As a homeschooler, I’ve been feeling a little nervous with all of the news reports and blog posts (like this one and this one) that are coming up making a big deal about the fact that Todd Akin and his wife homeschooled their children.
The argument goes that the majority of homeschoolers are evangelical, ultra-right-wing wackos who keep their kids home because they’re afraid their children are going to encounter some scary secular ideas at school, like that gay people are okay and that conception isn’t intentional (even when the act that leads to it is, as thousands of couples suffering with infertility can attest) and that evolution actually makes sense and forms the basis for all of modern biology.
But where are the numbers behind this claim?
I’ll tell you where: They are nowhere. They don’t exist. Most states only have ballpark figures about how many families are even homeschooling at any one time and can only make the roughest guesses about the demographics of those families.
Data on the demographics of homeschooling families are simply not collected. We know a bit about how many homeschooled children matriculate at specific colleges and universities, but without a total number of homeschoolers with which to compare it, this number is fairly useless.
So, when someone says, “The majority of homeschoolers are ‘X’,” on what are they basing this statement? On their own fears about homeschoolers? On the couple of homeschoolers they might have met in person or heard about from other people? On famous homeschoolers on prime-time reality TV shows?
And when they meet me and talk with me, they say, “The majority of homeschoolers are [whatever radical group scares them the most], but you are the exception. I feel totally comfortable with you educating your own children.” And I say, “Oh, thank goodness I pass your judgment because my decision to homeschool is based almost entirely on what random people think.”
If I were to define homeschoolers based on my personal observations, I would say the majority of us are progressive, liberal, or libertarian, and we come from a wide variety of religious traditions (I personally know homeschoolers who are Atheist, Buddhist, Pagan, non-denominational Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, Quaker, Mormon, Catholic, and Unitarian Universalist). I would make this guess simply because these are almost the only type of homeschoolers I encounter. From where I sit, the two groups that seem to be most vocal are the radical unschoolers and those with radical right-wing religious viewpoints. But we should not mistake “loudest” with “most numerous.” Anyone who considers themselves part of the vast, creamy middle of the U.S. political spectrum should recognize this.
Homeschoolers seem to be doing something different, but that’s only because of humans’ short memories. We’re products of two or three generations of public school being the norm, which makes us think this—or something that looks like it—is the only legitimate way to school. The founders of the United States weren’t schooled in “traditional” schools as we know them today. They were homeschooled when they were young and then sent to boarding schools or educated by hired tutors until college. This was the norm until Horace Mann’s ideas took hold and we entered the factory-model era of schooling.
Homeschoolers remain a minority in the United States, and like any minority, we are viewed with suspicion. In a way, I can understand it. I mean, we’re largely unknown. You don’t know who we are or what our politics are, where we live or where we go to church (or even IF we go to church). And we shift. One year we homeschool, the next we have our kids in the neighborhood school, two years later we’ve got them at home again.
I think about a scene in A Single Man, which I watched twice this past weekend while crocheting a baby sweater. George, a university professor, is talking to his class about fear. The conversation starts out about anti-Semitism and how it is a hatred based on fear of an imagined threat. The conversation then expands to encompass minority groups in general, the unspoken minority group being the one that George himself, as a gay man, belongs to:
Let’s think of another minority. One that can go unnoticed if it needs to. There are all sorts of minorities. Blondes, for example. People with freckles. But a minority is only thought of as one when it constitutes some kind of threat to the majority—a real threat or an imagined one. And therein lies the fear. And if that minority is somehow invisible, then the fear is much greater. And that fear is why the minority is persecuted. And so you see, there always is a cause. The cause is fear. Minorities are just people. People like us.
You can’t pin us homeschoolers down because when you try, some increasingly numerous “exception” messes up your stereotype. Because you can’t pin us down, because you perceive us as a threat—real or imagined—to the institution of public education, we are all the more scary. But we—even the wackos among us—are just parents trying to make the best choices for our families.
Todd Akin is an elected official with inaccurate and misogynistic views. If he sent his children to public school or even private school, no one would even bring his children’s education into the discussion. His views are not inaccurate and misogynistic because his family homeschooled their kids; his views are inaccurate and misogynistic because they simply are.