Barely Literate? How Christian Fundamentalist Homeschooling Hurts Kids
In recent weeks, homeschooling has received nationwide attention because of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s homeschooling family. Though Santorum paints a rosy picture of homeschooling in the United States, and calls attention to the “responsibility” all parents have to take their children’s education into their own hands, he fails to acknowledge the very real potential for educational neglect among some homeschooling families – neglect that has been taking place for decades, and continues to this day.
While the practice of homeschooling is new to many people, my own interest in it was sparked nearly 20 years ago. I was a socially awkward adolescent with a chaotic family life, and became close to a conservative Christian homeschooling family that seemed perfect in every way. Through my connection to this family, I was introduced to a whole world of conservative Christian homeschoolers, some of whom we would now consider “Quiverfull” families: homeschooling conservatives who eschew any form of family planning and choose instead to “trust God” with matters related to procreation.
Though I fell out of touch with my homeschooled friends as we grew older, a few years ago, I reconnected with a few ex-Quiverfull peers on a new support blog called No Longer Quivering. Poring over their stories, I was shocked to find so many tales of gross educational neglect. I don’t merely mean that they had received what I now view as an overly politicized education with huge gaps, for example, in American history, evolution or sexuality. Rather, what disturbed me were the many stories about homeschoolers who were barely literate when they graduated, or whose math and science education had never extended much past middle school.
Take Vyckie Garrison, an ex-Quiverfull mother of seven who, in 2008, enrolled her six school-age children in public school after 18 years of teaching them at home. Garrison, who started the No Longer Quivering blog, says her near-constant pregnancies – which tended to result either in miscarriages or life-threatening deliveries – took a toll on her body and depleted her energy. She wasn’t able to devote enough time and energy to homeschooling to ensure a quality education for each child. And she says the lack of regulation in Nebraska, where the family lived, “allowed us to get away with some really shoddy homeschooling for a lot of years.”
“I’ll admit it,” she confesses. “Because I was so overwhelmed with my life… It was a real struggle to do the basics, so it didn’t take long for my kids to fall far behind. One of my daughters could not read at 11 years old.”
At the time, Garrison was taking parenting advice from Quiverfull leaders who deemphasized academic achievement in favor of family values. She remembers one Quiverfull leader saying, “If they can do mathematics perfectly but they have no morals, you have failed them.”
The implication, she says, was that, “if they’re not doing so well academically, well, then they can catch up on that later. It’s not such a big deal. It was a really convenient way of thinking for me because I wasn’t able to keep up anyway.” This kind of rhetoric, Garrison notes, provided a “high-minded justification for educational neglect. I would not have gotten away with that if I’d had to get my kids tested every year.”
Over time, Garrison lost faith in her fundamentalist ideology and became aware that her children’s education was being neglected. Eventually all but one of her six younger children ended up entering and excelling in the public school system.
Why did she stick with homeschooling for so long, despite her difficulties? “We were convinced that it would be better for our kids not to have an education than to be educated to become humanists or atheists and to reject God,” Garrison says. “We became so isolated because the Quiverfull lifestyle was so overwhelming we didn’t have time or energy for socialization. So the only people we knew were exactly like us. We were told that the whole point of public school was to dumb down the children and turn them into compliant workers – to brainwash them and indoctrinate them into this godless way of thinking.”