107: Child Liberation Theology w/ R.L. Stollar


21 min read

Podcast available here.

0:00:16.5 Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to episode 107 of our podcast at Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Before we get started, I want to let you know that this is brought to you by our supporters, three of whom are Skylar Primm, Marie Becker, and Matt Walker. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

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0:00:56.9 CM: In this podcast, we are joined by Dr. R L Stollar, a child and survivor advocate. Dr. Stollar is the author of an upcoming book, The Kingdom of Children, which reports on the issues and concerns of the evangelical homeschooling movement. Dr. Stollar, who was himself homeschooled, is an advocate of homeschooling, who is calling attention to the issues that many face in the system picking the concept of faith which is often juxtaposed with the practice of homeschooling. His work in child liberation theology, which you'll hear about shortly, centers the ideas of young people being leaders and their faith-based decisions. This is an interesting topic, because it blends together ideas that aren't commonplace and progressive that, although I am not personally religious, there is a fascinating connection between faith-based education, self-directed learning, critical pedagogy, and more that we'll explore in this podcast.

0:01:44.1 CM: As a side note, this podcast also features Thomas White. Thomas is our prior development director who accepted a new position after this podcast aired. Essentially, Thomas did his job so well with us that he accepted a full-time position doing development work, leading to a conflict of interest with the role he had with us part-time. We're sorry to see him go, but Thomas is writing a book on classical Christian education, which has a lot of overlap with the upcoming conversation.

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0:02:12.7 R. L. Stollar: I was homeschooled kindergarten through high school graduation. I personally had a generally positive experience, but I also saw a lot of abuse and neglect that my fellow peers experienced. So, that is what made me interested in advocating for homeschooled children. The longer version is that while being homeschooled in high school, I had the opportunity to travel around the country, teaching speech and debate to other homeschooled high schoolers, and that exposed me to all sorts of different subcultures and ideologies and practices within homeschooling. And so I saw pretty much everything, and saw just how far down the rabbit hole goes, really, in terms of how extreme and authoritarian the homeschooling world can be. And at the time, I was chalking it up to like the high-performance culture that debate kind of fosters a lot. There have been studies on that.

0:03:19.7 RS: But the more I heard from peers and the older I got, the more I saw that these patterns were transcending just that specific practice and started to see that these things were happening all over, and then connecting with other peers when I was an adult and seeing the same patterns, that's what helped me found Homeschoolers Anonymous, which is a website that went viral. It got millions of views, and it shared stories from hundreds of homeschoolers that experienced abuse and neglect. And that inspired me to want to go back to school. I got my Master's in Child Protection, which ultimately led me to child advocacy more and child liberation theology, which I know we'll talk about later.

0:04:08.9 Thomas White: Yeah, without getting into the gruesome war stories, I'm wondering if you could just elaborate a little bit on the kinds of abuse and neglect that happen in homeschooling.

0:04:21.5 RS: I mean, every sort of abuse you can imagine happens in there, but the patterns, there are some significant ones around physical abuse of children, especially corporal punishment. I'd say pretty much all the "parenting experts" in the homeschooling circles, they advocate for not just spanking, but very systematic and severe spankings that are meant to "break the will" of the child. You're having these messages that are coming from the very top of the homeschool power structures that are saying, "This is the correct way to discipline your kids," and so, you see a lot more physical abuse, I'd say, than you'd see in some other communities. You also have a denial, a very common denial, of the reality of mental health issues. So, children are going to be experiencing a lot of neglect regarding mental health issues, they're not going to be getting therapy or a psychiatric medication or whatever it may be. Parents don't believe those are real things, or they're the result of some sin inside the kid instead of being an actual, real disease.

0:05:36.7 TW: Yeah, and it's interesting that you mentioned it being a sin inside the kids. So, when you're talking about these homeschool communities, are these specifically religious homeschooling communities, or is this something that you see in secular ones as well?

0:05:51.6 RS: A lot of the things that I experienced are gonna be specific to evangelical homeschooling, which is a subset, it's not the entirety of homeschoolers, but it is the most significant subset. The statistics that I've seen are that between 90% to 94% of homeschoolers, pre-pandemic, obviously the pandemic has likely changed things in some significant ways regarding the demographics of homeschooling, but pre-pandemic, the numbers were 90% to 94% of homeschoolers are conservative Christians specifically. So, that's a pretty large portion, and at the same time, I also wanna give a shout-out to all the homeschoolers who are trying valiantly to do homeschooling a very different way and trying to empower children rather than break their wills like a lot of evangelical homeschoolers want to do.

0:07:00.0 CM: So, your work is based around really combating this and figuring out structural ways that essentially these abuses do not happen. Right now, are there any regulations regarding all of this, or is this just something that's like occurring and the parents essentially have the rights and we're trying to change how the laws work?

0:07:22.2 RS: So there's no federal laws whatsoever about homeschooling, so this is gonna based state by state, and there are a handful of states like Massachusetts, they tend to be the more liberal states, that have some oversight of homeschooling. But I would say the vast majority of states do not have any significant oversight of homeschooling. There, they won't have laws at all, or when they do have laws or requirements, there'll be different exemptions or carve-outs that essentially make the rules unenforceable. So, I would say there's really not any significant or impactful oversight at the moment. And in terms of what I would like to see, I would say I would divide that into three different categories.

0:08:17.4 RS: The first would be communal ones, so, this wouldn't necessarily have to be regulatory solutions. I think that it's important to the solutions to abuse and neglect in communities not just be regulatory, but they also need to be from the grassroots and also from the top down in terms of just who's in charge of the communities. So I think there needs to be community solutions to abuse and neglect, and those could be awareness campaigns being led by the major organizations, it could be requiring background checks for people to join an organization like HSLDA, the Home Schooling Legal Defense Association.

0:09:03.5 RS: And then there would be regulatory solutions, and I would divide those into two. One would be child protection, and then the other would be education. The child protection ones are the ones that I care about the most, and those would be things like requiring that every homeschool kid has to see a mandatory reporter once a year, or has to visit or have a doctor exam once a year. So these wouldn't have anything to do with controlling or restricting how parents teach; they would be more best practices that they wouldn't even have to be targeted to homeschoolers, it could just be a general rule, like school-aged children should be required to see a mandatory reporter once a year, something like that.

0:09:48.9 RS: And then there would be education regulations. Those would tend to be more controversial, and that would be something like requiring portfolio review of homeschool curriculum. That's not my wheelhouse, so, it's not what I push or focus on most, but I do know that other homeschool advocates, especially like the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, those organizations do think that things like portfolio reviews or teacher qualification requirements are important.

0:10:27.8 TW: You know, that's interesting when you talk about those different regulations we can put in place. "Regulations" can, as a word, used broadly, I guess "interventions" maybe is a better one. When I hear homeschool regulations, my brain immediately goes to, you could put rules on parents or you can put rules on the kids, like a test they have to take or something. You just talked about so many other directions you could go with that. You can target the advocates who are defending these abusive parents in court; you can target the people who are writing the curriculum; you can target the advocacy organizations. And I think that's maybe a hopeful way to look at, is like this multi-pronged approach. There's a lot of different places we can put ourselves into the system and try to... Or in the way of the system, maybe.

0:11:24.2 RS: I think that the word "regulation" is a buzzword that a lot of homeschoolers are afraid of, and I think when we're talking about any of these solutions, I would always qualify it with the fact that we're probably not gonna see any of them anytime soon, just because most homeschoolers, and I would include secular ones in this statement, buy into the parental rights absolutism that HSLDA promotes. So, any time you propose any solution to these issues, you're gonna have a very, very strong reaction from the homeschooling community. Throughout all these solutions, I always like to say, I would be happy with the crumbs. If we could get one of those laws, like one visit with a mandatory reporter once a year, that would be... I would be ecstatic to have something like that. That's just... The deck is stacked so much in the other direction.

0:12:24.6 CM: And is it the case, then, that the folks that would be most opposed to these solutions would be those who would be kind of more on that authoritarian side? 'Cause we have a lot of folks in our network who will see themselves like unschoolers or progressive educators who have pulled their students from schools because they are unhappy with how the education system is working for their child, not necessarily because they want to ingrain a certain political ideology or control in some way; it's actually kind of the opposite. Is the majority of this flack against these calls for regulation due to the prevalence of the abuse, or is it like an ideological thing in the sense that it's about control, quite literally, of what they're doing?

0:13:15.0 RS: I would say it's more ideological. I think you have a very strong libertarian anti-government streak among homeschoolers, including the secular ones. I do think there's a growing number of homeschoolers that I would say are progressive and are seeing a different way to homeschool. I would say that I distinguish those progressive homeschoolers from the secular ones, because the progressive ones could include secular ones and religious ones at the same time. But they have a very progressive approach to their pedagogy when they homeschool. And then there's these other secular ones that are very reactionary, and I don't think those are probably the ones that your network speaks to, likely, but they definitely exist and are pretty significant, and they're always on HSLDA's side. So, how do we walk that line between fighting abuse and promoting homeschooling?

0:14:25.0 RS: And I think that we need to reframe that, I don't think that that's where the line is. I think that we should be thinking of fighting abuse and promoting homeschooling as two sides of the same coin. The line for me, it goes between those who homeschool with a child-first approach versus those who homeschool with a parents-first approach. Those were homeschooling and putting children's needs and rights foremost versus those who are homeschooling to fulfill their own needs or wants.

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0:15:11.6 CM: Hey there. I hope you're enjoying the podcast so far. I wanna take a brief moment and promote something that may interest our listeners, which is our upcoming conference to restore humanity. Our inaugural virtual conference is from July 25th to July 28th, featuring amazing keynotes including founding theorist of critical pedagogy Dr. Henry Jareau, and organizer and co-author of Black Lives Matter at School, Dr. Denisha Jones. Further, we have fantastic and intriguing learning tracks on anti-carceral pedagogy, designing for neurodivergence, disrupting discriminatory linguistics, and promoting childism the classroom. And our virtual conference is designed to be a virtual conference, as in, we use flip keynotes, which focuses on conversation rather than staring at a Zoom screen, and our courses are interactive asynchronous explorations. Learn more on our website at humanrestorationproject.org/conference. Tickets are discounted right now at $150 for all four days, but discount's available for under-represented communities. Now, back to the podcast.

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0:16:15.8 CM: I was not home-schooled. I don't really have much experience at all working with folks that were homeschooled. So as you see all of these different... I'm sure most of your work or a lot of your work is interacting with and reading about folks that are abused and..situations. Do you ever wonder, just conceptually, if the cost of homeschooling outweighs the chance for abuse? A common critique of homeschooling is that homeschooling allows for folks to kind of raise their children without any supervision, and as a result, they're not going to a space that is... A school is a space where all of times, you identify a use, you identify things that are going on all the time. We're calling about things that are going on the whole.. Does advocating for homeschooling outweigh the potential cost of trying to go with in homeschooling and fight the abuse, as in, why cannot the angle be, but we shouldn't have any home schooling at all?

0:17:20.1 RS: Well, there are certainly people that believe that, and it wouldn't be that... In the United States, there's gonna be all sorts of people freaking out that we're even talking about it, but if you went to some European countries, they either have banned or heavily regulate homeschooling. That's a heated question, but not so much elsewhere, and I think that is part of American DNA, honestly, is we have a very strong independent libertarian streak, regardless of our ideologies that has just cut across American society. I don't personally think that we should ban homeschooling. I certainly, at many times, I've been advocating for homeschool kids now for years, and homeschool parents and homeschoolers can be extremely infuriating, and sometimes I just wanna throw out my hands and just be like, "Fine, we should just ban you all."

0:18:18.9 RS: But I really don't think we should or... Well, we can't, but we also shouldn't, because I think that there needs to be options for children who experience abuse or neglect in public school and/or private school. I read all these heart-breaking stories about kids that have died from abuse and neglect in homeschooling, then there are also the same stories where some kid was trans and in public school and was being bullied and was begging their parents to homeschool them, and the parents didn't, and then the kid killed themselves. And that's a perfect example of why there needs to be space for people to approach education in different ways. And for me, it is all... Everything has to come back to what is putting the children's needs and rights first. For me, that's the important issue.

0:19:16.0 RS: When we're talking about what should parents be able to do or do not, for me, that's kind of the wrong focus. The focus for me is what do the kids want and what do the kids need. But for me, education should be about the children. It's their education. And honestly, if a child says, "I don't wanna go to public school; I wanna be homeschooled," I feel like that should be within their rights.

0:19:38.2 TW: That last point is, I think, something that we all at Human Restoration Project and in a lot in our network can really get behind. No matter how you feel about homeschooling regulation, like, yeah, kids should be able to choose how they wanna spend their time and what kind of life and what kind of education is good for them. And I love that way you talk about it, of, it's not about do we advocate for homeschooling or do we advocate for regulation. We advocate for homeschooling by trying to make it better and by trying to make it safer. I think I see a parallel in that to the work that we do at Human Restoration Project. We advocate for public schools, and we do that by trying to fix the problems in it and make it a better place for kids.

0:20:24.4 TW: Now, with all that, and I don't say this to push back but just to kind of add, when we talk about the progressive homeschoolers, whether they call themselves unschoolers or whatever label that they use, there's definitely a large contingent that is not white. I'm thinking about the Black and indigenous homeschoolers who are... Their families and their communities have not generally been treated well by public school systems or other government interventions in general. They're not treated well by CPS and always kind of having the wrong assumptions put on them. Obviously, being very far away from that community myself, I'm making assumptions here, but I could imagine being in that community and not being excited about a check-in with a mandatory reporter or some other intervention like that. So I was wondering what you would say to that.

0:21:18.9 RS: A few things. The first is that I totally get it. I have a Master's in Child Protection. I have read books like Dorothy Roberts' Shattered Bonds, so, I would totally... I wouldn't argue with people that would say the CPS system is racist and broken and has all sorts of problems. And frankly, I have never been to public school other than to take the SAT, but I have seen enough evidence to know that those statements could be given about the public school system, too. Like yes to all that. At the same time, we still need to have, in my mind, we still need to have some standards and safeguards in place to protect children. So we have to find a way to balance that.

0:22:08.0 RS: My main thought when you're talking about homeschoolers of color is that the white homeschoolers, who tend to be the Evangelicals, they're specifically marketing and trying to target the homeschoolers of color to get them on their side of this parental rights absolutism. Especially during the pandemic, HSLDA, the largest homeschool lobbying organization in the world, and they're a far right organization, they created websites. They started giving out grants, too, specifically targeting homeschoolers of color. If you read a lot of the articles that came out during the pandemic that were talking about the boom in the homeschoolers of color, you'll see that almost all of them mentioned HSLDA, or like the leader that is mentioned is actually an HSLDA leader as well. There's a lot of unfortunate subterfuge going on as well with all that, that I think people need to really be aware of, if we're gonna try to fight that line between child-first homeschooling and parents-first homeschooling.

0:23:19.1 CM: And I think that probably makes a good segue into your specific work, which is child liberation theology. And I know you're writing, right now, a series on this on your website, which I'll link to in the show notes. But could you just provide a basic overview of what that is, and then also talk about how it's both important in a religious context, but also potentially in a secular context.

0:23:44.2 RS: Well, to explain child liberation theology, we should first start with liberation theology. Liberation theology, probably the easiest way to describe it is it's a theology of self-determination. It is a way of looking at and thinking about God and the Bible and Jesus, a way that enables marginalized people groups to think about and speak about God and the Bible on their own terms, in their own ways, answering their own questions, with their own language. And there's liberation theologies potentially for every marginalized people group. It's first started with Black theologians, James Cone, and then it went to Latin America, Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest, wrote a book called The Theology of Liberation. So James Cone and Gustavo Gutierrez kind of launched the movement.

0:24:43.1 RS: And then since then, pretty much any marginalized people group you can think of, they have a liberation theology. So there's one for people with disabilities, there's a queer liberation theology. There's theologies, liberation theologies, for native Americans. There are ones for other nationalities, like there's a Korean liberation theology. There's never been one for children. After getting my Master's in Child Protection, I've studied liberation theology for a long time, and so I was like, "There's gotta be one for kids, right?" And so I looked it up, and I found one book that was written 25 years ago by a woman named Janet Pais. It's called Suffer the Children, and it's a theology of liberation for children, specifically abused or neglected, but not this more general idea of child liberation theology. Her book blew my mind, and I wanted to generalize that and expand it, so that brought me to child liberation theology.

0:25:46.3 TW: I feel like I should interject just for some of our audience that maybe isn't familiar with a lot of these issues and this language, 'cause you were talking about liberation theology as a way for marginalized or historically marginalized groups to think about God and the Bible in their own terms, and not even groups, but for individuals, too, as well. So I feel like we should explain for our audience that this is in direct contrast to the white American Evangelical Church, in which the dominant mode is you show up to church on Sunday or sometimes other times during the week, the teacher tells you what to think about God and how to interpret a particular passage of scripture, and they tell you not only what to believe about that, but how to incorporate into your life. And so it's a very, very much a receiving mode. The American Evangelical Church is primarily white, but being evangelical, tends to spread its beliefs into other groups as well. That's the mode that they've been in.

0:26:45.3 RS: Oh, yeah. So, there's two stages. One involves adults. So this would be adults using their power and privilege in faith communities to create the situations and opportunity to scaffold, really, and build communities that are empowering and lifting up children. And then the second half of child liberation theology is really the self-determination part, in which we would be passing everything on to children to be able to take on for themselves. And so this connects with what you were just talking about, Thomas, is that one way that we would implement Child Liberation Theology is we have to challenge and change the way that we educate children about religion. Most of the Evangelical Church is the white Evangelical Church in the United States, they have a banking model of education, which what you were describing as that receiving model, where there's this absolute truth, and there's the people that know it and they're passing that down to the receptive people, and they're just taking in that information.

0:28:02.1 RS: And that is a model of education that I think needs to be challenged and changed. We need to have... I think education is best when people are personally invested in it and interested in it. So I think that letting children have the rights to their own education is a change that needs to be made, not just in school. I know that you're... Is your project, but also in church, the way that faith communities interact with ...children.

0:28:40.3 TW: In some ways, it's even so much more important in faith communities. I think about in just a regular K-12 classroom, you can use the banking model of education, or you can use more a liberatory model. Obviously, it's not just one or the other, there's all kinds of gradations. But generally speaking, the trade-off that you're making, the choices that you're making, is that the banking model is easier, the structures of school are built around it, it's easier to implement, everybody knows what to expect, but the learning is not gonna be as deep. Students don't take ownership of the learning, they won't be as engaged, it won't be meaningful to them after they've left your class. And that's important, but when I look at that same question applied to faith communities, it's actually dangerous to use that banking model, because often what they're teaching is, how do you order your life? How does God, the creator of the universe, want you to order your life? How should men and women differentiate from each other? And these things that once a single kid walks into that setting who doesn't fit that mold that they're being given, it just does immense harm to them.

0:30:02.3 RS: That kind of ties in to what we were talking about earlier, the cost of home schooling. That's the part that always makes me hesitate, is that homeschooling potentially has this ability to give parents absolute 100% control over their child. If you live in a state where you don't have to register your child when they're born, you can have a kid and raise them off-grid their entire lives, and literally no one knows they exist. When we have this completely free-for-all approach to education that has no respect whatsoever for the rights of the children themselves, you create this totalistic environment, basically, the possibility for it.

0:30:52.4 TW: Well, I think you're right. How many Tara Westovers are there who never wrote a memoir, because...

0:30:58.1 RS: Exactly. I know there are thousands of people who have that same story, and those are the people that live to tell it. So, that's the part that chills me. So, the cost of homeschooling, it's worth it to keep it, if we're talking about homeschooling that actually respects the rights of children. If we're talking about completely hands-off homeschooling, I don't think that's worth it.

0:31:24.7 CM: I think that's just an interesting way to broaden that scope in general, for both secular and non-secular communities, of just being able to recognize that Self-Determination Theory leads to a greater understanding of the world in general, both in terms of interest, because if someone just tells you exactly what to do, you might wane from your interest in that thing, but also because it's such a narrow scope when you're told exactly what to do. In the exact same way that a lot of people grow up and hate reading, because in English class, they make you read certain books, or don't think they're a math person because they just didn't understand how the math teacher explicitly told them how to do different things, and one on math was a topic. I would imagine that at the exact same exclusivity and authoritarianism has the same impact on teaching a faith. So, your interest in faith, your attachment to God, your ability to understand the scripture, as Thomas was just saying, all of those different things go hand in hand. And it just makes me wonder, then, how child liberation theology promotes a religious education, not just from avoiding the negative, avoiding feeling control, but also promoting a positive in the sense that young people would be more interested in being accepted by their faith. They're more interested in general in what they're doing.

0:32:48.3 RS: The easiest, and probably what's gonna sound the strangest but the most concrete example I could give would be putting children in positions of leadership in church. And I know that that's a radical concept in school, too. There's some experimental schools where they let children interview their potential teachers, and vote on them, and those sorts of things. I think we need that in the church. We need to be actually letting children have some agency and be able to exercise it. And exact same thing, I think they should be able to vote on their Sunday School teacher. I think they should be... We should be soliciting their perspective and input on their own curriculums. I think we need to start... We empower children by allowing them to participate.

0:33:39.1 TW: I'm wondering how you get a church to do that, how you get them to welcome children into their leadership and into their theology making. 'Cause the thing that automatically comes to my mind, and this leads into a much bigger conversation that we may have time for, but you're going to need a church to... You're gonna need their focus to be on community and experience, rather than on dogma and teaching. Because if your whole organization, your whole institution, is built around passing certain teachings and beliefs and dogma from one generation to the next, you're never going to welcome kids into positions of power other than the very, very select few who are like the preacher's kid who never rebelled, or something. There's the very, very few. But yeah, so I don't know what you think of that.

0:34:34.4 RS: I feel like that's the million-dollar question, and that could be applied to really any other marginalized people group, when it comes to church or any other faith community where you have centuries of excluding people from fully participating in church or whatever the community may be. So, I think that, in my mind, the best we can do is imagine a better future and talk about it. Even if 99% of the churches will never want to even entertain the idea, if we can get... The more we can get people to rethink some of their ideas about how they interact with children, how they interact with other people, how they pass on information and education. We got to start with the small things, if we're gonna ever change the big things.

0:35:32.2 TW: Yeah, but fundamentally it's the same question as how do we let historically marginalized identities into the seats of power in our businesses, our government, our schools? How do we do that without it becoming kind of a token representation where we just choose the few who are not gonna rock the boat? How do we actually change the power dynamics there?

0:35:57.7 RS: Child advocacy and the child liberation theology, for me, all these things come down to advocating for the children themselves. I want to make sure that whatever rules or regulations or solutions you wanna propose to any of the problems in homeschooling, we need to be making sure that in everything that we're doing with children, that we are not being selfish, that we are realizing that children are their own human beings, and they have a right to their own lives and their own educations. So, in my mind, if we're doing that in whatever context, whether it's school or church or any other community, then I think that that's the right path.

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0:36:48.8 CM: Thank you again for listening to Human Restoration Project's podcast. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause, and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.

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