In the 19th century, the Vatican seized a six-year-old living in the papal states in order to provide the child with a Catholic upbringing. Edgardo Mortara was born to a Jewish family but was baptized as an infant when he fell ill. After Pope Pius IX discovered the apparent fact of Mortara’s baptism, he insisted that the child had a canonical right to a Catholic upbringing, a right that obtained regardless of his parents’ wishes to the contrary.
I do not doubt that Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet would bristle at any comparison between herself and Pio nono. But their worldviews bear certain basic similarities that cannot be ignored.
Just as the Roman pontiff asserted that all baptized children have a right to a Catholic upbringing with or without their parents’ consent, Bartholet asserts that all children, by virtue of their birth in the context of a “larger society,” have a right to “what has been called an ‘open future’ — the right to exposure to alternative views and experiences.” This “right,” like the rights of the baptized child, inheres to the child regardless of the religious or philosophical convictions of their parents.
Bartholet proposes to secure this putative “right” by stripping parents of their ability to homeschool their children, effectively taking those children out of their parents’ custody for eight hours a day. This, to be sure, is less severe a seizure of parental authority than Pius IX’s, but it is a seizure nonetheless.
This “right to exposure to alternative views” only works, for Bartholet, in one direction. As Fred Bauer pointed out, the “right to exposure” standard should equally demand that “a secular child raised by secular parents who then goes to a secular public school” be “sent to a monastery for a few months each year in order to fully understand a worldview based on obedience to religious authority.” This is obviously not what Bartholet intends, and she makes that distinction clear. In her treatise in the Arizona Law Review, she clarifies that this “right to exposure to alternative views” is a positive right to a very specific secular formation. In other words, the religious and the traditional child have a “right” to be exposed to cosmopolitan values, but not the reverse.
Bartholet cites Columbia Law professor Michael Rebell’s charge that “fundamentalist” parents deny their homeschooled children exposure to “secularism, atheism, feminism, and value relativism.” This deprivation apparently requires state intervention to correct, and Bartholet insists on forcing homeschooled kids out of their homes to ensure that they are afforded their apparent birthright to learn about intersectional feminism and the correspondence theory of truth.
What does this prohibition on homeschooling look like in practice? Bartholet says, that under her proposed regime, homeschooled children would be loosed from their alleged bondage by a “presumptive ban on homeschooling,” one that places the “burden on parents” to prove that they deserve an exemption from the ban. She avoids detailing the specifics of those exemptions, but gestures towards Sweden, where “religious or philosophical convictions are not valid reasons for homeschooling.” Denying parents the ability to homeschool their children for ideological reasons — or, the wrong ideological reasons; Bartholet makes sure to distinguish between “the original progressive wing” of the homeschool movement, who bravely pointed out “the flaws they [saw] in traditional education,” from the untouchables in the “conservative Christian wing” of the movement, whose criticisms of “traditional education” are presumptively invalid — is, to Bartholet, the best way to secure a child’s “right to participate meaningfully in society with appreciation of societal values.”
Again, under Bartholet’s framework, Pius IX’s error was not so much his usurpation of parental prerogative — though she perhaps would take issue with the degree of that usurpation — but instead in its intended ends. Forcing a baptized child to learn the tenets of Catholicism appears to moderns a species of authoritarianism, but to Bartholet, ensuring that kids are taught that, say, not all men have penises is a prerequisite of their liberation.
Elizabeth Bartholet is one of more than ten speakers scheduled to address Harvard Law School’s “Homeschooling Summit” in June. The event was organized by William & Mary law professor James Dwyer, who has said that the “reason parent-child relationships exist is because the State confers legal parenthood” on parents. In other words, to Dwyer, the state is endowed with a near-absolute authority to nullify the parent-child relationship, an authority that — of its own beneficence — it has abstained from exercising.