HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on August 29, 2012.
When I was eight or ten, my mom was really interested in finding a particular geography book to use in homeschooling us. Frequently when we would go to a historical home or a museum, she would see it on a shelf and say “There! That’s the book I want!” It was published in 1902, you see. Frye’s Geography. She’d heard it promoted somewhere, at a conference or in a homeschool magazine. She eventually found it used somewhere and was thrilled.
She began using it with us, and while the images were beautiful, it wasn’t hard for me to pick up on the blatant racism it contained.
For some reason, the homeschoolers I came in contact with – fundamentalist and evangelical Christians homeschooling for religious reasons – always seemed to have this idea that anything that was old must be better than what we have now. But, as Frye’s Geography made clear to me, just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s better.
Frye’s Geography is only one example. When it came female advice, I read Stepping Heavenward and Beautiful Girlhood, both also over a hundred years old. I was assigned chapters of Beautiful Girlhood as punishment sometimes, when mom decided, I suppose, that my girlhood was not being “beautiful” enough.
I also spent years and years studying Latin. And you know what? I really haven’t used it, and I don’t really foresee myself using it in the future. Sure, word roots and all that, but you can get a lot of that from studying a language like Spanish as well, or from taking just a year or two of Latin, as opposed to ten. Honestly? I wish I’d studied Spanish. But Latin, you see, was old, and back in the nineteenth century every school child studied Latin, so Latin it was.
It seemed like recreational reading was similar – anything that was published a hundred years ago or more, or even fifty years ago, was more approved and smiled on than something published today. We grew up reading dozens of Elsie Dinsmore books and G. A. Henty books, most purchased from Vision Forum. Once again, these books were racist. The Elsie Dinsmore books idealized the Old South while G. A. Henty books were wrought through with British imperialism. But they were old, dag namit! They were written over a hundred years ago, so they must be good and godly!
I think that’s what it comes down to, really. In Christian homeschooling circles there’s this idolization of the past and this demonization of the present to the extent that anything that’s old is almost as default seen as good and anything that is new is by default held as suspect. Given that reality, it’s really not a surprise that companies like Vision Forum not only live in the past but also market the past, or that companies like Lamplighter operate by republishing old books and marketing them to homeschoolers.
The thing is, the “olden days” were not some sort of wonderland without divorce, sexual promiscuity, or violence. The faults of the present day that Christian homeschoolers are so quick to point to existed then too. Believe it or not, New York City already had a gay subculture. Prostitution thrived. Divorce rates may have been lower, but the trade off was abusive marriages. Women still got pregnant out of wedlock, and people still had premarital sex. And even more than all that, racism was rampant, the poor starved to death, and children died early deaths working in the coal mines.
The reality is that the “good old days” Christian homeschoolers look at so wistfully didn’t exist, and that just because something is old doesn’t mean it was better.
Unfortunately, plenty of Christian homeschoolers are more than willing to go on idolizing a myth, and part of that idolization means buying up all the old books companies like Vision Forum and Lamplighter can find space to print.
I feel you on the old lit. For us it was Dickens, Kipling…and let’s not forget good old McGuffeys…
I know a lot of people (good people) who pine for the old days. All of them are white. All of them are middle class. All of them are straight. All of the women are or were married to men who cherished them and didn’t beat them. They fail to recognize their own privilege.
This post fascinates me. I am an English major, familiar with the homeschool movement through family, conferences, and a brief stint at homeschooling two of my children. As an English major, I adore old books-classics-and am often sad at how often they are downplayed in schools. I have never read the Dinsmore books et al, however I have seen some troubling messages in those books. Perhaps not troubling for their time, but troubling for today. And that’s the thing. We don’t live in 1802 or whatever, and as a Christian I do thank God for that. We have literacy, technology that wasn’t even in Sci-Fi yet, and medicines that work. It is easy to idealize any state that isn’t the present one. Some people focus on the past, others focus on the future, but we all need to consider the present as it is.