Homeschool Civics Through Imitation

Politicians have been talking more than usual about education in the past few weeks.  President Obama unveiled his plan to give away 2 years of free community college to students earning a 2.5GPA or higher.  158 governors, mayors, and county officials issued proclamations to recognize last week as National School Choice Week.  Following Arizona’s lead, ten states are considering legislation that would require students to pass a federal citizenship exam before graduating high school.

Obama’s plan would change the financial landscape for high school graduates, including homeschoolers, attending any college, not just community colleges.  National School Choice Week had a better showing from homeschoolers in 2014 than 2013, and with 2.2 million U.S. students now being homeschooled, homeschooling is a growing minority choice for parents across the country who are fed up with overtesting and poor academics in public schools.  New Hampshire is backpedalling and introducing an amendment that would exempt homeschoolers from its proposed American citizenship exam requirement.  This move makes sense when 35% of U.S. adults consider politics and government too complicated to understand, compared with 4% of homeschool graduates.

Each of these issues impacts homeschoolers, but what about the broader issue of teaching civics to homeschool kids? How can parents best equip their children to interact with the culture through the vocation of citizen? How can homeschool parents nurture students who will have concern for their communities and understand the weighty responsibility each vote holds?

As public school graduates and busy, hardworking Americans ourselves, most homeschooling parents may be personally disengaged from politics in ways we don’t realize. After all, elections happen only every now and then. Who has time to lobby their city council? Isn’t that just for Crazy Joe Activist who writes a letter to the editor every week? What can one person really do to change things?

I know I use these same excuses. But mostly, I never really did it before, so setting up a meeting with my congressman is intimidating. For a 30-year-old, college-educated person, that’s just embarrassing.

In fact, most of us likely completely shirk our responsibility to research candidates before election day (and beyond what the major networks show on nightly news). We may never call or email our representatives, let alone show up in their offices to voice our concerns. We may never attend or even read a newspaper article about the city council meeting.

This civic laziness doesn’t absolve us from responsibility for the actions our representatives take. After all, even ignorant votes elect leaders. Our own civic disengagement is what we should address if we want our kids to learn how the government works.

So how do we teach our kids to carry the weight of their responsibilities as citizens well? We should take a page out of the 4H handbook and “Learn by doing” because our kids will copy what we do.

It’s a law of nature. Like osmosis.

Horace Bushnell, in his 1861 book Christian Nurture, beautifully elaborates on how inescapable this fact is:

“The spirit of the house is breathed into [the child’s] nature, day by day.”  The anger and gentleness, the fretfulness and patience—the appetites, passions, and manners … not because the parents will, but because it must be so, whether they will or not” (100).

To parents who try with their words to counteract the influence of their actions, (we’ve all been there, haven’t we?) Bushnell says:

“Your character is a stream, a river, flowing down upon your children, hour by hour.  What you do here and there to carry an opposing influence is, at best, only a ripple that you make on the surface of the stream.  It reveals the sweep of the current; nothing more.  If you expect your children to go with the ripple, instead of the stream, you will be disappointed” (118-119).

Yet this unstoppable formation of our children’s characters does have power for good:

“Understand that it is the family spirit, the organic life of the house … working as it does, unconsciously and with sovereign effect—this it is which forms your children to God” (111).

In the matter of citizenship, our kids will benefit far more from seeing us engage in democracy—not just on election day—than going through a civics curriculum.

Yes, please, let’s teach them history, the functions and forms of government, and all the academic subjects that are relevant to the life and vocation of a citizen.  Maybe it’s even okay to force them to pass the American citizenship exam as part of that coursework.

Whatever curriculum you choose, homeschooled kids are more likely to engage in the culture simply because they’re homeschooled.  Homeschooling is really the epitome of individual Americans asserting their human right to raise their children as they see fit, so our children are already seeing us in action.  But if we really want to be intentional about helping our kids learn how to make a positive impact on the culture around them, we must set the books down and go do it ourselves.

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