The Home Schooling Question
[UPDATE 11.01.07: From some of the comments, it's clear this should have been two separate stories. There are really two separate problems with home schooling. The first is socialization, which can be remedied but requires extraordinary parental participation and effort. The second is the teaching of creationism and abstinence-only sex education, which takes place in the vast majority of home schools based on their religion. This second problem is not so easily solved (would require parents to give up their beliefs) and represents my main argument against both the government funding and legality of home schooling.]
Home schooling is a discretionary option for parents, the quality of which can vary widely. Because of this inconsistency, it may not be in the best interest of children, who often have no choice about their participation. Society at large has a duty to protect the minds as well as the bodies of vulnerable children from abuse by authority figures. In most cases, home schooling parents have a strong religious agenda, and therefore on First Amendment grounds such education does not meet the standards for a generalized public subsidy. A case can also be made that to the extent home schooling attempts to undermine the principles of consensus science, not only should it be denied government support, it should also be expressly prohibited.
Recently, I discussed (previous article) an editorial by Thomas C. Hunt and James C. Carper, which derided public schools as an example of a state church, promoting the “religion” of secularism. I dismissed their wrongheaded position as “doing violence to the language and common sense.” I also noted my objections to home schooling, based on the fact that many home schooled children experience a form of one-sided brainwashing by religious parents, saying “they may never have a chance at academic excellence, critical thinking or intellectual honesty. By strategic and systematic miseducation, they have been rendered impotent and unable to participate in an increasingly technical and competitive society.”
Home schooler Tony objected from a progressive/secular point of view:
And while the past stereotype of the non socialized homeschooled child may have carried some truth, it does not apply to this new set of homeschool children. They are involved in community projects, are environmentally aware, have educational opportunities in a wider range of encounters and organizations and have more involvement with a wider variety of social interactions with all ages than the public school could imagine to provide. This postmodern/secular homeschooled child is better prepared than any other generation to provide leadership to solve the crises facing our planet during the next century.
Conservative Christian Marcy Muser also objected to my premise and supported the original editorial:
I am absolutely determined that my children WILL be equipped to participate in the mainstream, and I think homeschooling is by far the best way to achieve that goal. I’m homeschooling because both my daughters are highly gifted (as was I), and I want them to have every chance at academic excellence, critical thinking, and intellectual honesty. I don’t think the public schools - or even the majority of private schools - can give my kids that kind of chance; so I’m doing it myself. (Oh, don’t get me wrong - I avail myself of every resource I can dig up, particularly in areas that are not my specialty - but I’m making the determination of what’s best for my kids, rather than some anonymous committee member choosing their curriculum for them.)
And why should I be held to a higher standard than the public schools are, when I’m using my own money (which, if tax credits were approved, I’d otherwise be paying in taxes) to provide my children with a superior education, while the schools are using other people’s money to provide their students with a poor one?
Perhaps I should have qualified this statement a little more, since I agree that it is indeed possible for earnest and committed parents–who are not religious extremists–to avoid the worst of the problems of home schooling. I understand both these rationales, and I can sympathize with the two commenters’ desires as parents to take a larger than ordinary role in their own children’s education. [All three of my own sons completed the bulk of their high-school education at home. The difference was, their program was officially sponsored and overseen by the Los Angeles Unified School District.] But back to the debate. In my response to Ms. Muser, I noted four specific points I found problematic with home schooling:
- The dilution of science education through presenting creationism as a legitimate alternative to evolution.
- Lack of adequate sex education (focus on abstinence instead of safe-sex).
- Lack of socialization/exposure to a diversity of views.
- Inordinate focus on Bible as factual and the absolute word of God (as opposed to more academically accepted notions of it as a historical document and a piece of literature among many others).
In her response, Ms. Muser simply confirmed my worst suspicions about her as an extreme fundamentalist doing her best to brainwash her children. She began by insisting that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics, the “law” of biogenesis and the law of cause and effect. This is classic creationist pablum, and demonstrates that this woman is profoundly unfit to educate anyone, let alone her own children. The second law of thermodynamics says nothing whatsoever about the origins of life, nor is there any such “law” of biogenesis (which is just a fancy way of saying life couldn’t begin on its own). Saying evolution violates the “law” of biogenesis is the same as saying evolution violates creationism, which is a tautology. Doubtless she has already convinced her kids that modern science is ignorant of these “facts” and conditioned them to dismiss any evidence which contradicts her faith position. I assert that this act alone is a pernicious form of child abuse, just as if Ms. Muser had taught her children that the earth was flat.
She then went on to decry sex education, saying that rates of STDs, pregnancy and abortion were higher in public schools than in home schools. To which I would say of course! Home schooled kids have a much greater degree of supervision than public school students. But the real story involves overall cultural levels of sexual ills which according to a landmark 2005 study in the Journal of Religion and Society, are far lower in secular societies:
Although the late twentieth century STD epidemic has been curtailed in all prosperous democracies (Aral and Holmes; Panchaud et al.), rates of adolescent gonorrhea infection remain six to three hundred times higher in the U.S. than in less theistic, pro-evolution secular developed democracies (Figure 6). At all ages levels are higher in the U.S., albeit by less dramatic amounts. The U.S. also suffers from uniquely high adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, which are starting to rise again as the microbe’s resistance increases (Figure 7). The two main curable STDs have been nearly eliminated in strongly secular Scandinavia. Increasing adolescent abortion rates show positive correlation with increasing belief and worship of a creator, and negative correlation with increasing non-theism and acceptance of evolution; again rates are uniquely high in the U.S. (Figure 8).
Muser then goes on to ask “How many schoolchildren do you know who have the chance to interact regularly with people from birth to 90 years of age?” While I am sure she is making her best effort, it is peer socialization that is the most important for child development. It is this that is most lacking in home schooled children. They may relate very well to adults and authority figures, but will most likely be lacking in team-building, group dynamics, learning to deal effectively with the rough and tumble of ridicule and social ostracism, and other peer-related social skills. This lack may also contribute to latent adult social anxiety disorder.
In the comments, Morgaine also exposed a number of Muser’s bad arguments and conservative bias:
- Statistically, the typical American homeschooling parents(a majority) educate their children primarily for religious or moral reasons, and are almost twice as likely to be Evangelical than the national average. 91 percent describe themselves as Christian, although only 49 percent can be classified as “born again Christians.” They were five times more likely to describe themselves as “mostly conservative” on political matters than as “mostly liberal,”
- Studies by Advocates for Youth (AFY) on the long-term impact of federally-funded abstinence-only programs on teen sexual behavior confirm recent literature on the subject: the programs have no long-term effect on teens’ intentions to have sex, but sour them on contraception, making it less likely they will take responsible measures to protect themselves if they do engage in intercourse…The results are consistent with a Columbia University study by sociology chair Peter Bearman. Bearman’s study, which tracked the sex lives of 12,000 adolescents between 12 and 18 years old over a five-year period, “found unsafe sex much greater among youth who’d signed pledges to abstain from sex” until marriage. The “virginity pledge” is a key component of many abstinence-only education programs…Studies show that the great majority of parents want their children given reliable and scientific sex education (93% of parents with high school children say it is appropriate to teach teens about birth control and methods of preventing pregnancy, while 84% of parents with high school children say it is appropriate to teach students how to use and where to get contraceptives.
- But what is clear, is that the degree of success or failure for any kid in public OR home school, is dependent most of all on the families interpersonal relationships, and commitment level of the parents. Studies show that children whose parents were highly involved with the kids curriculum in either form of school, excelled equally.
I agree with your statement that secularism is a bias - you as a strong secularist are just as religious as I am. You firmly believe there is no God, and no amount of evidence will convince you otherwise; I equally firmly believe there is a God, and I find the scientific evidence in favor of God’s existence to be far stronger than that against it…Now, in light of the above, why should my tax money be used to teach kids your religious belief system?
The above is blatant equivocation, based on Muser’s contention that secularism is a religion. I’ve thoroughly debunked this (previous article), and am not going to address it again. (Please go read the article.) She wraps up her religious diatribe with the conclusion that the “secular religion” is privileged over her Christian religion, and therefore that her religion is equally deserving of public subsidy. Thomas Jefferson would be turning over in his grave. How can you reason with someone who doesn’t understand that “secular” as defined by the dictionary is “not pertaining to or connected with religion”? There can be no secular religion. It is an oxymoron.
Finally, Muser describes how her efforts to teach her children faith-based ‘critical thinking’ (as opposed to evidence-based critical thinking) are actually better than that taught in public schools. All she’s doing is watering down the value of knowledge and evidence by teaching her kids her presuppositional ideas about God and creation, and calling that evidence. This runs completely counter to the scientific world, where it’s not enough to just assert it or talk about it, you actually have to produce the evidence and have it reviewed. Muser claims she gives her kids a deeper understanding of evolution than public school. But by her own admission, she “disagrees” with it (as if it were possible to disagree with facts). So we can expect that her teaching on evolution is simply an elaborate course in Christian apologetics, attempting to inoculate her children against any evidentiary conclusions about the subject they may be presented with in college or in later life. Talk about turning out Christian automatons! Yeesh. Muser is so delusional she even co-opts the language of critical thought, and has herself convinced that’s what she’s engaging in and passing along to her children.
Muser comes back with a typical Christian argument–that there is indeed absolute truth
“I don’t believe something can be “true for you, but not for me.” I believe that truth exists outside of our human perceptions; truth is true whether or not I (or you) understand it or choose to believe it.”
And I would agree with her. There is indeed absolute truth. But it is not what she thinks it is. Absolute truth is revealed by peer-reviewed and repeatable evidence. There has to be a method for systematically observing it, verifying it, and organizing it. Muser doesn’t seem to need any of this. She has decided a priori, that she knows how the universe began by the simple inductive argument of “First Cause,” a stubborn bit of sophistry which actually proves nothing. For in positing a creator as a “First Cause,” Muser forgets that her creator must also have a cause. This argument utterly fails as an explanation for the universe due to infinite regress.
But Muser has closed herself off from any questioning of this basic premise, which she states without evidence, and without analysis of the very serious flaw in the logic. Her reasoning is therefore specious and circular, and she is teaching her children the very same circular reasoning. This error would never be permitted in public school. Science approaches the issue of the origins of the universe as speculative and unknowable–no matter how good our theories may be–something Ms. Muser’s children desperately need to understand.
Regarding the origins of life, she states:
The law of biogenesis states that life can only arise from life. Evolution calls for life to have arisen from nonliving matter; thus at some time, in order for life to have developed, the law of biogenesis must have been suspended.
As stated above, there is no “law” of biogenesis. Life is composed of complex molecules in complex arrangements. There is nothing special about those molecules. There is no theoretical barrier to laboratory synthesis of the DNA of any life form. It is simply a matter of complexity and management of ever larger genomes, which is bound to improve dramatically over time. Recently, Craig Venter succeeded in creating life from non-living matter. If he could do it quickly in a laboratory, imagine how much more productive the natural world could be during billions of years of evolution.
But we don’t have to imagine, because we can simulate these events in broad outline form on a computer and watch evolution take place before our very eyes. (Marcy, if you’re reading, please watch this video with your children.) Evolutionary algorithms are regularly used to design products. Cutting edge research into biofuels deliberately harnesses random bacterial mutations to achieve a desired result, which are then selected for effectiveness. This is the same process as competition-induced selection pressure (survival of the fittest) that harnesses raw randomness to form the ever-improving characteristics of life. Final proof of evolution comes through the increasing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. This has occurred worldwide in a span of only a few decades. Again, place this infinitesimally small time-scale against the backdrop of the billions of years the earth has existed, and we see evolution’s true power. There is no debate. Evolution is what brought human life into existence from its origins in soups of random chemistry on a desolate proto-earth.
These facts and events are extremely inconvenient to the Marcy Musers of the world. Though they may have the best of intentions, as they vainly invoke their “Gods of the gaps” to miseducate their children, they are still perpetuating a culture of base ignorance. As these gaps in knowledge are inexorably filled in by inquiry and discovery, the gods become less and less necessary. Rather than hailing these advances, the religious extremists scramble ever faster to come up with new reasons why it just cannot and must not be so. In so doing, they move ever farther from the progression of the scientific mainstream and condemn their children to a tortuous road of confusion, denial, and equivocation.
Whether it happens at home or in private schools is of little consequence. But we are talking about home schooling, and since the homeschooling movement is overwhelmingly religious, it seems that the debate over homeschooling cannot be separated from the larger debate over religious dogma vs. scientific truth. Once again, on all available evidence, science is the only reliable way of knowing anything. Its process of boundless inquiry and self-correction couldn’t be more categorically different from the inflexible and willful blindness of faith.
It is for this reason that I consider religious education to be a serious form of child abuse. No matter what kind of beliefs they might hold about underage sexuality, we don’t allow parents to sexually abuse their children because we understand that they don’t own their children’s bodies. Likewise we should understand just as clearly that no matter what their religions might demand they teach, parents do not own their kids’ minds. Society has a profound interest in the truthful education and proper formation of its future citizens. Therefore it should be expressly against the law to teach children a curriculum that so blatantly and directly contradicts science–even and especially in private. Such curricula should be treated like child pornography. Because miseducation is at least as damaging to children as sexual abuse. We’re talking about the malformation of the brain a child will possess for life. It goes without saying that it does not matter whether it is conducted in the home or in a private group setting, it should absolutely, positively never receive any government subsidy or funding.