Despite its growing acceptance, homeschooling continues to come under attack by critics who see it as a fringe phenomenon indulged in only by religious extremists and red-state radicals. The latest of these attacks are two recently published academic papers by Robin West and by Martha Fineman that trumpet concerns about the “harms” of allowing a family to educate their children at home.
West and Fineman are guilty of some overly broad generalizations about the inadequacies of home-schooling, and sloppy inferences from what can happen to what should. There is little evidence that home-schooled children are subjected to widespread abuse or neglect, and some evidence that home-schooled children perform as well or better than publicly educated children by a number of measures of assessment. Yet, on the grounds that abuse can happen and occasionally does in the homeschooling environment, Fineman, for example, draws the astonishingly strong conclusion that “public schooling should be universal and mandatory.”
This conclusion rests on the faulty assumption—widely shared amongst liberal theorists of education—that the state is in some way a privileged player in the question of children’s education. According to this view, the state should educate children, and others who claim a right to do so should be subject to special scrutiny or meet a special burden of proof.
One can see how such an assumption might make sense. If children are to be primarily educated into citizenship, then it might seem entirely natural for the state to have the primary responsibility for doing so. And if children are primarily to be educated for autonomy, then removing children from the religiously, morally, and culturally homogeneous environment of the home might be essential. Finally, if children are to be educated with a view to their best interests, and those interests are understood as in tension with the interests of their parents, then again, the state will seem to be the default educator of children.
But are these the ends of children’s education? And should state schooling be the default position against which others are judged? The two questions are, as we have just seen, linked, and they must be addressed together.
Moreover, these questions need to be addressed against the background of what we might call the ontology of children and the family. Is the family a mere aggregate of individuals—spouses, and children—held together, perhaps by common or overlapping interests, but ultimately independent, in their interests and their being, from one another? Such a picture seems implicated by those who pit children’s interests against the interests of their parents; but it can also seem lurking in the naked assertion of “parents’ rights” as a conclusive justification for the right to homeschool.
A more adequate picture emerges from a more accurate account of marriage as a comprehensive sharing of lives that extends not just through those immaterial aspects of the spouses’ lives, such as intellect, will, character, and emotion, but penetrates down to the bodily being of the spouses in the act of sexual intercourse. That act of intercourse is, by its nature, ordered to the biological function of reproduction. Thus, children who are born of marriage so understood are the fruit of that parental union, and so themselves in a strong sense new parts of that union. The unity and multiplicity that characterizes the lives of spouses who have become one flesh is thus extended to include the lives of children born (or, I believe, adopted) of that union.
On this latter view, children are not property of their parents, for the family is a society of mutual service, and is not for the good of parents alone. But neither are children independent agents, existing only in association with their parents but ontologically apart. The good of the children is now a part of the good of their parents as parents. Thus parental care of children, before they have fully separated from their parents, is continuous with parents’ care for themselves, and their concern for the common good within the family is, as Germain Grisez puts it, a concern for “the child’s good considered insofar as it also perfects the parent precisely as parent.”
This indicates a key reason why objections to homeschooling cannot be met with a straightforward assertion of “parents’ rights,” anymore than the rejection of homeschooling can be predicated on a bald assertion of “children’s rights.” Both assertions, unless significantly qualified, adhere to the mistaken aggregate view of the family discussed above.
How, then, should the child’s good, which also is the perfection of their parents, be understood?
Children’s education is primarily about their fulfillment, but that fulfillment is and can only be rooted in an orientation towards a life of service to genuine human goods, including the goods of others and service to God. The particular form of life within which each child is called to perform these services is the child’s vocation; the task of education—its primary end—is to enable children to recognize, accept, and pursue that vocation.
This task cannot be accomplished without a host of subsidiary ends being met. Children must be instructed into the moral and religious life, and this must include sexual education. As a part of this education, children must be taught how to distinguish true from false claims, and genuine from illusory goods. This part of a good education is itself bound to be deeply countercultural in the consumeristic and erotically charged world in which we live. Further, children will not understand or make adequate use of the gifts they have been given unless they are allowed and encouraged to discover and cultivate those gifts; consequently, an adequate education will be attentive to the much of the traditional curriculum, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, the study of literature, history and the social sciences. At the same time, education should also provide exposure to nonacademic domains within which children might have gifts, such as music and sport. Children must also learn what it is to act in communion with others, and what it is to possess the virtue of solidarity. Finally, because children are, and will grow up to be, members of a state, to the authorities of which they are rightly subject, children must learn what respect is due those authorities, and how they may be responsible citizens of their state.
When these genuine educational interests of children are violated by their parents, as when parents neglect their educational responsibilities, or positively abuse their children, this cannot be construed as in the interests of the parents. Rather, parents fail themselves as parents just insofar as they fail their children. To frame failures of education in terms of conflicts of rights or interests entirely misconstrues the proper relationship between parents and children.
This possibility of failure is real. Since serious failures of this sort have the potential to radically damage a child’s capacity to lead an upright and flourishing life, the state must take an interest in ensuring that children are not seriously harmed in their education. Still, there is, I believe, a straightforward argument to be made that parents, rather than the state, have the default position in judgments about who should educate children and how they should do it.
The foundation of that argument returns, again, to the very nature of the family: just as spouses take on a radical commitment to each other’s good when they marry, that good becoming “common” to the union, so they take on a radical commitment to the good of their children, that good too becoming part of the family’s common good before it can reasonably be thought of as part of the good of any other social union. The good of the family, that is to say, is first relative to the goods of other societies, including the state. But education of children, like love and care for those children, is essential to that common good; the responsibility, and thus the right, for that education, rests first with parents.
Such considerations are furthered by noting that the ends of children’s education, as identified above, are, in a sense, formal. Each requires further specification in order to generate adequate content for an educational program. There is widespread disagreement about the nature of children’s sexual education, about the meaning to be attributed to solidarity and cooperation, and about the nature of human flourishing. Who, then, is to provide that content? The mission of parents to provide for their children’s good cannot be accomplished unless they are charged also with the responsibility of bringing their own understanding of these ends to bear on the formation of their children.
Moreover, a child’s developing recognition of his or her vocation—which is the ultimate end of children’s education—is not simply a matter of recognizing the goodness of this or that way of life, for there are many such good ways of life. Additionally, the child must recognize the fittingness of some particular way of life for him or her. The particular way of life to which this child is called is not the same as the life to which that child is called, and the particular shape this a child’s obligations, opportunities, and destiny will take are, in many ways, unique to him or her.
Parents are in a unique position to help children through the years of their formation, in recognizing what they are called to. There are dangers here, of course, of parental overreaching and domination, but such dangers are to be combated by a deeper awareness of parental responsibility, not a mistaken judgment that it is really the state’s responsibility for providing, and assisting in interpreting, the moral materials out of which a child’s education is structured.
Such considerations do not provide an argument against state assistance in children’s education, or even an argument against the existence of state-funded public schools. But they do suggest, I think, a rather strong conclusion: that the option of home-schooling should be the prima facie starting point for parental deliberations about their children’s education. Many parents will, in the course of their deliberations, realize that they are best positioned to pursue, with their children, the ends of education in the home. Others will conscientiously judge that others, in one or other of a variety of possible ways, must be brought on board to assist with the task. But, as the starting point for deliberation in this area, homeschooling, and homeschoolers, should be given considerably more deference, in theory and practice, than recent educational theory suggests.
Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. His latest book, co-authored with Robert P. George, is Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008). Tollefsen sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.