The Homeschool Movement in the Postmodern Age
Gary Wyatt, Ph.D.
Division of Sociology and Anthropology
Emporia State University
Emporia, Kansas 66801
Keywords: Homeschooling, home schooling, home education, postmodern
No social study that does not come back to the problem of biography, of history and of their intersections within a society has completed its intellectual journey.
— C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination
Parents’ decisions to educate their children outside of formal institutions have received little attention from sociologists even though the number of homeschooling families has grown dramatically over the past decade. According to estimation procedures developed by Lines (1991), approximately 294,000 American children were being homeschooled in 1988, a substantial increase over the 244,000 estimated in 1985. Several years later, Ray (1998), using different methods, placed the number of homeschooled children in 1997-98 between 1.1 and 1.5 million. In regard to homeschool estimates, Lines (1991, p. 35) stated: “[T]hey permit one to say that there is a home school movement … and that it is growing.” As a result of the success of the movement, homeschooling is legal in all fifty states, albeit with varying levels of regulations and restrictions.
In this essay, I attempt to analyze the homeschool movement by grounding it in the social movement literature, particularly the literature that focuses on what Habermas (1981) has called “new social movements,” and by highlighting the recent global social and cultural changes that have occurred as developed societies have been transformed from industrial to information societies, and their cultures from modern to postmodern ones (Bartos, 1996; Inglehart, Nevitte, & Basanez, 1996). I argue that these changes are in large part responsible for the appearance, growth, and persistence of the homeschool movement on the social landscape of the late twentieth century. I will support this thesis by including information I have gathered while interviewing and interacting with homeschooling families who are members of two homeschool support groups in the Midwest, with dozens of homeschoolers attending several homeschool conventions and activities, and with over a hundred homeschoolers across the nation via the Internet. These data are being gathered as a part of a larger study I am conducting on the homeschool movement. I will also use data from studies conducted by other researchers interested in homeschooling and social movements.
The Nature of Social Movements and
New Social Movements
While homeschooling has previously been defined and successfully defended as a social movement (Hadeed, 1991; Knowles, Marlow, & Muchmore, 1992; Mayberry, 1988; Mayberry, Knowles, Ray, and Marlow, 1995), I will revisit the issue in order to acquaint readers with the current literature and to lay a foundation for the ideas that I will present later on. A social movement is defined as a substantial number of people who organize and take action to prevent or promote social change (see Thompson & Hickey, 1996, p. 338). The actions taken by these collectivities are goal directed and generally occur outside established organizations and institutions. This is because established organizations and institutions are often challenged or threatened by the goals and activities of the social movements that often arise in opposition to them. Melucci (1989, p. 29) further contributes to our understanding of social movements by specifying that social movements are forms of “collective action” with three characteristics. First, the participants have a sense of unity in that they recognize that they are part of a larger unit. Second, participants often engage in degrees of conflict with forces that oppose their goals; and third, the movement often goes beyond the limits of that with which the status quo of the system is currently comfortable or compatible. That is to say, if the movement is successful both the statuses of established institutions and contemporary social practices are often affected.
In regard to Melucci’s first characteristic, despite some deep philosophical, pedagogical, and lifestyle differences in the homeschool movement ( Guterson, 1992, p. 6-7), it is my observations that homeschoolers share a general agreement on several core values that leads to a sense of unity (Mayberry, 1988; Romm, 1993). That members of the homeschool movement share a common identity is apparent. This is not to say that there are not competing and conflicting factions in the movement, factions imbued with a sense of disagreement, suspicion, and mistrust. Such conflict is characteristic of most social movements and competing social movement organizations (Foss & Larkin, 1986, p. 18-19). But in general there is unity about some of the central goals and values of the movement that include the importance of family, personal liberty, and often (but not always) a sense of spirituality (Mayberry, 1988; Romm, 1993). Of equal importance, homeschoolers share a distrust of public and private institutions, particularly big government, the media, and public education .
Regarding Melucci’s second characteristic, homeschoolers report that they occasionally receive opposition from others, although the experiences of those that I have interviewed indicate conflict is much less frequent and intense than it was for the pioneering homeschoolers of the 1970s and 1980s. Conflict, however, continues to come from relatives and friends as well as public and private officials who believe homeschooling is a mistake that threatens the educational and social well-being of children and from formal educational organizations (National Education Association [NEA], 1994). Although my research generally supports Knowles, Marlow, and Muchmore’s (1992) claim that the movement has gone through a series of stages and has left confrontation behind, and while numerous legal and public relations battles have been won by homeschoolers, there remains an uneasy peace. Continued contention and negotiation are undoubtedly a substantial part of the homeschool movement’s future.
Finally, regarding Melucci’s third characteristic, the homeschool movement has been somewhat successful in imposing and negotiating change in some institutions, including public education, higher education, and educational law. Homeschoolers in my study report increasing degrees of cooperation from schools, libraries, colleges and universities, and other public and private organizations. Some public schools cooperate with homeschoolers by allowing them to enroll part-time and by providing resources. Public library personnel are increasingly aware of homeschoolers and are making efforts to accommodate them. Many colleges and universities have altered their admissions policies to accommodate homeschoolers and actively recruit homeschool graduates.
By collective action, Melucci (1989) means action that has three dimensions: mobilization potential, recruitment networks, and motivation to participate. Mobilization potential refers to a subjective attitude that identifies with the movement, or with some of the issues it raises. This subjective attitude is based on objective circumstances held by a substantial segment of the population in which the movement emerges and grows. Consider the environmental movement. While only a small percentage of the population of developed societies actually join environmental organizations like Green Peace, the Sierra Club, or Earth First, these organizations have grown and achieved a notable level of success. After all, a substantial segment of the population of the societies in which these organizations operate identify with, and are sympathetic to, a number of the issues that these organizations focus on such as clean air, clean water, global warming, and the protection of endangered species. In regard to homeschooling, concerns held by members of the movement about the quality and nature of formal education, youth peer groups, values, religion, and family are concerns shared by many members of contemporary society. Thus, many are in agreement with homeschoolers about these issues and consequently sympathize with them to at least some extent. These conditions present an environment conducive to the development and growth of homeschooling.
For example, a 1997 Gallop poll conducted for Phi Delta Kappa found that only 2% of the general public gave public schools an A, while 20% gave them a B, 48% gave them a C, 15% a D, 6% an F, and 9% did not know. These results suggest substantial dissatisfaction with public schools. This same poll reported that 70% of public school teachers think that parents should have the right to educate their children at home, while referencing a 1988 finding that 53% of the public felt the same way (Langdon, 1997).
Recruitment networks refer to social systems and interactive patterns that enable and encourage the recruitment of new members. While many social movements have organized goals and strategies for the recruitment of new members, it is my general observation that the homeschool movement does not. This does not mean, however, that the recruitment networks Melucci (1989) describes are not present and operational. In terms of homeschooling, recruitment networks would be churches, homeschool relatives and friends, support groups of various kinds and, as of late, Internet e-mail, chat groups, and web pages. Finally, the recent and generally positive treatment homeschoolers have received in the media has served the dual purpose of publicizing and legitimizing homeschooling while providing potential members with knowledge of organizations, web sites, and other homeschoolers to contact. In other words, recruitment to homeschooling does not result from formal recruitment efforts. Rather it tends to result from informal means as homeschoolers and potential homeschoolers interact in the context of a society that is sympathetic to the concerns of homeschoolers and other like-minded people.
Many of the people that I interviewed, for example, were introduced to homeschooling by interacting with homeschoolers at their church. One homeschooling mother stated:
I had always looked up to the Smith family. There kids were well-behaved and seemed so decent. My husband and I had concerns about our children’s education so we decided to look into it. The Smith family helped us along.
This experience is quite typical. Another typical experience involved a parent contacting the leader of one of the homeschool support groups after learning about homeschooling in an article in a local paper. She was dissatisfied with the way her son’s teacher was relating with him and was interested in alternatives. In a phone interview she said:
The school experience was a disaster for our son. We had to do something. I was glad to read the article and find a name that I could call.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Melucci (1989) lists the motivation to participate as a component of collective action. The sociological significance of this component is noteworthy. While individual families may have the potential to homeschool due to their unique characteristics, the decision to homeschool does not result from these characteristics alone but arises out of interaction that takes place in relationships and social networks. Melucci (1989) states that while the motive to participate
[D]evelops at the level of the individual, [it] cannot be considered as an exclusively individual phenomenon. While motivation is rooted in individual psychological traits, it is constructed and developed through interaction. The incentives to act exert a dominant influence on individuals? motivation. But the criteria used by individuals to recognize and evaluate these incentive are always interactive, in that they develop within the networks to which individuals belong. (p. 31-32)
As potential homeschoolers and practicing homeschoolers interact, shared definitions of the situation arise that provide a framework of understanding and motivate potential homeschoolers and practicing homeschoolers alike along their unconventional path. Thus members of the homeschool movement arrive at, and maintain, their views and convictions regarding their discontent with conventional educational and family arrangements, and their resolve that homeschooling is the solution to these discontents through interactive processes that are inherently social.
My data suggest that homeschool friends, support groups, and cyber relationships provide an interactive environment of support to homeschoolers. It is within these relationships that socialization takes place that prompts homeschoolers and potential homeschoolers to come to a consensus as to the problems with both the dominant culture and public schooling and reinforces homeschooling as the solution to these problems. Virtually all homeschoolers that I have encountered affiliate with either a support group or interact regularly with other homeschoolers, increasingly over the Internet.
While the homeschool movement is characteristic of many traditional social movements, it is, I argue, more comparable with movements that Habermas (1981) has labeled “new social movements.” These new movements have an emancipatory quality, in that they seek to free participants from existing social arrangements and institutions that would colonize their personal lives. Mayberry, Knowles, Ray, and Marlow (1995, p.101) are correct in concluding that “The social movements of the 1970s and beyond (including the home school movement) emerged partially in response to these conditions” and are an effort to resist colonization.
My findings and Romm’s (1993) research supports this thesis. Romm reports that the development of character traits and values were the “central goal” of eight homeschooling families in his study. These families believe that the dominant culture through the schools seeks to impose a worldview on their children that is contrary to their most deeply held values. They view homeschooling as a form of resistance. The large majority of homeschoolers that I have interviewed over the past five years report different variations of that theme. One conservative, homeschooling father told me:
In the public school our children’s Christian values were continually being assaulted. They were teased and belittled by their peers for their beliefs and schooling itself attempted to impose values we didn’t appreciate, so we took them out. Things are much better now.
A homeschooling mother with social and political views left of center explained:
Schools seem to be under the thumb of big business and do all they can to destroy critical thinking and mold students into compliant workers. That’s not for us.
Thus the homeschool movement is an effort of resist the dominant culture. The homeschool movement and other movements like it emerge in developed, democratic societies, where individuals have a degree of economic security, freedom of expression, and political stability—a point I will return to later. These social movements have resulted not only from discontent, collective identity, and resource mobilization typical of most social movements, but from recent global social and cultural changes as well—changes that have enabled a substantial segment of the population to reject dependence on institutional solutions to human needs and to turn to more personal and voluntary solutions (Bartos, 1996; Naisbitt, 1982).
Social Change and the Homeschool Movement
Scholars have typically asserted that social movements result from a number of interacting social conditions such as discontent with existing systems, the formation of a collective identity among potential movement participants, and resource mobilization, none of which are sufficient to facilitate the formation and success of the movement by itself. A combination of these conditions must be present for a movement to start. Discontent by itself, however, is never enough as discontent with social systems is a common occurrence in most societies and in many cases even high levels of discontent do not serve as the catalyst for the creation of social movements (Melucci, 1989). The homeschool movement is no exception. Homeschool advocates, for example, are discontent with public education (Gatto, 1991; Holt, 1981, 1982; Llewellyn, 1991). The American public, however, has throughout this century considered public education to be in a state of crises of one kind or another and to be in need of serious reform (Berliner & Biddle, 1995; Gracey, 1991; Sedlack, Wheeler, Pullin, & Cusick, 1986). While discontent with formal schooling has existed throughout this century, the homeschool movement is recent. Discontent is, therefore, a necessary but insufficient explanation for the existence of the homeschool movement. This discontent must occur under conditions conducive to the development of a collective identity of those who experience such discontent. I am convinced that the conditions that led to the emergence of the homeschool movement involved discontent and interaction against the backdrop of global social and cultural changes.
Developed societies have changed dramatically over the past two decades as they have rapidly evolved from industrial to information societies (Crook, Pakulski, & Waters, 1992; Inglehart, Nevitte, & Basanez, 1996). Information age societies are characterized by economies involved in the production and distribution of information and information technologies much more than they are with the production of material goods in factories. This change, which continues to unfold at a breath-taking rate, has dramatically altered the nature of our lives and has transformed our culture from a modern to a postmodern one (Bartos, 1996; Kumar, 1995). A postmodern culture places great value on personal empowerment, individual freedom, personal expression, the acceptance and honoring of diversity and alternative lifestyles, and a retreat from loyalty to large bureaucracies and formal organizations that are increasingly seen as obtrusive and overbearing. These unique qualities of an information society and its accompanying postmodern culture are key ingredients in explaining not only the existence of the homeschool movement but other comparable movements and social phenomena that have recently emerged. Consider, for example, alternative health, new political parties, cults and nontraditional religions, Guardian Angels crime watchers, alternative music and entertainment, unusual family forms, and new and successful small businesses that cater to a growing diversity in contemporary western societies.
Large bureaucracies and organizations with rigid inflexible rules often become outmoded and obsolete in a rapidly changing postmodern world (Bartos, 1996). Furthermore, developed countries with information-based economies and continued economic growth and prosperity have seen the emergence of a substantial segment of their educated middle- to upper-middle class citizenry—a segment that includes most members of the homeschool movement, a segment that despite living in a turbulent world feels economically secure and is no longer required to give top priority to survival and material gain (Inglehart, Nevitte, & Basanez, 1996). Because of this security, many feel less dependent on these institutions and are beginning to question the materialistic orientation of the dominant culture.
By their very nature, large bureaucracies and organizations are motivated to survive and grow, to not only maintain but expand their power and influence (Merton, 1968; Gerth & Mills, 1946); but while they attempt this expansion and intrude on the lives of postmodern people, resentment, resistance, and rejection result. As dependency on these institutions diminishes, their power over people diminishes as well and their attempts at intrusion are met with increased resistance. Certainly disillusionment joins decreased dependence and obsoleteness as a small but significant part of this rejection. Consider the scandals involving government, religious, and corporate icons and events—Watergate, Iran-Contra, Whitewater, president Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinski and Paula Jones, Jim and Tammy Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, political fundraising scandals, Ivan Boesky, Medicaid and Medicare fraud, health insurance swindles, the savings and loan crisis, crooked policemen, corrupt judges, and school failure. The list is endless. Consequently, major institutions such as government, religion, medicine, business, criminal justice, and education, are losing their authority as public confidence in them declines and resentment for them increases.
While the existence of these new social movements is a testament to the loss of authority, confidence, and loyalty that citizens have in them, I believe they represent something more, namely the desire for personal empowerment and self-reliance; a need to feel in control of one’s life and family. Much of this change emphasizes taking back control from institutions and bureaucracies and their certified agents. The fact that homeschooling has counterparts that have sprung to life in response to every major social institution at about the same time it did demonstrates the widespread and powerful nature of the global change of which homeschooling is but a part.
Recent research exploring the alternative health movement, for example, allows for some useful comparisons (Schneirov & Geezik, 1996). The eclectic mixture of people who make up this movement consist of conservative Christians, libertarians, progressives, and New Agers, a population comparable with the homeschool movement. Their motives compare with many homeschoolers as well. Most members of the alternative health movement reported negative experiences with conventional health care institutions. Some complained that they were mistreated and depersonalized. There was a desire to be self-reliant. Involvement in alternative health therefore was an attempt to claim personal control and prevent the intrusion and abuse of the medical establishment in their lives.
The Guardian Angels (lay crime patrol) exist because people in large cities are fed up with crime-ridden neighborhoods and the apparent impotence of the criminal justice system. It is the response of people who are no longer comfortable relying on a system that does not seem to be as responsive as they would like. New political parties like Ross Perrot’s United We Stand America, The Reform Party, the Taxpayers Party, and the Green Party affirm the rejection of established and conventional parties that many feel serve their own interests and not those of ordinary citizens. These organizations and others like them are about personal activism.
Like alternative health, the Guardian Angels, new religious movements, and emerging political parties, homeschooling is about empowerment and personal responsibility. Homeschooling parents and children are people who claim the right to direct their own lives even in the face of bureaucratic opposition (Mayberry, 1988; Romm, 1993). Homeschoolers reject the institutionalized life that school offers and the intrusion and power schools exert over families. A careful analysis of the criticisms of homeschooling finds the desire for power and colonization lurking barely concealed behind a thin veneer of more hollow concerns about academic quality and socialization. The struggle for power is always masquerading under one guise or the other. While I acknowledge the genuine concern of some homeschool opponents, for many their opposition is a quest for control cloaked in the robes of concerns about protecting children and looking out for their interests. One need not suppose that here I am raising the specter of local, national, or global conspiracies. I am merely suggesting that the struggle for power between conflicting interests and organizations has been a part of social life since the dawn of human history. Consequently, much of the rhetoric in the debate about homeschooling is a smoke screen for deeper and seldom articulated motives.
For example, the NEA (1994), a teachers’ union, in its official statement on homeschooling, claims that homeschooling cannot provide a “comprehensive educational experience” and that if it is to be allowed at all, it must by done by a parent who is a certified teacher. I argue that to the NEA, homeschooling parents are, in union jargon, scabs of sorts, who have moved in on union turf. Alternatives like homeschooling represent a threat to the power of the union. To many school boards and school administrators, homeschooling represents a loss of revenue, money they do not get from the state because homeschooled children are not enrolled in their schools. In both cases, the struggle for power is evident.
Much like the response of the NEA to homeschooling is the disparaging response of the American Medical Association (AMA) to alternative health, of conventional and established religions to emerging cults and sects, of police organizations to groups like the Guardian Angels, and of Republicans and Democrats to new political parties. While the NEA, the AMA, conventional religious denominations, police, and political parties may sound the alarm about education that is not comprehensive, medical quackery, dangerous cults, vigilantism, and throwing votes away on candidates who cannot win, a strong case can be made that the real issue is one of power and control; that many people are taking their education, health, spirituality, safety, and community into their own hands and rejecting bureaucracies and organizations that have not served them well; and bureaucracies and organizations who are threatened by the existence and growth of these movements will attempt to stop them
Technological advances are central to the transformation that is occurring. The Internet, for example, has provided for the creation of virtual communities and electronic villages based on common interest and movement membership. Homeschoolers and members of other empowerment movements have formed relationships, support groups, and networks based on their personal proclivities and lifestyle choices. This allows for the dissemination of information central to the maintenance and growth of the movement as homeschoolers from across the nation and the world regularly interact with each other via mailing lists, chat groups, and bulletin boards. Political information is disseminated, support and encouragement given, problems discussed, and friendships made.
In addition to emotional and political support, the Internet also provides access to educational material including museums, libraries, zoos, government documents, and art galleries. There are classes and chat groups on a wide variety of academic topics, “Ask an Expert” sites, and newspapers from around the world. With the resources of the Internet, educational software, and multimedia applications, combined with the deflating prices of personal computers, more and more homeschoolers are taking advantage of these technologies. A recent development is the appearance of on-line high schools such as Cyber High School and Laurel Springs High School. These schools allow high school-aged students to enroll and complete high school courses on-line. The number of educational alternatives like these available to interested families and individuals are increasing.
This access, combined with other technological advances, and social changes have led to the emergence of what Kumar (1995) refers to as the “home-centered society.” A society where technology has undermined the “centralized structures” of the industrial revolution and strengthened the family. He writes:
The most significant of the “changes” is the move to a “home-centered society.” Information technology … provides the ideological driving force for the return to the home, after centuries of industrialization that broke up the pre-industrial household and drove people to seek both their work and their pleasure outside the home. The advocates of the information society make much of the ability of the new information technology to break up the large centralized structures of the industrial society … The home, as the focus of most peoples’ primary loyalty and interest is the institution best fitted to benefit from these potentialities. It can gather them all up in one place, reuniting activities previously dispersed by the industrial revolution [italics added]. (p. 157-158)
Futurist Alvin Toffler (1980) concurs: “I believe that the home will assume a startling new importance in Third Wave civilization … a unit with enhanced … economic, medical, educational and social functions” (p. 354).
While practices akin to homeschooling existed in this country and elsewhere prior to industrialization, homeschooling as an empowerment social movement emerged as a response to institutionalized schooling with the dawning of postmodernism. Because homeschooling appeared before the rapid growth and dissemination of computer technologies that has happened during the past couple of decades, it would be wrongheaded to attribute the appearance of the movement to technology, but the growth of the movement and the resources available to it are another story.
While I argue that these technologies have led to changes that lent aid and comfort to this fledgling movement and have assisted in factors related to its growth, not everyone shares my optimistic view of technology and postmodernism and their ability to create a more family-centered society. Carlson (1993), for example, argues that long-term economic and political changes threaten the family. He correctly claims that market forces and state authority undermine family autonomy, and that the promised technological “rescue” of the family seldom occurs. He then further argues that homeschooling and technology impose economic and emotional challenges that are difficult for many families to overcome. Consequently, homeschooling is not a viable solution to the assault on family autonomy.
Elkind (1995) argues that the social changes in the postmodern age have led to what he calls the permeable family, a family characterized by individual autonomy in which “each family member pursues his or her own interests and puts these interests before those of the family”(p. 13). Finally, Hersch (1998), in her poignant study of the suburban youth culture, describes teens left to their own devices devoid of meaningful contact with their parents, parents who are busy pursuing the current market-based definition of success.
This information society and postmodern culture that have recently emerged provide the fertile soil in which homeschooling could germinate and grow on the social landscape of the late 20th century. Until these changes occurred, families disgruntled with formal schooling, or families simply interested in a different approach to education, had no alternatives to consider or act upon. Moreover, the simultaneous appearance of the comparable movements mentioned earlier is a testament to the power of the postmodern world. Once these changes are understood, the choices of individual families to homeschool and the homeschool movement itself can be placed in its proper social context.
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