Monday, April 28, 2014

Matt Walsh Project I: Homeschooling

I'm going to start this series off light: responding to a post where my disagreements aren't with the main thrust, but with side (snide) comments.

In The Two Absolutely Worst Arguments Against Homeschooling, Walsh actually goes over ground that formed my very, very first paper in undergrad. Yes, Virginia, we've really been having the same damn arguments since the early oughts -- actually longer, since I think all the research that I cited in that paper was from the nineties and before. (Full disclosure: I was homeschooled for part of my K-12 career.)

Nostalgia aside, here are the two arguments he's referring to, in response to a reader email:

2. Homeschooled kids aren't properly socialized.
This one was known to be false very early on. I mean, yes, we've all known someone who was homeschooled and turned out -- weird. It's even possible that ordinary schooling (whether of the public or private variety) might have helped that person turn out a lot less weird (as it probably did for me). This, however, is not actually data in support of the contention. This is what is known as "availability bias": weird people stick out, whereas people who are well-socialized don't. You'd never ask someone who didn't stick out how they got to be that way: it's just the default that you interact fluently with people.

And it was known all the way back in the nineties that adults who came from a homeschooling background looked pretty similar to adults who'd come up through regular schooling. If I'm recalling correctly, some of the studies noticed a measurable trend that children in homeschooling, and adults who had been homeschooled, were more comfortable dealing with people who were older than them than with those their own age. I don't remember if that effect was robust over time, but it makes sense. (In regular school, you're mostly being socialized by people your own age; you take your cues from them, you adapt your language to theirs, etc. In a homeschooling situation, cues come from your parents and the other parents in the clique as much as or more than others your own age.)

Now, as I mentioned, some of Walsh's side comments are less reasonable:
Sure, you can probably tell me about a homeschooled kid you met once who was totally weird and awkward and stuff, but I could see your anecdote and raise you school shooters, the bullying epidemic, youth suicide rates, a youth culture utterly dominated by cliques, fads, and trends, and then this:


Well adjusted adults?

Go to a college campus — any college campus — and tell me again how these public schooled ladies and gentlemen are such well adjusted adults.

For God’s sake, Dan, they literally cannot socialize without inhaling a barrel of urine-flavored light beer ahead of time.

I’m not claiming that homeschoolers don’t use smart phones or beer bongs, but I am saying that an overwhelming preponderance of our society has been exclusively public schooled, and if public school helped ‘socialize’ us, you’d think we’d see SOME positive results SOMEWHERE.
Look, you'll get no disagreement from me that Natty Light is terrible stuff. But note how Walsh moves the goalposts from "well socialized" to "well adjusted adults"? Anyone who claims that most college students, from whatever background, are well adjusted adults needs their head examined, but that's not the claim here. In college, one has a few years to learn that, even if no one's looking over one's shoulder, there are limits to what a person can do. The hangover doesn't care whether you have an exam tomorrow. That paper isn't going to write itself. No one's going to crack the whip over your head -- and parental whip-cracking isn't just done by homeschooling parents.

Those students in [beerbong.jpg] don't look poorly socialized to me. They look like they've socially sorted themselves into a social group that is reinforcing their behavior. There are plenty of other students on that campus who are partying in a more sane manner, and some who aren't partying at all, no matter when that picture was taken.

One becomes a well-adjusted adult by learning one's own limits, taking responsibility for what one is responsible for, and finding answers to the existential questions and insecurities that plague every teenager with a brain. Some people do that with four years of college. Some people flunk out, or make a baby they didn't intend to and find out the hard way that they don't offer baby loans like they do student loans. Some people forego college altogether (although the expected value of that decision ain't so hot these days). But the only way to become an adult is to practice being an adult, out from the supervision of parents and guardians, and neither homeschooling nor regular schooling can offer that. (Don't talk about boarding school. That's a whole 'nother conversation.)
1. We should keep our kids in public school in order to help ‘the system.’
This was the proposition that I was writing that first undergrad paper in response to. Well, more precisely, I was arguing against an improved statement, something like "Homeschooling is unacceptable because it undercuts the role of the school in producing good citizens."

I'm not at all sympathetic to the proposition in the form Walsh quotes it: take it away, Matt:
Is this really a priority for parents? When my wife and I make a decision for our family, should we stop first and ask, “wait, but will this help the system?”

Would you REALLY put the welfare of ‘the system’ over that of your own children?

I’d hope that you wouldn’t, and I’d hope that this line of logic is unique to you, but I know that it isn’t. I’ve heard it before. I’ve heard it so often, in fact, that I’m starting to think I’m the strange one for having absolutely no desire to make my children martyrs for some bureaucratic machine.
I'm opposed to the argument even in the modified form I gave above. I do think that it's an important role of the school to instill shared values -- school, in other words, is not just about academics. Homeschoolers agree with me: overwhelmingly, they're not choosing to homeschool because the public school is academically weak, but because it's teaching evolution, or sex ed, or won't burn the copies of Harry Potter in the school library. Homeschooling is all about whose values get passed on to kids; and part of being a free society is that, if one feels strongly enough that the values embodied by some social institution are antithetical to one's own, one generally doesn't have to interact with or take advantage of that social institution.

(There are a few exceptions, of course. One can't simply decline to interact with the judicial system because one has problems with the values of that system. I have a deep problem with the lower value placed on black people's lives and welfare by the judicial system, but I can't just not show up to court when subpoenaed, even if I think the prosecution is unjust. One can't simply decline to interact with the IRS because one's values place a high premium on not paying taxes.)

Thinking that "the system" is unjust is a core right in a democracy [1]. Declining to abet an unjust system is a corollary right.

That all being said: society still has the right to set its own parameters of acceptable speech and ideas. Not that one who transgresses these parameters should be formally sanctioned under the power of the state, but there is plenty of room for people to exclude and privately sanction those who hold, say, bigoted views. One of the big goals of public school is training students what society now views as beyond the pale -- especially when they might not get it at home.

What I'm saying here is, don't dismiss too quickly the notion that the public may have an interest in students not being homeschooled, since those who are may be out of step with what society at large sees as the ideas one can or cannot hold while still being a full member in good standing.

From my own (progressive) position, for example, someone who literally wants to replace the separation of church and state with established state religion cannot be a member of American society in full good standing. It's just not possible. Likewise someone who advocates for child labor, or someone who wants to undo gender equality of the franchise. I don't want the government taking any action against holders of such ideas -- but I absolutely want them to be treated by their fellow citizens as objects of public distrust and scorn. I absolutely want them to be unelectable, unworthy of public trust.

In other words, while I don't think Argument 1 represents any kind of case for a public policy banning homeschooling, I do think that there's a case implicitly for the following: If you are considering homeschooling on the grounds that the values embodied in the public schools are incompatible with your own, you must be thereby ready for others, who do subscribe to those values that you dislike, to treat you as withdrawing from your own full membership in the shared social project that they are undertaking. Homeschooling is an "exit" strategy, with a (possible, implicit) future "voice" strategy to be undertaken by the former child after they are grown. And exit strategies  are not how democracy is designed to operate. Exit strategies are a business-world response to disagreements.

OK, this response has gone on long enough, so I'll skip over the silliness at the beginning of Walsh's post about teacher's unions. (As always is my response to someone who ignorantly complains about being "unable to fire" union members: why you you hate the free market? It took two parties to sign that contract, and now you want to go back on it? That ain't how this shit works.)

[1] I'm using "democracy" in the broad sense here: a system of government in which those in power derive that power from the people; and are accountable to the people for its use; and can be removed from office for abuse of that power, either through ordinary means (elections) or other (extraordinary, but spelled out in law) means. There's also a narrow sense of the word (in which every decision is put to general vote by the people) which obviously doesn't apply to the U.S. Both meanings are correct. Get over it.

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