March 7th, 2013


homeschooling, religion, and authoritarianism

Over at Patheos, Libby Anne has been blogging about the ways he own experiences as a homeschooled kid. I really recommend all of them to anyone who is thinking about homeschooling or even is just interested in education. Libby Anne gives a nice look at how her own experiences affected her, and it’s personal but also fascinating at a broader level at the same time.

  1. Homeschooling, Academics and Me

  2. Homeschooling, Socialization and Me

  3. Homeschooling Under the Influence

It’s the last post that really captured my imagination. Libby Anne is talking about how her parents started homeschooling for practical reasons, but that they became influenced by certain philosophies and groups common among homeschool groups. Her family was evangelical, but she describes how if she’d been in a public school she would have grown up a little less isolated and surrounded by people who weren’t like her. As she puts it,

[The other teenagers at her church] dressed like normal teens, listened to Christian rock music, and attended youth group. I didn’t associate with them or befriend them—for one thing, my parents felt the church youth group was too worldly, and for another thing, their social networks revolved around their schools and thus de facto shut me out. Instead, I stayed close to the homeschooled children of a few of my parents’ friends who had also attended the church from way back. We were different — they were like me. If we hadn’t been homeschooled, we would have been like those youth group kids. Evangelical, yes, but normal evangelical.

Libby Anne is very even-handed all through this series (and really, in pretty much every post I’ve ever read by her). She recognizes the parts of her homeschool education that were good for her and the ways in which it could have been better with some small changes. But in this post she also talks about the ways some of the homeschool ideology she grew up around affected her in not-so-good ways. Again, quoting her:

Based on this newfound ideology, my parents told us children that the reason dad was working an ordinary job rather than being a pastor, or a missionary, or a politician was so that he and mom could raise up a large number of godly offspring to go out and do all of these things a hundred fold. We were the arrows in my dad’s quiver, and they were raising us to shoot out into the world to make a difference for Christ. This is called Quiverfull, an ideology born and nurtured in the homeschool movement, passed from homeschool mother to homeschool mother and homeschool co-op to homeschool co-op like a disease. My parents were honing us and training us, they told us, preparing us for this mission. Did I mention that this could feel dehumanizing, and stifling? Oh, sometimes it could feel gloriously empowering. But the only dreams we were allowed to have were the ones our parents fed us. Step outside of that, and our parents’ smiles would instantaneously turn to frowns.


During my teenage years my parents adopted another line fed them by the homeschool movement—that the concept of “teenager” was a modern invention, and contrary to God’s plan for the family. Rebellion was unnatural, and not to be allowed. Questioning was frowned on, and quickly answered with emotional manipulation—the dense fog of disapproval was enough to make the strongest of us buckle and give in. Further, during our teenage years we were expected to bear the responsibility and workload of an adult, but without being given the freedoms of an adult. It was like being two years old, and thirty, in a fifteen year old body. Where we went, who we were friends with, what music we listened to, and what books we read — all was still carefully monitored and controlled.

Let me emphasize that Libby Anne is not going off on a tirade. She is writing almost dispassionately about the way these ideas influenced her life, and while it’s clear she has left these ideas behind and is glad to have done so, I get the impression that her goal here is to give as balanced a view of this world as she can manage. And as someone who’s spent the last several years training not just to be a philosopher but to be a philosophy teacher, I find all of this fascinating. And important. And well-worth reading on its own.


Aside from the intrinsically interesting and worthwhile parts of these pieces, they also got me interested in the religion angle of her experiences. Most of the ideologies Libby Anne mentions are from what I, as a mainline Protestant, would describe as the fringe of the evangelical movement. We’re talking about dominionism. The Quiverfull movement. Christian courtship and the patriarchy movement. Libby Anne is absolutely right to point out that the people promoting these ideas and living them out are almost always evangelical Christians, and that they made even her evangelical church friends seem too “worldly” for her. Looked at a certain way, a lot of the things Libby Anne describes are the outgrowth of standard Christian positions about family, gender, sex, and education.

But as I read her post, I found myself worrying if they had to be religious in nature. The things that (rightly!) bothered Libby Anne seemed to be more about control and a lack of respect for the individual. As Libby Anne puts it toward the end of this piece, “The control, the conformity, the attempt to treat children not as individuals with their own agency but as beings to be molded into ideologically-perfect culture warriors.” In Libby Anne’s life (and many, many others) this drive to control others is wrapped in a religious garb, but I’ve also seen it at the domestic violence shelter where I sometimes volunteer. I’ve also seen it, in less extreme variants, where a military dad is angry because his son doesn’t also want to enter the armed forces. Or where there’s a family trade of any kind that families reject. I’ve seen it where gay people are disowned by their families, and not just or religious reasons; I’m thinking of a certain Chinese student of mine whose parents disowned him because of the cultural expectation that sons produce families.

In America, most of these situations are connected to a certain kind of religious practice. But the more I think about it, the less convinced I am that this is caused by religion. If you had ideas like this – people in your group had a duty to go out and control the culture to put your values into practice as broadly as you can; kids exist to fulfill their parents’ goals and should be directed by them; young adults should not be allowed to guide their own romances and pick out their own spouses; men and women have essentially different roles to play in life – and they existed without any mention to the Bible, would that really change anything? Actually, reading Libby Anne’s posts I was reminded of nothing so much of The Handmaid’s Tale. That’s a world shaped broadly by Judeo-Christian values, but the appeal to religion has always seemed almost incidental. The real problem is a desire to control, a fear of the way the world is changing, and a mourning for the loss of privilege, on the part of white men and others that had once been in charge. As Aunt Lidya (I think – it’s been years since I read the book) put it, theirs was a world dying from too much choice.

I also was reminded of the Hunger Games. To be fair, I’m a bit obsessed and most things remind me of Panem in some way or the other, but what I was reminded of was how completely and utterly absent religion is from that world. There are no churches, no religious funeral or wedding or naming ceremonies. There’s not even a mention of Christmas (at one point, Katniss gets an orange as a treat for the new year). What they do have are some of the same problems driving the ideologies Libby Anne experienced: a lack of personal choice, a fear of the larger societal results if people have too much freedom to do what they want, a lack of education that prepares people for anything other than their dictated roles. The method of enforcing this order is different because in Panem we’re talking about the full culture, not the subculture. And the divide is also along geographic lines rather than gender, but it’s just as arbitrary, just as offensive.

I don’t want to turn a blind to how religion makes this kind of abuse more likely. It preserves the past, and while their may be a purpose to that in the right degree (don’t be so openminded your head falls out, as we used to say), I think religion often can prop things up simply because that’s the way they’ve always been done. It can be an important counterbalance to a revolutionary zeal, but it can also lead to feet-dragging. Strangely, though, in my case, I’ve also found it liberating. It emphasized my importance as a person and gave me an anchor that let me insist certain types of treatment were wrong and not just because I said so. Moreover, because I’ve always been taught humans’ most central task was to put God’s creation to good work, that meant human choice was central to a good life. God wasn’t a micromanager; we were called to be co-creators and (paired with Paul’s analogy about different parts of the body having different functions) I had some latitude in how I did that role well.

That meant I’ve always taken like a duck to water to Aristotle’s idea about human nature, that it’s the ability to make a choice that is key to being human. Even if someone has authority and power over me, practically, I either knew that was wrong and focused on the things that I could control, that they couldn’t take away from me, or else I reframed the issue in a way that empowered me. If my boss can tell me to do something I don’t want to do, I ultimately chose to accept the job and so the current indignity is at some level something I choose to endure so I can get some benefit down the road. And, just so this isn’t read as my channeling Candide‘s mantra of “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” let me add this: I’m not blind to the way people in power abuse the powerless and offer them a life without dignity or safety, and where every choice is a bad one. And one lesson I’ve taken from my religion is that this is clearly wrong. Religion and the rule of law generally is one way I’ve always found to tell the powerful that they can’t do whatever they want just because they have the physical power to do so.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure the danger is religion per se. It’s the way religion (or any orthodoxy) can prop up rather than challenge bad traditions. And the way it dictates certain roles for people based on their gendr or age or income rather than letting their passions and capabilities decide things. And the pathologies that lead religious people (and again, non-religious as well) to act out of fear and a need to control. These are the enemy. But I also need to recognize that while they may not be exclusively religious failings, there’s something about organized religion’s respect for tradition and authority that gives these faults more of a hold than they do in other corners of society. And because it’s always hardest to see the plank in my own eye, I need to be extra careful of control freaks wearing crosses.

Btw, out of fairness to Libby Anne, let me be clear on this point as well: this whole question of whether those ideologies are bad because they’re religious? That’s my question, not hers. Her piece is thought-provoking and worth reading on its own sake. I’m mentioning all this because for whatever reason, her piece made me think about these kind of things, and they seemed worth talking about. I’m not sure she meant these questions to be the ones that jumped out at me, and don’t mean to imply they’re central to her pieces, or even there at all. :-)