Home Education in the Foreground

In Mid-March of 2020, Kansas and Virginia were the first states to close its schools for the remainder of the academic year. Since then, 46 other states and Washington, D.C. have followed suit, and the rest, whatever their hopes, were closed by early May. School was out. Graduation requirements were waived, final exams were cancelled, and some state departments of education had encouraged schools to drop grading altogether. This sudden, forced experiment in home education came at a moment when long-held liberal prejudices against the very idea of homeschooling were resurfacing. Harvard Magazine recently reported on research purporting to show that homeschooling was depriving children of their right to a “meaningful education.” In addition to putting them under the “authoritarian control” of their parents and exposing them to abuse and injury, the article indicated that homeschooling may keep children “from contributing positively to a democratic society.”[1]

Such a common sense assertion of the flaws of home education is ironic if we recall that its early proponents were the philosophical architects of liberal democracy. Some, like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, discouraged schooling outright and encouraged parents to educate their children at home. Others, like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, accepted schooling with caveats—limitations on state funding or state control. Contrary to our own common sense, their criticisms of public education were not mainly of the academic or economic failures of school systems (decidedly social premises); rather, they were about their moral and political hazards (decidedly non-social concerns). It was public (“outside the home”) school, rather than private (“inside the home”) instruction, that jeopardized the ability of students to contribute to a free society. Yet, without ever rejecting public schooling, much of the world is presently in a natural experiment in Lockean and Rousseauian aims. We can now all claim to be like those “so irregularly bold, that they dare venture to consult their own reason, in the education of their children, rather than wholly to rely upon old custom,”[2] as Locke described his would-be adherents. Can something be done with this newfound possibility besides complain about it?

The early architects of liberal modernity were notably skeptical of the place of the school in a free regimes. Schools would corrupt and indoctrinate, not primarily because teachers and headmasters would exert malevolent personal influence over the students, but mainly because other children would. In Emile, Rousseau’s account of an education at home with a tutor, the boy Emile encounters his fashionable peers for the first time on a trip to Paris. They mock his reclusive and high-minded upbringing and urge him to rebel against it in favor of their own vulgar tastes. “They want to bring you down to their low level, and they reproach you for letting yourself be governed only in order to govern you themselves,” his tutor explains. “To set themselves above the alleged prejudices of their fathers, they enslave themselves to those of their comrades.”[3] The crux of the problem of schooling outside the home is that it subjects children to each other’s arbitrary rule, instilling lifelong habits of submission to prevailing opinion. For Locke and Rousseau the problem cannot be solved by greater personal attention from teachers, anti-bullying initiatives or targeted surveillance technology, as we might now conceive it. Locke warns, “it is impossible he should have 50 or 100 scholars under his eye”; “the forming of their minds and manners” requires a constant attention that is “impossible in a numerous flock.” However, parents can individuate education; more importantly, they can preempt that tyranny over one another and diminish the powerful pull that the fashions of the broader world have.

Later liberals, like Mill, accepted the necessity of schools for increasingly democratic societies, but still worried about their tyrannical tendencies. Even free republics subsist on prevailing dogmas, the seductive but insubstantial orthodoxies that Locke called “fashion and opinion.” Thus, Mill’s fear was of Tocqueville’s tyranny of the majority, a danger exacerbated by public schools. Yet, democratic circumstances make individuating education at home for every child impossible. However, it is worth considering that a more stringent home education can avert the social tyranny and stifling intellectual conformism of schools.[4]

We understand that parents who are given primary control over their children’s environments, can be even more tyrannical than the diffused danger posed by other children at school. However, Locke and Rousseau were much more concerned about the enormous influence that social pressures and our own raw and untrained desires exerted against free thought than about the eccentricities of particular families. Locke saw that the effectiveness of homeschooling rested on the lovability of the parents, and Rousseau thought such affections to be “the best counterpoison for bad morals.” In other words, divergent, homeschooling, families form a basis of resistance to that larger culture for children, a source of countervailing pressure and cognitive dissonance when children finally enter the broader society.

We are also aware that parents can be whimsical and fanatical in delivering education and that children can be exposed to abuse. The early moderns had an answer: it is outweighed by parental affection and goodwill. “He will be better raised by a judicious and limited father than the cleverest master in the world; for zeal will make up for talent better than talent for zeal,” remarked Rousseau. The process of educating one’s children not only morally educates parents, it also lays the foundation of a child’s intellectual freedom.

One may object that we should not pressure parents to become educators on top of being remote, essential, or desperate workers to romanticize family togetherness and intellectual independence. But no one is “pressuring” us to spend more time with our families; we have no choice. And judging from the outpouring of pieces by parents introspecting about mundane activities with their children—taking a walk, making dinner, playing a game— it is difficult to think about much else. These are precisely the thoughtful people early liberalism hoped to pry from cultural obsessions to apply their powers of analysis to their own families.

We may not have this opportunity again. So why not use it to test the premise that an insular, educative family can be a refuge and moral counterweight to the ubiquitous intellectual tendencies of our time? The home is not subordinate to the school, and homeschooling need not become the norm for parents to nonetheless appreciate their own pedagogical possibilities. Fundamentally, quarantine can have a useful lasting effect on our understanding of education: to remind us to be more skeptical about what even the best schools can accomplish for our children. Some observers have predicted that many parents will relish the experience of teaching their children enough to voluntarily continue after the lockdowns end. Wouldn’t that be something?


[1] O’Donnell, Erin. The Risks of Homeschooling. The Harvard Magazine, May-June 2020.  https://harvardmagazine.com/2020/05/right-now-risks-homeschooling

[2] Locke, John. Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1 ed.). London: A.and J. Churchill at the Black Swan in Paternoster-row. 1693. Retrieved 2 May 2020 – via Internet Archive.

[3] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books (1979)

[4] I have explained the caveats of Mill and Smith in greater detail in my longer blog entry, “Education, with School in the Background”, May 5, 2020, https://idealsandidentities.com/2020/05/20/education-with-school-in-the-background/

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