Homeschooling

JAMES HITCHCOCK

Beginning in the 1960’s, there has come to be a growing number of parents who deeply mistrust the established educational systems, public and private, and are thrown back on their own resources. If those who educate their children at home do not have all the answers, they are at least asking the necessary questions.

If those who educate their children at home do not have all the answers, they are at least asking the necessary questions.

In a sense the question why parents should teach their own children is like Ralph Waldo Emerson's question to Henry David Thoreau when Thoreau was in jail for refusing to pay his taxes. When Emerson asked, "Why are you here?" Thoreau responded, "Why are you not here?"

Christopher Dawson observed that two of the most revolutionary developments of modern times were the universal military draft, begun in the French Revolution, and universal compulsory public education, enacted beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. They were, he pointed out, innovations of immense importance in extending the state's control over people's minds and lives, yet the radical nature of those innovations has seldom been noticed.

The notion of "public" education was virtually unknown before the nineteenth century, and it is no exaggeration to say that throughout all of human history education had never, until then, been separated from religion. If education is to be more than merely utilitarian, as most educators have insisted that it must be, how could it be separated from the wellsprings of existence, which is the domain of religion? It is not possible to inform people with a sense of ethics, or even a general sense of what is real or important in life, if the religious basis of life is ignored.

In reality public education in the nineteenth century did not as yet ignore religion, and Catholics began establishing their own schools because they found the public schools to be Protestant, not secular. Perhaps Catholic criticism of the public schools, as insufficiently "neutral," was misconceived, helping to prepare the way for the day when public education would finally become resolutely secular.

Until the l960's in many places, public education embodied a vague kind of Protestantism. Prayer and readings from the Bible survived quite late and were only suppressed through court orders, and in a remarkable number of places clergy taught in the public schools. There was a broad consensus about morality, including sexual morality, which people of all religions or none agreed upon. This consensus broke apart, as did so many other things in the culture, in the great cultural upheaval called "the Sixties," one important aspect of which was a determined and successful campaign to enact a secular agenda throughout the society, especially in education.

The Religious Right arose mainly in reaction to this, as conservative Protestants saw that the omnicompetent state was now using its authority, and sometimes its naked power, to make certain beliefs difficult to live by. If Dawson was right that originally very few people saw the dangers of universal compulsory education, belatedly many did come to see them.

When this cultural revolution hit in the l960's, Catholics and some other groups had their own long established school systems and thus should have been able to weather the storm. But the Church itself was not immune to the cultural winds, and Catholic educators had for some time been looking nervously over their shoulders at the secular schools, a process most visible in colleges and universities but happening on all other levels as well.

Related to this cultural crisis, and exacerbating it in many ways, were the internal crises of the Church itself, as Catholic education began to implement theories ultimately traceable to dissenting theologians and, beyond them, to influential secular thinkers (the Harvard educationist Lawrence Kohlberg, for example).

Thus, beginning in the l960's, there has come to be a growing number of parents who deeply mistrust the established educational systems, public and private, and are thrown back on their own resources. In a sense this is the way things should be, a return to the situation which prevailed before society opened the long parenthesis of universal compulsory education.

The cultural crisis has given birth to the home school movement from two opposite directions: moral traditionalists who see the corrosive effects of established schools, and political left-wingers who regard the schools as the instruments of capitalist oppression. Both sides are radical in the real sense, in their willingness to question established institutions in a way most people are not prepared to do.

Americans now seem to be in revolt against the phenomenon of a constantly growing government intruding itself into all aspects of their lives. If that movement is to continue, then compulsory public education will have to be among those aspects of state activity which needs to be reexamined, since such education is the most intrusive of all government activities, even to the point of setting children against parents.

The crucial question is whether the government will allow this to happen, since the logic of the welfare state already treats parents as obstacles to the kind of progressive development their children should be allowed to undergo. In numerous ways both large and small the state has the power to restrict or even to suppress things like home schooling, and there will undoubtedly be efforts made to use that power. The home schooling movement, to the degree that it becomes organized and aggressive, will be the bluntest and most direct challenge yet to the moral claims of the omnicompetent state. Here the more conservative churches will probably provide only weak defenses against government power, and the liberal churches will righteously support that power.

If those who educate their children at home do not have all the answers, they are at least asking the necessary questions.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

James Hitchcock. "Homeschooling." Catholic Dossier 3 no. 2 (March April 1997): 44-45.

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic Dossier. To subscribe to Catholic Dossier call 1-800-651-1531.

THE AUTHOR

James Hitchcock is a widely published author on many topics and Professor of History at St. Louis University. James Hitchcock is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 1997 Catholic Dossier


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