Common Features of Modern Mass Schooling, and Homeschooling

Brian D. Ray

National Home Education Research Institute, Salem, Oregon, USA

Dr. Michael Cole (2010) recently presented the world with his insightful piece, entitled “What’s culture got to do with it? Educational research as a necessarily interdisciplinary enterprise,” that holds an implicit relationship with the modern homeschool movement. For context, one should note that Cole is a distinguished professor of communication, psychology, and human development at the University of California, San Diego. The title of his article might not indicate it but he eventually begins sounding a lot like a modern advocate of home-based education (i.e., homeschooling).

Past and Future Visions

Referring to other scholars’ work, Cole writes the following:

… the dominant forms currently found in most contemporary industrialized and industrializing societies manifest the following set of common features:

  1. Schools are internally organized to include age grading, sequentially organized curricula based on level of difficulty, and permanent buildings designed for the purpose of teaching.
  2. Schools are incorporated into larger bureaucratic institutions so that the teacher is effectively demoted from “master” to low-level functionary in an explicitly standardized form of instruction.
  3. Schools are redefined as an instrument of public policy and as preparation for specific forms of economic activity—“manpower development.”

To this list I would add that such schooling is universally accompanied by increased social differentiation, not only in its internal organization but in the fact that those who perform their academic chores least adequately are channeled into low-paying, low-status jobs in the society. (p. 463-464)

One might note that there was nothing in the list about, from either a self-actualization or individual-empowerment paradigm, schools being decidedly for advancing in a maximum way the good of the individual student or, from a Christian model, helping the student to develop in such a way as to give glory to God (see, e.g., Oser, Scarlett, & Bucher, 2006).

Cole then moves into discussing “school reform” of the past 50 years, its definition and why, probably, the myriad efforts at reform have led nowhere significant. But then here is where he really begins to sound like a voice from the modern homeschool movement:

… the standard forms of mass schooling arose … anywhere in the world where societies have grown large enough and their economies complicated enough to make necessary a complex division of labor, which implies the need for (a) a lot of specialized cultural learning, (b) the use of mediational means, such as written language … and (c) restricted economic resources that make it necessary, and in some sense efficient, to have one person teach many novices at one time in a central location… . Not everyone can be average, let alone above average, in such a system. Power enters the scene as the power to exclude and credential. (p. 464)

Professor Cole theorizes that the needed re-formation of schooling “… will come about if, and only if, the constraints that produced this social form themselves change, making it possible for distinctly new forms to arise” (p. 464). I wonder how many, if any, educational researchers, professors, scholars, and doctoral students reading this article this month are having visions of the roughly 30-year-old modern homeschool movement dance in their heads.

Further into the article, the professor notably begins to sound like a voice from the modern homeschool movement. In his concluding remarks, Cole refers to other thinkers and then continues with his own thoughts. He states that these other authors’

… vision provides a handy alternative to that of the Assyrian classroom or the open classroom, because it envisions the disappearance of the aggregated institution called “the school” altogether. In its place would be

a nation of home-based activities organized around small neighborhood learning clubs, linked through high-bandwidth Internet software. “Teachers” would operate as independent consultants, who work from home most of the time, and occasionally meet with ad hoc groups of students at a learning club. ([Stallard & Cocker, 2001], p. 569)

Lectures, what there were of them, would be available online. Project-based learning and multigenerational, overlapping, small communities of learners would converge virtually or face-to-face as conditions required. (p. 469)

Enter Modern

Home-Based Education (Homeschooling)

This is striking. Has Dr. Cole been studying the modern homeschool movement? (If so, he never mentions it in his article.) Or, does he even know much about it? Is he promoting the philosophy and practices of today’s home-based educators? Now see what Cole writes next.

Such a vision is not likely to be realized in the lifetime of anyone here, if ever. It presupposes not only the material conditions required for its implementation but a sea change in people’s ideas of what education is for. The fact is that, despite pronouncements about the advent of an innovation and information economy, great masses of the American public (and I believe the same is true quite generally on the international scene as well) are not anxious to have their children at home all day. They do not want their children wresting authority from them, deciding for themselves what constitutes an interesting problem to work on; and they fear the social chaos that would result from such a change in the cultural foundations of the nation state. (p. 469)

I wonder whether Dr. Cole knows that a sea change has occurred in American culture over the past 30 years. I wonder whether he is aware that perhaps more than about two million parents do want their children at home all day, together enjoying life with learning as an integral and organic part of it, with “learning” based in and out of the home, all day. (And many more preceded these two million during the past two decades.) I wonder whether professor Cole and others realize that parents involved in the current renascence of home-based education know, as did Tyack (1974) who reflected on the “country school” of the nineteenth century, the following about children and youth who are home educated today: “A child growing up in such a community could see work-family-religion-recreation-school as an organically related system of human relationships” (p. 15).

It appears that the pioneers of the modern homeschool movement were, and current members of the home-education community are, far into living some of the dreams that many (professional) educational scholars and thinkers and practitioners have had for at least a half century.

Keywords: Homeschooling, homeschool, modern.


Cole, Michael. (2010). What’s culture got to do with it? Educational research as a necessarily interdisciplinary enterprise. Educational Researcher, 39(6), 461-470.

Oser, Fritz K., Scarlett, W. George, & Bucher, Anton. (2006). Religious and spiritual development throughout the life span (Chapter 17). In William Damon & Richard M. Lerner, Handbook of child psychology: Theoretical models of human development. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Tyack, David B. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ¯


  1. The “Perspectives – News and Comments” section of this journal consists of articles that have not undergone peer review.