(Photo: Reuters/Brian C. Frank)
Are Christian homeschoolers more tolerant than their public and privately schooled peers?
A recent study from Albert Cheng, a distinguished doctoral fellow at the University of Arkansas, suggests that learning at home might increase a Christian's propensity to extend civil rights to those with whom they personally disagree.
In a study released in March, Cheng sampled 304 students out of the approximately 4,000 undergraduates at Biola University, a private Christian college in La Mirada, Calif.
Cheng provided the respondents with a list of social and political groups which included, among others, Republicans, LGBT activists and fundamentalist Christians, and asked them to select from a group which he or she opposed most or write one down.
In the second part of the study, individuals were asked to indicate their agreement to questions about their least-liked group, including whether or not the government should be allowed to tap their phones, if books written by members of the group ought to be banned, and if the group should be allowed to hold a public rally. Cheng used the data from the responses to tally up a score about how politically tolerant an individual was.
According to his data, homeschoolers showed a slight propensity for increased tolerance than private and publicly schooled students.
Cheng clarified that the value of tolerance, which he studied, should not be confused with one where individuals "are just open minded and not grounded."
"This is political tolerance, your willingness to let people who you disagree with do things that they ought to legitimately be able to do in civil society," said Cheng. "This is nothing to say about their personal convictions: you can have really strong personal convictions and still be willing to let people follow their own convictions."
He continued, "You're still willing to engage them in good debate and pit your ideas against each other, and hopefully learn from each other and figure out what are ways we can make society better based on our competing ideas. Maybe there's some common ground."
Cheng speculated that one of the reasons for his findings could be that because in the "traditional public school system, you have to walk a line of political correctness."
"Your teacher might have beliefs that are different than yours, which is fine, but at the same time that might come at a cost, where you are made to feel kind of uncomfortable with who you are or you never really get exposed to a true view of what the other side is," Cheng told The Christian Post.
Cheng theorized that Christian homeschoolers were actually given a better opportunity to explore different opinions, because they might have felt more validated in their own faith identity and subsequently felt less of a need to go after those who disagreed with them.
"In an environment where you don't have to be neutral you get to debate the issues that are actually out there a little more honestly, and I think that leads to greater tolerance in that respect," he added.
Milton Gaither, an education professor at Messiah College and the author of the book, Homeschool: An American History hypothesized that Biola itself likely self-selected for particular member of the homeschool and public school population.
"Homeschoolers who would be declined to be less tolerant would never go to Biola in the first place. They would probably go to Patrick Henry, Ave Maria or one of the other really conservative Christian schools, or maybe a Bible college or not even go to college," Gaither told CP.
Public schoolers attending Biola were less likely to be tolerant than public schoolers on a whole, because the majority population did not attend Christian colleges, argued Gaither.
"The ones who do go to Christian colleges are in the minority of public schoolers and are the ones who self-identify and have a sense of Christian identity. That sense of Christian identity might give them a little bit of minority-outsider status, which according to Cheng's own research that he cited in his review, that quality tends to make people a little less tolerant than other folks," said Gaither.
"If you felt like you were an outsider in your high school and see Biola as a refuge of secularism, it might not be surprising that you score a little low on a tolerance measure," he added.
Gaither cautioned that Cheng's conclusions, while likely accurate about what they claimed about the Biola population, might fail to have predictive power for the larger homeschooling and public school populations.
"It's a really good study of a selective group. People who chose to go this Christian group, it gets them really well. The question is how representative is this group of all homeschoolers?" said Gaither.
Cheng called Gaither's remarks a "valid point" and said he had no intentions about generalizing to the entire movement.
"This generalization that we might have that 'homeschooling is bad and anyone who goes through it ends up intolerant' — I see my study as just a bit of evidence to [suggest] that ... there are reasons to expect that homeschooling might actually be a good thing and that it might not actually result in these civic nightmares where you have intolerance springing up all over the place," said Cheng.
"At the same time, too, the public school system might not be all what it claims to be. And I actually cite quite a bit of the private school literature that the vast majority of the empirical evidence on private schools and tolerance really shows that, private school students are at least as tolerant as public school students," he added.