Religious homeschoolers are, as everyone knows, tax-dodging, militia-supporting separatists who spend four hours per day on Bible study, only allow their children to read books published before 1900, and think immunization is the tool of the coming one-world government.
Because of these stereotypes, I've developed my own knee-jerk reaction: "But of course, I homeschool for academic reasons," I assure my listeners. I cite the dismal academic performance of the local public school and the unreasonably high tuition of the nearest private school. My husband and I both have graduate degrees, and I was homeschooled myself, so I'm comfortable with the job of teaching my own children. I feel I can do a better job than the classroom.
This defensive reaction doesn't do justice to my own reasons for homeschooling. The truth is, I am teaching my sons at home for religious reasons; I find most classrooms to be toxic social environments, where children are taught to gang up on the weakest to survive. As a Christian, I want my own sons to turn away from violence, to learn humility, compassion, and patience. This, to me, is proper socialization. It isn't going to take place if my three boys are surrounded for most of each day by a crowd of peers who thrive on aggression and a steady diet of multimedia bloodshed.
But my religious convictions can't be separated from my academic goals for my children. Classical education--my mother's method of teaching, and the method I now use to teach my own children--views teacher and student as bound together in discipleship, in which a respected elder leads a receptive learner toward knowledge and wisdom.
This can't take place if the student is forced to doubt the teacher. When my mother tells the story of her decision to homeschool my siblings and me, back in 1972, she talks about my brother's boredom, my kindergarten teacher's worries that my love for reading was unhealthy, the bullying on the bus that often delivered us to school weeping. But one incident finally pushed her into homeschooling. My brother, age 7, came home one spring and confronted her in the kitchen, putting both hands on his hips and glaring in the knowledge that someone was pulling the wool over his eyes. "You said God made the world," he announced, "and the teacher says no one made the world. Now I want to know: Who's telling the truth?"
She couldn't accuse herself of untruth; nor did she want to explain to my brother that he was to sit, for the entire next year, under the teaching of a person he could not trust. We started homeschooling the next fall.
This exchange had nothing to do with the details of seven-day creation, the existence of Adam and Eve, or scientific evidence of evolution. My brother wasn't questioning the exact mode by which the world came into existence. Instead, what he saw was more profound--a basic conflict between two truths. In his teacher's universe, the physical world was all that was or would ever be. In the world of his family and church, the unseen was as real and powerful as the seen. These were two worlds that couldn't coexist in the mind of a bright and inquiring second grader.
Why homeschool, though? Why not just put children in religious schools, where the classroom reinforces home values? I haven't found this to be a solution for my family.
With which teacher should I entrust my children?
Nor do I want my kids to learn history with all questions of religion either censored or simplified. Were the Crusaders soldiers of God or soldiers of Western imperialism? Religious educators are often too afraid to admit that devout believers did bad things; secular educators are often all too happy to point out that the love of God is the root of all evil.
My public school would teach my 9-year-old that Columbus was a self-aggrandizing representative of an expansionist empire determined to acquire more money and power while wiping out native cultures. On the other side, the mother of a Christian-school student told me with wide-eyed exhilaration of her son's American history lesson the week before: "Columbus went to the New World to share the gospel with the Indians! I never knew that! Doesn't that change the way you think about this country? We were founded on the declaration of the gospel! Isn't God good?"
So was Columbus a patriarchal aggressor or a humble servant of God? He was both.
I won't say that no classroom can address this issue in all its complexity. But there isn't one near me. Until there is, I'll continue to teach my kids at home.