With the COVID19 crisis virtualizing school instruction and giving many parents a taste of homeschooling life, the topic of home education is hotter than ever. Particularly, a recent Harvard Magazine article by Erin O-Donnell has brought a firestorm from homeschool supporters – and for good reason. The article denounces the practice of homeschooling through remarks from Elizabeth Bartholet, the Morris Wasserstein Public Interest Professor of Law at Harvard. Bartholet’s other role as Faculty Director of Harvard Law School’s Child Advocacy Program informs her ultimate argument against homeschooling on the grounds of concern for the children. Her position pits a child’s right to “a meaningful education” against the natural rights of parents to educate their children.
The central narrative of Batholet is that homeschooled children are victims of their parents’ oppressive ideologies, but the State is there to intervene as the children’s saviors. The Harvard professor’s commentary reveals a motivation to eliminate homeschooling for no more reason than her own ideology. No statistics. No historical perspective. No practical benefits. No trace of any research on the topic of homeschooling at all.
To remedy this informational gap, I have consulted the most comprehensive sources I could find to get that hard data that proves that public schools are safer, that public education is more effective, that children and society benefit more from government funded primary education. And, there is hard data and a significant body of research on the subject. The only problem is that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of homeschooling.
In my initial research, I fully expected to find reasonable disagreement between the data; but I was thoroughly surprised to find near-consensus on the positive outcomes of homeschooling versus the average public schools in every metric. Without any research, one might off-handedly expect that if homeschooling methods prevail in one area (e.g. academic performance), it might fall short in another (e.g. social skills). Such is not the case according to the relevant research.
You will find that anti-homeschoolers will straw-man homeschooling in advocating their positions. On the other hand, even if I “steel-man” the anti-homeschool position, as any good student of Aquinas would, their arguments turn to straw nonetheless. If you detect the airs of confidence herein, it’s because in few matters in one’s life does the body of research so resolutely support one’s position as now.
However, note that in writing this article, I’m not advocating for the abolition of public schools, nor of any other brick-and-mortar school, though I would not be surprised at its suggestion. Instead, I’m advocating, in the strongest terms possible due to the utter society-shaping nature of education, for the right of families to educate their children at home without undue intervention.
Given the book-worth amount of material I’ve encountered on the subject, I’ll present merely one aspect in this post, leaving the various historical, practical, and outcomes-based arguments in favor of homeschooling for upcoming articles, so that my full response to the anti-homeschool movement forms a series of articles over the coming weeks. Then, at the end of the series, I’ll create a master essay containing and expanding each major argument.
Here, we’ll first break down arguments posed by a growing anti-homeschool movement while revealing its underlying ideology, particularly those advocated by Bartholet.
The Case Against Homeschooling
The arguments against homeschooling are few yet pervasive to varying degrees. I broadly categorize them as either 1) based on outcome or safety and 2) ideological. Given the lack of data supporting category 1, (which I will demonstrate in coming articles in this series) all objectively unverifiable arguments against homeschooling are thus purely ideological. The most common arguments typically revolve around the idea that homeschooling creates an environmental bubble that hinders the development of children, particularly in social development. I don’t blame most people for holding this opinion: I believed it myself in the recent past but have changed my opinion in light of research.
Another, similarly innocent argument is that school provides an effective means to identifying legitimate cases of child abuse. It is ironic that Bartholet, a leader of Harvard Law School’s Child Advocacy Program, holds this position. I would hope a professional dedicate to advocating for children’s well-being would have a better grasp of the relevant research.
While it’s true that school teachers and officials raise the red flag to child protective services most often for cases of potential child abuse (as mentioned in the Harvard Magazine article), it’s not a reasonable argument. To be a reasonable argument, it needs to ace the following two questions 1) Do public schools catch a significant percentage of intra-familial child abuse cases? And, 2) are children actually safer at school than at home with all forms of violence accounted for? The argument, as you might expect, fails on both counts, as most experts believe a majority of cases go unnoticed by schools and children are statistically much safer in their home environments, as will be expanded upon later.
This leaves the anti-homeschooler position as purely ideological: it stems from a belief that the State can better handle family affairs than the family itself. It’s Marxian from the get-go. Bartholet apparently scours the societal landscape for areas with too little government oversight.
“We have an essentially unregulated regime in the area of homeschooling,” she says. An unregulated regime? Regimes are, by their very nature, over-regulated, over-controlled, authoritarian, hierarchical entities. The homeschoolers, if anything, are the opposite of a regime, being much more akin to a loose collection of clans connected by their opposition to the big-government regime that Bartholet advocates for.
The Harvard Magazine article goes on to reveal the real ideology driving the anti-homeschool movement: “But surveys of homeschoolers show that a majority of such families (by some estimates, up to 90 percent) are driven by conservative Christian beliefs, and seek to remove their children from mainstream culture. Bartholet notes that some of these parents are “extreme religious ideologues” who question science and promote female subservience and white supremacy.”
What is wrong with the majority of homeschoolers being conservative and Christian? What is wrong with removing our children from maintstream culture? Our culture is defined largely by violence, sex, social media, politics, vulgar speech, and beyond. Who defines what an extreme religious ideologue is? To Bartholet, I am the extremist. Homeschoolers are extremists. Christian conservatives are extremists. Which science is it anathema to question? It’s ironic that the anti-homeschoolers are ignoring the scientific research on homeschooling.
Bartholet, while supporting an authoritarian intervention into the lives of families, then goes on to call homeschooling parents authoritarians: “The issue is, do we think that parents should have 24/7, essentially authoritarian control over their children from ages zero to 18? I think that’s dangerous.”
This is the utter strangeness of the anti-homeschool ideology: parents educating their own children is authoritarian. Those parents that sacrifice so much time, effort, and income to educate their children are tyrants that must be stopped from indoctrinating their own children. Who is more a tyrant, the one who shapes the worldview of their own children, or the one who shapes the worldviews of all children?
Lastly, in Howard-Zinn-fashion, the law professor states her underlying worldview, saying “I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless, and to give the powerful ones total authority.” It’s a worldview of seeing society only in terms of power dynamics, ignoring all other facets of life. Not only that, but she doesn’t recognize that she is siding with the largest power on face of the earth: the U.S. government, which already educates the majority of children in the U.S.
Even if we play the power dynamics game here, her position gives no power to “the powerless” children; instead it merely removes power from the child’s parents and transfers it to the state. There is no increase in power to “the powerless” there. Then, at what age would we even apply her ethic? Why would we allow parents “24/7, essentially authoritarian control” over their children before school age? Since our psyches are largely formed by the age of four, won’t those Christian conservatives have already done too much damage by the time school comes around?
The logic of this anti-homeschool ideology falls apart very quickly. The case for homeschooling, however, is very strong, and I look forward to sharing the immense case for homeschooling throughout this series.