Field of Science

Homescooled children excels at critical thinking?

The perils of homeschooling is hotly debated in the blogoshphere at the moment (and all the time), and here is a good article to get a feel for what the problems is: the billion dollar homeschool textbook industry is dominated by books with a Christian slant, which most notably do not present evolutionary theory correctly.
Christian-based materials dominate a growing home-school education market that encompasses more than 1.5 million students in the U.S. And for most home-school parents, a Bible-based version of the Earth's creation is exactly what they want. Federal statistics from 2007 show 83 percent of home-schooling parents want to give their children "religious or moral instruction."
One issue is whether homeschooled children are being "brainwashed" (I put that in quotes because I do feel it is a very strong term for what happens, though not wholly inappropriate), or if they actually learn to think critically. The two seem to be opposites, I think. If anyone wants to try to make the argument that they're not, I'd be willing to listen.

But, if five out of six (or, 555 out of 666) homeschooled children are homeschooled by evangelical Christians, then it seems unlikely that homeschooled children as one group will be free from religious indoctrination (is that better than "brainwashing"?).
The textbook delivers a religious ultimatum to young readers and parents, warning in its "History of Life" chapter that a "Christian worldview ... is the only correct view of reality; anyone who rejects it will not only fail to reach heaven but also fail to see the world as it truly is."

When the AP asked about that passage, university spokesman Brian Scoles said the sentence made it into the book because of an editing error and will be removed from future editions.
Editing error? That must be publisher speak for "changing our minds when we're found out".

A few links to find more blogging about homeschooling:

Creationism, education, and the state
In the comments here you'll find an egregious example of a homechooled adult who thinks he and other homeschooled are critical thinkers extraordinaire.

Evolution and home-schooling redux
Jerry Coyne's blog - Jerry is in the middle of the debate.

Christian Mother Blog Button
Christian blogger on homeschooling.

Update 3/17:
Jerry Coyne has a post on a revealing discussion with Michael McHugh who sells homeschooling materials.
McHugh’s suggestion for how to educate your kids involves choosing which worldview suits them best, and then selecting the “facts” that fit this worldview. I am not making this up: he says it explicitly.


  1. FWIW, I can say from the experience of being raised in the Mormon church that it is possible for someone to cultivate reasonably good critical thinkings skills, while cordoning off a certain set of beliefs as off-limits. Not that most of the Mormons I met had any better critical thinking skills than your average person off the street, but some did, and I observed people who managed to maintain that ability in regards to secular topics while also believing some of the most ridiculous things.

    Of course, not everybody can do this -- myself included -- so cultivating critical thinking skills in parallel with "brainwashing" is always going to be precarious. Long before I started to seriously question Mormon beliefs, I was already getting strong indicators that I did not belong in this community, because of my desire to turn an analytical eye to even the most sacred of beliefs -- at that time, not to criticize them, but just to understand them. This was not welcome, even among Mormons whose thinking skills were reasonable when applied outside of religion.

    At that time, Mormonism as a whole was pretty ambivalent about the whole Creationism/evolution thing (my understanding is that this has changed as the culture wars heated up, and most Mormons are now staunch Creationists -- even though I think the official position of the church is still a non-position). So I was not faced with having to reconcile a belief in a fanciful creation story with what I was hearing in science class. I was able to accept the latter without reservation. Thus, most of the cognitive dissonance of maintaining Mormon beliefs was of the moral and philosophical variety, rather than the scientific. So I have no personal experience in how this "restrained critical thinking" might function in an anti-scientific context. I suspect it can still work, though...

    Surely, though, it goes without saying that no matter how sharp one's critical thinking skills, corralling them off from a particular set of topics significantly blunts their ability to make sense of the world. Cultivation of critical thinking and brainwashing work at cross-purposes, and increasing one will always detract from the other. But it is possible to strike an unholy balance between the two, i.e. brainwashing does not imply a complete lack of critical thinking.

  2. James, thanks for sharing your story.

    Did you experience other children at that time who were not able to separate the two worlds, and who then did weren't able to apply critical thinking skills outside of religion?

  3. It's a difficult question to answer. I lost track of most everybody I knew from that time as soon as I moved out of the house, and have mostly actively avoided encountering Mormons (other than my parents and sister), particularly ones that I know from my past. But that's a whole other story... In any case, I'm not sure where most people ended up.

    I recently got a Facebook friend request from one of my old peers from church who also had a penchant for analytic thought, but was also a hardcore dittohead at the time. He's still a Republican (but an "Obama Republican", whatever that means), but he also identifies himself on his Facebook page as a "committed secularist".

    I'm trying to think if anybody I knew comes close to fitting the category you are asking about... I definitely know that there were some reasonably intelligent kids who nonetheless displayed a remarkable mental inflexibility -- but I met lots of non-religious kids like that in public school, too (critical thinking is a skill that Homo Sapiens has never been particularly good at). It's difficult to say to what extent they were "just like that", and how much it was exacerbated by practicing a worldview that only allowed critical thinking within a limited arena.

    I guess I can't say I knew anybody who couldn't reconcile the two worlds and so chose to abandon the rational one. On the internet, I have heard of this happening to evangelicals here and there if I recall correctly, but it seems like that is a very rare outcome. It seems like the vast majority of people fall into one of three categories: 1) poor critical thinking skills (whether religious or not); 2) decent or even good critical thinking skills, but with certain things "off limits" to questioning; or 3) sufficient critical thinking skills to make them abandon religion. I think you are asking about a tremendously rare fourth category. Though I suspect it does happen from time to time.

    Oh, side note... the guy I was referring to, the "committed secularist"... he came from a family with either 7 or 8 kids (I think they had an eighth after I lost contact) who were homeschooled until I think 8th grade, after which they were sent to private school. Dunno what that means, but it seems apropos to the discussion.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS