside the government-regulated workspace.
Of course, on my reductive Three Peoples theory the answer to work/school is obvious:
People of the Creative Self: homeschooling so that the child can discover his/her creative self.
People of the Responsible Self: structured school so that child can grow up to responsible adulthood.
People of the Subordinate Self: whatever the lord commands.
I think of myself as a mixture between the creative and responsible self, but I definitely think that homeschooling is an answer to having children grow up to be responsible adults. I was never given any responsibility when growing up, as a child or teenager, at home or at school – even when I was doing things at school that were supposed to be teaching me leadership. Everything was set out for me and I just had to follow the instructions. I struggled a lot emerging into adulthood when there weren’t instructions any more and I had to be responsible for myself. My intention to homeschool my future children is based in a significant way on my desire for them to be responsible, self-managing adults.
I can see how you came to the conclusions in this post. You’ve made a good argument based on the past 150 years, but what about prior to that and what about the current 69 million school age children, half in sub-Saharan Africa and a quarter in Southern Asia? By all accounts, the children in these impoverished areas are getting ‘unschooled’ but it doesn’t look like that’s proven effective for them. What if, in its infancy, ‘school-house’ education was created to improve the lives of the next generation. Many of the children attending were learning to read when their parents didn’t even know how. And whenever we learn it, early or late in life, after we do learn it, we have a lot more opportunities than prior to having learned it. I think there was a point in time, here in the US, and currently in impoverished nations, that the true intention of offering community ‘schooling’ is so that children can learn and be exposed to things they could never dream of or be exposed to at home. Here in the US, it feels like the community ‘schooling’ system has lost its way, and being an advanced economy many families here have knowledge and means to be able to help their child learn the current life survival skills, so homeschooling or unschooling does look like the better choice. But, for families who can’t offer their children that in depressed areas, here and world wide, community ‘schooling’ still has its value.
I have am almost two year old and am trying to figure out for myself what’s best for her now….it feels like an impossible decision to make. I appreciate the discussion you bring here and look forward to checking on your references and recommended books. :)
69 million school age children, not getting schooling…is what I meant to say…
Your point is key to the question of the future of public school in our country.
Will public school in the US become primarily a form of welfare/child care for the poors?
In my city, more than a quarter of kids don’t attend public school. And growing. Who does that leave? What does that mean for public school? A friend described our public school as a great big poverty cake with a thin frosting of privilege.
When my boy started to have trouble with bullying in our public school system, it was made clear to me that middle-class kids are not important to the system and it would be best for everybody if I just left. They all had needier fish to fry.
Now, when my very happy boy is headed back to the city’s top exam school, along with all his homeschooled friends, I see our neighborhood social justice warriors complaining about how unfair it is that kids who didn’t go through the gauntlet of the public elementary schools should take so many spots at the top exam school, and try to cook up some legal boondoggle to restrict access.
What does it mean for community schooling when people suggest that certain parts of a community don’t have a right to access it?
The argument has continuity. Once we argue that public school needs to exist because the poors, the next step in the argument is that the poors should be the main focus of our public schools. Then the next step is to find a way to limit kids with options from taking the best spots.
The next step on that line? I think it’s a movement for rebates from those locked out, followed by the complete dissolution of public schools as related to the public at large.
I’d like to see a different path for our public schools. I’d like to see them become less formal and more open, less like jails and more like community centers. I’d like to see more kids out of them, with more options, and more kids going to them only part-time. I’d like to see them provide a variety of kinds of education, for a variety of ages, in the same buildings. I’d like to see them add resource centers for self-directed learning. This is not impossible.
I’m also in special Ed hell. Penelope did you accept any services from the school after homeschooling? Did your kids outgrow their diagnoses and what were they if that’s not too private to ask? In my state I can get a lot of ABA services but I think ABA is a scam to fatten pockets of ABA providers most of whom are clueless and if you get a reasonably smart nice person it goes okay but not because of ABA but because that person gets it. I cannot understand putting young kids in therapy 30 hours a week I almost feel like the parents cannot cope and rationalize that this is for the best.
We’ve made everyone panic about kids. I don’t think autism is on the rise but that it’s radically redefined to include retardation mild language cognitive impairment asperger adhd Tourette and a myriad of overlapping disorders. Then all the anxious parents take resources from the very disabled. I’ve seen kids in therapy who were so not behind. I’ve seen the opposite. But I’d say minimum 50% scam. And of the other 50% half were mild. So yes I think we could afford extra help and better tech for kids cutting this wasteful machine of services. Were you in a good district? I am and it stinks. But I think it stinks because the people in charge stink. That’s how it is. Was school really bad or you just felt they weren’t learning? Am I only special needs mom in the house?
At least one of my kids needs more scaffolding, my oldest daughter who is 9. We had an IQ test done several years ago that showed significant scatter between her strength and weakness, like at least 4 standard deviations difference. We went to our local school, which so happens to be in a pretty darn good district! Because her lowest scores were so much higher than the average they basically told me they would offer her zero services. I pointed out every statistic I could that showed she needed help “Look!!! Look how high she is in these four areas and how low her other scores compare! She needs some help!” only to be met with “Sorry, she needs to be in the 70th percentile to qualify for services.” For reals? Useless.
Then I had my youngest who clearly has significant struggles with word formation assessed by our “phenomenal” school district only to be told that she didn’t meet the cutoff for services with them. So yeah, I will keep working with her myself and pay out of pocket for speech therapy because she isn’t “truly needy”.
PS your son in the microscope pic looks sooooo much like you
Oh heeeey! I just found the book on google books! https://books.google.com/books?id=PV03HGsa3XYC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=true
I heard a talk about the development of the concept of adolescence in America that discussed some of this. Your analysis leaves out one important data point: people didn’t reform child labor laws out of concern for children — they reformed them out of concern for adults. (Are we surprised?)
During the Great Depression there was a huge shortage of jobs for everyone. Suddenly, people thought it was a great idea to finally get kids out of the factories and into school. But it was because adults were desperate for any job — even the ones that they would have relegated to children in the past.
That, in my opinion, is why we won’t see a similar shift in education anytime soon. More hours of education, more testing, more supervised extra-curricular activities, and keeping kids out of the labor pool for as long as possible — all those things benefit adults. Free range kids who don’t need teachers or coaches and who might actually get a job or an internship — they threaten a lot of adult livelihoods.
I think the change will come when upper class families start removing their kids from schooling in droves. Then everyone will start demanding the same advantages for their own kids. And that won’t happen until enough people see homeschooled, unschooled and Sudbury-schooled kids out in the real world crushing it because their creativity, empathy and initiative haven’t been beaten out of them by an educational system.
Hi Mary. You make some key points there. Yeah, besides the ‘oh those poor kids’ faction supporting child labor laws, there was definitely a ‘adult jobs for adults’ faction.
I see a little contradiction in your later conclusion, though. I don’t see free range, unschooled kids threatening a lot of adult livelihoods, and in particular I don’t see them threatening upper class livelihoods.
I do agree that homeschooling can better preserve a child’s creativity, empathy, and enthusiasm, and give homeschoolers an advantage.
I also find that the best-paid careers require quite a lot of college. No homeschooled kid short of Frank Abnagale is going to slide in and take a VP-level biotech job away from a MD/PhD.
What I could more easily see is an increase in the proportion of kids being homeschooled for the elementary years and then returning to selective, magnet, or exam schools for the middle or high school years. Or an increase in the proportion of the student body at selective colleges that has been homeschooled.
One of our local homeschoolers recently graced the cover of a local glossy mag for her admission to Harvard, and the article led to a flurry of repeat articles (e.g. There’s a new path to Harvard and it’s not in a classroom, Tech Insider). I figure it’s a sure bet that at least one person around here pulled their kid out of BPS because of this type of press.
I know this is a late reply, but since this thread still seems active I thought I’d make it.
To Bostonian: As a PhD/JD former biotech patent attorney I just want to say that I wouldn’t send my kids to a Sudbury school if I though that it would be any impediment to their achieving whatever they want to achieve in life, educationally or otherwise.
Yes, depending on their career choices they may have to choose to attend an exam school or community college in order to get a college/graduate degree. But I live in Silicon Valley. I have seen people with PhDs from Stanford being passed over while people without even a GED get the good coding job — because the PhD had no creativity, no initiative and didn’t know how to create code for the real world, while the guy who skipped school was a self-starter with a passion for coding and years of experience actually creating code that had practical value.
Sure, you won’t see any self taught doctors anytime soon, but I see more and more paths to success, even at the VP level, for people who haven’t had their initiative and creativity beaten out of them. Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell and people like them (i.e., people who skipped the college degree and went on to be enormously successful) are just the beginning of what I see as an emerging trend.
Based on this newfound ideology, my parents told us children that the reason dad was working an ordinary job rather than being a pastor, or a missionary, or a politician was so that he and mom could raise up a large number of godly offspring to go out and do all of these things a hundred fold. We were the arrows in my dad’s quiver, and they were raising us to shoot out into the world to make a difference for Christ. This is called Quiverfull,..