9 Things You Should Know About the History of the Homeschooling Movement

The real history of opposition to “government schools” is more interesting and varied than Stewart claims.

Although many early homeschooling families were Protestant Christians, the original movement itself was ideologically diverse and not inherently religious. In the early years of the movement the most common trait homeschooling families had in common was an embrace of the unconventional and a willingness to be seen as nonconformists in relation to mainstream culture.

 

On Monday The New York Times ran an op-ed by journalist Katherine Stewart claiming attacks on “government schools” are rooted in “American slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, anti-Catholic sentiment and a particular form of Christian fundamentalism—and those roots are still visible today.” While Stewart does not use the term “homeschool” in her op-ed, she implies that parents who choose to educate their children outside of the public school system participate in a culture the promotes racism and theonomy. (For direct rebuttals to Stewart, see this article by Andrew T. Walker and this one by David French.)

The real history of opposition to “government schools” is more interesting and varied than Stewart claims. This is espcially true for the form known as “homeschooling.” Here are nine things you should know about the history of this educational movement:

1. Homeschooling is the education of school-age children (ages 5 to 17) in a grade equivalent to at least kindergarten and not higher than 12th grade who receive instruction at home instead of at a public or private school either all or most of the time. Prior to the 1990s there were estimated to be only a few hundred thousands homeschool students in the United States. In 2012, the latest date for which statistics are available, the number had grown to estimated 1.8 million, accounting for approximately 3 percent of the school-age population.

2. Although many early homeschooling families were Protestant Christians, the original movement itself was ideologically diverse and not inherently religious. In the early years of the movement the most common trait homeschooling families had in common was an embrace of the unconventional and a willingness to be seen as nonconformists in relation to mainstream culture. As sociologist Mitchell L. Stevens says, the early members of the movement included “anarchists, practicing witches, macrobiotic vegetarians, devotees of family beds, Orthodox Jews, and a large number of fundamentalist Christians.” Prior to the 1970s, various small subcultures within American—including a homeschooling faction lead by the theonomist Rousas John Rushdoony—operated independently and rarely intermingled. But that began to change in the 1970s, and the beginning of the modern homeschooling movement can be traced back to the influence of two men: John Holt, on the secular left, and Raymond Moore, on the religious right.

3. A former elementary teacher, the liberal Holt was a proponent of nontraditional teaching methods, such as “unschoooling,” a laissez faire approach to home-based education he called “learning by living.” Holt’s approach became popular with those who had embraced the values of the 1960s counterculture and were starting families of their own. Holt published several influential books on education and the first homeschooling magazine in 1977. Growing Without Schooling ran for 24 years and, in the era before the internet, served as a resource and network for homeschooling families.

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