During a time moms and dads are doing their level best to care for their children, keep them safe, work remotely, and homeschool them, Harvard Magazine had the audacity to suggest homeschooling parents are “dangerous.” The graphic accompanying the “Risks of Homeschooling” article encapsulates Harvard’s animosity to religious homeschooling parents, depicting a child trapped in a prison-house made up of a Bible and textbooks.
The article focuses on Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School, who goes so far as to recommend “a presumptive ban” on homeschooling. According to Bartholet, homeschooling encompasses a trifecta of hazards: It violates a child’s right to a “meaningful education,” contributes to child abuse, and keeps children “from contributing positively to a democratic society.”
Bartholet’s take on homeschooling is inaccurate, ignorant of the influence of Christianity on both the educational system and children’s rights, and flatly at odds with the U.S. Constitution.
Bartholet’s Inaccurate View of Homeschooling
The idea that all homeschooling parents are providing a subpar education is completely off-base, and the notion that they are also abusive is offensive. Bartholet cites zero evidence to support her claim that parents who homeschool their children abuse them more often than parents who send their children to school.
Further, the Harvard article could not be more condescending. Its view that an industrial-age factory-model of education is nearly always superior to individualized homeschool plans is ludicrous. For example, one of my dearest friends from Yale Law is homeschooling her four children this year. They are competing in dance, swimming, and listening to literary classics during read-aloud time. Oh, and the kindergartner is reading at a third-grade level.
The contention that children who are homeschooled will not “contribute positively to a democratic society” of course depends on one’s view of what constitutes a “positive” contribution. As Bartholet describes it, the only democracy-enhancing education is one that encompasses “ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints” (read: one that includes a healthy dose of political correctness and leftist indoctrination).
The Positive Contributions of Christianity
Bartholet worries that up to 90 percent of homeschooling parents are conservative Christians, “extreme religious ideologues” who don’t believe in science and espouse female subservience and white supremacy.
Bartholet, apparently, is unaware of Christianity’s revolutionary impact on society’s view of children. In “Inventing the Individual,” Larry Siedentop credits Christianity with the initiation of a moral revolution complete with notions of equality and human agency. As historian O.M. Bakke explains in “When Children Became People,” the culture of Julius Caesar was organized with the most valuable (free men) at its center and the least valuable (women, slaves, and then children) on the edges.
While the Roman culture granted children zero rights and condoned the practice of exposito, whereby infants were abandoned to die or be made slaves, Jesus spoke about the value of children, going so far as to tell his disciples that children were the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The gospel revolutionized culture with its focus on the intrinsic value of each child being created in God’s image.
Parents’ Interest in Educating their Children
Thankfully, we have not only a rich tradition of religious education in this country — most schools were initially started so children could learn to read the Bible — but also a Constitution that has long recognized the paramount interest of parents in educating their children (even if, heaven forbid, those parents should be religious).
In fact, the liberty interest of parents to direct the education of their children is “perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests” recognized by the Supreme Court. The court expounded upon that principle in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, a case that upheld the right of parents to send their children to private religious schools.
As the court explained, “The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” In stark contrast to Bartholet’s religious hostility, the court has long recognized that “the values of parental direction of the religious upbringing and education of their children in their early and formative years have a high place in our society.”
Whereas parents have a duty to care for and educate their children, the Supreme Court has held that the government has no “general power” to “standardize its children.” The state’s responsibility to educate its citizens thus yields to the right of parents to direct their children’s education.
States can ensure that a parent’s choice in education prepares a child for the future “obligations” of life, but may not impinge on “the traditional interest of parents.” In fact, the Supreme Court has held that the government may not unduly interfere by, for example, forcing children “to accept instruction from public teachers only.”
A parens patriae claim by the state would be deeply troubling — none less than Plato suggested, in his “Ideal Commonwealth,” that the government should rear children:
[N]o parent is to know his own child, nor any child his parent. … The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and there they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter; but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be.
The “advanced” nation of Sparta took boys from their homes at seven years old, placed them in barracks, and began the “agoge,” a state-engineered educational regimen. The government education included beatings, hazing, and the infamous “contest of endurances,” which involved public flogging, sometimes to the death.
In light of this history, it is no surprise that the “fundamental liberty interest” of parents to direct their children’s education is one of the oldest recognized by constitutional law. Instead of seeing children as “creatures of the State,” our Constitution recognizes the high calling and duty of parents to care for and educate their children.
As out-of-touch as the Harvard article is, it is still dangerous. Some European countries already limit or ban homeschooling. As Bartholet admiringly notes, Germany bans homeschooling entirely. But a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling has no place in our Constitution or our society. While Bartholet has a right to her opinion, her condescending tripe has no place in any serious homeschooling discussion.