If you've harbored the thought, sometime in the past or worse yet sometime recently, that the homeschooling movement might be some passing fad, you'd better think again. I've just returned from speaking at what was billed as the biggest conference of homeschoolers anywhere in the world, held at the enormous Farm Show Complex at Harrisburg, Pa. Even the organizers didn't have an accurate count when I left, but they guessed that somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 people had registered. And none of them looked to me like an endangered species.
My own educational commitment-by inheritance, habit, and conviction-has been to traditional institutional Christian schools. But for a variety of reasons, I also find among my homeschooling friends a kindred spirit. For one thing, although my parents were known in many circles as pioneers in the traditional Christian school movement, the first school they started in 1951 might easily have been called a homeschool. My school desk was a dozen feet from my bedroom. I studied Latin from my mother. And the first student body numbered just seven-four Belzes and three Gardners. We just weren't smart enough to call it homeschooling in those days.
Homeschooling took off during the 1980s, but remained something of an oddity in American culture. The movement's huge growth during the 1990s, however, left it no longer an oddity. Homeschooling, in many ways, has become mainstream. Indeed, that very fact is a growing concern for some homeschooling veterans. They worry that success could be one of homeschooling's worst new enemies.
That, in fact, is just another way in which I easily identify with homeschoolers. So many of the criticisms regularly leveled against them remind me of the criticisms Christian schools used to get in the 1950s, 1960s, and even later. "You people are elitist and too self-consumed," homeschoolers are told; I remember when my parents were scolded the same way. Homeschoolers are also charged with desertion: "You people have walked off and robbed traditional schools of some of its ablest students and most involved parents." Public-school loyalists used to accuse Christian school enthusiasts of the same disloyalty.
Similarly, when Christian schools existed only in church basements and struggled to meet payroll, only the most committed ideologues joined themselves to the cause. As such schools flourished, developing attractive campuses and credentialed faculties, even non-Christians began to patronize such schools for their educational excellence. That scared the veterans-just as homeschooling veterans are getting a little scared now about who might be crashing their party.
It's a big party. A decade ago, the estimates were that somewhere between half a million and a million children nationwide were being homeschooled. Now the estimates range from a million to two million. That means something like three to four percent of the nation's children now receive their formal education at home.
Meanwhile, the noisy skepticism over educational effectiveness has mostly subsided. If a few homeschoolers here and there have overreached and found themselves in over their heads, leaving their kids to pay the price of poor pedagogy, what professional educator these days dares to cast the first stone? There's educational failure enough to go around. Besides, the empirical evidence grows that the products of homeschooling tend not just to keep up, but to excel. Which is partly why homeschooling grandpoobah Michael Farris is heralding the launch this fall of the brand new Patrick Henry University just outside Washington, D.C.-a college program designed all but exclusively for homeschool graduates, most of whom could enroll just about anywhere they want to, but who want an extra educational edge they don't think they'd find in most traditional undergraduate programs.
A couple of years ago, I got a kind invitation not just to speak at a conference of homeschoolers, but actually to challenge them in one of my addresses with half a dozen specific criticisms of their approach to education. They listened thoughtfully, counter-critiqued me a little, but mostly indicated their agreement that the things I mentioned were issues they might well look after. That response itself spoke volumes concerning their readiness to learn.
But hey, homeschooling clearly doesn't need my help to make its way in American culture. It seems to be doing just fine on its own. And if you're still a skeptic, try this: Go to a big homeschooling gathering and try to count how many sullen, unhappy, and anti-social children and teenagers you find. From what I saw at Harrisburg, you might spend a long time looking. ±