Those Homeschooling Patriarchs
Kiera Feldman has a disturbing report about the alleged cover-up of sexual assaults at Patrick Henry College, a conservative Evangelical school in rural Virginia. I don’t have anything to say about the substance of her report. If what she says is true, then it’s horrible, and must be dealt with strongly, clearly, and justly. You all know by now how I feel about institutions of any kind covering up sexual abuse in their ranks for the sake of protecting the institution. I have no interest in either attacking or defending PHC, at least not enough to dig into the story to sort our who’s right and who’s wrong. Maybe I will, but not today.
What caught my eye in reading the story was this graf (emphasis mine):
Underlying homeschooling culture is the Christian patriarchy movement, which teaches that men and women have separate, “complementarian” roles: A woman’s highest calling is as a mother and submissive “helpmeet” to her husband, who in turn functions as God’s representative on Earth. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church,” reads Ephesians 5:22, an oft-cited biblical passage in the movement that is also invoked in the PHC student handbook. The most conservative patriarchy devotees—like Farris, a father of ten—call themselves “Quiverfull” and believe in having as many children as God gives them.
Kiera Feldman ought to ask my wife, who heads the homeschooling in our house, if she considers herself a submissive helpmeet to Your Working Boy. It’s hilarious to anybody who knows us. What’s not so funny is that this wildly inaccurate stereotype about homeschooling flew past copy editors at a magazine as sophisticated as The New Republic. The “Christian patriarchy movement” may well underlie the homeschooling movement associated with Patrick Henry College, but it by no means characterizes homeschooling in general, or even Christian homeschooling. True, we Christians who homeschool — and by no means are all homeschoolers Christian — are likely to be more traditional on gender roles than others, but there’s a vast sea of difference between total egalitarianism and the strict gender roles embraced by the Quiverfull families. In fact, we have far more in common in this regard with public-schooling families we know than with the homeschooling Christians who adopt the Christian patriarchy model.
It might sound like petty griping to you, but it’s really not. Homeschoolers constantly have to deal with damaging stereotypes of what we do. Sometimes we overreact to the ill-informed judgmentalism, and end up defending things within our own broad movement that ought not be defended. But sometimes you just shake your head at the almost willful ignorance on display. How is it possible for a major magazine in 2014 to assume that all homeschooling is conservative Christian homeschooling — or that all conservative Christians (such as my wife and I are) operate according to a radical Protestant model? It’s easy to find liberals who homeschool too — and more power to them, say I!
This particularly cheesed me off this morning when I read it because my wife and I were planning our oldest son’s schooling for the fall. She was telling me about some of the online courses she’s found for homeschoolers, and they’re incredible. Right now, Matthew is taking an online course on the History of Imperial Russia, taught by a retired SMU professor. It’s been fantastic and challenging and exciting for him and for his parents. In fact, I started reading Massie’s biography of Peter the Great so I could shadow Matt in this class, and it has opened up an entire world to me. There is so much out there for homeschooled kids.
Our youngest child is a girl. She’s not being taught to defer meekly to her brothers. She’s following the same courses they’re following, though at her own speed. She just finished mastering fourth grade vocabulary. She’s seven. Homeschooling lets us tailor her education to her strengths, and get her extra help with the things that come hard for her. Kiera Feldman couldn’t spend a day with us and believe that “Christian patriarchy” is at the base of what we do as homeschooling parents — though let me say that I absolutely defend the legal right of other homeschooling parents to educate their children according to this model. We are paid-up members of the HSLDA.
As I never tire of saying, homeschooling is not for everybody. It is not a magic solution to the problems many find in public, private, or parochial schools. But for some families — families like ours, for example — it’s not only workable, it seems to us to be the best of all schooling possibilities open to us right now. That may change in the future. We’re not ideological about it. Still, it ticks me off, quite frankly, when journalists make lazy, ignorant generalizations about homeschooling, stigmatizing a highly diverse movement and perhaps frightening off parents who might find in homeschooling a solution to problems their children are struggling with in school.
All TNR had to do here was write, “Underlying the homeschool culture that produces many of Patrick Henry’s undergraduates is the Christian patriarchy movement, which … .” It’s not that hard, unless you are blinded by your ideological preconceptions.
UPDATE: Another great thing about homeschooling: it allows your kids to be as eccentric as they want to be. Nora just informed her mother, “There really needs to be a skip-counting song to the tune of ‘Psycho Killer’ by the Talking Heads.” Of course there does.
UPDATE.2: A female reader who is a fairly recent graduate of Patrick Henry college e-mails:
Just wanted to say thanks for your piece on PHC and patriarchy. I agree 100 percent with what you said—there may be homeschoolers with a patriarchal philosophy, but homeschooling itself is not patriarchal. And, I might add from personal experience, neither is PHC.
I don’t intend to explore the specific allegations made by the reporter in her story. I don’t know any of the students involved, not beyond the acquaintance / face recognition level, anyways. But the biggest problem I saw with the piece is that what could’ve been a story about administrative mistakes / malpractice turned into a piece about “those patriarchal, sexist Christians.” And that’s just not PHC. Faculty and staff truly encourage women students to pursue career, family, or both—whatever they feel called to. As someone who often got A’s in every class, I never felt discouraged or looked down upon by men students. Guys asked me for my study guides all the time, or sent me their papers for perusal. It is not a sexist, patriarchal culture.
Additional note: Hanna Rosin published God’s Harvard in 2007. The school has changed significantly in subsequent years—its homeschool vs. public/private school student ratio has risen significantly (I’d say closer to 60/40 or 70/30 than the 95/5 of Rosin’s years, but that’s an estimate). Thus, the culture has changed. The TNR piece said women interested in government or leadership are viewed as “unmarriageable.” Nothing could be further from the truth—my smartest, most politically savvy, strong-willed female friends are either dating, engaged, or married (with a couple exceptions, and those women have turned down multiple requests). The meek, frightened, abused woman in the TNR piece just doesn’t exist: at least not at the fault of the school. There may be larger, familial issues there, but it’s not an issue of institutional patriarchalism.
Once again, I don’t really want to comment on the examples placed in the article, merely because of my ignorance, but I know the school’s culture and students, and the picture painted was extremely false.
Wait a minute, reader, are you saying that a reporter for liberal Washington magazine went to a conservative Evangelical college and saw only what she wanted to see? Say it isn’t so!