The Politics of Homeschooling: A Conversation

The Politics of Homeschooling: A Conversation

The insights on homeschooling of two journalists with opposite politics

Whether or not to homeschool has been a controversial topic since K-12 public education became a legal mandate in the 20th century. In the past several decades, however, we’ve seen a movement from home-schooling as the province of religious fundamentalists and anti-government extremists to that of individuals with no home-schooling background themselves concerned over the present national education reform debate. A recent article in Slate by education journalist Dana Goldstein, and a subsequent rebuttal in Atlantic Monthly by Conor Friedersdorf highlights the rift between educational traditionalists and reformers and the emerging liberal ethic of holistic education.

More and more, families are turning to home-schooling as a last resort; pulling their kids from a system they see as narrowly standardized, overly-restrictive, and encouraging mediocrity. Instead, many home-schooling parents prefer to give their children opportunities for growth, creativity, exploration, and “whole child” education that they believe is being exorcised from traditional classrooms.

However, Goldstein, in her Slate opinion piece, accused home-schooling parents of alienating their children from the broader cultural and societal diversity in our country. “In a country increasingly separated by cultural chasms,” Goldstein writes, “should we really encourage children to trust only their parents or those hand-selected by them?” Goldstein points to a study by Amy Stuart Wells that supports the idea that attending socio-economically and racially diverse schools improves empathy, cultural awareness, and social skills regarding diversity.

However, Friedersdorf counters that just because a child is home-schooled doesn’t necessarily effect their ability to function within a socially diverse environment. He points to the difference between institutional diversity and the real diversity that we see outside our door every day. Friedersdorf uses the analogy of religious private schools that promote different faiths and ideas, that don’t necessarily contribute to the diversity within their institution, but fill a very important role within the diversity of our society at large. Should everyone attend public school, that “wisdom”, as he calls it, would not survive.

One last point I would add to the discussion is regarding Goldstein’s assertion that when advantaged children are removed from public education, the “peer effect”, by which children increase or decrease the learning of their peers through the power of influence and culture, is essentially removed from public schools. This, she argues, hurts low-income and minority students. She writes that when, “college-educated parents pull their kids out of public schools, whether for private school or homeschooling, they make it harder for less-advantaged children to thrive.”

This is one of the hardest pills to swallow concerning the modern public education; the mediocritization of student learning. It devalues our children’s individual efforts, it translates them to numbers in a formula, or pieces on a board, and it places the emphasis on investment in our lowest achieving students rather than on all students. Goldstein’s argument, from my perspective, is hurt by her overtly buying into this very “educational reformist” idea.