My colleague Joe Ptak has written a post linking homeschooling to the rise of cultural pluralism and the erosion of the civic culture, which he argues leads to a “culture of relativism.” Once you start homeschooling, according to Joe, you threaten the stability of a society and open the door to “anarchic relativism.” It’s an innovative argument, associating the rise of homeschooling with cultural disorder and a lack of cultural unity. Unfortunately, it’s also an argument that relies on several troubling assumptions, all of which Joe leaves wholly unstated.
Let me start out by admitting that there are a lot of points in Joe’s argument that I’m unclear about. For one thing, a crucial part of his argument seems to be that homeschooling leads to having a “fractured civic ontology.” Now, perhaps I am somehow out of the loop here (it wouldn’t be the first time), but I cannot, for the life of me, understand what a “fractured civic ontology” looks like nor do I understand how it differs in practice from an “intact civic ontology.” Joe does link to the Wikipedia entry for Ontology, yet somehow I doubt that Heideggarians and Cartesians coexisting together is the kind of cultural pluralism he’s worried about.
It’s also up to the reader to determine what Joe means when he talks about the importance of “civic culture”: a phrase that I take, rightly or wrongly, to be an appeal to the civic republican tradition which emphasizes the importance of having a commonly-held set of social, political, and personal moral values. At the surface level, this might sound like a very conservative goal; in fact, Joe seems to be appealing to the sympathies of traditionalist conservative readers by using the republican (small-r) and largely conservative language of civic virtue and the need for some kind of cultural cohesion. For Joe, it seems that the real goal of educating children is not to make them educated, but to make sure that they are inculcated with the correct civic views. Of course, from a conservative perspective, the value of such civic education depends entirely upon which views are being transmitted.
What Joe doesn’t make explicit is that he implicitly considers the educational system a better source for civic virtue than he does parents. The desire to instill virtue, public as well as private, in their children is undeniably one of the major reasons parents choose to educate their children at home. Joe recognizes this, but sees home-instilled values as a “recipe for extremism” because the children will not encounter views that contradict the parents’ own.
However, if Joe is really concerned about the pervasive effects of “relativism,” this should be a good thing, shouldn’t it? Joe seems to feel that a plurality of viewpoints within a society is “insidious” while a plurality of viewpoints within the homes of (typically conservative) families prevents extremism. If opposing views can help combat extremism at the family level, then why not extend this principle to the whole society? Alternately, if a plurality of viewpoints inevitably leads to moral relativism, then why would we want to thrust the children of conservative families into moral confusion? There is an obvious double standard here, and one begins to wonder if Joe’s problem with homeschooling is not so much that it allows for a plurality of views, but that it allows for the propagation of what he considers to be the wrong view.
Secondly, Joe suggests that having a “fractured civic ontology” totally precludes us from teaching moral values to our children, but it is wholly unclear why this should be the case. Once again, Joe seems to attribute the transmission of moral and civic principles to the society writ-large (or at least to the education system writ-large) instead of placing responsibility for the moral upkeep of the young where it has been for millennia: in the hands of the church and the family. Standing contrary to this tradition, Joe seems to see such localized, bottom-up propagation of moral principles as “anarchistic” and opts to side with centralized, uniform, top-down transmission of moral principles flowing from the society directly to school children, with as little interference from the family as possible. This is certainly a way to combat pluralism in society, although the accompanying loss of liberty and local particularity make it hard to believe that any theoretical benefits outweigh the definite costs.
The problems of moral relativism and a lack of social cohesion in society that Joe refers to are serious issues that deserve serious consideration. In bringing attention to these issues, Joe does conservative readers a great service. An honest examination of these issues, however, shows the nation’s public school system to be a large part of the reason that they are a major issue. And while Joe allows for parochial schools, his total dismissal of homeschooling seems unwarranted.
Far from being anarchistic and undermining of the culture, homeschooling has been one of the major ways that concerned, traditionally-minded families have responded to the moral relativism that pervades the contemporary American educational scene. If, from an academic perspective, the entire K-12 educational industry in this country seems more interested in producing a certain type of citizen than classically educated individuals, and if that type of citizen seems engineered to radically alter traditional American society, then wouldn’t choosing an alternative education for your child (either parochial schools or homeschooling) be a defense of the civic culture?
Homeschooling- whether for religious, educational, or philosophical reasons- has quickly become one of the most dramatic and effective rejections against contemporary American culture. In an age of increasing uniformity and decreasing local particularity, homeschooling provides the ultimate expression of decentralized control and local values. It would be a shame for conservatives to write it off due to fears that homeschooled students might turn out “different” than their public-and-private schooled peers.