19 August 2020

Abusive Isolation is a Problem, not Homeschooling: Responding to Bartholet's Proposed Ban

To hear Elizabeth Bartholet tell it, children in homeschooling families are in immanent peril. The Arizona Law Review published an article by Bartholet entitled “Homeschooling: Parent Rights Absolutism vs. Child Rights To Education & Protection.” She paints a picture of grave danger for children who are homeschooled which leads her to propose “a presumptive ban on homeschooling.” I agree with Bartholet that children have rights to protection and education that may need to be bolstered by both constitutional acknowledgment and some form of enforcement that would probably impinge on the perceived prerogatives of ideologically radical parents. I disagree with Bartholet's conceptions of education and schooling because they mislead the author to conclusions that are not going to ultimately serve the proper end of education, even if they might marginally improve the situation with regards to protection. 

I suspect that Bartholet's fears are stoked by an unreasonable assessment of how isolated homeschooled children are on a routine basis and by an unreasonable assessment of how likely it is that a homeschooling family could become a harmful situation for a child. Bartholet admits she does not have the data to prove it but she nonetheless tells a story suggesting that a significant portion of homeschooled children are endangered by the possibility of a lightning strike of child abuse and that this grave situation warrants dressing every child in the regulatory equivalent of a chainmail Faraday suit. But before I more carefully construct this analogy there are a few points to be made first. 

Both “sides” of this issue are wrong in some important ways. Human nature, as established by the primary human needs empirically established within the Self-Determination Theory community, contradicts both sides. The primary psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness and their role in engagement with learning activities imply that the ideological notions of how to educate children promoted by the parent's rights absolutists are contradicted by human nature. Those same needs also imply that school practices used to educate children in the majority of schools are also contradicted by human nature. Therefore, the promotion of schools as the standard to which parents must measure up in order to homeschool is misguided. 

What those two “educational” contexts erroneously share in common all to often is an over-emphasis on obedience. Being merely obedient to the dictates of adults, no matter whether they are parents or teachers, is not going to result in a child becoming educated. What will result in an educated child is consistent exposure to an environment in which their primary human needs are satisfied. The two “educational” contexts that are discussed in the article have mostly been places in which the primary human psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are not recognized, thus are not meaningfully addressed as central features of the educational enterprise. This particular problem is an inadvertent consequence of simply not realizing that these specific features of human nature exist and how crucial they are to educating children.

A more empirically responsible conception of learning is needed in order to better understand the nature of education and the possible role that both parents and states can play. I favor the inclusion of all types of organizations that serve children in the solving of the problem of ensuring that all children are educated properly. I also accept that it is in everyone's best interests for children to have routine exposure to mandatory reporters as a protection against abuse. 

To be clear, the state’s interest is not in schooling, per se. The state’s interest lies in having a citizenry that is actively empowered to learn without restricting each citizen's view of what phenomena within their environment is worth learning more about. Every citizen of a state is an embodiment of that state. A state literally cannot exist without citizens that can each serve as its embodiment. The state is going to be the best it can be when each and every one of its citizens can perceive accurately, think clearly, and act effectively on self-selected goals and aspirations that are appropriate to their situation. If there are obstructions that impair or distort a citizen’s view of the situation in which they exist, they will fail to accurately perceive, clearly think about, effectively act on, and formulate appropriate goals and aspirations within the situation they occupy. Obstructions can include ideological commitments, community norms, individual physiological or psychological imbalances, and a variety of other mechanisms that exist both within and beyond an individual person. 

Schooling is a formal institutional structure for facilitating learning. Learning is inherently about mapping the reality of the situation in which a person is located such that they can assess the nature of their circumstances and formulate appropriate goals and aspirations. Their goals and aspirations should serve both them, as an individual, and simultaneously the organizations and the society within which they are embedded. There are inherent problems that will inevitably arise whenever the interests of one person or group of people become mutually exclusive with another person or group of people. If a family exclusively serves the needs of children at the expense of parents, then that is just as problematic as the family exclusively serving the needs of parents at the expense of children, states over parents, states over children, parents over states, or children over states. 

These issues could be resolved if objective assessments of the well-being of each actor in the drama could be attained. This requires two or more institutions that can be trusted to make objective observations of the state of each actor (where our interest currently is children). Since we can never fully trust any institution to always and forever act in the best interests of all its members we need redundancy in the over all system. The idea of designating mandatory reporters is how the state has created this necessary redundancy. 

Bartholet's conception of homeschooling families that can so thoroughly isolate their children from mandatory reporters is an extreme situation. There is no question that it can happen. But there is a question about how frequently it happens. Do we have the resources and the political will to prevent every single instance of child abuse at all costs to our freedoms and budgets? Do we have the callousness to take the parent's rights absolutist position that no child is worth compromising each parent's freedom? Naturally, the answer lies somewhere in between. 

To enable us to get traction on this issue let's consider an analogous situation of protection. Lightning strikes are a potential danger. How much of the freedom of our children and our budget should be devoted to protecting against this danger? We do not routinely dress children in chain mail Faraday suits that would safely channel a lightning strike around their bodies into the ground because such things are both expensive and everyday use would curtail a child's freedom to learn effectively about the world. In fact, no precautions are taken to protect children against lightning on an everyday basis in any family or school that I know about. Lightning strikes are so rare that taking such precautions would be simply ridiculous. Even when there is stormy weather no one routinely takes the precaution of wearing a Faraday suit. Faraday suits are only routinely worn by workers who handle high voltage power lines on a daily basis and performance artists who routinely use high voltage Tesla coils. 

Advocates for investing in protection regimes need to prove that the danger is preventable by the means they propose. Contrary to the impression that Bartholet creates, the limited research on homeschooling and my experience with homeschooling families suggests that the vast majority of families expose their children to mandatory reporters in a variety of non-school contexts such as 4-H, scouting, classes, medical appointments, sporting activities, etc. I suspect that Bartholet's proposed ban would complicate the lives of millions of children without providing any additional societal benefit simply because those families most affected by her plan already expose their children to mandatory reporters on a regular basis. The people Bartholet imagines might be exposed as abusers are the very people who are most unlikely to comply in the first place. Regardless of their choice of schooling option the abusers are isolating their children from others and that is the central problem to be solved. That problem is not substantively addressed by banning homeschooling.

What is needed is objective, trustworthy measures of the psychological conditions that children experience in any educational environment that they encounter, regardless of whether the responsible institution is the family, a school, or some other organization. Since we know that certain psychological conditions lead to better learning, then we know that any environment that consistently provides those conditions is providing the basis for an optimally educational environment (note: merely the basis, not the full extent). One of the central conditions for that kind of environment is relatedness. Parents who are controlling their children so thoroughly as to isolate them from mandatory reporters are, at minimum, likely to be thwarting their child's needs for autonomy and relatedness. But abusive levels of isolation can be achieved even while sending a child to school due to the problematic ways that too many schools can also ignore the autonomy and relatedness needs of children. When schools are more focused on getting obedience rather than engagement from their students then they are just as complicit in the psychological neglect of that child as an isolating parent. 

As an education researcher and advocate who has directly interacted with homeschooling families I assume my assessment of the situation of homeschooling is better than Bartholet's. Her misguided assessment of the dangers posed by homeschooling leads her to faulty conclusions about how plausible it is that homeschooling will lead to abuse that escapes the attention of mandatory reporters. However, even if the danger were real, her proposed remedy would not solve the problem, except only marginally, because it fails to address the central issue of children being isolated by their parents, which can be accomplished independent of their schooling choices. 

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