Home-schooling special: Preach your children well
By AMANDA GEFTER / NEWSCIENTIST.COM
Added: Thu, 09 Nov 2006 00:00:00 UTC
TO THE unsuspecting visitor, Patrick Henry College looks like a typical American liberal-arts college tucked away amidst the rolling green farmlands of Virginia. Its curriculum is far from typical, however, and anything but liberal. Witness this lecture on faith and reason in an idyllic red-brick college building reminiscent of colonial America. As the speaker takes to the podium, several students silence their cellphones. One puts down his copy of The Wall Street Journal and takes out his Bible. They bow their heads and pray to Jesus, then stand up and sing a hymn, belting out "Holy, holy, holy" with gusto. Eventually, the speaker addresses the crowd.
"Christians increasingly have an advantage in the educational enterprise," he says. "This is evident in the success of Christian home-schooled children, as compared to their government-schooled friends who have spent their time constructing their own truths." The students, all evangelical Christians, applaud loudly. Most of them were schooled at home before arriving at Patrick Henry - a college created especially for them.
"Government-schooled children have spent their time constructing their own truths"
These students are part of a large, well-organised movement that is empowering parents to teach their children creationist biology and other unorthodox versions of science at home, all centred on the idea that God created Earth in six days about 6000 years ago. Patrick Henry, near the town of Purcellville, about 60 kilometres north-west of Washington DC, is gearing up to groom home-schooled students for political office and typifies a movement that seems set to expand, opening up a new front in the battle between creationists and Darwinian evolutionists. New Scientist investigated how home-schooling, with its considerable legal support, is quietly transforming the landscape of science education in the US, subverting and possibly threatening the public school system that has fought hard against imposing a Christian viewpoint on science teaching.
Ironically, home-schooling began in the 1960s as a counter-culture movement among political liberals. The idea was taken up in the 1970s by evangelical Christians, and today anywhere from 1.9 to 2.4 million children are home-schooled, up from just 300,000 in 1990 (see Graph). According to the US government's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 72 per cent of home-schooling parents interviewed said that they were motivated by the desire to provide religious and moral instruction.
For these parents, religious instruction and science are often intertwined. This bothers Brian Alters of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who studies the changing face of science education in the US. He is appalled by some home-schooling textbooks, especially those on biology that claim they have scientific reasons for rejecting evolution. "They have gross scientific inaccuracies in them," he says. "They would not be allowed in any public school in the US, and yet these are the books primarily featured in home-schooling bookstores."
One such textbook is Science of the Physical Creation from A Beka Book, a leading retailer of home-schooling books based in Pensacola, Florida. It argues: "Evolution is a concept that attempts to free man from God and his responsibility to his Creator." Alters worries for the students who learn from such texts (see "Book learnin'"). "If they go on to secular university, home-schoolers are in for some major surprises when they get into an introductory biology class."
Home-school parents are able to teach their children this way thanks mainly to a group called the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), a non-profit organisation based in Purcellville - like Patrick Henry College (PHC), which the HSLDA founded. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the practice was largely illegal across the US. "The mechanism that was causing home-schooling to be illegal was teacher certification," says Ian Slatter, director of media relations for the HSLDA. In 1983 two evangelical attorneys, Michael Farris and Mike Smith, founded the organisation to defend the rights of home-school parents. They fought to remove requirements that parents be certified to teach their own children. Through an impressive run of legal battles and political lobbying, they managed to make home-schooling legal in all 50 states within 10 years. "We rolled back the state laws," says Slatter.
Consequently, there is virtually no government regulation of home-schooling. "Some states say you need a high school diploma," Slatter says. "But we really don't have many problems getting people, shall we say, qualified." In Virginia, for instance, parents need a degree to teach at home, but there is a religious exemption, so those running a home-school for religious reasons don't need a degree. In contrast, a public high school teacher must have a bachelor's degree, and in some states a master's degree, plus a state-issued teaching certificate. Thirty-one states require teachers to take additional exams to show proficiency in their subject matter.
This lack of regulation may be skewing science education in US homes, says Alters. "Poll after poll shows that approximately one out of two people in America reject evolution. They think the scientists, teachers and textbooks are wrong," he says. An even higher proportion of home-schooling parents may reject evolution, Alters thinks. "And they're going to be teaching science?"
Many parents, however, are drawn to home-schooling precisely because it lets them teach the version of science they prefer. In the recent court case against the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, the court ruled that intelligent design - the creationist challenge to Darwinism - cannot be taught in a public-school biology class (New Scientist, 7 January, p 8). This is encouraging evangelicals to abandon public schools altogether. "For some families, it was the straw that broke the camel's back," says Slatter.
Until recently, most home-schoolers who were learning the evangelical version of science chose to go on to secular universities because such institutions tend to be more academically rigorous than Christian colleges. Many such universities today accept home-schooled students, although this was not the case a decade ago. To judge home-school applicants, they rely mostly on standardised tests of factual knowledge. Such tests cannot, however, reveal whether or not a student understands scientific method, a compulsory subject in public schools but not for home-schoolers. "Very rarely do universities dig deep into the details to see what books a student has used," says Jay Wile, a PhD in nuclear chemistry from Rochester University in New York who left academia to write creationist textbooks for home-schoolers.
Now evangelical home-schoolers can also opt for a college like PHC. The school was founded in 2000 to "prepare leaders who will fight for the principles of liberty and our home-school freedoms through careers of public service and cultural influence".
It worked. By 2004, PHC students held seven out of 100 internships in the White House, a number even more striking when one considers that only 240 students were enrolled in the entire college. Last year, two PHC graduates worked in the White House, six worked for members of Congress and eight for federal agencies, including two for the FBI. "Patrick Henry is something to worry about because these kids end up in the administration," says Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, which campaigns against the teaching of creationism as science.
Home-schoolers are drawn to PHC partly because of its political connections and partly because, unlike most Christian colleges, it boasts high academic standards. Besides the focus on creationism, much of the curriculum is dedicated to rhetoric and debate, preparing students to fight political and legal battles on issues such as abortion, stem cell research and evolution. The technique is effective. For the past two years, the college has won the moot court national championship, in which students prepare legal briefs and deliver oral arguments to a hypothetical court, and has twice defeated the UK's University of Oxford in debating competitions.
No wonder students are flocking to PHC, a sign of the growth in the home-school movement across the nation. The growth seems set to continue, as home-school advocates are pushing harder than ever to convince parents to keep their children out of public schools. "We've won all the legal battles now, thanks to HSLDA and groups like that," says E. Ray Moore, author of Let My Children Go: Why parents must remove their children from public schools now. "It's time to shift from defence to offence," he says. "We're encouraging Christians to become aggressive with home-schooling."
Moore is the director of Exodus Mandate, based in Columbia, South Carolina, an organisation that urges Christian parents to pull their children out of public schools. Exodus Mandate has spent the past few years trying to win over the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), a Christian denomination with more than 16 million members. Each year the SBC holds a convention at which members vote on various resolutions. Last year, Exodus Mandate introduced a resolution asking SBC parents to conduct a "homosexual school risk audit" of their local public school, a survey to "make Christian parents and pastors more aware of the aggressive homosexual activism being sponsored by many public schools". The resolution was passed. The "risk audit" claims, among other things, that being homosexual "reduces life expectancy at age 20 by at least 8 to 20 years" or "substantially increases the risk of contracting breast cancer".
This year the organisation is pushing for a resolution that will ask parents to plan for home-schooling their children. The effect of these resolutions could be momentous. "If the Southern Baptists got on board and said home-schooling and Christian education is the preferred method of education, that would be transformational," Slatter says. "It would easily double or maybe triple the number of home-schoolers overnight."
Exodus Mandate is urging each home-schooling family to bring one new family into the movement. If they succeed, several million families could take to home-schooling over the next several years, Moore says. "If we could get up to 30 per cent of public-school students into home-schooling and private schools, the system would start to unravel and at some point implode and collapse," he says. "The government would be forced to get the states out of the education business altogether. It would go back to the churches and the families. It's a strategy for the renewal of society."
Overthrow of materialism
The phrasing is reminiscent of the Center for Science and Culture, originally named the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, which has been the main promoter of intelligent design in the US and is part of the conservative think tank Discovery Institute, based in Seattle, Washington. The institute claims that it "seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies". In a 1999 conference entitled "140th Anniversary of Darwin's Origin of Species - Evolution or Creation", the institute's co-founder Philip Johnson reportedly announced, "Home-school moms are allies."
However, not all home-school parents have a religious agenda. "There are probably some wonderful home-school parents, some of whom may be evolutionary biologists themselves. But I have a feeling after talking to a lot of home-schoolers that this is the minority," says Alters. Indeed, evangelical Christians do dominate the home-school movement. "It's disconcerting, to say the least," he says.
The home-school movement is often described as a grassroots effort, scattered among a dispersed group of quiet, rural families. The reality is that the movement is well organised from the top down, led by groups with strong political ties. Taken together, organisations like the Discovery Institute, Exodus Mandate, HSLDA and Patrick Henry College are working to sculpt a new generation of students armed with the skills and the motivation to fight for their religious beliefs and their version of science.
"Home-schoolers are going to be leaders in their field," says Wile. "They are going to change science and how science is done."
From issue 2577 of New Scientist magazine, 11 November 2006, page 20-23
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