Homeschooling: The History and Philosophy of a Controversial Practice
reviewed by Milton Gaither - June 13, 2019
Title: Homeschooling: The History and Philosophy of a Controversial Practice
Author(s): James G. Dwyer & Shawn F. Peters
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022662725X, Pages: 250, Year: 2019
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In Homeschooling: The History and Philosophy of a Controversial Practice, Dwyer, Arthur B. Hanson Professor of Law at William and Mary, and Peters, Lecturer in Integrated Liberal Studies at the University of Wisconsin, join forces to pen a book that is one part historical description and one part normative argument.
The first three chapters, written by Peters, provide the history. Chapter One describes the pervasive use of the home to educate children in early North America as well as the gradual decline of this practice as formal schools were established. Chapter Two describes how, after World War II, many Americans grew distrustful of government entities, including public schools. Conservative Protestants, historically strong backers of public education, began turning away from increasingly secular public schools in favor of private religious schools and, eventually, homeschooling. At the same time, radicals on the philosophical left grew critical of the bureaucracy of public education, advocating for private schools and, eventually, homeschooling. Peters attends to the legal history, showing that American courts have always maintained that state governments have the right to regulate independent educational ventures, though most states have chosen not to. Chapter Three describes the growth and diversification of homeschooling and covers some of the controversies that have emerged as the movement has matured.
The final three chapters, written by Dwyer, make the normative case for rigorous regulation of homeschooling in the name of childrens rights. The state, Dwyer claims, has always regulated the family. He seeks to provide a theory of why and how this regulation should take place, providing six normative principles:
Children are persons, not property.
People do not have the right to control other peoples lives. All persons possess rights to self-determination. Children, being persons, have this right as well. Children are not yet able to exercise this right, but that does not give others, be they parents or the state, the right to control them. Parents and the state do have interests in the outcome of a childs education.
Children have the greatest interest in their educations.
The state must determine what the childs interests are. The state should base its calculus on scientific consensus about the universal needs and tendencies of humans. Every child, for example, needs protein for healthy biological development, and a parent who might reject protein as ungodly or unhealthy cannot impose that conviction on the child.
The state cannot use religion as the basis for determining what a childs interests are.
The state has two functions when serving its custodial role for children. First, the state can limit childrens rights in its police powers function when those rights might threaten society (for example, not permitting young children to drive because they would endanger the public safety). Second, the state maintains a parens patriae role for the child, trying to secure the childs interests. Education is a parens patriae, not a police powers domain. The goal of a childs education is not to conform the child to the states demands but to foster the childs future autonomy.
In Chapters Six and Seven, Dwyer takes these six principles and applies them to homeschooling regulation. Chapter Six aims to lay out the basic goods education should secure for children.
Again, Dwyer has six principles education should foster:
Cognitive and intellectual development
Physical, psychological, and emotional security
The state should require an education that maximizes a childs potential to realize these six goods.
In Chapter Seven, Dwyer draws out the policy implications. He begins by claiming, based on the sixth principle of safety, that children have a right to stay at home that is so strong that the state must make a compelling case that requiring schooling serves childrens interests. Obviously, a home that does not provide safety would require state intervention. However, beyond that, Dwyer cannot construct an argument that would require children to leave their homes. Therefore, homeschooling should not be abolished. It should, however, be regulated because of the states requirement to provide equal opportunity to all children. How? There are three ways. First, to be legally empowered to homeschool, a parent should demonstrate before doing so that she is capable. Dwyer thinks a high school diploma or GED serves as a fairly good proxy for basic parental intellectual capacity, but he also wants evidence that a parent can do the job. For a child who has never been to school before, normal healthy development in the preschool years is a good indication of parental competence. For a student being pulled from school, a trial run during the summer subject to evaluation by the school would suffice. A criminal background check should also be performed on all household members to help guard against potential abuse. Second, periodic review of homeschooled children should be conducted by a school district employee (ideally someone who has homeschooled successfully in the past). This review would function like a well-child checkup but would emphasize cognitive development and be based on a portfolio, not a standardized test, so as to preserve homeschooling pedagogical freedom. Alternately, required partial enrollment in some formal institution might serve as equivalent to periodic review. Third, if a review finds that a childs homeschooling is not adequate, a sliding scale of interventions should be put in place so that the states role can be as minimal as possible and tailored to need.
In a final concluding chapter, the authors acknowledge that their recommendations are not likely to be heeded given the political power of homeschooling advocacy groups. They also slip in two other possible state policies that might help reduce the potential for abusers to hide behind homeschooling. First, states might offer financial assistance to families who are willing to comply with the sorts of regulations suggested in Chapter Seven. Second, lawsuits could be filed that, if successful, could force legislatures to do what they heretofore have been unwilling to do: ensure that all children receive equal protection under the law.
I have two brief comments to make about this book. First, unlike many co-authored ventures (including some of the other titles in Chicago University Press History and Philosophy of Education Series, of which this book is a part), this book coheres. Its historical and normative components blend seamlessly. An unfortunate side effect of this, however, is that the history, especially in the first chapter, tends to reduce the complexity of the past into a tidy narrative that fits the books larger argument. Peters own background is in legal history, and it shows in his tendency to turn history into a sort of amicus curiae backstory for Dwyers argument. Second, I agree with the authors admission that their proposals are likely to go nowhere. Dwyers arguments are more subtle and powerful than those of many other legal scholars often dubbed critics of homeschooling, but it does not matter. There is simply not a constituency that cares enough about regulating homeschoolers to advocate for these recommendations. There is, however, a large, well-organized, and motivated constituency committed to ensuring that recommendations like these never get a legislative hearing.