Harvard Magazine Calls for a “Presumptive Ban” on Homeschooling: Here Are 5 Things It Got Wrong

Author’s Note: This is a copy of my submitted Letter to the Editor of Harvard Magazine regarding its recent article,“The Risks of Homeschooling.”

Dear Editor:

As a Harvard alum, longtime donor, education researcher, and homeschooling mother of four children in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was shocked to read the article, “The Risks of Homeschooling,” by Erin O’Donnell in Harvard Magazine’s new May-June 2020 issue. Aside from its biting, one-sided portrayal of homeschooling families that mischaracterizes the vast majority of today’s homeschoolers, it is filled with misinformation and incorrect data. Here are five key points that challenge the article’s primary claim that the alleged “risks for children—and society—in homeschooling” necessitate a “presumptive ban on the practice”:

1. Protecting Children from Abuse

I agree with the author of the article and Harvard Law School professor, Elizabeth Bartholet, who is widely quoted throughout, that it is critically important that children be protected from abuse. They argue that sending children to school prompts “mandated reporters,” such as teachers and school administrators, to identify possible child abuse. But many parents choose to homeschool their children to remove them from abuse at school, whether it’s widespread bullying by peers or, tragically, rampant abuse by teachers and school administrators themselves.

Child abuse is horrific wherever it occurs, but singling out homeschooling parents as potential abusers simply because they do not send their children to school is both unfair and troubling. Child abuse laws exist in all states and should be rigorously enforced. Banning homeschooling, or adding burdensome regulations on homeschooling families, who in many instances are fleeing a system of education that they find harmful to their children, are unnecessary attacks on law-abiding families.

2. Recognizing Homeschooling’s Diversity

One of the more incorrect assertions in the article is the statement that up to 90 percent of today’s homeschooling families are “driven by conservative Christian beliefs.”

It is true that religious conservatives were key to the growth of homeschooling in the late-20th century, as the number of US homeschoolers swelled to 850,000 in 1999. About two-thirds of today’s nearly two million US homeschoolers identify as Christian (equal to the US population as a whole), but the homeschooling population is becoming increasingly diverse, both ideologically and demographically.

According to the most recent data on homeschooling by the US Department of Education, the most significant motivator for parents choosing this education option was “concern about the school environment, such as safety, drugs, and negative peer pressure,” exceeding other factors such as a desire to provide religious or moral instruction.

Much of the current growth in homeschooling is being driven by urban, secular parents who are disillusioned with a test-driven, one-size-fits-all mass schooling model and want a more individualized educational environment for their children. Federal data also reveal that the percentage of black homeschoolers doubled between 2007 and 2012 to 8 percent, while the percentage of Hispanic homeschoolers is about 25 percent.

3. Embracing Civic Values

Bartholet also argues against homeschooling on civic grounds, saying that it’s “important that children grow up exposed to community values, social values, democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints.”

Indeed, research on homeschoolers finds that they are tightly connected with their larger community and may have more community involvement and participation in extracurricular and volunteer activities than schooled children due to their more flexible schedules and interaction with a wide assortment of community members. This reinforces similar research on private education more broadly, suggesting positive civic engagement and outcomes.

Moreover, public schools are struggling to inculcate a strong understanding of democratic values and civic knowledge. According to a 2017 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, 37 percent of Americans could not identify one right protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and more than half of them erroneously believe that undocumented immigrants have no constitutional rights. Worrying about homeschoolers’ civic education when public schools are seemingly floundering in this regard is misguided.

4. Ensuring the Proper Role of Government

The central tension between those who advocate for homeschooling bans and heightened regulation and those who don’t relates to how each side views the proper role of government. The former sees a proactive role of government in “intervening to try to safeguard the child’s right to education and protection,” while the latter relies on the historical underpinnings of our democracy, going back to the writings of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. We are endowed with “unalienable rights” and that to “secure these rights, governments are instituted.”

If a child is being abused, whether in a homeschooling situation or a public school classroom, the government should intervene to protect that child. But to single out a particular group for increased suspicion, monitoring, and invasion of privacy under the guise of “protection” is as un-American as similar attempts of the past. I agree with Bartholet when she says in the article: “I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless, and to give the powerful ones total authority.” She is concerned with families having this power, while I worry about giving that power to government.

5. Identifying Homeschooling Outcomes

In 2018, The Harvard Gazette spotlighted three Harvard students who were homeschooled using an informal, self-directed approach to learning. “There wasn’t much of a plan or a long-term plan going in; I just took classes I was interested in,” said one of the students, while another asked, “Why would you go to the same building every day and do the same thing every day?” The article said that the students all demonstrated a “spirit of curiosity and independence that continues to shape their education.” While there may always be outliers and more research is needed, most peer-reviewed studies on homeschooling outcomes find that homeschoolers generally outperform their schooled peers academically, and have positive life experiences.

There is room for robust discussion and debate about education and homeschooling, including what is considered effective and beneficial—and who decides. Given Harvard Magazine’s reputation for editorial excellence, I was disappointed to see this article’s emphasis on the potential risks of homeschooling without highlighting its benefits. Bartholet indicates that “tolerance of other people’s viewpoints” is a key civic value. I agree, and I hope future articles in this magazine demonstrate this tolerance.

Sincerely,

Kerry McDonald, Ed.M. ’01

Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Love the Very New and the Very Old

I love old farms and skyscrapers under construction, old cars and Elon Musk’s newest spaceships. I think my ideal way of living would consist of working on a farm (or hunting/gathering out in nature) during the day and working on a high-tech project at night (call it “Jeffersonian futurism.”)

I love the very old and the very new. I see no conflict in that – but I do see a necessity.

Futurists seem to miss the fact that old things contain worthwhile wisdom and usefulness. Traditionalism seems to miss the fact that static institutions become corrupt without change. Meanwhile, the modernists are so tied up in the recent past as to be blind to both tradition and innovation.

But in the years ahead, it’s the futurists who will deliver us interplanetary travel, life-saving medical cures, and clean and renewable nuclear energy in the years ahead. It’s the traditionalists who will help us to remember the human values of fidelity (marriage, etc), individual dignity, self-reliance, and honesty are the foundations of a society that can enjoy technological progress properly (i.e. without self-destructing).

If we’re to appreciate and encourage this outcome, we need a way of thinking that embraces the dialogue between the old and new*. We need to understand that the only conflict is between the life-enhancing and the life-destroying, and that either force can be found in our newest inventions or our oldest customs.

Author Ross Douthat recently summed up the interesting fusion he posits will lead us out of the current “age of decadence” – a combination of old-time religion and high-tech futurism:

“So down on your knees – and start working on that warp drive.”

I dig it.

*Credit to Jordan Peterson for first (in my experience) formulating this yin-yang interplay of liberalism/openness and conservatism/orderliness.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Infantilism: The Greatest Ethical Problem in Today’s So-Called Civilized World

The greatest ethical problem in today’s so-called civilized world is neither barbarism, nor totalism, nor nihilism, but infantilism. In other words, the greatest ethical problem in today’s so-called civilized world is not that wrong values are followed, or that one value is promoted at the expense of every other value, or that all values are rejected, but that hardly any true value is treated as seriously as it deserves, while a lot of pseudo-values are treated far more seriously than they deserve.

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Being Forced to Help Not Helping

I want you to hunger for liberty; to crave the freedom to do everything you have a right to do, even if you choose to not do it all. I want you to want liberty as much as I want it.

I also want you to respect the liberty of others. To govern yourself and no one else — this is your primary obligation to others.

I realize some people are scared by the thought of liberty or freedom. I’ve even seen people complain that libertarians want to “force people to be free.” This has become something of an in-joke among libertarians; we want to take over and leave you alone.

No one can be forced to be free, and I wouldn’t if I could. This would defeat the purpose without accomplishing anything.

If liberty isn’t freely chosen, it’s worthless. It won’t be valued and it would be easy to give it up the first time some creepy politician says you need to give up some liberty so you can be safer.

You’ve got to want liberty bad enough to fight for it against those who want to violate it. You’ve got to want it bad enough to do whatever it takes once you discover that protesting and voting don’t work.

If you don’t value liberty this much, you won’t care enough to make an effort to protect it. You’ll never make liberty a priority.

I can’t change your priorities.

What I can do is remind you of everything you’re cheating yourself out of, hint at all you are missing, and tease you with the possibilities you may not have considered. I can also share with you my confidence that you don’t need to be governed or controlled. You can handle life.

To say I’m willing to leave you alone means I wouldn’t try to run your life. It doesn’t mean to leave you without social support. There’s no reason you can’t ask for help; nothing to prevent you from reaching out to help others without being forced to “help” them by legislative threat.

Being forced to help isn’t helping. Complying with a threat doesn’t make you a compassionate or moral person. It shows you can be manipulated and easily scared into doing what someone else thinks you should instead of acting on your own values.

I’m not willing to do this to you. I want liberty and I respect you too much to violate your liberty by forcing it on you.

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The Speech of Heroes

Almost everyone loves the idea of “speaking truth to power.”  Standing tall, talking boldly, consequences be damned – how heroic!

Yet on reflection, this Speech of Heroes takes two radically different forms.

The most common Speech of Heroes, by far, upholds Social Desirability Bias.  Example: “Everyone should be completely equal” sounds wonderful, but no actual society follows through.  Many self-styled heroic orators respond along these lines:

Equality!  We all say we believe in it.  We know it’s the right path.  Yet we are a den of hypocrites!  We pay lip service to the ideal of equality, but when inequality glares at us from every corner, we avert out eyes.  Shame on us!  Shame!  I say unto you, we must practice what we preach.  Let us live the equality we love.  Put apathy aside, my brothers and sisters.  Let us tear down all the inequalities we see.  Then let us ferret out every lingering pocket of inequality.  We must tear power from the grasp of all the corrupt leaders who casually say they oppose inequality but never do anything about it.  Together we can, should, will, and must build a totally equal society!

This kind of heroic rhetoric is standard in religious societies.  The sacred texts provide a strict blueprint for life, yet the government makes only a token effort to strictly implement the blueprint.  In response, the heroic orator sticks out his neck, decries the hypocrisy of the Powers That Be, and demands strict adherence to the holy book.  Which is music to the ears of every pious members of this society.  See the Protestant Reformation or radical Islamism for nice examples.

Notice, however, that this heroic rhetoric also dominates socialist and nationalist oratory.  Step 1: Loudly and clearly affirm a crowd-pleasing ideal.  Step 2: Decry the obvious hypocrisy of the status quo.  Step 3: Promise to strictly implement the crowd-pleasing ideal.  You’ve got socialist slogans like, “Social ownership of the means of production,” “Complete equality,” or “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  You’ve got nationalist slogans like, “Death before dishonor,” “Germany for the Germans,” or “The safety and prosperity of all our people.”  In each case, the speaker presents himself as a hero by puritanically appealing to popular sentiment.

Once in a long while, however, we encounter a radically different form of heroic oratory.  Instead of upholding Social Desirability Bias, the hero frontally attacks it.  As in:

Equality!  You all pay lip service to it, but who really believes it?  Why should people who produce and contribute the most receive the same treatment as people who do little or nothing?  You love to denounce the hypocrites who say they believe in equality but fail to deliver it.  But I say to you: Those hypocrites keep you alive!  In a totally equal society, there’s no incentive to do anything but kvetch.  If you’re tired of hypocrisy, remember that there are two ways to end it.  You could strictly implement this monstrous ideal of equality.  Or you could proclaim the truth: Equality is a monstrous ideal!  Let’s raise the banner of meritocracy, and thank our greatest producers instead of scapegoating them.

In a religious society, the analogue would naturally be rationalistic atheism: “Forget these pathetic ‘holy’ books, fantasies written long ago by ignorant fanatics.”  In a nationalist society, the analogue would be along the lines of, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” or even, “Our country is not the best in the world.  It’s not even average.  It’s below average – and things won’t improve until we admit our failures and humbly emulate the winners.”

Which form of oratory is more heroic?  Once you take Social Desirability Bias seriously, the answer is clear.  You can’t “speak truth to power” unless you speak the truth.  Implausible scenarios where Social Desirability Bias and the truth coincidentally converge, appealing to Social Desirability Bias is deeply unheroic.  Even villainous.

And truth aside, challenging your society’s fundamental values takes a lot more courage than merely decrying the violation of those values.

Yes, when you damn ruling elites for hypocrisy, those elites often retaliate.  Rhetorically, however, you’re still taking the path of low resistance.  You start with simple-minded feel-good slogans with broad appeal.  Then you point out corruption flagrant enough for anyone to see.

When you denounce your society’s fundamental values, however, you outrage elites and masses alike.  When you merely attack hypocrisy, elites have to worry about making a martyr out of you.  When you spurn Social Desirability Bias, in contrast, elites win popular support by teaching you the price of arrogance.  Who but a hero would openly challenge such a powerful pair of enemies?

Do I hold myself out as a man who embodies the Speech of Heroes?  Barely.  While I routinely challenge Social Desirability Bias, my society remains highly tolerant.  No one’s going to jail me for my words.  Indeed, since I have tenure, no one will even fire me for my words.  If I lived in a normal repressive society, I would publicly say far less than I do.  A gold-star hero would publicly express thoughts like mine… while living in Communist China or Saudi Arabia.

While I wouldn’t advise you to try this, anyone who does so is my hero.

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The Monsters You Tolerate Will Breed Monsters You Can’t Stand

In the 20th century, the story of European imperial holdings was a story (mostly) of communism.

Do you think Winston Churchill anticipated this? Rudyard Kipling? Any of the other enthusiastic imperialists of the 19th century? They may have seen themselves as defenders of a very different kind of order.

Yet nonetheless in promoting imperialism (bad) the European imperialists created militarized, policed cultures. They created egregious inequalities of authority and status. They created societies more dependent on the state. And of course, they created people resentful at rule from afar.

Is it any wonder with all of these factors considered that the “dominoes” in the former European holdings fell so fast?

The Europeans created the emotional hatred of Westernness and (and therefore anything associated to it that any actual good contributions of Europe were threatened.

The monster they tolerated (imperialism) directly bred the (worse) national socialism/communism that took over throughout South America, Africa, and Asia.

What if the European empires had ended their colonial rules 50 or 100 years earlier? All other things being equal, it’s hard to believe that communism would have swept Africa, Asia, and South America as it did. And it’s possible the countries of the West would not have ended up at the gunpoint of countries which they once held at gunpoint.

It happened slowly, then all at once, but the imperialism that Europe tolerated in its own codes of values led to the communism which the Churchills and Kiplings would never have embraced.

What monsters do you tolerate? They may not torture you as they torture people around you. But they will breed. And the offspring of the evils you tolerate in yourself may become a clear danger to you, too.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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