Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling
reviewed by Kurt J. Bauman - November 17, 2009
Title: Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling
Author(s): Robert Kunzman
Publisher: Beacon Press, Boston
ISBN: 0807032913, Pages: 256, Year: 2009
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Write These Laws on Your Children describes Robert Kunzmans extended visits with half a dozen conservative Christian families who homeschool their children. The descriptions of the families focus on curriculum, child-parent interaction, teaching style, and philosophy about how children should grow and how the government should react. The result is a carefully observed and revealing look at a growing corner of our educational world.
The families are geographically diverse (California, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, and Indiana). However, they are similar in many other respects two parents with a single breadwinner, moderate incomes, mostly non-Hispanic white (the Rivera family of Los Angeles being the exception), and living in suburban, rural, or small town settings. Most have large families (numbers of children are 1, 3, 4, 4, 9, and 10). The mother provides most of the daily instruction in all the families.
In addition to reporting on these families, the author takes side trips to homeschooling conventions, an academy for homeschoolers, and the Home School Legal Defense Association, a lobbying group for conservative Christian homeschoolers. These trips give him a chance to further explore some of the issues raised in his family observations, but the latter remain the central concern.
Kunzman focuses on three points. He wants to know the types of learning that take place in homeschool families, their perceptions of the appropriate level of homeschooling regulation by state and local authorities, and the extent to which children learn to think for themselves and understand opposing points of view.
All the families he observed used curricular materials from vendors, mostly workbooks. Most of these materials are not extremely expensive, but families tended to economize by sharing materials across children and skipping the purchase of the teachers edition. They tended to put together an overall curriculum from a hodge-podge of materials sometimes using materials from different vendors for different subjects, sometimes using field trips or videos, sometimes leaving out topics altogether. The quality of instruction varies from one family to another. Overall, however, we get the impression that the children enjoy the process and are learning quite a bit. With little or no testing required, its hard to tell whether homeschooled children are learning as well as those in public schools. Past research has suffered from non-representative samples, but seems to indicate that homeschooled children are doing at least as well.
Kunzman found that nearly all the families opposed any regulation that went beyond what they currently experienced. On the other hand, there were few complaints about the regulations they did experience, despite a large range in the strictness of states in which they lived. Most regulations, he found, were easy enough to get around, in any case. Kunzman believes that regulation should be aimed at assuring basic standards are met. He proposes principles of regulation that the vital interests of kids or society must be at stake, that general consensus should exist on standards imposed, and that there be an effective measurement in place.
Kunzman was especially concerned about whether children in Christian homeschool families were able to develop the capacity to think independently. The parents he talked to seemed to have mature attitudes encouraging a transition to independence. The older children seemed to have developed some of this without straying far from their parents values and beliefs. On the other hand, those who had some exposure to public schools expressed surprise at the range of attitudes and views they found there. Kunzman discusses his ambivalence on this point, but doesnt come to hard and fast conclusions.
A weakness of this book is the tendency of the author to debate points with his subjects, as opposed to engaging the literature. Although the author is clearly familiar with past research on homeschooling, he provides only a short bibliography and no citations (instead he points to bibliographic references on a web page). Although past research on homeschooling is sparse, it would provide a better foil for Kunzmans thoughts than the homeschool families themselves are able to muster.
A second weakness to the book is the narrow sample on which it rests. As Kunzman admits, conservative Christians make up only a slice of the homeschool population, and it is hard to tell what aspects of their practices might also be found in the wider group. A focus on conservative Christian homeschoolers might be more forgivable were it not for the lack of good research on the broader homeschool population. Many people are under the impression that conservative Christians and homeschoolers are one and the same, and one might hope that a volume constructed with this much care would help alleviate this.
In spite of its limitations, the book is a valuable contribution to what we know about conservative Christian homeschoolers and homeschooling in general. I found myself thinking again and again about the families Kunzman observed and the challenges they faced in teaching their children. This is the best observation of instructional processes in homeschool families that we currently have available, and is an essential reference for those interested in the homeschool population.