Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Feminism and School: Is Homeschooling a Solution?

When I first put out the call for essays and posts on feminist parenting, I naively believed that I had a fairly comprehensive understanding of the issues and decisions feminist and anti-racist parents face. I had no idea how truly diverse and thought-provoking the contributions would be, or how they would challenge me to consider new solutions to old problems. For example, I'd never heard of feminist homeschooling until I read Rachel Allen's piece on her decision to eschew the public school system entirely:

The onslaught of media consumed by children today cannot be avoided. Even if your kids don’t consume it directly, their friends will. Negative messages about body image, overt and thinly veiled racism, sexism and homophobia are everywhere, and our children absorb all that in a variety of ways. In addition to trying to change the media—which must be a critical part of movements for social justice—as parents we have to act as mediator between the messages our children get in the world, and how those messages affect who they are and what they believe.

Schools are places where media messages—the effects of them and children’s interpretations of them—are mixed with real life experiences with institutionalized bigotry and oppression. From the far corners of the playground where child anarchy can foster unchecked messages and experiences, to the history books that formalize those sentiments, too often our kids are being schooled in a context that, as feminists, we know is dangerous.

That’s why, as a feminist mother, I chose to not send my kids to school.

In addition to being a feminist parent, I am a feminist homeschooler...
You can - and should! - read the rest at California NOW. I'm curious to know our readers' opinions - is homeschooling a solution? How about single-gender schools? For those of us for whom home-schooling is not a viable choice, what are some other ways that parents can help their kids cope with the sexism, racism, and homophobia that they will most likely encounter in classrooms and on playgrounds?


Maggie said...

I'm a little torn. I completely understand the sentiment. It's something I struggled with myself as a kid in public school. My major concern the other way is that just because the system pushes norms doesn't mean a child has to conform to them. For many of us, these were our most defining experiences: when we chose to go against that norm. I also wonder when do you make the transition out of home school? And when you do, how do you confront the onslaught of media that you don't have a lot of experience dealing with? I do think a strong identity will definitely help you with it, but I think one of the real values of public school is the chance to encounter problems and have to deal with them, to learn how you fit or even if you don't fit at all.

That said, I have to admit that I will probably be tempted at some point to do home schooling when I actually have kids to consider instead of just dealing in abstract considerations. So it's hard for me to really stick to my guns.

Sungold said...

I teach for a living at the university level, and yet I wouldn't homeschool unless I felt there was no other tenable solution. I've got a rising third grader and kindergartener and - selfishly, perhaps - I'm looking forward to the new things I'll be able to do this year. For one, I'll actually have a full-time job with my own insurance coverage for the first time since my pre-grad-school life. On the flip side, my older son wouldn't *want* homeschooling; we've talked about it, and we both know it would turn into a contest of wills, me nagging, him resisting.

But we're also blessed with a fairly progressive, multiethnic, multinational elementary school. His dad and I are in a good position to counter the inevitable pressure to conform and the occasional whiff of racism, since both of us deal with social justice issues in our teaching. We're aware that even the most progressive schools still breed some degree of conformity. One of our jobs as parents, I think, is helping kids learn to distinguish between mindless conformity and the necessity to get along and work well with others. So far, we're all doing okay, but I'm well aware that it won't get easier over time.

When would I homeschool? If one of my boys was getting severely bullied and was unable to learn; if he was so terminally bored that his grades were suffering (their dad dropped out of school, actually, for that reason); or if we moved somewhere that had lousy schools.

For now, I'm grateful that my kids are in good hands at their school - that we have good, close relationships with their teachers - and that I can finally put more energy into my own work (feminist and otherwise) after nearly a decade of dialing back those commitments.

Dawn said...

Maggie - I think you're assuming something that doesn't really reflect homeschooling as many families experience it. There's nothing innate in homeschooling that means isolation from normal social experiences or the media. Nothing. I think people tend to forget that kids generally have rich social lives outside of school too, between the neighbourhood gang and soccer or Girl Guides. Those are all places you'll see my homeschooled kids. And the state doesn't come take away your cable or satelite dish when you register as homeschoolers. The media still gleefully markets Barbie and hamburgers to my kids in our living room.

Feminism has been a part of our homeschooling though not explicitly - Kids are a little young yet. We simply learn about Hatshepsut, Hypatia, Boudica, or Artemisia Gentileschi without much of a fuss. They watch me fix the computers and they learn that though I'm the traditional housewife, that's a powerful role and what I do isn't to be taken for granted.

Habladora said...

There is a really interesting response to this post up at Kittywampus:

"And this points to the crux of the problem of reconciling feminism with homeschooling: While the kids may be getting an anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic education, the stay-at-home parent is still usually a mother. If she works from home for pay, she rarely earns enough to survive financially if her marriage or partnership were to end. So homeschooling as a solution that's feminist for the children is much harder to defend on feminist terms for the parent.

I don't think that staying home to parent is inherently anti-feminist. I did it myself when my kids were little, and it's important, honorable work. It's just that the longer you stay out of the labor market, the more precarious your financial position will be - and if that situation persists for a couple of decades, the stay-at-home parent is likely to be very vulnerable, financially."

The whole piece is a good read - go visit!

Sungold said...

Thanks so much for the shout-out, Habladora. My post is just a much wordier version of the comment I left here. :-)

I'm loving this series, BTW.

Habladora said...

Alright, I'll confess - I've developed a suspicion of homeschooling after working with a number of kids who were home-schooled for religious reasons. Many were clearly academically behind where they should be, were they enrolled in the public schools. So, while I'm sure that there are parents who do have the education and the time to invest in creating a rigorous program for their kids at home, it is clearly a challenge. My exposure to kids who aren't going to public schools expressly to keep them away from 'dangerous' ideas like evolution, women's equality, and acceptance of homosexuality as a biological fact of life rather than as a sin has been the key factor in making me uncomfortable with homeschooling, but it leads to a really complex question all parents have to face -
how much can you shield your kids, and how much shielding is right?

frau sally benz said...

I haven't commented up until now because I wanted to get my thoughts clear.

I've always thought that homeschooling is one of those great ideas in theory, but having the potential for failure in practice. This is probably a bit biased b/c my experience with people who were homeschooled have given me only two types of people: those that were very wealthy and had top-notch homeschooling, putting them ahead of everybody else, and those that were homeschooled by not-so-great parents (mostly mothers, though one was homeschooled by her father), putting them behind everybody else. Because of that, I've always thought successful homeschooling was a very classist phenomenon.

I'm sure there are countless cases where it is not either/or, and that the spectrum is much broader than that. But, it is very difficult to think about it in that way when I've only encountered the extremes.

Sungold said...

Hi Sally. I've made similar observations, with the caveat that I also know of a few families with quite modest incomes where sheer energy and will makes up for the lack of financial resources.

In other words, homeschooling is not entirely different from the public schools! Smart and dedicated teachers help. Financial resources help. If you don't have either of those, the whole enterprise will founder. I guess that's not terribly surprising.

Summer said...

I suppose I've been lucky in that I came into homeschooling already with a strong group of progressive/liberal/feminist friends. So the majority of homeschoolers I've met in real life and online ahve been children of those types of parents, my friends. The image of the sheltered, failing, meek homeschooler is an inside joke we make to each other.

Outside of that when I began to consider homeschooling rather than relying on stereotypes, rumors, and antidotes I went out and researched it. In education, socialization, and adaptability those who stayed home on average out perform those who went to public schools.

I am absolutely a feminist homeschooler. I don't think that what I chose to do with my life takes anything away from my life as a feminist. If anything chosing to opt out of the work force has given me more time to put towards those ideals. Plus, I like knowing that I'm a stronger influence on my sons than the peer groups they will encounter here. trust me, when they're grown you'll thank me. :)

frau sally benz said...

Thanks for sharing your experience, Summer. It's good to attach a name and face to a successful story.

Anonymous said...

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