In mid-March, Kansas became the first state to close its schools for the remainder of the academic year. The following week, my own state of Virginia became the second. Since then, 46 other states and Washington, D.C. have followed suit, and the rest, whatever their hopes, remain closed as of early May. Even if the public health situation improves in the next few weeks, as some optimists hope, school is out. Graduation requirements are waived, final exams are cancelled and our state department of education has encouraged schools to drop grading altogether. Virtual instruction has commenced, but participation in it is largely voluntary and sporadic.
Predictably, many parents quailed at the sudden prospect of becoming homeschoolers. For those still working full-time, it seemed like an impossible demand, and even for those whose work has been moved online, reduced or eliminated entirely, the idea of becoming their children’s teachers (even in concert with their schoolteachers) is overwhelming. Being cooped up at home with their kids without reprieve is trying enough; taking over their education is a bridge too far.
This sudden forced experiment in home education comes at a moment when long-held liberal prejudices against the very idea of homeschooling are 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.”
All of this reflects our more or less common sense about the dangers and flaws of home education, which is part of what makes it so strange to recall that its early proponents were the philosophical architects of liberal modernity. 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. In an inversion of our own thinking, their criticisms of public education were not mainly of the academic or economic failures of school systems; rather, they were about their moral and political hazards. It was public school, rather than private instruction, that jeopardized the ability of students to contribute to a free society.
I bring this up not in order to make a policy recommendation. The case for home education as a source of intellectual freedom in Locke and Rousseau is profound and serious. It is also impossible on a universal scale in a modern democracy. Despite having written my dissertation, now book, on the early liberal argument for homeschooling, I don’t homeschool my children and would never propose mass school closings so that we could try it out. But here we are, with the vast majority of our 130,000 public schools that educate approximately 90 percent of American children sitting empty. Without ever rejecting public schooling, we have found ourselves 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,” as Locke described his would-be adherents. Can we do something 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 regime. Schools would corrupt and indoctrinate, they thought, not only or even primarily because teachers and headmasters would exert malevolent personal influence over the students, but mainly because other children would.
The problem of other children is one we can recall viscerally from middle school. Children manipulate each other’s desire to be liked, creating morally groundless (if not outright anti-moral) social hierarchies to subordinate each other and enforce conformity. The social lives of children are an almost perfect reflection of the pure tyranny of fashion—their rules are arbitrary and constantly fluctuating but enforced with unrelenting zeal. They threaten the intellectual liberty of each child who jockeys to remain in the favor of his classmates. The source of the child’s ideas and values in such an environment increasingly becomes “the prevailing infection of his fellows,” as Locke puts it. (Viruses, it seems, are not the only infections that schools spread.) My preschool-aged daughter determines her lunch and sartorial preferences by what her classmates eat and wear, though none of them is even aware yet that they have this effect on her, nor she on them. Locke and Rousseau understood how early this impulse to imitate sets in, how easily it is habituated and how disastrously its habituation to the wrong objects can compromise our liberty as adults.
Schools might offer more advanced instruction or better socialize children to “bustle and shift” in sophisticated society than home education, but Locke rejected the trade-off:
He that considers how diametrically opposite the skill of living well, and managing, as a man should do, his affairs in the world, is to that malapertness, tricking, or violence, learnt among school-boys, will think the faults of a privater education infinitely to be preferred to such improvements; and will take care to preserve his child’s innocence and modesty at home, as being nearer of kin, and more in the way of those qualities, which make a useful and able man.
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.” This is the crux of the problem of schooling—it subjects children to each other’s arbitrary rule, instilling lifelong habits of submission to prevailing opinion and offering little to counterbalance that opinion’s power.
The problem, for Locke and Rousseau at least, cannot be solved by greater personal attention from teachers, anti-bullying initiatives or targeted surveillance technology, as we might conceive it today. “Let the master’s industry and skill be ever so great,” 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.” Parents, by contrast, can individuate education, and, more importantly, they can stand between children to preempt that tyranny over one another that develops where adult authority is insufficient and outnumbered. They can also stand between children and the broader world, delaying and diminishing the even more powerful pull that its fashions will have on them.
Later liberals accepted the necessity of schools for increasingly democratic societies—where work was a universal necessity—but still worried about their tyrannical tendencies. No formal state tyranny was necessary to compromise intellectual freedom in public schools, because even free republics subsist on prevailing dogmas, the seductive but insubstantial orthodoxies that Locke called “fashion and opinion.” Thus Mill (product of an exceptional and terrifying home education) supported universal schooling, but nonetheless wanted the state to stay out of the curriculum, since,
A general State education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mold in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.
Mill’s fear was of Tocqueville’s tyranny of the majority, a danger exacerbated by public schools, which, by simply reflecting prevailing opinions, imposed them on the susceptible minds of the young.
Democratic circumstances make individuating education at home for every child impossible—and even the early liberals envisioned their home educations for the leisured class of landed gentry, not anxious and harried full-time workers. Of course, homeschooling exists, and a small but visible minority of families have—for religious, ideological or health reasons—weathered mainstream society’s derision and withheld their children from schools since the 1970s. They have up to now been too small a group to substantially alter the character of our society. But what if the rest of us, instead of deriding their reasoning, attempted to learn something from it? Could we forestall some of the perverse social tendencies towards conformism that schools so abundantly breed, and encourage more widespread skepticism and intellectual independence?
How home education by parents can avert the social tyranny and stifling intellectual conformism of schools is not exactly obvious, as homeschooling’s critics have been quick to point out. Aren’t parents who are given primary or even sole control over their children’s environments, influences and behavior even more tyrannical than the relatively diffuse danger posed by other children at school?
But for the early liberals, it was not the family whose influence would be decisive for the child, but the centrifugal reach of the broader society, now consolidated under a strong central government. Even the isolated, rural families they wanted were part of larger civil societies whose tendrils of influence reached into the home—through the parents’ own youthful experiences, through books and visitors and especially through the eventual necessity of the children’s growing up and leaving. Against the power of fashion and opinion, the family was a relatively weak buffer, and 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 how that very weakness of the liberal family could become the source of its strength—by reserving education to parents while enforcing a legal age of majority after which parents lose coercive power over their children, the liberal regime would require parents to ground their authority on their children’s affection if they were to have any at all. “Make [children] in love with the company of their parents,” Locke instructs. But doing so requires parents to make themselves lovable as well, a not unsalutary project for some of us. Rousseau described the insular and affectionate family that educated its own children as “the best counterpoison for bad morals.” The legal restriction on its power coupled with its partial self-subsistence away from society could allow the liberal family to become a refuge against public opinion’s morally deforming effects on the young, without yet becoming a wall against the broader society for adults.
Sealing off the nuclear family from the larger society for the limited period when children are young gives it space to develop an internal culture within the larger culture. All families diverge from the larger culture in at least small ways—through jokes and nicknames, particular rituals, preferred pastimes—and some diverge in more substantial ones, religious beliefs and wholesale ways of life. These divergences form a basis of resistance to that larger culture for children, a source of countervailing pressure and loyalty when they do finally enter the broader society. Their parents did things differently than what they will encounter among peers later on. But they seemed to be nonetheless good. The family thus becomes a source of cognitive dissonance for the young adult, an alternative to the mainstream that casts doubt on its automatic authority and points to the need for skepticism and individual judgment.
But what if parents are ignorant or whimsical or fundamentalist fanatics? Mill’s father, who taught his son Greek at age three and fed him a steady diet of utilitarian philosophy throughout his childhood, would seem to be an object lesson in the perverse and fanatical ideas that parents, left unchecked by any countervailing pedagogical influences, can impose on their innocent children. But at least James Mill held his son to high academic standards! What about parents too ignorant to teach their children anything at all? Or worse yet by some accounts, what about those who keep them home in order to escape the authorities that would protect them from abuse?
The advocates of home education offered no solution for the child abuser, though one may note that such abuses have hardly been deterred by the establishment of schools. But they did have an answer to the pedagogical incompetence of parents: it is outweighed by parental affection and goodwill. Parents should at least make an earnest effort. “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 is itself a moral education for parents. They will improve by trying, developing a satisfying family life and laying the foundation for future intellectual freedom for their children while they’re at it.
I’ve been testing my own premise these past few weeks. When my daughter’s preschool closed, I determined to teach her to read, introduce her to arithmetic, perfect her downhill scootering technique and, in response to her incessant questions about the origins of things, talk her through the Book of Genesis. (The latter is, by the way, explicitly prohibited by both Locke and Rousseau, but they told me to be bold and think for myself, so.) I am a lunatic taskmaster compared with her gentle teachers, but rather than rebelling, she is basking in the intense attention she is suddenly receiving from me. The exception is when I get annoyed at her mistakes. Then she gets frustrated and whiny. In response, I am learning to become slowly less annoyed at the blurting out of words totally unrelated to the one printed in front of her. And she’s slowly learning (well, not the arithmetic, but everything else). None of this is necessitated by her school; it is a hybrid outgrowth of her interests and my insanities. Other families would of necessity pursue their own combinations and the result, if carried on forever, would be heterogenous. That would be the point.
This is not an idyll, you might object, but a pandemic. It is not the time to romanticize family togetherness or worry about intellectual independence. We should not pressure parents to become educators on top of being remote or essential or desperate workers. We should just focus on getting through this and to the other side.
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 entirely mundane activities with their children—taking a walk, making dinner, playing a game—they seem to be finding it difficult to think about much else. These are precisely the sorts of thoughtful people early liberalism hoped to pry from frivolous cultural obsessions so as to apply their powers of observation and analysis to their own families. Undoubtedly, the other side will bring new strains and pressures, of a diminished domestic economy and a volatile politics at home and abroad. 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 a moral counterweight to the ubiquitous and inevitable intellectual tendencies of our time?
Schools will reopen eventually, and most parents will probably be quite relieved when they do. But this experience will have been salutary if it instills some confidence and “irregular boldness” in all the apprehensive parents that what their children learn need not be wholly determined by what their schools teach, and that addition and even substitution always remain real possibilities. The home is not subordinate to the school, and homeschooling need not become the norm for parents to nonetheless appreciate their own pedagogical possibilities.
More fundamentally, it will have been useful if it shows parents that they can simply live, moderately isolated and moderately contentedly, with their own children for a while. Critics of homeschooling often presume that too much time with one’s family will make children weird and unsociable, but I’m fairly confident that Locke was right on this count: our children’s “socialization” will not have been greatly undermined by the time away from their classmates. Total isolation from even extended family and close friends is not the aim, but respites from broader society like these interpose parents’ authority a little more firmly between their children and the world, and that interposition, never meant to be final or permanent, may at least delay and weaken the hold of all the other moral influences that clamor for children’s attention and obedience. If quarantine has any useful lasting effect on our understanding of education, it might be 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 continue voluntarily even after the lockdowns end. I hope that schools reopen soon, but I also hope those predictions are right.