This is the second of a two-part review of Randall Curren and J. C. Blokhuis, “The Prima Facie Case Against Homeschooling” in Public Affairs Quarterly, 25, no. 1 (January 2011): 1-19.
In my previous post I argued against the historic backstory Curren and Blokhuis provide as the underpinning of their argument. Today I will look at the argument itself. In general they make two basic claims. First, they claim that all children are entitled to equal public protection of their educational interests, which means that all forms of education, including private schooling and homeschooling, must provide equal educative opportunities. Second, they claim that the nature of knowledge is such that, especially at the secondary level, parents (or any other citizen) can be presumed to lack competence to teach, and that anybody who wants to teach must overcome this presumption of incompetence by proving their merit.
Curren and Blokhuis elaborate on these claims through a three-part argument. I will first summarize their argument and then offer some critiques.
Part 1 lays out their abstract, prima facie ideals for education. Their point here is not to say that this is what schools in the United States are actually like but what they should be. And what should they look like? First, they should teach the entire range of subjects, not as mere matters of fact but as domains of public knowledge derived through collective intellectual endeavor using evidence and reason to amass truth. Second, schools should foster engagement between people who are different from one another so that we all learn to cooperate with one another despite our differences. This second characteristic carries the added benefit of exposing students to “values and beliefs they would not otherwise encounter,” (p.5) expanding their horizons for what their lives might entail and protecting them from fanaticism.
Given these two ideals of public knowledge and the fostering of cooperative civic engagement with all sorts of people, Curren and Blokhuis argue that public, or common, schools would seem to be in a better position to realize these ideals than homeschooling. The common school’s teachers would be trained in their respective disciplines and thus ought to be able collectively to provide a far more rigorous and accurate education in the various subjects than any single parent could provide on his or her own. And if everyone attends these schools, then of course each student would be exposed to a much wider range of human beings than a child would get at home. This is the prima facie argument in a nutshell.
Part 2 is much shorter and makes the point that both parents and the state have a shared interest in providing children with a good general education. Children have a right to a good education, and both parents and the state have a duty to provide it. Both parents and the state have the burden of proving that they are doing their part to help meet the ideals laid out in part 1. In the ideal world this would happen in common schools all attend with the support of all parents. But, Curren and Blokhuis realize, this is not the ideal world. We move now from their prima facie argument to a reality check.
In Part 3 Curren and Blokhuis provide a weak but at least well-intentioned effort to describe how both homeschooling and public schooling can be less than ideal. For homeschooling they quote at length a fabricated make-believe version of Christian schooling penned by Jim Dwyer. Why they did that I don’t know. We have several good empirical studies of fundamentalist schooling that could have been drawn on that would make their case seem more credible. Dwyer’s nightmare scenario has elements of truth in it, but it is a caricature born of the fevered imagination of someone who clearly has not spent much time in Christian schools. After quoting Dwyer’s scenario the authors share a second anecdote from their own experience of a young man whose homeschooling did not prepare him well for the sort of job he wanted. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it sure is sloppy. A work of fiction and a single anecdote as your evidentiary basis for homeschooling’s problems?
Their account of public schooling’s problems is similarly episodic but at least has a bit more empirical validation. The two failings they emphasize are the enormous gaps in quality of schools between wealthy and poor districts and the counterproductive emphasis on standardized testing that has emerged to try to do something about it. Concerning testing they say, “Their focus on student outcomes creates perverse incentives and dynamics that undermine effective teaching and learning…”(p. 13), and they suggest that alternative methods of assessment would be better.
Anyway, the point here is that both homeschooling and public schooling end up being less compelling in the real world than they might sound in the world of prima facie argumentation. What then should we do? Curren and Blokhuis basically want to foster compromise on a case-by-case basis. In some places the schools will be awesome, the teachers amazing, and everyone can just attend them. In other cases parents might be better at some subjects than the schools, so the student could maybe just attend school for the courses the parent can’t cover as well. In some cases the schools might be dangerous for the child or unhealthy or whatever, and full homeschooling might be the best option. In every instance we need a “case-by-case review of how the educational interests of children could best be served.” (p. 14) They don’t say who gets to do this review or who gets to make the final call on what path is taken, but they seem to think that the school should be preferred unless it is shown to be deficient.
And for those who do elect to homeschool, Curren and Blokhuis think that their principle that all children have a right to a good education requires 1. that parents who want to homeschool must show their competence in every subject they want to teach (their wording here seems to suggest that this only becomes an issue at the secondary level), and 2. that homeschools be regulated in all of the following ways: required registration, home visits and interviews with the children free from parent supervision, curriculum requirements, mandatory civic education in a public venue, and periodic assessment of academic progress. The point of all of these measures are not to coerce parents but to ensure that all children are getting a good education.
I would like here to disagree with both of the main claims Curren and Blokhuis make in this article. You’ll recall that their first point is that all children are entitled to equal public protection of their educational interests. Are they?
Unfortunately (in my view), according to the Supreme Court they are not. The clearest domain where this principle has been forwarded and ultimately rejected is in the glaring inequalities across districts Curren and Blokhuis acknowledge to be a problem for public education. In 1973 the Supreme Court, in San Antonio v. Rodriguez, rejected the argument that education is a fundamental right, concluding that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause does not apply to public schools. This ruling (along with several others in the late 70s and into the 90s) pretty much sealed the deal for the current apartheid, savagely unequal public schools that now exist across the country. It also shows that Curren and Blokhuis’ fundamental claim would not stand up in court. Children do not in this country according to current constitutional law have a right to a good education. If they did then every state in the country would be breaking the law with their public schools that so clearly provide unequal education based entirely on where a child happens to live.
Their second point is that homeschooling parents (and any other citizen who has not received adequate professional training) are presumed incompetent to teach unless they prove otherwise. Here I speak with trepidation, because I’m about to use parens patriae to argue against somebody who knows more about parens patriae than probably anyone else in the country. But here goes. As I understand it, parents under the parens patriae doctrine are presumed competent unless proven otherwise. That’s why parents don’t have to prove that they won’t abuse their children or prove that they will feed them. The presumption is that the vast majority of parents will do just fine, and the state will only need to step in if a parent is grossly derelict or incompetent in performing parental duties. Following this logic, it seems to me that Curren and Blokhuis have reversed the burden of proof. I would argue that parents should be presumed competent to teach unless shown otherwise. And there’s a reason why I think this.
Anybody who has spent much time in the world of teacher education would have seen this coming, but Curren and Blokhuis’ arguments become incoherent when dealing with this issue of teacher competence. They seem to associate the ability to teach with the ability to have a deep understanding of a specialized subject, ignoring all of the research about teaching as such. They also want teachers to be able to prove their competence. But how? The usual way is by testing. But they don’t like testing because it “undermines effective teaching and learning.” (p. 13, and then they go on to recommend that homeschoolers be regularly tested!) How then do we decide who the good teachers are? Are you a good math teacher because you pass an algebra test? Because your students pass an algebra test?
There are actually two problems here. First, there is no professional consensus about what makes a good teacher good or how we would measure or evaluate that. Second, there is the glaring empirical problem that many, many of the people who are currently public school teachers are not good teachers as Curren and Blokhuis themselves seem to define it: “To teach these subjects with integrity is not simply to impart facts and skills, but to embody and impart fidelity to the goods inherent in the subjects taught–the forms of understanding and standards of inquiry, artistry, and excellence proper to each.” (pp. 3-4) How many public school teachers teach like that?
Given the lack of consensus about and inability to measure what makes a good teacher a good teacher, and given the failure of most public school teachers to meet Curren and Blokhuis’ particular definition of good teaching (however flawed or limited it might be), I’m wondering how in the world we’re going to come up with some sort of agreed-upon standard by which to judge a parent fit to teach. Why not, as I think the parens patriae principle would recommend in the first place, just presume that parents are competent to teach their kids unless it becomes clear that they are not? On this principle a simple occasional test such as Rob Kunzman has proposed would be all the homeschool regulation necessary. As secondary schooling seems to be the main concern of this article, it might help Curren and Blokhuis to learn a bit more about how homeschoolers acutally function. Far fewer kids are actually homeschooled in these years, and those that are very frequently take advantage of all sorts of extrinsic opportunities like cooperatives and dual-enrollment college programs to fill in the gaps in parent knowledge.
There is a third critique of this piece I’d like to offer. This one is more philosophical and to me is kind of boring since it’s been repeated so often and seems so obvious. And yet liberal theorists continue to write as they do as if they’ve never encountered this objection before. So here goes. Over and over in this text Curren and Blokhuis praise the liberal ideal of exposing children to “values and beliefs they would not otherwise encounter.” And yet just paragraphs later they are excising all sorts of values and beliefs from their common schools. “Outspoken white supremacists and champions of theocracy” are denied entrance on page 6, as is “corrupting competition from commercial, partisan, or other private interests” that might invade the sanctum of the public school. Liberalism has always had this remarkable inability to recognize that it itself IS a partisan position. It was white supremacists and Protestant theocrats who passed compulsory public education laws in the first place! Liberal ideals like tolerance, autonomy, children’s rights, and respect for diversity are of very recent vintage.
What Curren and Blokhuis repeatedly refer to as “public” reason and knowledge, is in fact perspectival, a small minority view that has only existed in the world for a few centuries and has many rivals. Communitarians, neo-Aristotelians, Feminists, Postmodernists, and many others have long been pointing this out, but liberals just don’t seem to get it. They think that everyone else is being partisan and they’re just being objective. But a close reading of Curren and Blokhuis’ text reveals on page after page that they themselves are deeply prejudiced against those who disagree with them and would, if political conditions allowed it, love to construct a totalizing institution that would take every child in the country and homogenize them so that they all became good liberals just like Curren and Blokhuis. Homeschoolers are sometimes excessively fearful, even paranoid, about liberal professors who want to take away their freedoms. This article, though it concludes with an appeal for cooperation rather than coercion, is suffused with such intolerance toward Americans who don’t share the authors’ commitment to liberal civic values (not to mention their blindness toward how poorly many public schools actually embody those values) that it’s easy to understand why homeschoolers freak out.