Harvard Educational Review
  1. A Sense of Self

    Listening to Homeschooled Adolescent Girls

    By Susannah Sheffer

    Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995. 191 pp. $22.95.

    In A Sense of Self, Susannah Sheffer interviewed fifty-five girls between the ages of eleven and sixteen who have been out of formal school settings for at least two years. "These homeschoolers," according to Sheffer, "learn at home and in the surrounding community rather than in schools" (p. 4). Sheffer draws on Carol Gilligan's research on girls' development, on the work of the American Association of University Women in How Schools Shortchange Girls, and on that of Elizabeth Debold, Marie Wilson, and Idelisse Malave in The Mother Daughter Revolution: From Betrayal to Power, to provide the theoretical framework for the words and thoughts of the girls she interviews.

    "I wanted to know if homeschooled adolescent girls were really as different as they seemed to be with regard to issues of self-esteem and trust in their own perceptions" (p. 7), writes Sheffer in her introduction. The interview questions asked the participants how they felt about themselves, their parents, siblings, friends, making choices, coming of age, and homeschooling. The responses revealed that the group of girls that Sheffer studied are independent thinkers, motivated, and have a strong sense of self. Most, if not all, of the participants take it upon themselves to pursue their passions and guide their own learning. Sheffer writes, "Given that women often believe they must get everything else done for others before they try to carve out a little time for themselves, it's heartening to think about girls who are learning about the value of their own interests" (p. 28).

    The girls' words are compelling. On friendship, fifteen-year-old Robin asserts, "I don't feel that my friends or people in general should agree with me about everything. I think that being around people with different viewpoints can open your mind to new things and/or help you strengthen and clarify your own position" (p. 80). Reflecting on her decision not to enroll in high school, sixteen-year-old Sonya ruminates, "I figured if I didn't go, I'd be unhappy, but I'd still be myself. If I went, school would probably squelch the `Sonya-ness' in me" (p. 121).

    Throughout A Sense of Self, Sheffer integrates the voices of the girls she interviewed with the research on girls' development. What we learn is that somewhere amid the struggle of female adolescent development, strong, confident young women are emerging who make difficult decisions, sometimes go against their parents' wishes, and talk their way out of threats by schoolyard bullies to struggle, grow, dream, and learn. Sheffer surmises that formal schooling, as it is, stifles young women and often keeps them from resisting peer pressure. She declares, "If one has thought seriously about the structure and assumptions of compulsory schooling, it is hard to read the psychological literature that asks, `How can we help girls to identify with their own goals?' or even `How can we help girls to discover their own real interests?' without thinking about the fact that school is in direct opposition to these concerns" (p. 178). In this regard, the author asserts that homeschooling has much to offer girls. The author presents positive examples of young women making decisions and standing by them based on what they've learned and what they believe. The words of the young women in Sheffer's book inspire and prod educators and parents to consider the role education plays in girls' development.
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