On Tuesday, the Washington Post published a feature about Christina and Aaron Beall, parents who have abandoned the Christian homeschool movement. The piece is carefully reported and beautifully rendered, and the right wing will either ignore it or find a way to dismiss it. As the Bealls appear in the Post, they’re thoughtful and compassionate parents who choose public education because it’s the best option for their children. That decision causes a rift with their own parents, who believe the Bealls have betrayed their most precious values. To the right, the Bealls can only ever be failures. Many conservative parents enroll their children in public school — Moms for Liberty would not enjoy the traction it does were matters otherwise — but the Bealls belonged to a vanguard. As the Post points out, they were the Joshua generation, raised away from secular temptations so they could one day reclaim the nation for God. Power was their birthright.
Instead, they’ve set themselves upon a more complicated path. It’s one I know well. The Bealls and I are roughly the same age, and I too belonged to the Joshua generation, though my parents appear to be less extreme than their own. Even so, my education was a haphazard affair. My parents homeschooled me for seven years. I also spent two years in a fundamentalist Christian school and three in public school before heading off to a conservative Evangelical college. Like the Bealls, I have rejected the Christian homeschool movement and its political goals. If we were once the Joshua generation, we have since become something much harder to define.
That ambiguity is not what our parents hoped for us. Yet no parent, however controlling, can fend off independence forever. Self-determination is the inheritance of age. A child comes to understand their parents not as the titanic figures of their youth but as people with foibles and pains of their own. That process is uncomfortable for all involved, but it is inevitable, and it can have political implications, too. Indoctrination is heady, but it doesn’t always stick.
I don’t know how common it is for people to leave this subculture as adults. My social circle is not a reliable source of data: It is full of friends who have left either the Christian homeschool movement or the broader conservative world. Some of us grew up in homes characterized by abuse and neglect, but not all. Most are liberal or leftist, but not all. Michael Farris, who coined the term Joshua generation and founded the Homeschool Legal Defense Association before working for the Alliance Defending Freedom, has his own theories. He blames a fraction of homeschooling parents for their extremism. “I view this as the fringe of the fringe,” he told the Post. “And every kid that I know that has lashed out at home schooling came out of this.”
In blaming parents, Farris absolves himself. The truth is that parents like those of the Bealls are making the most out of a world he helped build. The Homeschool Legal Defense Association steadfastly opposes any attempt to regulate homeschooling, which means that families have broad leeway to do what they like to their children. Child abuse is illegal, but in isolated families, it often goes undetected. “It’s specifically a system that is set up to hide the abuse, to make them invisible, to strip them of any capability of getting help. And not just in a physical way,” Christina Beall explained to the Post. “At some point, you become so mentally imprisoned you don’t even realize you need help.”
Christina Beall’s husband, Aaron, knows that well. His parents, like mine, practiced corporal punishment. The Post said he endured something he called “killer bee” spankings, “when the rod was used against his bare skin; his efforts to obey the order to remain immobile as he was hit — all these sensations and emotions seeped into his bones, creating a deep conviction that those who fail to obey authority pay an awful price.” The right would have us believe that all parents know best. That is the central maxim of groups like Moms for Liberty, and it is equally central to Christian homeschooling and to the parental-rights movement writ large. But once you’ve been hit by your parents, you may start to ask questions. The answers lead outward, to the world you were taught to distrust and conquer.
The world, defined as a free public sphere, is worth defending from its enemies. Christian homeschooling often sequesters its children in their homes, but its goals are not purely isolationist. Homeschooling advocates like Farris sought power and authority, and that is where they overlap with the ascendant parental-rights movement. Both seek to rearrange the country in their image. That effort inflicts damage — on its child soldiers, on the communities they seek to marginalize, and on democracy. “People who think the public schools are indoctrinating don’t know what indoctrination is. We were indoctrinated,” said Aaron Beall. “It’s not even comparable.” Let it end with the Joshua Generation.