Writer Reflects on Life As a 1970s Child of "Home-schooling Anarchists"


For those who have either had non-traditional schooling or done it (or considered it) for their kids, Margaret Heidenry's article for The New York Times Magazine is a great reflection on being the child of "home-schooling anarchists" in the 1970s — long before the practice was legal in all 50 states and "decades before you could Google a lesson plan or buy a "My Kids 'Heart' Home Schooling" bumper sticker."

Heidenry's mother described their learning methods  and activities — yoga and tea breaks were included, but also math and geography —in another New York Times Magazine article back in 1979.

Writes Margaret Heidenry:

In her article, my mother laid out the basic tenets of her approach to educating us. "They work at their own pace," she wrote. "They have no assignments to complete. . . . I am not teaching the children. I am permitting them to learn."

After Mom's article appeared, multiple letters to the editor expressed "fear for the Heidenry children." Readers wondered if we would ever be able to adjust to the "real world" or were destined to be "social misfits" and underachievers. My siblings and I still hear echoes of this social disapproval. Many to whom we recount our early years seem troubled by our unorthodox upbringing. In the age of Tiger Mothering and helicopter parenting, no one can understand how our parents' experiment could have been anything but hard on us.

Daughter Heidenry does go on to describe some of the difficulties of being dragged around Europe and the U.S. by parents who often had very little money. Also trying was the children's eventual task in adjusting to a magnet school, where in spite of it being known a a progressive environment, the kids found out they were super-weirdos. Some of the familiar (to me) holes in education which can happen with a more unstructured education are also described.

But in terms of homeschooling, the family was also positively prehistoric in their education decision, writes Heidenry:

In the '70s home schooling still fell under the rubric of "criminal truancy." In St. Louis, when my siblings didn't show up for homeroom, a social worker came knocking. As my mother wrote in her article, she and my father told the government agent "that we would refuse to send the children to school if we were ordered to do so and . . . were prepared to go to court." The social worker, realizing that we weren't being neglected, recommended to the school principal that we be allowed to remain at home.

Estimates put the number of home-schooled kids during that period between 10,000 and 15,000. It wasn't until 1977 that the first newsletter about home schooling, "Growing Without Schooling," by John Holt, was published and a verifiable movement was born. While Holt is referred to as the "father" of home schooling, he was not yet an advocate when my mother made her decision. In fact, Holt contacted her after the Times article appeared, asking if he could pass out copies of it at his lectures.

Home schooling is still embraced by those with progressive ideas (Julian Assange was taught at home), but what was once the province of the bohemian few is now more likely to be embraced by religious conservatives. Today, according to a poll by the Department of Education (PDF), 83 percent of parents who home-school their children — nearly two million children are now taught at home — do so out of "a desire to provide religious or moral instruction."

My family moved from Los Angeles to Pennsylvania in 1988, partially so my parents could homeschool my siblings and me. The legal way for my crazy libertarian parents to do so was paved by a lawsuit just four years previously.

The article is a nice look at some of the great and the not-so-great parts of not going to school —including that mixture of pride and exasperation which follows you the rest of your life as you have to explain to another person no, I didn't go to school. (Heindry's upbringing was much more globe-trotting and bad-ass than mine, though.)

Whole thing here.

Reason on homeschooling and school choice, too.

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  1. Lucy is truly Queen of the Alt-Text.

    [salaams in Lucy’s general direction]

    1. She is dreamy, isn’t she?

    2. I think she’s one of the better bloggers on the reason staff. Also, I went to one of the earlier school choice schools. Right across the styx in Arlington. It’s nothing like it used to be, but in the statist educational desert it’s like a veritable oasis of anarchy (H-B woodlawn)

      1. H-B Woodlawn is still considered one of the best schools in the DC region. So I can only imagine how good it must have been.

    3. Definitely a good hiring decision by Reason.

      1. Thank you, and the above comments! That seriously makes my day/week/life much better!

  2. The social worker, realizing that we weren’t being neglected, recommended to the school principal that we be allowed to remain at home

    Oh, how times have changed.

    1. Yeah – reading this, I was thinking how they HAD to let me sign myself out (every day) my Senior year, cause I had turned 18 and “was an adult, and therefore we legally can’t restrain you.” HOLY FUCK! REALLY?! AWESOME!

      Yeah, it sure wasn’t like that for my kids – I almost felt sorry for them…chained to the campus….

      Principal Dickhead, am I not free to gambol uptown to…

      NO! Back in the classroom!

      1. advantage of private school. open campus. none of that bullshit

      1. At a minimum.

      2. Body armor, check. Full auto, check. Flashbangs, check. Tear gas, check.

        Alright gang. We’re dealing with a single mother and a child here, possibly a dog. So stay on your toes. Shoot first and ask questions later.

        Everyone is coming home today.

        Let’s GO!

      3. The John Singer killing was partially about crazy polygamists home schooling.

        1. I don’t know why “homeschooler” in parenthesis like that is strangely hilarious. I hope that’s never my wikipedia entry, though.

    2. now your dog would be shot…

  3. non-traditional schooling

    As a product of gummint schools (well, except college, oddly enough), it sure felt like I went through a “non-traditional” curriculum, what with all the hell raising, trips to the office and MASSIVE skipping of class.

    I actually loved high school – like, the classes and learning, even. Good times.

    1. I miss the easy access to drugs.

      1. Oddly, that wasn’t something I saw. Access got much easier for me in college.

  4. My obligatory links to wild non-traditional schools:

    The front lines of libertarianism should be in education. If we could break the government’s hold on that, we could change the course of history.

    1. Every political ideology clamors for the minds of the children, so there’s competition.

  5. answering that the desire to homeschool is out of desire to offer “religious or moral instruction” =/= (necessarily) conservative.

    lots of progressives could give that reason, too.

    moral instruction =/= religious, and furthermore, lots of deeply religious progressives out there.

    1. As someone who does not fit left, right or progressive, from my point of view there are progressives on both the left and the right.

    2. The consensus view appears to be that public school curricula are owned by progressives, and therefore if the religious right wants their children taught the morality of the right, they have to do it themselves.

      But if that ain’t the consensus view, then hell, let’s put it to a vote!

      1. spend a little time at a progressive site (e.g. DU) and there are a fair # of people there who homeschool

        my point stands that saying one is teaching for religious or moral reasons does not eliminate the possibility of being a progressive. progressives are also pissed off at public schools in many respects for thinking they neglect morals, they j ust have DIFFERENT morals e.g. capitalism bad, socialism good, etc.

        furthermore, PLENTY of very religious progressives. carter is an evangelical christian , for instance.

        the article draws an unsupported, illogical conclusion in that respect. other than that, good stuff

        1. I thought something similar. I largely home school for moral reasons but consider myself an atheist.

          Of course, the most important moral that I am teaching my children in regards to home schooling is the fact that it is evil to steal from your neighbor to provide an education for your children.

        2. Meh. Meh, I say. I have no doubt there are plenty of religious left, but a) being leftists, it seems easier for most of them (but not all) to trust the state to educate their kids than rightwing religious, and b) I unscientifically declare that there are far more zealously religious right than zealously religious left. In any event, everyone failed to acknowledge the quote, so I win.

  6. The social worker, realizing that we weren’t being neglected, recommended to the school principal that we be allowed to remain at home.

    This sounds so quaint; it was a simpler time, the ’70s.

  7. My family moved from Los Angeles to Pennsylvania in 1988, partially so my parents could homeschool my siblings and I.

    Where they apparently didn’t emphasize that a pronoun in objective case is still in objective case when it comes after a conjunction.

    That is, they didn’t say not to do that “between you and I [sic]” thing.

    1. This is the problem with switching wording about and then not rereading it…And being tired. And yes, a little being homeschooled.

      But you’re right and your name is beautiful, so I can’t resent your grammatical prowess. Thank you.

      1. 4 years out of public primary school, all grammer lessons fly out the window.

        When it comes to grammer rules, even as a 5th grader I was not smarter than a fifth grader…and its gotten worse.

        Now I pretty much structure sentences so they sound correct to me, pretty much out of instinct.

    2. Object of the preposition. Yeah, I noticed that too.

      Foreign language study usually cures that lack of awareness.

    3. Curse you for beating me to the punch (see below).

      1. You get points for tarring and feathering, though. Don’t fret.

    4. Why emphasize something that only requires occasional reminders?

  8. White Indian approves of avoiding forced schooling, or the raping of young grey matter.

  9. “My family moved from Los Angeles to Pennsylvania in 1988, partially so my parents could homeschool my siblings and I.”

    Shame on you Lucy. How dare you perpetuate American ignorance of the English language by confusing the objective pronoun “me” with the nominative pronoun “I.” Anyone claiming to be a writer who makes this mistake should be tarred and feathered. Quite frankly, you give home-schooling a bad name.

    1. People who post after 5 minutes of not-refreshing should be tarred and feathered. Then, retarred and refeathered.

      1. Then, retarred…
        This is the etymology of the word “retarded.” True story.

        1. Oh the H&R commentariat: It’s where I go for my own personal home schooling.

    2. I suppose it’s on topic, since this post is about education. I still hate grammar pedants though. They are usually far more annoying than the original error.

  10. that mixture of pride and exasperation which follows you the rest of your life as you have to explain to people no, I didn’t go to school.

    My schooling was impressively/goofily irregular, too, and a barrier-building chore to try explaining to White People, so I clearly remember the last time I had a conversation where I was obliged to talk about it. That was twenty years ago.

    Then I left the “meritocracy,” with its constant pedigree-assessment interrogations. I don’t even remember the last time I was asked what I “do” by someone I met, because I don’t meet any assholes anymore.

    Drop out, yo. You’re stressed. It’s unnecessary.

    1. You got my curiosity going, but your jargon’s a bit thick for me.
      Meritocracy means a system that rewards who and what’s deserved.
      Why would any honest person drop out of what’s right?

      1. Methinks the scare-quotes indicate an iconoclastic de-coupling of merit from accidental privileges of birth and breeding. Like what they used to say about Bush the First: They told him to play third base, so when he found himself there, he figured he must have hit a triple.

  11. My wife did some homeschooling for a while. There are lots of books and on-line materials to support homeschooling, and you can move much, much, much faster and go far deeper into subjects than in the school system.

    Of course, that requires a stay-at-home parent who is educated enough to teach a variety of topics.

    I should note, too, that a great deal of the leading books used to support home-based teaching have a religious foundation. To the extent of incorporating lots of Bible stuff and opposition to any concept of evolution.

    We had run across a book that was based on a classical education–even teaching Latin and Greek. I thought that was cool.

    1. Yep, sometimes you join up with other homeschooling families to learn things like biology and then they pick a Biblical-tastic textbook. Whoops.

      1. We used a series of books for teaching English that were hardcore fundamentalist Christian, because they were otherwise very good. Since the series didn’t touch on science or do much more than use Bible stories for text, we weren’t freaked out. I was raised with all of that, and I survived.

        1. Sure, sure. You can always use different sources. I just feel like my aforementioned story is a little too exactly what lovely lefty friends think happens in ALL homeschooling all the time.

          That and our libertarian bunker, of course.

          1. I have a young daughter who we might homeschool all the way through. If so, she’s going to get a healthy dose of libertarianism. And science and technology.

            1. Awesome. That sounds like a recipe for (the non-evil sort of) world domination.

              1. I have plans, one of which involves a statue to me that doubles as a space elevator.

                1. I have also used some workbooks that were heavily biblical, but not science, that is for certain. There seem to be many more of them. What is really strange is the way they advertise “Math taught from a Biblical perspective”. I guess since the books don’t use the number 666 or mention evolution in a math book they are Biblical. Weird.

                  1. I assume they just use Biblical material in word problems, that sort of thing. “If Peter betrayed Jesus three times, and Judas betrayed him once, how many times was Jesus betrayed?”

                    1. LOL

          2. How many varieties of weapons did your bunker have? This is critical information!

            1. Much like the editors of the New York Times, the Steigerwalds preferred Gatling guns.

              1. There’s got to be a book in here somewhere.

                I’m just a white suburban punk.

                1. Now I feel bad that I am incredibly sleep-deprived and am pulling you lovely people’s legs because it entertains me.

                  My upbringing was not the Weaver-esque weirdness I like to think (besides the dead family and paranoia). It was quietly weird, in the country, and sort of old fashioned. But I’ve fired a gun one. It was while trespassing on our neighbor’s field, if that helps at all.

                  1. Disappointed! I had visions of underground bunkers and explosives.

                    1. Me too! Me too!

                      And so did all my suburban friends. I feel so guilty now. Will you forgive me?

                    2. Yes, but only if you raise your children (or future children) in a crazed, survivalist, libertarian lifestyle.

                    3. If I have children, I will do my best to repay my debt by doing just that.

                2. you’re a victim of society. you should order sushi and not pay

                  1. All I’ve had today is Easy Mac and coffee, so my moral foundations crack at the thought of free sushi.

                    1. I had sushi for lunch. Sadly, I paid for it.

                  2. I love that movie. I just saw Miller in an Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. episode, in fact.

      2. Or the reverse: First Period, Adam’s rib lab; Second Period, haruspicy quiz.

        1. Is that lab just watching “Adam’s Rib” and other Tracy and Hepburn films?

          If so, excellent.

  12. BTW – All kidding aside, I think it’s a great article Lucy. And I don’t really think you give home-schooling a bad name; I just couldn’t find anything else in this piece to criticize and I’m jealous of the fact that your parents had the time and determination to educate you properly.

    1. Ah, thanks. No worries. I liked your dire threat to tar and feather.

  13. Of the families I’ve encountered while homeschooling my 2 young’ns, about 40% were primarily motivated by the desire to infuse their children’s education with religion. There might be another 40% for whom religion was a factor, but it certainly wasn’t the main factor. I will say that even aside from the protestant excusionists, the people I encountered were much more active in their churches than folks I’ve encountered in the rest of my life.

  14. When I used to baby sit rich kids here in DC when I was in college, I found it entertaining to tell them I went to – *gasp*! – public school. They were wide-eyed and horrified. They were expecting tales of metal detectors, gangs, drugs, graffiti and piss-smelling stairwells. I never did explain that public high school in a small town in Fairfield County, CT was a tad different than DC. I liked having that street cred.

    1. Hey Kristen — I went to a public high school in a small town in Fairfield County. Where are you from?

      1. Ridgefield – how bout yourself?

        1. Monroe. Masuk HS ’84.

          1. Hey, my aunt and uncle lived in Monroe (dad and uncle were from Bridgeport). Used to drive by the Masuk school all the time when we went up there. It’s like we have a little SW Connecticut clique in here…

    2. I went to a public school as well. Guns were everywhere in the parking lot, and groups of kids (don’t call them “gangs”) would hang around smoking and . . . stuff.

  15. I popped in and out of public school, private school, and home-schooling for the entirety of my primary/secondary education (in about equal parts, K-12). This was always by my choice, not due to having moved (never did), and not at my parents suggestion or insistence. When you switch from private or home school back to public, you are always tested; each time this happened, I was skipped ahead between one and three grades in various subjects.

    Retrospectively, what I find most interesting is the ways in which each tends to affect how students relate to one another.

    The size of public schools lends itself to the development of cliques; this fosters group-think, as it precludes the necessity of associating with people who might challenge one’s preconceived notions. I feel that a great deal of the tribalism seen in our current culture stems from this particular factor.

    Private schools, on the other hand, generally being much smaller, do not afford this; if there are only twenty people in your class, everyone has to learn to deal with everyone else, period. You might not have a class president. You can play on the basketball team if you want to. A small population can get to be a bit of a weird scenario too, though, and private schools often have an explicit agenda of their own; here, the small population is counter-productive, as it does not tend to encourage questioning of authority.

    Home schooling, while great in many respects, especially for somebody who is a self starter, has its own issues in terms of social growth: I would not recommend home-schooling a child from K-12. Children need to be pushed out of their comfort zone at some point, and home-schooling is not going to do that.

    I am obviously biased, but I would definitely recommend a mix of all three for any child, provided you have the ability of doing so, and the child is not against the idea.

  16. Some of the familiar (to me) holes in education which can happen with a more unstructured education are also described.

    What did you miss out on Lucy? Driver’s ed? Telephone etiquette? Disaster preparedness?

    1. Yes, yes, definitely not. I was so ready for a tornado/flood/dinosaur attack.

      My math skills leave something to be desired as well. Which is classic, classic homeschooler.

      1. That or the exact opposite, where they are taking college calculus courses on the side at age 14.

        1. This is my son. Today I gave him a worksheet on the Law of cosines. We did sines the past couple of days. I didn’t explain anything to him. He went to the internet, found the Law and did the worksheet.

          I tell him that I am certain he will get a college degree. Since I expect him to finish before he turns 18 I can MAKE him!

          1. *Derp* and deprive him of a true Animal House college experience. You monster!!

          2. People should start homeschooling for college.

          3. Oh, forgot to mention he is 10. He is better at algebra than most adults and occasionally gives me a run for my money.

            1. A fifth grader taught me how to do fifth grade math when I was 4. And I was better at it than she.

              Learning and schooling are diametrically opposed. Naturally, the government and its union minions prefer schooling.

            2. Good lord! FM Gill is Good Will Hunting’s dad!

      2. Was your home-school disaster preparedness training more evolved than the public school system’s duck and cover technique?

        1. she said they had a bunker

        2. Definitely. We were well prepared for the end times, ATF raids, all the important stuff.

  17. What is Dutch Blitz? Crazy homeschoolers.

  18. I’m looking forward to both articles. My wife and i are actually going to be starting a school specifically to give my daughter a top quality education, and have decided to allow about 30 other kids along for the ride. It will be remarkably non-traditional.

  19. I was homeschooled for about a year while living abroad. Dad (engineering prof) taught math and Mom (hematologist) taught science. They both looked down on humanities and were happy with my reading level. I probably got through the equivalent of calc 1 – diff eq that year.

    It wasn’t an awful experience, and I definitely learned a lot, but I was glad to be back around school the next year. It sucked not having other kids around (which was probably amplified by not having American TV).

    1. It sucked not having other kids around (which was probably amplified by not having American TV).

      Which is the biggest downside of homeschooling, but with normal parents can definitely be made up on with a decent social group.

  20. Today, according to a poll by the Department of Education (PDF), 83 percent of parents who home-school their children ? nearly two million children are now taught at home ? do so out of “a desire to provide religious or moral instruction.”

    I get the feeling that this poll nuanced/limited its choices so as to make a greater number of homeschooling respondents appear to be extreme religious conservatives. I just have the sense that the 83% probably includes a significant number of parents who are not significantly religious, but who want to avoid the time-wasting ideological indoctrination (i.e. emphasis on victimhood and multiculturalism) of a public school education. The number just seems to me to be too high, like it includes parents who couldn’t find a closer option among the choices.

    1. I would have to look at the way the option is phrased. If it’s like “values” in 2004, it could just be an “other” category, which people put too much store by.

    2. The number just seems to me to be too high, like it includes parents who couldn’t find a closer option among the choices.

      Why “too high”? A hell of a lot of fundies are pro-liberty and anti-state. Your average cosmotarian is more concerned with his 2 year old getting into the “right” public preschool.

  21. My plan to solve education is simple although not an anarchocapitaliist solution:

    1.) Allow anyone to take an in-depth grade-level proficiency test for each subject for the $10 cost of administering it. You get a 90% and pass a criminal background check, you get a teacher’s license for that grade level and subject. If a teacher is licensed in every subject and every grade level, they can teach every subject and every grade level. Licenses could be good for five years.

    2.) Students register to one teacher for each subject. Five or six core subjects plus a few electives per grade. No limit on the number of students per teacher, that’s up to the parents. Parents can choose separate teachers for each subject, the same teacher for all subjects, or some cluster. The teacher is not forced to accept any students they don’t want in any subject. Teachers can form real “schools” with other teachers, or just work independently.

    3.) Students go to a completely neutral location for final grade-level competency testing. Licensed teachers get $1500 per grade-level proficiency test passed per registered student for core subjects. They can also receive $500 per elective per student (as incentive to branch out from core subjects). So per student a teacher teaching all subjects could make (5 x $1500) + (2 x $500) = $8500 assuming all tests are passed. It is already significantly cheaper compared to the current amount spent per student in public schools ($12k) and only payable on successful completion of the subject, so this system saves taxpayers lots of money while basing payments completely on results.

    4.) Teachers and parents can educate kids at whatever pace the student is willing or able to handle instead of being stuck in one-size-fits-all annual windows. If it takes two years to pass a specific subject, the student can continue other subjects at a normal pace. It’s a huge waste of money to hold students back in all subject because they fail one subject. If a student is a genius at math and they rapidly go three grades ahead of their age, more power to them. If more people finish 12th grade by age 10, it’s likely more alternative colleges for younger aged geniuses and advanced student spring up.

    5.) Teachers can optionally charge additional amounts for their services, especially for parents who desire lower student-teacher ratios, have difficult kids, want a more experiential education, etc. Teachers might want to limit the number of students and will need a certain amount to live off of in the interim. Maybe they could offer a partial refund upon successful completion of the test within the expected timeline, as incentive to get parents further involved.

    6.) All registered teachers are listed on a public site with number of students, test proficiency scores and qualifications, educational and professional background, parental reviews, contact info, pricing, etc. Parents can review their teachers for future parents’ information.

    All in all this would radically improve education, save money, increase teacher competition to the max, reduce barriers to entry to become a teacher and get parents more involved. As a backup plan, you can still have traditional public schools for those who can not find tutors willing to accept them. Because of the cost-savings from the rest of the program, we can afford to pay teachers more to help at-risk, special needs and slower paced students. Also schools can generate revenue by renting out classrooms to independent teachers and students.

    1. And I forgot to mention that for very best teachers, they will make a lot more money. 12 students passing all tests * $8500 = $102k. Teach a normal sized class, even if half fail, you’re making bank. Of course parents have no incentive to stay with that teacher if their student fails repeatedly, and can keep looking until they find the right one.

    2. Also, homeschooling will still be completely permitted whether or not parent pass a competency test. The only thing will be that they don’t get the money per student-passed test if they aren’t actually registered in that subject. However, if they are, this program would likely help offset homeschooling costs better than the current system.

    3. I have a simpler solution. Liquidate the public school system in a municipality. Sell all of it and fire everyone. Cut a check to each child for the amount the school system in that municipality heretofore spent educating that child in public school. No voucher. No tax credit. Just a check. The end.

      1. Why would they cut a check for money already spent? Did you mean for the cost of the rest of the education they would have otherwise spent?

        Your plan may be simpler, but my plan would save more money, allow almost infinite school choice and have better results.

      2. I like that. Except for the check-cutting part.

        1. I throw it in to appease those who worry about poor kids being left with no education. In my perfect world there would be no check and property taxes would plummet instead.

  22. my classmate’s mother makes $87 every hour on the computer. She has been without work for 7 months but last month her income was $7500 just working on the computer for a few hours. Go to this site

    1. If you’re homeschooling there’s a good chance that she is your mother as well. You should ask.

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