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Homeschooling is a Better Offense than Defense
Little warriors won't change the culture, but cohesive families just might.
I’ve written here in the recent past about the way some conservative evangelicals misconstrue homeschooling as a training ground for the culture war. My point is simple: years of living inside the homeschooling movement has shown me that families who view their children as little soldiers, and instrumentalize their young years to this end, often develop dysfunctional dynamics, particularly toward the local church.
But this raises the question: What is homeschooling good for? The answer, I think, is also fairly simple. Homeschooling is a powerful vehicle for personal formation, inasmuch as it normalizes a home-centered rhythm of life. Note that I’m leaving aside the question of educational benefits to homeschooling, of which there are many (and it’s precisely the educational benefits that seem to be pushing homeschooling beyond the conservative religious world). What I’m talking about are the hours, days, and years that a homeschooling family will spend just being together, the way they will develop an instinct toward time that is deeply family-referential.
My sense is that a lot of young American adults fall into chronic loneliness and isolation some time after college because, for nearly all their lives, their days have been structured around activity rather than a particular place or particular people. When you talk to those in their late 20s or early 30s who are showing all the signs of generational despair, you often don’t sense that this despair was equally intense throughout their lives. Of course, middle and high school are really, really hard on a lot of people. But that adolescent angst seems qualitatively different than what many others encounter after their school years are over. When careers displace the classroom, there’s a loss of true north, an ambient confusion about what should really anchor a life. This can be especially devastating if someone’s friend circle is no longer as cohesive as it once was, due to life or job change.
For many years, the normalization of marriage and having your own children blunted this effect. But now the decline of marriage and the ascendance of deliberate childlessness highlights just how family-illiterate many emerging American adults really are. And here’s where homeschooling comes in. Homeschooling, if done well, is one of the only meaningful childhoods still possible that teaches us that family, not activity, is a sufficient base camp of life. Homeschooling offers kids and families a way of relating to time that is resilient against the arbitrary changes of details in what people do. It’s whom you’re with that is constant, whom you are seeing and learning and loving each day that frames your encounter of the world.
It seems fairly normal in our current society for people to come of age without really knowing anyone. Most friendships don’t seem to endure more than a couple graduations; life after college kills what’s left, since being united to the same group of peers by virtue of shared activity is frequently an impossibility once college is over. People my age have been shuffled their entire lives from one activity to the next, with the people and places becoming utterly contingent on what they were supposed to be accomplishing. The kind of relational depth that can only be found through time (not by frequency, which is different) is implausible for many. That’s why it’s so common to hear people my age and younger say they have one or zero close friends. This is not an admission of unfriendliness or unlikability. It’s an affirmation that the system worked.
The disposability of people that’s baked into much of our current culture isn’t just existentially sad, it’s theologically and politically relevant. Writers like Jonathan Haidt have spent much of the last half-decade warning that there is something deeply deficient in the moral makeup of younger Americans, a deficiency which renders them incapable of the kind of courage and strength that holds together a diverse commonwealth. Haidt is right to talk about the coddling of the American mind at university, and he is right to say that social media is an important instrument of this effect. But Haidt has not yet arrived at the inevitable conclusion: That this crippling of our minds and spirits begins not with ideology but often with a decrepit relationship to people and place. We do not tolerate disagreement because we do not happen to value anyone who disagrees with us. And we do not value anyone who disagrees with us because much of our life, starting at kindergarten, is structured around personal accomplishment and self-reference, not around a family unit whom we inherit rather than curate.
Family is where people really learn how to disagree. Family is where people really learn that love and opposition are not opposed but often go hand-in-hand. Family is where people really learn that authority is inevitable, that good authority matters so much, that bad authority is incredibly destructive (even if it seems efficient). Family is where people really learn your name, and where you really learn theirs. That’s why a way of doing education that centers the family really does have an enormous potential for shaping boys and girls.
Again, we’re talking about homeschooling done well. A lot of people haven’t done it well. They’ve chosen homeschooling to keep certain people away from their children, rather than keep certain people closer to them. This model tends not to work very well. Homeschooling is a living liturgy of home-life, a way of encountering the world that teaches a person that no matter what they learn or what they do, there is a place and a people to whom they belong. And nothing that happens by them or to them matters more than that. That’s why I say that homeschooling is offense rather than defense. It offers a way of life, a way of seeing others and seeing myself in reference to them. This is the kind of “sheltering” that is so valuable: not just to keep the storm from getting to you, but to keep others close so that even when the lights go out, you know where you are.