Harvard professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s attack on homeschooling is the kind of argument that would, if a few nouns were changed, be right at home in the very fundamentalist subcultures she detests. What her ideas lack in empirical evidence they compensate for in ferocity.
To Bartholet’s credit, she says what she thinks. Where other critics of homeschooling twist themselves into knots to avoid “othering” those loathsome evangelicals, Bartholet lets the cat out of the bag: “Many homeschooling parents are extreme ideologues,” she said in a recent interview with The Harvard Gazette, titled “A Warning on Homeschooling.” She made it clear that by “many” she means “most” and that by “ideologues” she means evangelical Christians. The problem, Bartholet, says, is that evangelical families are “committed to raising their children within their belief systems isolated from any societal influence.”
The danger is both to these children and to society. The children may not have the chance to choose for themselves whether to exit these ideological communities; society may not have the chance to teach them values important to the larger community, such as tolerance of other people’s views and values.
Bartholet’s interview is just the latest example of her anti-homeschooling activism. Late last year she published an article in the Arizona Law Review that accused a large percentage of homeschooling families of secretly abusing their children and called for a blanket criminalization of most forms of homeschooling. This year, that article became the topic of a feature for Harvard Magazine. The piece’s accompanying illustration was striking: A group of happy and playful children, but in their midst a sad, solitary girl looking at them from behind the prison bars of a chimneyed house made from huge books labeled “Reading,” “Writing,” “Arithmetic” . . . and “Bible.”
I was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school and met many homeschooled friends through various groups and co-op classes. I don’t know a single person whose homeschooling journey resembles the impoverished, ignorant, and abused portrait that Bartholet paints. Whereas Bartholet often uses imprecise terms like “many” and “a great number” to hide her lack of statistical evidence, my knowledge as a lifelong member of the homeschooling community (or “lobby,” to use her preferred word) is one of rigorous courses, frequent social networking and extra-curricular activities, and many small, non-profit institutions that give homeschoolers some in-class instruction by licensed teachers. Contrary to Bartholet’s claims, there is in fact measurable data about the fate of homeschoolers: They are “about as likely” as public school students to attend college, and a 2017 article in The Harvard Crimson praised the university’s homeschooled alumni, with a dean of Harvard’s freshmen remarking, “We’ve had lots of success with students who identify as homeschooled.”
In the interview with The Harvard Gazette, Bartholet largely ignores talking about quality of education concerns, and instead focuses on two points: homeschooling’s penchant for child abuse, and the societal dangers of children being educated in a religious context. This is a wise move, since her earlier comments had provoked outrage from some of Harvard’s own homeschooled alumni. But her argument about abuse in homeschooling is riddled with problems. Her paper in the Arizona Law Review does not cite any hard data about abuse and homeschooling families. Instead it relies either on anecdotal testimony from small anti-homeschooling activist outfits, like Homeschoolers Anonymous (at one point Bartholet even cites a Gawker article), or exceptional stories, like Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. That Bartholet would sincerely use Westover’s tale of flight from a Mormon sect that was exiled by its own religious community as a warning about what “many” homeschoolers experience is laughable, like using Prozac Nation as an argument against antidepressants.
While I don’t recognize Bartholet’s depiction of homeschooling, I do recognize her worldview. My upbringing was conservative evangelical, not quite fundamentalist, but a proximity to fundamentalism has equipped me to catch its scent from a long way off. Bartholet seems to believe that whatever malevolence people like my parents could be up to, they probably are up to. She seems to believe that the normal dynamics of parental love, compassion, and positive aspiration for one’s children simply do not happen in the souls of people with beliefs she dislikes. She seems to think that only one institution, public schools, are capable of creating responsible, mature, informed citizens, and that the influence of people outside that institution—families, churches—should be marginalized as much as possible. Who exactly is the ideologue here?
I do think there is a potential compromise. If Bartholet’s fellow critics of homeschooling feel strongly enough about the importance of putting children in mandatory abuse reporting institutions, they and their colleagues could lend support to school choice programs. Allowing parents to use their tax dollars for better or preferred schools might motivate many homeschooling families to change their approach.
Of course, most anti-homeschooling factions also strongly oppose school choice. We owe gratitude to Bartholet for her transparent explanation why. In the end, it’s not primarily about preventing bad things from happening to children, it’s about preventing certain undesirable things from happening to society through a certain kind of child.
Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books.