Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet recently stirred up controversy when she suggested that homeschooling ought to be illegal. She is concerned that homeschooling poses significant risks to children, including depriving them of a “meaningful education,” and may even make them bad citizens.
Bartholet chose a curious time to try to convince the American public that homeschooling ought to be banned. For one thing, due to the COVID-19 epidemic, all schooling is currently taking place at home. And for another, there is the news that only 15 percent of eighth-graders scored at or above proficiency level in U.S. history on the recently released National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) 2018 Report Card.
What do U.S. history scores have to do with the validity of homeschooling as an educational model? A great deal. Bartholet fears that homeschooled children will not “grow up exposed to...democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints.” I believe this fear is misplaced. An education in history is crucial to forming high regard for democratic values, nondiscrimination, and respecting other viewpoints. After all, how is one supposed to value our democratic republic and the ideals it embraces if they don’t know what a democratic republic is or what sets it apart from other forms of government? How is one to recognize the tell-tale signs of discrimination, and how is one to learn to sympathize with the realities and struggles of those different than them, without hearing the stories of people from the past?
Homeschooled students have higher-than-average scores in U.S. history (or “civics” or “social studies” as it is often called in curricula), and adults who were homeschooled vote and participate in community service and public meetings more frequently than their peers. If education in history is crucial to instilling high regard for democratic values, nondiscrimination, and respect for other viewpoints, then most homeschooled students would appear to be in reasonably good shape, despite Bartholet’s concerns, and public schools likely have room for improvement.
I’m not just speaking theoretically, but from personal experience. I was homeschooled from first through tenth grade. This educational decision, while financially costly to my family (my mother, who holds a master’s degree, stayed home instead of earning our family a second paycheck), afforded my family with expansive learning opportunities. Because we weren’t bound by a school calendar, our family was free to take field trips wherever and whenever we wanted. Nearly every family vacation had an educational aspect to it. We visited Boston and Philadelphia. We trekked Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields. We visited presidential homesteads and slave huts. We visited museums and watched documentaries. All these experiences brought history to life for me in a way no textbook ever could. Because we lived in the eastern U.S., none of these trips even required stepping onto an airplane.
You don’t have to be a homeschool family to take these kinds of trips. But time constraints certainly make them harder. And who knows if I would have enjoyed these trips half as much if my mother and teacher (for they were one and the same) hadn’t been experiencing them with me and transforming her passion for history into a lifelong passion of my own.
My rich education in U.S. history, provided by my homeschool experience, has taught me to cherish our form of government. It has taught me to grieve injustices in America’s past (slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc.) and motivates me to fight against current injustices (abortion, sexual exploitation, etc.). It has taught me to respect the human dignity and opinions of others, including those who think very differently than I do. It even taught me to entertain the possibility that I may be wrong or underinformed on a topic of debate.
Homeschooling may not be the right educational choice for every student or family situation, but it provided me with an exceedingly “meaningful education,” despite Elizabeth Bartholet’s concerns. It has been said that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” My mother did her best to raise a child who wouldn’t be condemned to such a fate. Let us all—parents, teachers, policymakers, and community members—recommit ourselves to teaching history in every educational model—home, public, and private—so that future generations can learn to treasure the good things in our history and how to avoid the errors.