Harvard’s Latest Attack on Homeschooling Abuses Reason and Justice

Harvard University publications continue to present a skewed perspective of homeschooling, spotlighting Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s call for a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling while failing to provide an accurate picture of American homeschooling.

In addition to the recent Harvard Magazine article on “The Risks of Homeschooling,” both the Harvard Crimson and the Harvard Gazette ran stories last week reinforcing Bartholet’s one-sided view of homeschooling. While Harvard’s invitation-only summit to address homeschooling’s “problems, politics, and prospects for reform” scheduled for next month has been postponed due to COVID-19, the disinformation campaign against homeschooling goes on.

Interestingly, in the recent Gazette interview, Bartholet admits that most parents are quite able to homeschool their children. She says: “I believe that the overwhelming majority of parents are capable of providing at least a minimal education at home without presenting any danger of abuse or neglect.” Yet, in recommending a “presumptive ban” on the practice she would “require that parents demonstrate that they have a legitimate reason to homeschool—maybe their child is a super athlete, maybe the schools in their area are terrible.”

She would also require parents to “demonstrate that they’re qualified to provide an adequate education and that they would provide an education comparable in scope to what is required in public schools,” as well as “require that their kids participate in at least some school courses and extracurricular activities so they get exposure to a set of alternative values and experiences.” In other words, parents may be able to get permission from the government to homeschool their kids if they can jump through certain government-approved hoops and send their kids, at least part of the time, to the government schools from which they are fleeing.

Bartholet’s rationale for this heavy-handed approach to controlling homeschoolers is that, while most homeschooling parents won’t abuse or neglect their children, a tiny few may and so the entire homeschool population must be managed and monitored—including being subject to frequent home-visits by government officials to make sure they are not doing anything wrong. This guilty-until-proven-innocent approach is not only antithetical to American ideals, it sacrifices the freedom of an entire group out of concern that a small sliver of that group could potentially do harm.

The claim that homeschooling could lead to higher rates of child abuse is unfounded. In fact, three academics responded harshly to Bartholet’s conclusions, writing at EducationNext: “Professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s claims that homeschooling contributes significantly to the scourge of child abuse fail to survive scrutiny.” Some research shows that homeschoolers are less likely to be abused than their schooled peers. And as I’ve written previously, physical and sexual abuse by educators is rampant in public schools, which Bartholet holds up as the gold standard. Still, Bartholet argues that homeschooled children could be abused because they are not in the presence of school teachers and administrators who are “mandated reporters” of child abuse.

Although Bartholet’s recommendations against homeschooling were initiated well before COVID-19 hit, she uses the current school shutdowns as further evidence that parents, unwatched by government officials, will abuse their children. Bartholet says in the Gazette interview: “I do think, though, that the present near-universal home education situation is illuminating. The evidence is growing that reports to Child Protective Services (CPS) have plummeted nationwide, because children are removed from the mandated reporters that schools provide.”

It is possible that declining CPS reports could indicate unreported child abuse, but it could also reveal a CPS system gone awry, with overly-aggressive reporting and investigative practices. A 2018 in-depth report by The Hechinger Report and HuffPost, for instance, found that “schools often use child protective services as a weapon against parents.” According to this analysis, school employees use CPS as a way to coerce parents who resist a school’s recommendations or approach. Reporters Rebecca Klein and Caroline Preston write:

Fed up with what they see as obstinate parents who don’t agree to special education services for their child, or disruptive kids who make learning difficult, schools sometimes use the threat of a child-protection investigation to strong-arm parents into complying with the school’s wishes or transferring their children to a new school. That approach is not only improper, but it can be devastating for families, even if the allegations are ultimately determined to be unfounded.

Such a determination is how the vast majority of these investigations conclude, despite terrorizing parents and children. In her powerful book, They Took The Kids Last Night: How the Child Protection System Puts Families at Risk, family defense attorney and policy advocate, Diane Redleaf, finds that the CPS system has ballooned in recent years, with millions of calls and family investigations despite most of them being baseless. She writes in her introduction: “In 2016 alone, 7.4 million children were reported as suspected victims of child abuse or neglect. Of this number, 4.1 million had a case referred for some CPS responsive action, ranging from finding no merit to the allegations and closing the case, to referring the family for social services, to a placement of the children into foster care. At the conclusion of a CPS investigation, 676,000 children were then labeled the victims of abuse or neglect.”

The Hechinger/HuffPost report reveals that poor and minority families are the ones most likely to get caught in the CPS dragnet, and Redleaf’s research reinforces this finding. She writes: “The child protection system most disproportionately intervenes against families of color and those who lack other forms of privilege…A system that is supposed to protect children from their parents ends up too often harming children’s precious attachment to their parents.”

Child abuse is horrific and should never be tolerated, but the growing distrust of parents and the related trend toward increased intervention in family life under the guise of protecting children may hurt more children than it helps. When families are weakened and parents are disempowered, children suffer. As Redleaf concludes in her book:

Family advocates need to proudly proclaim that children’s best interests are one and the same as their families’ best interests, for there is no other way to protect children but to defend their families—and to fight for the right of families everywhere to raise their own children.

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Free Minds Avoid Movements

Open inquiry and free, fearless thinking can lead to many different questions.

Some of these questions put you in the company of people forming movements. It can be useful to find sources of information and conversation among movements. But if you fully join, your thinking gets less free. The open inquiry that led you there gets stagnant. Too many assumptions are shared. Defensiveness against the outside world or forces the movement seeks to challenge creates mental rigidity, stubbornness, and worst of all, a sense of something to lose, which leads to fear.

Fear is a mind melter and collectivism kills. Movements tend toward both.

Stay free. Don’t join movements. Don’t oppose them either. You needn’t fear or fight a movement any more than you need to join it. Engage the people and ideas that bring you value, ignore those that don’t. Whether or not they group themselves into a movement. Talk to individuals you enjoy, attend events you like. They may label you as one of them or banish you as a heretic. It doesn’t matter either way.

Keep living and thinking freely. Movements want you to need them. That makes their incentives bad for your autonomy and actualization. They may help for parts of your journey, but you’ve got to be bigger than any movement to continue to grow.

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Even Anarchists Need Mayors

“Mayor ____ welcomes you to Atlanta.”

This sign greeted me as I left the airport for home. I kind of liked it.

Now as an anarchist, I don’t want any city governments, and I don’t give a damn about Mayor What’s-Their-Name, but I do give a damn about Atlanta. And like all cities I love, Atlanta has its own unique culture with unique values and customs.

Even if, God-willing, we managed to make Atlanta a city free from bureaucracies and governments, it would still help to have a figurehead for those values and customs.

We need someone who can cut ribbons, welcome people to town, organize volunteer events, and talk on important holidays. We need someone who can get up and say some nice things that more or less honor the shared values of a place. And we need them to have no constitutional or governing power over anyone whatsoever. Their power must derive from influence, respect, and earned authority from reputation and service, not coercion.

Look at the Queen: she doesn’t hold all that much constitutional power in England, but she traditionally has played a useful role in embodying Englishness – and serving as a role model for behavior, speech, dress, etc.

Mayors in a free society could do the same – and heck, we could even have mayors at other scales: whole regions. Mayor of Appalachia? Mayor of the Lowcountry? Mayor of New England? Heck, there are some folks who were destructive as politicians who would be fine as mayors of America.

Abstract values sometimes need a human face, and most humans want someone to look up to and to represent the best we have to offer. There are natural hierarchies, and there are some people worthy of honor and suited to serving (not ruling) large groups of people. So why not keep mayors around?

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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What We Would Now Know, If Demagogues Didn’t Rule Every Country on Earth

About six months after the rise of COVID-19, humanity still doesn’t know the answers to a long list of critical questions.  Questions like:

1. What is the true Infection Fatality Rate (IFR)?

2. What fraction of the population has COVID-19 now?

3. What fraction of the population has already had it?

4. How does the IFR really vary by age, gender, and prior health status?

5. How much immunity to COVID-19 do recovered patients acquire?

6. What are the odds of contracting the disease indoors versus outdoors?  From asymptomatic carriers?

7. How much does infection probability falls as social distance rises from 3 feet to 20 feet?

8. What are the odds of fomite transmission?

9. How much does viral load affect infection severity?

Yet amazingly, we have a straightforward and ethically unimpeachable way to decisively answer all of these questions – and countless more.  The method is: paid voluntary human experimentation.

Experimentation is vital because it is the core of the scientific method.

Human experimentation is vital because we want to know the effects of COVID-19 on humans.

Voluntary human experimentation is vital because we are not comic-book villains.

Paid voluntary human experimentation is vital because there is a massive supply of people willing to risk their lives for large cash payments, but relatively few heroes willing to risk their lives for free.

How would paid voluntary human experimentation work?  To find the true IFR, you recruit a thousand volunteers, test them for coronavirus and coronavirus antibodies, deliberately infect half of the never-infected subjects, and then compare the death rates for the two groups.  Morbid?  Callous?  No more morbid or callous than paying people to fight in a war, mine coal, or cut down trees.   The social value of the knowledge is immense, they knowingly accepted the risk, and they were paid for their efforts.  Deaths along the way are unfortunate, but in no way blameworthy.

To find the risk of fomite infection, similarly, first measure fomite levels in, say, eleven grocery stores.  Then recruit a thousand volunteers, randomly send half of them to the median store to shop for an hour, quarantine all of them for two weeks, then compare the infection rate for the two groups.

Finding the true infection rate isn’t quite as clean, admittedly.  But you can still randomly offer citizens a lot of money to participate in the study, until you get 90 or 95% participation.  Then measure prevalence.  Way better than even Iceland has done so far.

You get the idea.  So why isn’t paid voluntary human experimentation already a reality?  You could claim that none of the preceding questions matter for policy, but that is madness itself.  The value of accurately measuring disease parameters is rationally unassailable.

You could say, “Well, it’s just not ethical.”  This, too, is madness itself.  Life entails risk of death.  We routinely let people voluntarily risk their lives for trivial gain, like the pleasure of climbing Mount Everest.  So it is crazy to forbid people to assume risks with astronomical social value.

You could say, “Well, our government is too messed up to do the right thing.”  But that still doesn’t explain why no country is going full-speed ahead with paid voluntary human experimentation.  Even poor, backwards countries could have scrounged up the money for paid voluntary human experimentation, perhaps outsourcing the analysis to a richer country.

So how come no one has done as I advise?  Because every country on Earth is ruled by demagoguespower-lusters who would rather watch hundreds of thousands die rather than defy popular but absurd scruples.  Don’t tell me, “Leaders’ hands are tied.”  Leaders around the world have figured out how to legally rationalize a long list of absurd power grabs.  But they can’t figure out how to legally rationalize something that makes perfect sense?!

Back in 2015, Trump, speaking in the third person, said, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”  Neither he nor any other world leader is serious about figuring out what the hell is going on with coronavirus.  If they were, paid voluntary human experimentation would have started months ago on a massive scale – and we’d have the answers we need today.

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Well Done, Billionaires

I ran into a neighbor on the street the other day and we chatted about life at home during COVID-19 and how we are all coping with social distancing. I mentioned how grateful I am that our nearby Whole Foods market seems well-stocked (except for toilet paper).

She made a comment about how billionaires like Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, which also owns Whole Foods, should really be less greedy and share their wealth. (She didn’t know that Bezos has donated $100 million to US food banks during the pandemic, but charity is beside the point.)

The dominant narrative that billionaires are greedy and big companies like Amazon are monopolistic, exploitative tyrants is not only misguided but deeply troubling for the future of prosperity and human progress. This rhetoric is nothing new. Successful businesspeople have long been smeared as robber barons who take and take, detracting from the “common good.” But this rhetoric and these smear campaigns fail to recognize just how much these billionaires give. And I don’t mean give in terms of charity.

They give by doing, by building, by creating, by inventing. They give by making products or offering services that people want to buy at a price they want to pay in pursuit of things they want to do, and employing thousands of people who choose to work for a wage they choose to accept.

They give by creating value for people, free of force and in an open marketplace of voluntary exchange. In the case of Amazon and Bezos, it got big and he got wealthy by building a superior product that millions of people freely choose to use because they can get goods they want at lower prices and faster speeds, freeing up their precious time and resources to devote to their own personal pursuits.

Amazon is a marvel of modern enterprise, and is one of the few companies keeping our emaciated economy from completely collapsing during this public health shutdown. Instead of disdain, the people who built these companies deserve our respect and appreciation. They are the builders and the creators, the thinkers and the doers. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt reinforced this point recently in a virtual presentation to the Economic Club of New York. He said:

Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon, for example. The benefit of these corporations — which we love to malign — in terms of the ability to communicate … the ability to get information, is profound — and I hope people will remember that when this thing is finally over. So let’s be a little bit grateful that these companies got the capital, did the investment, built the tools that we’re using now and have really helped us out. Imagine having the same reality of this pandemic without these tools.

Yes, imagine. In her classic book, Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand did just that, showing what life would be like if we mistake success for greed, achievement for exploitation, and progress for oppression. Billionaires, like Bezos, who have built great companies contribute daily to the “common good”—not only through charity, but through human ingenuity and the progress and prosperity that produces for all of us. During this pandemic, Audible, an Amazon company, is offering hundreds of its children’s audiobooks, and many of its adult books as well, for free. Atlas Shrugged is one of them.

We can, and should, balk at attempts to corrupt the process of voluntary exchange when business and government become entangled. That isn’t capitalism, it’s cronyism and it poisons the promise of free markets.

Economist Dan Mitchell describes the difference as being pro-market or pro-business, with the former acting as a champion of free enterprise and trade while the latter relies on government handouts and business buffers in the form of subsidies and bailouts.

Government officials trying to woo Amazon with subsidies and preferential treatment to build additional headquarters in a particular city is an obvious example of being pro-business at the expense of a dynamic free market.

Entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos assume enormous risk and invest significant time, energy, and resources into inventing products and services that people want and need. They spot an opportunity to create value for others, and build a business around that idea using their own originality and will. If they succeed in creating something that others value, they will be rewarded financially; but even Jeff Bezos isn’t as rich as you think. Most billionaire wealth is inextricably linked to the companies they built, continuing to generate value for others, continuing to give.

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Stay Radical

It’s easy to get a little tired and stop wanting more out of the status quo.

It’s important to accurately see why the status quo exists – what value it creates for which parties to allow it to persist – but that doesn’t require defending it or assuming it’s the best that can be.

There are always $20 bills on the sidewalk.

There’s a danger in seeing so much revolutionary opportunity that you get bitter at every bit of the status quo. It all seems like insane, irrational madness. None of it makes sense. None of it is as good as your ideas. All of it needs to change.

Maybe.

Don’t lose that stubborn belief that everything can always be better. But if it starts to make you a cynic, a pessimist, or an unhappy person, it’s not doing you any good. Pessimists don’t innovate.

The ideal combination is discontent optimism.

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