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Liberté / Libertés

Sylvia Ullmo

II. Représentations et territoires de la liberté

Home schooling: preserving personal liberty and freedom of choice or controlled confinement?

Priscilla Morin

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1Historically, Americans viewed their country as a nation under God, a land of unlimited opportunity and limited, unobtrusive government where education was a matter of parental responsibility. Bound by a constitution based on Biblical principles which in the minds of parents gave them the right to not only make the decision to educate or not to educate their children but more importantly allowed them to choose the substance and religious impulse of this education. Parents therefore bore the sole responsibility of education and children were schooled in the home with the Bible as the basis of curriculum. However, the ever changing American society and the pressures of industrialization and economic development transformed this home based learning into tax-supported public schools, which though at first continued inculcating religious and moral values and beliefs, in time turned to a more secularized mission of transmitting democratic principles and state sanctioned rights and responsibilities. Dismayed and distressed by these overwhelming changes in education and believing the U.S. was very far from the benevolent period when Biblical law set the standards of American society, strongly Christian Protestant families have turned to other means of educating their children and in many cases they have turned to home schooling.

  • 1 The Christian Right refers to a religiously grounded social movement made up of a network of conse (...)

2To the Christian Right activists the American society of today is in complete subordination to bureaucratic law, the law of the state.1 In order to protect their children from what they believe is an attempt to impose on them the philosophy of humanism espoused by their archenemy, the secular humanists, i.e. man's law has become superior to God's law, Christian Right families have turned themselves into activists battling for religious liberty and educational freedom. Because these religious conservatives see a link between moral values and education, nowhere has the conflict between Christianity and humanism been more intense than in the field of education. It is in this domain that the Christian Right feels its first amendment right of freedom of religion and expression and its 14th amendment right of liberty have been seriously infringed upon.

3According to the Christian Right secular humanists see education, as a means to control children thus, the fundamental issue has become the ownership of children. Who has the right to indoctrinate children in the public schools? The Church or the State? If parents who espouse strong religious values, have to send their children to schools which indoctrinate them with humanist values, isn't this an infringement on the basic rights and liberties guaranteed to each individual by the U.S. Constitution?

4In order to answer these questions I have chosen to look quickly at the evolution of American education to demonstrate why the Christian Right movement has felt left by the wayside by public schools which have abandoned the principles of traditional moral values, thereby, forcing religious families to create alternative means of schooling. I will also look at how home schooling answers the needs of these concerned parents.

5If we look very briefly at the historical context of education in the U.S. we can see how public education's original role of transmitting a religious impulse evolved in time to a more secular curriculum. In colonial times where the only education available was home school learning, children were taught the moral outlook of the Puritan values, but by the early 19th century religious and political leaders worried about the role of the excesses of individualism in this type of schooling and hence, turned to the idea of universal education in state-run school systems. The faith in public schooling as an engine of democracy grew so strongly that schools became a veritable established church, in essence giving the public schools, or common schools as they were called in the 19th century, a quasi-religious ideology informing a civic mission for American public schools. By the 1850's the ideology that came to dominate amounted to “God's providential Protestant express promoting commerce, westward expansion, schools and churches... a native Protestant ideology”(Kaestle, 1983, 95). The need for common schooling became a central tenet of native Protestantism. Thus, from the 1850's to 1880's morality and literacy were the twin goals of education but little by little the role of the schools as a source of moral ideology began to erode. As a result the emphasis was moved to the organization and the running of schools, a shift which caused a change in the mission of the public schools.

6Linked to these changes were of course the transformations which were taking place in the American society itself as more and more Americans turned from working on the farms to the factories or businesses signifying that as men worked increasingly away from home, women gradually took over the role of the moral education of their children. Burdened, however, with their household tasks and the education of their young, in the end, it was the women who contributed to pressures for increased schooling. Also, by the end of the 19th century parents came to see schools as a means of assuring the financial success of their children. However, the loss of control and authority over their children's education came at a great price and caused uneasiness for the parents as they worried about the compromises they were making with older traditional values. Compulsory school attendance laws were passed by mid 19th century and parents almost universally abdicated the traditional responsibility of educating their children.

  • 2 The Modernists and the Fundamentalists controversy erupted at the end of the 19th century and last (...)

7The 20th century progressive education reforms, encouraged by educators such as John Dewey, pushed the schools even further away from their original religious ideology and encouraged them to be the facilitators of the very modernizing forces that the Protestant religious community was doing battle with. By the 1920's modernist Protestant influences in the churches had started to dominate and Protestants themselves became divided into modernists and fundamentalists.2 The alienating aspects of modernization that were accentuated by the progressive reforms helped to widen the gap between family and school and with this came a gradually weakened faith in public schools as the families felt they were losing control and authority over the education of their children. In the 1930's and beyond reformers turned to public schools to find panaceas for the various crises, social or otherwise that arose. And when by the 1970's this mission had clearly failed and public schooling no longer instilled the values many parents believed in, they turned to alternatives to public schooling, including education at home.

8From this very brief look at public schools in America we can better understand the Christian Right's contention that religion played a much more explicit role in defining and directing public education in the past than it does now. The very issues, such as secularization, defined by Harvey Cox in his book The Secular City as "man turning away from worlds beyond and toward this world and time" (Cox, 1965, 2) and which caused conservative Christians great consternation in America surfaced in public education itself. For evangelicals and fundamentalists vicious assaults on their religious values became more apparent in 1962 with the Supreme Court decision (Engel ν Vitale) which did away with prayer in public schools. Several other Supreme Court decisions followed which added further restrictions and virtually eliminated prayer in any form in public schools. Conservative religious groups interpreted these changes as an attack on the absolute moral values that had long been the basis of American life. Furthermore, in the mind of Christian parents by the 1960's secularization had become the dominant worldview in most public schools in the U.S., as the legislative mandate issued by the state of Pennsylvania in 1965 demonstrates; it attests that education should allow each child the opportunity to acquire “the greatest possible understanding of himself (sic) and appreciation of his worthiness as a member of society and understanding and appreciation of persons belonging to social, cultural, and ethnic groups different from his”(McQuiade and Pliska, 1993-94, 19).

9In addition, one of the alarming effects of secularization was to increase the role of the state in education. Conservative Protestants witnessed with growing alarm the state's increasing importance in what had once been the realm of morality. Religious perspectives and content were expunged from public school textbooks and materials. Even in the study of American culture where religion had been a powerful force in the construction of the culture, by the 1950's and 60's little mention was made of religion. Added to the exclusion of religious impulse in public school curricula was the decreasing role of parents and local school boards in determining the goals and organization of their schools and the greater presence of the federal government in the focus of the schools. The government's intense efforts to use the public schools to remedy social problems and to eliminate discrimination further enhanced its domination in the realm of education. At about the same time the challenges the U.S. faced from the Soviet Union's advances in space encouraged it to push the schools to improve and extend their math and science programs. The Christian Right came to see these moves as a form of government interference in what was a socio-moral domain. A progressive transfer of the protection of the traditional values from the Church to the state was now occurring. The Christian Right came to the view that federal government interests were the drive to curricular content.

10Another important factor which Christian Right parents found menacing and which took place at about the same time was the new emphasis on the professionalization of the teaching profession. Teachers, now, had to be certified and with this new recognition they became the experts. Parents were, thus, even more excluded from the decision-making process in the schools because they did not have the right credentials. The responsibility for curriculum content passed into the hands of the educational beaureaucracies of experts at the state and federal levels. The emphasis on curricular and pedagogical design became more scientific and based more and more on behavioral psychology which spawned a subculture of educational consultants, reinforcing an already-held feeling of alienation by the parents. In the end, the cumulative effects of these gradual changes in public education which often produced chaotic results created in the parents a sense that they were very far removed from their children's education, that the schools were out of control and more importantly that they had lost a fundamental right and liberty they had had in the past; that of being the major influence over their children's lives.

11The 1970's brought another disturbing element in the lives of Christian parents; the 1973 Supreme Court decision (Roe ν Wade), making abortions legal. Christians interpreted this move as a violation of their personal way of living and thinking – their personal liberty. Once more the government had intervened in a realm Christians felt belonged to the church and the family and once more their individual rights and liberties were threatened. The battle for homosexual rights in the 1970's further alienated fundamentalists and evangelicals.

12In this context of troubling times, the rise of moral relativism being taught in public schools, the chaos in social and family values which frightened and dismayed many conservative Christians who worried about the bad influence of the public schools on their children, home schooling programs were developed as an option to public education. Home schooling is defined as the education of school-aged children at home rather than at a school. Most visibly home schooling has become a weapon in the attacks on the school system from the politically active Christian Right. In addition the growth in home schooling since the late seventies has been among religious conservatives, fundamentalists, evangelicals and Born-Agains (all members of the coalition called the Christian Right). Basically, spear-headed by the Christian Right this movement is made up today of a growing and exploding population which according to some estimates represents about 2 1/2% of the school age population including more and more parents outside Christian Right circles.

13An intriguing aspect of home schooling is its apparent assault on contemporary formal education which dates from the early part of the 20th century and its return to a colonial times way of life when children were schooled at home. However, home schooling is also the result of the economic, political, and cultural developments and conflicts that have occurred in America since the 1970's. Families who home school are willing to make the sacrifices needed; the loss of one family income, the burden of the expenses of education at home, in order to protect their children from what they believe is the corrupting effects of modernization and secularization on the traditional family values and on public education. Considering their diminished role in the decision making process of public education as a serious attack on their religious and personal liberties, they are also greatly concerned with what they feel is the break down of the family. Thus, they have decided to take matters into their own hands and return to the times of the early pioneers when home based education was the norm.

14In the 1970's John Holt, a former elementary school teacher, was one of the first to advocate home schooling which he called "unschooling." He wrote numerous books on the question such as Teach Your Own and published a newsletter "Growing without Schooling." His writings provided a basis for the development of home schooling among Christian families, although Holt was not a religious man. In actuality he represented a humanist approach to education but his appeal lay in his educational alternative styles.

15Raymond Moore, another important figure in the home schooling movement wrote a series of books and articles emphasizing the merits of home based education and in doing so laid the groundwork that would legitimize home schooling as one of the great populist educational movements of the 20th century. Moore stressed the value of providing a superior educational experience at home with parents as teachers. Moore, however, was a religious man, a Seventh Day Adventist, who with his wife taught their seven children at home long before there were formal home schooling organizations. He founded two organizations which conduct research and disseminate information on home schooling. Moore's work has been instrumental in helping and influencing religious families to turn to schools in the home.

16With Moore and Holt's writings as a guide and with the chaotic context of American society some Christian Right families began to organize around the home schooling issue by establishing cottage industries in their homes. In 1983 Michael Farris, an attorney and a home school father founded the Home School Legal Defense Association to provide legal assistance to home school families. Several home school parents began newsletters and set up workshops like Gregg Harris' Christian Life Workshops (1986) to provide training sessions around the country for home school families. Also, large Christian organizations began producing elaborate curriculum materials for home schoolers and publishing books and pamphlets focusing on the merits of home schooling. Thus, families who are interested in home schooling their children today will find a plethora of materials, teaching supplies, computer software, cassettes, videos, DVDs etc and supporting organizations who can guide and advise them. Home schooling has become so popular that publishing houses have turned their attention to this new lucrative market by producing a great variety of school materials and there are home school conventions nationwide every year where parents can exchange their experiences and their problems with other home schoolers. Needless to say the vast majority of these materials support the fundamentalist Christian world view since they dominate the market place of home schooling.

17As an alternative to public schools home schooling has of course both its proponents and its opponents. On one hand the defenders of education at home point out the benefits of a better learning environment for their children and the close personal attention given to each child. Home educators feel that in public schools there is always the danger of your child getting left by the wayside if he or she doesn't perform as quickly as the others or if he or she needs a little more attention to get the work done. Home schooling parents also add "what if the teacher doesn't like your child," which can often happen "isn't he or she better off in a learning environment with someone who truly loves them." Christian Right parents see schooling at home as a means of protecting their children from condom distribution, multicultural esoteric concepts, new age techniques and from children toting guns or knives in school. For these parents public schools put too much emphasis on consumerism and conformity to state mandated behavior. A further argument in support of home schooling is that it is far more flexible than conventional schooling and produces far better results because parents can supplement their children's education with different types of private lessons or hobbies which will better meet their learning needs since they are directly involved in the assessment of their learning capacity and can make changes or add things as the need occurs. This flexibility according to home schooling parents turns out students who have a stronger sense of self and strong scholarship. Also and perhaps more significantly in these troubling times of high divorce rates and one-parent families home schooling creates strong family ties. Christians who place a high value on the traditional family values say that one of the most important aspects of their work is the strong parent-child relationship they are forging. Their children tum to them with their problems and not to some school guidance counselor who is not particularly interested in their child's difficulties. Plus this also ensures that the children received the correct Biblical answer as a solution to their problems. Christian Right families can also shield their children from what they identify as the evils and sins of the outside world, creating in some cases a fortress of fundamentalist thought in their homes, thereby, protecting their fundamental right and liberty of choosing what is right for their children. A Christian home schooling mother said: "The fact that schools want to teach sex education violates my family's values. I should be the one entrusted to presenting the sacredness of sex, not some young teacher” (Knowles, 1991, 9).

18Another problem for Christian Right parents is the teaching of evolution in the public school biology books. The Christian Right or fundamentalists believe in the creation of man by God as is stated in the book of Genesis of the Bible. Robbin Bury, mother of seven who has been home schooling her children since the beginning explains: "My desire is that they see things with a Christian world view. In the circle I'm in, I can see a lot of people home schooling for religious reasons-they want to teach creation as not a myth but as a fact" Kaslow, 1996, 9). These parents want a "Christ-centered education." In their view the major purpose of education is to show a student how to face God, not just show him how to face the world.

19The Scheibner family of Pennsylvania probably represents best the most typical fundamentalists who choose to home school. They have seven children from the ages of 20 months to 12 years old and it is Megan, the mother who teaches her children. She uses materials put out by one of the Christian home schooling organizations and she does not allow her children to participate in team sports because she feels that these breed “competitive behavior that we would not deem Christlike” (Talbot, 2000, 35). They don't celebrate Halloween because of the satanic overtones. Indeed the Scheibners have succeeded in encapsulating themselves and their children in a culture of their own making, creating a parallel world they control to the last detail. All of this to protect their individual right and liberty as parents.

20To opponents of home schooling the amount of control exerted by the Scheibners over their children stifles more than encourages free thought and reflection. Will the hermetically sealed world the Scheibners live in allow the children to function normally in the outside world should they venture into it? The lack of socialization has always been one of the severest criticisms of home schooling but usually families respond with the fact that rather than peer-group segregation found in the public schools home schooled children are exposed to all ages as in the case of the Scheibner children, and can develop better social skills as a result. In recent studies published on the results of home schooling the Scheibners may be right as more and more home schooled children enter universities with high test scores and perform very well in a variety of other tests. Although there is an increasing number of non-religious families who choose to home school education experts still estimate that more than 80 percent of the parents who educate their young are fundamentalist, born-again Christians with big families. These Christians feel repelled by what they view as the disintegration of the conventional school: its elimination of daily prayer, the incorporation of sex and AIDS education into the curriculum, and, in many cases, the threat of drugs and violence. In conclusion, they feel concerned about their individual right as parents to control their children's futures and they believe they are in effect "taking back" the power the schools have removed from them and returning schooling to its original role of transmitting Biblical values and beliefs. In the long run Christian Right families see home schooling as a reassertion of the liberties they feel the state has impinged on for too long.


Works cited

Cox, Harvey, 1965. The Secular City. London: Bloomsbury Press.

Cray, David, 2000. “Home Schooling Gaining Respect in the Mainstream” Los Angeles Times. August 6.

Kaestle, C. F, 1983. Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. New York: Hill and Wang.

Kaslow, Amy, 1966. “Learning at Home” Christian Science Monitor. Feb. 2, 9

Knowles, J. Gary, 1991. “The Parents' Rationales for Operating Home Schools” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. July, 203-231

Mcquaide, Judith and Ann-Maureen Pliska, 1993-1994. “The Challenge to Pennsylvania's Education Reform.” Educational Leadership. December-January, 9.

Pittmam, Mary Anne, 1987. “Compulsory Education and Home Schooling.” Education and Urban Society. Vol. 19, 280-289

Talbot, Margaret 2000. “A Mighty Fortress” The New York Times Magazine. Feb. 27, 34-68

Van Galen, Jane and Mary Anne Pitman, 1991. Home Schooling: Political Historical, and Pedagogical Perspectives. New Jersey: Ablex Pub.


1 The Christian Right refers to a religiously grounded social movement made up of a network of conservative Christian activists united by certain beliefs; such as truth based on divine revelation as an absolute certainty, the role of public education in protecting this truth and the theological justification for using politics to transform American culture.

2 The Modernists and the Fundamentalists controversy erupted at the end of the 19th century and lasted until the Scopes trial in 1924. As the Protestant Churches were subjected to the radical changes in US society, they divided into two camps; one which sought to adapt to the changing times and still maintain Protestant influence in society (the Modernists) and one which refused to yield to the changing forces and used the principles of an inerrant Bible as its battle cry (the Fundamentalists and the Evangelicals).


Université François-Rabelais de Tours

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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