Is homeschooling illiberal?

is public school or homeschool more liberal, progressive

image courtesy of flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography

Dana Goldstein’s Slate article contending that homeschooling is antithetical to progressive social values has hit a nerve.  Homeschooling supporters Astra Taylor, Conor Friedersdorf, and Stephanie Baselice have offered rebuttals.  Since we are leaning toward homeschooling Bess and Harry, I am eyeing the debate with interest.

Goldstein’s thesis is this: Truly community-minded, liberal, progressive parents enroll their children in public school, become involved in the PTO and/or school board, and work to make things better.  I used to see her point.  I have come to understand that no amount of money or parent involvement is going to make public education anything other than what it is: too big and dysfunctional to be fixed.  I believe with every fiber of my being that each human being on this planet deserves an education.  American schools contain children but, unfortunately, fail to educate them in fundamental ways.

For what it’s worth, here are my two cents:

  • The number of homeschooling families who fail to support public education with their children’s presence (an estimated 1 – 2 million children) represents only a fraction of the children not enrolled in public school.  There are 5.5 million children enrolled in private schools, yet the focus of Goldstein’s argument is on homeschoolers.  Why should this be? Is there some fundamental difference between withdrawing from the public school system and placing your resources in a privately funded school as opposed to no school at all?  Is her gripe really about taking resources (i.e., children) out of public school, or out of school altogether?
  • Homeschooling parents will be the first to tell you that it is hard work and it isn’t for everyone, but that even single parents and families who struggle financially can make it work.  This does not stop Goldstein from accusing  homeschoolers of exercising class privilege “rooted…in the dated presumption that children hail from two-parent families, in which at least one parent can afford (and wants) to take significant time away from paid work in order to manage a process—education—that most parents entrust to the community at-large”.  Does having money make it easier?  Of course it does.  But wealth or unemployment are not requisite.
  • Molesters in schools are bad for PR, but they aren’t driving people to homeschool.  Parents are afraid of school violence and bullying.  These things are not rare.
  • Homeschooling is about teaching children to respect and trust themselves.  If that means having a distrust of public institutions, maybe that lack of trust is justified.  When children starve and go without medical care in the richest country in the world, when lies are used to justify sending people to war to kill other people, such trust is hard to defend.
  • Low income children attending middle-class schools may earn higher test scores, but correlation does not imply causation (Statistics 101).  Is this a peer effect as Goldstein argues?  Or is it that middle-class schools have more money, resources, and good teachers?  If you created a school with identical conditions and filled it with disadvantaged children, would they perform just as well?  And what of those low-income kids, anyway?  Their test scores may be higher if they go to school with middle-class kids – but what does that mean for them in real life?  Anything?  Nothing?  Just because school is capable of addressing poverty doesn’t mean it actually does.
  • Goldstein declares that public school makes children better people.  As evidence, she cites research suggesting that “adult graduates of integrated high schools shared a commitment to diversity, to understanding and bridging cultural differences, and to appreciating ‘the humanness of individuals across racial lines.’”  Though I did not read the research, I think it is safe to assume that the comparison is between individuals who attended integrated high schools and those who attended homogeneous high schools. I wonder what such research would find if they compared either (or both) of these groups to homeschooled children.

To be continued…

(This post has been featured on the front page of BlogHer Family, and is part of the Seasonal Celebration Sunday Linky Party at Natural Mothers Network.  If you’re visiting from one of those places, WELCOME to Ahimsa Mama!)

  • shelli :

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. As a homeschooler, I had a lot to say about Goldstein’s piece too. While I would very much like to help my community and local schools, I cannot take the time and energy to do that right now when my priority is rearing my own children and giving them the best education they can get. As for public school making adults better people, I’m not so sure about that. I didn’t understand anything about other cultures/beliefs until my twenties when I began to travel and read about the world on my own. I plan on giving my boys a much wider level of education than they’d ever get in public school.

    • Kelly DiNorcia

      Thanks for your comment! I swung over to check out your response at and you make some excellent points. I have a follow-up post coming tomorrow (it was all too much for just one post!) but for me, the most important point is that it isn’t an either-or. I reject the notion that by taking care of our children’s needs by educating them at home necessarily means that we are not helping others. In fact, I would argue the opposite – that by helping them to learn independent thinking, self-motivation and giving them the freedom to really get to know themselves, identify their gifts, and learn true pro-social values we are making an infinitely more positive impact on the world than we would by leaving them in school and making whatever miniscule improvements we can make there.

    • Kelly Coyle DiNorcia

      Oh dear – none of my comment replies this week have posted to the site! Yikes!

      Anyhoo…Shelli, I totally agree! I have all sorts of stories about how insulated and naive I was before I went to college. I don’t know if I would have been a *better* person, necessarily, if I had more exposure to other people and cultures, but I definitely would have been a more tolerant and compassionate person if I had understood the breadth of the human experience!

  • stephanie baselice

    love this! very scholarly and thorough. nice to see logic used in this discussion:) did you see astra taylor’s mother’s comments about the idea of free schools in the 2000 comments on slate? they address the heart of this issue…if it is indeed the “liberal value” of believing everyone deserves a quality education (which I emphatically do). institutionalization is not the same as education.

    • Kelly Coyle DiNorcia

      Stephanie, I did not see her response but I will go take a look for sure! You hit the nail right on the head: institutionalization is NOT the same as education!

  • DM

    I home schooled my son from 7th grade through high school, and it was hard work and a great responsibility. I have never regretted it.

    • Kelly Coyle DiNorcia

      Thanks for your reply! I’m always interested to hear people’s reasons for choosing homeschooling, especially later in their children’s academic careers, if you care to share… ;)

  • Rebecca

    Thank you so much for sharing this enlightening post with us at the Seasonal Celebration linky- many of my readers homeschool as I do myself and I am quite sure this would have struck a chord with many!
    Have a great weekend!
    Warmly , Rebecca @ Natural Mothers Network x

    • Kelly Coyle DiNorcia

      Thanks for coming over to visit!