Crisis in the Education Cathedral

John J. Reilly, my favorite Roman Catholic writer,* points to an article called A Just War Theory of Homeschooling, which proposes the following:

The common approach to homeschooling today is inherently dangerous, because it may go against what our entire Western tradition and the Catholic Church herself teach about the education of the young — that education should not be done in the homeat least not for long, except during a time and place of crisis.

We will put aside the question of whether anyone, including Catholics, should be concerned with what the Catholic Church seems to teach about the education of the young. I’ve never been to a Catholic school, but I’ve known a few Catholics, atheists, and Protestants who have, and I’ve watched The Blues Brothers several times. Apparently they are effective at teaching certain things, but they also set the standard for authoritarianism with scary floating nuns.

Anyway, it is naive to frame this article as “an indictment of the Libertarian Right,” as if the author had teased out a commentary about American third parties from a papal encyclical. Fahey actually concludes that homeschooling is not inherently anticlerical and that the crisis justifying it will not soon pass; however, he does fret over “a rising individualism that is worming its way into our literature on homeschooling,” as well as the alarming fact that “homeschooling has risen alongside home-churching.” Darn that Luther! If only the people weren’t able to read the New Testament in their native language!

On the other side of the spectrum, the public will finally get a coherent picture of some present-day left-wing homeschoolers:

Home schooling sneaked up on us, or at least on me — Leslie has been mulling it over far longer. About three years ago, she started to burn out on her low-paid, high-stress job as a political organizer for a lefty nonprofit that was working to end the war in Iraq. At the time, we were in the not-so-unusual New York position of spending her entire income, and then some, on paying a nanny to spend far more waking hours with our children than we did.

Leslie decided to untangle this conundrum by quitting her job, ditching the nanny […] and handling the childcare herself, at least for a little while. […] She started hosting a weekly playgroup in our Brooklyn backyard and writing a blog, and before our kids were even 4 years old she’d gotten hooked into the New York “home preschool” network, a bunch of smart, high-powered, Type A women who’ve taken on their kids’ education as a challenge.

This struck a chord with Leslie in several different ways. She’s a hardcore nonconformist — yeah, she’s a lifelong lefty, but one closer to anarchism than socialism ….

Seriously, I don’t understand why anyone who claims to be a “liberal” or “conservative” even bothers with public schools. They don’t succeed at doing anything on either agenda, actually. Their main function is to subordinate the child’s curiousity and creativity to institutional mediocrity and boredom.

We’re not ready to surrender our kids, and ourselves, to a 10-month-a-year, all-day institution whose primary goal, at least at this age, seems to be teaching kids how to function within a 10-month-a-year, all-day institution.

The liberals who promote mandatory universal public education claim that it is necessary to sacrifice one’s own children for the sake of the greater society, and the conservatives who promote mandatory universal public education claim that it is necessary to sacrifice one’s own children as an example to the others. Both are really bad reasons to treat your children like dirty laundry.

O’Hehir describes the hilarious stupidity of the conventional attachment to public schooling:

Some people seem genuinely disturbed by our decision, on philosophical or political grounds, as if by keeping a couple of 5-year-olds out of kindergarten we have violated the social contract. Specifically, we have rejected the mainstream consensus that since education is a good thing, more of it — more formal, more “academic,” reaching ever deeper into early childhood and filling up more of the day and more of the year — is better for society and better for all children. This is almost an article of faith in contemporary America, but it’s also one that’s debatable at best and remains largely unsupported by research data….

The real purpose of all this formal schooling is to get the kids out of the house and train them to stand in line and follow instructions while mommy and daddy get back to their ultra-important lives as economic production units….

Do we regret not exposing our kids to the intense cultural melting pot of New York’s school system? Sometimes, sure. But we’re also not exposing them to bullying, arbitrary systems of order and discipline, age-inappropriate standards of behavior, and the hegemony of corporatized kid culture.

Go, go, liberal anarchists! O’Hehir goes even further when describing the writings of an unschooling mother: “the breezy, dry English wit was akin to sticking a fork in the haunches of the angry and puritanical razorback hog that is the American Internet-reading public.”

Despite the high-pitched squealing of frantic public school defenders, I doubt that homeschooling will take over more than 10% of the population. It just isn’t practical for a lot of people, and there are many middle-class rewards for child-herding. In some towns, the only public gathering places are Walmart and the public school gymnasium, and the only newspaper content comes from high school sports.

Nevertheless, if you are a true believer in the Enlightenment Project, it seems very dangerous to have a “parallel society” consisting of the smartest, most independent parents and their children, apparently in league with the freaks and the paranoid hilljacks. It undermines the whole logic behind modern democracy to suggest that society may not come together in blessed political unity after a fractious debate, that a minority could split off and follow their own paths while claiming to still be a part of society. Yet, since modern public education does not emerge organically from local communities, it can hardly be said to be intrinsic to them; and the ahistorical, anti-intellectual mythos surrounding American public education will not survive a dramatic upheaval.

*John J. Reilly is currently my favorite Roman Catholic writer that I’ve actually read. I haven’t yet finished G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man,  and I listened to Thomas Cahill’s books on CD.
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