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When Diversity Isn't
This article, by Shari Henry, was originally published in the March-April 1995 issue of Home Education Magazine.

Pendulums have a way of swinging far in one direction only to boomerang just as far in the other. As the homeschooling movement has grown, a number of people have become comfortable with their extreme positions, showing little concern for stopping that pendulum at a reasonable mid-point. We shouldn't look to reach a watered down middle ground, but rather a fertile common ground where all homeschoolers join together focusing on shared interests. Since most homeschoolers I've met are kind and generous people, often grounded in faith, I'm continually amazed at how inconsiderate they can be toward one another when it comes to group activity. While I don't preach doom and gloom if tolerance doesn't come about, as a matter of principle, it should be an important goal of the homeschooling community.
When I began homeschooling five years ago, I joined every group, read every book, and subscribed to every magazine imaginable within the homeschooling community. I watched as Christian homeschoolers grew weary of being portrayed as religious nuts by mainstream media and non-Christian homeschoolers tired of being left out of the picture all together. Within my state, there was an established statewide Christian group and a newer group dedicated to serving all homeschoolers, "without bias toward any group." The newer group formed in reaction to the perceived exclusive nature of the Christian group, but because I am a Christian and a homeschooler, I expected to find more support among the Christian homeschool group and its local chapters.
The first conference I attended didn't offer much in the way of originality or unique materials. I wasn't interested in boxed curriculum or an accreditation umbrella, yet table after table displayed those materials or services, and workshop after workshop was presented by those selling them. I wasn't thrilled with the self-appointed, unchanging board, and was uncomfortable with the lack of respect for those homeschooling for different reasons than their own. Comments such as, "No parent should be allowed to homeschool unless convicted by Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior to do so," shocked me.
Maybe it was my casual dress, maybe it was because I leaned toward less school at home and didn't use a curriculum, maybe it was because I like lively discussions which encourage a variety of points of view and where all people are treated equally, or maybe it was because Tim and I are less than strict authoritarian parents. I don't know, and it's hard to put my finger on it anyhow, but I began to seek out other homeschoolers.
For two years, I actively participated in the day-to-day operations of the inclusive state group. I watched as the numbers grew, and was excited to see a variety of homeschoolers come together to talk, gain support, and collectively fight for rights. Ideologically, this group was on target.
My decision to work for the inclusive group did not come easily. As I've stated, I am a Christian and most people would consider me right wing politically. We teach our children creationism, attend evangelical churches, and look to the Bible for answers for life's problems. My decision to support an inclusive group was based on my understanding of scripture, and I was bold in my criticisms of what I saw as unbiblical abuses of authority and power-motivated control elsewhere.
I once spoke with a key individual in the Christian homeschooling community who felt Christian homeschoolers were numerous enough to come together for homeschooling and serving Christ at the same time and shouldn't have to dilute their convictions by belonging to inclusive groups. I felt then, and continue to feel, that in gathering with homeschoolers at large, I am in no way diluting my servanthood to Christ (especially since he hardly limited himself to spending time with only those like him), but also pointed out that homeschooling is one of the few places where I see Christians so adamant about this numbers thing. I've been involved in both the pro-life and anti-pornography movements, and while Christians may make up the largest constituencies, I've seen them pleased to have supporters from other groups walk hand in hand. This separation issue seems to be peculiar to the homeschooling movement.
Yet, I recognize that as movements grow, so will the diversity within the movement. As homeschooling books and magazines continue to be published, a greater variety of topics, methods, and targeted audiences speak to our richness as a whole. This sort of diversity should not be threatening to us, as long as we can remember we share a common purpose.
For the most part, the inclusive board I served on was representative of homeschoolers. We strived to keep a balance and hoped to provide something for everyone in the newsletter and at conferences. It wasn't easy, but was worth the trouble.
Unfortunately, over time, I've seen this group and others shift from their original purposes, much out of reaction to the power they see Christian homeschoolers amassing. Instead of steadfastly focusing on representing the diversity of homeschoolers, they have allowed political agendas and anti-Christian group feelings to move their groups away from their original purpose of inclusiveness.
I've seen this reflected mostly in conferences and discussions with members. A few years ago I attended a national homeschooling conference and was approached by a woman, visibly angry. She glared at me and said, "Who are these people kidding? Do they really think they're open to different viewpoints?"
With that, she began flipping through the conference program, pointing to a preponderance of workshop titles which reflected an anti-testing, pro-unschooling, and nontraditional agenda. Disgusted, she left after lunch.
I stood alone, saddened because I felt the same. Later, in a workshop, I was made to feel incredibly uneasy when I didn't want to participate in a five minute rambling of my visualization of an ideal world. Instead of respecting my discomfort , I was urged by the leader with comments like, "If you're not used to this, it is difficult. Just relax, you've never had this kind of freedom before."
My face burned as I wrung my hands nervously. I couldn't decide whether to be angry or apologetic. Sensing my discomfort, another participant excused herself saying the exercise felt too much like therapy. What a wimp I was! Why hadn't I done that? Later, after finding out this group began arbitrarily censoring submissions to its supposedly open newsletter, I refused to renew my membership.
The same types of things were beginning to happen with some state groups. By last fall, the group with which I'd worked so closely mailed out their conference brochures. I was presenting two workshops and had looked forward to attending. However, when the brochure arrived, I was disturbed by the pervasive nontraditional slant. I couldn't figure out what on earth a workshop on racism in America was doing in a homeschooling brochure, and was perplexed by the opening ceremony which promised to celebrate the unity and diversity of homeschoolers with a dance by the B'hai youth group (one homeschooler among them).
Unity? Diversity? If I had thought for one moment these represented the Webster-bound definitions of the words, I may have rejoiced. After all, who wouldn't be happy to celebrate "unlike elements" coming together under a "condition of harmony"? It was obvious, however, that what was being celebrated was the current political Unity and Diversity movement. While I understand this movement has many followers and some honorable ideals, we must recognize it for what it is: a political movement with respectable arguments in favor and in opposition to it. I was also bothered that a group who had fought so hard to keep religion out, invited a religious group to open the day.
The dancers appeared on stage. The first dance was a hip-hop celebratory dance - fun, upbeat, lively. As the second dance began, the positions changed, somber music started, happy faces turned gloomy, and the audience was subjected to a weighty performance addressing racial tension in America. Toward the end of the music, a voice over of a newsman interrupted to report that two children were shot and killed on a playground. Then, finally, the black and white dancers joined hands in reconciliation. I, for one, did not attend the conference to receive a lecture on racism and resented beginning my day this way. A friend of mine impressed with the performance nevertheless left in tears, which told me the content was too heavy for a family gathering.
If the only people bellowing were right-wing Christians, it would be easy to (rightfully or not) mark them off as a group, but those upset by this new trend could not be bundled neatly into any singular group.
One woman, defending the conference, said, "Who cares about the Christians, they have somewhere else to go."
Aside from the fact that this statement shows discomfort with those who don't support her positions, it also demonstrates utter ignorance about the fact that Christians are a wildly diverse lot. Many want to be part of inclusive groups.
Another person commented that kids raised in authoritarian Christian homes would be better off in school anyway (Sound familiar? Like the one who said only Christians should homeschool?) Aside from the fact that this flies in the face of reason, it fails to show support to homeschoolers at large, given that a majority of the homeschooling population chooses education at home due to their Christian beliefs.
I continue to shake my head as Christians on one side, supposedly bound to compassion and loving attitudes, make ridiculous anti-American comments while patriotically defending the Constitution in all other circumstances, and so-called enlightened individuals on the other hand, continue being every bit as judgmental and obnoxious. In the middle of this rope being tugged back and forth are the remnants: evangelical and mainline Christians, Jews, Catholics, agnostics, atheists, conservatives, moderates, Republicans, Democrats, yuppies, suburbanites, and country dwellers, all incredulous that we can't come together and talk and learn about homeschooling.
From computer bulletin boards to living rooms, I've heard flippant comments discount a whole group of people in a single, imprudent remark. Speeches supporting only specifically Christian materials or apologizing for including Christian materials on resource lists are commonplace. How many times have I heard a speaker say, "Such and such is a great book, but I must warn you it's written from a Christian perspective," or "This author has a lot of good things to say, but beware, because he is not a Christian."
Christians deserve respect for sacrifices they've made so we all may homeschool. Instead, people resent them. Yet, as Christians dart off to hide with only fellow believers, others are hurt because they live in an area where the only group is made up of people who make it clear outsiders are not welcome. Homeschooling alone can be excruciating. There must be some way a group of intelligent, well-meaning adults can work for the good of the homeschooling cause.
What should be our guiding principles in planning conferences, writing newsletters, and providing support? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Leaders: Aim to draw a wide group. Strive to make the general tone welcoming to all. At homeschooling conferences, attempt to offer a wide variety of workshops. Seek to provide varying viewpoints. Trust attendees to be able to succeed in different ways.
If you're involved in setting up a group, define your purposes and agenda clearly. Be honest about what your group will be. Consider aiming special interest groups to local levels or as additional groups, but networking on state and national levels. Don't call yourself inclusive if a large group of people will not feel comfortable within your folds.
2. Members: If you don't like the choices offered at last year's conference, offer to give a workshop next year. Politely and quietly leave during a workshop if you must. Phrase questions carefully, and please, no speeches or soap boxing. Respect how difficult it is for someone to stand up and talk in front of a large group. Look forward to making some wonderful, unlikely friends. Some of my dearest friends are my polar opposites who have challenged and sharpened my beliefs, not threatened them. Check political agendas and superior attitudes at the door. Come humble, ready to be enriched by rubbing shoulders with fellow homeschoolers, as equals.
For Christians, quit thinking you can't learn anything from those who don't believe what you believe or that ideas are worthless if someone doesn't subscribe to your theology - unless, of course, you never listen to Mozart, never quote Thomas Jefferson, and never would trust the doctor in the emergency room without finding out what church he went to.
For non-Christians, quit propagating the foolishness that Christians can't think for themselves. We are thinking, analytical people who have evidence from this world to back up our beliefs. Don't assume we need to be enlightened or that your agenda is okay because it's truly compassionate, moral, intelligent, etc.
We agree on many of the same problems, our ideas for solutions are just sometimes different.
3. Display Tables: Walk by those you find offensive or unhelpful . Ignore them. Leave behind literature you don't need or don't want (or use it as kindling). Don't assume everyone should agree with you. No one is telling you you have to subscribe to a magazine or get a catalog which touts Rush Limbaugh as a hero. But don't feel haughty for not wanting it.
4. In General: Ask yourself, "How would I feel if I were in their shoes and read this newsletter or attended this conference?" Ask with a truly open mind as to what another's beliefs are, not what you think they should be.?
Focus on homeschooling. No one should have to walk on eggshells, nor should anyone need to feel ashamed for why or how they choose to homeschool. Obviously, exclusively Christian groups aren't going to go away, but maybe we can all work harder at working together, and encourage some crossover and discussion. Simple consideration and kindness could go a long way. Let's think a little more and react a little less. Let's grow up.
All this may seem complicated, but in fact, I believe it's as simple as good manners and common courtesy. In a world where everyone is so caught up with self-esteem, homeschoolers should lead the way in others -esteem. If we all allowed our egos to die, just a little, what life might be brought to the homeschooling community.
1995 Shari Henry

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