Civic Education and Teaching at Home

I’m delighted to have been invited to be a guest on this forum. I thank Danielle for the invitation and the blog’s other authors for their hospitality.

I thought I’d begin by chiming in on the recent exchange over Jim Fleming and Linda McClain’s proposal to require homeschooled students to participate in civics education within public schools. The ur-text here, of course, is Justice McReynolds’ claim for the Court in Pierce v Society of Sisters that “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.” McReynolds identifies the central issue as the choice of who does the  teaching, rather than what is taught. Following his lead, I can easily accept Catherine Ross’s proposal to set civics curricula that all, including homeschoolers, much teach; but I reject that  teachers must be state agents. Abolishing families’ right to opt out of public instruction is too close to the state’s ideological conscription of its children.

Pierce is in bad odor in some circles. Dean Chemerinsky, for example, recently reiterated his long-held position that it should be abandoned in service of educational equity. Also, as both a doctrinal and theoretical matter, one need not apply Pierce to home schoolers. Private schooling, unlike  home schooling, at least guarantees children access to adults and adult ideas from some source other than their parents.

But I stand up for Pierce‘s claim that the choice of teachers is fundamental to liberty. And this does extend to homeschoolers. Indeed, it’s precisely for a reason suggested by Catherine that I recoil at forcing homeschooled students into public schools: Civic education is accomplished at least as much by modeling for children what liberty, citizenship, and republicanism are as by telling them what they are. Coercing all children to attend to agents of the state, who will explain to them what it means to be a citizen, models for children a grossly illiberal civic orthodoxy. That lesson will be learned even if the content of those agents’ civics lessons are liberal, pluralist, and tolerant.

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4 Responses

  1. shg says:

    “Abolishing families’ right to opt out of public instruction is too close to the state’s ideological conscription of its children.”

    Excellent line.

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    “Coercing all children to attend to agents of the state, who will explain to them what it means to be a citizen, models for children a grossly illiberal civic orthodoxy.”

    I think that’s actually the point: The people who want to ban homeschooling don’t want citizens, they want subjects. They want to stamp out the notion that you’re not owned by the state, that at some point you can, you should, say “no” to the state.

    It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

  3. Joe says:

    #2 isn’t overkill at all.

    I think homeschooling should be allowed and all, but putting aside the concern for diversity and other things that public school has to offer, we aren’t even talking about THAT. Not allowing homeschooling is not the same thing as not allowing parochial and private schools. It is the fear that children will not get adequate education from home education.

    How this is about making people into “subjects” is a bit unclear to me. “At some point” exaggeration might be a feature, not a bug, of Brett’s posts.

  4. Aaron Saiger says:

    Brett’s position could be read to suggest that the state has no right to intervene in parental preferences regarding their children’s education. If that is his claim, I would dispute it. I subscribe to what is certainly the dominant view in the United States that the state depends on educated citizens and therefore properly exerts some jurisdiction over pedagogy, even in opposition to parents. The line of liberty is respected, I think, if the state can set (and enforce!) curricula. But forcing children into state classrooms with state teachers, and with no opt out, is inimical to liberty and pluralism.

    I hear Joe’s point about fears of inadequate education at home. But I harbor similar fears about private schools, and for that matter about public ones.