Record: Perry L. Glanzer, “Saving Democratic Education from Itself: Why We Need Homeschooling” in Peabody Journal of Education 88, no. 3 (2013): 342-354.
Summary: Glanzer, an education professor at Baylor University, here argues that homeschooling provides a helpful corrective to reductive definitions of education fostered by some advocates of public schooling.
His fundamental point is that many public school advocates have raised the concept of education for political citizenship to such a high level that it has become something like an established religion. He calls this functional religion “Democratic Education,” with an emphasis on the captial letters. Glanzer is not arguing against democracy itself. He sees liberal democracy as “an instrumental good that allows for the flourishing of a variety of religions and philosophies.” (p. 343) But some advocates have taken this good concept and turned it into an all-encompassing religious ideology that disallows all competing points of view. Glanzer provides three examples of how Democratic Education has exalted political identity above all else with disastrous consequences.
First, Democratic Education, while rightfully criticizing the reduction of education to career preparation, itself reduces all human activity to political identity, ignoring the non-political aspects of humanity. In higher education, for example, many Democratic Educators rightly blame the decline in humanities majors on careerism, but they wrongly try to prop up the humanities by appealing to their power for civic formation. Glanzer, in contrast, wants the professional and democratic purposes of higher education to take their place alongside a broader array of human goods. In his view the humanities should be studied not only to make us better employees and citizens but to “help us be better mothers and fathers, better sons and daughters, better friends and neighbors, better women and men, and just better people.” (p. 346)
Second, Democratic Education, being “a jealous god,” does not allow other gods into the public school curriculum. Here Glanzer draws on the work of Warren Nord to argue that children in public schools get very, very little exposure to religious subject matter in any subject. Children not only are not learning about religion, they are not being exposed to “the variety of thick moral traditions, both secular and religious, that people use to make moral sense and meaning of their lives.” (p. 347) Instead they get a thin gruel of “character education” whose only moral imperative is to make them good citizens.
Third, Democratic Education often goes to war against alternative modes of education, claiming that only public schools can properly serve as civic formers for the nation’s children. Democratic Educators often fear that private schools or homeschools will harm the children who attend them by indoctrinating them into a narrow provincial view of reality, hampering their future as public citizens. Scholars who write in this vein, says Glanzer, never provide actual evidence that private schools or homeschools cripple their patrons’ civic spirit, nor do they typically acknowledge the public schools’ less-than-stellar record here. Heedless of actual facts, these scholars write like totalitarian zealots in their felt need to purge the nation of all rivals to the public school and homogenize every child according to the scholars’ vision of the public good.
In the final section of his paper Glanzer offers homeschooling as a corrective to the reductive civic vision of Democratic Education. Homeschooling can offer a broader approach to education that does not ignore the non-political aspects of life. Glanzer provides three examples. First, homeschooling allows parents to educate for “interpersonal communion and love” or for “aesthetic judgement and enjoyment,” as well a several other human categories enumerated by sociologist Christian Smith, from identity formation to moral awareness and judgment. (p. 351) Second, homeschooled kids can focus on creativity for its own sake, not as a means of civic formation. Third, homeschooling families can inculcate in their children metanarratives other than the secularized one common in public schools. Homeschooling thus serves as a sort of “check and balance” to public education, helping liberal democracy stay nimble and pluralist rather than rigid and totalitarian.
Appraisal: I always enjoy reading Perry Glanzer’s work. He writes with great argumentative clarity and is never boring. This article shares in those virtues. I do, however, have four criticisms to make, in increasing order of importance.
First a minor point about the humanities in higher education. Glanzer here repeats on the authority of others an empirical falsity. He claims that humanities majors are in dramatic decline and then blames that decline on the reductivist approach to human flourishing typified by both careerism and civic-formation. But in fact the percentage of undergraduates majoring in the humanities has held pretty stable since the 1980s and in some fields has even grown since then.
Second, Glanzer fudges an important distinction in his discussion of religious curriculum in public schools. I agree wholeheartedly with Nord, Glanzer, and other writers that we need more religious curriculum in public education. But Glanzer misses here the crucial distinction made on several occasions by the Supreme Court going back to 1963 between learning about religion and actual religious inculcation. Glanzer seems unable to accept this vital distinction. It’s not enough for him to have students learn the facts about various religious traditions or to be exposed to the great religious texts, he thinks “students need to be taught to think religiously and not merely ‘to think in secular ways about religion.'” (p.347) Here he crosses the line and asks public schools to do something that has long been deemed unconstitutional. Furthermore, if public schools were to actually try to do this parents would riot. Whose religious thinking should students be taught?
Third, while Glanzer is right that the critics of homeschooling usually fail to offer any empirical validation for their claims that homeschooling produces narrow-minded clones of their bigoted parents and also fail to own up to the empirical failures of public education when it comes to exposing children to a wide range of views on various issues, Glanzer himself offers no empirical evidence for his own claims that homeschooling lets kids be more creative, that it gives children a richer moral vocabulary, or that homeschooled kids are immersed in alternative metanarratives. His argument is just as hypothetical and ungrounded as are those of his critics.
Fourth, and most importantly, there’s a fundamental category difference between Glanzer and his argumentative foils. Glanzer’s basic argument is that liberal democracy needs pluralism to function well, and that if public school is the only game in town there will be no more pluralism–we’ll be living in a totalitarian secular state. That makes sense at the collective level, but not at the level of the individual.
The “Democratic Educators” against whom Glanzer is writing in this piece are mostly worried about threats to the individual. Glanzer wants individuals to be bound by the traditions of their parents so that the society as a whole can be pluralistic. “Democratic Educators,” in contrast want the pluralism to reach down to the level of the individual, which is why they often write as if they want to save children from the tyranny of their families. Glanzer seems willing to sacrifice the rights of the individual to preserve the moral and religious prerogatives of the family. The “Democratic Educators” seem willing to sacrifice the rights of the parents to preserve the moral integrity of the individual. Both in my view have a valid point, and that is why this debate is not going away any time soon.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College