Proposals to Ban Homeschooling Are an Attack on Pluralism

David Keagle takes a break from homeschooling with his children in St. Charles, Iowa, September 30, 2011. (Brian C. Frank/Reuters)
A proliferation of diverse educational options ensures that educational policy is not winner-take-all.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A prison composed of “reading,” “writing,” “arithmatic” (yes, “arithmatic”), and the Bible. That is how an illustration in the latest issue of the Harvard Magazine portrays homeschooling. While other children run and play outside, the poor homeschooler squints out between the bars. (An updated version of this illustration changes “arithmatic” to “arithmetic.”)

The story accompanying this illustration focuses on an argument by the celebrated Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet that homeschooling “not only violates children’s right to a ‘meaningful education’ and their right to be protected from potential child abuse, but may keep them from contributing positively to a democratic society.” Because of the dangers of homeschooling, Bartholet recommends that it should be presumptively banned either by the courts or various legislatures. According to federal data, a little over 3 percent of American children are currently homeschooled (about 1.7 million). This percentage has almost doubled in the past 20 years. Parents homeschool for a number of reasons, but many homeschool for religious reasons (hence, the Bible as part of the prison in that illustration).

In an extended article for the Arizona Law Review, Bartholet attacks the practice of homeschooling. While Bartholet’s argument mentions some other objections for homeschooling (such as the allegation that minimal state supervision of it may ignore child abuse), much of her argument against homeschooling turns on the questions of values. Her broader argument against homeschooling reveals the way that certain modes of political thought that prize autonomy can end up undermining pluralism. The attempt to impose a kind of cultural hegemony through mandatory, no-opt-out schooling could further inflame contemporary political debates.

Bartholet’s argument starts from a proposition that has a fairly broad consensus: A parent’s authority over a child should not be absolute. For instance, most people would probably agree that the government should prosecute a parent who kills his or her child. Bartholet, however, goes much further. From her perspective, children have an affirmative right to a quality education that reinforces certain “democratic” values. She argues that homeschooling usually does not afford such an education, so it should be presumptively banned. Certain targeted exceptions could be granted from this ban; “gifted artists or athletes” might be allowed to homeschool because the demands of their aspirations might interfere with regular schooling, for example. Other than those exceptions (which do not seem to include personal beliefs), every child would be required to enroll in school. While the major thrust of Bartholet’s article targets homeschooling, she also calls for more regulation of private education. At the end of this article, Bartholet writes of the effort to “impose some control” on private religious schools, such as yeshivas in New York.

A radical reduction in homeschooling would not be outside international norms, Bartholet contends. Countries like Germany and Sweden have effectively banned the practice. In her law review article, she quotes an opinion from Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court upholding a ban on homeschooling: Such a ban is defensible because of “the general interest of society in avoiding the emergence of parallel societies based on separate philosophical convictions and the importance of integrating minorities into society.”

For Bartholet, the principal goals of education include giving students skills that are “essential for employment and for exercising meaningful choices in their future lives.” Moreover, education should expose students to a diversity of viewpoints, lifestyles, and values. It is through this exposure to values beyond those of parents that young people purportedly gain this ability to exercise “meaningful choices.”

However, this emphasis on celebrating diversity in education might ultimately mean undermining diversity. Bartholet’s article suggests that one of the aims of public schools is to inculcate a certain “democratic culture.” The goal of education should be to nurture a kind of “mainstream,” and those who fall outside this mainstream should be forced to send their children to institutions that instruct them in it. Bartholet again and again attacks the motivations of parents whose “extreme ideological views” cause them to want to opt out of the public schools.

Yet this approach is in real tension with the project of living in a pluralistic society, which means having a place for individuals and communities that dissent from the cultural mainstream. In our society, there are many who might object to the doctrinal claims about identity, gender, faith, and sexuality promulgated at many public schools. Having their children instructed in such doctrines might offend some parents as much as school prayer might offend some atheists. The United States is a diverse place. Its public schools can incorporate a vast array of individuals and cultures, but its proliferation of educational models (public, private, and home schools) also gives testament to the range of American life. This wide variety of institutions speaks to the range of possible approaches to education within this country — from Amish schoolhouses to Catholic schools to Orthodox yeshivas to Muslim homeschoolers.

Moreover, it seems that Bartholet’s argument for diverse choice might have some of its own blind spots. She writes about the importance of exposing students to a variety of views but fails to address the way mandatory public schooling could itself close off some views. A secular child raised by secular parents who then goes to a secular public school might not be that exposed to religious viewpoints. Should he be sent to a monastery for a few months each year in order to fully understand a worldview based on obedience to religious authority?

While Bartholet approvingly quotes scholars who warn that homeschooling stresses too much “submission to authority,” it’s hard to say that the modern meritocracy — with its emphasis on winning the favor of teachers, cramming for standardized exams, and appeasing college admissions boards — itself doesn’t encourage a kind of submission to authority. She says that child artists or athletes might be exempted from public schooling, but, if the aim of education is to give a child “choice,” what are the grounds for this? A childhood spent as a musician or tennis prodigy can profoundly limit one’s choices, and a parent can influence this child’s “choice” to become the next Tiger Woods.

This might reveal the limit of an educational policy centered on maximizing “choice” for individuals; such a policy might misunderstand the role of choice in our lives and the importance of (non-chosen) traditions for informing our sense of ourselves. Like adults, children are not just abstract agents whose teleological end is to maximize “choice.” Instead, their individual exercise of choice occurs within a context of broader traditions, conventions, and norms. While Bartholet might lament those parents who “want to ensure that their children adopt their own particular religious and social views,” one of the central elements of parenting is raising children within a certain set of traditions. Moreover, any form of parenting will end up imparting some set of values and views. Nor is it necessarily illegitimate for a parent to want his or her child to adopt certain familial traditions. Environmentally conscious parents might want their children to recycle in adulthood; many religious parents hope that their children will carry on that religious tradition to the next generation. Children might, of course, reject those values, and part of parenthood is also accepting the choices of children as well as nurturing in them the ability to make well-informed choices. Nevertheless, that instruction in concrete traditions plays a central role in childrearing.

One could make Tocquevillian claims about the positive value of having alternative modes of learning in a diverse republic. Thicker communities and modes of learning that encourage such communities can help resist the tendency toward atomism that dissolves the social fabric necessary for sustaining modern liberty. But one could also defend having cultural opt-outs on more limited grounds: Such a concession to pluralism helps lessen conflict within a society. Because a significant minority do object to the values promoted in many public schools, giving them an opt-out through private schools and homeschooling can help lower social tensions. A proliferation of diverse educational options ensures that educational policy is not winner-take-all.

Some progressives might feel that, because their cultural priorities have great influence in public education at the moment, it is in their factional interest to embrace winner-take-all tactics for education, but they might be careful what they wish for. In the middle of 2016, some progressive law-types were confident of a Democratic victory in November and so called for an end to “defensive-crouch liberalism.” Yet those calls for a progressive legal revolution very likely helped put Donald Trump in the White House. If progressives decide to launch an attack upon educational pluralism, they could ignite further political opposition. Bartholet’s article talks about both legislative and judicial efforts to curtail educational diversity. And she begins to lay some breadcrumbs for left-leaning judges in her outlining of the ways that American homeschooling policy “is out of sync with global views.” Voters might take notice of the implications of this approach.

While Bartholet speaks about the importance of giving children the “choice to exit” the worldviews of their parents, her proposal to ban alternative modes of education is itself a proclamation of “no exit.”

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