Monday, May 05, 2008

ghost tales and glasses and scary homeschoolers

In his day job Greg Laden (see Dana at Principled Discovery's excellent post for context) is apparently a highly-educated scientist with a strong dislike for Ben Stein; in his spare time, he seems to enjoy pranks like dressing up in sheets and rattling chains, telling scary airplane stories, and putting on a Dr Freud nose-and-glasses set in order to indulge in a bit of off the cuff psychoanalyzing. It all seems fairly harmless if a bit irritating, like the guy at the party talking a bit too loudly; though some of the other party-goers in the com box strike a slightly more chilling note, taking advantage of the masks and festive atmosphere to step on a foot here, throw an elbow there, trespass on someone's personal space over there.

I think there is a serious and real concern, though, beyond the fun. Mr. Laden gets to the heart of his concerns in his selection of culled quotes from homeschooling sources. They have very little in common on the surface. Two appear to be from the kind of basic homeschooling sites that state the legalities of homeschooling in different states or list advantages to homeschooling; another is from a secular homeschooler who expresses her right to educate her kids in the way she thinks best and defends the right of others to do the same; another is from a Christian source proclaiming the benefits of positive socialization, the sheltering of children from violence, and the teaching of Biblical values as motives for homeschooling.

Not much in common on the surface, but they exemplify a mindset to Mr Laden. which he calls,

"....misguided religious intent and wacky libertarian arm waving"

In his following remarks in his own and other peoples' comboxes , this seems to be the only consistent note in his criticisms about homeschooling. As a consequence, then:

  • Arguments about the excellent results seen in homeschooling are to no avail, because he is willing to agree that some homeschoolers get excellent results.
  • Arguments about the diversity of homeschoolers -- that they are not all fundamentalists, and some of them are secular evolutionists just like him -- are to no avail, because he acknowledges readily that there is great diversity of homeschoolers and that some of them teach their children just what he would want them to be taught.
  • Arguments that homeschooled children aren't locked away from the world but join the community and grow up to be public-spirited and law-abiding are to no avail, because he can of course see that there are homeschooled children in all kinds of classes, activities and community projects all across the United States and that many grow up to be very involved in public affairs, though perhaps they don't always vote as he would wish them to.
  • Arguments that people's ulterior motives for homeschooling are irrelevant, because in our country we are obliged to be law-abiding citizens, not submit our thoughts to outside scrutiny ---

well, here it gets a little murkier to me, because it does seem that Mr Laden thinks that motives he disagrees with -- defined as reactionary and abnormal, which are then equated to neurotic -- do add up to a case for disallowing homeschooling. At least, if you can judge by this.

"If that is true (that homeschoolers are really as they seem to be in his selection of comments), perhaps home schooling should be shut down as an unregulated, unsupervised practice right now."

I don't think this is the real issue, particularly since he goes on to qualify and in fact state outright that this is not his position. Thus, I think it comes down to what those culled comments had in common. All of them stated in some form or other that

parents are responsible for the education of their children and have rights associated with that responsibility.

This, it seems, is what sounds frighteningly subversive to him and apparently to his regular readers as well. I do not want to mischaracterize his views, but this is what I take from it. I agree with Dana that it is not necessary to care about what one person happens to say for his own amusement in his own blog, but since the difference in view seems to crop up again and again in different corners of the web, it has been on my mind and I thought it was worth writing it out.

If I put on that nose and glasses set he is wearing, perhaps I can see it too.

There are dysfunctional parents in the United States. In fact, there could well be seeds of dysfunction in every home. Public schooling may dilute the impact of the dysfunction on the childre, while homeschooling (to him) almost proves that the seeds are starting to sprout. The quotes he collects are showing what he sees as the whole syndrome of controlling-parent in force.
So the eloquent comments from homeschoolers defending their homeschooling, pointing to good results, indicating the problems with the public school: while they inspire other homeschoolers, they only prove his point as far as he is concerned -- that these people are egoistic libertarians who are in denial about their own isolationist tendencies and have a personal investment in keeping their children at home away from other influences.

From reading about his background with alternative education and former conversations about homeschooling, I think he might have some other concerns as well, though they didn't come to the front during this discussion. I have no doubt that a general homeschooling dislike for outside scrutiny and interference in the education process, coupled as it is with a strong insistence on parental rights and responsibilities, strikes him as odd and secretive.

Now I take the glasses off. Of course, there is a completely different way to look at it. I don't have to go into great detail, because it is all out there already. It is well said in many permutations in Mr Laden's comment box and in many other places on the internet. Every parent by definition is choosing what education their children will get. Children are born into particular families with particular parents. Those parents bring them from dependent babyhood to toddlerhood; they are legally and financially responsible for them until a certain age, and the children are not considered adults until that age. Parents all choose, even if they only choose to let others choose for them. Some choose well and some choose badly. Some neglect their kids and some raise them beautifully, and standards for good parenting vary from coast to coast and from home to home, so you would not even be able to get to a consensus on what a successfully-educated child would look like.

The scrutiny and interference from outside then strikes homeschoolers as an often clumsy and coercive intrusion into something that is the natural province of parents and does not need scrutiny unless and until it proves to be flawed and inadequate. So far homeschooling as a phenomenon has from all the verifiable data proved itself rather adequate than the reverse. In individual cases this might not be so, but general are made to protect the common good, not keep anything possibly harmful from possibly happening. There are particular laws to punish and restrict harmful actions like child abuse. Homeschoolers think that their efforts as a whole are a healthy thing for the common good, and have evidence to back it up. So they figure that any extra intrusion, beyond what has been shown to be necessary, is excessive and interfering.

Through a homeschooler's perspective, the key difference between pro-homeschoolers and anti-homeschoolers is that a homeschooler is choosing for himself and letting other people choose for themselves; to a homeschooler, people who campaign against homeschooling often look like they are trying to make the choice FOR parents, to say that their way is better than his or her own way.

Mr Laden has not said that he thinks homeschooling should be illegal. He says he has concerns about the phenomenon. Many homeschoolers have concerns about the public school phenomenon (in its present manifestation it is relatively recent, after all). I think homeschoolers rightly feel more vulnerable because they are a smaller group and the monopoly on public education is held by the government, which also has power to make and enforce laws (subject to various limitations, of course). I do not think Mr Laden adequately acknowledges that what he calls the defensiveness of homeschoolers is a legitimate minority stance. A strong defensive stance is certainly not the same as an attack; we have to remember who started the controversy in this and in other cases.

But I do think that his problem with homeschooling, if I am understanding the post-and-com-box two-step properly, is that it gives parents too much free reign. The most direct alternative to this -- giving the government too much free reign -- is not a problem for him the way it is with many homeschoolers.

Thus he tends to be much more sympathetic with the homeschoolers who are not making claims for parental privilege -- who are homeschooling their children for some contingent factor like exceptional giftedness or for learning disabilities.

OK, taking my own nose-and-glasses set off now.

I've done my best to analyze the issue, but I don't really have a solution for the difficulty of the different perspectives. I do think his posts exemplify an ongoing conflict that often lies under the surface of the homeschooling debates. Living in California as I do, I've seen similar conflicts come up with various homeschool court cases through the year and also in a different form in the push for universal preschool a few years back. I'm willing to think that a bit of tugging both ways is somewhat healthy for society. I sort of enjoy homeschooling critiques because I win whether they are farfetched or pertinent. With the former, it's amusing; with the latter, it's helpful. But I am not sure that differences that extend to philosophy and politics can be resolved on the level of a superficial amateur analysis of the homeschooler's persona.

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