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Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement


reviewed by Kurt J. Bauman - 2004

coverTitle: Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement
Author(s): Mitchell L. Stevens
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691058180, Pages: 228, Year: 2001
Search for book at Amazon.com


Homeschooling is one of the most unique and surprising social movements of the last few decades.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, some 850,000 students in the United States were being homeschooled in 1999 (Bielick, Chandler and Broughman, 2001), and the number gives every appearance of growing.  Yet we don’t really have answers to some of basic questions about this phenomenon: “What is it all about?  Who is doing it?  Why are they doing it?  Is homeschooling going to grow or is it just a fad?” and finally, “How will it affect schools?”

 

Mitchell Stevens’ short, readable and fascinating book The Kingdom of Children explores homeschooling as a social movement and examines how the leadership and organization of the movement has transformed it from its origins to its current form.  It is a book about how the organization of social movements makes a difference in their failure or success.  It is a book about the relative success of the liberal “alternative” political movements and the conservative Christian political movements that grew in the U.S. since the 1960s, and how leadership groups can sometimes highjack the spirit of a movement to serve ends that are not necessarily widely held within the movement itself.

 

As a person whose main interest is in education and educational policy, I found much to be learned from this book.  Stevens provides a review of the philosophy and pedagogy of the movement’s founders, and records the ideas and motivations of many types of people involved. However, since this was not the main focus of the book, and because Stevens didn’t make it clear to me that his focus lay elsewhere, I was often disappointed when the discussion turned from education policy to social movements.  With this warning, I hope you can avoid the same disappointment.  There is so much that is valuable in this book it would be a disservice to make too big a point of this. 

 

The broad-ranging topical coverage of the book makes The Kingdom of Children an excellent book for those who want to get caught up on the subject of homeschooling, even if it doesn’t provide a definitive treatment of any one subject.  Because it usually sticks very closely to its empirical base of participant observation and interviews, it provides interesting insights across the board.  We get to meet homeschool parents and leaders of homeschool advocacy groups, and we get to follow the development of the home school movement through periods of growth, turbulence and change.  I finished this book feeling inspired to explore its insights further.

 

Why do parents choose homeschooling?  Although Stevens doesn’t address this question head-on, he does find some answers from interviewed parents.  Some parents experienced problems with schools. One found that her son was not fitting-in well in school, turned to alternative schools, and then to home schooling when alternative schools no longer challenged him.  Another parent was a former schoolteacher who felt the schools where she taught had been too impersonal and wanted control over the philosophy of teaching to which her children would be exposed.

 

Other motivations were more philosophical.  One parent was a nurse involved in “allopathic” approaches to birth, who was introduced to homeschooling through books she read as her children approached school age.  Another parent initially intended to use Christian private schools for her children but was converted to the idea of home-schooling when she heard it discussed on Christian talk radio.

 

What Stevens emphasizes, though, is not these initial motivations, but the existence of two ingredients that allowed parents to follow through on their inclination towards alternatives.  The first ingredient was networks of parents involved in homeschooling who provided advice and shared the ups and downs.  As Stevens says, “the transition from apprehension to commitment is made possible, in part, through parents’ interactions with those who are already committed.” (p. 32)  The second ingredient was a set of supportive ideas promoted by homeschool advocates.  Stevens argues that these ideas were powerful and struck “resonant chords in American culture: our belief that all people are individuals, with rights; our suspicion that ‘experts’ are not as trustworthy as common sense; and our worries that government is too intrusive and does not serve us very well” (p. 33).

 

As the book progresses, Stevens introduces at least two other motivations for home schooling.  Motivation number one is the changing status of women.  Home schooling is primarily attractive to households with a single bread-winner and a parent at home, almost always the mother.  Stevens argues that home schooling is a bid for a more meaningful role for women who would otherwise be “just” housewives.  Motivation number two is growing expectations about “self-fulfillment” as a life goal and the changed role of childhood as a stage in reaching this goal, which Stevens refers to as “nurturing the expanded self.”  These two motivations, he argues, have combined within the modern family.  “At the same time that women as women have learned to be more defensive about their own needs, then, they also have faced increasing demands as mothers to honor their children’s individual needs” (p. 189).

 

How convincing are these arguments?  It is doubtful that homeschooling rose up simply because support networks were available.  This would be more plausible if other types of support networks were also encouraging the growth of social movements in the 1980s and 1990s, which was clearly not the case (Putnam, 2000).  Homeschooling seems also to have been growing all around the country rather than in selected areas where networks might have formed (Lines, 1997).  As for the influence of ideas of homeschooling advocates, these were clearly important, but I doubt they were the driving forces for growth.  The ideas of homeschooling pioneers such as John Holt and Raymond and Dorothy Moore simply don’t seem of the caliber to, by themselves, launch a social movement entailing such a radical departure from regular school practice.  Nor did they figure so prominently in Stevens’ subjects’ discussion of homeschooling as to convince me that they had played such a central role. 

 

I find the arguments about women’s roles and the enhanced emphasis on self-actualization in childhood closest to the mark.  However, as they are presented here they are not really developed enough to make a case.  Stevens’ emphasis on women wishing to justify their role as “just a mom” runs counter to his own observation that many of his subjects had professional careers (academics, nurses, teachers) before becoming homeschool parents.  I do think that women’s changing roles do play a strong role in the movement to homeschooling.  I wish that Stevens had probed farther to get his subjects’ insights and feelings on these matters.

 

I believe that schools these days are in serious trouble because parents find the link between education and economic success becoming increasingly mysterious just as it is becoming increasingly important.  All around us heightened anxiety has turned school into increasingly contested terrain.  Parents seem to be in search of any mechanism they can find to ensure that their children will find a school environment supporting their advancement and success.   Families constantly seek better neighborhoods, exert influence on PTA and school policies, protest class assignments, ask for “individual development plans” for children with mild learning problems, and pay money for tutoring, SAT preparation, and private schools.

 

The people pursuing homeschooling tend to be moderately-educated, middle-income families who have “alternative” educational philosophies, whether related to religion or lifestyle.  These are families that find it difficult to afford private schools and can’t hope to compete with upper-income professionals and local elites who strongly influence the administration of public schools.   They are similar to the families threatened by the bureaucratization of education and by affirmative action because they see whatever small advantage they had within the system disappearing.  When schools were the ‘great equalizer’ in a society of factories and large organizations, parents could trust schools to take their children and bring them to a level of modest success if the children responded with a modicum of conscientiousness and conformity.  Those days are gone, and homeschooling seems to me to be but one reaction to their disappearance. 

 

Throughout the book, Stevens returns to the contrast between two homeschooling camps, which he terms the “inclusives” and the “believers.”  He draws the contrast between the groups in terms of philosophy, membership, organizational structure, and leadership. 

 

In brief, “inclusives” believe most strongly that the child can and should be allowed to pursue his or her own interests and curiosity in pursuing an education.  Their membership includes many followers of “alternative” lifestyles, and they believe strongly that all varieties of people should be welcome in their organizations.  They tend to have very loose organizations, relying on volunteer efforts at the grassroots level, and the leaders are almost always women, with men usually taking background, supportive roles.

 

“Believers,” in contrast, see children not as innately curious and capable of learning, but as fragile and in need of parental guidance apart from the cold institutionalism of school.  Their membership is Christian, usually fundamentalist, and they often explicitly exclude non-believers from participation in their groups.  They have formed very tightly organized umbrella organizations at the national level, with large budgets and paid employees.  These sustain many state and local groups, whose leadership is given training and support.

 

Stevens provides a description of the relative success of the Christian leaders in developing an organizational structure on the “believers” side of the movement.  A result of this organizational strength is a perception that home schooling is predominantly the province of Christian fundamentalist parents.  There is little statistical evidence for this claim, however, and Stevens seems to have been able easily to find homeschool parents of all persuasions.  In other words, the association of homeschooling with Christian fundamentalism in the popular press and public imagination may be mainly due to the organizational effectiveness of a few leaders.

 

This lesson alone is worth the price of the book.  We should beware of assuming that the face of organizational leadership reflects a movement as a whole.  The book can be a launching pad for making several similar points about dealing with new educational ideas and change.  It can also be an excellent source of ideas on how sociological principles have application to educational policy.  I would highly recommend this book for either an undergraduate or graduate course focusing on educational administration or leadership, and as general reading for anyone with a concern about the future of education.

 

References

Bielick, S., Chandler, K. and Broughman, S. P.  (2001). Homeschooling in the United States: 1999. (NCES 2001-033) Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

 

Lines, P. M. (1999).  Homeschoolers: Estimating Numbers and Growth. Washington, D.C.: Office of Education Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. 

 

Putnam, R. D. (2000).  Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Although national figures since 1999 are not yet available, several states record the number of homeschool families registered with state or local officials.  I looked at several of these sites, and saw that the number has generally continued to grow through the 2002-2003 school year.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 357-361
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11201, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 6:16:54 AM

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About the Author
  • Kurt Bauman

    E-mail Author
    KURT J. BAUMAN is a demographer and sociologist focusing on trends in educational attainment and measures of family well-being. His current research interests include measurement of high school dropout, GED recipiency, and home schooling.
 
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