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American independence, Europe, and home schooling

In a comment to Jeff Culbreath's post below on our British heritage, I said this (slightly edited here):

It seems to me that the freedom that Americans consider so important, in particular the impatience with petty bureaucracy, has been instrumental in the fact that so much that was good in British culture is now preserved in America. I've mentioned before the way that it seems that after WWII the British increasingly accepted tyrannical restrictions on their freedoms as the sort of thing they just had to put up with with a "stiff upper lip" in the service of the common good. Americans with their guns are now ridiculed in Britain as in Europe. The British used to have a staunch sense of what we in America would call 2nd Amendment rights. It's all gone now. And I think they are right to say that there is something distinctive about Americans that resists giving that up. That "something distinctive" has been a good thing and, I think, is bound up with the preservation in America of so much that is good that we have inherited from Britain.

A confirmation of the importance of that American sense of independence comes from this story, which I just learned of today. A German family has been granted asylum in America because they were persecuted in Germany for home schooling. Home schooling is illegal in Germany. The only thing that varies from state to state is how rigorously the insistence on in-school schooling is enforced. Back at the very beginning of W4 I was reporting on the case of Melissa Busekros, a teenager who was taken from her parents against her will because her parents were home schooling her. The HSLDA article linked above has more information about the persecution of German home schoolers.

A couple of thoughts: First, it may seem unfair to start this post with a reference to American independence in contrast to Britain, since the persecution from which the family is fleeing was taking place in Germany. And indeed, as things stand, home schooling is not illegal in Britain (though my impression is that it is already more heavily regulated than in most U.S. states). Moreover, it was no accident that the late, admirable author of America's Thirty Years War connected America and England and opposed Anglo-American concepts of government to the more repressive and totalitarian-trending Franco-Prussian concepts.

But unfortunately, England has been very deliberately connecting itself more and more with continental Europe in its laws. (And the loss of freedom in the area of gun ownership is not some brand-new development.) Home schooling, too, is in danger in England, because of a report issued in 2009 and based (not coincidentally) on a UN treaty, calling for much stronger government intrusion into the lives of home schoolers. (This story says that many home schoolers are considering moving to Scotland to retain their freedom, a fact my Scottish-descended husband appreciated a good deal.)

Another interesting thought occurred to me in connection with the German family granted asylum: On the one hand, I believe that a substantive concept of what is right and good is necessary to freedom. I do not believe that we can have freedom, in the long run, based on a completely empty or solely procedural concept of freedom, because it's quite obvious that "freedom" can't mean freedom to do absolutely anything. So any society has to have some sort of shared notion of what is right and what is wrong. I've discussed this rather obvious point (about which others have written so much more) a bit here.

But it's entirely possible that the judge in the asylum case has no particular sympathy with the worldview (probably Christian) of the family seeking asylum. What he recognizes, rather, is the totalitarianism implicit in the German assumption that the state controls the upbringing of children. Now, it is a very good thing for him to recognize this. And the American independence I talk about above is based on a good, gut-level ability to recognize totalitarianism when one sees it.

But to what extent is this apparently contentless, or at least somewhat contentless, recognition of the totalitarianism of the German government vis a vis home schoolers a counterexample to my other claim about the need for a substantive notion of the good?

It seems to me they can only be reconciled here if we recognize that the judge, probably only at a very deep, implicit level, realizes that home schooling is not a bad thing to do and is a legitimate and can even be an important use of one's responsibility and authority as a parent. Hence, freedom to home school is perfectly fine and rather important, and governments who try to hound down home schoolers qua home schoolers on the assumption that home schoolers qua home schoolers are a danger to the public good are bad governments.

As I say, though, this recognition is probably very much implicit in the judge's reasoning. Nor is it always a bad thing for such recognitions to be implicit. While it may seem naive to hear people talking about "freedom" as if it were a free-floating thing, the one advantage that such naive talk has is this: It means that such people are willing to recognize the freedoms of people with whom they disagree. It means that there is a certain amount of tolerance and flex, so that "freedom" doesn't just become "freedom for those who agree entirely with me," which would be totalitarianism in a different guise.

The truth is, it's very hard to get that perfect balance between tolerance and substantive recognition of goodness, especially in a legal context. I commend the asylum judge for a good decision which will send a well-merited rebuke to Germany.

Comments (10)

It would be easy to be smug about this - and I'm sure things are even worse in Europe than they are here. But they're still bad enough here.

Some years back, I worked as SAT-prep tutor to the daughter of a certain (unfortunately rejected) nominee to the Supreme Court & his equally brilliant lawyer/teacher wife. And even *they* had to knock themselves out to get the State of Virginia to allow them to homeschool their kids.

Steve, that's gotta have been because it was some years ago. Here are the current home schooling laws in Virginia:


There really should be no question of being allowed to home school there. I'm sure the nominee and his wife had high school diplomas, and the superintendent for the district doesn't even have the authority to approve or disapprove of the curriculum.

But it looks like this was all put in place in 1984, so possibly the situation you are talking about was before that.

Home schooling law is one of the only areas of law I know of in which things have improved in America in the last thirty years, sometimes radically. Here in Michigan our laws were suddenly rather radically liberalized (that being a good thing, in this case) as recently as 1995.

A legitimate government may tolerate evil, if overcoming and eliminating that evil either not feasible or might result in even greater evils. The very notion of "freedom to homeschool" presupposes a government already too far involved, preventing the evil of stupid children by the greater evil of compulsory school attendance, in the daily lives of it citizens.

The real novelty in historical terms is a right not to homeschool, i.e., a right (or unfettered access) to free primary and secondary education at little or no expense to the parent. Such access has been, and continues to be, a great blessing (even when not appreciated) for illiterate and/or incompetent parents, and arguably serves to make a more productive society... which is why the Prussian school system and compulsory attendance laws came to be in the first place.

But I don't think it requires a very parochial view, i.e., non-neutral view, of the common good to hold that parents naturally have a right to educate their children (or not at all) as they see fit, assuming there is no evidence of their illiteracy or incompetency.

To make a short story long, Lydia, I agree with you on the principle that it is difficult balance to make, i.e., between freedom and the general good, in a pluralistic society. In fact, I would go further and say instability between the two is inherent in a pluralistic society, and any apparent optimum (divined by one genius judge) would surely be fleeting. [It would, I think, be much better to live in a non-pluralistic society, assuming that is that I was a member of the dominant class. Assuming I'm not (which I am not), I'll take pluralism and neutrality for the time being.]

But I think that the "freedom to homeschool" is not one of the better illustrations of this natural, otherwise inherent, problem of balance: Natural law reveals the clear answer in this case. Muslims, Christians, Libertarians, and Atheists can all agree that the state has no business cornering the market on education, even when they find little else about to agree touching the common good.

I am very confused about the equivalence between guns and home schooling. I can think of no reason why I should care if my neighbor home schools. Guns are a different story. Guns are for killing people. If my neighbor owns a gun everyone in my household becomes less safe. So Americans deserve to be ridiculed for their guns and Germans deserve to be ridiculed for banning home schooling. But one can't do much about either. Why the two issues should be tied together seems beyond strange.

If my neighbor owns a gun everyone in my household becomes less safe.

Who the heck are your neighbors??

Lydia - this was post 2000.

Dear Steve N, I wonder whether Muslims, Christians, libertarians, and atheists would all agree upon the proposition that the state has no right to a monopoly of education, given that all four parties lack a common conception of the good. It strikes me that nowadays more and more secularists argue that practices like home schooling are a positive danger to the public good because they allow the 'backward' and 'uneducated' to pass on their prejudices - i.e., religious beliefs and traditional mores. This position is somewhat understandable if one buys into a leftist conception of the good (which we should not, of course). If one thinks that the good should be identified with the satisfaction of preferences, say, then one might believe that a utilitarian calculus would require the state to suppress home schooling, as Christian parents who teach their children that homosexuality is immoral, say, would turn out citizens who would wish to frustrate the preferences of homosexuals. As Ed Feser has said, in today's society left and right are often just talking in different languages when they talk about ethics (at least I think it was Ed Feser).

Dear Lydia, at the risk of sounding like Peter Hitchens' P.R. man, I'd recommend his A Brief History of Crime for its journalistic account of the erosion gun rights in the U.K.

Steve (Burton), that's just astonishing. I'm tempted to ask, were they HSLDA members? I know that sounds like a crazy thing to ask with a nominee for the Supreme Court in question--one might think he would be a high-powered enough lawyer to do all that needed to be done. But though I've never had any problems myself, my strong impression from multiple anecdotes is that HSLDA is good at making problems just go away for its members and that the problems don't always go away as easily for non-members. I'm going to _guess_ that the people you knew previously had at least some of their children in public school and took them out. That's usually where the schools start asserting the power to decide whether you "get to" home school. But in actual fact, in every state of the union you can home school, and in many states the procedures aren't even close to onerous. (The state with the most burdensome home schooling paperwork I have heard of right now is Pennsylvania.) Sometimes you just need a lawyer steeped in the relevant law to write a few letters and tell the officials who are presuming that their permission is required where they get off. There is a lot of bluff involved in cases like that, _especially_ when withdrawing previously public-schooled children, and very often the officials involved literally do not know the home school law and are guessing at what it must be, usually based on what they think it should be.

Tony W., you have a good point: It's an interesting historical fact that hippie-types were some of the earliest home schoolers in America because, in the 1960's, they thought the public schools were too conservative, too much controlled by the Establishment. Now, the tenured radicals of our society (as you might say) control the educational establishment, so they're against home schooling. There are always exceptions. I remember discovering a Wiccan home schooling mother in my state once. But for the most part the Daniel Dennett perspective (he of "disarm and cage the Baptists for wasting their children's minds" infamy) is strongest among atheists.

Lydia, you are quite right about HS laws in Virginia. If you elect to do it under the religious exemption rule, you have no oversight at all, but first you have to get the superintendant to recognize/accept you as using the religious exemption rule. The other method allows a family with either parent who has a college degree to submit their curriculum to the super (not for oversight, just submit), and take standardized tests each year.

If my neighbor owns a gun everyone in my household becomes less safe.

Randy, guns in the homes of normally law-abiding citizens show LOWER incidence of burglary and other crimes. By a large margin. So maybe if your neighbor owns a gun you are MORE safe. As long as he is a normally law-abiding citizen.

Lydia, my guess for what the judge's reasoning was in making this decision is very different from yours, but as I have not been able to find the actual court opinion, I'm not sure my idle thoughts would add much to this discussion. In any case, I don't disagree with the position you are taking. It's only that if I'm correct about the basis of the decision, this particular court case wouldn't support your argument.

Does anybody here know where the document can be found?

For what it's worth, there's quite a lot of commentary at http://volokh.com/2010/01/27/asylum-in-the-u-s-for-german-homeschoolers/

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