History of Identity: Our Insecurities and Need to Belong

30 01 2008

(from discussion at Unity-n-Diversity about homeschooling identity, as individuals and competing groups, as religious and secular, alike and different, allies and enemies.)


PBS just concluded a new series about the Jewish experience in America.

I was struck by the segment on how Black leaders and Jewish leaders fell out with each other in the civil rights movement, not because anyone was “wrong” or because they wanted to, but because what they really were fighting for was the right to define themselves (sound familiar?) and blacks needed to oust the more culturally assimilated Jews and run things themselves, to be politically clear of their own different and distinct identity.

Yes, it was strategically counterproductive to social acceptance by the larger community and even contradictory to the larger principle they supposedly shared, and unfair, unwarranted, unseemly to reject these allies who had worked so hard and suffered so much — but according to this account, it was also inevitable.

Another connection I made was to “defining” and leading the women’s movement. Favorite Daughter who self-studied American feminism, describes for example the same complicated split into competing (often bitter) camps between the establishment Carrie Chapman Catt and the more radical, militant Alice Paul.

But surely there’s hope for homeschooling even in that.
I found this summary sketched out online:

NWP versus NAWSA:
Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party emphasized working for a federal constitutional amendment for suffrage. Their position was at odds with the position of the NAWSA, headed by Carrie Chapman Catt, which was to work state-by-state as well as at the federal level.

NWP and NAWSA Synergy:
Despite the often strong acrimony between the National Woman’s Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, it’s probably fair to say (in retrospect) that the two groups’ tactics complemented each other: the NAWSA’s taking more deliberate action to win suffrage in elections meant that more politicians at the federal level had a stake in keeping women voters happy, and the NWP’s militant stands kept the issue at the forefront of the political world.

Actually the whole PBS series was about “identity” and how different American Jews in different places and times, struggled to both assimilate and advance, AND honor and preserve their own distinct heritage in their own families and neighborhoods, from language to education and music to friends and marriage, food, dress, hairstyles. [To literal names.]
Jewish families did vacation separate from larger society for a few generations and this was a very “Jewish” experience, but not so much because they wanted it — more because they were excluded by gentile resorts trying to keep THEIR identity clear and separate.

In 1654, 23 Jews landed in America. Now there are 6 million.

Things can happen fast. Ruth Bader Ginsburg nicely captures her story: “What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York’s garment district and a U.S. Supreme Court justice? One generation.”

Yet over the centuries themes recur: Tension between being an American and being a Jew. Or Jews as respected, thriving members of society — leading merchants, jurists, cultural icons — versus Jews as reviled figures or scapegoats. In a moment that reflects such contrasts, Justice Ginsburg says that after President Woodrow Wilson made Louis D. Brandeis the first Jewish high court justice, a contemptuous colleague, Justice James McReynolds, would walk out of the conference room whenever Brandeis spoke.

With the attention it devotes to immigration, ridicule and assimilation, the series is especially valuable when you think about the debate that rages about newcomers, notably Latinos, today.

For example, historian Hasia Diner comments on the 1920s and the rise of such anti-Semites as Henry Ford, who played upon the insecurities of the nation:

“There was a general sense that the foreigners were taking over, that the basic character of American society was being undermined, that the economic structure of the United States was being threatened…”

Overall their identity struggle was to accommodate any parts of their own Jewishness that were religious, while understanding most or all of it was secular, cultural, family rather than “faith.” So I was fascinated at the resulting American invention of a sort of secular religion. With real, literal survival among the very folks who might wish them dead or at least gone, at stake —

Do we have any Henry Fords in the homeschool community, movers and shakers who despite their larger than life contributions, also play on our suspicion of outsiders, strangers, corporations and government,  tell us our basic  “character” is being threatened and maybe really believe it, even as they profit from our heightened fears and insecurities?

Is home education turning into a form of sacred secularism . . .? What shared identity do homeschoolers in this schoolish culture really want and need, for survival? Do we need more changing to fit in or changing to stand out, both, neither?
And can we stand each other while we’re doing it?



12 responses

30 01 2008
Crimson Wife

I don’t think that racial/ethnic identity is all that good an analogy for homeschool identity. No one is born a homeschooler, KWIM? We all freely chose to be part of this group, and nobody can tell just by looking at us that we are one. Sure, someone of Jewish heritage could choose to convert to another faith (such as St. Edith Stein did) or to be an atheist/agnostic (I had a very interesting discussion one time about the meaning of the 1st Commandment with a self-proclaimed “non-theist Jew”). But he/she could still face discrimination as a result of his/her appearance.

Even if one looked at other types of religious identity that aren’t confounded with ethnic identity, I’m still not convinced that it’s a good analogy for homeschool identity. You couldn’t tell just by looking at them which of my relatives and in-laws are Catholics and which are Protestants. But if you knew the denomination of the individual’s parents, you could tell all of them except for the 2 who converted as adults (and those you could guess from knowing their spouse’s denomination). So it’s still an identity that one is primarily born into.

30 01 2008

My father’s family are Jewish, but we weren’t raised that way. I spent a lot of my early adult life exploring my missing heritage and filling in holes in my understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

I ended up, long after I finished college, going back and taking a class about Judaism. It was amazing how much it helped me wrap my brain around a lot of our family dynamics. Your post reminds me of a paper I wrote for the class about whether being Jewish was a religious or cultural thing.

but anyway. As for applying “identity” to homeschoolers, I feel that while there are some homeschoolers that see the whole identity idea, there are many people, especially accidental homeschoolers, that have no identity as a “homeschooler” at least at first.

30 01 2008

CW – I am thinking that my experience of the Catholic-born and yours, are very different! Maybe it’s the part of the country we each live in? — but every Catholic adult I know, isn’t. 🙂

30 01 2008

Hmmm, I do know a very interesting woman whose dad was Catholic and her mom Jewish, in Miami. When they divorced, she had to figure out how to honor both heritages, all by herself. Married a Catholic and raised their kids that way, yet she’s the most stereotypical Jewish mom I’ve ever met in many ways! 🙂
(And not just with her own kids!)

And above either religious heritage, my experience of her is through her passion and profession — theatrical dance and teaching children about life through that. It defines her identity much more than her family or origin, as I guess mine does me.

IOW her family’s sabbath and sacred holiday practices, her blurred “religions” as she was born into them, still hasn’t all that much to do with her identity or how she lives and interacts. Although now that I stop to think more (thanks CW for all these new thoughts!), her dad was a professional musician! Curiouser and curiouser . . .maybe that kind of “culture” matters more, the way we’re library and power of story, academic culture lovers in my family back several generations on both sides?

Again though, it could be something else with this studio director and me (and Nance et al), some other variable that’s hard to generalize to all people. Not our sign of the zodiac I’d bet, but maybe because we’re just OLD and have had so many years to finally “settle” who we are and how we’ll be in the world? We probably could come up with other plausible hypotheses too.

30 01 2008

Hi Meg, I think we’re cruising in the same idea neighborhood. 🙂

And the conclusion in your paper, to whether family identity was cultural or religious was, I hope, “yes”?

30 01 2008

Following up on Meg’s take on identity homeschoolers as different from accidental hsers, I once knew a school administrator here working on his dissertation and meeting with some of us hs parents about parttime-participation policies every other Tuesday for lunch.

So he liked us and decided to study reasons for hsing. (I participated among others) He wound up describing “push” and “pull” hs families. The “pulls” were the lifestyle-identity hsers, who he says were “pulled from school into hsing as something wonderful.” They might not dislike school but they loved home education and they were committed to that lifestyle.

Then there were the pushed, the accidentals, showed in his data as being “pushed” out by school stuff they disliked but not really having better ideas themselves. So they kind of bounce in and out and stay schoolish and pretty surly even, wherever they are, except that sometimes they are calling themselves hsers and sometimes not. 🙂

31 01 2008

On Mondays and Wednesdays, I’m a push homeschooler; and, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m a pull homeschooler. On Fridays, I both push and pull, which is really tiring and the reason I take weekends off.

If you give me a questionnaire asking why I homeschool, I check off (almost) all the boxes because 1. I’m annoying and 2. I homeschool for lots of reasons. Sometimes I’ll add or subtract a reason just for the fun of it. Or, because of what I had for lunch. Recently, I asked the Wizard for an identity, but even he couldn’t help me. (Sigh.)

31 01 2008
JJ Ross

Well, there you go! You were SO close, but that stupid wizard is just a bum from Kansas, remember, not really magical. The trick is to just tap your heels three times and wish for your own backyard — where you can be Jewish and black and pure and popular with limpid eyes and a haunting voice and loyal friends and oh, anything you heart desires, at least virtually if not legally, until the weather turns against you anyway . . .

31 01 2008
Crimson Wife

JJ- yes, I think there are more “cradle” Catholics in the Northeast where both my DH and I grew up. For all that there’s a lot of “progressive” political ideas, folks are still pretty traditional when it comes to their own personal lives. That’s what IMHO creates the seemingly contradictory finding that the “blue” New England states have significantly lower rates of divorce, abortion, teen pregnancy, etc. than the “red” Bible Belt states.

23 05 2008
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