Monday, January 12, 2009

Famous Homeschoolers in History...?

The rise of modern homeschooling in the last two decades has done much good. It is a result of many parents who realize that the schools are mostly bastions of unbelief. And it has helped many families focus on an important aspect of their duty: the godly education of their children.

However, as with most movements, there is good mixed with the bad. In this particular case, homeschooling history is being rewritten.

One website promoting homeschooling success stories presents an impressive array of homeschooled heroes. Under the first heading, "Activists," Peter Jennings is listed. Clicking on the link and reading the wikipedia article, one discovers that this famous man attended school until he flunked 10th grade. Certainly a strange candidate for homeschool hero status.

Moving onto another hero. Clicking on "Jason Taylor" (NFL player) yields more evidence that slopply history is being written: He was homeschooled for about three years.

At the end of the day, is this how homeschoolers and their defenders (including myself) wish to promote this noble cause? With such reasoning demonstrated above, public school advocates could use any homeschooler who attend school for three years (just invert Jason Taylor's profile). Or claim a famous person who was homeschooled until grade 10 as their own--if only because afterward he entered public school (just invert Peter Jennings' profile).

At best, this is equivocal reasoning.

Perhaps a more notable list should be examined. After all, not all who write lists on the web are qualified to do so. So, after googling, several lists were discovered (both online, in books and on the radio). The lists are long. The work was hard. At the end, five are presented below as examples of the typical educational backgrounds during that time-period:
  1. John Witherspoon (Educator/Statesman): One problem with using encyclopedias as sources of detailed information is that they are not sources of detailed information. They cover more of the adult achievements than the particular facts of any person's childhood. For such facts, biographies, eye-witnesses and the like must be examined. And that is a lot of work. In this case, reading the eulogy of Witherspoon (given by his personal friend, John Rodgers) paints a different educational picture: "He was sent, very young to the public school at Haddington: His father spared neither expense nor pains in his education." At age fourteen he attended the university of Edinburgh (p.24, The Works of Rev. John Witherspoon).
  2. Thomas Jefferson (President): Reading his own biography ought to have dispelled this historical myth years ago. He testifies that he was schooled at age five then sent to a Latin school at age nine. Digging into his history will show that the early schooling was done with a tutor at his home plantation along with other children. The Latin school he attended was fifty miles away at the Dover Church grammar school (where he boarded with a friend's family--a not uncommon activity in the southern gentry) (Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, Brodie, p. 49, 51).
  3. Patrick Henry (Statesman): Of course Patrick Henry is dear to my heart (as is Witherspoon) because of his Calvinism (another topic that falls off the historical radar of modern conservative "scholarship"). His grandson, William Wirt Henry, compiled the facts of Patrick's life and concluded: "He was sent to a common English school until about the age of ten years, where he learned to read and write, and acquired some little knowledge of arithmetic.” Afterwards, his father tutored him and other local boys in Latin and some other topics (cp. Give Me Liberty: The Uncompromising Statesmanship of Patrick Henry, Vaughan, p.29).
  4. James Madison (President): The childhood of Madison demonstrates the modern historical problems of pinning down exactly how individual early Americans were educated. Many papers, receipts and diaries are missing. In the case of Madison, an incomplete paper trail exists, but what does exist demonstrates that at age three and nine his father was paying a tutor for his son's education. Presumably his mother and grandmother helped as well. More complete evidence demonstrates that at age eleven he was sent to Donald Robertson's school, 70 miles from home! Later, at around age sixteen he was home with another tutor who lived with them and taught the other younger siblings. Again, not uncommon in the south (James Madison: A Biography, Ketcham, p. 17; James Madison, A Biography in His Own Words, ed. Peterson, p.16).
  5. John Jay (Supreme Court Judge): Lastly, we have another favorite Calvinist of mine. John Jay learned some Latin before the age of 8 when he was sent off to a school in New Rochelle, 8 miles away (a Huguenot (Calvinist) town). He continued until age eleven and then went home and studied under a private tutor, George Murray. He attended college at age 14 (John Jay: Founding Father, Stahr, p. 9).
This plethora of information was probably more than you wanted to know, but it is important to realize it is not a simple and naive matter to clump historical figures into our neat 21st century categories. At that time, education was a laissez-faire effort. It was typically a mixture of homeschooling (loosely defined), home-tutoring and local schooling. This was especially the case in the South (Virginia & the Carolinas). Further north, the practice was closer to today's day-school model (that is another posting).

Close examination of the above samples reveals a mixed approach to education that is being matched today in homeschooling circles. Too often the modern rhetoric has highlighted the superiority of homeschooling in the abstract, as though homeschooling was just junior, mom and dad. In reality, more and more families are mixing some form of tutoring into their child's curriculum. Many families are discovering that no family is an island and that God has graced his kingdom with differing abilities, with some families stronger in one academic area than others. But this is yet another posting for the future.

The conclusion of the matter is that rewriting history rewrites our expectations: "If only we could create that homeschooling environment, we could turn back the clock!"--a cry I've heard and read over the years. We will not achieve another Patrick Henry simply by homeschooling. Another James Madison will not arise from the ashes of America simply by homeschooling. Homeschooling is but one means to an end. And it operated in a Christian culture that is lost today (think Sabbatarian, confessional, & Calvinistic). If we want to turn back the clock, we need such a milieu again.

Retelling internet educational fables only sets up the homeschoolers and their supporters for a humiliating fall. Instead the focus should be on supporting one another in love. Hyping history in favor of one educational method over another just turns into a in-house fight--a form a tribalism that will eat the church from within. Instead, the spirit of 1 Corinthians 13 should prevail and the truth of history should be supported. In fact, homeschoolers should support private schoolers; private schoolers should help homeschoolers; and churches should nurture their members on the pure Gospel of Christ and the Law of His kingdom.



CJ said...

It seems to me that many of the proponents of Christian homeschooling are telling deliberate lies (or else are repeating things they have heard without bothering to see if those things are indeed factual), and nowhere is this more apparent than in their treatment of history, be it the history of homeschooling, as you have dealt with here, or American history in general.

With that in mind, I have to ask myself, how can anything which purports to be Christian and yet is built upon a foundation of lies be of God?

John Holzmann said...

Thank you, Shawn, for doing the research! Your post--the truth--is "a balm in Gilead."

polymathis said...

Your welcome.

In fact, anyone is allowed to post this article (with my name/link of course!) if they think it will be helpful.

Too many Christians have been pressured with false history.