How Roland Barthes’s “Myth” Functions in Modern Homeschooling
In a previous post on emotional abuse in homeshooling, I wrote this:
The reason I connect this to homeschooling is that homeschooling made the shit seem natural, the way that it was ought to be.
In the comment section of that post, one reader writes:
I also went through verbal and emotional abuse, but we weren’t homeschooled. . . . I still thought this was normal, even though I saw a lot of other families in school. Because my parents truly loved me and cared about me; they just had tempers and fears.
I do realize that the majority of abuse survivors, probably especially children, think what their experience is normal and not abuse. But when I spoke of “the shit” seeming “natural,” I was speaking of a lot more. Let me explain.
Most of you are probably familiar with the way that companies use advertisements to sale their products. Just to help illustrate, you can view the following commercial:
Mercedes is just a car. But this advertisement is not just selling a car – it is selling a lifestyle. From watching this clip, think of the wolf, the mountains, the modern house, and even the phrase “untamed” and how it all signifies a certain lifestyle.
All of us today are aware of basic advertisement strategies. Roland Barthes, a 20th century social critic and structuralist from France, was the first to coin advertising as “myth.” Barthes argues that advertisements has a double order of signification. A Mercedes sales both a car and a lifestyle. The myth is the lifestyle.
But what Barthes says is that myth functions in all of language, not just in advertising. In his short essay “Myth Today,” Barthes argues that myth sacrifices history. He illustrates with this picture:
This is the front page of the Paris Match. Barthes explains:
“I am at the barber’s, and copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture. But whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me : that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under the flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors.”
Myth sacrifices history. Myth in this photo re-ordered the history of colonization and made it appears as if it was “natural,” as if it was the only way to be.
So how does this connect to homeschooling?
The homeschool community fosters several “myths.”
Remember I said that when someone buys a Mercedes, he or she is not just buying a car, even though technically all they receive is a car. He or she thinks they are buying a whole lifestyle, which is why they are willing to pay more than twice the price of a regular car and drive by a poor neighbor on the way home from the car lot. Myth makes one feel young, important, ageless, etc.
It is the same way with conservative homeschooling. Our parents did not just buy a method of education or a lifestyle of doing school at home. Instead they were buying a package of a happy, happy, godly, content, grateful, loving, spiritual, happy, loving, happy, loving, spiritual, happy, loving family.
Think of the Duggar poster family. They represent the homeschool lifestyle and send certain messages to the American public. The Duggars are not just selling “big family.” They are selling the message that their lifestyle makes people happy and godly. The myth says, “raise your kids the Duggar way, and they will be polite and want to become missionaries and aways get along with each other.” The Duggars even sale books telling you how to produce this kind of family.
I actually wrote about this in my post The Duggars are Not Crazy. Homeschooling and fundamentalism sold something besides just education. It sold a lifestyle, a lifestyle that looked extremely appealing.
I like this picture of the Duggars because instruments are part of the homeschool myth:
We play instruments, yes, but the instruments in homeschooling also signify the big happy family. Big homeschool families, the myth tells us, are happy, get along, and even play instruments together. When homeschoolers pick up their instruments, they know they are doing more than just learning an instrument; they are practicing the big, happy homeschool lifestyle.
So what is my point? What is the problem with myth? According to Barthes, myth demands the sacrifice of nature. Myth rewrites history. It changes everything while making everything in front of us seem natural, as if it was the only way to be.
And that is what I was saying about homeschooling making abuse seem so natural. When my mom yelled at me, spanked me, and said I was rebellious, not only did the emotional abuse seem natural to me, as if it was the only thing I ever knew, but also the whole homeschool myth made our pain seem necessary to the overall goal to produce a happy homeschool family who would go on to save the world. Part of the myth was that the tears and struggle were necessary in order to overcome a rebellious heart and stubborn spirit.
It wasn’t just that mom exploded, and she covered it up. My mom actually would call her friends on the phone, and they would discuss how to break my rebellious spirit. My parents’ friends were the ones who told my parents to take my basketball away from me because I forgot to say thank you. My mother’s friend told her to just give me bread and water and make me stay in my room for being disrespectful. As Barthes argues, myth does not lie. When you sign up for the conferences, they told our parents that winning their kids souls for God would be difficult but not to let down because the end result was a happy and godly generation of arrows for God.
Thus Mom and her friends would brag to each other about their discipline. Sure no one saw the degree of the emotional abuse in our family. Nevertheless, myth was always covering up my parent’s tracks and always sacrificing the truth. You may notice that whenever a homeschool alumni comes out and tells his or her story of abuse, a flock of homeschol parents comments and says it’s no big deal and the alumni is just being disrespectful. So many parents still believe that breaking the spirit of children is totally necessary.
Everything around us was sacrified for the homeschool lifestyle, as it came completely natural to us, as natural as eating.
Again, to illustrate, think of phrases from North American history textbooks, such as the American “frontier,” the belief that God gave us the land, “the virgin land,” and progress. All of these myths allowed us to steal land from the First Nations People in North America and then kill their culture.
Similar the belief that homeschooling is a Biblical command, the belief in purity and courtship, and all of the homeschool “lifestyle” that homeschoolers bought into when they signed up for the conferences, all allowed parents to sacrifice the hearts of their kids.
As Ryan Stollar argued in his paper, patriarchy and legalism are a small part of the problems in American homeschooling. Homeschooling was a myth that has covered all our broken pieces. The fact that there was so much abuse in our families is not a surprise.
Myth is always too good to be true.