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Robinson Crusoe, Home School Hero

Margaret Eustace France

Focus on the Family and Education

Focus on the Family was founded as a non-denominational evangelical Christian ministry whose stated mission is "to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible by nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide" ("About Us"). While Focus on the Family has historically presented itself as countering mainstream social movements as part of the faith-based parallel universe I allude to above, the organization has had a profound impact on mainstream American politics. James Dobson, the influential founder and, until 2009, chairman of Focus on the Family has, with his organization, been cited as a major factor in the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush, in which two of every five votes for Bush came from evangelical Christians ("The Triumph of the Religious Right"). Dobson and Focus on the Family are also credited with igniting the national political career of Sarah Palin, as Dobson withheld support for the 2008 Republican Presidential ticket until her vice-presidential nomination (Malcolm). The catalyst for Focus on the Family's widespread political and cultural influence was Where's Dad? — a 1981 short film designed to increase white-collar fathers' involvement in the lives of their children, a message still at the heart of Focus on the Family's "media ministry" (Gilgoff 24).

From its inception, Focus on the Family concerned itself with the installation of parents as the moral center of children's lives, a structure difficult to maintain if children divide their waking hours between home and school, as Dobson implies in Dare to Discipline (1970). Dobson's first book situates itself squarely opposite to "permissive" trends in parenting as represented by Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose Baby and Child Care has been issued in eight editions since 1946, selling over fifty million copies (Melson). As the title suggests, Dobson finds fault with Spock and his successors' abandonment of corporal punishment as a means of correcting behavior. In addition, Dobson's educational agenda is at least as direct as his domestic agenda. While the challenge to Spock is implicit, Dobson attacks progressive educator A.S. Neill methodically and by name throughout Dare to Discipline.7 Dobson presents Neill's theories and contradicts them point by point, concluding by encouraging his readers to "note how many elements of the new morality can be traced to the permissive viewpoint represented by Neill: God is dead; immorality is wonderful; nudity is noble; irresponsibility is groovy; disrespect and irreverence are fashionable; unpopular laws are to be disobeyed" (113). Dobson established himself as a public expert on family matters as an alternative to popular mainstream thinkers of the day, an oppositional relationship that would come to define Focus on the Family.

In contrast to Spock, Dobson formulates the nuclear family as a domestic version of biblical hierarchy, creating a "farmer-in-the-dell"-like chain of similes: the child is led by the mother as the mother is led by the father as the father is led by the Father. Mothers embrace their role in this hierarchy by responding swiftly and physically to children's defiance. Dobson advocates spankings for children who talk back, because "when a youngster tries this kind of stiff-necked rebellion, you had better take it out of him, and pain is a marvelous purifier" (27). Dobson details the physical punishments delivered by his own mother and the reassurance it gave him to know that incidental problems, like tardiness or poor time management, could be reasonably discussed, while challenges to authority would be settled by whatever object his mother found to strike him with, even a girdle (30). Eithne Johnson observes that Dobson encourages mothers to emulate his own as a means of empowerment within the strict domestic hierarchy. If mothers have, as Dobson presumes, the support of a husband and a broader Christian community, they can be confident in their ability to apply force in the home properly. Physical punishment manifests mothers' authority over their children tangibly and permanently, as Dobson's own recollections attest.

Dobson devotes nearly as much space to education as family management. The third and fourth of the book's seven chapters, "Discipline in the Classroom" and "The Barriers to Learning," are designed for educators as well as parents, and teachers are addressed throughout. After outlining techniques for increased harmony and productivity at school, Dobson seems to dismiss this possibility by devoting almost equal space to the dangers of public education. "Discipline Gone to Pot" begins with a litany of facts and bullet points illustrating the signs and varieties of drug abuse in public schools before launching into a harrowing second-person tale describing how the influence of Bill, a schoolmate, leads a middle-class sixteen-year-old down a seemingly inevitable path from casual drug abuse to heroin addiction. At the chapter's close, Dobson quotes a heroin addict: "'The doctor told my family it would have been better and indeed kinder if the person who first got me hooked on dope had taken a gun and blown my brains out, and I wish to God she had. My God, how I do wish it'" (217). By ending on this defeatist note rather than with the questions and answers that usually conclude each chapter of Dare to Discipline, Dobson characterizes drug addiction as a school-borne contagion without a cure — no space is necessary to qualify or explain. Dobson wavers in Dare to Discipline between two mutually exclusive messages. He encourages teachers to give the positive and negative reinforcement that complement the discipline he advocates in the home while simultaneously diminishing the moral potential of public schools and teachers.

Once he founded Focus on the Family, Dobson acted on the concerns enumerated in Dare to Discipline by aligning his organization with Christian home school activists and child development researchers Dr. Raymond and Dorothy Moore. Beginning in the early 1980s, Raymond Moore became a frequent guest on Dobson's popular radio show (Stevens 26). Focus on the Family's endorsement effectively disseminated Moore's conception of children as both unique and fragile. Unlike home school pioneers like John Holt, who found fault with public schools as authoritarian and hierarchical institutions, Moore felt that public schools were simply the wrong kind of authoritarian institution, with a dubious figure at the hierarchy's zenith. Rather than freeing children from the school's authority and allowing them to follow their own interests, as Holt prescribed, the Moores advocated shifting authority from the schools to the parents (Stevens 43–45). Their conception of children as vulnerable and schools as dangerous became more elaborate as the Christian home school movement expanded. Christian home school materials stigmatize public schools as sites of moral turpitude, referring to alarming but unverified statistics, such as "50 percent of [public school] girls will become pregnant out of wedlock before graduation day" (Stevens 51). While the Christian home school movement predates Focus on the Family, the organization has taken up the cause on both the personal and legislative levels. On the organization's official website, Dobson responds to a parent considering home schooling by noting that children should stay in a "protected environment," personalizing the advice by concluding that if he and his wife "were raising our children again, we would home school them" ("Ask Dr. Dobson").

For evangelical Christian political activists home schooling is only a part, though a significant one, of a larger cause, often formulated as parents' rights. Currently, Focus on the Family is coordinating with other evangelical Christian organizations to support a movement to add an amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing "the liberty of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children" (parentalrights.org). This coalition of evangelical Christians drafted the amendment in response to the near-ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2009, meant to protect children from abuse and secure their rights to express their own opinions. The convention, originally adopted by the UN in 1989, found little resistance in the vast majority of member nations. However, Focus on the Family saw this treaty as potentially infringing on parents' legal abilities to physically discipline children and, along with other lobbying groups, was successful in making the United States the only UN nation besides Somalia to reject the treaty (Mason 955). The parents' rights movement holds up Article 37a of the UN convention for particular scrutiny, which states "No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" ("Convention"). Parentalrights.org interprets this article as the end of a parent's prerogative to "administer reasonable spankings," an objection that reappears throughout their promotional materials ("Twenty Things you should Know"). This resistance to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child along with the continuing popularity of Dare to Discipline reveals the extent to which Focus on the Family's notions of educational autonomy are entangled with the idea that physical force, or a measure of violence, has a place in the home, a place that can be successfully moderated by parents without state interference. Robinson Crusoe and Farther Adventures may not seem unduly violent to an audience that openly defends its ability to mete out suitable punishment.
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