As I became involved in The Cult, I gradually learned more about how the leaders saw child-raising, and especially, what they thought about the public education system. The Cult was not the sort of group that kept all its goods in the shop-window; you had to be with them for a while before you’d get anything like a full picture of what they taught.
As I discussed in the previous post, The Cult taught that teenagers are a creation of the modern world, and that parents who raise their children “properly” can avoid having them go through teenagehood. The Cult also taught that the public school system was fundamentally ungodly, and that it would pollute any child who went through it. Therefore, parents who are at all serious about having their kids grow up Muslims would not send their kids to public school.
In the ’80’s and ’90’s, other conservative Muslim circles in the region I lived also had varying degrees of distrust of the public school system, and several conservative organizations had started their own “Islamic schools.” Most of these Islamic schools operated much like any public school, with the addition of classes in Arabic and Islam, as well as holding school prayers and (often) having a strict dress code, along with some degree of gender segregation. (They also had much more limited budgets than any public school, and the teachers were typically poorly paid—and not always qualified.)
But still. These Islamic schools taught subjects such as English, math, science and geography the same way that the public school system did, and often even used the same textbooks. Those who had founded those schools wanted their kids to be able to go on to “mainstream” universities and study engineering or medicine, after all, and they didn’t see any reason why an “Islamic” school would teach any “secular” subject any differently than any other school would.
That was not how The Cult saw the issue at all.
As far as The Cult was concerned, the whole way that public schools taught every subject was completely wrong, because it was based on godless secular assumptions of how the world works and what human life is all about. So, it wasn’t good enough for us to send our kids to Islamic schools (even if we had been able to afford to do so—which we couldn’t). Islamic schools (we were taught) are little different from public schools, and our children’s faith would be undermined there by the curriculum, as well as by contact with other children from homes where the parents weren’t as practicing as we were—or who (horror of horrors) had spent a few years attending public school before being sent to Islamic school. Then our kids would be corrupted by them.
What The Cult ultimately aimed to do (and did succeed in doing) was to establish its own school, in which everything was taught in accordance with the leaders’ views. But until that happened, what were we parents supposed to do? The answer we were given was to homeschool, and we did.
This was in the early ’90’s, when almost no Muslims in our area homeschooled. Not only did hardly any Muslims back then homeschool no matter how conservative they were, but most were adamantly opposed to the very idea. After all, how could parents teach their kids every subject adequately? How would the kids ever manage to get into university, or get a job, or learn to deal with people who weren’t like them? How would they become properly functioning members of society?
In search of moral support (as well as arguments to silence our detractors), I read John Holt and a few other books whose titles I forget now. And then, armed with sound-bites about the amount of time wasted in the average classroom, schoolyard bullying, and self-directed learning, I plunged into homeschooling my first child.
Of course, the sound-bites weren’t the real reason I was homeschooling. The sound-bites were intended to provide rational-sounding justifications for what was really a religious decision.
A decision that I had made on the basis of the opinions of a few men who were neither teachers nor even parents—all that they knew about education came from having worked as volunteers with Muslim youth for several years. Basically, they had been appalled by the lack of Islamic knowledge and interest in practicing Islam “properly” among most of those youth, who had been educated in public schools. The leaders of The Cult attributed most of the problems of those youth to their public school educations, as well as the fact that some of them came from families that didn’t “practice Islam properly.” It was then that these men began to dream of a way to educate Muslim children, from babyhood on up, in a way that would insulate them from the “corruptions” of the modern world.
Looking back, I am really horrified that I made such an important decision on such a ridiculously flimsy basis. Those men were convinced that they knew what they were doing, of course… but why did I believe them? Why didn’t I realize that I was basically offering up my children as guinea pigs in their social experiment??
Several factors, I guess:
First of all, I myself had hated school most of the time. While I mostly got good grades (except in math), I was bored out of my mind. I would tune out in class, and read books that interested me under my desk instead—and then get in trouble when I got caught. One teacher attempted to deal with this by deciding that I belonged in an “enrichment class”, which didn’t go at all well either (I found that boring too). 😦
I didn’t have much in the way of social skills, and had a way of saying what I thought without thinking it through first. Those were the days when it was assumed that socially awkward or big-mouth kids would eventually learn how to behave appropriately because other kids would shun or bully them. I was bullied, and was told that it was all my fault. Apparently, having my mother take the side of the bully against me was supposed to teach me how to interact socially with others.
What it actually taught me is that books are much more fun than people. Books were my means to escape into other, more pleasant worlds, and I escaped as often as possible. Which was what parents and teachers apparently found very alarming. They thought that I was losing my grasp of reality.
I always had my nose in a book—which of course led to more social exclusion and incessant teasing, as well as to teachers trying to make me socialize with other kids by confiscating my books. That was shaming. At one point in fourth grade, I was strictly forbidden to read any fiction, and both my parents and teachers would take away any that I had. But I didn’t let that stop me—I continued to get hold of books, smuggle them home, and read them on the sly. In the end, they had to lift the fiction ban, because it wasn’t working.
So, when I looked back at my own school memories as a young parent, there wasn’t much that was positive to remember. Sure, I had really enjoyed playing in school band when I was in high school, and being in the Library Club (natch). But most of my memories of school involved boredom, bullying, feeling as though I didn’t belong anywhere, being picked last for any team in gym class, and saying the wrong thing (and then realizing, too late, that I had put my foot in my mouth yet again, and that everybody thought I was an idiot). A lot of what I had learned and still remembered wasn’t from any textbook or classroom exercise—it was from reading on my own.
Second, mistrust of the public school system was in the air in the conservative Muslim circles that I moved in. There was a lot of talk about the need to monitor what your kids were learning at public school, as well as why Muslim parents ought to take their kids out of sex ed, coed gym and music classes, and not allow them (especially not the girls) to go on overnight school trips. There was also a lot of talk about how to help your teenage daughter work up the nerve to wear hijab to school. (This was back in the ’80’s and early ’90’s, when only a minority of Muslim girls or women where I was living at that time wore hijab.)
Listening to all that sort of thing, I remembered how alienated I had felt throughout elementary and high school, and felt deeply sorry for any Muslim kids whose parents were set to take that sort of advice. I had had an unpleasant time at school in many ways, but at least I hadn’t been wearing distinctive clothing, or been pulled out of classes for religious reasons. If I had, then I would have been teased and shunned and bullied even more than I was. There was no way that I wanted to put my own kids through anything like that.
And third—I really believed that if my kids went to public school, then they would lose their faith. And that prospect absolutely terrified me. (cont.)