Magazine May 18, 2020, Issue

Harvard Law Takes Aim at Homeschooling

A woman reads a book to her children in Budapest, Hungary, January 28, 2020. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)
Or, the second coming of the Know Nothings

Professor Elizabeth Bartholet of Harvard Law recently caused a stir with her ignorant and nakedly authoritarian Arizona Law Review essay calling for a ban on homeschooling. On its own, the article is bad. In context, it is worse. 

Professor Bartholet is hardly the first progressive academic to call for a ban on homeschooling. She is not even the only elite law-school professor to publish a paper on the subject: Robin West of Georgetown Law published a very similar broadside in Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly in 2009. Professor West’s assault was based in part on old-fashioned snobbery — she was aghast at the prospect of homeschoolers’ living “in trailer parks” or — heavens! — “1,000-square-foot homes.” (The median 1,000-square-foot home in Georgetown is just under $1 million. In any case, those poor hicks presumably would still be living in their trailer parks even if they sent their kids to public schools.) Her economic argument will be familiar to those who have followed the issue, too: “Their lack of job skills,” she wrote, “passed from one generation to the next, depresses the community’s overall economic health and their state’s tax base.” Professor Bartholet made much the same argument, claiming with no real evidence that homeschooling must prevent students from “contributing positively to a democratic society.”

Professor Bartholet cites the case of Tara Westover, who wrote a much-discussed memoir about her experience of being raised in rural Idaho by survivalist splinter-Mormon apocalypse cultists who viciously abused her and her siblings. Her family believed that civilization was going to collapse (remember Y2K?), that she was being controlled by Satan, that modern medicine is a conspiracy, and much else that is batty. Westover also was “homeschooled,” though there seems to have been no schooling involved. (But this is America, and so she went to Harvard and then got a doctorate from Cambridge.) Professor Bartholet takes this as an indictment of homeschooling rather than an indictment of, say, child-abusing splinter-Mormon apocalypse cultists in rural Idaho. 

Why? 

Homeschooling inhibits the ability of the state to conduct surveillance on some families. “There is no way of knowing how many homeschooled children experience a childhood comparable to Tara’s,” she writes. “But we do know that the homeschooling regime permits children to be raised this way.” If that is to be our criterion, then American life is indeed due for a major social reorganization: Consider the substantially higher rates of rape and sexual abuse of girls and young women that characterize such disparate American locales as poor urban neighborhoods, isolated towns in Alaska, Indian reservations, and “blended families.” 

The belief that the state is presumed to be entitled to conduct surveillance on families, and that the public-education system is to be the principal instrument of that surveillance, is founded on two sets of étatist assumptions, one economic and one spiritual, both totalitarian. 

The economic argument is straightforward and points back to Prussia, the spiritual homeland of progressivism. From Frederick the Great and Johann Julius Hecker through the Progressive Era to today, schools have been treated as factories that produce what the state needs: able administrators and bureaucrats in the context of the emerging Bismarckian welfare regimes and, later, workers in the industrial economies. Schools organized this way do not exist to serve children or families: They exist to serve the state, and children are not the customers — they are the product.

Changing economic needs changed education. As the economist Joel Mokyr put it: 

Much of the education . . . was not technical in nature but social and moral. Workers who had always spent their working days in a domestic setting had to be taught to follow orders, to respect the space and property rights of others, and to be punctual, docile, and sober. The early industrial capitalists spent a great deal of effort and time in the social conditioning of their labor force, especially in Sunday schools, which were designed to inculcate middle-class values and attitudes. 

Professor Bartholet makes much the same case, arguing that children are to be “educated for future employment,” to ensure that they become “productive participants in society, in employment, and in other ways.” She reiterates the homogenizing role of the schools, especially when it comes to immigrants. Homeschoolers, she writes, will not be homogenized but instead “reject mainstream, democratic culture and values.” The compulsory schools are there to ensure their conformity for reasons that are, as Professor Bartholet explains, both political and economic. 

And so the economic project, as you can see, was not entirely distinct from the spiritual project. 

Professor Bartholet’s aggressive secularism is, ironically, a variation on an old American political tendency in Puritanism. The anti-Catholicism of Puritan New England is difficult for contemporary Americans to appreciate. A Catholic priest could be put to death in colonial Massachusetts simply for being present in the territory. (It is not clear how stringently this law was enforced, though Massachusetts did hang Quakers.) Catholic Mass could not be legally celebrated in much of New England, and Catholics were legally second-class citizens in Massachusetts until well into the 19th century, when the state constitution was amended.

The case against Catholics in pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts was that their religious beliefs made it impossible to integrate them into the political system of the time, which was true: In colonial Massachusetts, church and state were effectively united. Later anti-Catholic animus elaborated on that point, and anti-Catholic polemicists in the Revolutionary era argued that Catholics could not be good republicans and democrats, that they were instinctive monarchists, that they were religiously and culturally incompatible with American-style liberty. (One sometimes hears similar arguments about Muslims today.) That the First Amendment would give license to “popery” was a lively concern in the 18th century. 

Our nation’s first compulsory-education law, passed in Massachusetts in 1647, was intended as a prophylactic against Catholic incursions. Like many modern progressives, the Puritans believed that the truth of their view of the world was entirely self-evident, and that the only things that could stand in the way of the communication of that truth were ignorance or wicked and mulish heresy. That law, the “Old Deluder Satan Act,” as it came to be known, echoes the familiar charge that the Catholic Church does the work of Satan by laboring “to keep men from knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue.” Universal literacy would protect the Puritan young against the “false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers,” meaning Christians with religious views at odds with those of the Puritans. That anti-Catholic animus would carry through into the 19th century, with the infamous Blaine amendments — still law in many states — which sought to inhibit the proliferation of Catholic schools by denying them education funding. For anti-Catholic leaders such as Representative James Blaine and his ilk, as for our contemporary progressives, Americans were to have just as much religious liberty as was compatible with their political demands. 

(Amusingly, these ancient anti-Catholic initiatives prefigure tutelary assumptions about the state embraced by contemporary right-wing Catholic “integralists” such as Adrian Vermeule and Sohrab Ahmari. Plus ça change.)

The Blaine amendments are a product of that middle-19th-century hysteria, when the anti-Catholic Know Nothing organization was a major force in our public life, especially in New England — in Massachusetts, the Know Nothings controlled both the governorship and almost every seat in the state legislature. There was a great deal of anti-immigrant racial hokum (“The idea of a ‘melting pot’ belongs to a pre-Mendelian age,” the eugenicist Charles Davenport wrote) and stuff that would have been familiar in 17th-century Massachusetts — but also much that is closely related to the anti-homeschooling arguments of Professors West, Bartholet, et al. Catholic immigrants and their backwards cultures, the argument went, could not “contribute positively to a democratic society” and were likely to “depress the community’s overall economic health.” 

Tara Westover is not the first woman to write a shocking memoir about strange people with exotic religious beliefs. The popular literature of an earlier America was replete with tawdry tales from “escaped nuns” (one was a popular lecturer at Ku Klux Klan meetings), and the themes of secrecy and the need for surveillance were prominent then as now: For years, Massachusetts maintained a “nunnery committee” that conducted surprise inspections of convents and religious schools. Professor Bartholet is tapping into the same ancient stream of paranoia and hysteria about minority religious beliefs and nonconformist social and personal habits. 

Homeschooling is based on a radical proposition that is utterly incompatible with Professor Bartholet’s politics. Homeschoolers insist that their children are not the property of the state, to be farmed and dispatched in accordance with the state’s needs; the homeschooling ethos insists that the purpose of education is to serve the needs and interests of students rather than those of the state or of business; it insists that there exists a sphere of life that is private and not subject to state surveillance, and that this sphere covers family life and child-rearing unless and until there is some immediate pressing reason for intervention. 

The debate about homeschooling is not really about educational outcomes — there are good and bad homeschooling practices, good and bad public schools, good and bad private schools, etc. — but about who serves whom and on what terms. Do American families serve the state or does the state serve them? Do we live our lives and raise our children at the sufferance of the state, or is the state an instrument of our convenience? Professor Bartholet casts her vote with the Know Nothings. 

This article appears as “The Second Coming of the Know Nothings” in the May 18, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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