The Case for Homeschooling (Part 2): The History of Home Education

If the history of education were a painting, homeschooling would be the backdrop upon which each stroke of the brush marks a new development, for better of worse, in how we teach our children. The painting is a very slow one to take shape, having still a countable number of wide strokes despite thousands of years of work. If we pause for a moment to reflect on the state of our painting, there is far more white space than color, there are obvious mistakes in our painting, and its future looks dull in comparison to the promise that our blank canvas began with.

This article is part two of a series of posts addressing the growing anti-homeschool movement, which advocates for the abolition of homeschooling in the U.S. and abroad. Here, we point out the historical precedence of homeschooling as just one argument for the natural right of families to homeschool their children. Part one of the series may be found HERE.

The difficulty in describing the history of homeschooling is just like the difficulty in trying to describe the untouched spaces around the paint; it’s far easier to describe where and with what color the paint has been applied to the canvas. Thus, our dive into the history of homeschooling will take the more sensible approach of not describing how homeschooling ebbed over time, but rather how formal school – brick and mortar schools – displaced them in the western world over the past few thousand years.

One curious fact, and the main point I make here, is that almost all the displacement of homeschooling occurred in the past two centuries, making homeschooling the de facto form of education for mankind.

I’ve found that often a generation takes up the mantle for a particular facet of society of government merely because it was their generation’s status quo – it’s what they grew up with. I think most people today apply this quiet affirmation of the status quo to education without much thought.

Taking a step back from merely our own generation and childhood, we find that compulsory public education is a largely recent experiment, and thus has no historical claim to limit the rights of families to home education.

Education in Antiquity

If you were born before the 1830s, you were probably home educated, whether you were the son of an American revolutionary, the Italian daughter of merchants during the Renaissance, the only child of a farmer in feudalistic Europe, or the eldest child of a Judean carpenter. Western civilization’s normal mode of learning the basics was at the home and through apprenticeship. Though universities have existed for centuries, secondary education was a luxury afforded by few and assumed a pre-existing primary education for admitted students. If you happened to be the children of nobles, you might have been educated by someone other than your parents, such as a tutor or a private school. There are few counter-examples throughout the history of the West.

What we now think of as primary education didn’t emerged as a universal norm until much later with compulsory education laws passed in the 19th and 20th centuries that quickly eroded the popularity and in some cases the very ability for families to homeschool [1].

A ten-stop tour tracing primary education throughout the great western civilizations will show that compulsory public education is the experiment and historically anomalous until recently. This context will return our concept of education to its rightful place: the home.

  1. Ancient Egypt

In theocractic ancient Egypt the priests, whom held extensive knowledge in the sciences and mathematics, primarily exercised the teaching role in an early formal setting, mostly for the education of privileged children bound for the priesthood or to become scribes. However, other vocations generally had to be learned through apprenticeship, tutoring, and participation in the trades of the family [2].

  1. Ancient Israel and Judea

Ancient Israeli education was similarly routed in informal learning from family for non-nobility, as Encyclopedia Britannica notes,  “Like all pre-industrial societies, ancient Israel first experienced a type of education that was essentially familial; that is to say, the mother taught the very young and the girls, while the father assumed the responsibility of providing moral, religious, and handcraft instruction for the growing sons. This characteristic remained in Jewish education, for the relation of teacher to pupil was always expressed in terms of parenthood and filiation” [2].

While Judea required education for all children, it was the parents who had the obligation to teach. Later in the first century AD, formal schools were introduced across the region by Joshua ben Gamla and made compulsory for 6-8 year olds. [3] Note that this time period, however, places Judea as part of the Roman Empire. As we shall see shortly, most of the Roman Empire education was marked by home education, thus placing the schools instituted by Joshua ben Gamla among the minority.

  1. Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek education is admittedly difficult to pin down, as it evolved significantly over time, particularly from neighboring civilizations’ influences. Nobility, as one might guess is nearly universal among all the famous developed civilizations, enjoyed superior education from elder nobles and from guilds and courts. With the emergence of “Ancient Greece” into a collective of city-states (Athens, Sparta, and the like), education may have taken on a more communal form, though peasants remained largely uneducated outside their particular trades [2].

Plato holds special credit, in the eyes of many Western intellectuals, as the main advocate for compulsory schooling from his reflections in The Republic, in which he reasons that an ideal society must be composed of ideal citizens, and ideal citizens require an ideal education.It seems far-fetched to think that public schools today (or ever) are anywhere near ideal.

  1. The Roman Empire

Much more can be said of later Roman education, which increasingly treated the Greek civilization as a barometer on education: one was not really educated unless one knew what the Greeks knew. This lead to children of nobles becoming largely educated under the tutelage of native Greek speakers, such that the students would become fluent in both Greek and their native Latin tongue. Pre-6th century, little is known of education throughout the largely rural Roman Empire, of which is noted their attitudes toward education, “ancient Roman education was … an education suitable for a rural, traditional people—instilling in youth an unquestioned respect for the customs of the ancestors: the mos maiorum.” [2]

Further insight into Roman primary education is witnessed herein:

“Differing from the Greeks, the Romans considered the family the natural milieu in which the child should grow up and be educated. The role of the mother as educator extended beyond the early years and often had lifelong influence. If, in contrast to the girl, the boy at 7 years of age was allowed to move away from the exclusive direction of his mother, he came under the control of his father; the Roman father closely supervised the development and the studies of his son, giving him instruction in an atmosphere of severity and moral exigency, through precept but even more through example.”


Primary schools are theorized to have existed, perhaps as early as the 600s BC due to the existence of a Roman alphabet (borrowed from the Etruscans). These schools, however, likely had very little central governance, as government intervention wasn’t apparent until the 400s AD, even in a limited capacity, mostly to provide guidance on administrative affairs rather than on the minutia of teaching. Most importantly, there isn’t any apparent evidence that these primary schools were compulsory.

  1. The Medieval World

Medieval schooling, where it existed, was largely religious in nature. Peasant children were very unlikely to receive any significant education besides vocational skills learned from family and immediate influences. Increasing class standing generally increased the likelihood of formal educational opportunities, typically through the Church and clergy. Most formal schools were geared toward educating priests and monks until universities began appearing later, spurring on the development of boys grammar schools with connections to the Church and secular guilds.

Nonetheless, the majority of the medieval world was illiterate, largely due to the rarity of books before the invention of the printing press. Sometimes, parish priests provided some form of elementary education in reading, writing, arithmetic, and religious education outside of a formal context [2].

Perhaps the largest counterexample to my claim is the 1400s-era Aztec Empire in the New World, which began what many today view as the first instance of nation-wide compulsory schooling [4]. However, it would be difficult to argue that the Aztec Empire’s educational pursuits have influenced western education perceptibly. Furthermore, the claim is that homeschooling was historically the norm. The existence of one culture in one century that instituted compulsory public education does not refute the claim.

  1. The Renaissance

During the Renaissance era, European education began shifting away from Church-centered education with the emergence of gymnasiums, though these schools were only accessible to privileged boys in preparation for the academies of higher education. They notably incorporated more secular interests including “studies of humanity” (studia humanitatis), which “stressed the importance of man, his faculties, affairs, worldly aspirations, and well-being”  [2]. Note at this point in history, broad compulsory education for the public including youth of all social classes has not existed in Europe.

  1. The Reformation

In this next major era, that of the Protestant Reformation, both religious and educational forces would come to play. Religiously, reformers such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli would bring large swaths of Europeans out of the Catholic Church. At the same time, figures including the very same Martin Luther, began encouraging some of the first “modern” public schools. Luther, a powerful influence in Germany at the time, supported the creation of schools to educate everyone, rather than only the advantaged youth as he expressed in An die Ratsherren aller Städte deutschen Landes (To the Councillors of all Towns in German Countries, 1524).

As a Catholic myself, Luther’s advocacy for greater education for youth of all classes is one of his most honorable aspects, despite my disagreements with his theology and solution to his qualms with the Church of the time. Interestingly, his advocacy for public schools could be viewed as a means to reducing the Church’s influences, which for centuries shepherded education in parishes throughout all Europe. Nonetheless, Luther likely had a genuine desire to better educate the poor and illiterate, such that each could better understand the Bible and Christian theology. Some of the first public schools emerged in the German states of Gotha and Thuringia in the early 1520s. [5] Similar schools would open throughout the following decades reflecting the particular educational philosophies of their founders.

  1. The New World and the American Colonies

The first schools in the New World appeared in Mexico in the 1520s (the same decade some of the first German public schools were established). Southward of the American colonies, schools were largely formed and taught by Spanish Catholics for educating Native Americans. Spanish children usually had tutors toward the beginning of Spanish colonization, though later they would also join local schools. Still, none of these schools were compulsory [2].

In Europe and the U.S., general government intervention into schools began taking a greater foothold in the 17th and 18th centuries, born both of a desire to educate all and for political ends through the better subordination of citizens and ensuring greater economic strength for the nation.

In New England, where Puritan influences were strong, education  was primarily motivated such that “the young learned the ground rules of the good society, as revealed in the Bible.” This need pushed Puritan parents to educate their children in reading and writing well. Later into the 1600s, however, the towns and eventually the larger regions, took greater steps toward formal education with the passing of laws requiring towns to support dedicated teachers of reading and writing [6].

The Massachusetts School Laws, three legislative acts enacted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642, 1647, and 1648, are commonly regarded as the first steps toward compulsory education in the United States. The 1647 law, in particular, required every town having more than 50 families to hire a teacher, and every town of more than 100 families to establish a school [7].

Private academies for boys then later for girls in the 18th century would emerge in Philadelphia, New York, and other growing cities, though these remained only for upper class youth. Academies aimed for a more practical education than existing institutions, which were seen as teaching subjects too removed from the real world.
For the southern colonies, the situation was more suited to a rural, independent society, so homeschooling largely prevailed. Not only was homeschooling the norm for practical reasons of a sparser population, but southerners also believed that education, in line with most of antiquity, belonged to the parents and in sometimes the local church. Notably, regional laws would mandate the creation of  “workhouse schools” to educate poor children in the trades. Well-off families would still send children to private schools or hire tutors.

  1. 19th Century Europe and the U.S.

The 19th century saw a dramatic rise in the intervention of governments in Europe and the Americas in the education of their citizens. Proponents of state intervention put concerted efforts into convincing the public and politicians that taxation must support community-wide education for all people. Formal grade and class systems outgrew their origins in Germany from the last century, spreading to schools worldwide. Church influence on education continually eroded at the growth of secularized state schools, teaching with greater emphasis on modern sciences and languages. Schools generally took on a more national character, by integrating topics on citizenship and national history. The nationalization of education was believed to be the means to achieving universal education [2].

Massachusetts would again take center stage in the educational landscape in the United States in 1852 with the passing of state-wide compulsory schooling laws. These laws forced children to attend schools with government oversight and threatened fines and the confiscation of children from parents who did not comply [8]. By 1918, virtually every state in the U.S. had passed similar laws, though most or all of these laws still allowed for private schools as an alternative to public schools.

  1. 20th Century U.S.

Just a few short years after WWI, one of the first real threats (in the U.S.) to the right for choice in education emerged – strangely – by democratic means. The 1922 Compulsory Education Act was drafted in Oregon due to a wariness of foreign cultures and values that were viewed as undermining American identity. The law, promoted by powerful and infamous groups such as the KKK, specifically targeted Catholic schools while allowing for state-monitored homeschooling and other private schools as exceptions. However, the law was amended to ban all private schools and (remarkably) passed by popular vote [9].

A lawsuit soon followed in Pierce vs. Society of the Sisters, which was rightly ruled in favor of school choice by the U.S. Supreme Court and subsequently cited for precedence in over 100 cases [10]. The opinion of the court famously concluded “The child is not the mere creature of the state” and ended the dispute over whether the government had exclusive powers to educate the American youth [11]. Homeschooling, though it always existed with declining popularity since the proliferation of public and private schools in the 1800s, didn’t resurface with any significant societal recognition until the 1960s and 1970s with prominent advocates including Rousas John Rushdoony, John Holt, and Raymond and Dorothy Moore.

Such 20th century homeschool proponents did not necessarily advocate for homeschooling due a perceived superiority of homeschooling, but rather in accordance with my own opinion that the home is by its very nature the proper place for education.

In 1980, Holt said, “I want to make it clear that I don’t see homeschooling as some kind of answer to badness of schools. I think that the home is the proper base for the exploration of the world which we call learning or education. Home would be the best base no matter how good the schools were”[12].

As of 2016, National Center for Education Statistics (NHES) reported over 1.7 million homeschooled students in the U.S., comprising just under 2% of the school-age population. The number of homeschoolers has nearly doubled since 1999 and is showing signs of continued rapid increase [13].

Final Thoughts

From this brief overview of the history of education in the West, it’s clear that compulsory public schooling is the experiment, the historical anomaly bearing the burden of proof of its utility.

Simply from a historical viewpoint, advocates of compulsory public schooling and anti-homeschool advocates should have to prove compulsory education’s superiority in merit for lack of historical precedence. The efficacy of homeschooling relative to public education stands strong – even using the same standards implemented by public schools in many cases, as we shall cover in the next post. Stay tuned.















Published by Christian Bottenfield

Catholic | Father of two | Husband | Engineer | Founder of ThinkingWest blog

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