So I’m walking across the living room with an open book, and my 11-year-old son asks me what I’m doing. I tell him I’m writing a blog post, and show him the picture of Elizabeth Eckford in 1957, walking to school amidst an angry crowd following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and as I’m trying to explain this history to a homeschooled white kid living in a (somewhat) racially mixed neighborhood and attending a (somewhat) racially mixed church, and talking about prejudice and laws and the problems of division of resources and the Court’s ruling that “separate but equal is inherently unequal,” his twin brother rushes in from the kitchen and says, “Hey, are you dishing out BOF without me!?”
BOF stands for Brain On Fire, and it is our family’s term for the state of passionate engagement with complex ideas. BOF happens when you try to communicate important, real world information to novice learners without oversimplifying its relationship to everything else, i.e. without dumbing it down intellectually or ideologically.
BOF happens when my kids ask complicated questions before bedtime so Dad will delay sending them to bed, or when a child can’t sleep because he is wondering how the spider DNA could combine with Peter Parker’s, or when a child’s passion for baseball inspires his mother to visit a museum exhibit that ignites in her a passion for the game. It’s part of the culture at our house, and one of the reasons we homeschool. It is the raw material of our learning, which we shape into unit studies, reading lists, and field trips. BOF powers our children’s education and our own continuing education. (As a family, we will probably be spending some time surfing the Civil Rights Digital Library year by year. As parents, and as friends of adoptive and non-adoptive inter-racial families, we will be keeping up with the Anti-Racist Parent blog. And maybe we’ll even read Blood Done Sign My Name out loud with the kids.)
BOF is not just for homeschoolers, of course; it can be nurtured between parents and children wherever they are willing to help one another learn. Kirsten Keller (over at This Mommy Gig) nurtures BOF intentionally with her son. And, yes, even the structures of the Educational Industrial Complex can’t stop a passionate, gifted professional classroom teacher from igniting BOF in his or her students.”Star teachers have not come to rescue the system. Actually, they do not expect much from the system—except for the likelihood that it may worsen. They focus on making their students successful in spite of the system,” writes Martin Haberman in Star Teachers of Children in Poverty. More and more in our networked world, BOF is an powerful guide for learning. When high quality expertise is just a few links away, why sit in a box and wait for someone to feed it to you? If you’ve got the passion, why not chase down the knowledge yourself? The homeschool community (among many others!) is figuring out how to properly support the pursuit of knowledge, even when it means letting go of the old “knowledge-transfer” structures.
Which brings us back to prejudice.
The homeschool world was in a kerfluffle 1 this Memorial Day weekend over an essay contest sponsored by the Subway restaurant franchise, which included this gem on the registration form:
Contest is open only to legal US residents, over the age of 18 with children in either elementary, private or parochial schools that serve grades PreK-6. No home schools will be accepted.
Why were home schools excluded? While there were lesser prizes appropriate to individual students, the grand prize was $5000 in athletic equipment; apparently, the contest-makers were unable to conceive of any sort of “educational” activity (like kids writing stories) occurring outside of an institution that needed to field a sports team.
A boycott of Subway ensued, and apparently the pro-boycott /con-boycott rhetoric has gotten pretty heated. Debra Hanley at Pricipled Discovery writes:
It isn’t pretty out there, and it is rare that I really see this much division in the boards I frequent. I never knew someone’s choice to boycott or not boycott could be so personal. That my shoulder shrug at the whole thing would result in impassioned defenses of how boycotting does work, and an insistence that we have to remain vigilant even in the little things. Or that those who are not boycotting would see fit to not merely state why they think it is not necessary but go so far as to belittle those who have chosen to do so.
But really, do we make this big of a deal out of other companies who choose to support traditional schools? ….Corporations have gotten away with donating money to schools for some time without raising the ire of homeschoolers. Simply because it comes in the form of a contest, we are suddenly boycotting? And worse, flaming each other?
She quotes American Thinker for the reason behind the offended feelings:
But why is this snub at homeschoolers even an issue? Homeschoolers face constant harassment from “officials” at the state and local school board level, as well as from teachers unions, and they are therefore more than a bit sensitive to perceived commercial discrimination. By banning homeschooled children from their essay contest, Subway has — accidentally or intentionally — placed themselves firmly in the “enemy’s camp.” [emphasis added]
Being conscious of the history and state of education in America could have saved Subway some headaches. Education simply does not equal school, and Subway should have operated with that awareness. And as Debra points out, a very small amount of creative thought on the part of the contest organizers would have been enough to include people who learn in situations, like homeschools, that are different from the institutional school “norm.” (Heck, we even play organized sports…)
Instead, Subway sacrificed homeschoolers to it’s unimaginative notions of education. They asked homeschoolers to go along with second-class citizenship, losing out to institutional schools, and to allow Subway the luxury of ignoring the fact. It was a sacrifice that many homeschoolers were unwilling to make. We refused to acquiesce; we’d been slighted and we stood up for our rights. And, for what its worth, the culprits apologized.2 They didn’t change the rules of this contest, but promised to write new rules for future promotions. End of story, yes?
Where there is a history of discrimination, sensitivity runs high. Little things make us suspicious, indignant, rationally and irrationally angry; it does not matter if the slight is real and consequential, or imagined and trivial. History makes us ready to fight, to marshal our strength against the enemy, because we believe that is what will make us safe, and (even more) we know that that is what makes our side strong. And who does not want to feel strong? How else, except through our own strength, are we to be protected from political harm from the powers that be? Even if it’s just a stupid sandwich shop.
And homeschoolers weren’t through flexing their muscles. Here was an enemy that made an easy whipping boy, a target that we could vent all our frustrations upon without noticeable consequences. (I mean, really, who cares about Subway? Our dollars give us power, and if their business tanks, it’s not like we’d have to give up fast food or anything….) With so many things to be frustrated about, and perhaps in some circles a tradition of using persecution as a source of political strength, why should we calm down and let the enemy off the hook?
Its not all consumerist indignation or political opportunism, though. We live in a world of surface impressions, where people’s attitudes and treatment of us can be transformed by a T-shirt. Though prejudice against homeschoolers doesn’t even begin to be in the same league as the brutality and oppressiveness of racial prejudice, it is real, and we understand that it matters how people see us. As homeschoolers, we strive to construct a life worthy of recognition and respect on its own terms, however modest, and then someone comes along and doesn’t even bother to look at what we’ve done.
“I am an invisible man,” writes Ralph Ellison’s protagonist. “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me….Who knows but that on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
In some ways the anger of homeschoolers is that of Ellison’s Invisible Man, a just response to the refusal to see homeschoolers as valid on our own terms, or even to see us at all, to be unaware and uncaring about where the system–the Education Industrial Complex–shuts us out.
Rights are something we can fight for…. When it is a matter of rights, we dig in our heels, put up a fight and resist compromise. That is what has gotten us where we are today.
But is this the model we should follow for every fight? It is one thing to march on the capitol; it is quite another thing to march on the general public. It seems to me we should be building bridges…
So there may be a time for war–but there is also a time for peace, and for learning together how to live together, when we all lose out to somebody sometimes. Overcoming prejudice and distrust is an ongoing project of bridge-building and, as one parent put it, of continually “pulling out the roots that are embedded in your own heart.” It requires, as Danielle Allen argues in Talking to Strangers: On Little Rock and the Art of Political Friendship, the book that sparked my discussion of school desegregation with my kids, an awareness and understanding of who is losing out to whom, of who made that choice, how that loss will be recognized, and how both that sacrifice and its validation will be reciprocated. It’s not a one-time attitude adjustment, but a continuing journey in the company of people who are not like us, but who may become our civic friends. Such a strategy might go a long way toward more important goals: building a supportive environment for homeschoolers, and reinvigorating the varied practices of education & learning in America today. BOF and all.
Here is how one Christian homeschooing father chose to begin that journey, showing humility and recognition of the intended purpose of the Subway contest rules, without giving up the claim for recognition by the company:
Please forgive us for acting like anyone else would. The truth is, we claim to be followers of Christ, but we aren’t perfect at it. We truly hope that you succeed in your efforts to provide exercise equipment to kids that desperately need it. In the future we hope that those of us who choose to home school will be more of a blessing to your franchise. We hope that you won’t see us as a community of self-isolating complainers, but as a community of people who feel so strongly about our kids that we are willing to go the extra mile with them.
This homeschooler turns his loss of eligibility for the contest into a claim for recognition and an invitation for future relationships. I hope that we, as our Teacher instructs, will be ready to go the extra mile with our oppressors as well. And while we’re at it, we might use this episode to remind ourselves of the deeper, harsher prejudices that exist in our society, among the people with whom we live, and of journeys in their company to which we are called.
- I’ve wanted to use that word since I learned it! ↩
- The (poorly written, IMHO) apology is linked from the contest registration page immediately following the homeschool-exclusion clause, with the anchor text, “Not part of a public school? Click here.“ Since the previous paragraph specifically includes “elementary, private or parochial schools that serve grades PreK-6,” this seems a little odd. Were there stereotypes of public schools (“those poor fat kids that had their gym class cut-they need more charity stuff”) that guided them in directing their prizes? Did they even bother to ask any schools or teachers about what kind of prizes would help their students be healthy? Like community gardening equipment? But perhaps they didn’t want to go there… ↩
- Maybe the King of Persia could shed some light on this… ↩