It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Why not produce, thought conservative activist Paul Weyrich, a library of educational videotapes to help home-school parents? Perhaps even a cable-television channel that offered quality classroom materials mixed with a little wholesome entertainment?
"It made sense to me," said Weyrich, a veteran media entrepreneur and one of the founding fathers of the Religious Right. "But the idea didn't get very far. I've been asking home-schoolers about this for several years and a lot of them keep telling me, 'We don't have cable. We don't even have a TV.' Many of them are unplugged -- literally. "
These are not business-as-usual families, cookie-cut into the sizes and shapes on display in shopping malls, mail-order catalogues and, especially, prime-time television. They have unique priorities when they budget their time and money. They have radically different family values that often defy simple political labels.
In a strange way, home-schoolers are creating a new counter-culture outside the American mainstream. It's the Anti-Woodstock Generation.
No one has showered more praise on this crowd than Weyrich. He is ecstatic that 1.5 million or so children are now being educated at home, a number that will only rise in the wake of school-day disasters such as the bloodshed in Littleton, Colo. Even mainstream politicians are starting to pay attention, as symbolized by the GOP presidential hopefuls who paraded through last week's Home School Legal Defense Association convention in Washington, D.C.
"You have shamed the regular school system with what you have achieved," said billionaire Steve Forbes.
In Texas, Gov. George W. Bush said reverently, "we view home-schooling as something to be respected and something to be protected. Respected for the energy and the commitment of loving mothers and loving fathers. Protected from the interference of government."
But Weyrich went much further, in a speech sandwiched between the flash-bulb festivals that greeted the heavyweights. If there is hope for this culture, Weyrich told the faithful, "it's because of what you people are doing. Now what we need to do is replicate what you're doing in a whole number of other areas of American life."
Last February, Weyrich made precisely the same point in a controversial letter in which he said moral conservatives have won some political victories, but have done little to cleanse the "ever-wider sewer" of American popular culture.
"Politics has failed because of the collapse of the culture. What Americans would have found absolutely intolerable only a few years ago, a majority now not only tolerates but celebrates," he said. "Americans have adopted, in large measure, the MTV culture that we so valiantly opposed just a few years ago, and it has permeated the thinking of all but those who have separated themselves from the contemporary culture."
The Weyrich letter made waves for obvious reasons. Here was the man who coined the phrase 'moral majority' saying that the moral majority was gone. The founder of the Heritage Foundation was saying that America's cultural heritage was in ruins. The president of the Free Congress Foundation was saying that the GOP-driven Congress had sold out, on moral issues.
Meanwhile, home-school families were getting the job done, he said. They stopped spinning their wheels in existing educational systems and did something positive. Weyrich believes that the same thing needs to happen in entertainment, journalism, politics, higher education and even in many American religious groups.
But there's one problem. Remember all those unplugged TVs? It's will be hard for home-schooled children to have any cultural impact, said Weyrich, if they've been systematically taught to reject all of their culture -- the good as well as the bad. This hit home when he tried to find talented Christian humorists to take part in an alternative television project.
"If we totally drop out, we aren't going to produce any alternative voices in American life," said Weyrich. "We won't have any humor or music or movies or literature or anything else that Americans will be able to turn to, when the culture hits bottom. We really can't afford to become the new Amish. That would be a disaster for us and, I believe, for America."