Why Homeschooling Is a Boon to a Liberal Society

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Don't listen to the progressives who insist that enrolling your kids in public schools is a civic obligation

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In a controversial Slate article published last week, the talented education journalist Dana Goldstein laments what she says is the go-it-alone ideology of home-schooling parents, arguing that they harm children in the public school system and do society as a whole a disservice. "In a country increasingly separated by cultural chasms--Christian conservatives vs. secular humanists; Tea Partiers vs. Occupiers--should we really encourage children to trust only their parents or those hand-selected by them," she asks, "and to mistrust civic life and public institutions?"

She goes on:

Although the national school-reform debate is fixated on standardized testing and "teacher quality"--indeed, the uptick in secular homeschooling may be, in part, a backlash against this narrow education agenda--a growing body of research suggests "peer effects" have a large impact on student achievement. Low-income kids earn higher test scores when they attend school alongside middle-class kids, while the test scores of privileged children are impervious to the influence of less-privileged peers. So when college-educated parents pull their kids out of public schools, whether for private school or homeschooling, they make it harder for less-advantaged children to thrive.

...no one wants to sacrifice his own child's education in order to better serve someone else's kid. But here's the great thing about attending racially and socioeconomically integrated schools: It helps children become better grown-ups. Research by Columbia University sociologist Amy Stuart Wells found that adult graduates of integrated high schools shared a commitment to diversity, to understanding and bridging cultural differences, and to appreciating "the humanness of individuals across racial lines."
Before addressing the core failures of this argument, its useful to run through some of its smaller inadequacies: 

  • The fact that a child is home-schooled doesn't mean he or she is being told to trust only his or her parent.
  • Families that homeschool or send their kids to private school pay into the public school system just like every other local taxpayer, but their kids aren't a burden on its resources. Were everyone to attend public schools instead, would the "peer effect," if it exists, be significant enough to outweigh the extra cost of educating all the homeschoolers and private school kids?
  • Are the test scores of low-income students really a reliable measure of how much they're thriving?
  • Amy Stuart Wells was writing about the Class of 1980. Since cultural attitudes about diversity have radically changed in the intervening years, isn't it possible that the effect of attending a diverse high school is less pronounced? 
  • If all we know about integrated high schools is that their graduates are more committed to diversity and better able to bridge cultural differences - good things, to be sure - can we really conclude that these graduates are "better grown-ups" than graduates of less diverse high schools? Hypothetically, what if a less diverse private school produced graduates who were more academically prepared, more committed to gender equality, and more adept at problem solving that brought about social improvements? What if a homeschool collective meanwhile produced graduates who were more inclined to forgive their enemies, more likely to give to charity, and more likely to volunteer abroad? Judging what schools produce "better grownups" is thorny. Doing so by citing three diversity metrics in a vacuum is absurd.
None of these objections explains why I am so antagonistic to the notion that everyone should join the public school system. I'm glad its there. I want it to be well-funded and substantially improved. I presume a majority of Americans will always attend public schools. But I value diversity more highly than Goldstein or Freddie deBoer, however often they invoke that same word. In their vision, kids from different races and classes should come together in public school system that everyone in America is invested in improving. I agree. But I want alternatives to exist too.

There are several compelling reasons why.

One reason is that individuals have different needs. Think back to your schools days. I'm sure you remember people in your class who thrived, and others who'd have learned more and been happier in a different environment. Perhaps an all girls school. Or a military academy. Or a homeschool. You'd think people attuned to the diversity of kids in America would grasp that the public school system is never going to be set up in a way that is best suited to all of them, no matter how successfully it is reformed, or how many resources are poured into constantly improving it. Hurray if public schools exists alongside other options where some students flourish, for those other options accommodate difference far better than a single universalist model. 

Society benefits from institutional diversity too. Goldstein writes, "I benefited from 13 years of public education in one of the most diverse and progressive school districts in the United States. My father, stepmother, stepfather, and grandfather are or were public school educators." Says deBoer, "What I learned by coming up, K-12, surrounded by children who were not like me on many dimensions was that this diversity is in and of itself the best education." They seem curiously blind to the fact that many attendees of private schools and homeschooling collectives can speak as eloquently about unique things they learned at school. The Catholic school system, where I was educated, soured me on the faith, but I was able to glean substantial wisdom from the Catholic perspective on the world, and I'd doubtless have learned a different set of valuable lessons had I been educated by Hindus or Muslims or Alan Jacobs.

Would these different sorts of wisdom all survive if an increasingly centralized public school system operated as a monopoly? Aren't we better off in a society that draws on folks who got different sorts of education? Some progressives seem to think a diverse society is one where every 14-year-old in America arrives at school, pledges allegiance to the nation's flag, takes out an American history textbook shaped by panels of bureaucrats in California and Texas, and proceeds to be guided by a teacher with a state issued credential in how best to pass a standardized test. Who is celebrating diversity, the champions of putting every kid in the education wonk's vision of the ideal classroom, or the folks who want some kids to start their day interacting with multi-ethnic classmates while others start their school day praying and still others learn about raising backyard chickens?

The final question is what sort of educational system is likely to produce the best results in the long run, or to be more specific, what system is best suited to evolving in advantageous ways. I'd bet on the diversified system, the one where there are always competitors with different models to measure public schools against. As Friedrich Hayek put it, there is value in "rules which are neither coercive nor deliberately imposed - rules which, though observing them is regarded as merit and though they will be observed by the majority, can be broken by individuals who feel that they have strong enough reasons to brave the censure of their fellows... Rules of this kind allow for gradual and experimental change. The existence of individuals and groups simultaneously observing partially different rules provides the opportunity for the selection of the more effective ones." This philosophy suggests a different message for homeschooling parents than the one Goldstein offers. It might go something like this:

There is value in the public education system. Lots of intelligent, informed people have helped to shape its curriculum and norms. Consider their model with an open mind, and depart from it only after taking their claims seriously. And if you reach an informed conclusion that a different model is better, if that is your strong conviction, go out and be the change you want to see in the world. It may happen that you're right or wrong, but society as a whole requires people who challenge the prevailing system if it is to identify the few who can offer new insights.  

This approach ought to be particularly appealing to dissident cultural critics like deBoer, who generally see the value in dissent and radical critiques of prevailing norms. Why is education different?

Image credit: Flickr user IowaPolitics.com
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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