Thursday, March 06, 2008

Thoughts on homeschooling

The aforementioned California court case is now getting a lot of press. I think it is important to review the basic moral issues of homeschooling before one tackles the legal issues. This is my attempt to formulate the moral case for the right of parents to homeschool their children.

Let's begin with the idea that parents as human beings have a right to life, liberty and property. Ayn Rand stated it best when she wrote:
A "right" is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man's right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)
The issue becomes a little more complicated when a couple decides to have children but they do not lose their rights in the process. Instead, the issue of responsibility for one's actions comes into play:
A child is the responsibility of his parents, because (a) they brought him into existence, and (b) a child, by nature, cannot survive independently. ...
The essence of parental responsibility is: to equip the child from independent survival as an adult. This means, to provide for the child's physical and mental development and well-being: to feed, clothe and protect him; to raise him in a stable, intelligible, rational home environment, to equip him intellectually, training him to live as a rational being; to educate him to earn his livelihood
(from The Objectivist Newsletter, Vol.1, No.12, December 1962, Intellectual Ammunition Department, Nathaniel Branden)
Thus just like food, clothing and shelter, the responsibility of education logically falls on the shoulders of the people bringing the child into this world. At this point, one wonders where the idea that the government should be involved in a child's education comes from. Properly, the government's role ought be limited to its proper functions, namely the protection of individual rights:
The only proper purpose of a government is to protect man's rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence. A proper government is only a policeman, acting as an agent of man's self-defense, and, as such, may resort to force only against those who start the use of force. The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law.
(from the entry Government, Ayn Rand Lexicon)
By bringing a child into the world, the parents have incurred certain obligations toward the child. Thus it is correct to say that the government should enforce these obligations as part of its protection of the rights of all individuals, including children. The government should step in if the child is unjustly abused and protect the child's right to life, or if it is neglected to the point where its physical and mental health are seriously threatened. This would require objective legal definitions of harm or abuse that would trigger a police visit.

However, as long as the parents make a reasonable effort to provide the basic necessities listed in the above quote, the government ought to protect the parent in their right to fulfill their responsibilities as they see fit. It is not for the government to decide the specific means by which the obligations are fulfilled. Just as the government does not legally require children to attend specially formulated communal meals or require parents to be credentialed nutritionists, but instead wisely leaves the issue of food for parents to decide, as long as they don't starve the child. Similarly, when it comes to education, as long as the parent provides the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic, the state ought not to interfere. The parent can choose (as we are) to provide quite a bit more at home, or have the children privately tutored or send the children to a school of the parent's choosing. However, I see no reason for government involvement in schooling outside of the aforementioned minimal check. I would also want the government to treat all parents as innocent until proven guilty. There always needs to be some cause, some evidence for government involvement. Comments welcome.


Rational Jenn said...

That was a nice summarization of Ayn Rand's points. The case for leaving parents alone to raise their children seems clear.

Unfortunately, since the government has taken on such a parental role in many respects to us adults, those in charge naturally want to extend that to our kids.

I like your analogy to food and parents-as-nutritionists. You mention:

...but instead wisely leaves the issue of food for parents to decide, as long as they don't starve the child.

Well, I just learned today that my state will now be using the schools as a way to monitor kids (and parents) to make sure they have a "proper" BMI. Both over- and under-feeding a child will become an issue. I must wonder--how long until we parents are required to take nutrition classes and demonstrate that we follow the official government nutrition pyramid?

Burgess Laughlin said...

"Similarly, when it comes to education, as long as the parent provides the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic, the state ought not to interfere. ... Comments welcome."

I have, not a comment, but a friendly challenge to your formulation. The challenge might help you prepare for the day when you are on national TV or on a radio talk show. My question is this:

Should the state require parents to provide any education? If so, what is the justification?

Gideon said...

Rational Jenn:
Unfortunately I don't expect it to be too long. How long did it take to go from cigarette lawsuits to fast-food lawsuits? Fortunately none of these seems to have won yet.

We need to challenge these issues in a principled way so that we don't play these whack-a-mole games with unjustified intrusions into our lives.

Gideon said...

Burgess: I will attempt to answer your challenge in a new post.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Your discussion was very clear and to the point.

Unfortunately, your reasoned approach is most unusual in this era of increasing state control of private life.