Friday, March 07, 2008

Requiring Parents to Provide an Education for their Child

In a comment on my previous post on homeschooling, Burgess Laughlin issued a friendly challenge:
Should the state require parents to provide any education? If so, what is the justification?
Here is my answer to this challenge.

The parents have the obligation to provide for the child. What does this mean? Well, the child is born helpless. It did not ask to be born. The parents, having chosen the bring the child into existence, take upon them the responsibilities of its development from a helpless infant into a self-sufficient adult.

What are these responsibilities? Since man (including a child) is an integrated being of mind and body, the responsibilities divide into physical and mental. The physical include such things as food, clothing and shelter. The mental include such things as teaching the child how to speak.

Furthermore, as part of bringing the child to the point where he is self-sufficient, he must be provided with at least the rudiments of knowledge necessary for such independence. This is culturally contextual. As Branden pointed out in The Objectivist Newsletter, in a more primitive society that might mean teaching your child how to hunt. In our more advanced, knowledge-based society, it means teaching him reading, writing and arithmetic. Of course, parents should and typically will teach their child much more (history, science, literature, etc). However, with the 3R essentials the child can complete the process on his own, whereas without that basic knowledge he is left without even the means to develop his knowledge further.

Thus it is proper, as part of the parent's obligation to provide for the child's transition to independence, for the state to require that the parent arrange for the teaching of at least these fundamentals so that an essential part of the child's independence is achieved. However, absent specific evidence to the contrary, the state should assume that the parents are fulfilling their obligation. Parents, just like everybody else, are innocent until proven guilty. It also remains a difficult question as to the exact time frame by which the state can require this obligation to be fulfilled. For example if a child has not learned to read by age 9, should the state intervene? How about age 14? I support early education but have not yet thought this aspect of the issue clearly through. However, the requirement itself derives from the parent's obligation to provide for the child's transition to independence.


LB said...

Hello Gideon.

I have some comments carried over from your last post into this one.

Burgess: That is an excellent preparatory question and one that I have been asking myself for a while now. Is this a display of the Socratic method, or do you have an answer you’d care to contribute? :)

Jenn: In 1999, the CDC began to include “height” and “weight” questions on their biennially administered YRBSS (Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey) given to high schoolers. The purpose? To assess BMI, and then make policies, propose legislation, and develop new programs to address the issue (eat less, exercise more – and that’s for free!) I just researched it this week because my high schooler came home complaining about the stupid test she had to take. I wrote a wandering post about it this week:

Gideon, I’m still not convinced of the need for state intervention except under the serious circumstances of suspected (for investigatory purposes) or proven (for legal penalties) forced servitude, physical abuse, or criminal negligence; this is to say, only when done as a measure of protecting that child’s individual rights is it needed. Yes, parents, by virtue of their decisions to have children and by the nature of children to be unable to do things for themselves, must provide basic life sustaining measures for their children. This generally means to feed, clothe, and shelter them until they are able to do it on their own. Until and unless there is probable cause that the child’s individual rights have been violated, nowhere in a child’s development is government intervention or even periodic monitoring warranted.

Here is an interesting, somewhat related article from Thomas Bowden.

There will always be horror stories of the psychotic parents who locked their child in a room from birth, but no amount of compulsory reporting to the government will cause an evil person to be a better parent. In fact, I will go further and posit that as the DOE (and its state minions) slowly expand and subsume the role of parental responsibility, parents are effectively abnegating it.

Can you imagine the horror of today’s government creating the standard for measurement of a “thinking” child? In fact, can you imagine any universally applicable attribute to measure a child’s ability to think that would be direct result of his parents’ parenting abilities?

Gideon said...


I hear what you're saying. Admittedly I was at first taken aback when I heard Andrew Bernstein talk about such a requirement in an interview a while back but I have since come to agree with him. The primary issue is implementation. My thinking is that barring evidence of abuse the government shouldn't intervene but if such evidence exists and it is also found out that the child is, say 10 or 11, and does not know how to read and write, then I think in combination with the abuse the state should be able to impose penalties on the parents up to and including taking the child away in severe abuse cases. I like the Texas homeschool law. It might be a good example of what we should aim for as the sum total of state educational involvement. A summary of its requirements can be found here. In Texas while the law requires some basic subjects, the parents need not notify the state, keep attendance records or submit to testing.

LB said...

This is just a fascinating topic. I’d be curious to hear some ideas about universally applicable specific objective measurements, which is what I see as the real problem. I think the implementation of the measurement is more of a logistical problem when compared with the overwhelming issue of the parents’ individual rights vs. the children’s individual rights.

I've tried to flesh out more of the idea on my blog too.

Can you point me toward Andrew Bernstein’s interview if it’s online? I found only the one on the Thom Hartman Show and there was no mention of it.


Gideon said...

It's on the Peter Mac show on children's right's. The web page at ARI is here.
The interview is here.

LB said...

Thank you for the links.

I still can't make the connection between the protection of individual rights and governmental determination regarding parental provision of an appropriate education for his child.

The key might be in "cognitive education". I'll have to look more into it. Any other references would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks again.

Gideon said...

In terms of Objectivism, the one source that Ayn Rand directly endorsed would be my reference in the previous post:

The Objectivist Newsletter, Vol.1, No.12, December 1962, Intellectual Ammunition Department, Nathaniel Branden

Other than that I think similar difficulties could be made about abuse. A hundred years ago or so the government probably did not intervene at all in family abuse. And yet we now accept that while certain forms of spanking are acceptable, abuse is not even if there are at times some difficulties to know the difference.

Similarly, to educationally neglect a child may be considered abuse in certain context. Admittedly, it may be even more difficult to establish objective legal standards here. But I think the attempt needs to be made, again, keeping in mind that I support giving parents the most leeway possible but only up to a point.