Sometimes (thankfully more rarely than I expected) I get yelled at on my blog by homeschooling parents. Other times I get absolutely wonderful messages. Lately I’ve had some amazing ones and a couple quasi-nasty ones, and some that may or may not have had me reaching for the tissues because I’d suddenly gotten something in my eye.

I’ve realized that the crossroads of faith and education is a particularly fraught space. Well, I’ve actually known this for some time. I used to try to steer clear of it because it was triggering to me, but now I see that it needs to be discussed. It’s a powerful intersection, a space buzzing with a lot of emotion and opinions and cultural influence and it is also often hard to talk about. After all, it brings up hot button issues on legacy, what values we impart to the next generation, and therefore it is about who are are as people. Also, there is plenty angst around it due to the fact that people often screw up and accidentally perpetuate their own issues onto their children, or are at least pretty afraid that they will. I think there is a lot more room for dialogue and discussion on the topic of faith and education than I could ever hope or wish to get into, but today I want to highlight three recent messages I got from blog commenters that really caught my eye. I think they add to the conversation and I expect maybe they will get your wheels turning too.

A few days ago I got a stereotypical angry message from a homeschool Mom named Judith telling me that I was wrong for discussing homeschooling and faith together:

This whole thing isn’t really about homeschooling at all. It’s about religion and being raised in a conservative religious community. You may as well have been Amish and attending a private Amish one-room school (yes, that’s how the Amish educate their kids). You may as well have been raised in a conservative Catholic family and educated in a convent school. You may as well have been Islamic, or LDS, or any other religion with conservative views on how women are to be treated and educated. I’m offended, as a homeschooler, by your misuse of homeschooling to create a sensation in the media. Guess what? Not all homeschoolers are religious conservatives. Quit trying to reform homeschooling. Homeschooling isn’t the real issue. Conservative religious groups who deliberately create a separation from mainstream society are the issue. Quit waving the homeschooler flag and crying that homeschool screwed you up. It did not. Your family’s religious views did.

Then I got a much nicer one from a Christian homeschool Mom named Tonya who talked about recovering from a toxic strain of faith:

Well, first and foremost, I want to say that I am so sorry for your pain and all that you have gone through. Secondly, I am a homeschooling mom with two grown children and I have really taken the posts that I have read to heart. I applaud your courage to be willing to share your stories. I started blogging about my life many years ago and it has been a cathartic experience that has led to amazing opportunities for me. I too, have PTSD and it came from coming from such a toxic fundamental church, and I still deal with the stress and anxiety that comes from feeling judge, especially since I moved to the NYC area to finish my degree.

I am still pro-choice when it comes to education, which hasn’t always gone over well with my homeschool friends or my public school friends and I agree, the competition between the choices only causes more division. I do say that I lean more towards homeschooling though, but that comes from my own experience being in over 20 public schools. When I read what you went through in high school, my heart broke for you, for I remember all the bullying I went through. I am sorry you had those experiences.
I think it is imperative for those who have been silenced be able to speak and if you all can provide a safe place for that, then that alone is worth it.

As a sociology major, I believe in the power discourse, it brings about change. I also know that the stigma that comes from homeschooling. Anything that goes against society lives by these stigma rules that are reinforced by society. I think you all have slightly touched on this, but when the data is collected, sociology comes in handy.

There were many things that I did not think were right in the homeschooling movement. I was NEVER meek enough and I think that marked my kids, too. Well, I did confront people or issues at times and normally it didn’t end well. People don’t like to see problems when they feel like they have keep up with appearances. And there is reason for that- I remember fighting to keep the laws the way they were in Colorado and some old lady came up to my daughter while we were at the Capitol and quizzed her! I wanted to keep the laws that we had. Many homeschoolers remember having to testify or work to get the laws passed. That being said, homeschooling should never cover up abuse that is for sure.

I am not sure how much my opinion matters, I only have two kids, but we did homeschool all the way through high school and both of my kids sat under Chris Jeub. In fact Chris Jeub was instrumental in helping us when our son became gravely ill in FL while at a debate camp in 2010. Our family feels very indebted to his generosity in our time of need. But even if that hadn’t have happened, I think Chris is a great guy, who is open to listening. I just wish there were more leaders who would be that open to listening to your generation. BTW, he didn’t know I would post a comment- but it is through his link on FB that I have come to know you.

I think more people are starting to realize that things can be tweaked since the first generation of homeschoolers. I believe that stigma has had the power to keep homeschooling families from growing or for reaching out for help when they need it. I am NOT a fan of Vision Forum or any of that-unfortunately fundamentalism in its ugliest form has grown under the protection of homeschooling and many things that were propagated were very harmful to many families that I know.

Keep writing! Don’t let those who disagree stop you- we will all learn from what you all have to say.

Then just last night, “J,” a Jewish homeschool Mom, left what I found to be a very insightful and balanced comment that really crystallized some thoughts I’ve also been having on certain authoritarian strains of Christian faith and how they use homeschooling as a tool to subvert human rights, and explaining why homeschool parents of all stripes freak out about this and immediately play the “no true Scotsman” card, disavowing any connection to these problems. “J” said:

I’ve been reading your blog and thinking about this very issue, and it’s clearly tremendously complicated. Homeschooling plays a prominent role in the Christian patriarchy movement in the US, and its oppression of women (and men, in a different way) could not be achieved to the same extent without it.

Even a specific type of religious out-of-the-home school could not achieve the same effect. Caring for numerous younger siblings and slaving away in the home seems to be too important an aspect of girls’ upbringing within this movement for this to be only about academic education. This movement depends specifically on homeschooling, not merely on education that keeps one away from the rest of the world.

Having said that, I can understand why homeschool parents who are not from within the said movement believe this to be about something other than homeschooling.

I am Jewish. It bothers me when certain extreme Jewish sects appear in the news, and people reading about them think only about those when they hear the word “Judaism”.

In the same way, it bothers me when people hear “homeschooling” and think only of homeschooling in the context of the American Christian patriarchy movement. We can probably agree that homeschooling can be about academic success, or personal freedom (for the child!), or about many other things that have nothing to do with religion or keeping kids away from the real world.

Yes, homeschooling can be an essential tool of religious and personal oppression, and this is something society needs to address. But it can also be something perfectly normal, and I think it is, at the very least, understandable if homeschooling families feel upset about being lumped into the same category with those who have oppressive, sexist agendas.

I think “J” is right. Judith and others like her are scared and lashing out because they just want this story to go away and strongly feel it should not belong to them. People like Tonya have seen the good and the bad and want a balanced perspective. They were hurt by the “homeschooling movement” but they don’t want to lose actual homeschooling. They like homeschooling and think it can be a good thing.

I don’t take the harsh words of people like Judith personally, but I am quite sure about one thing and that is that this story that she doesn’t want connected to her or homeschooling belongs to all of us. Not just homeschoolers but (to go ahead and use the example of where I’m from) New Orleanians, and Louisianians, and Cajuns, and Americans, and global citizens. Casting blame and deflecting responsibility achieves a very unhealthy result. We all have a duty to correct this problem in our society (societies?), in our churches and communities and homeschooling groups and in our very own homes.

So we need to have some hard conversations about doing the right thing and what that looks like and we also need to be patient with people who are freaking out, still working with too much of the old script, or otherwise doing stuff that drives the rest of us nuts. We will have to differentiate between the people who are scared and the true obstructionists – people who are benefitting from the status quo in some way and have an interest in sowing fear and perpetuating it. This last part is hard.

It’s difficult to tell what people’s motivations are sometimes, or whether they are being honest. We all like to think we are good judges of character and make good interpersonal decisions, but fact is we only know what we see, what other people show us about themselves, and we interpret it all through the lens of our own limited experience. It’s a guessing game, a trust fall, a leap of faith. In fact, I will go out on a limb here and say that if there was ever a need to pray for guidance I’d imagine it would be best used in the effort of dealing with other people. It can be pretty scary stuff sometimes.

Also, just because it is hard to figure out what to do and not do and we know we won’t always succeed after we plan it out doesn’t mean we should opt out of trying. There are a lot of unknown unknowns and more known unknowns than I am comfortable with, but we’ve still gotta do what we’ve gotta do, work with what we have. The other choice – to just sit here slackjawed – simply isn’t good enough.

It is also quite easy to take this kind of jumbled up mess and get paranoid about it, bogged down in demonizing “those other people” and responding to their fear and anger with your own fear and anger. I think the most important thing we can do is try to check ourselves when we are feeling aggressive, see if there can be space for conflict resolution, “I statements,” for pinpointing win/win arguments and fostering collaboration and respectful dialogue rather than facilitating fierce competition, low blows, and pointed insults.
It might look a little more boring to do it that way, but having done both, I can assure you that it is the greater challenge and if it can be managed, it is the better way.

I know that it is sometimes hard not to unnecessarily escalate the situation, that sometimes I’m not very good at chilling out, at de-escalation, because after all there is definitely a pressing need here. However, there are things I can do to help myself remember and one of those is to try to meet somebody where they’re at when at all possible.

I don’t know what Judith’s story is, but I’d be willing to bet that she latched onto homeschooling as a safe haven, a way to protect her family from some of the social ills she sees in the world around her, and maybe she has seen a lot of social ills and doesn’t feel she has room to deal with any more (I will admit that 2013 has been quite a doozy of a year for me, so I can understand the impulse, although I doubt any of us, when asked, would say we have more room for struggle or bad news). Seeing me work to shatter the myth that homeschooling is automatically a safe space may have been incredibly triggering to Judith. Maybe she just needs a safe space, a port in the storm, a safe haven. However – and this is a key part of what I want to get at – you can’t create safe spaces by sticking your head in the sand or by using harsh words against survivors. In fact, that exact kind of behavior creates the most dangerous spaces imaginable. So Judith, if you want a safe space, start at home. You have to learn how to be a safe person.

There are homeschooling Moms of faith out there who are safe people, who are rejecting the programming, casting aside the authoritarian Christian cookie-cutter mold of what homeschooling Moms of faith are supposedly supposed to be doing, and who are then setting good (and often very creative) examples of what homeschooling can be. We would do well to follow the lead that more of them have set. I met one for lunch the other day actually, an ordained minister, and spent time with her and her kids (happy, well-adjusted children who were noisily eating carrot cake muffins before heading to a science museum), and it was awesome. These are the people we should be watching and emulating – home educators acting out of love and caring, rather than out of fear or obedience to an authoritarian structure that uses them as pawns and breeders in some culture war.

Maybe us homeschool kids, now grown, blogging against the past as “homeschool apostates,” can help improve these things, reset the tone, point out what kind of homeschool leadership is needed and what kind definitely isn’t. I sure hope we can and I think we are starting to. I think Julie Anne of Spiritual Sounding Board might be right that the pressure we are putting on homeschool leaders to vet their conference speakers more carefully, to not have people advocating teen marriage in a place of authority and honor, for example, might keep other homeschoolers from experiencing the heartache and loneliness and bad advice that so many of us in the first wave needlessly endured.

However, we are at an interesting crossroads. There are people who want to make this about them and their agenda, exploit the political fault lines of the religious right and the secular left and continue the culture wars, pigeonholing us in the middle of it. I don’t want to be Belgium or Laos. I have zero interest in it. I’ve read my history. I saw what happened. So I reject this proxy culture war that I and my friends were supposed to be trained as a child soldiers for and say shame on those who thought it was a good idea to put us in this position in the first place.

I have already said that I want to opt out of that fight and concentrate on something that is much more important to me than than whether stay at home moms v. working moms are happier, or unions v. free markets are better, or plastic v. reusable canvas grocery bags are more respectful. This is about kids. It is about peace and living life and belonging. It is about doing our best to have happy, healthy, well-adjusted kids who we lovingly give the gift of an open future – the skills and determination and drive and sense of belonging – where they can feel empowered to decide how they want to live life to the fullest and figure out for themselves how to do their part to make the world a place more fit for man and beast.

It’s a tall order, for sure, and we could keep stalling on it, continue the divisive politics where we rehash the liberal/conservative, religious/secular, homeschool/public school, and good parent/bad parent debate while claiming that we are actually trying to achieve something, but look where that sort of “demonize the other” black and white thinking has gotten us. It sure isn’t anywhere good. There are a lot of economic and social problems in our country right now and ridiculous (and disturbing) levels of political infighting, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening. The homeschooling world has not been immune. Indeed, I figure it would be weird if it were.

So now that many of us homeschool students are banding together and raising awareness of the issues we faced as children, homeschool parents and leaders can choose to get out ahead of this thing, respond compassionately, and make changes in an innovative and child-centered way that fits well with the culture of hands-on learning prized in many homeschooling families. Or they can choose to freak out, minimize what too many of us are saying happened to us, point fingers, cast blame, and maybe even call abused children “whiners” like Kevin Swanson did the other day. But we know where that latter course of action will take us. We’ve already been there. We’ve already seen that and done that. And it sucks. So let’s try a new way.

I know I’m ready for a new way, trying to lead by example and do my part on that. After all, that’s why I went to policy school. It wasn’t to get rich or to amass power or to gain prestige. It was that I strongly felt and then made a promise as a little girl that when I grew up I wanted to “help people like us.” I still do want to help. I want to do the right thing, make a positive difference in this world. Maybe you do too.

I can’t help but think that maybe if we can tap into those deeper motivations, the spiritual things that really drive our desire for knowledge, that perhaps we can stop going round in circles so much and actually solve some problems.