A little more than a month ago, one of the short-lived internet firestorms to which we’ve now grown so accustomed cropped up and raged as the dates of a homeschooling summit hosted by Harvard Law School drew nearer. At the center of the impending summit (now postponed due to COVID-19), and the firestorm it created, was Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard Law School professor and the director of the school’s Child Advocacy Program.
And let there be no mistake: the ideas that would have been (and eventually will be) promoted by Bartholet and others at this summit deserve the careful attention and thoroughgoing redress of those committed to classical Christian education. If their ideas have their way, the educational liberties of both homeschooling families and, in time, private Christian schools are at risk of drastic reduction.
Others have responded more fully to some of the issues at stake, including Fred Bauer at the National Review and Melba Pearson, herself a homeschooled honors graduate of Harvard. Here I want to home in on just one aspect of Bartholet’s rhetoric—one that, so far as I am concerned, reveals a fundamental misunderstanding pertaining to the nature of education itself.
Time and again in her article in the Arizona Law Review, Bartholet warns of the negative societal ramifications of home education. And nearly every time she does so, one of two words—and occasionally both together—almost immediately follows, i.e., employment and democracy. Consider, exemplorum gratia, the following pair of nearly identical citations:
“This homeschooling regime poses real dangers to children and to society. Children are at serious risk of losing out on opportunities to learn things that are essential for employment.”
“The nature of the homeschooling population presents dangers for children and society. It means that many of the children involved will not be prepared for participation in employment.”
By repeatedly voicing her concerns regarding homeschooling in terms of employment, Bartholet tips her hand as to what she believes education to be for. She considers education mainly as a socioeconomic machine, and therefore she conceives of children mainly in terms of their socioeconomic function. Given that this is foundational to her anti-homeschooling tirade, it requires only a slight extension of thought to see that she will not be satisfied with the abolishment of homeschooling. Any education that does not directly improve the socioeconomic machine will eventually have to go as well.
To put it in terms of our director’s well-known dictum, for Bartholet education is about how to do rather than how to think. Homeschooling threatens the welfare of society because it might inhibit children’s employment-readiness—however it is that Bartholet and others conceive it. Education exists to ready children for future employment, and thus we cannot allow them to graduate from high school without the ability to do the things we think will be in society’s greatest economic interest. Education, on this view, does not aim to equip children to live wisely and virtuously in all of their God-given domains—individual, familial, religious, societal—but rather to rise to the level of functionality that our economy, at present, needs.
Nor is the economy the only aspect of society endangered by homeschooling. The fabric of our political system—its democratic makeup—is at risk of being torn apart as well.
“A large percentage of homeschooling parents are committed to teaching their children that…democratic views and values are wrong, and to raising their children so that they will stay true to their parents’ beliefs and lifestyle. Parents who are ideologically committed to raising children in isolation from the larger society, with views and values counter to much of the education provided in public schools, are not going to be willing or able to provide an education comparable to what schools provide.”
Much could be said about the above citation. Perhaps most unsettling is Bartholet’s apparent equation of “democratic views and values” with the “views and values…provided in public schools.” Education that doesn’t share the values of the public school system is anti-democracy.
Leaving that Pandora’s box unopened, however, I’d like instead to pause and place the above matters side-by-side. (1) Bartholet conceives of education primarily in socioeconomic or vocational terms. (2) Bartholet contends that contra-public schooling threatens the integrity of American democracy. The great irony is this: the vocationalist sort of schooling is precisely the sort that truly poses a threat to democracy.
In his influential book, Norms and Nobility, David Hicks considers the relationship between education and democracy in a chapter titled, “The Ennobling of the Masses.” He makes the point that a democracy demands that every citizen receive an aristocratic education, i.e., an education in the liberal arts rather than in the servile arts. As Hicks puts it,
“The logic of democracy…demands that everyone be educated as members of an elite. Each student in a democracy must be educated as an aristocrat. Democracy assures him of the unique privileges of an aristocrat…. Education, therefore, must impress on the citizen a lively sense of the responsibilities attending these privileges…. In theory, democracy puts Aristotle’s ‘good life,’ the life of virtue, within reach of every man; but only a classical education is designed to turn this theory into practice, while safeguarding democracy with a norm-minded citizenry by extending culture to all.”
Citizens in a democracy must know how to think (sapientia), for it is they who are entrusted with the responsibility of making sound judgments concerning the welfare of their land. And citizens in a democracy must know what to do (virtus)—they must be “norm-minded”—or else they will lose sight of their obligations to others and have eyes only for the state’s obligations to them.
In sum, although Bartholet appeals to the health of our democracy in her efforts to radically curtail homeschooling, she unwittingly promulgates a vision of education that would assuredly drive home the nail in our democracy’s coffin.