Home Education Ideologies and Literature

By Nicholas Ducote, HA Community Coordinator

This is a review of academic literature regarding the modern homeschooling phenomena in America. The goal is to provide a sociological framework for discussing the diversity and homogeneity of the various branches of the homeschooling movement.

While many ideological models of homeschooling have been formulated and propagated over the past fifty years of the homeschooling movement, two have risen to prominence.  Founded by John Holt, the “unschooling movement” focused on removing children from the negative influences of a school’s hierarchical social structures which, according to Holt and his adherents, impeded a child’s natural creativity and prevented them from truly learning. [i] In contrast, Dr. Raymond Moore founded the “Christian Homeschooling movement,” which argued that public schooling was objectionable because of its corrupting moral influence. [ii] In the late-80s and 1990s, Christian homeschooling expanded rapidly, while the inclusive (unschooling) brand of home education grew slowly. Mitchell Stevens authored a ground-breaking sociological work on homeschooling, Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement (2001), after immersing himself in many aspects of the movement for eleven years. [iii] He focused on these two main sub-cultures, or camps, of the social movement of homeschooling, their historical development, and how their core philosophies influenced everything from the method of instruction to the organization of institutions.

Any study of homeschooling faces serious limitations. There is no federal legal framework governing homeschooling and states’ regulations are a patchwork of different requirements. The lack of consistent regulation is uniquely American  In ten states, nothing is required of parents in order to homeschool. Thirteen states require a simple notification of a parent’s intent to homeschool their child. In Virginia and twenty-one other states, homeschoolers are required to take standardized tests, but even these requirements vary. The lack of even basic statistical reporting in most states makes the study of homeschooling problematic when attempting to use a social scientific methodology. Even the best studies have questionable validity. In 1996, the Homeschool Legal Defense Association published a study conducted by Brian Ray, who was himself an advocate of homeschooling. Because of this bias, the results of his research are questionable. In 1995, sociologist Maralee Mayberry distributed the most comprehensive survey to date of home educators, which included fifty-six questions ranging from occupation, educational attainment, religious affiliation, household size, etc. [iv] With fewer than 1,500 respondents from Nevada, Utah, and Washington, the demographics skewed towards those who identified themselves as very religious, white, and middle class. Most researchers have to rely on convenience samples (lists from curriculum suppliers, rosters of homeschooling groups, unofficial lists compiled by local school boards), and response rates to academic studies are notoriously low – only 25% of those Mayberry contacted responded. 

Because of these limitations, much of Stevens’ book is observational. Until states gather more data on curriculum, the educational attainment of parents, and consistent standardized testing of students, most studies of homeschooling will, of necessity, lack methodological rigor. Stevens focused his study in Illinois and on two main networks of homeschoolers: the “inclusive” unschoolers and the religious “believers.” He noted that the core difference between the communities was their view on how to motivate children. The unschooling inclusives believed in using solely intrinsic motivation, which is driven by the child’s enjoyment and interest in the task, whereas the exclusive Christian homescholers believed in using extrinsic motivation, which is driven by rewards and punishments that come from outside the child (i.e. the parents). From here, the communities diverge philosophically and pedagogically. He admits that his book does not adequately address groups that serve more specific constituencies, like Islamic or Mormon home educators, parents with special needs children, or the experiences of homeschooled children, but he sought to capture the “general flow” of the movement (8). Stevens refrains from criticizing either camp, merely detailing their differences, commonalities, and how that influences their pedagogy and organizational structures.

The first sub-culture, which he terms the “inclusives,” drew their philosophical inspiration from John Holt. Holt was involved in the alternative school movement in the 1970s, but eventually decided to create his own approach to child development. Holt’s philosophy and pedagogy is typically referred to as “unschooling.” Unschooling was strictly “earth-based,” meaning parents did not focus on spiritual issues, instead encouraging practical skills and creativity. Fundamentally, Holt and his ideological offspring believe in the intrinsic goodness of children and they strive to eliminate hierarchies that subordinate children to their parents.  Holt emphasized the importance of the child’s self-determination, which he claimed was a child’s inalienable human right to “control [their] own minds and thoughts” (37). Holt explained that his “concern was not to ‘improve education,’ but to do away with it, to end the ugly and anti-human business of people-shaping and let people shape themselves” (34-5). He refrained from using words like “teach,” “educate,” and “school,” instead relying on egalitarian rhetoric. Holt argued that “we adults destroy most of the intellectual and creative capacity of children by the things we do to them or make them do.” These unschoolers first organized under the Home Oriented Unschooling Experience network (HOUSE) network in the early 1980s. HOUSE included anyone who wished to participate in its support group meetings, not even adopting by-laws until 1992.

Both Mary Pride and Gregg Harris emphasized a strict hierarchy within the family.
Both Mary Pride and Gregg Harris emphasized a strict hierarchy within the family.

The second sub-culture, which Stevens termed the “believers,” drew their inspiration from Dr. Raymond Moore. Stevens explained that this camp was an “explicitly Christian social movement” (7). Rather than giving children intellectual self-determination, like the unschoolers, Moore’s Christian homeschooling integrated Christ and the Bible into their education. For these Christians, “homeschooling is a fulfillment of God’s command that parents take responsibility for their children’s education in general” (18). A series of radio interviews conducted by Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family with Dr. Moore catapulted the Christian homeschool movement into national spotlight. In Illinois, Steve and Susan Jerome helped organize the ICHE and, in 1984, they held the first state-wide homeschooling conference. The event, held at Wheaton College (a prominent Evangelical college) outside of Chicago, featured Dr. Moore and Phyllis Schlafly. At the time, Gregg Harris served as Dr. Moore’s right-hand man.  In the late-1980s and 1990s, Greg Harris, Mary Pride, and Michael Farris became major national figure-heads and leaders in the Christian homeschooling movement. Stevens found that conservative Protestant Christians dominated the exclusive brand of homeschooling, termed “Christian homeschooling.” He used the term “Christian homeschoolers” because, in his interviews with members of this community, they frequently referred to themselves as “Christian homeschoolers” involved in a larger “Christian homeschooling movement.” Stevens noted that one of the first home education magazine, The Teaching Home, was explicitly religious. It even featured “God’s Plan of Salvation” in each issue, which instructed readers in the “Protestant Christian conversion” (121). Carol Ingram, the associate director of the National Center for Home Education in the early-90s, argued that there were no “neutral” homeschoolers. In her view of the homeschooling social movement, there was no balanced middle ground between secular homeschooling and Christian homeschooling. She explained, “We are either saved or we’re lost. We’re either in a Christian world reference or we’re in a non-Christian world reference, we’re not in a neutral world reference” (129).

Gregg Harris also focused on the importance of controlling the peer influences in your child’s life.
Gregg Harris also focused on the importance of controlling the peer influences in your child’s life.

In the Christian, heaven-based pedagogy, children were sinners that needed to be “trained up” with Christian values and protected from “contaminants” so that they were better (spiritually and academically) than the average child in public school. Both Mary Pride and Gregg Harris emphasized a strict hierarchy within the family. Usually, Christian homeschoolers recite Proverbs 22:6, which reads “train up a child in the way that he should go, so that when he is old he will not depart from it.” In many instances, training your children properly meant protecting them from “multiple contaminants,” which could include secular humanism or the influence of children from “broken homes” (51-53). Gregg Harris also focused on the importance of controlling the peer influences in your child’s life, invoking language from Proverbs,

What would happen if our children were allowed to run around unsupervised with… other children? The companion of fools would suffer harm… The more our children have the opportunity to be the companions of foolish children, the more impervious they are to our counsel. And the more they resist the experiences that we’ve had, the more things we can offer to help them avoid so much trouble.

Moore argued that the contamination of peer pressure and the institutionalized secular humanism of public education tears children away from their parents. “But with the rare exception, when a child loses a sound value system, it is never regained. So peer dependency is a kind of social cancer. Humanly speaking, to try to heal it is like putting a Band-aid on a burned roast” (52). Christian homeschooling emphasizes obedience, respect for authority, and hierarchal social arrangements. Such language encourages families to be protective of their children, lest they fall prey to temptations and immorality and never return to their parents’ values. The Mckie family, Christian homeschoolers that run a blog, provided their explanation of homeschooling [v], which emphasized complete control over the child’s environment and stimuli:

Children are like tender young plants… [and] the gardener [i.e. parents] plants the precious seed in special seed cups in his greenhouse. He provides just the right soil, lighting, moisture, and nutrition so that the seeds have the optimum environment in which to grow. As the seed begins to sprout, the gardener tends to it with love and care…As the seedling grows, the gardener is able to transplant it into larger and larger containers to make room for its growth. The greenhouse allows the gardener to control all the elements of the environment so that the plant grows into a sturdy, mature plant with deep, well anchored roots, and a strong supportive trunk. Then the gardener makes the final transplant… by the time they complete the high school years they are finally anchored in GOD’S WORD, and have learned to stand against the world.

Unschoolers also have an aversion to the way public school impacts children’s minds, but they do not focus on philosophical and religious issues, like the secular humanism targeted by the Christian homeschoolers. Rather, Holt and the unschoolers argue that the public school system is too standardized to develop the innate curiosity and inquiry of young minds. In contrast, Moore argued that children are not “cognitively ready” to even understand why their parents make them do or believe certain things (39). This meant that parents should inculcate their children with a specific set of values and religious traditions. Moore wanted homeschoolers to insulate their children from “the world.” The Christian curriculum industry developed to meet the needs of parents wishing to educate their children with an explicitly Christian frame of reference. Stevens noted that “Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have the most to choose from when shopping for homeschool curricula… continuing a long tradition of separatist education” (54).

The leaders of the Christian homeschooling were not satisfied to let the unschoolers peacefully co-exist and they attempted to hijack the entire social movement to fit their authoritarian ideologies. Mark and Helen Hegener, editors of Home Educators Magazine, argued that “a small group of individuals, their organizations, and associations” have actively divided the national homeschooling social movement and attempted to impose “an exclusive hierarchal order” (145). HEM named Michael Farris, Sue Welch, Mary Pride, Brian Ray, Gregg Harris, and “dozens of local and state leaders,” as the primary antagonists of this attempted take-over of the social movement. In 1994, Michael Farris and HSLDA created a panic over federal legislation and they spent enormous resources to inform their membership that they should contact their representatives against the legislation. Pat Farenga and Susannah Sheffer, administrators of Holt Associates, continually fought the HSLDA’s politics of panic in the early-1990s and attempted to combat the growing influence of the Christian homeschoolers. In contrast to the HSDLA, when the HOUSE network informed its membership of the legislation, they exhorted their membership to “follow [their] own conscience[s].”  Much to the chagrin of the unschoolers, the “leaders” of the Christian homeschooling movement wanted to impose centralization of “power and control” on the social movement, with the authority squarely in their hands. They acquired much of this authority by creating panic over legislation, scaring parents into thinking their civil rights to home educate faced an existential threat.  Even Raymond Moore spoke out against the rise of “Christian exclusivism” and the subversion of the greater homeschooling movement by Gregg Harris, Michael Farris, and Sue Welch (173). The public divide between Christian homeschooling and unschooling continues today.  Recently, Farenga blogged about Homeschoolers Anonymous, condemning the “extreme authoritarian ideologies,” like military school, boarding schools, and Christian homeschooling, that leads to damaging, sometimes abusive situations.

Despite unschoolers’ objections to extrinsic motivations and the inculcation of specific values or traditions to children, Michael Farris repeatedly attempted to position himself as an advocate for all home educators. The objections in the early-1990s continued to prove an adequate description and, in 2000, Michael Farris and Scott Woodruff published an article in the Peabody Journal of Education that highlighted the academic successes of homeschooled students. [vi] Their framing of homeschooling did not even acknowledge the existence of the unschoolers. His ignorance of, or blatant disregard for, the unschooling ideology is most evident under his section “Two Trends in Home Schooling.” Where every other scholar remarked upon the divergence between ideological/religious homeschooling and the child-centered/unschooling methods, Farris claimed the two trends were “classical education” and the rise of the internet.  Classical education consisted of memorizing large passages of scripture and reading Western cannon.  His article also focuses on why home educated students fare better academically than their peers.  He argued that part of the success is because “most home school parents emphasize the teaching of values that have been honored by time and tradition” and “because of this, most home-schooled children likely will enter adulthood with a set of personal values that closely conforms to that of their parents” (Farris and Woodruff 239).  Farris never specifies his article to Christian homeschooling, rather purporting to speak for all American homeschoolers. His own monolithic view of homeschooling demonstrates the self-perception that many Christian homeschoolers have – that they are the dominant, sometimes the only, relevant homeschooling movement.

Stevens observed that local support groups, national organizations, and literatures produced by the two campus mirrored their contrasting core philosophies on human nature. Local support groups of the HOUSE network always met in a circle, while Christian homeschoolers usually meet in a religious building in a lecture-style. Stevens noted that HOUSE meetings usually involved a level of chaos and children played loudly, interacting with one another, while a circle of adults discussed their experiences. Adults in HOUSE would rarely speak from a position of authority or expertise, instead sharing their experiences with one another as peers. HOUSE network members often lacked the terms to explain their pedagogy, instead relying on metaphors – partially because their membership was so diverse and they did not wish to feign a collective voice when there was none. Another national-level inclusive group, the National Homeschoolers Association (NHA) formed in 1988, espouses values of participatory democracy and refrains from denoting any leaders. Stevens emphasized that he “never” heard the “word leader used to describe anyone in NHA” (132). Their commitment to creating an egalitarian atmosphere meant that most meetings began fifteen minutes late because no individual was responsible for the session (131). NHA members joked about being on “homeschool time.”  For the believers, however, “homeschool time” carried a very different connotation – it meant being punctual and therefore deferential to those in leadership.

In contrast with the loose, egalitarian structure of HOUSE, the Christian homeschooling movement quickly adopted hierarchies and rigid rhetorical frameworks. Christian homeschooling events gave special attention and focus to what it considered the leaders of the movement, men like Michael Farris and Gregg Harris. Stevens found that even conferences, like the 1994 National Center for Home Education Leadership Conference, “were predicated on the idea that organizationally, the homeschool world is organized as a pyramid” (126). Even small, local speaking engagements were held in churches, with the parents all facing the assumed leader, or expert, who spoke from a raised platform or pulpit. Stevens noted that speakers often “bemoaned schedule delays and frequently encouraged participants to check their watches” (131).

Despite the major differences between the inclusives and the believers, Stevens noted that all homeschoolers shared some basic ideas — namely that “their children’s self-development was worthy of virtually any sacrifice” (28). Both camps believe that their children’s education and development was too important a task to delegate to the bureaucratic, standardized public school system. In this way, the evolution of homeschooling in America follows the “great American story, a story about freedom and possibility and skepticism of established authority” (8). In 1984, leaders from the two home education camps organized the Ad Hoc Committee for Illinois Home Education Legal and Legislative Matters. In 1987, they successfully lobbied the state of Illinois to drop legislation that would require reporting to the state. All homeschoolers shared a basic interest in the legal protection of their rights to remove their children from the public school system and apply their pedagogy of choice.


[i] John Holt authored a number of books n early-childhood development and his theory of unschooling: Escape From Childhood (1974), Instead of Education (1976), Never Too Late (1979), Teach Your Own (1981; revised 2003 by Pat Farenga), Learning All the Time (1989).

[ii] Dr. Moore and his wife Dorothy authored a series of book on homeschooling: Raymond and Dennis Moore, “The Dangers of Early Schooling,” Harpers, 1972, Better Late than Early (1975), School Can Wait (1979), Home Grown Kids (1981), Home-Spun Schools (1982).

[iii] Mitchell Stevens, Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[iv] Maralee Mayberry, J. Gary Knowles, Brian Ray, and Stacy Marlow, Home Schooling: Parents as Educators (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press/Sage, 1995): In this sample, 91% said religious commitment was “very important” to their lives, 97% said “God lives and is real,” 84% believed the Bible was “literally true,” and 93% believed that “Satan is currently working in the world.”

[v] Csranet.com/vlmckie/green.htm, accessed 7/2/99 and 6/28/00.

[vi] Michael Farris and Paul Woodruff, “The Future of Home Schooling.” Peabody Journal of Education 75, (2000): 233–55.

12 thoughts on “Home Education Ideologies and Literature

  1. snasser April 23, 2013 / 5:09 pm

    Great piece, Nick.


  2. Julie Anne April 24, 2013 / 7:03 am

    Nick – this is exceptional work. Thank you. It is important that this is exposed.


  3. Ricker April 24, 2013 / 7:59 am

    Very nice article.


    • cindy0803 June 8, 2013 / 3:59 am


      I shared your article several months ago on my facebook page. I loved that it presented homeschooling as an educational choice that was not just something fundamentalist Christians want do to keep their kids away from other kids (and the evil liberal teachers), but something that educated professionals were doing, too.

      A retired teacher friend of mine shared it with her daughter who is a doctor. Since my friend has retired and is subbing in a school locally, she is trying to CONVINCE her daughter to homeschool. So, again, this is not just something people who want to indoctrinate their children into a rigid and antiquated interpretation of the bible choose to do.

      But I also think it is important to address the fact that there are not just two types of homeschoolers either; Christian fundamentalist and Unschoolers. I don’t fit into either of those categories.

      While some schools have a lot of structure (apparently) others have adopted the more child-driven, group-oriented, project-based, whole language, Everday Math type of curriculum and teaching style. I don’t think that approach is highly effective either. But because so much time (training) and money is spent on curriculum, there is very little motivation to drop something that is not working in PS.

      Homeschooling, on the other hand, allows parents to choose whatever curriculum works and to abandon what doesn’t. That is a huge, often overlooked advantage. Add that to all the other benefits you mentioned (less time spent in the car, less family time spent on homework, more efficient time spent on the core subjects, the ability to just take off and have a field trip or to take vacations during off seasons, and just being able to be with your kids) and it really feels like winning the lottery or striking gold.

      P.S. this is in no way a jab at all Christians. I am one. There are plenty of Christians who are appalled at how these adult children of homeschool families were treated. I am hopeful that this swing of politicized Christianity will be abandoned because it is so harmful and I hope that our descendents read about it 200 years from now like we read about the Crusades, the Inquisition and Slavery; wrong, regrettable, and shameful.


  4. Heather April 30, 2013 / 11:03 am

    This is very good–thank you for writing and posting it. As someone who is interested in unschooling, it was very useful to have a look at the roots of the movement (which I was not in fact familiar with.)

    By the way: when I clicked on this I thought it was going to be something quite different. I guess I read the words “literature review” and missed the colon. I thought you might be evaluating specific homeschool textbooks or curricula & pointing out their issues. Is this something you would ever think of doing? I think it might be quite useful to some people. I recall some pretty bad ideologically-driven stuff from my one year of homeschooling (done for convenience while moving), from a curriculum I can only suppose my parents trusted because it was Christian–stuff my parents would not have taught me on their own. (Later they told me “But we never taught you that Christians can only vote Republican!” Well, no, *they* didn’t; but they let other people teach me that.) It might be good to alert people who might want to do homeschooling in a reasonable manner about what to avoid and why. Or, maybe there are other resources out there that do this sort of evaluation, and you could point people to them at some point?


    • nickducote April 30, 2013 / 3:50 pm

      Heather, I’m glad you’ve found our blog helpful on your own homeschooling. As crazy as it sounds, I’ve only been “back” in the homeschooling scene for a few months. I really like your idea and I have talked about some similar with Ryan. Our one obstacle is funding, we can’t afford to buy all these texts. We were considering making an Amazon wish list where people could purchase books and have them mailed to a PO Box.

      I honestly don’t even know what curriculum is available these days. I can recommend some to avoid: A Beka, Bob Jones, anything by Wallbuilders or David Barton, ATI, Sonlight, and other explicitly Christian texts. I think the resources you want are probably online already and just take some Googling.


      • Heather May 1, 2013 / 7:34 am

        That did occur to me later! I envisioned what the project would entail and my mind boggled at how much it would cost to buy all those materials… so yes, that makes a lot of sense. Maybe the Amazon wishlist idea would help–or, you could ask for donations of used materials as long as they’re not too far out of date. Who knows, there might be some families who’ve recently abandoned the movement who would like to help.

        I was thinking about it less for myself–I don’t think I would use Christian materials at all, to tell you the truth, except I might consider Charlotte Mason–and more for others who are not ready to abandon Christian curricula entirely but ought to be warned about the hidden agendas. BTW it’s interesting that you mention Sonlight, b/c that’s the only one I’ve heard good things about–but to tell the truth it wasn’t from a source I trust completely, so there’s that.


  5. Heather April 30, 2013 / 11:10 am

    I just had to add an interesting note on the quote about plants from the Mckie blog: they’re wrong about plants, not just about kids. I’m a gardener. Yes, it is very beneficial to start seeds in pots indoors; you can give them more intensive nurture that way, making really sure they get enough light, warmth, etc. But if you take a plant that has been indoors all its life and just transplant it out, it’s in a lot of danger of keeling over and dying. Seemingly these people have never heard of transplant shock or of hardening off, or of sunburn–I doubt they’ve ever started a seed, really. Or maybe they just didn’t see fit to mention what doesn’t suit their analogy.

    Outdoors, plants get things they don’t get indoors: wind, intenser sunlight, and temperature variations. These things can kill them if they’re not used to them. “Sunburn” withers the leaves, a too-sudden temperature drop can cause the whole plant to droop and die, and a plant that has never experienced wind grows up with a weak stem that may break in a gust. (Pretty much making the opposite point from Mckie.) For this reason I give my plants gradually increasing outdoor time, even from a fairly young age, at moments when the weather is appropriate. I pay attention to introducing them to the new conditions gradually, starting them out on a cloudy, warm day, then a partly cloudy day, etc. Eventually they are “hardened off” and ready for anything; only then do I transplant.

    Seems to me that would be a much better way of treating kids as well!


    • bgurrl October 14, 2015 / 11:38 pm

      On the subject of Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff it sucks what she had to go through with Welch, Pride etc.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s