Dear Ms. Goldstein,
I am writing in response to your recent article in Slate entitled “Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Children”. I can only imagine from your judgmental critique of homeschooling parents that you intended to provoke a reply. If this is in fact the case, you may be pleased to know that your article was widely circulated and hotly discussed in my home school community. Surely this is happening in many other such groups as well, so you will probably get lots of satisfyingly aggravated responses, which your editor can publish for you to shoot down. After all, we lazy rich white home school Moms have nothing better to do than write strong letters to the editor defending our privilege, right?
In my group one mother posted a request that someone reply to you. She said she would do it herself, but between her part time job and family responsibilities, she could not find the time to address the task with the thoughtfulness it deserves. Actually she was a bit angrier than that about it, but I hope I have her intent covered.
Ms. Goldstein, do you have any children? I have to ask. Your credentials as a liberal journalist do not qualify you to judge me, either as a liberal, or a parent. Nor do they provide you adequate insight into my community to level a directive at us about how we should educate our children. I really want to know if you have kids. Because parenthood requires us to continually balance our ideals against our responsibilities to our families, and rarely permits persons as intelligent and thoughtful as yourself the grounds for such one sided judgment. Perhaps you are trying to drum up some kind of “mommy wars” over education? Perhaps you are just…young?
You have very impressive, even intimidating, journalistic and academic credentials. This tells me that you are probably naturally suited to the institutional structure of school, and were probably well supported while you were there. Certainly you have worked very hard. Your background is one you, your parents and your teachers must surely be proud of.
As a mother, if my daughter were to build a career half as successful as yours to date, I would certainly feel I had done well by her in terms of her education, …and I did notice quite a lot of private school in yours, by the way. When I googled you, I admit it gave me pause. Perhaps you can imagine my “aha” moment when I re-read your article and realized what a beautiful example it was of profoundly uncritical institutional thought. The most charitable thing I can think to say is that it is exactly the sort of thinking I would expect from a person so thoroughly schooled as yourself. You have obviously done some research, and applied some tools of analysis. Your writing is engaging. Yet you do not appear to have examined the ground you are standing on.
What is a Liberal Homeschooler? Am I, for you, merely the assumed opposite of a Fundamentalist Christian Libertarian Dominionist Homeschooler? Do you imagine we are a group essentially just like the women at your office, or the last cocktail party you attended, except we are nursing toddlers in the park with our older children reading Mark Twain and Phillip Pullman nearby? What exactly leads you to presume that your idea of “liberal values” is one that the entirety of non fundamentalist attachment parenting unschoolers would share? Just because we are not raising revolutionaries for God’s Christian Army does not mean we agree with you about the meaning, let alone the value, of public education.
In my personal experience, you are right about some things. Home school families are indeed diversifying as a group. I live in an area where the home school community spans the spectrum from those who want to ensure that their God-fearing children are not sullied by exposure to science to those Dragon Mamas who want to make certain their offspring get into Stanford. Yet there are a wide range of perspectives somewhere between those poles, or somewhere else altogether. Many are families whose children for one reason or another did not thrive in the school system. Many have children with mild to moderate ADD, ADHD, Aspergers or OCD.
There are indeed those parents who prefer to spend family time together, perhaps running a family farm or traveling instead of attending school. There are Homeschoolers of Color who feel their children will be ill served in a public school system which tracks them towards low achievement (many of the Moms I know who meet that criteria are former public school teachers). Plenty of homeschool families I know personally live at or near the poverty line, making lifestyle choices from the bedrock of their values. Choices which involve significant financial sacrifice. I will not cover the impact of the financial crisis on my family, for that would go on far to long to maintain the threads between your article and the main points of this response.
I volunteered to respond to your article. Let me do so by telling you a bit about my particular family, and how we came to what many would call “unschooling” for our children. It is very long. I hope you will be patient enough to read it.
It was not really a decision at all, but a process; a slow and circuitous route through the social and economic and educational tangles of our time. Ultimately, the decision to home school our children was actually deeply in line with our values. These are values which privilege responsibility to our family, and to living in genuine community with the people near us, above any theory or “ism”.
Values which, I imagine, would be very hard to connect to if one were urban, well educated, ideologically committed, and childless. Or perhaps equally hard to understand if one had children, but valued her/his career and/or personal ideology over the welfare of his/her children. In a culture where “family values” seem only to apply to the unborn, this is not an unusual situation. But it is a stance that hardly qualifies a person to judge home schooling parents as hypocrites or betrayers of the progressive cause. You do not own the cause of progress. And the liberal tradition of fighting for public schools is a particular expression of values, not a value in itself.
Your seeming disdain for the idea of attachment parenting leads me to conclude that you either know very little about it or you have totally swallowed the cultural value of separating children from their families early and institutionalizing them as thoroughly as possible. Just because an institution has been good to you does not mean it is good for everyone. If you ever become interested in learning about the importance of attachment on development and human relationships, and the long term implications of this, especially in the context of the institutionalization of human social experience, I would be happy to recommend a reading list. It actually begins with Foucault. I believe further research might improve your understanding of what we AP folks are trying to accomplish, and how that fits in with “progressive”, or “liberal values”.
You also make a lot of assumptions about the value of schools. Personally, my husband and I pay a small fortune in property taxes in addition to a special school tax to help fund what is widely held to be one of our nation’s better public school systems, even though we no longer use the schools. We are committed to the availability of public education. Home schooling is certainly not for everybody, and the availability of a good public school seems, at least on the surface, to be a critical building block for a strong civil society. This is not to say that I believe schooling is the best choice for anyone. I simply fear the idea that eliminating the option of high quality low cost schools, for those who have neither the resources nor inclination to undertake personal responsibility for their child’s education, would be a disaster for what is left of democratic civil society. It does not mean that I believe that ideal of excellent public schools actually exists as a real option for most people. And I know a lot of dedicated school teachers.
I do believe the foundation of the school system is flawed at its core. We have a system of public schools quite literally designed from the outset to intentionally separate children from their families, in order to turn immigrants into factory workers. Since this is contrary to the goals of most of today’s parents, teachers and even the marketplace, it seems to me that the current crisis in education requires deeper consideration than a mere commitment to participate. It also follows that to attempt superficial internal reform at the sacrifice of one’s own child’s welfare is not only morally questionable, but it runs contrary to the purpose of raising informed, engaged citizens. Yes, the focus on testing is problematic. But that is a natural consequence of a system which seeks to define, segregate and train cogs for the wheels of commerce and cannon fodder for the military according to class and an ever narrowing range of academic accomplishment.
When my oldest was a baby, I read a powerful book by Ann Crittenden called “The Price of Motherhood”. It was an economic analysis of the impact of mothers and of the role upon the women who undertake the task. Since I had chosen stay-at-home motherhood over graduate school or a paid career, the book had an enormously validating message for me. My choice to stay home was not one built upon the level of privilege you seem to assume, but an economic and moral choice in accordance with my values. It was complicated. Let me explain how I arrived at it.
When I worked in finance, pre-child days, I had been a registered assistant for an investment adviser. I was seriously underpaid. The number one question we got from couples under 50 was “Our family is so stressed and exhausted…is there some possible way one of us can stay home? ”. My job was to take in all their financial data, and put it together so we could analyze their situation and present financial options. Unless Mrs. Client was an attorney or a physician, or had a job she deeply loved and did not want to leave, I saw the math prove over and over again that these families would be better off financially if Mom stayed home. Mothers, even highly educated ones, seemed often to bring in just enough money to put these families in a higher tax bracket. Usually two income households lock themselves structurally into this problem by buying more house than they really need—an expense that has recently become all to clear to families struggling with layoffs in the economic crisis. Granted, the families I was working with were usually well to do. But the same problems apply broadly to our whole society. Our lifestyle choices and our incomes are interdependent, not unidirectional. The values perpetuated by consumer culture lead us to view accomplishment in terms of income. It has long been possible to purchase status. If one lets go of that wheel, and is willing to live with less, according to different values, other economic possibilities can and do open up.
In my work in finance I found that the soft costs of working (clothing, meals out, dry-cleaning, various services) combined with the expenses of transportation and childcare usually made the net gain of Mom’s paid labor too low to make up for the costs of her absence in the unpaid field of care-giving. The average financial gain for the families whose finances I analyzed was less than $5000/year. The lower her income, the more likely that the financial contribution of her job was negative. And as Ms. Crittenden so thoroughly explains, Motherhood is an economically and socially valuable and important activity, though it is punished in a society which elevates income production over all else.
This is not to say that fathers cannot do the job of care giving, or that Mothers cannot provide adequately for families. There are all sorts of ways to structure families. I know many families where the parents both work part time to support homeschooling, or where Dads stay home with kids while Mom works. Some of the non traditional families are gay. Yes, extended breastfeeding does indeed create a prevalence of very traditional looking stay-at-home Moms in the AP and homeschool communities. But this is more a response to the way the consumer society and nuclear family is structured than anything else. Most Moms I know would ideally work part time and spend lots of time at home with their little ones. In a tribal situation, there is extended family and lots of help with the work of raising a family. My homeschooling group has come to be almost a tribe to me. We help each other. All the time. Because that is how we wish to live. Relationships have replaced the need for revenue in many areas of my life.
After my short career in finance I was ready to commit to staying home, at least until my children were in school. We moved near my Mom, and bought a tiny condo. I joined a Mom’s group. I was thrilled when Ms. Crittenden came to Chicago on book tour, and I took my daughter in her sling to the independent book store where the author was speaking. I brought several of my Mom’s group friends with me. We were devastated when Ms. Crittenden recommended that we deposit our infant children on the steps of City Hall in a strike to protest the treatment of mothers. It was a clear illustration of the problem…we were prisoners of love. I don’t know if that message was her intention, she sounded perfectly serious about her idea; an idealistic proposal which was to most mothers, preposterous. For most parents I have known, no ideal is as important as taking loving care of that little person in their arms.
When it was time to send our daughter to school we bought a home just outside Chapel Hill North Carolina. It was the only house we could afford in this school district. The house has issues, but at the beginning we were committed to the public school idea. In fact, we moved here from Chicago to be in a good school district with a lower cost of living so that I could both be closer to extended family and devote the time to be an involved public school parent. My brother lives nearby, our parents retired here. I was planning to work part time when my second child was old enough to attend school. My eldest had excellent teachers in pre-school and kindergarten, and we looked forward to a long and involved relationship with the public school system. I was secretary of the PTA when we pulled our daughter out in the first grade with symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The PTA was a nightmare. Ms. Goldstein, have you ever been on a PTA board?
Somehow I doubt that your career would afford you the time, even if you do have children. Our particular board had one fund raiser a year. It was an evening auction. The tickets were $50, and none of the money went to the school; it went to cover the cost of dinner and drinks. That meant a family with two parents or one parent with a date would spend $100 on tickets, probably $10 in tips, and roughly $50 in babysitting for the evening before they had even raised a penny for the school. I brought this up at the first meeting of the semester and was roundly criticized for my suggestion that parents who could not afford to donate $500-$1000 to the school might be glad to give smaller amounts….$25, $50? Perhaps we might consider some additional fund raisers that would allow a wider band of families to contribute? Perhaps this should be done not only for the funds themselves but on the principle that as many parents as possible should be involved? The PTA board President leveled her cold blue eyes and me, tossed her immaculately frosted hair and said “well, if they want to contribute, they can always buy spirit wear”. I protested that my family could not afford to attend the auction. The PTA board President retorted that I should do a better job managing my money. I had a hard time holding back my tears of rage at her privilege and rudeness.
They. Spirit wear. It might has well have been Marie Antoinette with the famous brioche/cake comment as far as I was concerned…and I realized what I was up against.
I soon discovered that there was another organization which functioned as a shadow PTA for Families of Color. It was a Parent-Teacher group focused on helping parents to assist their children to succeed in school. The racism and class-ism of this was astounding to me. But the group had been around for 30 years, because they met a genuine need. The integration of the schools had not provided anything resembling a level playing field for the economically disadvantaged or for children of color.
Ms. Goldstein, not everyone gets a good value out of school, as you so clearly have. You point out in your article that many families are unable to home school because they have single parents. I know several single parent home schoolers, and I do agree that choice presents serious challenges. But the challenges produced by school itself are often just as problematic.
My husband and I both had terrible school experiences, complicated by the breakups of our families. His involved multiple interstate parental kidnappings and far too many schools. Mine began in that cushy bastion of white privilege, South East Washington D.C.
You see Ms. Goldstein, my parents were the type of Liberals you seem to admire. Heavily involved in the Anti War and Civil Rights and Women’s movements, they bought and rehabbed a brownstone on 9th street SE. I believe the address was 357 if you want to pass by the next time you are in the area and check out my street cred. I don’t think the neighborhood has changed much in the past 40 years.
My parents deeply believed that my lone little white face in the classrooms of what can only be accurately described as a ghetto would be the key to improving those schools. Sending me to public school in Southeast D.C. in the 1970′s was only one expression of their commitment to “living their liberal values”. It would take a generation or more, of course. So my immediate experience was less important than the long term ideals of racial equality and equal access. I would naturally pick up academic skills just from the environment of my home. Plus, my family could not afford private school.
In some ways, the experiment was enriching for me personally. In preschool, my teachers and classmates loved to braid my long, fine hair. They spent hours playing with it, giving me cornrows while teasing me for being “tender-headed”. I learned to play double dutch. I was not afraid of black people (as was the politically correct term for African Americans at the time) for the simple reason that they were the only people around me for most of the day. I became observant of behavior, rather than focused on race. I played with my neighbors; a family of seven. That family was comprised of a single Mom, her elderly and disabled Mother, and her 5 children. They lived in the basement of the house three doors down. All the kids shared one big bare mattress on the floor, and played cool games like who could smash the most cockroaches with Mamaw’s slipper. I thought it was fun, like camping. Their TV was on all the time.
I did experience some culture shock when it came to lunch at school though. My pre-school teacher had no patience for a child who turned up her nose at a perfectly good hot lunch, just because she did not care for it. She tilted my head back and held my long braids in one strong hand while she force fed me mac and cheese with a serving spoon until I threw up on her. I still cannot eat mac and cheese to this day. But overall, the cultural exposure was positive for me. As an adult, I do have African American friends, whose perspective I value deeply. Over my lifetime, my understanding of cultural differences and the human bonds between all people has served me well.
First grade was much worse than pre-school and kindergarten. I walked through the park to get there. Past the old drunks and the disabled veterans, who periodically flashed me. Presumably that was educational in some way!!! Past the angry teens and the drug dealers, who thankfully ignored my six year old self. I walked to the ugly brutalist cement block building and up the rusty metal stairs lit only by bare bulbs (which were often out or missing) into my classroom. There were about 25 kids in my class—I think nowadays the average is closer to 30. Our teacher was a long suffering lady whose name I cannot recall. She was very committed to discipline in the classroom. A child who used foul language was obliged to spend an hour standing in the trash can. A child who had “talked back” to her was whipped with a belt, bare bottomed, in front of the class. The whipping was provided by his Mother, who was called in to administer the discipline that teachers had recently been denied the authority to apply in 1972.
It was not all bad though. At the end of each day, the teacher would turn out the lights and tell us to put our heads on our desks. She would ask those of us who had been “good” to raise our hands. Then she would go around and deposit a small handful of candy in front of the “good” ones. We would eat it self righteously in front of the less well behaved children. There was no candy in my house, so I was always “good”. I was quiet and followed orders. I helped the boy who sat next to me with his worksheets every day. I also made best friends with the other white girl in the class. Her name was Claire and she was blonde and beautiful. Her father did PR for Jimmy Carter. Her Mother stayed home. My Father worked for H.E.W., and eventually he helped to develop the Department of Education as a separate Department while Carter was President. My Mother worked for the Museum of African art, then the AIA.
One day at recess there was a fight. Fights were common on the playground, but this one was special. I don’t remember what it was about. What I do recall quite vividly is that one of the big boys, probably a sixth or seventh grader, took one of my classmates by the back of the neck and repeatedly smashed his head against the concrete wall of the school. I stood rooted on the asphalt to the chalk drawing of a hopscotch board, unable to breathe for sheer terror. Blood came pouring out of his head. I could see something gray and gelatinous peeking through the bloody crack in his skull. Eventually the big boy dropped the limp and motionless little boy, and ran away from the building altogether. One of the girls ran indoors and found an adult. The ambulance came and took him away.
The next day not only was my classmate gone, Claire was not at school anymore either. Her parents had put her in private school. I asked to be sent to school with Claire, and my request was denied. I went on strike. I made myself appear ill each morning in every way I could imagine until my parents finally relented mid-year. They sent me to the private school, even though they really could not afford it. I was thrilled. My new class had twelve children. They were mostly white kids, but there were several different ethnic backgrounds represented: black, white, Hispanic, Asian….but we did have something important in common. Committed, educated parents who somehow had the means to scrape together the tuition fees for us to be there.
I loved Ms. Mora, the teacher. I was embarrassed to admit to her that I was unable to read the first worksheet she gave me. She whispered kindly that it did not matter, and allowed me to draw on the worksheets instead. The next day at worksheet time she took me onto her lap in a rocking chair she kept in a corner of the supply room. We went slowly through a book called “The Purple Turtle”. It took a long time, but I struggled my way through to the end. Ms. Mora then informed me that I had just completed the third grade reader.
By the time I actually hit third grade, I was an avid reader and a militant feminist. I organized a demonstration at recess. It lasted a week. We marched around the playground, protesting the boy’s refusal to allow the girls to play kickball. My poster said “Alex Peacher is a MSP”.
My parents were now in an all out war with each other. I was so traumatized, I could not pay attention in class. The liberal 1970′s teachers let me sit in the reading corner all year. The only project I remember was the unit on ancient Egypt. We built a life sized sarcophagus out of paper mache, and decorated it with paint and gold foil. We went to see King Tut at the Smithsonian. That was cool. But I missed learning to tell time, and the multiplication tables. My parents divorced. At the time that was a relief, though I developed chronic bronchitis which kept me out of school a lot for the rest of my school career. I think now they would say it was asthma; a condition those familiar with human attachment dynamics would say was likely a physical response to my Mother’s stress.
The summer before 6th grade my parents both remarried and my Mom’s new husband got a job in Chicago. We moved to Evanston, a well-to-do university town on the north shore of Lake Michigan, right next to the city. One of the main attractions of Evanston at the time was access to the excellent public schools. My Mom signed me up for Martin Luther King Elementary…a magnet laboratory school on the west side of town. King Lab was racially diverse, but a social disaster for me.
You see Ms. Goldstein, merely sharing a classroom is not enough to overcome racial stratification. Chicago is very racially divided. The poor black kids had no interest in me, nor the rich white kids either. The rest of the middle class kids were as invisible as I wished I was. I had the wrong accent, the wrong jeans, the wrong gym shoes. I used long words. I did not play sports, which for many was a great leveler. I had no obvious niche in the rigid class structure. My school developed social skills were simply not up to the task of keeping up in the highly competitive environment. There were, however, many good teachers there. They were a diverse bunch too. I fondly remember my 6th grade homeroom teacher, Mr. Thwaites. He was on a year-long exchange program from New Zealand, where he was a Middle School Principal. He took me aside one day when some other kids were teasing me and told me it was OK to be smart. My debt to him for saying that to me at that particular time in my life is incalculable. Our 7th grade math teacher was a former basketball star from Northwestern. He had a pet tarantula. But he could not catch me up without those pesky multiplication tables, which I could not remember, no matter how many times I learned them. He was very kind to me though, and encouraged me to keep trying anyway. Ms. Williams, the 8th grade English teacher, was all about Shakespeare. We read plays and sonnets all year long. We celebrated Shakespeare’s birthday with performances in the courtyard and a giant sheet cake with a portrait of the bard himself in colored icing. I believe she was what some old time politicians might have called a “known thespian”.
Despite the many good teachers, I did poorly at school. Perhaps these days I would be labeled with some sort of learning difference, or ADD. In today’s public school system, with very actively involved parenting, I would have probably been given OT and stimulant medication. Perhaps I might have done better. As it was, I left school in the 11th grade to work in a restaurant. I took a GED. At 26, I finally went to college, needing over 2 years of remedial math to be able to take college algebra. I worked very hard and was an excellent student. Phi Beta Kappa. I went on to get a degree in Political Science, and was actively recruited for graduate school. By that time I was in my thirties. After a year of agonizing over the decision, I chose to raise a family instead, feeling the work of parenting would be healing for my soul, and that I could not devote sufficient time either to my studies or my family if I were to attempt both motherhood and an academic career at the same time.
It has been healing for my soul. Motherhood has also led me down the unexpected roads of attachment parenting and home schooling. The shock to my dogma which I experienced from the first moment I held my first child has not let up, and only increased with my second. I was certainly not going to be one of those mothers that co-slept. Until my baby had breathing problems at birth, and a nurse suggested that I sleep with her because my body would wake up if she stopped breathing. I was certainly not going to nurse anyone older than 2, (the recommended minimum length of time for immune benefits) until I tried to wean a 2 year old who felt weaning was equivalent to burning her with hot coals. I was certainly not going to home-school, until my precious 6 year old was losing weight and exhibiting symptoms of depression and anxiety, and our pediatrician asked what her teacher was like. I was certainly not going to unschool…there are things you just need to know, right? Until I learned more about how the brain works, and what actually happens when you allow a child to be a person and treat them as such. In the past few years I have watched my six year old son teach himself to read, and to add and subtract, along with many other “academic” skills. I have learned that the best support I can give them is facilitating their natural curiosity, and enrolling them in the responsibility for educating themselves as a lifelong journey. In my own journey, I have confronted many of my assumptions about ideology and parenting, and found that love must be the guiding principle in my decision making. Also I have learned that personal agency, community consciousness and critical thought, not classroom instruction, are the true bedrock of civil society. Do we want to be a society of sheep, blindly sacrificing our time and talents on the altar of consumption? Separating ourselves from others by swallowing what we are told we want? Defining ourselves by our purchases?
Or do we want to take the more challenging path of honestly observing ourselves and our surroundings, making difficult choices which seek to balance our ideals against each other?
So Ms. Goldstein, perhaps none of this means anything to you. Perhaps there are points you agree with, yet fail to support your political agenda and will thus be ignored. But this is the true experience of a progressive home-school Mom, living her values out loud on a daily basis. And I am not alone. A whole tribe of liberal homeschoolers have my back, and I have theirs.
Stephanie Baselice, Chapel Hill
read the slate article here
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