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.

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.)

Around the same time, Dr. Raymond and Dorothy Moore were busy conducting and collecting early childhood education research. They, too, began publishing articles and books that questioned the wisdom of conventional schooling with a focus on the harm that can be created by rushing children prematurely into the existing school regimen (see Better Late Than Early: A New Approach to Your Child’s Education, Reader’s Digest Press, 1975; School Can Wait, Hewitt Research Foundation, 1985).

By the late seventies and early eighties, the message was spreading. The nationally acclaimed Home Education Magazine made its humble start in 1983. As the number of homeschoolers slowly grew so did the number of support groups focused on helping other parents get started in homeschooling. Networking homeschoolers worked to educate legislators and eventually changed state laws that prohibited the practice. The grassroots movement kept growing.

In the 1980s, changes in the tax regulations for Christian schools forced the smaller among them to close down by the hundreds. Suddenly, the parents of the students attending these schools were faced with a choice between government school attendance and homeschooling. For many, this really wasn’t a choice at all, and these Christian families became part of a large second wave of homeschooling, joining earlier homeschoolers and boosting the numbers to record highs. Christian curriculum providers, already well-established businesses that had just lost a large chunk of their original market, followed the money and easily courted the new market of homeschooling parents.

Since then, the media has identified yet another wave of homeschoolers – “the mainstreamers.” These are families from every conceivable religious, economic, political, and philosophical background in the United States. This wave has been impelled by: homeschooling’s greater visibility as an educational option; local, state, and national homeschooling support groups; easy networking and information sharing via the Internet and e-mail; and continuing government-school problems, such as dumbed-down curriculum, violence, drugs, bullying, and more. These forces have brought up the number of homeschooled children in the United States an estimated 15 to 20% each year for the last 15 years. The ballpark figure now stands at two million and growing.

Excerpted from Homeschoolers’ Success Stories: 15 Adults and 12 Young People Share the Impact That Homeschooling Has Made on Their Lives by Linda Dobson (Prima Publishing, (c) 2000. Reprinted with permission from the author.

One Response to A Brief History of American Homeschooling

  1. Tara Forsman says:

    What a nice, succinct summary of homeschooling. I’ve read some of John Taylor Gatto’s materials and he goes into great depth. You summed it up nicely in an easy-to-digest format. Thanks.

    Tara Forsman,
    Military wife and homeschooling Mom of three

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