Monday, January 21, 2008


“Lack of Supervision Noted in Deaths of Home-Schooled
Published: January 12, 2008

Ten states and the District of Columbia, where Banita M. Jacks was charged on Thursday with four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of her four daughters, have no regulations regarding home schooling, not even the requirement that families notify the authorities that they are educating their children at home.

The lack of supervision of the home-schooling process, some experts say, may have made it easier last year for Ms. Jacks to withdraw her children from school and the prying eyes of teachers, social workers and other professionals who otherwise might have detected signs of abuse and neglect of the girls.

Instead, the children, ages 5 to 17, slipped through the cracks in multiple systems, including social services, education and law enforcement. Their decomposed bodies were discovered earlier this week by United States marshals serving eviction papers on the troubled family.”

This story got me musing about whether this nation is becoming “feral” in the way domesticated animals that escape from human households are “feral,” meaning that they have gone wild, meaning that they have escaped human supervision and the uses of the culture which they were meant to serve. This particular case was pretty clearly due to mental illness on the part of the mother which would have been addressed if she hadn’t managed to slip out of the main civilizing influence in our culture -- now that the church is pushed away -- leaving the public school in that role.

Subcultures -- including church-based ones -- have managed to change the laws in most states so that they not only can keep their children at home but are not required to meet any standards, whether it’s making sure the kids can read and figure or acquainting them with the shared history of the nation. The justification for this is both that the mainstream culture is far too rank and violent for children, and that the mainstream culture keeps butting in. Shadowing and justifying these positions is the idea that people “own” their children. They “make” them so they have the right to “use” them. Of course, this is dressed in much nicer rhetoric about parental rights.

But it is certainly an echo of our understanding of domestic animals: I “own” them, they are for my own “uses” and therefore only my own “business.” Everyone else can butt out. And if an animal normally kept as domestic (pigs, goats, cats, dogs, horses) manages to escape ownership, then it is feral. It has NO use, it is unowned and therefore can be grabbed by anyone -- animals cannot belong to themselves. If they have no use, they are taking up valuable resources and should be eliminated.

We used to think of Indians that way -- no nation (ownership), no uses, no self-determination, therefore expendable. Luckily, Indians paid no attention to that. Because “feral” people or animals are not any of those things, their lives are simply patterned in some other way than the dominant culture, maybe good and maybe bad. Illegal immigrants, alcoholics, religious dissidents, non-English speakers, hogs gone wild, and urban dog packs all devise or evolve their own culture -- they’re still organized, just not to the purposes or liking of the authorities.

Feral cat populations, for instance, turn out to have their territories and pecking orders all marked out. If they are removed, sterilized, and returned, they go on with this quite regularized little mini-society. They don’t allow strange cats to move in and they may kill extra kittens. They remain an ecology. But on islands where cats are brought de nouveau, in order to control mice, they become exterminators of birds. And, WAIT! We WANTED those birds!!

Usually a community has a number of “cultures” in layers and interlocking puzzle pieces. Some, known and tolerated, do the dirty work -- like “wetbacks” hoeing row crops in California, or the criminal work like supplying illegal drugs. The criminal element relieves pressure from needs not met in polite society. I’ve often suggested that the “gang” culture on the reservation, which enforces its will with violence -- even death -- could be eliminated in a week if there were money for proper law enforcement. But it suits some people’s uses to keep the reservation a dangerous, disreputable place. (People selling alcohol and drugs, for instance, or simply hiding behind the confusion.) Almost every family has a feral hostage to the existing system.

In a strange way, the college-educated person who leaves either small white ag town or reservation resort town also is “feral” when he or she returns -- no longer obedient to the rules of the community and therefore a source of anxiety if not fear. They are regularly squeezed out of local ecologies. A gay or lesbian must come home to secrecy. During WWII it was the German-heritage people who had to hide their origins -- except for the Jews, who had to hide in Germany. Whether or not such things are despicable and unjust, they represent the loss of a lot of ideas and energy.

I’m a Sunday devotee of the short stories read aloud on “Selected Shorts” which this week included the title story of the book called,
“St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves: Stories” by Karen Russell. (Review at: It’s a fabulist version of the experience of having to give up one culture (it’s fabulist because the girls are portrayed as real wolves) and learn another, which is something we all have to go through even if it’s only moving from a child’s culture to that of an adult. “Missionizing,” converting, sophisticating, educating -- this story is a brilliant illustration of the grief and inevitability. It’s a bookend for that fabulist and beloved story about cheerleaders out West gone feral, living joyfully in the wild where their cheers can be heard faintly in the distance.

It strikes me that it’s this painful and often clumsily done change that causes so many people to have sympathy for a family culture like home-schooling. Or maybe it’s that our culture is doing such a poor job of using education to enable and lift people. Ironically, the example of what education COULD be often comes from youngsters home-schooled by properly prepared and energetic parents. Around here it is often the home-schooled child who comes out at the top of the national exams and the mainstream classroom domesticated kids who are left behind.

So are we becoming a feral nation? The mainstream countries of the globe seem to think so.


Anonymous said...

Living mostly in Paris, I try to avoid dealing with the French around
American issues. I cannot explain Georges le Bush and I refuse to go
there. The French themselves can barely explain their own leadership.
The eyes roll to the sky. We all shrug. They would "get" this feral
ideology. Many people in the Parisian suburbs at one time left other
cultures but not for the one they live in which is le marginal
culture if there ever was one. They came to France to live in France
but where they actually live is a no man's land of little embrace. I
try to avoid rooms filled with le French. This is not always
possible. I was taken hostage recently by several French gentlemen
who set me down in a chair in a library where I was surrounded by
inquiring minds. Who wanted to know what the chances were that
Georges le Bush would pull a palace coup and remain in office. Would
he not refuse to go quietly. "He will be let out to pasture," I tried
to explain. The concept doesn't translate well. So I had to get on my
hands and knees pretending to be a horse. The French love charades.
But it still didn't translate. Until I morphed my act and became a
whining jackass, and then they got it. -- Tim Barrus

Matt Mullenix said...

Mary is it silly of me to ask if you "for" or "against" homeschooling in this piece?

And is your analogy of "owned" children to "owned" animals meant in earnest?

What about the main civilizing influence of our culture--you say it was the church, but it might have been the economy (the former, agrarian one) or more precisely, the smallest unit of that economy, the family.

Before the church, there was the family.

It seems to me, as a parent in the modern economy, that I should choose carefully which experts and professionals have access to and influence over my kids. Advanced degrees aside, how much do they love my children, and how much love is necessary?

In the earlier economy there was simply no such professional class to govern my family. Care and concern for individual children fell to parents and other family members, for better or worse. That used to be a good enough standard, back when kids raised in such homes could count on a livelihood within their own community. "For better or worse," incidentally, used to be the standard we applied to marriage, and for the same reason.

Homeschooling in the context of the former economy was simply direct transmission of culture and values within the families and communities the culture supported.

This model may be outmoded by the new national and global economy (and its ranks of professional overseers), but is it dangerous in the sense Jane Gross suggests? Is the primacy of parenthood dangerous to children?

If in fact parents now require "multiple systems" of oversight "including social services, education and law enforcement," is there any point today in parenthood?

This, honestly, is my question: Are my wife and I raising children or simply feeding new consumers until they are fully ambulatory and can consume for themselves?

If we are raising children, then we are raising human beings, responsible to themselves and to their loved ones. Otherwise we are raising tools responsible only to the economy---one of very questionable equity, legitimacy, or longevity. And one that does not love my children at all.

My kids are not homeschooled. My wife and I both work outside the home in order to pay for their educations. (Another irony is that my wife is a trained educator herself.)

We could school them at home but have decided, perhaps by default, to let the economic system they will most likely live in educate our kids. It is after all, into our own class or better that they will grow. The prevailing economy of our time will likely benefit them in strictly material terms.

What it will do to their chances for happiness, self-fulfillment and meaning---what it will do for their souls is very much in question. If I thought about that a lot more than I do, I might also pull them out of school. But then they would grow up outside the only social context I have to give them.

Unlike those who homeschool for religious reasons, my wife and I have no strong religious convictions and no like-minded community of support. The economy has already split us apart from all that. To those that still have such conviction and such support, however kooky and unconventional they seem to modern professionals, my hat goes off.

prairie mary said...

Is it silly of me to ask if you "for" or "against" homeschooling in this piece? YES.

And is your analogy of "owned" children to "owned" animals meant in earnest? YES.

What about the main civilizing influence of our culture-- the family. GONE.

Before the church, there was the family.

The purpose of universal state-sponsored education is to create functioning and loyal citizens. Period.

Prairie Mary

Matt Mullenix said...

By "family" I mean nothing cryptic or nuanced: parents, children, grandparents, assorted cousins and uncles, etc. Multiply that group by half a dozen or so and you would have a community almost anyone would have recognized from the dawn of mankind to just a couple decades ago.

That family (and that community) was more than a group of relatives, it was an economic engine providing for most or all of its own needs and exporting some to others.

It may be "gone," as you say (at least in "mainstream culture"), but plenty of references and remnants exist, and it could come back. My prediction is that it must come back. It is the only sustainable lifestyle for human beings.

You contend that some people (homeschoolers in your example) believe that children are owned and are made to be used. No parent believes that.

The facts of parenthood are so much more complex. Ownership, as a concept, doesn't even scrape the surface of it. Ownership implies none of the weight of responsibility children pose, nothing of the husbandry, nothing of the hope they embody.

I own my car; I do not hope that it makes something of itself someday. I do not hope it finds love and carries on my values and experience to its offspring. I maintain it, minimally, but I do not husband my car. If it dies, I can get another one just like it or better.

I wouldn't need to explain to another parent that the same is not true of children.

Children are people (not machines and not tools of the "mainstream" economy). They are irreplaceable and unique. You get only one chance to do right by them. The weight of that responsibility dawns eventually on all people who choose to have children and to keep them. Those who do not may never understand it.

All of this I would say is true, if in a less vital sense, of our relationship with domesticated animals. You made the wrong analogy in assuming that children and animals are alike because both are “made to be used.” Children and animals are made to be loved---not in the flimsy Hallmark conception, but in the way that God made and loves us. It is a great and terrible love, one of never ending responsibility.

My animals are not owned objects any more than my children are to me. My husbandry of (and hopes for) them are of a similar shape, just smaller in scope, as are mine for my children.

The animals are alive, for one--not machines. Moreover they are members of the family, no less dedicated to it or benefitting from it than our children, and no less in danger of being drawn away from it without proper care.

It may be possible see an animal as a machine just as it’s possible see a person as one. I would say that neatly characterizes the value system of today's economy, the one we share with other “mainstream countries.”

To reject that value system is not necessarily to fall through the cracks of social support; it could be a means of slipping its grasp. And if the role of universal state-sponsored schooling is to create loyal functionaries to that value system, then for some it will become morally imperative to resist it!

The freedom to make that choice is still, thankfully, a cornerstone American principle.

prairie mary said...

Matt, your world-view is so totally different from mine that there is no way for us to even argue. You are in a different place, of a different generation, of completely different experience.

Prairie Mary

Ronni said...

I fear we are raising a generation in which many members do not have a conscience. There are too many instances like the one you mention with the mother taking her children out of school and causing their deaths. Men killing their wives or girlfriends when pregnant. Older children preying on younger. Pedophiles. Too many of them for me to think that each is an aberration.

Children do not come with a conscience pre-installed. The need to be retro-fitted. That has been society's job, starting with family, and proceeding outward to church and school and police. Because women no longer feel that raising their children is the most important thing they do, they delegate this responsibility to others--day care, scouts, sports coaches--and the result is that kids learn political correctness (which is mostly a crock, IMO--and kids can see that, too), but not ethics or morals. Such parents enable their children's bad behaviour and try to get them out of trouble instead of raising kids who don't get into it in the first place.

Personally, I think we are going to hell in a handbasket, and I wish I had the popcorn concession.