Record: Michael Farris, “Tolerance and Liberty: Answering the Academic Left’s Challenge to Homeschooling Freedom” in Peabody Journal of Education 88, no. 3 (2013): 393-406.
Summary: Farris, the United States’ most influential homeschooling leader for the past 25 years, here summarizes and then rebuts arguments made by some academics and lawyers who seek to increase regulation of homeschooling.
The first critic Farris takes on is Kimberly Yuracko, whose article I summarized here. Farris rightly notes that Yuracko has no empirical evidence for her alarmist stereotyping of conservative Christian homeschoolers, and he also correctly points out that the Supreme Court to date has not found there to be a constitutional right to an education (see San Antonio v. Rodriguez (1973)). Farris does not, however, address Yuracko’s gender equality claim, which to my mind was the better of her two arguments for the increased regulation of homeschooling.
Next Farris takes on the arguments of Catherine J. Ross, whose article I summarized here. Farris reduces her complex argument to the claim that the state should force students to be taught tolerance. He then retorts that it is very intolerant to do this, “The state, however, can never simultaneously be tolerant and require tolerance by the citizen.” (p. 399)
Next Farris takes on a claim made by Martha Albert Fineman that private and home schooling are intrinsically dangerous and that all children should attend public schools only. To respond to this claim Farris narrates in detail the circumstances surrounding the Supreme Court’s 1925 Pierce v. Society of Sisters decision, which overturned an Oregon law that had required all children to attend public schools only through the eighth grade. This law had been passed by nativists strongly worried that Catholic schools would indoctrinate Catholic children in anti-American ideologies. Farris’ point is that government did not have the right in 1922 to force all children into one mold despite the wishes of parents, and it does not have that right today.
Farris next looks at the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, contrasting the defense of parental rights in these documents with the Nazi ban on private education.
Finally, Farris elaborates a distinction between fundamental and absolute rights. Though he had occasionally fudged the distinction in his own writings, Farris here explains that homeschooling is not an absolute right except when it comes to parents’ rights to indoctrinate their children in the religious and philosophical opinions they choose. Government regulation of things like curriculum and assessment are subject to the fundamental rights test–if government can show a compelling state interest then the regulation is justified. But government has no right to do what these critics want it to do, which is to regulate belief.
Appraisal: I have two points to make about this article. First, as my summary perhaps indicates, it is an organizational mess. Readers familiar with Farris’ talking points will find this to be very familiar territory, but anyone reading this without much background in Farris’ work will find it very scattered.
Second, Farris only tells part of the story with Pierce. While it’s true that the decision was a stern rebuke to those who would try to standardize all American children by forcing them to attend public schools only, the Court was quite clear that government can regulate for belief. As the Court put it:
No question is raised concerning the power of the State reasonably to regulate all schools, to inspect, supervise and examine them, their teachers and pupils; to require that all children of proper age attend some school, that teachers shall be of good moral character and patriotic disposition, that certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship must be taught, and that nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare.
The real disagreement between Farris and the critics he’s engaging concerns public welfare. Farris cares more for parent rights than for the broader public good. The critics care more for the general welfare than for parent rights. Putting it like this makes it clear that we have here the classic tension in American political history between individualism and community. Pierce tried to strike both notes by upholding the rights of parents but also acknowledging the right of the state to regulate for “patriotic disposition,” “good citizenship,” and the “public welfare.” But what to do when there exist incommensurable views of patriotism, citizenship, and welfare? The Court didn’t say then and it hasn’t clarified since. This is a debate that will likely continue as long as our political system endures.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College