Friday, June 22, 2007

Home Schooling, Human Capital, Equity, and Christianity

Earlier this week, a friend of mine called my attention to this essay on home schooling in First Things magazine. (Rod Dreher also picked up on it as well.) Actually the essay isn't so much about home schooling as it is a response to a very specific Christian argument occasionally leveled against home schooling, or against those religious parents who choose it for their children. Christianity involves being a witness, this argument goes, it involves being out in the world and striving to bring God's light to it through your own example and good works. Shut yourself off from the world--by, among other things, turning away from the public schools and educating your children in a private bubble of your own creation--and what you've done is abandon a central Christian command. As the author, Sally Thomas, puts it, "Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and how can we possibly be those things if we stay at home all day?"

I've personally never encountered this sort of argument against home schoolers, nor have I ever made it. But my friend rightly thought that it intersected a good deal with an argument that I have made, an argument on behalf of the public schooling ideal which rests upon being actively involved in, and obligated to, the creating and distribution of common goods like education. As I wrote nearly three years ago, while talking about how most of my immediately family has turned to home schooling, "I like the idea of the state being a (partial) agent of education; insofar as the state is the reflection of the collective interest we all have in promoting and sharing certain civic goods with one another, especially the poor and marginalized, then it is an agency worth supporting." Now with two children in the public schools as opposed to just one, and with one of them going on to middle school next year with all the challenges in environment that may bring, I still have to say I like the state schooling ideal. Of course, much of the reason I can say that is because many of the caveats I mentioned in that original post have not yet fundamentally changed: Wichita, KS, is more than five times the size of Jonesboro, AR, but over here on the west side of town, with all the schools our daughters will be attending within easy walking or biking distance of our home and with mostly intact neighborhoods feeding them, "we [still] don't feel as though the public school system, the state educational regime, is such a monolith that one must either embrace it or reject it's not impossible to meet with teachers, attend school meetings, volunteer and be part of the whole general project in education--not to say it's necessarily impossible anywhere, but it definitely isn't impossible here." (Maybe I wouldn't say this if we hadn't gotten to know, through church and work, several of the teachers at these institutions in fairly short order--but we have, and that guides our thinking accordingly.) And so I'm still basically making the same communitarian arguments in favor of the public schooling--at least in principle; I would never want to lay down any sort of absolute duties or fiats here when it comes to a family's primary responsibility to the needs of their own children--that I always have. As members of our local communities and as a citizens of a country at least nominally committed to the principle of equality (a principle we all benefit from), doing our part of keep public goods like free schooling available to all is important. And that means being engaged in the state project of making these schools work. So while I don't find myself particularly drawn in by the specific Christian squabble Ms. Thomas describes--that it is foolish and untrue to scripture to suppose that children should be expected to witness in hostile environments to what they believe is, I think, perfectly obviously and in little need of debate--I did feel a need after reading her essay to reiterate my belief in at least the ideal of reaching out from one's own private realm and being part of a larger enterprise, like education.

Except...what if being engaged in public schooling as it exists where you live is not the best way, or even a viable way, of creating public goods? What if there are multiple "larger enterprises" here, and choosing one of them--public schooling--compromises your ability to contribute to others? This is where I find Ms. Thomas's essay really challenging. I can't comment upon or stand on principle in the face of the particular horrors which her oldest child experienced in her years in public school; Melissa and I have always said that the costs associated with trying to do right to both our children and our ideals might easily become too high, and if we ever get the sense they are becoming as high as they were for Ms. Thomas's oldest daughter--third grade sex education classes with animated teddy bears demonstrating coitus would also certainly be a deal-breaker for us too--then family will clearly come first. (Most of my siblings have made just that choice for their own kids already, and while they haven't tabulated the costs with the same sort of communitarian sensibilities that I would have preferred, I don't begrudge them the right to make the choice the first place.) But until and unless that moment comes, I think the general argument for recognizing one's obligation to the larger society remains intact. On the other hand, Ms. Thomas goes on to argue that, as home schoolers, they are anything but selfish--on the contrary, they are doing more for the "larger society" now than they ever could have through the public schools:

For [some] Christians, it’s largely not about whether we’re stockpiling weapons and planning a theocratic takeover of the entire world. Instead it’s about whether, in making idols of our children, we've failed to love our neighbors. In response....I mainly wonder at what point the local public school became the sum total of “the world.” If our children aren't in public school, does it follow that they aren't anywhere at all? I wonder why the public school should be a more “natural” environment for loving our neighbors than anywhere else.

Some people worry about the state of the schools; I tend to worry about the state of the American neighborhood....We live in a city that routinely posts some of the highest violent-crime numbers in the nation. A neighborhood that empties out during the day offers a natural target for break-ins, vandalism, and other criminal activity. The pernicious pattern here, in neighborhood after neighborhood, is that the crime moves in, the people who can move out, and the ones who can’t get stuck with crack dealers next door....One of the distinct advantages afforded by homeschooling is that we are here a lot. It’s pretty obvious that we’re here, too: Our front door stands open most of the time, our lights are on, and the children and I are in and out of the house constantly. The fact that someone’s visibly home on our block means, we hope, that anyone cruising through, casing houses, will discover us and our neighbors to be uncongenial targets.

More important than our value as deterrents to crime, however, is the fact that we’re available to the neighbors when they need us, and they know it. My husband and I have typed resumes, resolved computer problems, and set mousetraps for various neighbors at odd hours. My older children play regularly with neighborhood children and—as is happening in my kitchen as I write—make cookies to take to neighborhood shut-ins....In short, in withholding our children from the public schools, we have not withheld them from the world. And we’re certainly not unusual. Statistical polls suggest that homeschooling families exhibit a higher than average level of community involvement, and my anecdotal experience bears this out. Families we know, for example, regularly serve meals to the women and children who find refuge in the shelter run by the Missionaries of Charity in one of the roughest neighborhoods in our city; the oldest daughter of one of those families has just returned from several months spent working in Mother Teresa’s orphanage and hospice in Calcutta. But even on a more modest level, day in and day out, home schoolers minister to their neighbors. They demonstrate, quietly and consistently, the value of family life, the value of openness to life, the value of investing one’s time directly in the lives of one’s children, to a culture that, in valuing none of these things, has lost its way.

I have to confess that I find that a fairly strong rebuke to the way I interpret my belief in community obligation. Free and universal schooling is no longer necessarily a public good being generated through the concentrated property tax bases and well-trained (and decently paid) efforts and enthusiastic volunteering of intact neighborhoods, teachers unions, and well-connected stay-at-home mothers which it once was. Now, businesses have moved away and wealth has moved to the exurbs; teachers unions are too often decrepit, desperate for bodies and consequently sometimes justly disrespected; and the family homemaker networked into neighborhood organizations is often absent. This creates a massive civic vacuum: I talk about the larger communitarian aspiration behind of public schooling, but what if there isn't a functioning community there to ground it in the first place? What "larger enterprise" should you tend to first: the schools, or the human and socio-economic infrastructure they serve and depend upon?

There hasn't been any blogger whose often antagonistic experiences with the public schools I've read more thoroughly and gotten more out of than Laura McKenna. Her most recent post about the challenges she's taken on for the sake of getting her two boys the best education she can especially highlights a fundamental truth: the public education ideal presumes, and succeeds or fails primarily in accordance with, the availability of people who are engaged because they have time to do so, have the resources to do, and have the belief that doing so can make a difference. "While I am still absolutely convinced," she writes, "that money makes a difference in schools, so does human capital. Active, annoying, assertive parents make a difference, and those parents are concentrated in high socio-economic towns and neighborhoods. For those of us who are concerned about equity in schools, this is a harder problem to overcome." Indeed it is. I have to ask myself, what is the point of implying that public schooling ought to be such a prominent ideal, something that ought to demand the allegiance and involvement of every citizen of the country, if said schooling is to be acknowledged outright as wholly unequal, with its inequality following precisely those boundaries where more immediate concerns about equity--a safe home, a decent job, adequate nutrition, intact families, etc.--are similarly being unsatisfied? Maybe those searching for alternatives, alternatives that pull their own potential "capital" away from the public schools (Ms. Thomas, given her skill in writing, could surely be an effective advocate at PTA meetings), have simply decided to unselfishly "distribute their capital" along different and more immediately pressing lines, and to do so in ways that (not coincidentally) avoids the costs which the public schools can press in particular upon religious parents like herself.

I've got a paper coming out this summer in Theory and Research in Education; you can read an earlier version of it here. There I make the argument that the only long-term hope for the full public education ideal in the U.S. is to make it more "popular"--that is, more populist, less governed by elite and distant norms and more reflective of immediate and local pressures, including religious ones. I don't know if that argument can really map onto what I've discussed in this post particularly well, but as a conclusion, let me at least throw out this: the push for home schooling, parochial schooling, private schooling and all the rest, when it takes place is socio-economically stable environments, will probably not fundamentally undercut the larger enterprise of providing the good of public schooling equally to all; as Laura notes, in those cases there will probably always be sufficient resourceful and reliable parents around to get the job done. But in more desperate environments, where the human capital of a parent like Ms. Thomas would be very much appreciated, a school that does not listen to and strive to reflect all the concerns of parents in the neighborhood, including the religious ones, is going to make it ever more likely that these parents--which could be one of the few remaining resources for holding together the larger enterprise in such an environment--are going to turn away, and quite legitimately and unselfishly decide that through directly tending to their family in their own homes they can serve their neighbors as well as their own children much better than they could through the schools.

Ms. Thomas's conclusions about public schools are harsh: "One child might ignore you; the school system certainly will. A child can hear or not hear; the school system is a deaf, dumb, blind juggernaut that doesn’t generate its own values but imports them from the developers of curriculum and the schools of education. You can talk to the teacher, you can talk to the principal, you can talk to the board of education, but there’s no one person, anywhere, who will say to you, 'I am responsible for this mess.'" Maybe that was true where she was; it isn't, or at least I think (I hope) not (yet?) true where we are. Serving and loving a public good larger than oneself is still, I would like to believe, a possibility in many if not most school systems. But those systems need to find a way to hold on to their human capital, to be part of efforts to localize and hold together the human and socio-economic infrastructure which makes contributing to such a system seem like a reasonable option to a parent (one that has a choice about how to spend their time anyway--obviously this is a moot issue if you're talking about a single parent struggling through two jobs to put food on the table....which is part of the point, really) in the first place. Lose that battle, and parents will flee--or as Rod put it, they will "secede in place." And from the any perspective that emphasizes attending to the needs of others, whether Christian or otherwise, they'd still probably be both smart and unselfish in doing so.


Rob Perkins said...

You've touched substantively on issues that I, with five children, including one entering the seventh grade, feel quite deeply.

I'll offer my impression, first, on the home-schooled kids: They are just a tad weird to me. I believe that that comes from failing to participate in the shared experience of common schools. Since I don’t share their context as much, there is more work both for me and for the home-schooled person to reach accord on an issue.

It’s come to the point from time to time around here where the teens being public-schooled would not associate with the teens being home-schooled in our church Youth group. On a couple shameful occasions that even came to blows and ostracism.

That kind of problem doesn't exclusively extent to home-schoolers, of course. Those educated in a private Christian academy, or in a Catholic school, will also come off "a little bit weird" just because their upbringing has elements that don't exist in the public school. The reverse is certainly also true. Perhaps BYU grads even share the “little bit weird” stigma, having never participated in the Greek system of fraternities and sororities that are prominent at most other U.S. universities?

So there’s the first social problem of a qualitatively palpable difference in the kind of person that is made by an educational experience

These days I suppose that this difference is not enough to thwart the purpose of public common schools, an idea whose original intent was certainly to provide all Americans with enough common social experience and a common intellectual foundation so that instead of blows and guns, we worked out our differences with words.

This is probably where the standards-based education movement is getting some of its fuel. If the same triple-R subject matter can be taught without exposing a child to what many parents consider corrosive elements of popular culture, then hey, mission accomplished, and the State’s interest is satisfied.

Except… I remember arguing a probable slippery slope about the legality of gay marriage during the run up to Oregon’s constitutional amendment initiative on the subject: If a state imposes something in its laws which is abhorrent to a significant part of the population, to the point where it is required to be taught in the public schools, (an outcome certainly desired by those who support the legalization of gay marriage), then those who oppose it will feel justified in not participating there, choosing instead the private academies or home schooling options which are legally available.

And those kids will be just a little bit weird to the public-schooled kids in populations much, much larger than they are today.

Fast forward for four generations of that. Will we have a polity united with a common literacy, enough to resolve problems with words instead of guns? Note the anecdotal failure I witnessed these last few years, and this was among young people whose families shared the same religious outlook!

Consider, too, that even today we can’t seem to reach accord among the adult population, on issues that have not been settled politically, such as legalized abortion or how to set the price of a BTU of energy. Mostly, we compromise on those issues with words and move the compromise back and forth depending upon which faction attains power in the Congress.

Is a fracturing of the public common schools to an extent where significant populations participate in alternatives going to shatter that? (The alternatives to two unhappy factions moving a goalpost are unpalatable to me.)

Is it enough to specify public common education standards? Do our kids need public common society as much as they need three-R’s standards in their education?

Or, do we need to take controversial subject matter out of the common schools to an extent where the population opting for alternatives never becomes large enough for the “little bit weird” to create a political problem?

Russell Arben Fox said...


Thanks for your many thoughts here!

[Home-schooled kids]...are just a tad weird to me. I believe that that comes from failing to participate in the shared experience of common schools. Since I don’t share their context as much, there is more work both for me and for the home-schooled person to reach accord on an issue.

I suspect a lot of defenders of home schooling--including much of my immediate family--would jump all over your case here, suggesting that it's kids that have to negotiate the pressures and temptations of the public school environment that come out "weird," and they'd have a point. But I think your larger concern stands, and is a valid one on its own terms. Democracy--a free society--means on some level being able to work around and through our differences and being able to deal with one another and govern together. Public schools, with their common pool of experiences and expectations, play a tremendously important function in creating that kind of minimally shared "language"; there's a lot of scholarship to back that up. And so, in that sense, the fact that there are people out there missing out on a shared "context" can be a real concern. And of course, as you go on to note, that can have real negative consequences in smaller, more intimate associations as well (work, church, etc.).

I think diversity in the content and style of education is important; Melissa and I are a big fan of charter schools. And we certainly don't want to get rid of parochial schools, or church universities like BYU! But there are ways in which "weirdness" can be developed which I think ought to be discouraged, especially when such weirdness coincides with class differences (in other words, I'm talking about expensive private schools).

Is a fracturing of the public common schools to an extent where significant populations participate in alternatives going to shatter that?...Is it enough to specify public common education standards? Do our kids need public common society as much as they need three-R’s standards in their education?

As I said in my post, an article of mine is about to be published in which I defend the idea that the public school system ought to be more "populist," more locally responsive, and that means admitting even more "weirdness"...but doing it in such a way that it isn't mandated across the board, but can be contained within certain, specified curricula. I do think our common culture, in order to function properly, needs the next generation to be taught more than the "three Rs," but I also am dubious of the idea that that "more" will come from any standardized content. For me, the "more" that matters are the social and linguistic and procedural things which just come along with the formalities of education; in other words, that so long as there is a common civic context--the ideal of public education--the "weirdness" that some students will bring with them will be healthy, rather than antagonistic to, the common culture. That's what I hope anyway.

Rob Perkins said...

(sorry for the double google accounts, here, by the way)

I suspect a lot of defenders of home schooling--including much of my immediate family--would jump all over your case here, suggesting that it's kids that have to negotiate the pressures and temptations of the public school environment that come out "weird," and they'd have a point.

It's a symptom of the kind of thing I'm talking about. Weird to me means I'm weird to them as well, which makes communication more difficult.

My comment addresses the lack of a sufficient shared context, rather than the perils of losing one's child to an undesired philosophy.

Popular media might be one way to impress a shared context, but I'm sure your family members would argue, the prevalent message in popular media is not desirable.

I don't want to lose parochial schools either. (BYU at this point is my only hope of a Bachelor's degree, for example, without starting completely over...)

I agree that three-R's must must must must grow into something much more complex. Have you read Friedman's _The World Is Flat_, for examples of why? I'm sure there are other better peer reviewed papers on the subject, but his book was interesting nonetheless.

And I like the idea of charter schools; my sister makes fruitful use of them in Arizona, but you may know that here in WA they're not legal and they never garner more than 40% of an affirmative vote to make them legal.

Plus, I'm engaged and interested in the public schools being a place where 95% of us keep solidarity with one another! That means to me that instead of providing an "education", the school district, as a department (in the English sense) of the State government, ought to be about providing "district services". For many, that will entail enrollment in the standard public curriculum. For some families, perhaps that means nothing more than a math and PE class and the privilege to play on the school team. And still others, a bevy of Internet-based courses to supplement Running Start (courses taken at the local community college which earn simultaneous college and high school credit)

My local district does all of those things, and runs a vocational skills center in concert with five other school districts at the same time. A Junior at one of our high schools can spend her morning learning dental assisting and her afternoon earning undergrad credit.

In that way (at least) we *serve* the people for whom a standard education is not optimal, without losing their voice in our chorus. Hopefully.

Anonymous said...

"Will we have a polity united with a common literacy, enough to resolve problems with words instead of guns? Note the anecdotal failure I witnessed these last few years, and this was among young people whose families shared the same religious outlook!"

A shared outlook is a net positive, but only depending on what's shared. I want every knee to bow and every tongue to confess that Jesus is the Christ, for example. The content of what's shared matters as much as the sharing.

So the problem with public schools, in my view, is that their shared outlook is pretty heavily mixed with wickedness and there's not much that can be done to change it.

My wife and I aren't certain that we're going to avoid our public schools, but if we do its because we think we can keep our kids from sharing too much of the school's outlook.

-Adam Greenwood

Lindsey said...

This was an interesting post, and one that hits somewhat close to home. My parents struggled with the decision of whether or not my siblings and I should be sent to private schools or public schools. My mom chose the public route because she wanted us to be "lights" to the other students, and she also knew that our faiths wouldn't truly develop without exposure to outside ideas and values. She also didn't want to rely on any school, public or private, to teach us values. That was my parents' and church's role. So if the public school teaches values they're not thrilled with, it doesn't matter because that's not the end of my values-education. But, to be fair, her decision was made much easier by the fact that our school district is one of the best in Wisconsin. We might have had to steer away from the drinkers and pot heads, but we would have had to do that in the private schools as well (whose students aren't as immune to these sorts of tempations as they'd like to think).

My cousins faced a different battle. They live in medium sized city in Alambama where the public schools aren't great, and with 7 kids private schooling wasn't an option. Being lights for other students is one thing, but recieving an adequate education is another. They aren't alone, and a whole community of home schooled students in their area combine efforts to make their education (academic and social) possible. Though, by pulling out of the public school system, they not only loose the oppurtunity to witness to other students, but the schools themselves loose the parents' involvement which is desperately needed.