The Illiberal Campaign Against Home-Schooling

Mary Eberstadt Author, It's Dangerous to Believe
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That progressive activists are targeting Christian education is no longer news. Christian colleges including Gordon in Massachusetts and King’s in New York have endured ideologically-driven accreditation investigations. Christian groups including InterVarsity have been challenged and sometimes de-recognized on secular campuses. Nor is ideological animus against the transmission of religious ideas limited to higher education alone. Consider the purposiveness with which some progressive standard-bearers now attack, of all things, homeschooling — that is, the practice now adopted by millions of American families for educating children outside of government institutions.

Here as elsewhere in our examination of anti-Christian soldiers, the first salient fact is that progressive activists even have a lockstep position against homeschooling, rather than a diversity of views. Here as elsewhere, diversity is a thin word — whereas the thick reality of intolerance is something very different.

For while “homeschooling” is the ostensible target, what irks today’s activists most is that the majority of homeschooled children are in Christian families. Homeschooling is one more lightning rod for the peculiarly intense hostility radiating from supposedly progressive quadrants.

Consider a 2012 article at Slate, forthrightly titled “Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids: Why Teaching Children at Home Violates Progressive Values.”  Or this tendentious phrasing from a 2015 piece at Salon:

Religion as child abuse has, of course, always formed the mainstay of faith. A desire to indoctrinate the unsuspecting young in faith’s dark, lurid dogmas before science, reason, and the enlightening joys of secularism take over and help them mature into healthy adults has for decades motivated a controversial homeschooling movement afflicting some 2.5 million children in the United States. … Homeschooling amounts to allowing the faith-deranged to infect their young with their disorder.

Obviously, an implied double standard is at work here. If other parents around America were following a curriculum laden with some of progressivism’s greatest hits—say, via a canon that included works by Arthur Miller, Richard Hofstadter, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Philip Pullman—it’s safe to bet that civil libertarians would be defending the right of those parents to educate their children as they see fit. But if instead you’re poring over classics of Judeo-Christianity at the kitchen table, then charges of undermining public education—even society itself—will be thrown your way. Homeschooling must be assaulted, so runs the ideological reasoning, because it’s something Christians do.

Thus Richard Dawkins, among other new atheists, has repeatedly attacked the right of parents to school their children, by likening religious education to “child abuse.” Nor is faith-based education outside the home acceptable, either; Dawkins has made a documentary against religious schools. Bill Maher, similarly, has attacked former Senator Rick Santorum’s practice of homeschooling as “the Christian madrassa that is the family living room.” A homeschooler cannot even be named to a state education board, as happened in Texas in 2015, without objection from somewhere on the supposedly more tolerant side of the spectrum.

There is scholarly literature aimed against homeschooling, too — not on the grounds that homeschooling is academically inadequate, but for the specific reason that it’s done by Christians.

Consider a 2010 article by a professor of law at George Washington University, which opens on this prejudicial note: “This Essay explores the choice many traditionalist Christian parents (both fundamentalist and evangelical) make to leave public schools in order to teach their children at home, thus in most instances escaping meaningful oversight” (emphasis added). Though surely not intended, the use of the word oversight is a red flag—one signaling that there’s a need to keep closer track of those sneaky Christians, as though they are up to something baleful. Who would think to worry about that—apart from people who regard religious believers as some kind of rival force, something dangerous, subversive, and in need of closer scrutiny?

Again, consider the double standard here. Would anyone fret on public record about whether children were being “exposed to constitutional values,” as the article also does, if they were being home-schooled by members of MoveOn.org, or the ACLU, or Friends of the Earth? What about education via yeshivas or madrassas—are these kinds of schooling, too, held up as possible breeding grounds for anti-constitutional subversives? Likely not. If homeschooling weren’t a Christian thing, it’s hard to imagine it being attacked.

Here, as in other attempts to shut down free speech and free exercise, voices raised in the name of progressivism are channeling fundamentally illiberal agendas.

The ideological combativeness toward homeschooling is instructive for several reasons. First, it reveals an ideology that cannot bear intellectual competition. Here as elsewhere, the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor honed by John Milton and John Stuart Mill, and injected into American jurisprudence by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes—a model of neutrality and openness that liberals as well as conservatives have embraced for almost a hundred years—is repudiated by people acting in progressivism’s name. In reality, their anti-Christian combustion drives toward cultural monopoly. The left/radical National Education Association, for example, passed among its 2014–15 resolutions this ukase: “Homeschooling programs based on parental choice cannot provide students with a comprehensive educational experience.”  “Cannot”? Ever?

Second, skepticism about the idea that Christians are qualified to teach in the first place reveals again a unique condescension toward people of faith — or at least, some people of faith, that is, the people whose faith it is permissible to attack. If the majority of homeschooling families were Shinto or Confucian or Hindu, would they excite the same negative passions?

Third, the attack on homeschooling illuminates another fault line visible elsewhere: a gaping lack of empathy. The political hammering of educational choice subverts the secularist left’s claim to represent a spirit of compassion. The last two progressive presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both opted out of the District of Columbia’s government schools by sending their own children to elite private ones. What about other parents who also don’t want their children in public schools, but don’t have the wherewithal of American presidents?

In skirmishes over homeschooling as elsewhere, ironically, the desire to cut Christianity down to size tears at the very roots of progressivism itself. One of the greatest liberal thinkers of all time, John Stuart Mill, was taught at home by his father — “homeschooled” — from the earliest age. As Mill wrote in On Liberty, “A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mold in which it cast them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government.” This architect of human freedom would find the coercion and narrow-mindedness of some of his supposed political fellows today intolerable.

Mary Eberstadt is author of It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies, just published by HarperCollins. This essay is adapted from the book.