TEACHING FOR THE NEW AGE: A STUDY OF NEW AGE FAMILIES WHO EDUCATE THEIR CHILDREN AT HOME
Van Galen (1986) provides an analytical framework from which researchers can begin to make sense of this diverse group of parents. She suggests that parents are oriented to home schooling for either ideological or pedagogical reasons; pedagogical home school parents are concerned primarily with the social and academic environments within public schools, while ideological home school parents are clearly opposed to the content of the public school curriculum. Although important differences among parents in each category exist, recent studies have supported this fundamental distinction (Mayberry, 1989; Mayberry & Knowles, 1989).
The largest category of ideologically‑oriented home school parents are, as one would expect, motivated by religious beliefs (Gustavsen, 1981; Mayberry, 1988). Not only have a number of studies provided in‑depth descriptions of this group (Bates, 1987; Mayberry, 1988; Van Galen, 1986) but most journalistic portrayals of home schooling are written explicitly from accounts given by religious home school parents. These studies suggest religious home school parents are primarily concerned with what they perceive as a family right, rather than a state right, to take charge of the education of their children. They believe it is their duty to instill particular religious beliefs and values in their children. Furthermore, they oppose the secular orientation of public education and clearly state their dislike of secular humanism, values clarification, the teaching of evolution, and the anti‑religious atmosphere of public schools. Finally, religious home school parents believe they should organize and control their children’s education and advocate a curriculum which includes biblical training and the teaching of religious history.
This article, however, focuses on another group of parents oriented toward home schooling for ideological reasons‑‑New Age parents. This group has received virtually no attention by social researchers. The article begins to fill the gap by discussing the results of a statewide study conducted in Oregon during 1987‑1988 that yielded both quantitative and qualitative data on parents who are involved in the New Age movement (see Mayberry, 1988). Although New Age parents represented only 2 percent of the home school parents studied, there is reason to believe they make up a much larger share of the home school population. Several home school association leaders and other representatives of New Age groups claim there are many such families who, because they are suspicious of social research and tend to be either nomadic or residing in areas that are extremely isolated, often remain anonymous. The Oregon study located eight families and supplied ample data to produce an exploratory case study of New Age parents who teach their children at home.
This article explores the lives and beliefs of New Age parents who have established home schools. Specifically, it will examine their occupational, political, religious, and educational attitudes and characteristics. The discussion will consider how these characteristics and attitudes are tightly interwoven with the primary philosophical foundations of New Age thought.
Two interesting findings emerge when we examine the occupational characteristics of New Age home school parents. First, New Age fathers are likely to be self‑employed in craft occupations characterized by autonomy, personal control, and flexibility (e.g., musician, photographer, organic agriculturist, mushroom farmer, musical instrument builder). At first this seems surprising given the high educational level of New Age folks (Levine, 1989). When we consider the philosophical message of the New Age lifestyle, however, their choice of craft occupations and self‑employment makes sense. The New Age assessment of society targets centralized power and hierarchical social organization as the source of many human ills. The remedy, argue advocates of New Age thinking, lies in the ability of people to heal humanity’s alienation by returning to decentralized power structures and what they perceive to be egalitarian social organizations (Ferguson, 1980). With these visions underlying the beliefs and practices of members in the New Age movement their choice of craft occupations and self‑employment are understandable.
Second, even though the large majority of mothers who home school are not in the labor force and list their occupation as housewife or homemaker (Mayberry, 1988; Wartes, 1987), the majority of New Age mothers home school in addition to pursuing a career. The tenets of New Age thought can, once again, help account for this distinction. Those committed to the New Age movement often speak of personal growth and transformation, and reaching one’s human potential as important practices to be pursued. The New Age women in this study have chosen occupations oriented toward those ideals (e.g., free‑lance writer, artist, craftswoman, holistic healer). These occupations provide mothers with not only the flexibility to balance their time between work and home teaching, but also the occupational contexts other than mothering that facilitate personal growth and development.
Politics is especially salient for New Age home school parents. New Age advocates typically urge adherents to involve themselves politically in groups and agencies that support social change for the New Age. The “correct” activism is often seen as combining the family’s pedagogical work with involvement in moral, cultural, and political crusades (Miller, 1989). New Age home school parents often work toward this goal by not only encouraging their children to become involved in New Age political organizations and programs but also integrating the activities of these organizations into the home‑based curriculum. Take for instance this mother’s description of her children’s interests:
Our interests [the parent’s] have actually become part of the curriculum. Our children have spontaneously taken part in Peace House projects… participation in an anti‑war play sponsored by the Educators for Social Responsibility… written letters to politicians for peace… and protested the treatment of Native Americans at Big Mountain.
The majority of New Age home school parents consider politics an important factor in their decision to establish a home school. Their political alliances, however, are outside traditional party lines; that is, New Age parents exhibit a high degree of political independence from mainline political and social institutions. For instance, they commonly identify themselves as “independents” and characterize their political viewpoint as “liberal.” Moreover, New Age home school parents have little confidence in major social institutions. Major companies, the executive branch of government, organized religion, and the military are among the institutions in which New Age parents express little faith.
The message New Age parents convey to their children through the home school curriculum reflects their political autonomy and, perhaps more importantly, their frustration with the values embodied in mainstream social institutions. Two New Age mothers describe the values and beliefs they want to raise their children with like this:
[Home schooling] allows us to actualize our full potentialities as much as possible. It also allows us to address social consciousness, quality of life for everyone, ecological concerns, the seeming decline of individual, personally motivated values and ethics, the economy, and the potential for war.
Our child wanted to share our home values; vegetarianism, living lightly on the earth, farming, a labor intensive vs. energy consumptive lifestyle, and non‑materialism.
These comments characterize New Age thought which perceives contemporary political parties, their platforms, and social institutions incapable of ushering in a new social order based upon decentralized organizations whose policies are in balance with nature (Burrows, 1987; Ferguson, 1980). For instance, New Age adherents generally support ecology and grassroots democracy but oppose nuclear weapons, military buildup, and centralized power structures such as the executive branch, major banks, and large corporations. Contemporary social institutions are typically seen by New Age supporters as the producers of a materialistic, competitive, and bureaucratic culture that denies humanity the individual imagination and creativity needed to create a new social world (Galyean, 1989). Home schooling, for some New Age parents, allows them to actively link their quest for social transformation with their everyday practices. As one mother explained, “I want my children to know they have the power to change the world and make it a healthier place to live….I know of no better way to teach this than by taking responsibility on myself.”
Religion, unlike politics, is not a strong influence in the lives of New Age home school parents. Those affiliated with the movement clearly point out the importance of distinguishing religion from spirituality. Adherents argue that spirituality implies understanding the `divine essence’ as humanity’s true, higher or real self rather than something external to humanity. Organized religion, on the other hand, is seen as the formal expression of spirituality that has been codified and bureaucratized. Organized religion is therefore perceived as one of many institutionalized structures that distract humans from developing their spiritual core. The elevation of the `spiritual’ above the `religious’ is also congruent with the movement’s holistic world view that values equally the psychological, emotional, hand spiritual realms. The information we have on the New Age movement is congruent with the findings of this study. New Age parents give low ratings to the importance of religion in their home school decision and daily lives, the effect of the Bible on their everyday decisions, and church attendance. Moreover, they have little confidence in traditional forms of organized religions such as Protestantism and Catholicism. New Age parents, however, display a high degree of spiritual commitment; they commonly mention their affiliation and daily participation in organizations such as `New Age’, `Pantheist’, `Sufi’, `Hindu’, `Buddhist’, `Bahai’, and `Urantia Book.’ Moreover, some form of spiritual activity is usually incorporated into their weekly schedule. They commonly mention daily group exercises and meditation, Sufi dancing, Native American Sweat Lodges, solstice and full moon celebrations, and a variety of New Age ritual celebrations as activities in which they frequently participate.
The preservation and transmission of the New Age world view is an important aspect of the home school experience. For some parents, home schooling allows them to teach their children the value of “living an aware and spiritually integrated life, with love, reverence, and respect for all life.” Others stress the importance of designing specific educational programs for their children reflecting the spiritual beliefs upon which New Age philosophy is based. Consider the following comments:
We teach reincarnation, the Law of Karma, and the interrelatedness and interdependency of all life forms upon each other to insure mutual quality survival, including that of this planet earth.
I wish [to teach] acceptance of intuitive thought and less rational learning…the belief systems of oneness with nature, Native American traditional beliefs, Sufism, and Buddhism.
New Age adherents see the crisis of modern culture as essentially the loss of understanding the connectedness of psychological, emotional, and spiritual realms. The ability to understand the interrelatedness of these elements is the task of the New Age; a task, New Age home school parents argue, that is accomplished best by providing children with educational experiences that lay the foundation necessary for the ascent into the New Age.
Providing young people with a holistic education and introducing them to the values and beliefs of the New Age is integral to accomplishing the cultural changes advocated by New Age members. New Age parents believe education should consider all interrelated aspects of the human experience‑‑emotional, spiritual, intuitive, creative, aesthetic, and rational. What better way to achieve this, many New Age parents explain, than by deliberately building an educational environment which promotes the development of the whole child, including the child’s spiritual essence. Education’s “chief functions,” they claim, are to “facilitate the unfolding of the soul” and “develop the attitude needed to understand the interconnectedness of one’s personality and the soul.”
New Age home school parents typically see public schools as bureaucratic institutions that ignore the holistic nature of humanity. Many feel schools should be “centers of learning” with “no compulsory attendance” and “open for all in the community to use.” Others feel public schools “do not understand the education process at all” and express an overwhelming lack of confidence in public schools. Their commitment to home‑based education, on the other hand, is exhibited by their strong support for an educational voucher that would financially supplement the cost of running a home school. Moreover, the home school is the preferred choice of these New Age parents even if they were supplied with a voucher enabling them to send their child to any number of public or private schools.
New Age parents are not dissatisfied with the humanistic‑oriented curriculum of public schools. For instance, they favor teaching evolutionary theory and sex education and oppose teaching creationism. What they do want as part of their children’s educational experience, however, is “an educational environment that tells children they are beautiful spirits,” and a curriculum emphasizing an “international consciousness” which perceives all humans as part of a “global community.” Their decision to home school, therefore, is often related more to what public schools are not teaching rather than to what they are.
The education of children is an important link in the New Age movement’s perception of their ability to succeed in creating new cultural patterns. New Age parents see the importance of raising children with the ideologies of the New Age as a first step toward “solving society’s ills.” By controlling their children’s education, New Age parents not only believe they are “allowing the being inherent in every child and person to unfold” but have found a way to preserve and transmit to their children the ideologies of the New Age.
The home school activity of New Age families must be understood within the context of New Age philosophy. These parents are similar to other home school parents in their desire to provide educational environments and standards that facilitate children’s individuality and academic achievement. But, New Age home school parents maintain a unique world view. This is what makes them distinct.
O’Hara roots the appeal of New Age thinking in the failure of secular science to account for the existential facts of life and its inability to provide insight into the “sacred, symbolic, ritualistic, or transcendental dimensions of experience” (1989: 371). Faced with an increasingly technologized world where technological progress and scientific knowledge seem to be leading humanity into a cultural and social malaise, New Age thinkers reject scientific materialism’s explanation of human existence and provide an alternative world view that embraces, rather than rejects, human consciousness, experience, and spirituality.
The enhanced status New Age thought gives to the personal and experiential dimensions of human existence is clearly evident in the movement’s primary message‑‑personal and social transformation. New Age thought emphasizes the power of each individual to transcend the fragmented conditions of their life by resurrecting the realm of the spiritual. Personal transformation involves individual recognition and celebration of the infinite capabilities of humankind that have been left unnourished by rational Western systems of thought. In turn, personal transformation creates the conditions necessary for social transformation. Thus, the New Age solution to the social crises of our times is located in the individual’s ability to develop a consciousness able to perceive and construct new realities.
The home school activity of New Age parents can be understood within this context. Modern social institutions, including public education, are often seen as embodying secular science’s rationalized world view which devalues the very concepts that are the cornerstones of New Age thought‑‑individual potential, spirituality, and holism. Home schooling provides the opportunity for some New Age adherents to provide their children educational experiences which nurture these ideals. In this sense, home schooling becomes the bridge between personal and social transformation.
With all of its good intentions, however, New Age thought in general and teaching for the New Age specifically may fail to deliver. An important commonality among those attracted to New Age thought is their loss of commitment to mainstream social institutions which are typically viewed by New Age members as forces restricting the full expression of human potential (see Bellah, et.al., 1985). The New Age solution to the problem is to nurture a new form of consciousness capable of transcending the limiting effects of modern society. In this sense the impetus behind the appeal of New Age thought‑‑an individual’s sense of alienation from and loss of commitment to modern social forms and systems of thought‑‑becomes its source. As Hargrove points out, the New Age movement “expresses its alienation not by attempting to change the culture to prevent such effects, but by finding ways of escaping those effects through the stimulation of a certain form of consciousness” (1989:322). By teaching the pedagogy of the New Age, these home school parents may, in fact, be sustaining rather than altering the very structures of modern society they are rebelling against.
Bates, V. (1987). The fundamentalist home school movement. Unpublished manuscript, Pacific University, Forest Grove, OR.
Bellah, R., et.al. (1985). Habits of the heart: Individualism and commitment in American life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Burrows, R. (1987 March/April). A Christian critiques the New age. Utne Reader, pp. 86‑99.
Ferguson, M. (1986). The aquarian conspiracy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Galyean, B. C. (1989). Honoring the spirituality of our children without teaching religion in the schools. Holistic Education Review, 2 (2), pp. 24‑28.
Gustavsen, G. A. (1981). Selected characteristics of home schools and parents who operate them. (Doctoral Dissertation, Andrews University). Dissertation Abstracts International, 42(10), 4381‑4382A.
Levin, F. (1989). Results of the body, mind, & spirit spirituality survey. Body, Mind, & Spirit, May/June.
Linden, N. J. (1983). An investigation of alternative education: Home schooling. (Doctoral Dissertation, East Texas State University). Dissertation Abstracts International, 44(12), 3457A.
Mayberry, M. (1988). Doing it their way: A study of Oregon’s home schoolers. (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Oregon). Dissertation Abstracts International.
Mayberry, M. (1989). Home‑based education in the United States: Demographics, motivations, and educational implications. Educational Review, 41(2), 171‑180.
Mayberry, M. & J.G. Knowles. (in press). Family unity objectives of parents who teach their children: Ideological and pedagogical orientations to home schooling. The Urban Review.
Miller, R. (1989). Spirituality: the essence of who we are. Holistic Education Review, 2 (2) pp. 2‑3.
O’Hara, M. (1989). A New Age reflection in the magic mirror of science. The Skeptical Inquirer, 13(Summer), 368‑374.
Van Galen, J. (1986). Schooling in private: A study of home education. (Doctoral Dissertation, University of North Carolina). Dissertation Abstracts International, 40(5), 1683‑A.
Wartes, J. (1987). Report from the 1986 homeschool testing and other descriptive information about Washington’s homeschoolers. Woodinville, WA: Washington Homeschool Research Project, 16109 N.E. 169 Pl., 98072.
Leave a ReplyWant to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!