It’s homeschooling, and it terrifies the establishment
I have just read the best article in National Review that I can remember in the last 40 years. Of course, this is not saying a great deal, because I stopped reading National Review about 40 years ago. I used to write for it occasionally. My introduction to the magazine was in the fall of 1959, when I was a freshman at Pomona College. I read it faithfully for about five years, and intermittently until the early 1970s. After that, my interests shifted.
The article I refer to has a great title: “The Last Radicals.” It was written by Kevin D. Williamson. It begins with this paragraph.
There is exactly one authentically radical social movement of any real significance in the United States, and it is not Occupy, the Tea Party, or the Ron Paul faction. It is homeschoolers, who, by the simple act of instructing their children at home, pose an intellectual, moral, and political challenge to the government-monopoly schools, which are one of our most fundamental institutions and one of our most dysfunctional. Like all radical movements, homeschoolers drive the establishment bats.
I think this assessment is correct. Homeschooling now qualifies as a movement. It is certainly radical, in that it has taken a public stand, with money on the line, against the public schools.
It stands against the only American institution that can legitimately claim for itself this unique position: it is the only established church in the nation. It has a self-accredited, self-screened priesthood, as every church must. It has a theology. Its theology is messianic: salvation through knowledge. But this knowledge must be screened and shaped in order to bring forth its socially healing power.
Massachusetts was the last state to abolish tax funding of churches. That was in 1832. In 1837, the state created the nation’s first state board of education. It was run by one of the crucial figures in American history, the Unitarian lawyer Horace Mann. He believed that the public schools should perform much the same function that the established Congregational churches had performed for two centuries in Massachusetts. The schools would produce what the churches had failed to produce, a new humanity. They would transform sin-bound man by means of education.
This outlook is what R. J. Rushdoony called the messianic character of American education, which is the title of his 1963 book. The book is a detailed study of the two dozen major theorists of American progressive education. In that book, he observed that the public school system is America’s only established church. In the same year, liberal historian Sidney E. Mead made the same observation in his book, The Lively Experiment. Rushdoony opposed this established church, while Mead was its acolyte.
Rushdoony became one of the major spokesmen of the homeschooling movement in the mid-1980s. He testified repeatedly in court cases where the state had brought charges against homeschooling families.
An Old Tradition, Forgotten
In 1987, he testified in the case of Leeper v. Arlington. A group of homeschooling families sued the city of Arlington, Texas. There were over 1,000 districts in Texas. They won. Their attorney said in 2011, “After the victory that God gave us in that case, the prosecutions [of homeschoolers] stopped in all the other forty-nine states.”
Sharpe brought in Rushdoony as an expert witness. “His testimony was way beyond anything I’d hoped for. It was one of the few times in my career that I ever saw a witness destroy the attorney who was trying to examine him.”
Sharpe took a unique approach. He believed that a 1915 Texas law had established parents’ legal right to teach their children at home. The 1915 law was a compulsory schooling law. It exempted private school students. From 1900 to 1920, 60% of Texas families home schooled their children. This had to be the frame of reference for the law’s exemption, not tuition-funded schools.
In his court testimony, Rushdoony made a crucial point: homeschooling was an old tradition long before the formation of the United States.
The basic form of education in much of the colonial period as well as for a long time thereafter was the home school. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony there was an attempt to limit colonization to townships to keep the population concentrated. Some of those did have formal schools in the form of a building where all of the children came. But apart from that, it was private or home schools that prevailed in most of the colonies. There was a limited amount among the wealthy southerners of tutorial schooling, but for the most part it was home schooling. This continued for a good many years thereafter in much of the United States, particularly on the frontier.
There was another major factor. It came out under cross-examination.
You must realize that it was only with the depression that we had in most states compulsory attendance to high school, and it was, I believe, with the depression of the 1930’s that they began to extend compulsory attendance laws through the eighth grade. Prior to that, if you gained reading, writing and arithmetic essentially in the first three or four grades, it was held that you were schooled.
Americans today think that the existing educational system, K-12, has been around for a century. It has, but hardly anyone went through this entire system prior to World War I, and those who did were generally urban residents.
A Radical Restoration
It is common for every radical movement to appeal back to an earlier era in which its first principles were widely accepted and adhered to. That, surely, was the rhetoric of the American Revolutionaries, 1770-76. They claimed the ancient rights of Englishmen. That did not make them any less revolutionary in the early 1770s.
The author of the NR article remarked that the homeschooling movement “has a distinctly conservative and Evangelical odor about it, but it was not always so.” Then he described the work of counter-culture radicals of the late 1960s.
The movement’s urtext is Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, by A. S. Neill, which sold millions of copies in the 1960s and 1970s. Neill was the headmaster of an English school organized (to the extent that it was organized) around neo-Freudian psychotherapeutic notions and Marxian ideas about the nature of power relationships in society. He looked forward to the day when conventional religion would wither away – “Most of our religious practices are a sham,” he declared – and in general had about as little in common with what most people regard as the typical homeschooler as it is possible to have.
There was a revived interest in homeschooling by counter-culture activists, but they arrived late in American history. They presented themselves as radicals, but their formal agenda – homeschooling – is older than Mom, America, and apple pie.
There is an astounding loss of memory regarding homeschooling. Those who have written the public school textbooks and devised the ever-changing curricula for the “state normal schools,” as they used to be called – teachers’ colleges for educating young women – have systematically dropped this story down the Establishment’s memory hole.
The author cites some blistering attacks on homeschooling by the tenured radicals who have succeeded in capturing the state-licensed and often state-funded institutions of high education. One of them is a Georgetown University law school professor. Here is a sample of his rhetoric.
The husbands and wives in these families feel themselves to be under a religious compulsion to have large families, a homebound and submissive wife and mother who is responsible for the schooling of the children, and only one breadwinner. These families are not living in romantic, rural, self-sufficient farmhouses; they are in trailer parks, 1,000-square-foot homes, houses owned by relatives, and some, on tarps in fields or parking lots. Their lack of job skills, passed from one generation to the next, depresses the community’s overall economic health and their state’s tax base.
He cited no literature regarding the academic performance of home-schooled children. He did not mention the national geography bee. In 2002, here were the results. Over 20% of the finalists were home schooled. They constituted 40% of the final ten students. At the national spelling bee that year, 27 of the 167 contestants in the finals were home schooled. Yet they constituted only 2% of the students eligible to compete. This kind of dominance has continued ever since in both contests.
This drives public school defenders nuts.
What are the statistical facts? The article cites Brian D. Ray, who specializes in homeschooling. Ray says that
Repeated studies by many researchers and data provided by United States state departments of education show that home-educated students consistently score, on average, well above the public school average on standardized academic achievement tests. To date, no research has found homeschool students to be doing worse, on average, than their counterparts in state-run schools. Multiple studies by various researchers have found the home educated to be doing well in terms of their social, emotional, and psychological development.
Williamson could not resist citing Dana Goldstein, who wrote a piece in Slate. Don’t homeschool your children, she pleaded. Home schooling is “fundamentally illiberal.” It is too individualistic. “Could such a go-it-alone ideology ever be truly progressive?” And homeschooling dilutes the pool of academically motivated students in the public schools.
She said that “poor students do better when mixed with better-off peers.” I can understand this. 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.”
In short, make your kid a guinea pig. I would have added this: “Don’t imitate the vast majority of Congressmen who live in Washington, D.C., who refuse to send their children into the Washington, D.C. school system.” But her logic is surely impeccably progressive. She recommends wealth-redistribution – in this case, academic wealth.
Liberals vs. Home Schooling
The author lists three reasons why liberals hate homeschooling. First, Progressives do not trust individuals. They also do not trust voluntarism. I would have invoked the model: Nanny Bloomberg. He got the New York City health department to extend such a law. Consider this book title: It Takes a Village.
Nine-tenths of American children attend government schools, and most of the remaining tenth attend government-approved private schools. The political class wants as many of that remaining tenth in government schools as possible; teachers’ unions have money on the line, and ideologues do not want any young skull beyond their curricular reach. A political class that does not trust people with a Big Gulp is not going to trust them with the minds of children.
He notes that it is now considered impossible politically or legally to outlaw home schooling. So, the bureaucrats want to regulate it.
The second reason for the hostility is that conservatives and Christians are so numerous. The church is outside government control, and this bothers Progressives. Nothing except sexual activity is supposed to be outside government control. “Progressives are by their nature monopolists, and the churches constitute real competing centers of power in society.”
The third reason is that home school teachers are mothers. This means they are in two-parent families. The husband supports the family. We know what Progressives think of that stereotype! The author is correct: “As its critics best appreciate, homeschooling is about more than schooling.”
It is, indeed. It is a call to return to traditional values of the American past. It is a call to return to old-time education – two centuries before the little red schoolhouse and the McGuffey Readers.
In the background of Christian homeschooling, there is the echo of that most hated phrase in the history of Progressive education: “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Those were the opening lines of the New England Primer of 1686. They still hold up.
Ron Paul and the Tea Party
The article ends with comments on Ron Paul and the Tea Party.
They comprise conservatives on the verge of despair at trying to achieve real social change through the process of electoral politics and the familiar machinery of party and poll, with its narrow scope of action, uncertain prospects, and impermanent victories.
Some may be on the verge of despair. I do not notice any sense of despair in the Tea Party circles I travel in. That may be because I travel in the homeschooling wing of the Tea Party. There, I find a different attitude: “We’ve got the goods.”
Bottom line: when you take on America’s only established church and can hold your own, decade after decade, you are not humbled by the quality of the Presidential debates between a pair of Harvard Law School graduates.
The author sees the Ron Paul movement and the Tea Party as in need of an infusion of homechool-like confidence.
There is a different model for reform being practiced in more than 1 million American households, by people of wildly different political and religious orientations. Homeschooling represents a kind of libertarian impulse, but of a different sort: It is not about money. Homeschooling families pay their taxes to support local public schools, like any other family – which is to say, begrudgingly in many cases – and the movement does not seek the abolition of local government-education monopolies. (It should.) Homeschooling families simply choose not to participate in the system – or, if they do, to participate in it on their own terms.
This is the result of the system. But the heart of the system remains divided. Some parents pull their children out of the moral and academic slough of despond that public education has now become in fact, and which it always was in principle, which is why it wanted money coerced out of voters. Other parents want to replace the social order through the power of example, what John Winthrop called the city on a hill. He said that on board the Arbella, as it sailed in 1630 to New England. The Puritans had pulled out of England in order to build New England. They had a destination. They had a rival vision. This vision is not the vision of Progressivism.
And that is a step too far for the Hobbesian progressives, who view politics as a constant contest between the State and the State of Nature, as though the entire world were on a sliding scale between Sweden and Somalia. Homeschoolers may have many different and incompatible political beliefs, but they all implicitly share an opinion about the bureaucrats: They don’t need them – not always, not as much as the bureaucrats think. That’s what makes them radical and, to those with a certain view of the world, terrifying.
To Progressive educators everywhere, let me say in confidence: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
When you have bet the political farm on a system that cannot get good students in the doors free of charge, and which has lost the power of compulsion to get them in the doors, your movement is comparable to the Congregational Establishment in (say) 1800. MENE, MENE, TEKEL, URPHARSIN. You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Your days are numbered.