The other day I had one of those discussions people who homeschool their children sometimes have, when someone asks about your children, which in America always includes where they go to school. We homeschool our two youngest, and have since kindergarten, with the exception of two years early on at our parochial school.
The response varies to the news that you do something still considered, even by some conservative Christians, odd, eccentric, and possibly subversive. Some suddenly furrow their brows and purse their lips and declare their concerns about homeschooling, less often about the quality of the education as about the children’s (meaning, in context, our children’s, which is, you know, really rude) “socialization.” I sometimes feel I must surrounded by fascists, such is their apparent concern for making sure our children fit in to the society as it is.
Fewer people respond this way than they used to, or maybe I just don’t meet this kind of person so much anymore. Which is probably a good thing. My wife, who is much more charitable than I am in dealing with annoying people, answers them politely, and tells them about the homeschooling groups to which our children go several days a week and all the other activities they are involved in.
I have so far resisted the temptation to put my hand on their shoulder, look them in the eye, and ask, “Why are you under the delusion that I care what you think?” or to say something shorter and ruder and more, um, declarative. They are, after, being impertinent, and there is something in the self-asserted piety of their alleged concern for my children that really annoys me.
Or maybe they really are just a kind of middle American fascist, whose relation to the full thing is like that of velveeta to real cheese or wonderbread to real bread. But though half-done and tacky to boot, still annoying.
The irony for me is that I first heard of homeschooling as a child growing up in a college town in New England, when the only people who homeschooled their children were hippies living on communes in the country or academics protesting against the regimented and regimenting education “the system” provided for its own purposes. Then, no one blinked at the idea, and indeed it had the kind of romantic appeal such counter-cultural endeavors enjoyed.
And indeed it did seem a reasonable extension of the kind of liberty we were being taught, in the public school, that America had been founded to protect, and to be a rational response to the kind of oppressive tolerance and social control we were taught (this was college town, as I said) the society imposed. If some people wanted to opt out of the system and do things their own way, bully for them. If they wanted to raise their fist against the system, three cheers. Thomas Jefferson, by consensus I think our favorite founding father, would have approved.
Though in my town public education was taken to be the natural order of things, no one, or least no one I can remember, believed it to be the necessary order of things. But maybe they muttered and worried among themselves. In public, at least, the leftist, counter-cultural alternative was generally approved.
So I was surprised some years later to read the kind of people with whom I’d grown up, and others like them, suddenly alarmed at the growth of homeschooling. (And I first read them with such surprise when we still expected to send our children to the public schools.) The critics treated it as a threat to . . . well, exactly what it threatened they rarely made clear, beyond some expressed concern, surely dubious, for the homeschooled children.
The critics found themselves so alarmed, of course, because now politically, culturally, and religiously conservative parents were educating their children at home and rejecting the influence of a system in which the critics—so many of them former counter-cultural types themselves—were heavily invested. And also from which, in many cases, they drew their income. Teachers who explained American history in terms of commercial self-interest were not heard admitting, much less condemning, their own self-interest in maintaining the educational order and the systems of control over others it required.
The homeschoolers were no longer a few hippies and leftists, whose numbers were always going to be small and their influence marginal. Now the homeschoolers were a growing number of average parents, whose counter-cultural commitments were of the conservative and not the leftist sort, whose numbers might well increase and their influence grow strong enough to challenge the public school’s monopoly. (Not to hammer home a point, but the same teachers who railed against monopolies in business were extremely defensive of their own. Even the ones who would privately lament its effects in keeping incompetent colleagues and unnecessary administrators employed.)
Now people who have no obvious stake in the matter, like most of the people I described at the beginning, tend to side with the establishment against the parents. They’ve somehow absorbed the key elements of the ideology, like the concern for “socialization,” which is either a faux concern for the children’s well-being or a real concern for their being educated outside of and probably against the ideas public schools (with exceptions, I realize, as in some communities in the rural Midwest where the public values and the private still coincide) inculcate and impose.
Before someone remarks that some homeschooling parents are very odd or inept or (in a very few cases) dangerous: yes, of course, it is not a perfect system. But that doesn’t answer the question of who should educate the children. And it’s not, most definitely not, an argument for the public school monopoly.
This new criticism is, to someone like me, a very strange reversal. homeschooling is an act of the kind of freedom I was taught our country provided, a freedom of self-determination that was one of its great glories. Even leaving out the idea I was also taught, that removing oneself from the system was a laudable act of counter-cultural liberation, with which I still have some sympathy, to teach one’s children oneself, being able to choose curricula and readings and custom the teaching to every child’s needs and gifts, is the kind of thing I was taught, by teachers of impeccable liberalism, to praise. It is, as it was once understood to be, an expression of liberalism and liberality in public affairs.
Even had we not decided to do the same ourselves, I would still praise it, and condemn its critics, who have betrayed the American vision of freedom and rationalized the extension of social control, often in unadmitted self-interest and in defense of an indefensible monopoly. It can only do our nation good, to have parents so invested in their children’s education, the established social piety of the public schools so concretely challenged, and such freedom not only defended but lived out. But then homeschooled children are far more likely to read, and read closely and at length, America’s founding fathers, and to read them with respect.
David Mills is Deputy Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.