Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Critics of homeschooling need to do their homework

Polls suggest that a slim majority of Americans oppose homeschooling, the method of choice for approximately two percent of the population. Ever since I took this educational route in high school, I have been stunned by the negative reactions it provokes. Though the opposition has declined significantly in the last decade, millions of Americans continue to find fault with this unusual mode of education, eager to offer their opinion on a subject they know nothing about.

It's no wonder that the arguments against homeschooling frequently contradict one another. Some critics allege that parents lack the qualifications to teach their children properly; others suggest that homeschooled children will be so hopelessly ahead they will be unable to relate to other kids their age. Some people imagine the prototypical homeschooled kid as shy and withdrawn; others imagine such a kid as loud and obnoxious. Whatever the argument, the critics base their views on very little if any personal knowledge of homeschooling. They haven't got a clue what homeschoolers actually do during the day, yet they seem to have endless confidence in their ability to guess.

One recent example of this attitude is a piece by blogger Russell Shaw for The Huffington Post. Shaw concedes that "home schooling works in some cases" (a mountain of research would suggest that this is an understatement), but he nonetheless thinks it should be restricted to those with an education degree, teaching children who are unable to attend school for physical reasons such as paralysis. Shaw, who assumes that homeschoolers learn through "rote recitation," worries that too many of the parents "want to keep their students at home in the service of simplicity and protectiveness," a situation that will make them ill-prepared for living in the real world.

Shaw's essay is very typical of anti-homeschooling pieces, not only lacking the slightest factual support for his positions but making provably false assertions of his own, such as the claim that homeschoolers consist primarily of fundamentalist Christians who reject evolution. (See here for the actual demographics.) Had Shaw bothered to look into the history of the movement he opposes, he would have learned that its godfather was a rather secular fellow named John Holt, who advocated homeschooling as an alternative to the "rote recitation" and lack of real-world preparation he observed as an instructor in traditional schools.

It's true that some homeschooling parents, like some private schools, teach creationism. Without explaining what he thinks should happen to private schools, Shaw denounces the situation: "as to the home schooler subjected to beliefs that run counter to scientific inquiry...I say send them to school and let the parents devote some of their off-hours to teaching what they feel their kids should know." Shaw implies here that it is the task of schools to expose kids to what is true, against those parents who will teach them what is false. But who decides what is true and what is false? The government? Shaw's point may resonate with those who envision homeschooling parents as extremists, but his larger implication is, frankly, scary.

If Shaw truly values scientific inquiry, then he should base his conclusions on facts, not hunches. Stephen Colbert coined the word truthiness to describe conservatives who rely on gut feelings as a substitute for evidence. If there is any issue on which some liberals exhibit this quality in abundance, it is this one.

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