The History of Homeschooling Interview

Lori Soard
Milton Gaither
Professor Milton Gaither

LoveToKnow Home School editor Lori Soard had a chance to talk to Dr. Milton Gaither in this history of homeschooling interview. Dr. Gaither is a Professor of Education at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. One of Milton Gaither's most interesting projects is his book titled American Educational History Revisited: A Critique of Progress. In this volume, he looks at education throughout America's history. He has also written the book Homeschool: An American History. In addition to having a solid knowledge of the history of education, Dr. Gaither and his wife homeschool their oldest two children through a cyber-charter school.

History of Homeschool Interview with Milton Gaither, PhD.

LoveToKnow (LTK): Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about homeschooling's history. When did you first become interested in this topic?

Milton Gaither (MG): About eight years ago, after finishing my first book on educational historiography I was ready for a new project. I had noticed that the history of education suffered from a dearth of good studies of non-public school topics. While there are a few studies of private schools, there was absolutely nothing on the history of homeschooling except for a few first-person accounts by movement activists. So, there was a clear need. In addition, our eldest daughter had just been accelerated two grades and we were thinking about homeschooling her, so I had a personal interest in the issue.

Education in Colonial America

LTK: Your book goes all the way back to Colonial America. What was homeschooling like back then?

old school room

MG: Well, and this is the central argument of the book, it was pervasive but it wasn't "homeschooling" in the modern sense of the word. Nobody was doing it as a self-conscious political statement in reaction against institutional schooling. In the early colonial period, people did it because they had no other choice. As settlements thickened and stabilized, schools emerged. The typical pattern was that along the western frontier, families homeschooled for the first few years until there was a population dense enough to start local schools. Some wealthy colonists, particularly in the middle and southern colonies, hired at-home tutors for their children. Finally, clandestine home-based learning occurred among the African slaves, who often had no other option for obtaining basic literacy.

Modern Homeschooling Movement

LTK: When do you feel the modern homeschool movement began?

MG: In the book, I describe how in the late 1960s both the political left and right made similar moves against mainstream institutions, for opposite reasons. The left thought government was right wing propaganda. The right thought government was secular socialist propaganda. Both extremes became alienated from public education among other government programs. Folks on the left were the first to make homeschooling into a national issue--founding magazines, organizing support groups, pitching political campaigns and so on. This happened in the late 1970s. The most visible figure here was John Holt. In the early 1980s, conservative Protestants began to make the same move, inspired at first by Raymond and Dorothy Moore and by Rousas Rushdoony. By the late 1980s the Conservative Christians had pretty much taken over the movement due to their much larger numbers and better organization.

Preparing Kids for the Future

LTK: As a professor of education, you have a unique perspective on what constitutes a good education that prepares students for college and success in the workplace. What advice would you give to parents thinking about homeschooling or already homeschooling?

MG: Most homeschoolers don't really need my advice. They know how to get whatever advice they need in a heartbeat online. I will say a couple of things as a professor at a college. I've noticed that some of my students who had been homeschooled have trouble in their first couple of semesters with big research papers. Once they figure out what we want they are able to do just fine, but some of them don't seem to have had a lot of experience writing a research-based paper--discriminating between strong and weak sources, citing using an accepted style, avoiding polemical language. Secondly, I've noticed that sometimes my homeschooled students at the Christian college where I teach occasionally have a hard time dealing with people whose religious or political opinions are to the left of theirs. I know this is a touchy subject, but you asked. Many of my homeschooled students are very adept at expressing themselves but being respectful of difference. But there are some who seem to be taken aback by the existence of more liberal ideas, perhaps because in their experience the only Christians they had known before believed the same things they did. Again, after a year or two, most of these homeschoolers have learned how to get along in a more intellectually diverse environment, but I have had a few homeschooled students over the years who have really struggled with this. In a couple of cases they couldn't handle it and either dropped out or transferred to a more uniformly conservative Bible school.

Homeschooling Trends

LTK: Do you see any recent trends that you think will continue to grow in the homeschooling movement?

MG: Yes. I've written quite a lot about the expansion of virtual schooling. I see that continuing and growing in the future because it's cheap and convenient. Online public education at home is here to stay and will only get bigger in the future. Also, the big picture trend I see is a move away from homeschooling as that deliberate protest statement I was talking about earlier. More and more people are turning to homeschooling not because they think the public schools are hopelessly mired in the capitalist system that crushes individuality (as John Holt thought) or because they think that public schools are hopelessly secular humanist (as Rousas Rushdoony thought), but simply because it makes sense for their family at a given moment. While most people who homeschool are still "homeschoolers" in the protest sense of the term, increasing numbers are not.

Differences Between Then and Now

LTK: What are the differences in the way the American family worked when our nation first began and how it works today?

MG: Yikes. That's a big question. The first thing I want to note is the similarity. Lots of us have mistaken, nostalgic views about the American family in the past. The American family has ALWAYS been in "crisis." Separation (even if it wasn't called divorce) was common as men moved west and left families behind. Child abuse was pervasive. Parental death was much more common, meaning we had many orphans. But if you want to stress the differences, here are some. The birth rate has declined (especially among native whites) over the long term. The home is no longer the center of production like it was for many, especially rural Americans in the 17th through the 19th centuries. Mothers space their children closer together and hence have more time in their lives when they are not raising children. Women work much more, even those with children. Children are expected to stay in school longer. As late as the 1870s an eighth grade education was all most Americans got or needed. One could go on. In a nutshell, the family is now seen by most as a psychically and emotionally fulfilling institution rather than an economic one as it was in the premodern past.

LTK: What conclusions can parents draw from reading about the history of education in this country?

MG: Parents I've talked to who have read my book invariably tell me two things: First, they were fascinated by how different things were "back then." What I was badly summarizing in the last question I explain in great detail over three chapters in the book. Second, they tell me that they enjoyed learning about the history of the homeschooling movement. Veteran homeschoolers who remember the legal and legislative battles of the 1980s will find my book a fun refresher of those times, but most homeschoolers today did not live through that stuff and may not know about all the trouble homeschoolers went through to make what they do clearly legal.

LTK: How has homeschooling increased in diversity in the last twenty years?

MG: Good question. It's really hard to chart that statistically. The National Center for Education Statistics has been keeping track of homeschooling by race since 1999, but the data doesn't seem to have a real trend line. In 2003, it looked like lots more African Americans were homeschooling. But in 2007, the latest figures available, African American numbers were down and Hispanic numbers were up. These figures come from telephone interviews of a sample of the population, so you can't take them to the bank. But they're the best we've got. In general I'd say that the homeschooling MOVEMENT remains for the most part the work of conservative Christians and Mormons (and, increasingly, Muslims) who have left the public schools for moral and religious reasons, along with a smattering of unschoolers and other left-leaning folks who do it to escape the bureaucracy and test-obsession of institutional schooling. But outside of the movement, as I've said, an increasing number of people are keeping their kids home for all sorts of reasons. You've asked about virtual charters, gifted kids, and kids in intensive activities. We might also add children on the other side of the special needs continuum--perhaps 10 to 15 percent of homeschoolers fit into that category. A growing number of highly educated professional women are choosing homeschooling as part of the "radical homemaker," slow-food, hipster ethic. Homeschooling is quite popular among some Orthodox Jews. The list goes on. Main point is that while the movement and its established institutions (statewide support groups and conventions, HSLDA, and so on) are still firmly conservative Protestant, it's much easier these days to homeschool for any number of reasons and to find like-minded folks for support.

Talented Kids

LTK: How can homeschooling help with children who have an extreme talent in areas such as music, theater or sports?

MG: That's one of the growing, non-ideological reasons people are homeschooling. To use my own daughter as an example, homeschooling has given her the freedom to learn at a much more accelerated pace. She is only 14, but is taking college courses. She also dances at a very intensive ballet school. Homeschooling allows her the flexibility to work between rehearsals, sleep in a bit when she gets home late after a performance, and spend some time with us. If she were at a brick-and-mortar school, we'd never see her and she'd be exhausted all the time! In the book I give several examples of child athletes, actors, and so on who homeschool for these reasons.


A huge thanks to Professor Milton Gaither for taking the time to talk to LoveToKnow Home School about his knowledge of our country's educational history and his perspectives on homeschooling in the past, present and future. You can visit Milton Gaither's blog or order his book Homeschool: An American History.

The History of Homeschooling Interview