A Brief History of American Homeschooling

Many regard homeschooling as a new educational phenomenon, but that is simply a reflection of the bias of our times. If somehow we could help our caveman see into the future, he would regard government-sponsored schools as the variant, as would the majority of his descendants at least until the middle of the nineteenth century. Until then, the mostly agrarian American society lived a family-centered lifestyle; education happened at home, if only by default.

EarlyFarmLife

The current homeschooling movement is only new in that it has occurred following compulsory attendance laws and has grown sizeable enough to be noticed.

Through involvement in daily life’s work, children gathered knowledge of everything from growing food, construction, caring for livestock, and making tools, clothing, soap, and whatever few other resources they needed. Lessons necessary to turn them into readers, writers, and cipherers proficient enough to handle their own affairs and grow into responsible citizens took only a fraction of the time that they consume today, and they stopped when the season demanded their time and attention in the field or elsewhere. The lessons were provided by parents, older siblings, or perhaps a young single woman hired for a pittance by the community’s families to teach the basics. No laws existed, though, to compel (force) attendance.

The development of the modern educational system may be said to have been well on its way (over the objections of many teachers, parents, and public press) with the first state compulsory attendance law, courtesy of Massachusetts in 1852, coupled with the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society and its accompanying, vigorously enforced child labor laws. Modern-day switches from one pedagogical plan to another are hard enough to keep up with, but the complete story of how we got to our current state of school affairs takes so many twists and convolutions that I can only recommend that you read John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation into the Problem of Modern Schooling (The Oxford Village Press, 2000) to attempt a complete understanding of the evolution.

It’s only because we are now looking back over a 150-year history of government-supported, compulsorily attended schooling, one that most of us accepted as perfectly natural as we grew up (as did our parents and many of our grandparents), that homeschooling is perceived as something new. The current homeschooling movement is only new in that it has occurred following compulsory attendance laws and has grown sizeable enough to be noticed.

It is difficult to peg the exact origin of modern homeschooling. Some might say the seeds were being planted in the sixties and seventies by educational reformers and authors who questioned both schooling’s methods and results. Notable among them are Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society, Harper & Row, 1971), Charles E. Silberman (Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education, Random House, 1970), and the prolific John Holt (How Children Fail, Dell Publishing, 1964; How Children Learn, Dell Publishing, 1967; What Do I Do Monday? Dell Publishing, 1970), a teacher who eventually gave up his original vision of school reform as hopeless. He began advocating instead no school for youngsters, and in 1977 began publishing Growing Without Schooling, a magazine that continues today even though John passed away in 1985. (Author’s Note in 2005: Unfortunately, the inheritor no longer publishes this magazine.)

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