Harvard law professor against home schooling forgets to check her class privilege

A Harvard law professor argues that home schooling is a form of authoritarian control but believes forcing all children to go to a government-run school is not.

I wish this statement was a strawman. But it is not. Elizabeth Bartholet, professor of law at Harvard University, advances this exact argument in an interview in the May-June issue of Harvard Magazine.

“The issue is, do we think parents should have 24/7, essentially authoritarian control over their children from ages zero to 18? I think that’s dangerous,” she contends. “I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless, and to give the powerful ones total authority.”

Let that settle in: A professor of law at Harvard University (endowment $40.9 billion) is deeply concerned about giving the “powerful ones,” everyday parents, “total authority.” What does home schooling really look like?

In 1984, my parents decided to home-school me. I was 5 years old, and we lived in a trailer park in rural Central Florida. My parents were high school sweethearts who were married in the fall after their graduation. Neither of them went to college. My father was an HVAC repairman, and my mother worked at a photo lab (some of you will remember what that was) before I came along in 1979.

My mother heard about home schooling from a Christian radio program, which discussed how important phonics instruction was, and she sent away to get more information through the mail. She was smart enough to know a good curricular idea when she heard it, resourceful enough to get information before the internet, and organized enough to find out how this could actually be done.

My parents were very methodical about their decision to home-school me. I have all my mother’s scrapbooks from the time, and they are a fascinating window into that crucial period. Suffice to say, they couldn’t afford private school — that was a laughable proposition. The public schools in the area weren’t great. They wanted us to be raised with their faith. What could they do?

Home schooling wasn’t legal in Florida at the time, but small private schools could serve as a legal umbrella for home schooling families. So my parents, who were not Catholic, were able to find a Catholic school that provided this service.

Like the sad home-schooled children in the (originally misspelled) illustration accompanying the Harvard Magazine article, I did spend a portion of my first few years inside, looking out. But it wasn’t because my parents forced me to stay inside — quite the contrary.

We spent time inside during school hours because my parents were genuinely, and with good reason, afraid that they would be reported to Child Protective Services. You know, the people with the power of the law and its monopoly on force behind them. The people with the power to rip my family apart.

My parents were very early members of the Homeschool Legal Defense Association, the group that Bartholet characterizes as “overwhelmingly politically powerful.” That would no doubt be news to the HSLDA, which is indeed formidable, but hardly “overwhelmingly” so.

It would have been a risible description of the group back in the early 1980s. It only grew in strength because individual families pooled their resources to create a shield against the truly powerful people. There is a reason it is called the Homeschool Legal Defense Association. Its attorneys put good arguments rooted in fidelity to ideals of the Constitution into action.

Family members, one of them a public school teacher, were not so sure about my parents’ decision. But I learned not just to read but to love reading.

I learned how to write and begged my mom to take me to the library to get books on calligraphy so that I could learn to write beautifully. I learned math facts and read the World Book Encyclopedias. I was fascinated by the Greek letters in a book my Dad had picked up to learn Biblical Greek, a memory that I think planted a seed which later grew into my decision to study the classics as an undergraduate and then in graduate school.

We went on field trips to museums, botanical gardens, and to a cigar factory in Ybor City, where men from Cuba still rolled the cigars by hand. Oh, and my scores on standardized tests, which my parents were not compelled to administer to me, indicated that I was academically years ahead of my peers.

You may object that I am arguing from anecdote. I most certainly am.

Yet robust, evidence-based rebuttals proliferate, and I particularly commend Kerry McDonald’s letter to the editor of Harvard Magazine. But if it was good enough for Bartholet to evoke the unfortunate experiences related by a young woman in a memoir, and conclude, “That’s what can happen under the system in effect in most of the nation,” then I am content to reply, “My experiences are what can happen under the natural liberties that our Constitution safeguards for individuals.”

My parents were not powerful in the way that a Harvard University law professor is powerful. They were not the people who, under Bartholet’s ideal, would likely be given the chance to home-school their children. On paper, elites would have laughed at the idea that a poor family in a trailer park in the 1980s could raise four strong, successful, independent, and well-educated women, without the aid of the state.

Bartholet is blind to her own privileged argument that only people like her can make a determination of who is and is not worthy of educating their own children. She would wield the life and death power of the state to force children of lower economic classes, or whose parents have unpopular views, into government-approved education. If that’s not authoritarian, what is?

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