Word Nerd Wednesday: Meaningful Education


Which child is REALLY more likely to be playing outside?

Education is a hot topic this week in large part because, despite the fact that we all esteem its importance, there’s little consensus on what it means to be truly educated. This is true even among those who dedicate their lives to dispersing and pursuing education. A compelling example of this emerged this week when Harvard Magazine ran what can only be described as a hit piece on homeschooling.

In what was at best stunning ignorance or at worse knowing deception, they outlined what they titled “the risks of homeschooling”. Several assertions were made:

Elizabeth Bartholet, Wasserstein public interest professor of law and faculty director of the Law School’s Child Advocacy Program, sees risks for children—and society—in homeschooling, and recommends a presumptive ban on the practice. Homeschooling, she says, not only violates children’s right to a “meaningful education” and their right to be protected from potential child abuse, but may keep them from contributing positively to a democratic society.

The phrase “meaningful education” is what initially caught my attention and inspired this post. Before we explore that angle, however, I thought it worth highlighting the government’s own numbers concerning child abuse statistics; specifically the level of child abuse in the state-run school systems, where at least 90% of all American children receive educational instruction:

As of September 2017, the United States Department of Justice was still relying on research from before 2004 that showed “… school employee sexual misconduct, the sexual abuse and misconduct of K–12 students by school employees, is estimated to affect 10% of our nation’s students” (p. 1).[10] The actual percent might have been higher in 2004 and it might have been even higher in 2017 but data have not been available to determine this. Furthermore, these data do not include the physical or psychological abuse of students by school personnel. The authors gave the following finding to the Department of Justice:

Thus, despite clear policies and laws requiring reporting and potential legal consequences for failing to do so, only an estimated 5% of school employee sexual misconduct incidents known to school employees are reported to law enforcement or child welfare personnel, … A 1994 study in New York State found that only 1% of the 225 cases superintendents disclosed to researchers were reported to law enforcement or child welfare and resulted in license revocation … (p. 5)

That is to say, an extremely small portion of sexual misconduct acts by school personnel that are known by school personnel are ever reported to the proper government authorities. Who are these school personnel offenders? “Offenders include all types of school employees, such as teachers, school psychologists, coaches, [bus drivers,] principals, and superintendents” (Grant et al., 2017, p. 2).

In other words, mandating that children report each day to a government-run school is hardly a panacea against abuse. Children are hardly safer at school, especially if you factor in the abuseof all kinds inflicted on students by each other. Additionally, many children who go to school also experience undetected abuse at home. The facts do not support Ms. Bartholet’s assertion. She would be hard-pressed to defend her argument of abuse prevention as a valid reason to “presumptively ban” homeschooling.

Leaving aside the canard of abuse, I wondered about this meaningful education to which children have a right that is presumably denied when parents opt to home educate.

She views the absence of regulations ensuring that homeschooled children receive a meaningful education equivalent to that required in public schools as a threat to U.S. democracy. “From the beginning of compulsory education in this country, we have thought of the government as having some right to educate children so that they become active, productive participants in the larger society,” she says. This involves in part giving children the knowledge to eventually get jobs and support themselves. “But it’s also important that children grow up exposed to community values, social values, democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints,” she says, noting that European countries such as Germany ban homeschooling entirely and that countries such as France require home visits and annual tests. [emphasis added]

Aha! Finally, we get to the crux of the words meaningful education, where a meaningful education is defined as one where a student is properly indoctrinated with introduced to ideas, philosophies, and perspectives that may diverge from those of their families and faith tradition. Without daily rebuttal’s to the traditional values of their parents, the students’ education is not meaningful.

This position makes a lot of assumptions, chief among them as presented in the article is that all homeschoolers are white conservative Christians. Ms. Bartholet is so determined to stick it to “those people” that she completely ignores the growing contingent of secular and minority homeschool families, including religious minorities.

At the risk of offending, I have to wonder how anyone can observe the increasing ignorance and banality surrounding us and conclude that mass government education definitively provides a meaningful education, including any real understanding of democracy or what it means to tolerate others’ viewpoints.

The irony is palpable in this denunciation of homeschooling, and the timing of this article and the upcoming anti-homeschool conference (itinerary here) couldn’t be worse. In fact, a public educator wrote a thoughtful rebuttal. He writes:


Most parents of public school children who are now confined to home-based learning are also balancing careers and do not have the time, energy, or ability to engage like their homeschooling counterparts. Still, the effort to find best practices and effective strategies would benefit at a time like this from a cooperative partnership between the two entities (public school and homeschool).

Unfortunately, no such relationship exists, thanks to years of an entrenched opposition to homeschooling among the educational establishment that has consistently sought to undermine parental rights while exaggerating the authority of the state.

How bad has it gotten? Even now, as the future of public education has been thrown into uncertainty amid a global pandemic, not a humble recognition of its limitations, but a seething condescension towards the backward rubes continues to define our academic elite.

For proof of that fact, look no further than this ridiculous cover for Harvard Magazine’s recent issue.

The whole thing reads like a parody:

  • Home is a prison (with bars on the windows, no less!), but mandated, compulsory public schools are liberating.
  • Religious bias on full display as the Bible forms one of the prison walls.
  • Condescension not in short supply with “arithmetic” intentionally misspelled to mock the average Joes out there “teachin’ ‘em up.”
  • The missed irony of government-education types picturing a captive child at home…in the midst of a lockdown ordered by, you guess it, the government.
  • A subtitle so lacking in self-awareness: “Elizabeth Bartholet highlights risks when parents have 24/7 authoritarian control over their children.”
  • A bizarre, yet not-so-subtle suggestion that homeschool children aren’t allowed out to play.

The most amazing thing about this is that all of these educated professionals can’t seem to figure out that if anyone is demonstrating a narrow-minded, bigoted, intolerant view of the world that exists outside their own rigid dogma and antiquated methodology, it isn’t the homeschoolers.

He’s right. It isn’t, but as usual, rigid ideologues -of any stripe- are nearly incapable of true introspection and objectivity for the good of others or society as a whole. Even the best interests of children must bow in subjection to control and political power.

And that’s too bad, because education, meaningful education, isn’t about any of that.





9 thoughts on “Word Nerd Wednesday: Meaningful Education

  1. Elspeth says:

    Good morning, Jack. Thanks for the comment. I am very interested in others’ take on this.

    I can appreciate Gunner Q’s passionate objection (my post wasn’t exactly sweetness and light), but these arguments are going to have to be conducted from the high ground if we want to preserve educational choice for our children’s children.

    Calling this woman a bitter childless spinster just plays right into their assumptions about conservative homeschoolers. In fact, when you look at the totality of homeschool results on the merits, all they have left to stand on are their ideological objections. We can’t hand them ammo.


  2. Bike Bubba says:

    A family in our local homeschooling group actually is related to one of the participants in that conference, which was interestingly a restricted meeting with no announced location. I admit that I am tempted to mock for that, but on the flip side, it’s worth noting that the movement now is started to be led by disaffected ex-homeschooled kids. It’s come a long way from the days where it was just teachers’ unions throwing something against the wall and hoping it would stick. A lot more sophisticated.

    Regarding the notion that if you look at crimes committed by homeschoolers, real and imagined, I’ve been watching the cases ever since the Bonita Jacks tragedy in DC, and I have yet to see a case where social services was not already involved. So an increase in surveillance will not necessarily generate the results they want; really, we might find that it makes things worse by diverting social services workers to routine surveillance instead of putting the extra effort for the big, critical cases.

    A final note; those who think it’s unregulated need to remember that no matter where one’s kids go to school, the consequence for parents who fail to make sure their children are educated is that their kids will live with their parents until they’re 40. Call me weird, but I think that’s a pretty big incentive.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Heidi says:

    I was appalled when a homeschooling parent wrote a vituperative screed against what he imagined public school to be, and compared my sending my kid to public school to endorsing extramarital sex. I was even more appalled to read this logically and factually flawed hit piece on homeschooling by someone with an advanced degree who teaches at a (still) prestigious university. Maligning educational choices that don’t fit your own preferences is foolish and–dare I say–ignorant.

    Incidentally, why aren’t schools that fail to provide students with even basic literacy and numeracy (let alone trifles such as history, science, literature, and foreign languages) being threatened with closure? I agree that homeschooled students should be periodically assessed to ensure that they’re not being educationally neglected, but what about the millions of American students who are being educationally neglected in public schools, and handed a lovely diploma that they can hardly read?

    Finally, this is unrelated to the post–or maybe it isn’t–but I think the meaning of “educated” has diverged wildly in the past century. In On the Banks of Plum Creek, Ma hands Laura and Mary her old reader and they use it at school; can you imagine one generation using another’s schoolbooks in that way? In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura has to recite the whole of American history–but “history” has so many interpretations today that it would be impossible to do such a thing without some proportion of the audience exclaiming that what’s being presented is wrong.

    Or what subjects are really important? Latin isn’t, anymore–except in Classical schools. What does an “educated,” civic-minded American need to know? How much geography, how much computer science? We’ve shifted away from learning content to learning process, and although I think there’s something gained in that (learning to learn sets one up to learn throughout a lifetime), I also think there’s something lost in our decreasing unity of knowledge-base. Everything in the world is available at the touch of a keyboard–but the keywords you type in and the results you value will vary depending on who you are, how you’ve been trained, and what you value.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Elspeth says:

    I admit that I am tempted to mock for that, but on the flip side, it’s worth noting that the movement now is started to be led by disaffected ex-homeschooled kids. It’s come a long way from the days where it was just teachers’ unions throwing something against the wall and hoping it would stick. A lot more sophisticated.

    You’re right about disgruntled ex-homeschool students with axes to grind against their parents for all kinds of things.

    The conundrum to me is this: Find me a public schooled kid who doesn’t have an axe to grind on some pet issue with their parents, whether the offense is real or perceived. It’s just a lot easier for kids whose parents swam against the tide to use that as an excuse to pin their personal dysfunction on.


  5. Elspeth says:

    @ Heidi:

    You’re right that educational choices are a family matter. The fact that you wouldn’t make my choice (or that I wouldn’t choose yours) is no reason for mudslinging. It helps no one.

    The final paragraph of your post is a subject worthy of its own post and discussion. I may take it up next week.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Bike Bubba says:

    Gracious hostess, the thing that is most significant to me about disgruntled former homeschooled kids leading the charge is that they know the ins & outs of homeschoolers and how they think far better than the teachers’ unions. Hence I think they can be far more effective in what they aim to do, and it would be a huge, huge mistake to underestimate what they can do.

    Took a look at Heidi’s blog, and she is (IMO) a great example of thoughts I’ve had about homeschooling vs. other forms for decades; if you’re aware that you’re the ultimate guarantor of the educational quality for whatever schooling your children are getting, and you’re taking steps to monitor and improve that, you’ve got a huge portion of whatever benefits homeschooling can confer.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Elspeth says:

    if you’re aware that you’re the ultimate guarantor of the educational quality for whatever schooling your children are getting, and you’re taking steps to monitor and improve that, you’ve got a huge portion of whatever benefits homeschooling can confer.

    @ Bike:

    This is quite true. As most of my longtime blog acquaintances are aware, our oldest three kids all went through the public system.

    When they were in elementary, volunteering and involvement (at the county as well as the classroom level) cost me as many as 10 hours a week.

    When they transitioned to middle school, the stark contrast of environment, instruction, and receptiveness to parental involvement was what first sent me on a quest to explore homeschooling. Public middle school is, in my opinion, the absolute WORST thing ever, an abomination, regardless of your zip code.

    Because I was 8 months into a difficult pregnancy with #4, as well as having genuinely NO IDEA where to even begin homeschooling, husband decided (and rightly so) that the kids would continue on their path with our continued heavy observation and involvement.

    So yes, parents who take steps to monitor and improve upon their children’s instruction rather than simply trusting that the state knows better than do how to best educate their children, can do much to mitigate the shortcomings of public education.

    Liked by 1 person

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