Monday, April 20, 2020

The Root of Schooling

People have been talking about this article in Harvard Magazine on 'the risks of homeschooling'. They've pointed out the delusional absurdity of the illustration, which has public school kids outside playing while homeschool kids are trapped inside, which in practice is usually closer to being the opposite of the truth, particularly in these days when recess is often quite restricted, and noted that the view one occasionally finds of homeschooling not being well-socialized is provably a myth. They pointed out the irony of the mistake (now fixed) the illustrator made in misspelling 'arithmetic'. They've pointed out the common experience that in homeschooling one can cover the same amount of material each day in a much shorter time than schoolteachers can because homeschooling parents don't have to shepherd twenty-five students simultaneously through the same material. There were a great many things to point out.

And all of them are right, but they are also to some extent beside the point because the anti-homeschool agenda is not expressing educational experience or even a coherent educational philosophy but a political agenda. It was not surprising to see that the article was about Elizabeth Bartholet. Bartholet is an activist against any kind of education outside of public schools (to the point of being a kook about it), and it's not surprise we get the political agenda being expressed in her comments:

“The issue is, do we think that parents should have 24/7, essentially authoritarian control over their children from ages zero to 18? I think that’s dangerous,” Bartholet says. “I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless, and to give the powerful ones total authority.”

Never mind, of course, that putting teachers in charge of kids rather than parents does literally nothing to stop "powerful people" (she means adults, because being an adult is what in fact gives you power over children) being put in charge of "the powerless" (she means children); we must accept a political regime that many consider a clear step toward totalitarianism in order to avoid a vaguely guessed-at possibility of authoritarianism. (And it is vaguely guessed-at. She vaguely insinuates that children are in greater danger of being abused by parents than teachers, and homeschooled students in greater danger of being abused than public school students, despite the fact that neither of these seems to be true on the evidence that exists. She does not adequately address the widespread problem of authoritarianism in the classroom, and her vague claims about homeschoolers being religious extremists are not well-founded overall -- she herself falls back on 'anecdotal evidence', as if 'anecdotal evidence' of abuse and misuse of power in schools were not also easily available.) Facts are irrelevant to this kind of argument; it is an argument about what Bartholet thinks should be, regardless of the way things are. Public schooling, Bartholet agrees, exists for specific civic ends; that she never establishes that it meets those ends so successfully that homeschooling cannot meet them as well is a side issue. The point is not whether public school is any good at meeting its purported ends, which people like Bartholet never really try to establish; the point for Bartholet is that in a regime allowing full homeschooling, parents (often uneducated parents, as she, Harvard classist to the bone, takes the trouble to insist) rather than people like Bartholet are given authority to judge for themselves whether it is or not. Letting the people decide for themselves is, she insists, anti-democratic. There is no reasoning with a loon like that, because reasoning is not how anyone gets to such a bizarre position.

The fundamental problem with almost all anti-homeschooling positions is that they tend not to recognize a fundamental point, one that is clear enough from the nature of child-raising and is generally recognized by teachers who actually teach children rather than just talk about ways to do so: all schooling is built around parental education. It has been noted since at least Damaris Masham in her arguments for women's education in the seventeenth century that parents, especially mothers, are first teachers. It's generally recognized by those who actually do the teaching in schools that schooling is most effective when education becomes an active cooperation between parents and school personnel. It is generally recognized that parents are the only figures who presumptively have the right to educate their children, even by those who recognize that the state has an interest in regulating education so that it contributes to a citizenry capable of maintaining the responsibilities of citizenship. (Bartholet tries to dance around points like that by making up a conspiracy theory she calls 'parental rights absolutism', a position that parents have and should have absolute power over their children, pushed by nefarious highly-funded ruthless organizations with extraordinary political connections. No one actually has such a view, of course; when she tries to give examples of it, it's always of people just affirming that parents have rights that must be respected. And the notion that the homeschooling movement is some massive political behemoth is actually rather funny. But, again, none of this is based on the actual views or activities of homeschoolers; it's a political agenda, so the goal is to find things said by homeschooling advocates that can be assimilated into the argument.) Schools are a subsidium; they are a back-up system and a support system, and what are they backing up and supporting? It has always been education in the home. Bartholet holds up France and Germany as models, but even setting aside that the French and the Germans allow their state authorities powers that are generally regarded as inconsistent with American principles, she fails to give adequate recognition to the fact that both France and Germany, especially the latter, also have historically treated government-supplied education as a supplement to education in the home. Indeed, you will find Germans who insist that this has always been one of the strengths of the German educational system.

The home is the root of the school. Any argument for compulsory public education that does not start with that recognition is already starting out wrong; an argument for compulsory public education needs to argue for why life in the home is not enough for educating people for civil society, and -- what is often not given -- show that public education does a good job of filling that gap, and -- what is also often not given -- show that it does so to such a degree that the state has a compelling interest in requiring public education rather than getting voluntary cooperation. That's what needs to be done. All this conspiracy-theory thinking about homeschooling as a dark and nefarious political operation reaching out from the shadows (when in reality most people homeschool just because they don't think the public school system is doing a very good job, and their 'political influence' largely just consists in the fact that they are voters in a society in which voters matter and in which other people are sympathetic to the idea that state intervention needs justification) is transparently attempting to rig the discussion so as to be immune to reasons that are actually responsive to what justifies schooling to begin with.

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