Responding to Harvard Magazine’s insane article on homeschooling

I wasn’t going to respond to that spectacularly ignorant article in Harvard Magazine about homeschooling because it falls into the “someone is wrong on the Internet” category from which no edifying debate can emerge. But so many readers have hate-shared it with me now that it would be more efficient for me to fisk it publicly than to respond to each one of you in turn. I hope you are proud of yourselves.

For readers who are not Aggressively Online – and thus are blissfully unaware of the outrage du jour on social media – Harvard Magazine did an interview with one of their social justice warrior law professors, Elizabeth Bartholet – an Elizabeth Warren doppelgänger, though to my knowledge she hasn’t stolen anyone’s ethnicity – who called for a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling in the article because she sees “risks” to children in some households. It’s another one of the “strip away the rights of the many to protect the interests of the very few” arguments that are all the rage in certain circles now, though I confess that it is somewhat mystifying to me that this is coming out of a law school in the United States. It’s never going to happen, I’m totally wasting my time writing this, but you should be amused by what follows nonetheless.

Harvard Magazine could not have picked a more ironic time to attack homeschooling than when most public schools across the country have been arbitrarily shut down, but here we are, surrounded by people who are beyond parody.

For context, Bartholet has had it out for homeschoolers for decades now. She has been spewing this nonsense since the 1990s at least. And her problem is not homeschooling, per se, but the horrifying sense that someone, somewhere might be talking to their kids about Jesus. If she were talking about Muslim homeschoolers (of which there are many, by the way – and good for them!) instead of Christians, she’d be run out of Cambridge. As it is, she lives in such a steel-reinforced intellectual bubble that she doesn’t even sense that she’s offending more than Christian tiger moms by bashing homeschoolers of faith. And that’s one very good reason why she should not be perceived as an authority on this subject.

Here are my general responses to her piece:

(1) OK, Boomer

In an earlier essay, I explained that a lot of homeschoolers and school choice advocates are wasting their time responding to critics of homeschooling who should simply be ignored because, frankly, they are just obnoxious senior citizens who are out of touch with their own culture. I pointed out that most critics of homeschooling fit into a single, relatively small demographic: They are white Baby Boomer women who skew far-left politically and culturally. They think the universe has appointed them to tell other people how to live – this is not simply an issue of where education physically takes place.

Bartholet is pretty representative of this group and the myths about homeschooling they attempt to perpetuate. They don’t understand why their arguments fail to get traction outside of their Twitter bubble, because they don’t meaningfully interact with the three generations younger than them, who are all more likely to talk about education as an experience and lifelong project than to become mired in deeply bigoted spats about personal belief systems. And, yeah, I said bigoted. Bartholet is the definition of a bigot on the topic of religion. She probably thinks she’s one of the most enlightened people on the planet, but she’s simply just another bigot with tenure.

The academic landscape in our country is shifting radically, and it’s tilting away from people who think like Bartholet. This is not a problem; it’s progress. Technology is leveling the playing field in education and the momentum in homeschooling is part of that.

These women are Karens with credentials, that’s it. They don’t have an academic argument about homeschooling because there really isn’t one to be made. Homeschoolers tend to have the highest test scores of any group in the country, and that didn’t come about because most homeschoolers are a bunch of Christian fundamentalists who hate math and science. (By the way, kudos to the editors of Harvard Magazine for finally fixing the word “arithmetic” in their cartoon, which was originally misspelled. That sure was embarrassing in this context, eh?) These critics don’t like the idea that some parents choose to raise their children in a way that the Karens have not approved of, so they want kids to go to public schools so they can be indoctrinated in the “right” way. They are the same insufferable people who have driven millions of families out of public schools, but they have some opinions on how to improve education.

The fact that these women are OLD is an important detail, because one of the quite false justifications they tend to give for loathing homeschooling is they perceive homeschooled children to be “isolated.” This is simply not true. It wasn’t ever true, but it is especially not true in the digital age. There are large homeschooling groups in pretty much every medium-to-large-sized city you choose, including blue states. (Thousands of liberal Millennial parents homeschool their children. It’s one of the myriad differences between generations on the left side of the political spectrum.)

But, come on, we are talking about a movement that has millions of members. You seriously think they are all stashing their kids in bunkers in the desert so they can deny the geological record in peace? And you are accusing other people of having a problem with science and data?

In many states, homeschoolers can participate in public school athletics. Most homeschoolers are engaged in a lot of extracurricular activities. In non-pandemic times, public parks and libraries are full of homeschoolers. Our city community center even has daily gatherings of homeschoolers, including robotics, art, and cooking groups. There are endless homeschooling co-ops and then University Model schools that balance homeschooling with days of traditional instruction. There are homeschool field trips, proms, and graduation ceremonies. Homeschoolers live in neighborhoods where they can play with kids whose parents make other education decisions.

The only people on this planet who are socially isolated these days choose to be. I don’t know a single homeschooler who fits that category. But what they do choose is the kind of people they socialize with, which can be a very empowering thing – especially for families from disadvantaged backgrounds. It can be the difference whether your kid goes to MIT or Teenage and Pregnant. Good examples are an important feature of education. And in many public schools, good examples are getting increasingly difficult to find.

I can’t imagine that Bartholet’s “research” into homeschooling involved getting to know any of the members or administrators in these homeschooling groups, of which she has thousands to choose from. No one with an empirical approach can look at homeschooling in the 21st century and claim it is an antisocial activity. But she read a bestseller once about a woman with a bad childhood, so there’s that.

And as to her false notion that homeschooled kids are somehow imprisoned at home, homeschoolers have more – not less – time to play outside than kids in public school. This is one of the top reasons parents are pulling their kids out of traditional schools these days. (That and so kids can travel throughout the year, see the world, and learn about different cultures – a phenomenon known as “world-schooling” among Millennial parents, and it’s awesome.) The school days in public schools keep getting longer as test scores keep declining. You have elementary school children in school for the same amount of time as high schoolers in many places now. Talk about missing out on having a childhood.

(2) Boy, this outrage du jour must be awkward for all the homeschoolers who attend Harvard.

Only a couple years ago, the Harvard Crimson did a glowing profile on the homeschoolers who attend the university. (Incidentally, the mother of one of the students interviewed writes a popular homeschooling blog and her daughter is training to go into medicine. Such science-deniers!) See From Homeschool to Harvard: Harvard’s homeschooled students say growing up outside of a traditional school system was an opportunity for them to be flexible and self-driven.

Here’s an excerpt:

Like many peer institutions, Harvard says it does not evaluate homeschooled applicants differently than others in the admissions process. The University also does not publicize any statistics on homeschooled applicants or accepted students.

While an admissions officer declined to comment, according to the Admissions Office website, “each applicant to Harvard College is considered with great care and homeschooled applicants are treated the same as all other applicants.” The website adds that “there is no special process, but all relevant information about your educational and personal background is welcome.”

Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 said that homeschoolers integrate well into the student population, while also adding that the definition of ‘homeschool’ has certainly changed, now encapsulating students who take online courses or community college classes.

“We’ve had lots of success with students who identify as homeschooled,” Dingman said. “It’s changed over time, so I don’t know that you can say these are people who’ve only gotten their education within the four walls of their home,” he added.

Bartholet’s position doesn’t even reflect the judgment of the institution she works at. But I can’t imagine the admissions folks are delighted that she’s smearing some of their coveted applicants.

(3) Christian fundamentalists comprise a very small minority of families that are legally homeschooling; they are far from the archetype.

One of the reasons homeschooling is taking off in popularity is that (contrary to Bartholet’s take) religion is no longer one of the primary reasons people choose to homeschool. This notion Bartholet has that homeschoolers are a bunch of wacky Christian fundamentalists is a totally Boomer worldview. She clearly doesn’t interact with many people who are actually homeschooling.

(And, really, it’s not like every Christian has fundamentalist views, either. Here’s a list of Christians who were pioneers in science and technology. Now try imagining the world without their efforts. Bigotry is a mental disease.)

First of all, you have a lot of parents who started homeschooling simply because it’s a luxury they can afford. Homeschooling is extremely popular in the tech industry now, for example. You have people who are well-educated themselves, with a background of economic privilege, who can afford to purchase top-notch curricula, and have the flexibility schedule-wise to teach their own children. They have built entire careers by disrupting stodgy old institutions, and education is not any different. Public education is an institution that is ripe for disruption.

My husband and I are representative of this group. We aren’t some science-denying, snake-handling Pentecostals who make our daughter wear long skirts and hate makeup. In fact, I am better trained in quantitative fields than Bartholet ever dreamed of being. We have graduate degrees and are in the top 1% of the income earners in the country. We are the kind of people who will eventually send our child to an elite university, and we are watching what schools say about people like us because it will most certainly inform our family’s decisions. We homeschool because it is objectively the best option for an academically rigorous education available in our country.

But there are also a lot of people on the other side of the scale, and their stories are important – people who started homeschooling because they felt like they did not have a choice. People whose kid was getting bullied at school (and online 24/7) because of their religion, race, sexual orientation, social class, etc. and the school administrators were doing nothing to intervene. (Arguably, Bartholet is an adult version of bullies like this, bashing and shaming people with different beliefs online. Egad.) Kids who were being sexually harassed or threatened. People who did not want to send their kids to an under-performing or violent school, and see homeschooling as the opportunity for social mobility that public schools in their area do not provide.

I know a ton of homeschooling parents who are racial minorities or who come from low-income neighborhoods. Homeschooling is their very real and very important path out of a system built on inequality, where public school districts are effectively gerrymandered around racial and economic boundaries so the kids of people like Bartholet don’t have to mingle with brown people or rednecks. And don’t give me any shit about your ideal vision of public education, like we live in some Boomer-tastic West Wing monologue. This is the reality of public education in every state in our country and it’s not going away anytime soon. I’ve said this many times before, but school choice in K-12 education is the new Historically Black Colleges and Universities from a civil rights perspective. There’s a reason why rich and successful African-Americans put their money into charter schools and why there are a bunch of black homeschooling mamas out there now.

There are a lot of Muslim and Jewish homeschooling sites now. Christians aren’t the only parents who want to pass down their culture to their children – shocking, I know. Of course, a real legal scholar would recognize that our country was founded on the idea that religious freedom belongs to everyone and that the government does not exist to “fix” what its citizens believe to be true. That’s called fascism.

There are also a ton of homeschooling parents who have kids with special needs that are not being adequately addressed in the school system or that were being outright abused physically and emotionally by school staff. Bartholet should consider reading Pro Publica’s expose on “quiet rooms” before talking about her homeschooling boogeymen locking their children in closets. They lock children in closets in public schools now. In our school district here, there was a local news story a couple months ago about an autistic kid who was physically beaten by his teacher and thrown into a “reflection room” for hours until he soiled his clothes and started stripping down in his non-verbal humiliation. But, hey, at least the public school system put it in the books that they can’t use restraints in the rooms. You have to send your kids to public schools so there’s a responsible adult to conduct welfare checks, you know.

Of the Christian homeschoolers that do exist in very large numbers, you have several rigorous academic programs that are popular. There are far, far, far more Classical Education and Charlotte Mason homeschoolers than there are Young-Earth conspiracy theorists. These kids are being raised with an Oxford ideal of education. Kids that can quote Aristotle in elementary school and can write like serious academics before they get to college.

(4) Many states have already made a policy decision to encourage homeschooling and online learning.

There are states across the country that, for various reasons, have decided to put K-12 learning entirely online. (They are the ones that had a major advantage during this pandemic, in fact.) This offers considerable advantages for many different kinds of families, particularly for families with gifted children.

Homeschooling makes it easy for children to pursue a well-developed passion, like competing in the Olympics or becoming a professional violinist. It makes it easier for kids to take college courses if they are already academically qualified to do that. It makes it easy for kids with backgrounds in STEM fields to work on independent projects outside of core subjects. Homeschooling is not antithetical to getting a “proper” education in the sciences, as Bartholet suggests. In many cases, homeschooling offers a peculiar opportunity to excel in them.

Many states are seeing profound teacher shortages, especially in STEM fields. If you can code, if you can manage a portfolio, etc. there is no economic or other incentive to go teach high school. There aren’t a lot of math geniuses itching to spend their days teaching Common Core. Homeschooling offers children who excel in these fields the time and flexibility to locate a mentor who could completely alter their fate rather than staring out the window all day while their teacher drones on about how to min-max placement tests.

But the point is, even most policymakers nowadays realize that the education system in the US is more broken than it is successful.

(5) In case you missed it, almost every family in the United States is homeschooling their children right now.

I assume this is why homeschooling is suddenly a topic for Boomer liberals, because at any other time they’d be pushing bad statistics about how there’s a school shooting literally every day or talking about how transgender kids can’t even go to the bathroom safely (as if these are arguments for how wonderful public education is). Are they worried that families homeschooling their kids during this pandemic might actually enjoy it and want to continue? I suspect that is the case, but I also kind of don’t care what their motivations are.

Paradigm shifts, by definition, are difficult on deeply institutionalized people like Bartholet. Not everyone worships institutions and credentials, hoop-jumping and quests for approval, but would prefer to plant the seed of being a lifelong learner in their children’s hearts. That right there is the best reason to homeschool.

But the fact of the matter is, whether you send your child to a traditional school or homeschool, you – their parent – are the main intellectual influence in their world. Every single parent is homeschooling to some degree, and if you are not, then you are profoundly failing your child. There is no better indicator of a child’s success than the number of books their own parent sits down and reads with them. You can’t outsource parenthood – not to a public school teacher, or Harvard’s increasingly delusional professional chattering class, or anyone else. It’s your kid and the buck always stops with YOU.

2 thoughts on “Responding to Harvard Magazine’s insane article on homeschooling

  1. Good insights. I also appreciate you using the term “liberal Boomer”. I am a member of the baby boom generation, but I am not a leftist liberal. I didn’t even know that “Boomer” was a derogatory term until some of the young adults in an Android support group started using it recently.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, to be fair, not all liberal Boomers think this way either. It’s just most of the people who behave this way fit that category. That’s why that lady has been dragged online by a range of other groups.

      Like

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