Homeschooling: A History

Though many are aware of its existence, the details of the phenomenon of homeschooling probably fly under the radar for most. You may be surprised to learn that although the concept of educating children at home is ancient, its widespread presence in the United States is a relatively recent development. Where did it come from, and who fostered it into being? Schools offering American History degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Early Days

'If the government told you that on one hundred and eighty days of the year, for six or more hours a day, you had to be at a particular place, and there do whatever people told you to do, you would feel that this was a gross violation of your civil liberties.' So writes John Holt, one of two key pioneers for the current American system of homeschooling, in his 1981 tract Teach Your Own. He here expresses a sentiment that resonates with many, and this begins to explain why homeschooling has become a relatively popular phenomenon in the past several decades.

The precedent for societies homeschooling their children is not new. According to Judy Duchan, professor of history and language at the University of Buffalo, most schooling in ancient Egypt took this form; parents would pass household skills like farming or craftwork to their children. Even as far back as Mesopotamia, essentially the first major civilization, formal schooling was only available to upper-class males. The rest of the people were left to learn essential skills from their families or social networks.

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American History

In America, homeschooling remained a relatively underground and unorganized movement for a long time. Since Massachusetts set the trend for introducing compulsory schooling laws in 1850, the United States was mostly a nation that sent their kids to institutionalized learning facilities five days a week. A few parents bucked the trend, mostly in rural areas, but it was a small, unrepresented number.

In the 1970s, though, two very different authors with very different reasons for homeschooling came to prominence. Their published work would change the way many people viewed homeschooling and increase its popularity significantly. Let's talk about John Holt and Raymond Moore.

John Holt

Holt was an Ivy League graduate and proponent of education reform throughout his career. From his earliest published work, an interest in schooling children was apparent; 1964, for instance, saw the release of How Children Fail, his first book, while in 1967 he crafted a follow-up, How Children Learn. In 1976 Holt released Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better, which began to claw at the notion of students learning knowledge and skills outside of public school. That method of thought was in full swing by 1981, when Holt drafted Teach Your Own, a full-on support of homeschooling.

Holt's basic educational philosophy is born out of humanistic roots. As this post's opening quote might indicate, Holt considered public school a painful experience for youth, equating it to a hated full-time job. He wanted to stop schools from stifling children's natural curiosity, instead preferring students, guided by their parents, to follow their own educational path based on their particular interests. Holt dubbed his philosophy 'learning by living.' As one might expect, it found a strong foothold in New Age devotees and those influenced by countercultural movements of the 1960s.

Raymond Moore

The other major figure in the homeschooling movement stands almost completely opposite Holt. Raymond Moore was a former U.S. Department of Education Employee and held an Ed.D. from the University of Southern California. He and his wife set out to investigate whether it was beneficial for American culture to require the institutionalization of young children. Their findings suggested that compulsory schooling should start later in life than was traditionally practiced, and indeed that several disorders (like hyperactivity, dyslexia and nearsightedness) can stem from overstimulating a child's nervous system and brain too early.

Spurred on by his findings, Moore and his wife published two influential 1980s texts on homeschooling: Home Grown Kids and Home-Spun Schools. Even the titles, with their rustic emphasis, mark a significant difference from Holt's more relaxed works. Indeed, the Moores wrote their texts from a Christian perspective, and emphasized a regimented approach to homeschooling that included study, chores, work outside the home and community and social involvement in churches and service organizations. Understandably, Moore found significant support among families with more traditional or right-wing values, especially the substantially religious, who worried about the influence of secularized schools on their children.

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The Groundwork is Laid

Interestingly, the homeschool movement of the last few decades came from both political ends of American culture. Perhaps that explains its staying power and relative popularity. Of course, homeschooling still has many detractors, and isn't even really close to approaching traditional public schooling as an alternative. The last time the National Center for Education Statistics compiled data on homeschooling (in 2003), only 2.2 percent of the nation's student population fell into that category. Still, homeschool numbers continue to grow, and thanks to the work of individuals like Holt and the Moores it can now be considered a viable option for educating a child.

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