Crime Against the State: Why Progressives Hate Homeschooling
Thomas E. Woods, Jr. - 02/14/08
The homeschooling movement in the United States has reached a level of institutional maturity that few could have predicted only a decade or two ago. A massive infrastructure is in place, from curriculum companies to social groups, catering to the millions of people who engage in homeschooling. The movement remains as unpopular as ever in fashionable circles, to be sure, but by now the standard arguments against homeschooling are so trite and predictable that families who practice it are able to parry them with little effort.
Once in a while, though, we get a glimpse of the real reason homeschooling is so despised.
By now a great many bloggers and homeschool activists have heard about the case of fifteen-year-old Melissa Busekros of Germany and her three-month ordeal with the authorities. Having fallen behind in her math and Latin, Busekros had been kept home by her parents to receive private tutoring. That unthinkable offense violated anti-homeschool statutes in place since the days of Adolf Hitler—who of course demanded state control of education—and Busekros found herself expelled from school.
Oh, and on February 1, 2007, the government placed the girl first in a psychiatric ward and then in a foster home. She had “school phobia,” you see.
Although her parents were permitted to see her, they were not told where she was staying. In March, Busekros wrote an open letter in which she pleaded for her “right to go back to my family, as I wish,” and insisted: “I am not sick as the doctor said and my family is the best place for me to live.” The latter remark is a reference to the psychological evaluation, so vague as to be a parody of psychiatry itself, on which her removal from her family was justified. (The state’s own testing later found the girl to be perfectly normal.)
Now none of this has anything to do with homeschooling, German officials insisted. They were just concerned for the well-being of this young girl.
But Wolfgang Drautz, consul general of the Federal Republic of Germany, gave the game away. First, in defending the importance of school attendance he explained that school “teaches not only knowledge but also social conduct.” Such a claim is risible enough: one of the reasons some of us intend to homeschool our children is precisely that we don’t want them learning “social conduct” from the slobs and vulgarians who roam the halls of the typical public school. It takes time and effort to raise well-mannered and civilized children, and we do not intend to see that good work undone by sending them to the local savage factory.
Still, that misplaced objection to homeschooling is not unusual. But things turned rather sinister when Drautz went on to warn that “the public has a legitimate interest in countering the rise of parallel societies that are based on religion or motivated by different world views and in integrating minorities into the population as a whole. If we are to achieve integration, not only must the majority of the population prevent the ostracization of religious minorities or minorities with different world views, but minorities must also remain open and engage in dialogue with those who think differently or share different beliefs.”
He neglected to add: or we’ll take their children.
German officials have complained about comparisons of their actions and rationales to those of Hitler. But consider the Führer’s words: “We have set before ourselves the task of inoculating our youth with the spirit of this community of the people at a very early age, at an age when human beings are still unperverted and therefore unspoiled. This Reich stands, and it is building itself up for the future, upon its youth. And this new Reich will give its youth to no one, but will itself take youth and give to youth its own education and its own upbringing.”
With which of these sentiments does Herr Drautz disagree?
All of this talk about countering parallel societies and integrating minorities into the population might have been drawn from the rhetoric of the American Progressive Era. In my book The Church Confronts Modernity, I chronicled an overlooked but central aspect of the Progressives’ thought: they sought to construct a new American ethic in which the citizen’s primary loyalties were to the “national community,” rather than to states and localities, and to a new, nondogmatic, nondenominational ethic instead of to any revealed religion. America, the Jesuits’ magazine, described the Progressive attitude this way: “You may hold any faith or religion you please, but then you must not belong to any specific sect or be bound by any dogma.”
For John Dewey and the Progressives, children in the new age needed to be taught procedural rules rather than substantial goods. In other words, they should be taught toleration, open-mindedness, and flexibility, for in this world of change and flux citizens must be readily adaptable to new situations. The last thing children needed, therefore, was unchanging religious dogma taught as truth. As William H. Kilpatrick said, “We must free our children to think for themselves. Anything else is not only to refuse to accept the facts as to the unknown changing future, but is at the same time to deny democracy and its fundamental demand that we respect other people, even our own children.”
Now it is one thing to say that since a great many belief systems coexist together in the United States, we must make an effort to devise some kind of common moral vocabulary by means of which we can speak to each other fruitfully as we tackle divisive issues in the public square. Whether or not such a thing is possible, the mere suggestion is not obviously foolish or contemptible; if a natural law that binds all men really does exist, it is at least plausible that people of diverse backgrounds might be able to recognize common values. But the Progressives were going much further than this.
Sociologist Albion Small spoke explicitly of the need to invent a new religion, a national creed that could unite Americans on essentials and lift them out of the dual parochialisms of geography and religion. “By 1915,” writes historian Eldon Eisenach in The Lost Promise of Progressivism, “Small is really codifying the results of a long-standing theological-ethical enterprise when he concludes that the symbolic centerpiece of this ‘new’ national religion is the now historically recovered ‘Weltanschauung of Jesus’ excavated from barbarism, superstition, church, and dogma.”
According to Eisenach, Progressives held that “all social knowledge deserving a hearing must be cosmopolitan in origin and national in import.” They “invented a conception of citizenship that stipulated that the possession of social knowledge entailed the duty of reflecting on and articulating ideas of national public goodunmediated by party, interest, region, or sectarian religion” (emphasis added). No parallel societies allowed.
Not surprisingly—but again, unfortunately overlooked by scholars of the Progressive Era—the period was marked by numerous efforts to devise a new ethical system and a new foundation on which to ground moral behavior. The ethical culture movement, founded in 1876, sought to do exactly this: to construct a nonreligious ethic that could serve as the foundation for a better and more humane world. That sentiment persisted into the Progressive Era. In 1918, the National Institution for Moral Instructionawarded $5,000 to Oberlin College professor William J. Hutchins for his code of morality, which began with an exhortation “to be physically fit” and concluded by declaring loyalty to humanity to be the highest law. Another such proposal came from Lake Forest College’s professor Henry W. Wright, and still another from Harvard president Charles Eliot. In the Harvard Theological Quarterly Eliot proposed a nondenominational, nondogmatic “religion of the future.” In place of the personal God of old-fashioned Christianity he would substitute a “sleepless, active energy and will” that is recognized “chiefly in the wonderful energies of sound, light, and electricity.” Naturally, the religion of the future would also abandon “the official creeds and dogmas of the past.”
The rationale behind all these systems, in an eerie anticipation of modernbanalities, was that they had the potential to unite rather than to divide. That none of them survives as anything more than an interesting curiosity is perhaps a fair indication of how well they resonated with the population.
Education was a central plank of the Progressives’ plan to bring about the national community they sought. If children were to be emancipated from the stupid prejudices of their parents, educated in the values of progressivism, and lifted out of their “parallel societies,” they would have to be instructed in a government-run school staffed by people who shared the Progressive outlook. Private and/or religious education only compounded the problem that Progressive education aimed to solve. No wonder John Dewey said, with regard to the Catholic school system, “It is essential that this basic issue be seen for what it is—namely, as the encouragement of a powerful reactionary world organization in the most vital realm of democratic life, with the resulting promulgation of principles inimical to democracy.”
This had been a Progressive theme from the beginning. William T. Harris, the most prominent figure in the American educational establishment after the Civil War, and who possessed the mystical reverence for the state so characteristic of Hegelians, warned in an 1871 address to the National Educational Association: “Neither is it safe to leave the education of youth to religious zeal or private benevolence,” since “our State [will] find elements heterogeneous to it continually growing up.” We certainly can’t have that.
In my experience, the average homeschooled student is far more likely than his public-school counterpart to show good manners, to interact well with others, and to be able to hold a serious conversation with an adult. And, significantly, they are better equipped to interact with people unlike themselves (their unusual maturity and knowledge base serve them well in such situations), one of the very reasons they are typically said to need public education. (If a dignitary from a non-Western country came to town for a visit, would you expect a public-school student or a homeschooled student to be more likely to do or say something stupid and embarrassing? Does the question not answer itself?)
Someone who truly cared about the welfare of children would be delighted by homeschooling and the astonishing fruits it has borne even as it continues to receive no mainstream cultural support. But homeschooling is the ultimate repudiation of every grandiose scheme to pull children away from their families and train them in the values of social democracy. That, and not transparent claims about child welfare, is why all the usual suspects detest it, both in Germany and at home.