Student kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?
As I mentioned yesterday, the Feminist Underground is running a cool series on feminist parenting. The latest post is a spirited argument by Rachel Allen in favor of feminist homeschooling, which was originally published in its entirety by California NOW. The core of her argument is that schools are basically racist, sexist, homophobic engines of conformity that magnify the most pernicious aspects of the mass media. Homeschooling offers her a way to counteract those forces while maintaining a work-at-home career as a feminist activist.
In principle, I think homeschooling can be made compatible with any worldview. In my little town, as in most of America by now, the homeschool community is composed partly of fundamentalist or conservative Christians, partly of lefty/alternative/neo-hippie families. I also know people with non-ideological reasons for homeschooling: they have gifted or speech-delayed kids who are served poorly with by their local school, or they faced a bullying problem that couldn't be resolved.
In practice, however, I think feminist homeschooling is a thorny issue, if only because it requires one parent to be mostly at home. Rachel Allen is lucky in that she works from home. I know another political activist in my neighborhood who strikes a similar balance. Most of us don't have that much flexibility.
As a university professor I have more flexibility than most workers, but I couldn't homeschool unless I had a nanny to carry much of the burden. I still have to show up for my classes and meetings. This year, I've got a rising third grader and kindergartner. With both kids in public school, I'm looking forward to going full time (and having my own health insurance!) after nearly a decade of part-time work.
For work reasons alone, then, I wouldn't homeschool unless I felt there was no other tenable solution. Of course, I realize that I'm lucky to have work that's personally rewarding and reasonably remunerative.
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. Sure, there are ways to mitigate this by working part-time or from home, or by taking turns being the at-home parent. But the fact remains that as Ann Crittenden has shown so persuasively, staying at home has very steep, long-term costs.
I'm the last person to measure worth and happiness solely in financial terms (otherwise I wouldn't have spent all that time in grad school). However, I see lots of female students hoping to be stay-at-home parents without much awareness of the attendant risk of poverty, and I suspect many mothers decide to stay home with the assumption that divorce or widowhood won't strike them personally.
The calculation changes, of course, if you live somewhere with poor schools. We're lucky in that our local elementary school is quite good. The teachers are smart, dedicated, and fairly progressive. Though I live in predominantly white Appalachia, the student body is multiethnic and multinational, partly because the school serves the university's graduate student population, partly because binational families like mine gravitate toward its diversity.
Diversity is of course no safeguard against racism, sexism, or homophobia. I know of at least one incident where a racist joke was told at recess. Lunchtime conversation too often revolves around gender stereotypes. The teachers can't police all of this, and so it's up to us parents to talk to our kids after school and discuss why those things aren't okay.
Homeschooling would shield my kids from hateful and stereotypical comments. On the flip side, though, they wouldn't learn how to respond to racism and sexism, which my rising third grader already does pretty effectively. The school environment is also much more diverse than our local homeschooling community in terms of race, nationality, social class, and parents' educational level.
I fully agree with Rachel Allen that there's pressure to conform even in most progressive schools. One of our jobs as parents, I think, is to help 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 striking this balance won't get easier over time.
Temperamentally, homeschooling would be a tough fit for my kids. My older son, the Bear, 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. He also needs more stimulation than any one parent could provide, and he gets that primarily from the other kids at school, plus frequent playdates and oodles of informal teaching after school. The Bear's curiosity never sleeps. (For that matter, the Bear would literally prefer never to sleep, and he's been that way since the day he was born.) Even with all the activities that homeschooling families pursue together, we'd still come up short.
I can imagine certain circumstances where homeschooling might be the least-bad choice for us: 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. But for now, I'm grateful that my kids are in good hands at their school. We've been lucky to have good, close relationships with their teachers. I'm eager to finally put more energy into my own work (feminist and otherwise) after nearly a decade of dialing back those commitments.
Not least, the kids get along better when they're not together 24/7, and for that reason alone, we're counting down to August 26. (I am that LOLcat!)
I'd love to hear what others think about feminism and homeschooling. I'd bet there are as many perspectives on this as there are parents.