Thursday, January 24, 2013

An Interview with Grown Homeschooler Amanda Scott

I recently had the opportunity to interview Amanda Scott, a grown homeschooler from Alabama who is also an atheist.  I met Amanda, who is nineteen, on the Freedom From Religion Foundation Facebook page, where Amanda is known for her extensive knowledge of First Amendment caselaw.  Amanda is also the administrator of a Facebook Group called "The Wall of Separation," dedicated to the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state, the Framers' intent, and Supreme Court jurisprudence.

Did you homeschool from early childhood on, or did you have some school experiences along the way?

AS: I attended public school until the fourth grade.

How did you and/or your parents arrive at the decision to homeschool?

AS: My parents decided to homeschool me because of my health.  I had a health problem that required me to go to the doctor at least three times a week which conflicted with my school schedule.  But my parents saw that I did better at home than at school, so they decided to continue to homeschool me for the rest of my school years.

Did your parents have any particular homeschooling philosophy or approach?  Did you ever use a formal curriculum?

AS: At first my parents used a formal homeschooling curriculum with homeschool textbooks, but later on they used an online curriculum and I did most of my studying online on various educational websites.  On a side note, I remember my first homeschool textbooks were published by a Christian company and included a Bible verse question at the end of each chapter. 

Were you raised in a freethinking home, or did you abandon religious ideas somewhere along the way?

AS: I was raised without any religion.  My parents never baptized me, took me to church, or sent me to Sunday school or vacation Bible school.  We never read the Bible.  I am not even sure we owned a Bible!  We celebrated Christmas and Easter as secular holidays.  We always decorated our house with trees, garland, wreaths, mistletoe, Santa Claus, elves, reindeer, and snowmen, but we never put up a nativity scene, an angel, or even a star signifying the Christian origins of Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ.

However, when I became a teenager, I became interested in learning about religion, and I read the New Testament, the Torah, the Qur'an, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, the Tao Te Ching, the Analects, the Satanic Bible and a number of other religious texts.  But I was not interested in converting to any religion.  I am still not interested in converting to any religion now.  Religion is not for me. 

Some might find it hard to believe that a teenager would do so much reading if it wasn't assigned by a teacher.   How would you respond to those who argue that teenagers need formal incentives (rewards, sanctions, etc.) to learn?

AS: I think, to quote John Holt, that the human animal is a learning animal.   Children are naturally interested in learning.  But when you put children into the traditional public or private schooling system, teach them for eight hours a day, and then assign them homework and prepare them for tests, they lose their natural interest in learning once they leave school.   Fortunately I haven't lost my natural interest in learning.

And how did your parents respond to your researching various religious traditions?

AS: My parents encouraged me to learn about religion.  My mother took me every week to our local Barnes & Noble store and let me browse the Religion & Spirituality section and select a new book on religion.  I recall one interesting experience where I was looking for a copy of the Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey but couldn't find one and my mother asked the Barnes & Noble sales managers if they had any copies left in stock.  Their reaction was priceless!  I became a regular at the book store until it closed down two years ago.  Now I buy all of my books online through websites that sell used textbooks and ex-library books. 

Did you ever find that when you identified yourself as a homeschooler, people assumed you were Christian?

AS: Yes they did, and they still do.  When I tell people I was homeschooled, they assume I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household where I was taught that Jesus rode on the dinosaurs, but it was the exact opposite.
You are very interested in, and knowledgeable about, constitutional law.  When and how did this interest develop?

AS: Last year I discovered the Freedom From Religion Foundation after a local friend reported the city of Bay Minett's "Operation Restore Our Community" program which would have allowed misdemeanor offenders to choose between going to jail or attending church services for a year.  The Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other national civil rights groups intervened and put a stop (or at least a halt) to the unconstitutional program.  I became very interested in learning more about the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.  I began researching the Supreme Court Religion Clause cases like McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 (1948),  Abington Township School District v. Schempp (consolidated with Murray v. Curlett), 374 U.S. 203 (1963), and Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962).  I also researched Circuit Court cases. 

Unfortunately, because I am not a law student (yet, anyway), I do not have a subscription to professional legal search engines like WestLaw or LexisNexis.  I use which allows me to search through legal documents including Supreme Court cases and Circuit Court up to about the 1930s.  For the State Court cases predating the 1930s, like State ex rel Weiss v. District Board 76 Wis. 177 (1890) or Board of Education of Cincinnati v. Minor, 23 Ohio St. 211 (1872), I use Google Books which allows me to search through digitally archived copies of case law reports like the South Eastern Reporter or the Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Ohio.  I also bought a used copy of The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation and learned how to cite court cases properly, quote judicial opinions, omit quotations, and use signals.  Because I was homeschooled/unschooled, I learned how to teach myself without a formal teacher.  But I understand that I need to have a formal university education and I am hoping to enroll in paralegal studies next year and apply for a legal internship with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the next couple of years.

You clearly seem to have learned to locate and apply information for yourself.  Are there any other ways in which you see homeschooling as having been advantageous?

AS: Yes.  My parents gave me access to the Internet as young as eight years old.  At a very young age, I developed the skills to efficiently use search engines to find information.  I also developed the skills to create websites by coding HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and create graphics in Photoshop which enabled me to open my own fansite for my favorite band at the age of thirteen.  I think being homeschooled has been advantageous to me because I developed skills that some people have to go to school for.

What, if anything, has been the downside to homeschooling for you, as compared to conventional schooling?

AS: I think the only downside to being homeschooled is anxiety.  I am anxious about going to college after being homeschooled for so many years.  I will have to adapt to sitting in a classroom next to other students listening to a teacher again.  However, my anxiety is only in a school setting.  I don't have any anxiety in any other social setting.

What was it like--and is it like today--being a nonbeliever in Alabama? 

AS: My family and I have done very well in Alabama.  Religion and politics are not topics that come up in our everyday lives.  When someone asks me where I go to church, I just politely respond that I don't go to church.  If someone hands me a religious pamphlet, I just politely accept it and say thank you.  I don't discuss my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) or political views with strangers because it's none of their business.

What do you think are the most important qualities, practices, habits, etc. that secular homeschooling parents should model to their children?

AS: I think Dale McGowan's book Parenting Beyond Belief is a good place to start.  I think the most important quality parents can teach their children is charity, regardless of whether they are religious or secular.  My parents taught me to be charitable by example.  My mother and father would always do random acts of charity, like helping the person in line at the grocery store pay for their groceries when they came up short, or stopping by the side of the road and giving someone a ride when their car broke down, or letting someone stay over at our house when they had nowhere else to go.  When I was a little girl I didn't understand why they did the things they do, but now I understand why they did them.  Charity knows no religion. 

I want to thank Amanda for sharing her experiences and insights, which I hope are as interesting (and encouraging!) to other secular and unschooling/homeschooling parents as they are to me. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Unschooling-Atheism Intersection

While What to Tell the Neighbors was still in the conceptual stage, I wondered if it might be problematic to focus on both unschooling and atheism.  After all, not all unschoolers are atheists, and certainly most atheists are not unschoolers.  

Yet for me the two are linked in some important ways. 

First, both unschooling and atheism are significant departures from the typical, not only here in western Kentucky, but in most parts of the United States.  Unschooling atheist families may be viewed as doubly odd and thus must be extra thick-skinned when facing criticism.  Often, they must make a concerted effort to find the support they need to sustain them.  Blogs can be an important part of that support--both for writers and readers!

Second, successful unschooling (generally defined as an approach to homeschooling in which children learn without pre-designed curricula, grading, standardized tests, and other conventions of traditional schooling) requires parents who are convinced that children learn better from love than from fear, from being allowed to explore than from being forced, and from formulating questions than from memorizing someone else's answers.  Thus, unschoolers tend to be people whose worldview is not fundamentalist anything.  While not all of the unschoolers I've encountered identify as atheist, many do identify as atheist, agnostic, humanist, freethinker, skeptic, etc. 

A few months ago, I "met" (in that virtual Facebook way) a young woman who is both an atheist and a grown homeschooler.  Her name is Amanda Scott, she is nineteen years old, and she never fails to dazzle me with her knowledge of constitutional law.  In addition to being an active participant on the Freedom from Religion Foundation's Facebook page, Amanda is the administrator of a Facebook Group called "The Wall of Separation," which is a great source of information on Supreme Court jurisprudence related to the First Amendment.  I thought it would be interesting to interview Amanda to see how her experiences learning outside of a traditional school environment influenced her atheism, and vice versa.  Amanda agreed to the interview, which will be appearing soon as my next post.  If you are an unschooling or homeschooling parent who is raising your child without religion, you won't want to miss this one.