Whose Children Are They, Anyway? Thoughts on Taking Responsibility For Your Children’s Education
“If I say I’m taking responsibility for my own children’s need for food, no one questions if that’s legal. If I say I’m taking responsibility for my children’s need to be healthy, again, no questions asked. In fact, I could be hauled off to jail if I didn’t take care of those responsibilities. Since taking responsibility for my children’s need for education isn’t very different from taking care of their need for food and health, I find this turn-around interesting. When it comes to ‘which books they read’ instead of ‘which vegetables they eat for dinner,’ all of a sudden it’s a legal issue.” ~ Linda Dobson, The Homeschooling Book of Answers, 21st century AD
“The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.” ~ Diogenes, 4th century BC
The degree to which the state controls homeschooling varies radically — from the United States, in which each of the fifty states establishes its own homeschooling laws (some very relaxed, some heavily regulated), to Germany, where homeschooling was decisively outlawed in a ruling last week from the European Court of Human Rights.
At the heart of any measure to control homeschooling lies one question: Whose children are they, anyway?
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to understand that children are pawns in grown-up games. Parents and the state both know that if you want children to carry your ideology forward, you have to “get ‘em while they’re young.” The two quotes above show the battle lines.
Ironically, both sides have a valid claim.
The family’s claim is arguably the stronger one. First, whether by birth or adoption, parents bring their children into their family circle and accept the mantle of raising them to adulthood. Various helps are offered by outside institutions when parents are unable to meet their children’s needs, but the implicit understanding is that parents are in charge of the care of their children, until or unless they choose to assign that role to someone else. Second, parents are more invested than the state in children because of the emotional bond that exists between parent and child. Whatever altruistic motives the state may have in educating the citizenry, it does not have the same connection to children that their parents do. Third, the family is the foundational unit of society because it was the first. It existed before the state. The state arose to serve the needs of families and individuals, not the other way around.
One has only to read the headlines on any given day to realize that not all parents fulfill their obligations in raising their children. In the same way that a society needs oversight because some people rob banks, a society needs oversight because some people neglect their children. This is the basis of the state’s interest in children, and it is the reason for the existence of many social programs. To the extent that the state, through laws and programs, is acting to protect children, this is a good and necessary thing.
However, the turn of events in Germany is evidence that the state has moved beyond advocating for the basic needs of children and has begun censuring the ideas of parents concerning what their children need. A parent’s concept of such ideals as tolerance and diversity is now quashed by the state’s concept of those ideals. If it is true that it takes a village to raise a child, it is because a village, working together and holding common ideals, can consistently nurture the next generation. But who prevails when the “village” is not an alliance but a cacophony of competing ideologies? The parents may have the greater claim. But the state has an arsenal.
Imagine playing chess while an observer with a gun looks over your shoulder. Imagine that the observer claims a right to your chess pieces. Imagine that the observer demands that the moves you make meet with his approval, based on rules that you may or may not agree are best for your game. Imagine that he can threaten to take your pieces from you at the point of his gun if he does not approve of your moves. Now imagine that those chess pieces are your children.
More than 30 police and social workers stormed the home of the Wunderlichs, the family at the center of the German homeschooling controversy, in 2013. The police carried guns and even brought along a battering ram. The children were forcibly removed from their home (carried out bodily by policemen) and placed in a children’s home for three weeks, for their parents’ crime of refusing to surrender their children to a state school. The chess scenario above is not hyperbole.
Let’s go back to Linda Dobson’s “books vs. vegetables” analogy. The state does have a vested interest in ensuring that parents feed, clothe, and shelter their children. But it gives parents the benefit of the doubt as to whether they are meeting their responsibilities. The state does not set itself up as the de facto authority in this regard. It does not require you to report your grocery lists, meal plans, or the food consumption (including number of servings of vegetables) and the height / weight / body mass index of your children (though Common Core requirements may include reporting of BMI statistics). It does not send out social workers or visiting nurses to your home to make sure that you are in compliance with its standards. It presumes that you as a parent either know how to raise your child or know where to get help. It has some basic trust in you and intervenes only when there is a credible reason to do so.
In matters of education, however, the state sings a different — and darker — tune. In Germany, the state casts itself as God and parents as simple caretakers (oh, and taxpayers). The home is a mere holding cell for children, who must be sent out to institutions each day to be taught by the state. It was telling that the European Court of Human Rights did not find that homeschooling had been harmful to the Wunderlich children from an academic standpoint. Rather, the European Court found homeschooling harmful because it failed to promote qualities such as tolerance and diversity — virtues in which German history is so rich.
The European Court of Human Rights (but not of the rights of human parents) struck a blow against the family in this decision. It not only made a statement, it staked a claim.
Could such a thing happen in America? It would have to involve a sweeping power grab on the part of the federal government that invalidated the laws of every single state — which was precisely the mechanism in Roe v. Wade. But anyone initiating such a move would face the hue and cry of homeschooling families defending their freedom to educate their children — and I assure you, those families are a force to be reckoned with.