Homeschooling: A short history

This post was originally part of a Carnival of Homeschooling. I decided to pull out the History of Home Education in America part and make it a post of its own.  I’m not a scholar, and this is not a thesis for University.  I did my best to make it as accurate as possible, but I probably made some errors- I hope more of omission than commission.  Some aspects of this are subjective, of course. In some homeschooling circles one party or the other mentioned below is a villain, or at least an opportunist.  I wasn’t interested in taking sides, so I skirted the disagreements.

1. Homeschooling in the 1700s:  Most of our Founding Fathers (and Mothers) were educated at home, for at least part of their schooling (children almost always learned to read at home, except for the poorest of the poor). Nearly all of them had their educations personally directed by their fathers, as this was seen as a father’s Duty. Consider this statement by Thomas Jefferson on the education of his daughters:

“… I thought it essential to give them a solid education which might enable them, when become mothers, to educate their own daughters, and even to direct the course for sons, should their fathers be lost, or incapable, or inattentive. My surviving daughter accordingly, the mother of many daughters as well as sons, has made their education the object of her life.” –Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Burwell, 1818. ME 15:165

Jefferson did institute a plan for public education to be paid for by wealthier citizens by taxation, but the compulsory part of that education plan was in the taxes, not in attendance. He wanted public schools available to those citizens who lacked the necessary resources to provide a good education to their children. He wrote:

It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible absorptation and education of the infant against the will of the father…–Thomas Jefferson: Note to Elementary School Act, 1817. ME 17:423
He believed strongly that control of his public education plan should remain in local control, more specifically, in the hands of parents.

George Washington did not enter school until he was around 11 years old, and he would only stay for two years. He already knew how to read and write and handle numbers when he started school. His late age for starting school was really not all that late- In the U.S.  5 would not be seen as an appropriate age to begin formal schooling until the forties. The NINETEEN forties.

1800’s: There’s not a lot to say about homeschooling in America for the next century or so- it was the norm, and even when it wasn’t, parents were still seen as ultimately and primarily responsible for the education of their children. They might choose to get together with others in the community and hire teachers, build a school room, and see to it that their youngsters were educated there.  They might collectively or individually hire a tutor to come to individual homes, or the parents might themselves supervise lessons with their children, but the institution of public schooling didn’t exist in mass numbers. Public school attendance was not compulsory where it did exist.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts permitted home education (as opposed to child labor) in Commonwealth v. Roberts, 34 NE 402 (Mass. 1893). The court emphasized that the object of the statute is that “all children shall be educated, not that they shall be educated in a particular way.”

It is interesting to note that age segregated schooling didn’t really start in American until mid 19th century (borrowed, like so many other bad ideas in education, from Germany, or rather, Prussia as it was then),  and in 1912 one critic would write :

It is constructed upon the assumption that a group of minds can be marshalled and controlled in growth in exactly the same manner that a military officer marshalls and directs the bodily movements of a company of soldiers. In solid, unbreakable phalanx the class is supposed to move through all the grades, keeping in locked step. This locked step is set by the ‘average’ pupil–an algebraic myth born of inanimate figures and an addled pedagogy. The class system does injury to the rapid and quick-thinking pupils, because these must shackle their stride to keep pace with the mythical average. But the class system does a greater injury to the large number who make slower progress than the rate of the mythical average pupil . . . They are foredoomed to failure before they begin.

The 1900s:

An Indiana court   formally recognized the right of parents to educate their children at homein 1904 in State v. Peterman, 32 Ind. App. 665, 70 N.E. 550 (1904).

The court defined a school as

“a place where instruction is imparted to the young….. We do not think that the number of persons, whether one or many, make a place where instruction is imparted any less or any more a school.” (Peterman, at 551.)

Quoting the Roberts decision in Massachusetts, the Indiana court said:

“[T]he object and purpose of a compulsory educational law are that all the children shall be educated, not that they shall be educated in any particular way.” (Peterman, at 551.)

The Court concluded;

“The result to be obtained, and not the means or manner of attaining it, was the goal which the lawmakers were attempting to reach. The [compulsory attendance] law was made for the parent who does not educate his child, and not for the parent who … so places within the reach of the child the opportunity and means of acquiring an education equal to that obtainable in the public schools….” (Peterman, at 552.)

Oklahoma has the distinction of recognizing home education in its state constitution, deliberately recognizing the right of parents to educate their children at home in 1907- one of the legislators explained that it was too far for his sons to walk to school, so their mother educated them herself for four hours of every day.


The Illinois Supreme Court recognized a right to teach a child at home in 1950 when it decided People v. Levisen, 404 Ill. 574, 90 N.E.2d 213 (1950). This landmark case held that a

“private school” is “a place where instruction is imparted to the young … the number of persons being taught does not determine whether a place is a school.” (404 Ill. at 576, 90 N.E.2d at 215.)

The Illinois Supreme Court emphasized the right of parents to control their children’s education:

“Compulsory education laws are enacted to enforce the natural obligations of parents to provide an education for their young, an obligation which corresponds to the parents’ right of control over the child. (Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 400.) The object is that all shall be educated, not that they shall be educated in any particular manner or place.” (Levisen, 404 Ill. at 577, 90 N.E.2d at 215.)

The 20th century:   There have been homeschoolers from the beginning of this century, just as there have been in every century.  However, they were largely isolated from one another rather than a ‘movement’ for the first few decades of the 20th century.  Gradually, however, the climate was changing to favor a more structured, institutionalized, government controlled approach to education rather than parent-controlled, and parents who wished to educate their own children began to see a need for more support. (link goes to wrong post- try here)

Jonathan Holt is known as the grandfather of unschooling

began as a teacher in alternative schools, places that ought to have been progressive oases for creative learning. He grew disillusioned and by 1970 was known as an ardent proponent for school reform. He advocated for school reform in the books he published such as  How Children Fail, published 1964; How Children Learn, published in 1967.
By the seventies, however, he realized that most of those within institutional schooling simply did not want it reformed, therefore it could not be fixed and so he advocated for home education. He coined the term unschooling.There were a surprising number of books published in the 70s which influenced readers and thinkers like Holt to reconsider  institutionalized schooling and look for educational alternatives, even radical alternatives such as homeschooling. They began to recognize that ‘school reform’ was merely a way to perpetuate the existing problems. Here are a few of those influential titles, all published within a year or two of each other:
Everett Reimer, School is Dead: Alternatives in Education(Garden City, NY: Anchor, c. 1970)Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1971) Reimer and Illich were friends and colleagues, and Illich said that Reimer was the first one to open his mind to the idea that universal compulsory education through the state needn’t be a given. In turn, Illich and Holt corresponded often, and Illich influenced Holt.

Dr. Raymond Moore also published an article in Reader’s Digest, October 1972, “When Should Your Child Go To School?”, and this was excerpted from a longer article in Harper’s magazine, July 1972,
Hal Bennett, No More Public School, published in 1972And…What Do I Do Monday? by John Holt, published in 1972.  He had crossed over from school reformer to home education activist.

How did Holt move so quickly from school reform to home education?  – in the comments to the original 239th History of home education in America post, readers received this delightful explanation of John Holt’s ‘Light Bulb Moment’ when he realized home education was a viable alternative to public school, and certainly an improvement, from  Tunya Audain, who was there:

Holt’s Light Bulb – Mexico 1972

Thanks for the history of home education and the “movement” as it started to accelerate in the 70s-80s. John Holt was certainly one of the leaders and pioneers in those early days. I had a role to play in helping John see this alternative as an option to his work he was already doing in getting “the system” to reform.

It was in 1971-72 that Ivan Illich of deschooling fame was holding seminars in Mexico. Many people from around the world attended. From an excerpt in my story, this is what I said about John’s “Aha” moment:
“Neither Illich nor any of our discussions at that time ever conceived of the notion of home education as a “movement”, though we frequently talked about home care of the sick as a movement. It was not till I had a discussion with John Holt, the author of such books as “How Children Learn” and “How Children Fail” that the movement toward home education started to percolate.
So, one morning, beneath a heavily-laden mango tree from which John partook, this was our conversation in January, 1972:
John: Now that you have completed teacher training, where are you going to teach?
Tunya: I didn’t get training to teach in a school. I took it to teach my own children.
J: Is it legal
T: Yes, I’ve studied the legislations. It’s possible across North America and England. Parents are to cause their children to obtain an education at a school or elsewhere. It’s this “elsewhere” clause that allows home education.
J: Well, at least you’re now qualified to teach them.
T: I also found out that you don’t need a qualification to teach your own children.
J. What about socialization? They’ll be different.
T: Kids should be individuals. They’ll have plenty of friends from the groups we belong to. Besides, there is a lot of negative socialization in school …
J: What if they want to go to college?
T: They will probably be strong, independent learners and will have an advantage in transferring in.

The 1970s: There were enough parents now interested in abandoning Institutionalized Schooling that John Holt published the first issue of the newsletter/magazine ‘Growing Without Schooling‘ in 1977.In 1980 he had this fascinating interview in Mother Earth News, a crunchy leftist/progressive publication. Holt was a subscriber and frequently sent the editors letters with ideas, suggestions, and criticisms.   In that interview he appealed to his fellow Mother Earth readers thus:

Many of you folks who read this magazine believe–and with good reason–that government interferes too much in our lives. Well, I think that there is no place where this interference is less justified, more harmful, and more easily resisted than in the education of children. So it would seem to me that those who want to minimize the power the government has over their lives would find the area of their youngsters’ learning to be the first place where they’d want to work toward that goal.

 I would guess this probably did for homeschooling in the left-leaning communities what the Moore’s appearance on Dobson’s radio program a couple of years later would do for homeschooling in the Christian community…
The Moores? Oh, yes. These devout Seventh Day Adventists were friends and colleagues of John Holt, and, somewhat briefly, Gregg Harris more or less interned or apprenticed with them (the partnership did not end amicably).Raymond and Dorothy Moore taught their own children at home in the 1940s. There were also pockets of homeschoolers through the sixties (I have met a couple), but they tended to be isolated rather than a movement- mostly, they didn’t know anybody else doing what they were doing, and sometimes felt they needed to keep it quiet for their own protection.
IN 1969, however, Dr. Raymond Moore and his wife Dorothy began research on education. They were searching for answers to questions like “Is institutionalizing young children a sound, educational trend, and what is the best timing for school entrance?” Their conclusions led them to homeschooling, and they concluded that formal schooling should be delayed until at least 8-10 years old. They wrote two books, published in the early 80s, Home Grown Kids and Home-Spun Schools, and other books followed. They also, as I said, appeared on Dr. James Dobson’s radio program Focus on the Family, which is where I, and many others, first heard of homeschooling as something a modern parent could do.
the 1980s: Homeschooling: Not just for crunchy granola hippies anymore.
By the eighties, homeschooling had exploded- it wasn’t necessarily popular, and people were still going to jail or being taken to court, but it was gaining ground.  As I understand it, tax laws changed in the early eighties, taking away a tax advantage that private Christian schools had, and many of them folded, leaving religious parents with a dilemma on their hands- could they pay enough to support a school, should they put their kids in public school, or would they be really radically nutty and homeschool?  Many of them chose homeschooling.  They also imagined that they were pioneers, many of them being totally unaware of the ground breaking work that had been done by Illich, and others, before them.  (A few of the ‘names’ in Christian homeschooling were well aware that the ‘hippies,’ and other secular groups were there first, but for reasons of their own, chose not to mention these connections and ground-breakers, and there was a rift between the religious and secular homeschoolers at this point).
Homeschoolers had grown so numerous that they were able to sustain several publications.  Donn Reed wrote the first ever homeschool resource book in 1981: The First Home-School Catalogue, and it went into several printings.  (Read more about pioneer homeschoolers Donn and Jean Reed here)
Home Education Magazine first published in 1983. Helen Hegener was co-owner.
The Teaching Home started in 1983 as well- HEM was secular, but sought to be inclusive. The Teaching Home was unabashedly Evangelical. Gregg Harris also started his ministry about this time, and that’s the year Mike Farris and Mike Smith started HSLDA.
Susan Schaeffer MacCaulay would publish For the Children’s Sake, a book promoting a Charlotte Mason education in 1984
Linda Dobson began homeschooling in 1985, and had one of the first articles on homeschooling to appear in a mainstream magazine- Good Housekeeping. There’s a 1997 interview with her in HEM posted here.
1986, Helen Jackson, mother of five, African American, homeschooler- appeared in court to defend her homeschooling. The lawyer for the state thought he was going to eat her for lunch.
“Have you ever had a job?” He asked.
Homeschooling Grandfather Raymond Moore was there as an expert witness, and he gives his remembrances of her testimony here.

The questioning moved along in what seemed a taunting or disrespectful tone, including his eyes and body language, as if to find out what kind of broom Helen had pushed. She took it all patiently, even sublimely. The attorney seemed irritated at her quiet freedom.
“Yes, sir,” she replied.
“Where did you work?”
“In Houston.” She was brief, determined not to reveal her surprise until the last moment.
“Where in Houston?”
“At NASA.”
“What did you do at NASA??” At this point he smiled indulgently, as if wondering if she worked in the restaurant or in housekeeping. This was the opportunity she had patiently waited for.
“Well, you see, I am a John’s Hopkins University astronautic electronics engineer. At NASA, I was promoted to be the first black woman in space when I discovered that my oldest son was developing serious emotional symptoms and needed me more than NASA did. So I returned to teach him at home. And he is doing very well.”

Jackson (and others with her in that class action suit) prevailed, and homeschooling in Texas was now safe.
In 1988, the NEA began voting in approval of this statement on a regular basis:

The National Education Association believes that home schooling programs cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience. When home schooling occurs, students enrolled must meet all state requirements. Home schooling should be limited to the children of the immediate family, with all expenses being borne by the parents/guardians. Instruction should be by persons who are licensed by the appropriate state education licensure agency, and a curriculum approved by the state department of education should be used.


Our Personal Involvement:
That is the same year my husband and I began homeschooling our own children- then just two of them, by 1998 we had seven children at home.
That year Gregg Harris published The Christian Home School and at some point in the eighties he began a series of homeschooling conferences designed to encourage Christian homeschoolers.  He put them on video so our homeschool group was able to have a small ‘video homeschool conference’ in Okinawa, Japan in the late eighties.  In 1988 when we started homeschooling on an American air base overseas there were at least thirty other military families that I knew of who were homeschooling.
These are the books one of those other homeschool moms gave me to introduce me to this new venture.  I read them hungrily, avidly, as quickly as I could, immersing myself in them to the point that I was waking up in the middle of the night having actually reviewed them by rereading entire chapters in my dreams.  It was an exciting, heady time.

 As I said, by the eighties, homeschooling had burst into a fully fledged movement, with rivalries, unlikely coalitions, group cultures, and dozens, and then hundreds of books, magazines, and curriculum choices- and so, here we are.
When we started homeschooling we thought we were simply stepping out of one room into another.  What we actually were doing is stepping upward through a long corridor of doors, each door opening onto a new one, and then another one, and then another.  And of course, my reading on the topic did not stop with the list of books above.
Another good read was Rudolph Flesch’s: Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do about It
I thought I was reading about a phonics program and discovered much that was wrong with the way public schools choose materials.The Messianic Character of American Education  by Rushdooney  was also an eye-opener. My husband really enjoyed this one, and that surprised me because my husband doesn’t read much except the Bible.  I found it stiff going, but he loved it.Oh- and The Underground History of American Educationis online free, just click on the link to the title in this sentence.=)Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society is also interesting and informative, if more than a bit subversive. His book is also free, the link is in this article. It’s an excellent read:
Welfare bureaucracies claim a professional, political, and financial monopoly over the social imagination, setting standards of what is valuable and what is feasible. This monopoly is at the root of the modernization of poverty. Every simple need to which an institutional answer is found permits the invention of a new class of poor and a new definition of poverty. Ten years ago in Mexico it was the normal thing to be born and to die in one’s own home and to be buried by one’s friends. Only the soul’s needs were taken care of by the institutional church. Now to begin andend life at home become signs either of poverty or of special privilege. Dying and death have come under the institutional management of doctors and undertakers.Once basic needs have been translated by a society into demands for scientifically produced commodities, poverty is defined by standards which the technocrats can change at will. Poverty then refers to those who have fallen behind an advertised ideal of consumption in some important respect.And, if you read Gatto or Richard Mitchell’s delicious Graves of Academe, you’ll come across references to a couple events in America’s public school history that are just fascinating- I wanted to know more about them.
One is the Committee of Ten, which met in 1892. You can read more about that here.The other is the later Commission of Reorganization on Secondary Education (Richard Mitchell calls it the Gang of Twenty-Seven) and you can find that out here.
Thanks to all those, left, right, and middle, who have gone before us.  But we should never be complacent about protecting our freedoms.
As Tunya Audain said in the comment she left on the original hsing history post:
Home educators as a class generally appreciate freedom and liberty. John Holt’s prophetic statement on this topic is worth framing and pondering.
“Today freedom has different enemies. It must be fought for in different ways. It will take very different qualities of mind and heart to save it.”
See my article from my blog here:…
You will also find a link to Illich’s downloadable books (Deschooling Society) and a link to a 5 page article I wrote: Home Education- the Third Option which helped validate the movement in Canada in the 80s. In my closing words in the article I suggest that home education is a good way to retrieve individual responsibility from “disabling” professionals and the predatory state while at the same time restoring parents to a central role in the education of their children.
Nor should we lose sight of the state of our public schools.
The majority of children, after all, will grow up in those schools and what happens to them there will have a huge impact on America’s future.

For instance, here is some shocking information about the Montana school’s new sex education policies (first graders need their teachers to tell them about that? Seriously?) collapse the system posted at No Fighting, No Biting!. You know, it’s fine by me if the parents in favor of this either teach it to their kids themselves or hire somebody to do so. But making it a part of required curriculum is just wrong.
Linda Dobson (her name shows up in the above  history of homeschooling) asks:

Who was it that decided to force your attention onto Japan instead of Sweden? Japan with its long school year and state compulsion, instead of Sweden with its short school year, short school sequence, and free choice where your kid is schooled? Who decided you should know about Japan and not Hong Kong, an Asian neighbor with a short school year that outperforms Japan across the board in math and science?

That’s a really good question. There’s more at her post The Best of John Taylor Gatto’s “The Public School Nightmare” posted at PARENT AT THE HELM.
Never be complacent about the freedoms we have.
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