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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About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

15 Responses to When Reactionary Anarchism Meets Homeschooling

  1. Good stuff. I would add that the narratives of uniqueness/excellence/persecution often provide homeschoolers both the internal bravado needed to deal with all of the shit that happens in the “outside world” (however and whenever they encounter it) as well as the raw material for social conflict with non-homeschoolers that can help them to realize what jackassery it is. At least, that’s how it was for me.

    Having grown up primarily around homeschoolers and now spending a fair amount of time talking to parents about the socialization and education of their public school children, generalizing about either homeschool or public school in opposition to each other just makes me cringe at any instance of it.

    • I agree it’s impossible to generalize about either; I’m not as anti-homeschooling as many ex-homeschoolers, but don’t deny parts of it have been difficult. People like Boorman aside, it seems like second-generation homeschoolers are much better in many respects, much less hostile to the outside world than the first.

      • how would you define “second generation”? I’m just curious because, depending on the cutoff, my family has both some first-gen & second-gen homeschoolers… ; )

        • I mean people who were homeschooled and are now homeschooling, not just people currently in their 20s-30s who are starting to homeschool (though those are also often more realistic about the limits of it than earlier parents were).

  2. jakemeador says:

    David – So I’m tracking with you on your criticism of the individualism of the right and how the home-schooling crowd often is buying into a functionary anarchic individualism. So when you say “true conservatism requires institutions, rites of passage,” and so on I’m totally with you.

    That said, I think where your critique really loses its force is when we try to imagine the kind of institution that serves the other institutions of a place and compare that to many public schools as institutions. I worked for a year as a para in a–by Lincoln standards, at least–fairly rough middle school. I had a student try to stab me on two separate occasions and once got sent home early with concussion-like symptoms after a student headbutted me while I was restraining him.

    Granted, my experience was exceptionally bad due to the students I was working with and the fact that our principal had as much sense as a lemming. That said, even for those with competent principals and better students, the characteristics of the daily routine doesn’t seem like the sort that tends toward the flourishing of the place where that institution is found. Students can’t do anything without written consent, they are essentially warehoused in large, non-descript rooms, and the trade education (shop class, FCS, etc.) available is extremely limited.

    Point being, I don’t think the public schools as they often exist provide the kind of institutional value you’re aiming for when you make your argument here–so perhaps that justifies taking one’s children out of the public school system and into some kind of alternative. (At this point I imagine we’ll end up following fairly predictable lines with you arguing that this is why we need better public schools and me arguing that this is why we need classical schools. 🙂 )

    Anyway, good post, I just wanted to register that one concern because I think your argument is assuming that public schools do something that, in my experience as a public school graduate and employee, they actually don’t usually accomplish. (Oh, and FWIW, I was in public school K-2, home-schooled 3-6, private fundy Christian school 7-8, and public 9-12. So I saw three different approaches and the only one I would call an abominable failure was the fundy Christian school. But I would be pretty restrained in my praise for public schools, though I did benefit from them in a few limited but important ways.)

    • As I said above, I don’t think it’s possible to generalize about public school, so I know my version was only one aspect – rural, small, mostly white, etc. And I’m completely in agreement about the structure and routines of public education; it’s pretty horrifying in many cases, especially where the students have needs that are particularly ill-served by it. I don’t think that can be fixed with more funding; it’s the result of deeper social and economic divisions that could only ever be addressed systemically. And even then, in a country as large and diverse as ours, I’m skeptical of a universal fix to virtually anything.

      As for classical schools, I think that’d be better than what we have, and I’d send my own child to one in a heartbeat over a public school. But if we’re talking reform as remote from real political possibility as I’m sure both of us would want, I see no reason to maintain a distinction between public and classical. There’s no reason public schools couldn’t be classical, etc.

  3. Matthew Miller says:

    Like Matthew and Jake, my fellow communitarian conservatives, I like
    this post. To add another wrinkle to the conversation, though, I just
    want to note that the homeschool focus on the family needn’t always mean
    hyper-individualism–because the family doesn’t always mean the
    *nuclear* family. I know that my homeschooling experience was enabled by
    the presence of a large, nearby extended family–not all of whom
    homeschooled, nor are particularly sanguine about it, and some of whom
    are public school teachers. That family connected me to my community and
    provided socialization and logistical support that my parents alone
    could not have. That’s not an institution, of course, and doesn’t
    perform the same function, but it’s not ultra-individualism either.

    I have to register annoyance at the dismissive claim that “two middle
    class people” can’t provide for a lot of kids. Probably they can’t in
    NYC, but I know plenty of single-income homeschooling families in the
    Midwest that do just fine. My dad supported our family of eight just fine (owned our house, etc.) while working as a grad assistant, FedEx driver and marriage counselor (not a lucrative field, if a professional one). And that’s not even getting into the rather narrow bourgeois idea that somehow there’s a “proper” level of material comfort middle-class people need to provide their children.

    • Matthew Miller says:

      One other thing: I grew up in pretty much the situation David hypothesizes here: small town, rural area, mostly white, lots of multi-generation natives. And I do kind of regret that I didn’t get more connection to the community, which centered mostly around the public schools. But some of that was kind of accidental–the main way I could perhaps have been involved would have been through sports (my parents would have willingly let me play), which I wasn’t very interested in. And some of it was going the other direction–the school superintendent at the time was actively hostile to homeschoolers and actually blocked me from participating in stuff at the high school for no good reason. So although I know plenty of ultra-individualist homeschoolers, we’re not always necessarily to blame if we get cut off from the community.

    • I think you’re right on both points, and here there is enormous diversity in how homeschooling families actually behave. Mine was different than some in that we had deep roots in a small town, and shared a community with the rest of the town outside of school. But others don’t have that, and don’t have nearby or inclusive relatives; others are very militant about their own nuclear family doing things differently, even to the point of breaking ties with relatives over doctrinal issues or moral views.

      On the second point, you’re right to call that a dismissive claim, and not one I really believe the way I stated it. I’m also skeptical of the bourgeois notion you have to be able to afford private school, tennis lessons, etc to have kids. What I meant to refer to there is the numerous homeschooling families who seem to pay no attention to their income or economic prospects when deciding how many kids to have, and also pay little attention to their own aptitude for parenting. (They may think “God wants to give them” eight kids, but they may happen to be pretty bad at parenting).

      • Matthew Miller says:

        “But others don’t have that, and don’t have nearby or inclusive
        relatives; others are very militant about their own nuclear family doing
        things differently, even to the point of breaking ties with relatives
        over doctrinal issues or moral views.”

        Absolutely true, and from my experiences with folks like that I have strong reservations about anyone homeschooling without a strong community of some sort–ideally extended family, but a healthy church or homeschool group would be good too.

        • I would say maybe in addition that I think homeschooling parents, especially who have large families, can be pretty bad at understanding what their individual children need. And while it may not take a certain amount of money or privilege to give kids a decent life, homeschooled kids need *even more* parental attention than others, and parents who have a newborn and a two-year-old their entire lives are often not in a position to notice and pay attention to what their teenagers need.

          • Matthew Miller says:

            All parents struggle to understand what their children need. That’s the human condition–every child is different, and they don’t necessarily know what they need themselves. I don’t think that’s at all particular to homeschoolers–since they have more time with their kids, they at least have more data on them.

            I also dispute the idea that having more kids means having less time attention for each kid. It’s not zero-sum. If I had a teenager in addition to my toddler, I could spend less time cooking dinner and wrestling a toddler simultaneously–the teenager could play with the toddler–and more time focusing deliberately on both kids. That’s just one example.

  4. Patrick Sawyer says:

    I would just comment that when it comes to homeschooling or traditional school it doesn’t have to be an either/or. It can be a both/and. My wife and I have 3 children. Our daughter was homeschooled through the 4th grade and then went to public school (now a rising senior at Cornell), one son was homeschooled through the 6th grade and then went to public school (now a second year culinary student at Johnson & Wales), and one son was homeschooled through the 3rd grade, went to public school in the 4th grade, then was homeschooled in the 5th grade, then went to a charter public school 6th-8th grade, then public school 9th-12th grade (now a rising senior in public school who is at UNC-Chapel Hill at the moment at a TV and Radio Sports News camp with the Journalism school). Despite the failings of their parents in way too many things, they are all well adjusted human beings with their own intentional faith. God has been kind.
    We homeschooled to attempt to raise the bar on their early academics, to create patterns of pursuing and attaining excellence, to protect their young hearts and minds from negative influences, and to strengthen our bonds as a family. We put them in public school so they could navigate life together with their peers, to lead by example in virtue, to follow others who were leading by example in virtue, and wrestle and grow in the context of a community that possessed both similarity and difference, both of which were/are welcomed and needed.
    By the way, in reference to Hannah Arendt who was mentioned early in the post, I take inspiration from Arendt in my efforts to both homeschool and public school my kids. Arendt (1968) argued in Between Past and Future that children were the very subject, the very point of education and that parents were responsible for making sure their children’s education was a place where their children were both protected and prepared to “renew the common world” (Arendt’s mantra). Arendt believed that both parents and educators “assume the responsibility for both, for life and development of the child and for the continuance of the world” (Between Past and Future, p. 182). Education scholar Mordechai Gordon reminds us that “Arendt insists that education involves assuming responsibility for both the world and our children in order to protect them from harm and preserve the possibility for renewal” (Hannah Arendt and Education, 2001, p. 52).

  5. Bsh says:

    you’re really strange. just the way you write and stuff.

  6. timb117 says:

    Talk about the problems of the privileged. In the real world, both parents have to work, so one is home to educate the delicate snowflakes of exurbia

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