ON COMPELLING BELIEF: THE CULTURE OF AMERICAN SCHOOLING by STEPHEN ARONS
The fact that there are so very few twentieth-century American families educating their children at home might be understood as an indication that unschooling,” as some call it, is a nonissue in a society of mass institutions. But these families have touched a raw nerve in American society, and the reaction to them points to substantial ideological contradictions in local schooling and national culture. (From pages 87,88 of: Arons, Stephen. 1983. Compelling belief: the culture of American schooling. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 228p)
The writing style of Stephen Arons is attractive and his content is captivating for anyone interested in the philosophy of education as per the United States. In addition, evidential support can be found by pursuing the report which is a result of a grant. Part of the research and writing leading to his book was supported by the National Institute of Education (NIE-G-79-016l) and by the Liberty Fund, Inc. The NIE report can be found in Resources in Education, April-June 1982, pt. 2, no. ED 210 786. Most of this NIE report is marked “DRAFT Not for publication or quotation.”
The book is divided into four parts. Part One is entitled “Censorship: the War Over Orthodoxy.” Arons says that this part “consists of six chapters describing current school wars in which families, public officials, and citizen groups fight for control of public school culture” (p.2).
Part Two is entitled “Declarations of Independence.” In these six chapters Arons expresses the intentions of and explains the experiences of some people who choose to educate their children at home. He begins with an historically interesting account of the now famous (among home education literature) Perchemlides family, living in western Massachusetts, and their attempt to be “home schoolers.” By many in their community, they were treated as criminals. Arons asks the question, “Why is it that millions of children who are pushouts or dropouts amount to business as usual in the public schools, while one family educationg a child at home becomes a major threat to universal public education and the survival of democracy?” (p.88). Thus, Part Two requires the reader to examine his philosophical assumptions about education, schooling, and dissent “in a society dependent on large institutions for child rearing” (p.91).
Although it is impossible to categorically state why people resist schooling for their children, Arons attempts a “rough catalogue” of some of the home schooling parents’ criticisms of the school systems. He provides a list of ten “values in which public school students must confess belief,” as these families perceive it. The following two caught my attention upon first reading: “5. The ability to follow directions is more important than creativity, and dissent is either the result of poor communication, willful misanthropy, or emotional instability” and “9. Institutional schooling contributes to the progress of the individual and society, upgrades general morality, reduces prejudice, and protects each rising generation from the mistakes of the previous generation” (p.100, 101). These two criticisms of public school values alone are enough fuel for months of dialogue. Are these values supported by any convincing evidence? It reminds me of a recently advertised slogan: “Your Public Schools – There’s No Better Place To Learn.” Is there evidence to support such a claim?
Part Three is entitled “Subculture and the State.” This part presents the struggle of one group of people that has sought to preserve an unorthodox subculture through control of socialization in their own [private] schools” (p.136). In this section Arons investigates the Amish of Wisconsin, a “multiracial countercultural” group in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Christian fundamentalists in Kentucky. Part Three is completed with an examination of factors that give legal protection to subculture private schools. Only certain subcultures can expect to exist within the law. “Where those communities are suitably authoritarian, puritanical, and [Judaeo-Christian, p.183] religious, they may enlist the protection of the law; otherwise they are at risk of being cannibalized by it” (p.185).
The title of Part Four, “Separation of School and State,” clearly foretells its general content. This section practically serves as a summarial suggestion. Stephen Arons makes a challenging and emphatic statement: “Without a complete separation of school and state, the governing process of American schooling has been increasingly undermined by unresolvable value conflict, and individual freedom of belief, expression, and political participation have been hobbled” (p.189).
The ideas presented in Compelling Beliefare boggling and yet refreshing to the mind. Arons’ findings and thoughts are certainly worth consideration for anyone concerned about the history, philosophy, or sociology of education and the future of such in the United States. The book is nearly a must for anyone with a learning interest in home centered learning.
Stephen Arons was the Director of Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA when the above mentioned National Institute of Education study was in progress. In addition, I learned a few other things in a recent telephone conversation with Stephen Arons. He has had a personal interest in home schooling that dates back to some work he was doing in the 1960s. He has had much interaction with the Perchemlideses, wrote an article in the “Saturday Review” regarding the same home schooling family, and did some legal work on their case.
Compelling Beliefis presently available in hardback for about $20.00. It should be available in paperback by the University of Massachusetts Press in the spring of 1986 for about~ $9.00.
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