The Attack on Homeschoolers Is an Attack on American Ideals

Benjamin Keagle (L), 17, helps his brother James Keagle, 10, during a homeschool assignment in St. Charles, Iowa, September 30, 2011. (Brian C. Frank/Reuters)
Our ‘democratic values’ differ from Europe’s. Look it up: That’s kind of the whole point of America.

Listen carefully to the progressive Left and you may discover that when they say “democratic values,” they mean “I get to tell you what to think.” It’s nothing new to argue that the people must be forced to conform to the preferences of the cultural elites. It takes a certain mental flexibility to do this in the name of democracy.

I refer to the Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s stated case for why it should be illegal for you to homeschool your children in her “something must be done” cry in Harvard Magazine. Bartholet wants the state to ride in on horseback and break up all those sinister gatherings in which families go through the multiplication tables together. Or discuss the Constitution. Or — sharp intake of breath — even study the Bible.

Bartholet makes some half-hearted noises about opposing homeschooling because it supposedly leads to child abuse, or because homeschool parents are unlettered troglodytes who don’t know which end of the pencil the ink comes out of. (“People can homeschool who’ve never gone to school themselves, who don’t read or write themselves,” she claims.) These are just warmup arguments, though (dismantled here and here). Even Bartholet doesn’t really seem to believe them. The crux of her case against homeschoolers is that they might grow up thinking thoughts Bartholet does not agree with. That’s the “risk” of homeschooling.

It’s important, Bartholet tells us, “that children grow up exposed to community values, social values, democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints.” Democratic values? Democratic means ruled by the common people, or, less literally, people making their own choices rather than being directed from the top down. What could be more bottom-up, more infused with the spirit of the demos, than individual families making their own individual curricula without a lot of state intrusion? If Bartholet desires to see the flourishing of “ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints,” discriminating against people because she is intolerant of their viewpoints is a funny way to show it.

Intolerance, even disgust, for “other people’s viewpoints” is all over the paper in the Arizona Law Review article that inspired the Harvard Magazine piece. Professor Bartholet is vibrating at about 50,000 megahertz with righteous panic about the cultural education of homeschooled children. Among the points she makes or quotes approvingly:

“As time went on, the conservative Christian wing became the clear majority of all homeschoolers.”

Many homeschoolers dislike “exposing their children to ideas such as secularism, atheism, feminism, and value relativism.”

Homeschoolers consider “even basic literacy” to have “little importance compared to unflinching acceptance of religious doctrine and reactionary political views.”

“Some homeschooling parents are extreme religious ideologues who live in near-total isolation and hold views in serious conflict with those generally deemed central in our society.”

“Homeschoolers were more likely than public schoolers to feel that the dominant U.S. culture was hostile to their moral values and more likely to support a gendered division of labor within the home.”

Bartholet knows that home schools aren’t dens of abuse. She’s afraid they might be dens of conservatism. For heaven’s sake, homeschoolers may even grow up thinking that Mommy should do the cooking and Daddy should do the oil changes.

Never mind that even most liberals actually live their lives with a heavily “gendered division of labor within the home,” and if you don’t believe me I can refer you to about 6,000 irate columns by seething liberal women whose liberal husbands aren’t doing enough child care. Bartholet frets that homeschoolers might grow up not even minding the gendered nature of household labor enough to shriek about it in a letter to Dear Prudence.

Bartholet’s argument arrives at an important moment for an increasingly robust movement: Millions of Americans are involuntarily homeschooling their children owing to coronavirus lockdowns, and some of them will decide to carry on with it. Even before the virus, there were already more American children in home schools (around 2 million) than in Catholic schools. Bartholet is right to think the movement constitutes a pedagogic rival to an educational establishment that, certainly in the public schools and increasingly even in the private ones, has succeeded in imposing an almost across-the-board progressive orthodoxy on American kids, whether their parents like it or not.

Fred Bauer writes that Bartholet’s idea of outlawing home schools à la Germany and Sweden, whose examples she slaveringly cites, makes her an enemy of pluralism, and so she is. It takes chutzpah to do this in the name of diversity. Bartholet writes in a footnote to her academic article, “Homeschooling denies children a proper civic education, and fails to expose them to constitutional norms like tolerance and diversity, which impacts the fabric of democracy.” Diversity generally means a superficial notion of looking around the table and seeing a gorgeous mosaic of people — different races, ethnicities, nationalities, and at least several of the 71 genders — who all think exactly the same way. But to the extent diversity is a “constitutional norm,” it means ideological pluralism — respect for different ideas, especially religious ones.

Bartholet may hate that that religion often plays a major part in the decision to homeschool, but religion, too is a matter of democracy. That American families may make their own decisions on matters of worship, rather than accepting the official state religion, is deeply consonant with “democratic values.” Intellectuals, judges, and professors seem to think citing how other countries, especially European ones, operate constitutes a robust riposte, a.k.a., a sick burn. But Americans have always done things differently from Europeans owing to our more expansive, more demos-driven notions of individualism and liberty. Religious democracy interlocks with religious liberty to form the very origins of the United States of America. In other words, our “democratic values” differ from Europe’s. Look it up: That’s kind of the whole point of America.


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