I was just reading the questions suspected of leaking from the 2014 bac, the French post-high school exam that performs many of the same functions as the American SAT, though it’s more difficult and consequential. It includes essay questions like, “Is the artist the master of his work?” and requires explications of Descartes and Hannah Arendt. Needless to say, this sort of question is unheard of on American standardized tests, and the kind of education that would prepare one for it unheard of in all but perhaps the most elite high schools in the country.
That to say, I have no love for American education, or the American education system, which has been slowly destroyed by underfunding and the obsession with “performance” and metrics. But this weird, incoherent attack on the obvious fact that socialization is the major purpose of attending school is both ridden with right-wing clichés about education and deeply confused about its own view of education and community. I’m inclined to think that this piece, like a lot of stuff that appears on The Federalist, is written by trolls who need to read more books and write less on the internet. But it provides the occasion to make a political point about how people who think they’re conservatives are really radical individualists, and a personal one about homeschooling and socialization.
The author, Georgi Boorman was, like me, homeschooled, and her tone exhibits the arrogant contempt for everything related to public education that is all too common in that world. Boorman seems incredulous that American parents would see school as the main structure of their child’s socialization, and want their child to share the same school-related rites of passage that they themselves remember fondly, even if the experience wasn’t so great at the time. She argues—and I swear I’m not fabricating these quotes—that parents are blinded by their social sentimentality toward public school into accepting it even though that “keeps power centralized in the state and the door to tyranny propped open.” The idea that kids should be socialized through the public school system is “a sinister attack on the individual right to choose how you want to live, how and when you want to participate in ‘the mainstream’ culture, and especially how you want to raise your children.”
The political point is: this is not conservatism, it’s anarchic ultra-individualism. So many Americans on the right think their shallow rejection of “the system”—educational, medical, religious, whatever—is a deep expression of their independence and individualism, rather than simply them choosing to be isolated idiots. Your nuclear family ‘bucking the system’ is not conservatism, it’s just anti-social isolation. There is no conservatism without community, without traditions, institutions, rites of passage—all the things Boorman is sneering at Americans for wanting. You can’t magically create those things inside a single household.
Her real beef seems to be that they are accomplishing these things through a state institution, rather than in civil society. But this is both philosophically stupid—civil institutions will always be constituted by the interests of the state—and empirically ignorant. Most American public schools are in small towns; most of the teachers and administrators grew up in the same town and attended the same public schools where they now work. Public schools have the flavor of the people who run them, which is why we have so many public schools that teach teenagers that premarital sex puts them at risk for depression and suicide. American public school is not Europe; American parents have an unheard of amount of influence over what happens to their child’s education. The educational rites of passage Boorman mocks are not just the superficial events of American high school; they are also deeply engrained in communities, where generations attended the same school, ran for school board, served on the PTA, etc. For most kids, going to school is not about football, cheerleading and prom; it’s about learning to get along with people you don’t like, learning to deal with rules, schedules, and standards that are arbitrary, authorities who are unfair—all crucial lessons that parents, because of the mere fact they are parents, are terrible at imparting. To reject this flowering of civil society on the basis that it’s nominally centered around a state institution is not conservatism, it’s childish anarchy.
And if you channel your childish anarchy into homeschooling, your children will likely end up paying for it. Over the course of her long, meandering post, Boorman eventually shifts into a diatribe against the notion of “socialization” itself, a staple of homeschooling movement propaganda for a good couple of decades now. Led by HSLDA (the largest homeschooling lobby), the movement has always been contemptuously dismissive of the concern that homeschooling leads to a socialization deficit. It’s no surprise that Boorman links to an HSLDA article when she claims that the notion that homeschoolers are anti-social is “demonstrably false.” (The statistics discussed in the article have been thoroughly debunked here and here.) HSLDA is not only a notoriously unreliable source for homeschooling facts, but routinely ignores—even actively covers up—situations where homeschooling produces a less-than-optimal outcome. As a result, it does parents a massive disservice in encouraging them not to think hard about the socialization implications of their decision to homeschool.
Here’s where I’ll shift into my personal point which is for parents considering homeschooling: you ignore concerns about socialization at your child’s risk. It’s true that many homeschooled kids do end up very smart and creative, and therefore able to build a positive outcome even if there were deficits in their education and socialization. But you would be insane to think there isn’t a struggle involved, or that there aren’t many counter-examples of kids who are so unused to the rhythms and rituals of society that they feel perpetually homeless and under-prepared. This can happen even with truly concerned, attentive parents doing the best they can. The combination of high intelligence and low discipline can create a toxic person who is too good for everything in their own mind, but not good enough for anything according to the ways society measures them. Homeschooling parents often forget that society will still measure their children by its standards, even if the parents have opted their child out of the structure that prepares most people to meet those standards. Ultimately, the child pays the price for a decision they had no control over.
It’s in these situations that American ultra-individualism is exposed as the toxic mindset it is: a dangerous combination of ignorance and self-confidence. Young parents, full of ideas and bravado, set out to homeschool drunk on the arrogant notion that they know better than everybody else, and they can somehow replicate the nourishment that institutions—peers, teachers, religious leaders, other adults—are supposed to provide. (It doesn’t help that many of them have 8-10 kids, which
of course no two middle-class parents can properly even provide for, much less educate is a difficult number for most middle-class parents to provide for, not to mention educate. They imagine the horrors of a child sitting in classrooms under state tutelage, and fail to imagine the potential horrors of children trapped for 18 years at home, mostly or even just partially shut off from their peers’ experiences. They fail to realize that the content of the experiences matters far less than the feeling of normalcy, the self-confidence, that comes from belonging, from feeling you have a place in society. It takes years, even decades to build that if you didn’t grow up with it—and lots of people never do.
Unfortunately for future homeschooled kids, too much of the movement thrives on material written by people like Boorman, fueled by horror fantasies of the public school system and skin-deep right-wing ideology. The bubble has taught her well.
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