Home schooling

by Chris Bertram on October 22, 2003

I’ve just given a talk on education and social justice over at our Graduate School of Education. It was a fairly low key affair, aimed at some graduate students with no prior knowledge of political philosophy (and one CT-reader, as it turned out). So I concentrated on elaborating Rawls’s principles of justice and explaining how they might or might not feed into debates on educational policy. (I was greatly helped in this by reading Adam Swift’s extraordinarily clear and well-argued How Not to Be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent . Even if you disagree with Swift, he’ll help you to sort out your own thinking.) The point of the talk wasn’t to say that Rawlsian principles mandate this or that solution, but rather to explore how they could inform policy arguments. One of the questions I had from the floor concerned the permissibility of home schooling. Here’s, roughly, what I said as an off-the-top of my head Rawlsian response.

Children have an interest in growing up with various moral capacities, including the capacity to form, revise, etc their aims in life, a sense of justice, and so on. Schools function not just as purveyors of information about maths, physics and geography but also as social environments in which individuals learn to rub along with others and get exposed to a wider range of social influences than they would at home (or perhaps than their parents judge desirable). That’s a good thing, and is a reason to be opposed to home schooling.

BUT. It all depends what the options are. In an ideal system no child would be home schooled, but faced with the prospect of unacceptably poor schools it might well be the right thing for a parent to do. The point about a broad social environment also cuts two ways. Although being exposed to those wider influences and to peer groups is valuable, in reality the peer groups that children have available may be (really and not just in the imagination of paranoid overprotective parents) be dangerous and bad.

So I kinda sorta sat on the fence. Harry, who has thought about these issue much more than I have, and who has a book and many papers on justice and education would probably have had a ready answer.



speedwell 10.22.03 at 7:10 pm

“In an ideal system no child would be home school[ed]…”

Riiiight. In an ideal system I suppose the government knows what’s best for everyone.

Nice try.


Seth Gordon 10.22.03 at 7:13 pm

But a decision to home-school your children does not entail cutting them off from interaction with other children. A home-schooled child can still participate in sports leagues, Boy/Girl Scouts, and other activities that provide social interaction outside of school hours. Many communities have associations of home-schooling families so that the kids can get together for museum trips and the like.


Chris Bertram 10.22.03 at 7:24 pm

Speedwell, that would only follow if in an ideal system the government provided all the schools and controlled allocation of children to them. I think you’ll struggle to find an assertion of that nature in my post.

Seth: that’s a fair point. But the fact that there’s no such entailment doesn’t tell us about what actually happens. I’d like to know about that (I’m sure there’s research). There’s also a question — which extends beyond the home-schooling one — about how far it is in a child’s interests (and at what ages) — to have the choice of which other children they associate with under the control of their parents.


Brett Bellmore 10.22.03 at 7:27 pm

As I recall, there’s substantial evidence that spending a lot of time in the company of other children is actually detrimental to a child’s intellectual development.


James 10.22.03 at 7:33 pm

There is also the question of the rights of the parents in bringing up their children. The removal of home schooling as an option is a curtailment of those rights.


sidereal 10.22.03 at 7:34 pm

I’d say that in an ideal system, all parents would have a variety of options to choose from in the effective raising and education of their children, and a great many would choose home-schooling coupled with many opportunities for diverse socialization without parental oversight.

The implication that a one size fits all strategy is even possible, much less ‘ideal’, is profoundly dangerous.


Chris Bertram 10.22.03 at 7:40 pm

James: _”There is also the question of the rights of the parents in bringing up their children. The removal of home schooling as an option is a curtailment of those rights.”_

But that only follows if the rights parents have in bringing up their children _include_ the right to home school them. Which is precisely what’s at issue!

But, gentle commenters, please don’t assume that I have a cast-in-stone position or even a properly worked out one on this question – I don’t. And I’d happily amend one sentence to read ” _Perhaps_ in an ideal system no child would be home schooled….”


sidereal 10.22.03 at 7:47 pm

But can I rail on the position while it’s still amorphous and clay-like before it sets to stone? :)

To expand on the point, I strongly believe in the much-vindicated Popper philosophy that all human endeavors are inherently flawed, and the most sensible system is one that allows for broad choice and includes mechanisms of change, rather than one that purports to lay out the perfect system for Everybody, at the expense of Each Person.

Added to that general philosophy, in the case of child-rearing and -education in particular, overwhelming consideration should be given to the desires of the parents.


Decnavda 10.22.03 at 7:48 pm

I am currently in section 55 of A Theory of Justice, and I am not sure why ano child would be home schooled under a Rawlsian approach. Wouldn’t the question be whether the option of homeschoolling would advantage the least well-off children, and the answer would then depend on empirical data?

Also, would the priority of liberty come into play here? How would a Rawlsian appoach balance the liberty interest in the parents teaching their children as they wish with the child’s interest in having an education that best prepares them to exercise maximum personal and political liberties? (I assume that the priority of liberty would result in placing maximum personal and political liberties ahead of maximum salaries as a goal.)

Finanly, it seems to me that the priority of liberty in combination with the good things Rawls has to say about the efficiency of markets and property owning democracies would result in the policy of allowing home schooling to be the default presumtive posistion that would have to be overcome with empirical evidence that it is not advantageous to the least advantaged students.


dm 10.22.03 at 8:02 pm

You may want to give balance to your view of home-schooling by looking at the books of John Holt (e.g., “How Children Learn”, “Learning all the time”, “Instead of education”.

Many people who encounter the home-schooled children of my acquaintance are surprised at their poise and confidence. These aspects are cultivated by the fact that most home-schooled children have a much wider range of contacts than do institutionally-schooled children. Home-schooled children do not merely sit around the kitchen table grinding through mail-order curricula (though some do). Instead, they are out in the world taking dance classes, art lessons, going to museums, the library. They are involved in projects they have chosen for themselves (and have the time to complete to their satisfaction).

As a result, instead of being segregated for up to eight hours a day with people the same age, they meet and interact with people of all ages. They are used to talking to adults, and do so, instead of staring diffidently at their toes.

I am a home-schooling parent myself. I chose to do so in order that my children could have time to explore their own interests. It is too early to tell (my oldest child is only 14), but, as yet, I have seen little to suggest that my family has made the wrong choice.

I would, in fact, turn your statement around: in the ideal world, no child would be stuck in an institution, but would have the freedom to learn in the ways that are best suited to that child.

I do not intend to demean institutional schools — they are far more successful than they are often portrayed, and they may, indeed, be right for some children at some points in their education (and such children should have the freedom to choose them). But I do not believe that they are the sine qua non of education.


Harry 10.22.03 at 8:17 pm

I agree with Chris that this is a complex topic. For what its worth here’s my view (since it was asked for!). Children have the right to develop and excercise their capacities for a conception of the good and for a sense of justice, and this right overrides any claims parents might have to be able to transmit their own values and beliefs to their children (in fact I don’t think they have any such claims; although they do have the right to communicate their values and beliefs to their children, a quite different matter). In just societies and more-or-less just societies this right of children will normally be best guaranteed by having them attend schools, or institutions relevantly like schools, for some significnat part of the time (maybe not all day for 180 days a year for 14 years, but for quite a bit of the time for quite a number of years). In unjust societies it will still, sometimes, be best facilitated that way. But sometimes it will not.

Schools, rather than home schools, are especially important in my view, because they are controlled environments in which children can encounter ways of life quite unlike their own ways of life, and are enabled to experience something of what those ways of life are like from an insider’s perspective; this is essential for faciliating autonomy. It is not usually the school curriculum, but the school ethos and the school composition that facilitate this. IN particular, getting to know other children who are raised in homes unlike one’s own — religiously, politically, even temperamentally — is extremely valuable; and the ethos of the school must attempt to encourage interaction, reflection, and toleration of difference (but critical, curious, toleration, not the mindless ‘celebration of diversity’ so familiar in American school cultures).

But, of course, this only works if schools are like this — that is if they have an appropriate ethos, and a broadly diverse mix of cultures and temperaments among the student body. Ironically, in the US at least, you are more likely to find the desired qualities in a private than in a public (state) school because i) there is a high rate of defection from public schools by religious parents, ii) public schools are highly segregated by socio-economic class (and also by race and to a lesser extent religion) and iii) public high schools in particular are frequently large anonymous institutions which activiely promote the conformist ethos of the commercial popular culture that surrounds the school. They often do not encourage or facilitate critical curious toleration, but instead encourage the heteronomous adoption of the values of mainstream society.

In that context I find it hard to blame people wanting to defect, either to private schools or to home schooling, even though I recongise the potential for harm that the latter in particular has. My view is that the liberal state (and liberals within a less-than-ideally liberal state) should pursue strategies to alleviate the distrust religious parents in particular feel toward the public schools in the US — by enjoining them to campaign with us against attempts to commercialise the schools for example, but also by aiming for reforms to make public schools places where there is more genuine mixing, where counter-cultural views (including religious views) are present and taken seriously (but are not treated uncritically) and where students are pressured (for example by the smaller size of the schools) relationships across class and religius divides.

So I agree completely that in a just society no-one would feel the need to home school, both because in such a society they would be committed to developing their children’s moral pwoers (including the capacity for autonomy) and because they would (rightly) feel that the available schools would contribute to this end rather than compromising its realisation. But like Chris (I suspect) I would be unenthusiastic about completely banning home schooling when the real schooling options are for many people’s children not likely to deliver what justice demands.


Sindelar 10.22.03 at 8:56 pm

But Harry, even within public schools in the US there is a great deal of segregation by social class due to residential mobility. And some religious schools in the US, Catholic schools, are more diverse than many US public schools in other respects.

Chris I fail to see what a specifically Rawlsian case for taking kids out of public schools with potentially negative peer effects is. I do however see a Rawlsian case for keeping them in on the grounds of facilitating public reason.


Ratherworried 10.22.03 at 9:06 pm

This is a very complex issue. Some things to consider:

1) Are the parents capable of providing acceptable home schooling. Not all parents are cut out to be teachers. Before you set out on that path join a support group because teaching is a frustrating and difficult job.

2) The quality of local schools is a serious consideration. Obviously if the local school system is excellent, some other compelling reason should exist for home schooling to be appropriate.

3) Social skill development can be a concern and requires external activities (Boy/Girl Scouts, Sports, etc…). The development of most social skills, however, occurs well before elementary school.

4) Home Schooling can make the transition to College very difficult for home schooled students. The lack of parental structure and discipline for example. (Also true for traditionally schooled students but more so for home schooled)

Sadly many parents are home schooling because of ideological differences with the local school system. I think they are merely delaying the inevitable questioning when children reach an age and can think for themselves. Sheltering children from other opinions is not going to ensure that they adopt the parents beliefs.


neil 10.22.03 at 9:17 pm

I’ll approach this issue from an empirical rather than a theoretical point of view. My parents chose to homeschool me until I was 12 years old; at that age I was old enough to take the decision to start at a private school, where I lasted only a few years until I turned to institutional public education for the rest of my academic career.

The degree to which I excelled in the institution is mostly irrelevant, since what’s really at issue is how much better or worse I’d have done had I not homeschooled. The only evidence I have on that point is this: when I started at public school, I made friends with other students who were about as intelligent as me. Among these peers, though, I was the only one who would reliably keep up with schoolwork and remain interested in lectures. The others had long since formed the opinion that school was dull and homework was boring. Since these things were fresh and new to me, and since my parents presented education to me as exciting and interesting rather than obligatory and dull, I had no such problem. I have to assume that if I, too, had been wedged into the school system at age six without having any say in the matter, that I would have fallen into the ‘slacker’ track myself.

I’m always amazed at the reaction of many liberals when I tell them I was homeschooled. Surprise is reasonable, but I often pick up some level of contempt. I understand disagreeing with conservative Christians who are actively opposed to “godless” public schools; but why allow these fringe folks to set up homeschooling as anathema to public education? My experience shows clearly that they can coexist happily, and even complement each other.


clew 10.22.03 at 9:37 pm

Well, as a liberal who went to a seriously terrible public grade school – there are many worse, but this one was below the tideline of lethal violence – I know where my hard-to-conceal liberal scorn for homeschooling comes from. “Devil take the hindmost”, eh? There may be, on the whole, an advantage to the homeschooled: but I think it’s smaller than the damage done to the rest of the children when the resource-richest kids get pulled out.

My mother could have taught me, but she went and volunteered in my classroom instead. I learned enough academically; and a lot about people from different backgrounds; and some of my fellow students learned far more than they possibly could have otherwise.

The most effin’ annoying thing I’ve noticed recently is intentional freeriding homeschoolers: an acquaintance boasts that he got his kids into a program in the next county, not because they have any right to it, but because he threatened them with a lawsuit. He claims this is as moral as it needs to be because it’s for the best for his kids and that’s his duty as a parent. Now, most are not as bad as that, but it’s a logical outgrowth of some of the common justifications of homeschooling.


Chris Genovese 10.22.03 at 9:57 pm

Harry and Chris, thanks for raising these issues. I agree that this is a complex problem, but I’m puzzled by your arguments on several grounds.

As Seth mentioned, you seem to be assuming that homeschooled children are cut off from unsupervised social interaction and development, which need not be true. I’d guess that it is usually false.

Also, if I understand correctly, your arguments largely abandon the primary (though not exclusive) mission of schooling, which is learning. Harry says, for instance, that schools are particularly important not because they are good at imparting education but because “they are controlled environments in which children can encounter ways of life quite unlike their own ways of life, and are enabled to experience something of what those ways of life are like from an insider’s perspective; this is essential for facilitating autonomy. It is not usually the school curriculum, but the school ethos and the school composition that facilitate this. …. If this is the criterion underlying compulsory education, then we can satisfy it in many ways not unique to state-run schooling. To be extreme, apprenticeship, mandatory but temporary exchange of children among households, and some form of childhood draft would all achieve this, though no one would suggest these for obvious reasons. But more practically, if schools are failing their primary mission, we could separate the content of education from the institution in charge of social development, possibly to the benefit of both goals. In a sense, that’s what homeschooling does.

Moreover, I see no reason to believe that a school provides a preferred social environment for obtaining social skills or understanding as one needs them later. A closed, single-aged peer group, forced into arbitrary social arrangements, run by purely internal norms, subject to a distant supervisory authority that is unable to prevent widespread physical violence and psychological abuse, is at best a caricature for adult society. Only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I would say that prison is a closer analogue. Yes, I know that there are some excellent schools that provide good environments. But for all the reasons that Harry outlines and more, most real schools fail to live up to the ideal of children learning “a conception of the good and … a sense of justice,” let alone calculus.

We agree that it is reasonable for parents to avoid schools that provide “unacceptably poor” education or schools that provide a “dangerous and bad” social environments, but why should the administrators, elected or unelected, be privileged with defining thresholds for either criterion? On what liberal grounds does a majority rule mandate what is worth learning and what is worth doing? Should parents be forced to accept low standards for their children because that is the majority view or because that is all that the school district can afford? Should those who cannot afford a private institution be denied the opportunity to raise those standards? The schools reflect both money and underlying values about education. If I live and work in a town that would rather have good football games than good science labs or if my child goes to a school where anyone answering a question in class has to fight at recess or if the culture in the school imparts the idea that learning is boring, then there is little I can do within the system to change that in time to help my child. We can traffic in ideals all you want, but no schooling arrangement will change the underlying values or the inequities in money that dictate a school’s quality. What I find unconvincing about the argument from the ideal that Harry gives is that that ideal can ever be realized because people will always differ in their ambitions, values, and beliefs.

I might be reading in, but it seems that the implicit objection to homeschooling is that parents are free to indoctrinate their children with beliefs, such as creationism, that are contrary to established knowledge. I agree that this is a problem, but defining it precisely is difficult. Content-based distinctions cut both ways; how does the liberal framework determine what is right? For example, suppose that a majority in my state decides that creationism should be taught (it’s happened before) but not evolution. Now short of leaving the state, if homeschooling is foreclosed and I cannot afford private school, I’m stuck with what I believe is a serious problem, as is my child. Should I just give in because I have no right to impose my beliefs (that evolution is preferred to creationism) on my child? Must I follow the general will? It seems to me that we do best when we embrace individual differences and allow free choice and flexibility. It is a practical reality — which I do not want to see reversed, to be honest — that parents impart many of their values and beliefs to their children. If we bear the cost of a few parents imparting extreme views to avoid everyone else being caught in the stagnant middle, I think that’s worthwhile.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 10.22.03 at 10:19 pm

Second the recommendation of the work of John Holt.


Andrew Case 10.22.03 at 10:53 pm

Many kids in the US are homeschooled because their parents believe that public schooling will expose them to propaganda which, if believed by the impressionable kids, will put their souls in mortal peril. The right of the parent to take all reasonable measures to protect their children from exposure to things which undermine their religious belief seems to me one which should be interfered with only on if there is clear evidence that the child is irreparrably harmed by a failure to interfere.

Letting the state come between parent and child is extremely dangerous, particularly in matters of religious faith.

On another note – experience in the US is that homeschooled children to better academically than children from public or private schooled on standardized tests. The idea that homeschooling is necessarily inferior, or even usually inferior, is just plain wrong. The only area where homeschoolers tend to be shortchanged is biology, and that’s pretty much the whole point for most US homeschoolers – avoid exposure to evolution until the kid is old enough to have fully accepted the parent’s values.

sorry for the disordered thought train in this comment – I’m in a rush and don’t have time to tidy it up.


James 10.22.03 at 11:08 pm

Harry – The ideas that the state knows best or that the children have some moral social responsibilty to the public schooling rings of socalism. I do not know if this was your intent. The concept that school is a place to indoctrinate children in the ideals of the state leaves me cold.


Neel Krishnaswami 10.22.03 at 11:12 pm

harry wrote: “…in a just society no-one would feel the need to home school…”

How is that a Rawlsian argument? You would need a literally un-believable uniformity of opinion for no single family, out of a population of hundreds of millions, to want to home-school. And John “Overlapping Consensus” Rawls was, if nothing else, very much aware of the reality of political and social plurality.

I think a more properly Rawlsian view of education is that as long as parents live up to the consensus requirements on the treatment of their children — they don’t beat or starv them for missing marks, and ensure that the children learn enough to function well in society — then any form of schooling they choose is acceptable, be it home-schooling, private schools, public schools, or hired tutors. This is not a libertarian position, but it is still a liberal one.


Skarl 10.22.03 at 11:22 pm

As someone who was homeschooled up until Grade 10, I’m mystified by ‘scorn’ for homeschooling parents. Clew feels that it the responsibility of every student with motivated parents to attend school, in order to help those less lucky – but there are two problems here. First, I received next to no formal education during my grade-school years, but had no problem achieving high grades in high-school – so is grade school even necessary for every student? Second, if school is a poor educational system, and should be at least partially replaced by homeschooling, than the true responsibility lies with those parents who fail to homeschool their children – not with those who do. Of course, some parents are not competent to teach – in this case, some sort of school system is required – although in my opinion, a less structured system could still be more effective. (ie. teacher-as-mentor, more so than teacher-as-examiner – to a greater extent than at present)

One of my parents stayed out of work for 15 years to teach me and my siblings. This teaching was mostly very free-form: the only structured learning I did was mathematics. Otherwise, my parents merely encouraged us in our interests.

My parents’ reasons for homeschooling us were not any disagreement with the curriculum. Instead, they felt that the school environment was a poor one, both socially and academically. In retrospect, I tend to disagree with them on the first point – although school, especially grade school, can be unpleasant, it also teaches children how to deal with such unpleasantness.

Academically, however, school works poorly. Students are forced to learn in a set way and at a set pace (more so than self-directed learning, ie. homeschooling), and the student-teacher system encourages passive learning rather than active seeking of answers – not a strategy that works in the real world. Students are told that they learn by being taught, instead of by examining and understanding the information they are given – and this fallacy continues to limit them through undergraduate university, and probably, for some, their entire lives.

Most seriously of all, students develop a negative attitude to learning. This often includes every activity associated with learning – reading, writing, debating and – for some – thinking.

A few caveats: both my parents have university degrees, and had sufficient income to supply us with resources for learning. Homeschooling without both these advantages may be successful, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

ratherworried: Actually, homeschooled students, at least in my area, do better in college than their publicly-schooled peers. They do, however, usually attend grades 11 and 12 to get their high-school diploma. As to your second point, the quality of nearby schools is not necessarily a factor, as for some students, school-based education can never compare to homeschooling. On your first and third points, we are in total agreement.


Ken 10.23.03 at 3:16 am

“Well, as a liberal who went to a seriously terrible public grade school – there are many worse, but this one was below the tideline of lethal violence – I know where my hard-to-conceal liberal scorn for homeschooling comes from. “Devil take the hindmost”, eh? There may be, on the whole, an advantage to the homeschooled: but I think it’s smaller than the damage done to the rest of the children when the resource-richest kids get pulled out.”

What damage? The other kids in a school don’t take after the smart kids; the smart kids merely serve as a target.


harry 10.23.03 at 3:50 am

Just to respond to a couple of the issues raised above. First, James, neither Chris nor I suggested that the state knows best, and I’m at pains to stress that the state should not indoctrinate children (though it is entirely legitimate for it to provide alternatives to parental indoctrination). Saying that a position or argument sounds socialist is no argument against it.

Andrew: I am less pessimistic than you are about the true motives of religious homeschoolers. Sure, some have the view you attribute to them. And some are worse (they don’t want their kids mixing with black kids). But many, I suspect, reasonably fear just that their particular outlook on the world will be treated with contempt in the public school, while other less worthy outlooks (in particular, the dominant, sexualised, commercial culture) will be valorised. Combat these tendencies (which are present in many public schools) and we help to assure many religious parents sufficiently that they will be more open to public schooling. I agree that its dangerous to come between parents and their children on matters of religion, which is why liberals have to be cautious and strategic in their policies. But liberals must also respect the interests of the child in becoming the kinds of person who can make reflective and rational judgments about how to live their own lives.

Sindelar. You said: ‘even within public schools in the US there is a great deal of segregation by social class due to residential mobility. And some religious schools in the US, Catholic schools, are more diverse than many US public schools in other respects’
How is that contrary to what I said?: ‘in the US at least, you are more likely to find the desired qualities in a private than in a public (state) school because i) there is a high rate of defection from public schools by religious parents, ii) public schools are highly segregated by socio-economic class (and also by race and to a lesser extent religion’. I don’t understand the ‘But’.

Several people make a lot of the fact that home-schooled children do well academically. Lots, indeed, do ok. But that’s to be expected — the typical homeschooler is better educated and better off than the average parent of a publicly schooled child. The success of the kind reflects the background rather than the education (though it is also the case that homeschooled kids tend to get spectacularly good teacher-pupil ratios, which seem matter a lot in the early years of schooling, and less in the later years).

I’ll respond to more later if I have time.


clew 10.23.03 at 5:06 am

To respond to a question loosely directed at me – I was smart and motivated enough to think of ways to demonstrate to some of my peers that brains can be useful.

No CERT notifications, though. No lockpicking, either; I’m just not MIT material.

What I really meant, though, was that my parents had two ways to spend their spare time on my education. They could have homeschooled me (and my brother). Instead, my mother spent a lot of time in my classroom, which enormously reduced the Bad Stuff that could happen to me. Not because she was hovering over my shoulder; she spent most of her time there working with other kids, who desperately desperately needed some help. If the school could have afforded more people, it wouldn’t have had to follow soul-killing Taylorist teaching methods – but with an enormous class size, it did.


Thomas 10.23.03 at 6:34 am

Rawls actually discussed this very point, in PL. Unfortunately, when some talk about Rawls they don’t distinguish between TJ and PL.

See Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good, Section 6, No. 3. (That’s page 199 in the Columbia U Press paperback edition.)


Kathryn Cramer 10.23.03 at 11:50 am

One problem with the discussion of home schooling is that it’s discussed as an either/or choice rather than a matter of degree.

We live in an excellent school district and my son also recieves some Special Ed services that I could not duplicate myself.

For years, I have been doing what home schoolers call Unschooling: taking himplaces that follow up on his own interests. Up till now, we have travelled with him a great deal, much to his educational benefit. School vacations and summer vacation are really not sufficient to continue with this program, and so he will be missing many fine opportunities during this 1st grade year.

Ideally, I would like him to be about 15% home schooled. But the principal of his school does not see it that way. Unless our son is sick or someone died, if we take him out it’s an “illegal” absence.

This situation is not to my son’s educational benefit. It remains to be seen how this plays itself out.


Chris Bertram 10.23.03 at 12:02 pm

I’ve learnt a lot from this thread, so thanks to everyone who has contributed. Home schooling is, or at least such is my impression, a pretty marginal phenomenon in the UK. But clearly it is much more significant in the US (partly for reasons of religion) and I hadn’t appreciated that.

On a picky Rawls-related point, Decnava’s pointing to the priority of liberty won’t really do, because what gets priority is not liberty as such but _the basic liberties_ . So we need an argument that establishes which rights parents have over their children are among those liberties, how those rights are to be construed and so on.

I also had a look at p. 199 of PL, as Thomas suggested. As I read the text there, Rawls’s own position fits quite well with Neel’s remarks. So Rawls writes there that:

bq. [Political liberalism] will ask that children’s education include such things as their constitutional and civic rights so that, for example, they know that liberty of conscience exists in their society and that apostasy is not a legal crime, all this is to ensure that their continued membership [of a religion] when they come of age is not based simply on ignorance of their basic rights or fear of punishment for offenses that do not exist. Moreover, their education should also prepare them to be fully cooperating members of society and enable them to be self-supporting; it should also encourage the political virtues so that they want to honor the fair terms of social cooperation in their relations with the rest of society.

Just so long as those things can be assured, then, it looks to me that Rawls himself would have adopted a permissive line on this issue (not that that should necessarily bind those of us who are influenced by Rawls’s work).


harry 10.23.03 at 2:44 pm

I have been puzzling over the above passage from Rawls for about 10 years — its what prompted me to start writing about educational issues in fact. Why on earth would he limit the obligations of the state to what Chris has quoted, given the higher order interest he asserts that we have in developing and exercising our capacity for a conception of the good, which includes the capacity rationally to revise a conception of the good? I never figured out a good response, until my colleague Dan Hausman gave a completely sensible account when we were reading Justice as Fairness together (in which the passage is repeated, almost verbatim). And — here’s the embarrassing bit — I’ve completely forgotten what the account was that Dan gave. I shall ask him — but his memory for what he has said tends to be worse than my memory of what he has said, so I am not hopeful that he will be able to reconstruct it.


Lawrence Krubner 10.23.03 at 5:53 pm

Ironically, in the US at least, you are more likely to find the desired qualities in a private than in a public (state) school

Where I am at in Virginia, homeschooling seems popular, but it is not really “home” schooling. It is 20 to 30 parents getting their kids together to educate them. This is not really “home” schooling, this is more like a private school run on the cheap. But it is called home-schooling and the government classifies it as such.

These are parents who can not afford private schools but love the diversity and critical thinking that is fostered at private schools. They want to give their kids something like that.

By the way, despite the religous stereotype, and despite the fact that I’m in Virginia, all the parents I know who home-school are secular and politically liberal-left. Their cultural ancestors are the hippies of the 1960s counter-culture which, lets remember, had an anti-government libertarian streak.


clew 10.23.03 at 9:35 pm

25 active parents (25 families?) would be an effective bloc in the PTAs of most schools I was in. Don’t know now, as I tutor kids directly, not through the schools.

As far as I know, the schools never ran well without a lot of volunteer labor – some of it provided by the Bowling Together style o’ social status, lots and lots of it provided by women too upper-class to work, some of it probably left over from Settlement House uplift.

We must all hang together, or surely we will all hang separately.


James 10.23.03 at 11:19 pm

Harry – my reference to socalism was a reference to the comunist style of teaching. A format that placed dedication to the state as must learn subject matter. The concept that the state knows best is allued to in your comment . “…though it is entirely legitimate for it to provide alternatives to parental indoctrination”. In this statement it is implied the state (through schools) both determines what is indoctrination and what is correct teaching.

There is a finacial arguement around home-schooling. Many districts only count attending students when determining funding of public schools. The California school district made a move to effectivly outlaw home-schools based on this reason. How much of the resistance to home-schooling is based on fincial concerns for public schools?


Decnavda 10.24.03 at 12:05 am

“On a picky Rawls-related point, Decnava’s pointing to the priority of liberty won’t really do, because what gets priority is not liberty as such but the basic liberties . So we need an argument that establishes which rights parents have over their children are among those liberties, how those rights are to be construed and so on.”

1. What is the difference between “liberty as such” and “the basic liberties”? If you are suggesting that I am confusing negative and positive conceptions of liberty, I do not think so. I think I am adressing basic liberties: How do you balance the child’s basic liberty interest in an education with the parent’s basic liberty interest in raising their own child?

2. Suggesting that we need an argument that establishes what rights parents have over their children seems to be saying that I cannot point to the priority of liberty without first establishing that parents have this liberty. That would be valid if I suggested the priority of liberty as an ANSWER, but I proposed it as a PRESUMPTION: In the absence of such arguments, we must presume greater individual freedoms than lesser.

3. I cannot speak to the PL Rawls, as I have not read that, but the more I think about the ToJ appraoch, the more it seems to favor allowing home schooling. If I am sitting in the original position behind the viel of ignorance and do not know what my conception of the good, either as a student or a parent, and I want the best possible outcome were I to be in the least edvantaged situation, the last system I would devise would be one that would allow majories to impose their conception of the good on minorities without being able to opt out. If you frame the question as pitting the parent’s conception of the good against the child’s conception or right to develop their own conception, then according to the differnece principle you would devise a system to advantage the children. But to solve this delima by forcing children into a system that by deffinition imposes the majority’s conception of the good because it is run by the majority is to appeal to utilitarianism for a solution rather than the difference principle.


Invisible Adjunct 10.24.03 at 12:15 am

“As far as I know, the schools never ran well without a lot of volunteer labor – some of it provided by the Bowling Together style o’ social status, lots and lots of it provided by women too upper-class to work, some of it probably left over from Settlement House uplift.”

Seems to me that homeschooling also requires a good deal of unpaid labor by women. Not saying there aren’t fathers who homeschool, but the homeschoolers I’ve come across are mothers (most in a two-parent home with a male breadwinner).


Chris Bertram 10.24.03 at 9:38 am

Decnavda, I’m running out the door to catch a train, but the answer to your point 1 is found in Rawls’s essay “The Basic Liberties and their Priority”, in PL, but licensed as the definitive answer on this question in the preface to the revised ed. of TJ.


Daryl Cobranchi 10.25.03 at 4:08 am

A fascinating discussion-

Rob Reich has a paper that covers many of these issues (http://www.californiahomeschool.net/legis/testboundaries.pdf ).

As a libertarian homeschooling parent, I rarely find myself in agreement with him but y’all might.


Andrea 10.25.03 at 5:38 am

Homeschooler does not always equal right wing religious conservative. I’m a liberal and I homeschool. I want my daughter to retain her freedom, her privacy, her creativity and her passions. I don’t want her dumbed down to the lowest common denominator in any classroom setting. I want her to think for herself instead of being indoctrinated by the government thought police that run the public schools. Even if I didn’t care about any of the above, today’s Zero Tolerance policies are more than any sane person could accept and there is no way I’ll sign her up for that kind of potential abuse.


Darby 10.25.03 at 5:39 am

I’ll second Daryl’s “fascinating”!
As a distinctly liberal-leaning, non-religiously affiliated, homeschool parent, this conversation has been an eye opener!
Last week I rattled on a bit re my opinions on the rights of the individual versus the interest of the government here. So, I won’t try to say all that again.
But in general I think that, given people aren’t neat little widgets who can be programmed to respond in a predictable way, that having a wide range of choice in schooling is best.
I have one child in public, and one being homeschooled. As far as I can see, each option is the *best* option for each child at this particular moment in time. There’s no reason why choosing one option now, should mean you have to completely reject the other.
And homeschooling my son does NOT mean society is losing out on anything. There are plenty of other children in the public school who contribute just as much (or more!) to their classrooms as my son ever did. And I volunteer at my dd’s school, and for three different charities, and I’m on the executive of two different advocacy organizations, one of which is quite large.
I think I’m ‘giving back’ enough!
As for diversity training… my son and I walk everywhere and take the public bus (no car). He takes swimming at the Jewish community center (though we’re not Jewish), he regularly visits museums and libraries and galleries and such, and he’s in Scouts. He also plays with the children on our street (who are a pretty diverse bunch!) without me anywhere in sight. We talk to strangers. We explore the city.
I suspect he gets far more “diversity” in his life than he ever would at his old public school!


Tim Haas 10.25.03 at 6:04 am

In an ideal world, people would finally stop rendering their premises meaningless with the introductory phrase “in an ideal world” …

A question for the egalitarians (communitarians?) taking part in the discussion — why do you believe that society is better served by pulling the outliers down to the mean (“… the damage done to the rest of the children when the resource-richest kids get pulled out …”)?


Tim Haas 10.25.03 at 2:08 pm

Sorry — it was very late last night when I posted the above comment and it came off as much more belligerent than I intended. Ultimately what I’m asking for is a pointer to a book or two that would help me understand the arguments behind the belief that society suffers if kids with exceptional abilities are separated from peers of lesser abilities and allowed to progress at their own, accerelated pace.


Chris Bertram 10.25.03 at 2:17 pm

Tim, you’ll find such arguments in Swift’s book (linked to in the main post) when he discusses selection. Actually, he canvasses a range of arguments both pro and con.


Lawrence Krubner 10.25.03 at 6:51 pm

By the way, I’ve a weblog where I write of school vouchers, and, mostly, I like to post people’s writing of their own experience, pro and con, with private and public schools. If you don’t have a weblog but would like to post something in public, send it to me and I’ll be happy to post it.

My edu-blog is here:



Byron Harrison 10.27.03 at 10:42 am

In our research centre we have perhaps 70 home school children in a research population of about 3000 children.
The overall impressions are that the Homer children are significantly more articulate in the presence of adults and, in a recent survey, actually outperformed their Normal-school children in 16 out 18 aspects of literacy. Interviewing those homers who have gone on to University showed that in the first year many of the Homers were shocked by the poor levels of general knowledge of the Normals.
I do however have a group of Homers who, for a range of reasons, would have been a challenge in any classroom. These children are at serious risk of never getting appropriate teaching. Parents of Homers cry out for standards by which they can guage their childrens progress. We have released our diagnostic software without charge to try and help but Homers who are struggling need support which kick-in as soon as they are identified as being at-risk.


Dave Zitzkat 01.10.04 at 11:35 am


I am a Connecticut Attorney and have just engaged in a debate on homeschooling with Rob Reich. Rob was kind enough to give me your URL, so I am posting a link to that debate here. You are welcome to come there, or, I would be happy to respond to any points you have here. I would prefer not to redo the entire debate here. Here is the link:



David Zitzkat 01.10.04 at 11:53 am

I have just finished a debate on homeschooling with Rob Reich. The debate can be found at:


I am an attorney and homeschooling parent. I represent homeschoolers as individuals (pro bono) and the Connecticut Homeschooling Network. I believe I can say that I have had a role in forming homeschooling policy in Connecticut, the best state in the country to homeschool. You are welcome to come to the CHN board if you wish to read the debate or comment. I would be happy to come to your board as well. This is my second attempt at posting, and I hope this one succeeds.

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