A Call for Precision: Benjamin Keil’s Thoughts

precision

Benjamin Keil is a husband, father of three, and Ph.D. Candidate in the University of Kansas’ Philosophy Department.  The views expressed in this article are his own; his personal website can be found here.

Like St. Paul of old, I come to you today with two things: My bona fides and a message.  

In case you’re not quite up to speed on your pretentious archaic phraseology, bona fides are just testimonials.  If you’ve got bona fides, they show that you are an authentic messenger and that what you say is true.

Whereas St. Paul’s bona fides were meant to show that he was an authentic Hebrew (Phil. 3:4-6), my bona fides are much narrower.

I want you to know that I’m one of you.  

I was homeschooled K-12.  I did both NCFCA debate (as well as HSLDA debate before the change) back in high school.  (For those of you who care, my first year was the campaign finance resolution and my last last year I did that awkward LD topic about restricting economic liberty for the general welfare in agriculture.)  I even co-coached our local debate club for the “trade policy with Africa and the Middle East” topic.

Unlike some of you, though, my homeschool experience was positive.  My parents never abused me, encouraged me to go to college (I’m now finishing graduate school), and let me listen to all kinds of music.  They never made my younger sister only wear skirts and encouraged her to go to college also.  (She’s in graduate school now too!) But, like most of you, fundamentalistic-style beliefs weren’t entirely absent from my homeschool years: My parents believed in 7-day Creationism, emphasized a hermeneutic of Biblical literalism, and chose the usual sorts of homeschool curricula to help pass on their values.

All of which is to say that I come to HA as an insider, not an outsider.  

I recognize commonalities between many of the articles here and my own story.  And many of the goals expressed by HA are ones I share.  All of which, hopefully, gives me the credibility necessary to offer an admonishment:

Our movement makes three separate types of claims, and the evidence we offer for the three claims needs to be kept separate.

Let me explain the differences I’m getting at.

One type of claim that can be made is empirical – claims about the larger world or interrelationships between significant parts of the larger world.  The second type of claim involves stories.  Personal testimonials are smaller slices of the world but not less valuable – stories are how we make sense of our small and short lives.  (Perhaps that’s why autobiographies are one of my favorite non-fiction genres?)  The third type of claim is philosophical – claims about beliefs or belief systems which inform how we live our lives.

All of these are valuable and all have a significant place in our movement.  

It is important (essential!) that we have empirical evidence to bolster our movement’s claims.  It is important (essential!) that we have stories and we tell them to each other.  And it is also important (essential!) that we present and defend philosophical arguments to demonstrate the insufficiency of belief systems.  All of these types of claims are important and our movement would suffer if any one type were missing or overemphasized.

But although all three types are valuable, they are nonetheless distinct and thus should be distinguished from each other.  To demonstrate an empirical claim, you need good empirical research (replicable research from a representatively large randomized sample where the methodology is designed to block confounding effects).  To demonstrate a story, you need to convey it accurately.  And to demonstrate a philosophical claim, you need to give arguments.

Let’s look at some examples.

Suppose one claims that child abuse occurs more frequently in homeschooling contexts than in public schools.  That’s an empirical claim and to demonstrate it you’d have to operationally define homeschooling and child abuse, conduct empirical studies on the child abuse rates in homeschooling, and compare those rates with the child abuse rates in public schools.  Then you’d know where abuse occurs more frequently.

Or suppose you claim that being raised in a fundamentalistic homeschool lifestyle harmed you.  That’s a narrative story claim, and to show its truth you’d explain your upbringing and truthfully relate its negative effects on your life.

Or suppose you claim that parts of your parents’ belief system is wrong.  To demonstrate this you’d have to accurately describe your parents’ belief system, describe the best possible arguments in its favor, and then show why those arguments are incorrect.

All of this is fairly straightforward.

But our movement will suffer if we’re not clear about the kinds of claims we’re making and the evidences we’re giving for those claims.

For example, if you claim child abuse rates are higher among homeschoolers than public schoolers, you can’t demonstrate that claim by telling your life’s story.  In fact, you can’t take your life story, combine it with the life stories of ten other people from HA, and conclude that child abuse rates are higher among homeschoolers than public schoolers.  That’s anecdotal evidence, and anecdotal evidence (while very valuable in its own right!) isn’t scientific evidence and can’t be used to establish empirical claims.

If you think parts of your parents’ belief system is wrong, what you ultimately need to provide are philosophical arguments to make that case.  Relating your life story, by itself, doesn’t show that your parents’ belief system is wrong – although your life story might relate arguments, it’s the arguments themselves and not the story that does all the philosophical work.  (After all, there’s an obvious difference between an autobiographic story of how you discovered an argument, and what your reasons are for thinking the argument itself is true.)

(All of this obviously oversimplifies for the sake of clarity – a story is almost certainly going to contain philosophical arguments [whether implicit or explicit], and empirical claims often rely on philosophical notions [for example: what, precisely, is child abuse?]  So I am aware that any one type of claim will have some interactions with the other two types.  But if one’s primary purpose is to make an empirical claim, then empirical evidence is called for.  And if one’s primary purpose is to tell a story, then no larger empirical claims can be drawn solely on the basis of that story alone or that story combined with other people’s stories.)

My goal, obviously, is to strengthen the true parts of our movement – not to detract from any one person’s story, or empirical claim, or philosophical argument.  

All are valuable and all have their place.  But unless we clearly identify the type of claim we are making, and unless we are clear on what type of evidence would support our claim, our claims will be weak.  And if there’s one thing I learned from homeschool debate, it’s that weak claims are inevitably discovered and, when discovered, should be discarded.

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6 responses to “A Call for Precision: Benjamin Keil’s Thoughts

  1. The fact that you were homeschooled in a positive way separates you from abusive homeschooling survivors.

    How many abusive homeschooling survivor blogs have you read? While everyone has a different way of telling their story, I think you will find that many of us tell the narrative without making empirical claims, and in fact call for empirical data. Because of how some homeschools are managed (no ID given to children, children hidden from public view, abuse never discovered by social services – we know this from narratives), there is NO trustworthy data on how many homeschoolers there are, success rates, and data on abuse within those families. Until changes are made to the rules, there will continue to be no data.

    You are right, making philosophical claims in grey areas gets muddy, however, we can draw on societal norms to do so. Societal norms say that killing your children is wrong. Therefore people who grew up with parents who expressed a desire to so and claimed that their beliefs gave them the right to do so, can say that their parents’ beliefs are “wrong” by social standards. This scenario isn’t as uncommon as your narrative may have led you to believe. Sometimes abused children know they are being abused, they do not need textbook definitions to tell them, although people who haven’t experienced it sometimes need more information (please correct me if I’m wrong and you did in fact experience abuse and casual discussions of your death).

    There is one other thing I want to address here: academic elitism. You were well educated in your homeschool, which prepared you for academia. You were very lucky, and when there is data available we will be able to see how lucky. I personally have been able to achieve two degrees myself, but I am acutely aware that many of my cohort were not given that privilege, and were ejected or escaped from their abusive homes in a fashion that they are still recovering from, in difficult financial, health, and mental health circumstances.

    Your call for academic rigour would exclude those who had academia purposefully withheld from them, who have not yet been able to overcome that background because of finances or the need for personal healing first. Their stories must be told, and they are not trying to write academic works, they are telling narratives, and even outsiders reading their narratives comment in a way that indicates that they recognize and respect the narrative, academic or not.

    I believe that this post was well-intended, but it may in fact discourage survivors from telling their stories if an outsider (to abusive homeschooling) is published on HA telling us how we should be writing our stories.

  2. Benjamin, as someone who has been studying and working on this issue from an academic as well as personal angle and who recently co-founded CRHE (www.responsiblehomeschooling.org), I want to say that you make some good points about the plural of anecdote not being data and also how we want to avoid confusing different types of arguments or reasoning for one another. I also think that Sarah Henderson made some good points too.

    You are talking to a group of people who often suffered educational neglect. I know I did. Some people have been able to largely overcome it. I too have a masters degree today. Some have not. We want to be very careful not to intimidate anyone or make them feel like their story or perspective is not “correct” or “educated” enough to be told. This is a place for people to tell their stories as they see them through their own eyes and for others to provide feedback and support, not judgement or academic critique.

    So while I am working with a team of former homeschoolers who are trying to do our best to get the quantitative data we have (which is slim) all in one place and collect and share the qualitative data (which is just coming together), fact is we (and by this I mean all of us) do not have the kind of data to know how abuse and neglect in homeschooling compares to that occurring in other educational settings. It is a question to be answered, a known unknown. We just know that it happens and that there are some really bad cases and the watered down or nonexistent laws on homeschooling in many states don’t pass a basic common sense smell test.

    I also think it is instinct for people to use the info they have and generalize based on their social milieu. It happens a lot, annoying social science researchers everywhere, since we want to measure and quantify, but is a natural human tendency. So I think your points would have been stronger if you had noted that homeschool parents who keep saying “these stories are rare” and “most homeschoolers are ______” really need to notice that they do this way too much, that it isn’t helping, and they need to knock it off. A really good example of exactly what we don’t need any more of: this post in Christianity Today – http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/december/normal-drama-free-totally-healthy-christian-homeschool-move.html

    “Anecdote passed off as data” doesn’t make for an airtight case if anyone does it and frankly so many of us have had to sit by and have our experiences silenced and dismissed while homeschool parents and leaders got a pass for this sort of nonsense for years and the “data” collected by Brian Ray’s NHERI was spread around in the media and the homeschool community as proof of homeschooling’s excellence across the board. As a matter of fact, Ray’s “Strengths of Their Own” study isn’t proof of anything except that self-selected participants in a survey (with just under a 30% response rate, I might add) of white, middle and upper middle class Christian homeschool families usually do pretty good. I could do a voluntary study of prep school kids, say they represented American students as a whole, and it would be much the same kind of result. Which is to say it is not an accurate depiction of the population at all.

    My initial thoughts from combing through the quantitative and qualitative data available and also running a support group are that it seems that homeschools aren’t too different from public school in terms of us having “haves” and “have-nots.” The difference is we pretend our have nots just don’t exist because we don’t measure them and there are generally no mechanisms in place to shut down failing homeschools or fire failing or abusive homeschooling teachers.

    Because there seems to be this huge socio-economic status/class difference in homeschool student experiences and outcomes, we will need to pay a lot more attention to that gap before any of us do any more generalizing about what homeschooling as a whole is and isn’t. We also need to make sure we leave wide open spaces where people can safely tell their stories without worrying that the rest of us will be judgy perfectionists or parse it apart harshly. Even if we are well-meaning in taking the red pen to someone else’s story and perspective, that can be very intimidating and used as a means to quiet their voice. Too many of us have already had more than enough of that happen in our lives and don’t need any more. So I want to say that while I want solid arguments and good data as much as the next person, even more than that I want people to feel free to tell their own story and share where they see it fitting into the whole. After all, it is because a growing group of people are telling their first-person stories that we are even discussing the need for data in the first place. Stories are powerful things.

    • “Known unknown” indeed ;)

      Benjamin isn’t out to discredit peoples’ stories here, but to elevate them to the true power they are worthy of receiving. If I take a person’s story and treat it as data, I’m making that story count for less. The experience and trauma of that story becomes a mere statistic, and I’m using it to prove a point it doesn’t prove. It serves a worthy purpose, however, in providing an anecdote, giving that person a voice, and giving that person the love, respect, and chance for healing words they need. I completely agree with you that we shouldn’t take a red pen to peoples’ stories. The best way to treat a story, however, is not to treat it like a statistic but as the experience of a human being.

  3. Pingback: When Precision is a Red Pen | H . A·

  4. Good points although I would add that while one abusive story does not prove that abuse is higher in homeschool circles, one abusive home is still one too many. And at the end of the day, I think that’s sort of the main point.

    Analytical philosophy has places it cannot go. As you pointed out, testimonies have their place. At the end of the day, I don’t think the battle against fundamentalism will be won because of good rhetoric. I think it will happen from more personal contact.

  5. Pingback: A Call for Inclusion in the Survivor Community: Sarah Henderson’s Thoughts | H . A·

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