Friday, February 7, 2014

Homeschooling and College: My Experience

Leaders in the Homeschool Movement spend an exorbitant amount of time selling their rhetoric in words and in materials (books, videos, blog articles) sharing what they believe to be the ultimate role of women as homemaker: how to be respectful and submissive wives, how to cook, sew, how to raise children, etc.
If you are a young girl raised in this environment, your know your lot in life is: get married to your approved husband, have many children, teach your children at home, and hopefully, your children will do the same.
...The ultimate goal in the Homeschool Movement is to be fruitful and multiply and “take dominion” of the world. 
--"When Homeschooled Daughters are Trapped" by Julie Anne Smith, originally published on Spiritual Sounding Board

I remember the feeling of being trapped. I had been taught by Bill Gothard and Inge Cannon that college was both dangerous and unnecessary. I already knew it required a large investment of time and money, neither of which I believed I had. I had no job, and when I did get one much later, I was still dependent on my parents for transportation. In addition, I was always expected to help with both regular and irregular chores to keep the household and Dad's business running. Dad paid us to work for him, but the hours and the projects were subject to change according to what he needed. If he needed help, it wasn't presented as an optional job. Neither could I "turn down" a sewing project for Mom, even one she was offering to pay for.

Mary Pride, Vickie Farris, Elisabeth Elliot, and Nancy Campbell were certain my calling was to be a submissive wife and a full-time mother. Numerous writers were telling me that my dad should help select a future husband for me. But I was in my twenties now, and no young men were lining up for the privilege. I'd never even been asked out, never held hands with a boy, never talked to a guy my age on the phone. I was certainly raising babies, but they weren't mine.

At ATI conferences we would listen to "testimonies" of young adults who had left their college studies to return home and happily study the Bible with their younger siblings under the authority of their parents. We would expose ourselves to Satan's temptations if we left our parents' protection to live on a campus. We might even lose our faith. We would be corrupted by humanism and "vain philosophies". We might even succumb to "a dating spirit".

Besides, even without degrees we would have employers coming to us because of our excellent character, worth so much more than mere knowledge. Anything we needed to know, we could learn from masters through on-the-job apprenticeships. To a teenager whose primary outside contact was church on Sunday morning, it sounded so good in theory. I did some volunteer work, but no one came knocking in search of my great talents.

Years after I should have graduated from high school, Gothard's organization launched an alternative to college: a correspondence school by which one could study law from home. Loving the idea of having initials after my name, I was eager to apply to Oak Brook College of Law. But it turned out one had to have some college credits! Or, instead, they would accept a GED certificate and satisfactory CLEP scores in three subjects. So Dad got on the phone and made the arrangements. In January, I got my GED (at a facility for dropouts and delinquents) and sat for the necessary CLEP exams at the our community college.

In April 1995, the week before the Oklahoma City bombing, I spent a week at Gothard's Dallas Training Center doing "orientation". I remember being surprised that the young man picking me up at the airport was alone.(At nineteen years old, I'd never been alone in a vehicle with a single man before. Unspeakable things might happen!) The class was predominantly male, but there were a few other women. All the professors we met were male.

The dean, Roger Magnuson, kicked off the week by warning us of the spiritual perils of our course of study. He urged us to halt our studying if we sensed "our delight in spiritual things diminishing". I remember something about the school not being unaccredited "yet", but I had no idea what that meant. No one had ever explained regional accreditation to me, not even my dad who had a degree from Penn State. After all the introductions and preliminaries were over, I lugged my new books back to Michigan. For the next year and a half logged four hours of study a day, often falling asleep on my bed as I slogged through the heavy, sometimes bone-dry texts.

It was lonely as hell. I rarely got to converse with another student over the phone, and never talked to a professor. It would be two more years before we even got email access at home. I mailed in assignments, got grades back, and took my midterm and final exams at a proctor's house across town. Despite being a devout Catholic, she was an avid fan of Gothard ("He's the most Catholic man I know!") and did her best to spoil and encourage me when I came over. I was grateful to her, but it wasn't enough. All this time I continued to pull more than my weight helping around the house, tasked with keeping the bills paid, the dishes washed, diapers changed, the kitchen clean, and whatever else Mom needed me to do.

When my mother had a nervous breakdown two months after delivering her tenth baby, I was left in charge of the house, and meals, and seven younger siblings--for a week.  I kept assuring myself God would take care of everything, that he had things under control. But nothing was under control! And I was desperately trying to prepare for the state "Baby Bar" exam in San Francisco which would determine whether I could continue my studies or not.

When Mom returned home from a week discussing the Bible with a pastor in Indianapolis (the "counseling" she got at Gothard's training center), we all walked around on eggshells for weeks. There was The Knife incident. I was anxious and depressed and cried a lot in secret. I had trouble sleeping. I got sick. My appetite diminished. I felt like my whole life was in danger of crashing in pieces around me.

I feared Mom would fall apart again. I feared I would fail the exam and Dad's money, not to mention the last eighteen months of my life, would have been wasted. I feared turning into a steely woman lawyer in a boxy navy suit. I feared turning into a sexy female attorney in a fuchsia suit, wowing the judge with her perfume instead of her brains. I wished I had given up the notion of law school long ago!

I took the exam. Mom stabilized. While I waited for the test results, I sewed dresses for my little sisters and did a lot of thinking. My friends were starting to get married. In my terrible loneliness, rocking my infant sister, I longed for a man of my own, someone to embrace and love me. Was marriage in God's plan for me? Was I going to sew dresses for little girls of my own? Of what use would my studies be then?

I could not envision how a career in Constitutional Law could be compatible with marriage and homemaking. I had never actually met a female with a law degree. I had only observed them from a distance on visits to the county courthouse. It was understood in our circles that marriage meant choosing to be a homemaker.  Dad would never approve my marriage if he thought I intended to be a lousy wife!

By the time I heard that I'd passed the Baby Bar, I knew that I was done with Oak Brook College of Law. I did not have the emotional stamina to keep homeschooling myself through college for three more years! And even if I did finish, the school could not assure me that I would be qualified to practice law in any jurisdiction outside California. Since my home was in Michigan, and I had always lived with my parents, it was difficult to visualize a future forging a life for myself across the continent!

But I was soon sure I did not want to remain a stay-at-home daughter indefinitely. A year after taking the Baby Bar, I took the chance to work for Gothard's cult out-of-state. When that didn't work out and I found myself back home, I explored other options. I got an acceptable part-time job (I could wear modest skirts and the office manager agreed to keep the radio off on the days I worked) and started saving money--while still keeping up with chores and responsibilities at home. In a tentative act of independence, I applied for a temporary volunteer position with an evangelical missionary organization, telling them I was willing to go to Peru, Guatemala, or the Philippines.

And at age 24 I enrolled in a summer university linguistics program in North Dakota, taking real college courses for the very first time. Experiencing my first classroom (with real desks!) since first grade, I thrived! I reveled in the lectures, the labs, the camaraderie, the independent study, the collaboration with classmates, and the exams. Especially the exams. Like Anne of Green Gables, I loved the sweet taste of being at the head of a class instead of an isolated self-taught learner!

It would be another decade before I learned the difference between the ten "credits" I earned from Oak Brook College of Law and the ten credits I earned that summer from the University of North Dakota.

In the interim, a lot of life happened: marriage, babies, homeschooling. And eventually, enrolling in classes in community college. How strange to walk through those doors and sit elbow-to-elbow with kids nearly twenty years my junior. Every time I fill out a survey and select the "some college" option, I wonder, "What if I had spent my single adult years getting an education?"

As the oldest daughter, I was the guinea pig in many ways. Several of those now-grown baby sisters have sprinted past me in the race to an education. Yet, the last time I talked to my dad about the courses I was pursuing, his cool response was, "But I hope that being a wife and mother is still your main priority." It felt like a jab, a reminder that I was stepping outside the circle where I was supposed to stay and be happy. Perhaps he didn't mean it that way.

My children see Chris and I working on college assignments week after week and they can't help but see that we value learning. Because as it turns out, Gothard and his friends were wrong--outside their fantasy land, having or not having a traditional college degree can make a world of difference.


  1. Wow. So much of this could have been taken directly from my life.

  2. My wife found your blog, and asked if I knew you. I was also in OBCL class '95A, so we would have seen each other. You look familiar, but as you have noted, there wasn't much mixing of genders, particularly at first. (By the time I graduated, some of us rebels actually talked across the line.) One regret I have is that I didn't get to know my female classmates better.

    I'm glad to see that you too have left the cult. A surprising number of OBCL grads have. I sometimes think it was where they sent all the dangerous free spirits, having no idea what else to do with them.

    Anyway, I enjoy your writing. Just thought I would say hello.

  3. Best of luck with your college courses. You are obviously a very talented writer and researcher.