For many years I wrote for Prediction magazine on subjects such as angels, crystal healing, auras, opening the third eye and many other outlandish things. The last time I did anything for them was in the November 2001 issue, when I revealed the surprising fact that far from becoming extinct sixty five million years ago, dinosaurs are still to be found in central Africa! Now anybody who writes this sort of stuff for a magazine like Prediction can hardly complain if he receives some pretty strange letters from readers. I have some of them in front of me now and very interesting they are too. They look a bit weird, some of them written all in green, others alternating green with red and yellow; a few with important passages heavily underlined or in capital letters. It is however not the appearance, but the content which I wish to discuss today.
There are several common features to many of these letters, the great majority of which were sent by unbalanced or disturbed individuals. Firstly, almost without exception these are anxious and angry people. They see dangers to which others are blind and they cannot understand why others do not realise things as clearly as they do themselves. The threats vary; some fear invasion from outer space, while others think that the Jews are taking over the world. (This last puts me in mind of the Vaken site which Dominic Johansson's father is involved with!) Many of them have written to the government to complain and cannot understand why their letters remain unanswered. Almost all of them feel that they are being persecuted in some way or other. People are laughing at them, orthodox science ignores their discoveries and their new theories of relativity or cosmology are being suppressed by the establishment. Quite a few of these letters are absolutely incomprehensible; it is impossible even to guess what the writer means. A few think that the government is trying to poison them with vaccinations, fluoride in the water supply or invisible rays. Although these letters are all written, as far as I know, by people unknown to each other, they are so uncannily similar that one feels that some overarching syndrome must be responsible.
When I mentioned a few days ago that a home educator's blog post had been composed in alternating colours, some jumped to the conclusion that this was a dig at the individual concerned. It was not. If it were a case of the occasional person displaying the same symptoms which I have observed in my correspondents from Prediction, then it would hardly be remarkable. One finds strange people in any group. There is a bit more to it than that though. I belong to quite a few online communities and lists. Some of these are religious groups and others political. It is the same with my wife and daughters; between us we have pretty wide experience of such things. Now one expects the odd strange person in these groups and they are certainly to be found. There is no doubt that there are plenty of cranks on the Internet. In general though, the tone is fairly amiable and tolerant. This is the case whether the group is discussing the real presence of Christ in the communion wafers, art deco glassware, the care of ferrets or the Labour leadership contest. How different, how very different, is the atmosphere on some of the larger Internet lists relating to elective home education!
One notices that many home educators, whether posting on Internet sites, talking to newspaper reporters or making submissions to government enquiries, are enormously fond of spotting sinister conspiracies which are invisible to others. They are also angry and anxious for much of the time about threats to which the average citizen is oblivious. One also finds it pretty obvious that a lot of them have the feeling of being persecuted. It is not uncommon for them to believe that the government wishes to poison their children by means of vaccines. They write to the government regularly and are baffled as to why nobody in orthodox education can see that their methods are so much better than those currently being used. It is not at all infrequent to find that one has no idea at all what they are trying to say.
It was to this general atmosphere that I was alluding when I posted on the topic of the mental health of home educators. I was not suggesting that the great majority of home educating parents are mentally ill, although of course many are a bit strange. I meant to convey the idea that there is fertile ground in this community for mad stories to take root and that many home educators seem ready and willing to believe anything, however bizarre. I think that the presence of what seems to me to be a higher than usual number of unbalanced individuals makes this situation worse. I honestly believe that some of these people are suffering from what used to be called persecution mania. The problem is that because of the feverish ambience which one finds already existing in some groups of home educators, these unfortunate people find a willing audience for their stories of persecution by the government or other agencies. Instead of saying to the person telling these garbled and paranoid tales, 'Come and sit down and have a nice cup of tea; you're not yourself today.', those to whom the mad fantasy has been recounted then begin hyperventilating themselves and rush off to tell their friends and relatives that the sky is falling! They never seem to ask themselves the one question which one should always ask of any rumour; is this true?
I cannot see any sort of remedy for this. The truth of the matter is that an awful lot of home educating parents do feel that they are the targets of government persecution, as well as persecution by many other sinister and shadowy groups. The obvious explanation is never enough, there must always be a conspiracy lurking in the background. Somebody offers to protect their child against the dangers of meningitis and they suspect Big Pharma of wanting to poison their baby. The Department of Education revamps its website and at once the rumour spreads that they are deliberately suppressing the 2007 guidelines for local authorities. This is happening all the time. I no longer write for Prediction and so do not get any letters from the readers of that strange magazine. However, reading the online views and opinions of some home educators more than makes up for this. The problem is of course that I am not the only one who reads these opinions. I shall be posting in a day or two about the number of other people who read the lists avidly and belong to the communities who are not home educators. The effect upon these people when reading some of the nonsense one sees is, unfortunately, to say 'They must be mad!' This is not helpful when trying to persuade the government that home edcucators need to be left alone.