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In defense of homeschooling

A Harvard professor’s recent attack on homeschooling families illustrates the unselfconsciously totalitarian mindset underlying much that passes for secular liberalism today.

Although a Harvard law school professor’s recent proposal that homeschooling children be banned provoked a predictable hornets’ nest of justifiably outraged responses, the article by Professor Elizabeth Bartholet nevertheless served two useful purposes that make it worth recalling even now.

Before getting to that, though, some facts about homeschooling need to be kept in mind. Currently, 2.5 million American children are being homeschooled. A study of homeschooling parents found about two-thirds of the fathers and nearly as many of the mothers have bachelors’ degrees or better. Median family income is well above average.

Homeschooling obviously isn’t for every family. But parents who choose to homeschool aren’t dummies. The homeschoolers I have known have without exception been sophisticated, well educated people who knew very well what they were doing and had excellent reasons for doing it.

So what useful purposes did the Harvard professor’s attack on homeschooling serve?

One was to illustrate the unselfconsciously totalitarian mindset underlying much that passes for secular liberalism today. “Nakedly authoritarian” was how Kevin W. Williamson described Bartholet’s Arizona Law Review piece while skewering it in National Review.

“Homeschooling is based on a radical proposition,” Williamson wrote—namely, the proposition that “children are not the property of the state.” And that points to the second useful purpose served by Professor Bartholet’s proposal in unintentionally calling attention to why many parents choose homeschooling in the first place.

These reasons, by no means mutually exclusive, include things like reinforcing parent-child bonding, attending to children with special aptitudes and needs that may not get much attention in ordinary schools, transmitting beliefs and values of a religious tradition, and shielding kids from perverse currents of thought now circulating in public education.

A new publication from the Washington-based Family Research Council calls attention to some of those latter. Authored by Cathy Ruse, director of the council’s Center for Human Dignity and former chief counsel of the House of Representatives’ subcommittee on the Constitution, Sex Education in Public Schools: Sexualization of Children and LGBT Indoctrination provides a slew of documented examples that make for deeply disturbing reading.

Ruse reports that the new approach commonly goes by the bland name “Comprehensive Sexuality Education.” But the Sexuality Information and Education Council, a group active in this field for years, spilled the beans by calling it “Sex Ed for Social Change.” Notably, too, Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, boasts that it is also the country’s “single largest provider of sex education.”

Summing up, Ruse wrote: “Year after year, sex ed programs push the limits on what is appropriate….In many school districts today, lessons introduce sexual concepts to very young children and promote risky sexual behavior to vulnerable teens and pre-teens.”

And that is high up on the list of things many homeschooling parents don’t want their children exposed to.

Against this background, it’s passing strange that it should be necessary to defend the right to homeschool in this day and age. Nearly a century ago, the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision (Pierce v. Society of Sisters) upholding the right of parents to send their children to parochial schools, memorably declared that a child is “not the mere creature of the state.” And, the court insisted, the “fundamental theory of liberty” on which America rests “excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children” by forcing them to attend public schools only.

Homeschooling takes those affirmations seriously. The totalitarian mindset of secular liberalism now visible in some sectors of society should make us doubly grateful it does.

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About Russell Shaw 267 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. Maybe we need to go back to ideas like those of Ivan Illich. I knew him when he was at Cuernavaca as he was funding CIDOC.
    Like most intellectuals he had controversial ideas about education which were highly criticized by formal Education System especially in the United States.
    I have put a link of the summary of his book

    Chapter 1 Why we must disestablish school As already mentioned Illich sees schools as one case of modern institutions which persuade people to exchange their real lives for packaged substitutes. School education is taken for learning, social services for community spirit and hospitals for health. Education and health are seen as the result of the consumption of certain treatments. Modern poverty is defined by technocrats in terms of lacking these ‘essential’ services. This is a modern form of colonisation.
    The poor are in fact further disenfranchised by schooling as they benefit from it proportionally less than the rich. Schooling in developing nations is used to create new elites with a consumerist mentality.
    Illich sees in these institutions which we see as benign signs of disempowerment. In education he focuses on credentials and the way that education is a about packages designed by technocrats being delivered to ‘consumer-pupils’. Thus are children trained in consumerism.
    Further, by taking resources and goodwill mass public schooling stifles efforts that might otherwise be made in the community. (In the 1870s when education became compulsory in Britain working class schools which were self-funded by parents died off).
    In a theme which is recurrent throughout the book Illich asserts that pedagogical alienation in society is worse than the alienation of labour (as analysed by Marx). Schools condition people to be consumers of packages produced by other people and to accept ideas of endless progress. The dream conjured up by schooling is one which makes “futile promises of salvation to the poor of the technological age”. Illich thinks deschooling central to the adjustment to bring society to a more humane level. He suspects Marxists and others who promote the cause of social change but see no problem with schooling. For Illich the mentality of schooling goes to the heart of the impoverished lives we lead.

    • Rigoberto very well written if you’re quoting the document. I cannot get into cuz I’m on the phone I have to get a hold of that that’s very deep and very true. I want to comment on the concept of homeschooling in today’s environment is very complex. The Amish have a good system they know what they’re doing and they live in community and raise their children in that community to build their family their community and a society… However us Catholics do not have that same viewpoint so some of the statements made by the Harvard Professor are true as a traditional catholic I see that clearly. traditional Catholics have kept their kids home to isolate them to raise them with a certain value system that is not communitarian at all not even amongst faithful Catholics as Conservative Catholics they look down upon. Home-schooled traditional Catholics don’t care about the church they don’t care about Society there are individuals who are separatists isolationist and somehow they exist because they’re tied into some kind of money system that they’re able to survive. So there is a lot of Truth to what the Harvard professor said.
      The best is a good local Parish Catholic school where students live in a geographical area parents have a say in their school’s curriculum they raise the level of the Catholic School to a high level which will influence the entire community. children can participate in sports and clubs and be part of the community that is the best system.
      My father grew up in New York City 1930s 40s and went from neighborhood to Neighborhood because every time my grandmother couldn’t pay the rent they left and
      had to move to a different apartment in a different neighborhood he had a great sense of Honor dignity and love for the Catholic church and he loved the nuns because he always went to Catholic schools and received a Great Catholic Education, which no homeschool parents could beat.

      • I just posted a good review of Illich’s book, to point that, there are other true alternatives to education such as those proposed by Illich and Freire. Unfortunately, They are not welcome in an education system based on New Liberal Principles. Neither Amish Education. The Harvard document about the homeschooling and the responses to it are part of the same New Liberal Education System.
        Concerning the reasons why some Catholics conservative or liberal keep their children in parroquial school are in part guided by economic reasons. I don’t know how many Catholics prefer home schooling for their children and the reasons why.
        What I have read is that people who do homeschooling education for their kids, do that for religious reasons, I also read that most of the parents of those children are well educated and they my want their children to learn more than public school offer them. Perhaps critical thinking is involved in the process. I also read that the results of the homeschooling project had more dedicated humans beings.
        I have to recognize that the topic we are discussing is complicated.

      • You are assuming that the parochial schools are “good.” Perhaps. But many of them have, sadly, bought into the same values as the secular schools.

        It’s sad that the loss of so many of the brothers and sisters of the teaching orders means that parochial schools now cost quite a bit of money. I believe someone here on CWR mentioned a parish or diocese that made it a priority to fund the schools so that all the children of the parish (or diocese) could attend. That would be an excellent thing for all the parishes (or dioceses) to do.

        “Home-schooled traditional Catholics don’t care about the church they don’t care about Society there are individuals who are separatists isolationist and somehow they exist because they’re tied into some kind of money system that they’re able to survive. ”

        Oh? I’d need a lot more evidence than your say-so before I believed that.

        • I agree with you in part. I live nearby a Catholic school and is doing fine. Unfortunately most of the dioceses in USA are becoming small or no so small secular companies. Money matters more than ethical-theological Cristian values.
          Yes I need to do some research about Catholic schools and home schooling.

    • Rigoberto,
      Oh dear. I haven’t heard Ivan Illich mentioned for decades.
      Just from what I know which admittedly isn’t a great deal, his ideas seemed influenced by liberation theology. Or visa versa.

      “Deschooling ” can sound like an appealing
      idea for those who decry the institutional systems that warehouse our children over 9 months a year. But one needs to consider the motives behind tearing down a structure, what it might be replaced with, and who will benefit from that in the end.
      I think it works in a similar way for liberation theology. What do you gain in the end and does it resemble what you thought it would be?

      • Ivan Illich, Bishop Segio Mendez Arceo, Gustavo Gutierrez and other proponents of Liberation Theology had some meetings at CIDOC in the mid sixties. to discuss important topics concerning Latin America at that time. Most of them in a way wanted to implement the results of Vatican II.

        At the end liberation Theology and other liberating ideas resulted from those meetings. Ivan Illich book wanted to make education more social oriented instead of New Liberal oriented. Illich in my opinion wanted to avoid a kind of education in which people were educated to be servants of the New Liberal system. The Harvard article and other similar to this are promoting this type of education. Homeschool education may want to protect student religious beliefs and other socio-cultural ideas. Some see alternative Schools as choices rather than remedies to prepare students for the economic job market.
        I believe that more humanistic approaches to education, (Illich, Freire and others)
        are not welcome in a country with a New Liberal education system. When I asked to group of students who were getting their MA’s in education if they read Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. They say that such reading was not in their curricula.

        • Liberation Theology is Marxist, irreligious idiocy pushed by people who focused entirely on the world and cared nothing for the spiritual welfare of people, while at the same time preening themselves about how virtuous they were. A lot like the other social justice warriors out there.

          • Have you ever been in places where Liberation Theology was practiced?
            Liberation Theology borrowed two main terms from the Marxist ideology orthodoxia and orthopraxis. From those two the second one was more emphasized.
            The Greek Fathers of the Church, used many concepts from the New Platonic Philosophy when they developed their Christian principles. Can we reject them because they used such terminology and accuse them of being New Platonic?
            Unfortunately the time and circumstances for Liberation Theology were different. The leaders of the Church especially JPII suffered the Marxist ideology in his homeland. I do not agree with Marxism. I may agree with the purpose of Liberation theology, to practice what we believe about Christianity/Catholicism. I think the Letter of James (2:14-17) hits the nail on the head.
            I don’t know about your life experience. 80% in Latin America suffer hunger. 90% of the revenue belongs to foreign companies. We wanted to experience how the Gospel Narratives could be true. We had plenty of Ortodoxia but very little of Orthopraxis.
            Liberation Theology wants to improve the social condition in Latin America and other places were suffering and starvation were rampant. Most of those countries have experience plenty of Ortodoxia by the work of the missionaries. Is anti-Christian to do that? If so, Then, humanistic models like those of Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich are evil.
            The reality is, that Liberation Theology and other humanistic models are not welcome in our Neo-Liberal Capitalistic Ideology were profit is more important than the welfare of our brothers and sisters. Just look how the Pandemic is been handled.
            The main evil of Liberation Theology is to question the Ortodoxia. To think well about our brothers and sisters is good. To do more than thinking about them is even better. I just remember the passage of the Acts of the Apostles when the Greek brothers and sisters were mistreated. To alleviate that kind of inequality, the apostles named 7 good men to serve them. To preach the gospel is as important as to care for the needs of the believers.

          • There was nothing to stop the people who went wading in the scummy swamp of Liberation Theology from helping the poor physically without becoming unorthodox. They were counterparts of the people who wanted Jesus to be a revolutionary, and earthly instead of a heavenly King.

            “We had plenty of Ortodoxia but very little of Orthopraxis.”

            If you considered that to be the case, then the obvious solution was to inrease the latter without ditching the former.

            “Have you ever been in places where Liberation Theology was practiced?”

            I haven’t been in places where cannibalism or slavery are practiced, either, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know they’re wrong.

  2. The first question to be solved is — who has love and responsibility to the children.?
    The duty of the State is to help the parents in educating the children. Under no circumstances parents should have a say on matters relating to their children. We know there are many broken homes, fatherless homes etc. it is another problem the State together with charitable NGOs should tackle

    • James Madison, far more educated than most people here (at least in government) gave us a very fine frame work for the U.S. No where does the Constitution mention it is the duty of the State to help parents educate their children.
      The Constitution is actually a very modest document–probably because The State usually finds a way to make a mess and ruin everything. I certainly do not need nor want its help in educating my children.

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