On April 24 the Wall Street Journal kindly printed my response to Harvard professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s arguments against homeschooling. If you were not able to read it when it was published, I’m now able to share the entire thing.
Have a blessed Memorial Day weekend, friends!
America’s parents are dealing with a problem of nearly unprecedented size: the long-term closing of the country’s schools. Hundreds of millions of us have relocated learning from classrooms to living rooms. The editors of Harvard Magazine have judged this an opportune time to advance a provocative argument against homeschooling and homeschoolers.
In an interview published in the May-June issue, Elizabeth Bartholet, a law professor at Harvard, contends that homeschooling families are a threat to American society. Homeschooling, she writes, is not “a meaningful education” and cripples students’ capacities for “contributing positively to a democratic society.”
I’ve heard this argument before. I was homeschooled through high school. So were my two sisters. Contrary to some resilient stereotypes, we received a good education in a small house that was filled with books—an education that included musical training, field trips, long hours studying languages and high-level mathematics, and many, many friends. I appreciate Ms. Bartholet’s keen interest in the educational rights of children, but her views exemplify the sort of ignorance she ascribes to homeschooling families.
Ms. Bartholet’s case against homeschooling follows a familiar script. She begins by assuming that whatever horrible thing could happen to a homeschooling child probably is happening. Lack of strict regulation in all 50 states means, to her, that “people can homeschool who’ve never gone to school themselves, who don’t read or write themselves.” I’ve never known a homeschooling family about whom that was true. My parents were both college graduates, and my mother worked in the public-school system before starting her family.
In high school I attended a semiweekly “consortium” that met in a local church and provided proctored classroom instruction as a supplement to my work at home. All of the teachers were homeschooling parents themselves with bachelor’s degrees or higher. Not long after I enrolled in college, a similar institution began meeting in my father’s church—a classically based “cottage school” for homeschoolers that required Latin and rhetoric. There are thousands of such places all over the country. The potential for abuse and misuse is not an argument for broad criminalization of homeschooling, any more than the potential for bullying and illicit teacher-student activity is an argument for abolishing public school.
Ms. Bartholet may believe these examples are rarities, and that real homeschoolers are the ones depicted in movies like “Captain Fantastic”—living off the land and totally unaware of the world beyond their hippie parents. She cites Tara Westover’s memoir, “Educated,” as an example of homeschooling’s dangers. She neglects to mention that Ms. Westover’s family was on the ideological fringe of its own religious community.
This is one of the most common contradictions of anti-homeschooling sentiment. On the one hand, we are alleged to be extreme isolationist fanatics, paradigms of antisocial and regressive “bunker” mentality. On the other hand, we’re expanding our influence and taking over American education. Ms. Bartholet bemoans pro-homeschooling politics and warns that the homeschooling “lobby” is “overwhelmingly powerful politically.”
So which is it? Are homeschoolers an ignorant cultic fringe, like something out of “Deliverance,” or a politically engaged, constitutionally literate, cohesive movement?
The answer is neither. The overwhelming majority of homeschooling families are normal, caring, tuned-in Americans who work for a living, volunteer in their communities, and pay taxes. The odds are good you’re living close to a few already.
It’s true that many who choose homeschooling for their children like my parents: devoutly religious people who want to integrate their children’s academic and spiritual education in a way that would have been very familiar to almost every American until about 60 years ago. My mother and father raised their three children in a conservative evangelical home, and there was never a hint that our faith should blunt our curiosity or license our ignorance. We solved algebraic formulas, recited Shakespeare and O. Henry, memorized the laws of thermodynamics—and read the Gospels.
If this sounds like a civilizational threat to homeschooling’s critics, they may wish to reconsider their definition of “civilization.” When Ms. Bartholet expresses dismay that religious homeschooling families “remove their children from mainstream culture,” we must ask who really is outside the mainstream: prayerful parents who teach their children math, logic and literature? Or those in the employ of elite universities, where families of undergraduates earn incomes that are triple the national median?
Homeschoolers do not threaten society, but sweeping edicts that rely on misguided tropes can do much harm. Instead of caricaturing and demonizing homeschoolers, which stirs up hatred and social mistrust, critics like Ms. Bartholet might try listening to these families and hearing about their motivations and experiences. What they say could help us craft better schools for everyone.