As parents become increasingly concerned with both the intellectual and moral decline of public education, home schooling is rapidly on the rise in the United States. And with the increased popularity of home schooling have come the attacks on it by its enemies in the public education establishment.
At the heart of this fight over home schooling is a fundamental difference between parents and the public school establishment on the questions of parental rights and religious liberty. Most parents who educate their children at home do so because they see it as their duty to inculcate the moral and intellectual virtues in their children, and to raise them as practicing members of their religious faith.
But the union officials and career bureaucrats who control the public education establishment seem to think that the state — not parents — is primarily responsible for the raising of children and for instilling in them the beliefs it deems most important. Parental involvement is too often viewed as "interfering" with the "professionals" who know best.
Where did this attitude of the public education establishment come from? It certainly represents nothing new in American politics, as its roots can be traced to the founders of modern American liberalism, the progressives.
The general view of progressivism, which peaked at the beginning of the 20th century, supported a vast expansion of state power and a complete devotion of the individual to the common enterprise of the state. Contrary to the thinking of America's founders, who had established clear lines between the public and private, and therefore strict limits on government, the progressives argued that government was, in principle, unlimited because it was based upon scientific expertise.
The leading magazine of progressive opinion in the early part of the 20th century — The New Republic — insisted that children be made to remain open to the secular ideas that the state needed to instill in them. It explained that "the older view of eighteenth-century liberalism was that the democratic state must allow every one freedom to practice almost any creed, . . . but twentieth-century democracy believes that the community has certain positive ends to achieve, and if they are to be achieved the community must control the education of the young." Parents could not be allowed to instill in their children any contrary teaching. Under this new view of education, The New Republic argued, "the plasticity of the child shall not be artificially and prematurely hardened" by private religious education. The progressives attacked parental rights as "the freedom of older people to impose their dogmas on the young."
This argument of the progressives came from the German idealistic philosophy with which most progressive intellectuals had been educated. Karl Marx himself made a direct attack on home schooling, explaining that parental rights over the upbringing of children could not be allowed because parents exploit children. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx asks: "Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty." He mocked "the bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent and child."
This philosophic attack on parental rights, brought into the American tradition by progressivism, has reared its head at various points throughout our contemporary history. In the famous 1972 case of Wisconsin v. Yoder, where the state attempted to force Amish students into public high school, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas reasoned that parents who eschew public education may very well be impermissibly forcing their own religious views down their children's throats. Just as the progressives had resisted the right of parents to instill their religious beliefs in their children, Douglas wrote that "the inevitable effect is to impose the parents' notions of religious duty upon their children." The fundamental premise for Douglas was that children needed the state's protection from the religious views of their parents. In making educational choices, Douglas insisted that "it is the student's judgment, not his parents', that is essential."
If this sounds familiar, it is because it is the same attack on parental rights and religious liberty made by contemporary liberals like Hillary Clinton, who want to "protect" children from the values of their parents.
Fortunately, the Court in the Wisconsin v. Yoder case upheld the "traditional interest of parents with respect to the religious upbringing of their children" — Justice Douglas' dissent notwithstanding. But views like those of Douglas and Mrs. Clinton only show that the troubling tenets of progressivism continue to find adherents, something home schooling parents know well as they fight to fend off the public education establishment.