Author note: Arielle was homeschooled K-12 and is currently a graduate student studying U.S. history.
No matter where in the world I am, I chat weekly with my mom, who homeschooled me for thirteen years and did a swell job. We both love stories, wordplay, and discovering what makes people tick. Thanks to the magic of the silicon chip, we bat ideas back and forth across thousands of miles, across oceans and borders.
As she often does, Mom recently shared with me something she’d read: an article that argued humans have a hard time processing competing narratives. We talked about how this jibes with what we’ve observed — how it applies to politics, media, personal experiences. We discussed how cognitive dissonance hurts, threatening our fixed realities, but also reveals complex truths.
After the conversation ended, I kept thinking. I thought about how my mom and I are kindred intellectual spirits, despite our differences. I thought about how glad I am that she spearheaded my K-12 education. I thought about how that article she shared was right; how narratives really do clash in the news, in my dissertation, in everyday interactions; how people struggle to reconcile those narratives, often refusing to do so, even if they’re not mutually exclusive.
Then it hit me: This concept of competing narratives, and of people balking at their coexistence, applies to today’s nationwide conversation about homeschooling.
Many “moderate” homeschoolers like my mom and me — those focused on academics, not ideology — lived an upbeat narrative of educational pioneering, with innovation and inquiry and open horizons. It was imperfect, but all in all, it was exciting and often vindicating. When we encounter the growing narrative about homeschooling’s dark side, mental turmoil ensues.
Sometimes that turmoil is just dismay at bad publicity, compounding the defensiveness that homeschoolers often feel: We have to prove we’re normal, successful, not a stereotype. Frequently, though, it’s true cognitive dissonance. If we’ve only seen hints of homeschooling’s dark side, or have sidestepped it entirely, we really are facing a foreign narrative and struggling to fit it with the story we lived. As homeschooling grows and diversifies, it’s even easier for today’s moderates to form like-minded communities, to chat online about learning styles and college scholarships, gather locally for field trips and science labs. It’s thus that much harder for them to accept the darker narrative.
So we moderates — parents, students, graduates — tell ourselves that this “dark side” comprises bad apples who’d have hurt their kids anyway, homeschooled or not. Or we tell ourselves that it’s a few fringe cults. Or we tell ourselves that homeschooling has changed, that the dark narrative only describes the past. We’ll do anything to escape the dissonance.
Deep down, though, I think most moderates — even in today’s factionalized world —know that the dark narrative is real, substantial, and present-tense.
We see the extreme speakers at statewide conventions, the harsh corporal punishment manuals at curriculum fairs, the leading homeschool lobbyists who make children their political soldiers, the neighbor who’s shaky on math but firm on religious or anti-establishment dogma. We read stories of trauma on ex-homeschooler blogs, even if that means skimming for a minute and leaving a “we’re not like that!” comment and hastily clicking away. We recognize that not all homeschooling parents prepare or care to teach academics, that some homeschool subcultures draw well-meaning newcomers into dangerous beliefs and behaviors.
I know the dark side of homeschooling is real because I glimpsed it growing up, and because some of my friends lived it. I’ve reconciled myself to the clash between their stories and mine. I remember the immense power over my future that my parents gained when they chose to homeschool; I know how lucky I am that they used it well; I can imagine what it would have been like if they hadn’t. But without concrete knowledge of homeschooling’s dark side and instinctive empathy for its victims, moderate parents may find it easier to look away, to quiet the cognitive dissonance and insist on the single narrative they know.
I ask them not to do that. I ask you not to do that.
Yes, I’m talking to you, moms and dads on the Well-Trained Mind forums, members of pluralist play groups, high-powered parents who write in the New York Times about your homeschool journeys, throngs of mommy bloggers who make me smile with your familiar accounts of history units and hands-on astronomy. You’re doing what my mom did. You’re doing a good job. You’re on the right track. But your child’s experience and my experience are not as universal as we’d like to think. For the sake of your child’s friends and the children you’ve never met, please come to terms with that sad, messy truth. Recognize that the dark narrative is also real, and then stand up for the vulnerable.
Standing up for the vulnerable means embracing accountability. I know that feels scary in some homeschooling circles, even the moderate ones. I remember sharing that feeling. But the measures that will make a difference are basic. At least one state, Pennsylvania, already has those measures in place, and homeschoolers there are thriving. Please learn more about the policies that reform advocates recommend — and the reasons behind each suggestion — rather than bristling at abstract “government intrusion.” The next time you’re urged to oppose a legal “threat” to homeschooling, please research what it really entails. Weigh the downside of a minor hassle against the upside of saving a child’s life or future.
As a moderate homeschooling parent, you can also effect change through the day-to-day. You can refuse to buy legal insurance from HSLDA, a far-right group that believes children have the same rights as chattel, and urge your friends to do the same. You can organize against the extremists in homeschool leadership, and perhaps assume local leadership yourself so that your sensible voice gets amplified. You can promote responsible homeschooling within your community, share best practices and flag bad ones, intervene when you notice a child is not safe or not learning, model fascination with the world rather than fear of it.
I’ll tell you now, with cross-my-heart honesty, that no one — not even my friends who wear the worst scars — wants to ban homeschooling. I’m confident that no one will try. But if anyone ever does try, I will stand with you and defend homeschooling, tell my positive story, shout from the rooftops about how wonderfully it can succeed. In the same way, I hope you will stand with me and stand up for the victims, for the reality of the uglier stories, for those who lived them and are living them.
Work to destroy that dark narrative, not by dismissing its existence, but by opposing the ideas and structures that allow it to persist.
Moderate parents, think of me as Dickens’ ghost of Christmas future, your own child all grown up. Keep up the good work, keep asking your kids what they’re thinking and feeling about their education, face the hard times with thoughtful humility, and know there’s an excellent chance your children will thank you, just as I thank my mom. Relish the prospect of deep, quirky phone chats fifteen years hence. What’s more, consider how your kids will not only thank you, but also feel immensely proud of you, when they learn you made the world better when you had the chance — that you fought cruelty and extremism, furthered kindness and accountability, and took a stand for their friends and peers who aren’t as lucky as they are.