A Matter of Conscience
Kelly Green has written a series of rousing essays and commentary about contemporary homeschooling that deserve to be read by any homeschooler who is thinking about the national and international social and political situations homeschooling now faces. Ms. Green, an experienced homeschooling parent and group leader who lives in Canada, uses current events in the United Kingdom and Sweden, in particular, to drive home her points. As a homeschooling political activist, Ms. Green draws upon and comments on her work with the Canadian government, helping ground her political views with practical strategies and tactics.
The United Kingdom situation, described in blog posts on this site and easily found on the Internet (Search on “The Badman Report”), is convincingly presented as a case of professional overreaching and media bias against homeschooling. The now-discredited report claimed that homeschooling parents were two to three times more likely than the general population to abuse their children. The media reported it, accepting the government consultant’s report at face value, and British homeschoolers were tarnished as a group and threatened with severe regulation. It took a major effort to halt the bad legislation that was marshaled in response to the report; though halted, there is no reason to relax one’s guard. As Ms. Green points out, the underlying arguments in such political actions are that parents can’t be trusted to care for their own children and children can’t be trusted to learn without going to school; both groups require the ministrations of professionals, and the professional class requires clients to grow. For instance, in Sweden, as part of the government’s successful move to make homeschooling illegal, Green writes, “I was amazed, recently, to learn of the frontal assault by teachers on home educators in Sweden. They were encouraging children to wear t-shirts that said, “Every Child has the Right to be Taught by a Professional Teacher.” This argument looms for all homeschoolers, and the work of Ivan Illich, John McKnight, and Mahdu Prakash and Gustavo Esteva in Escaping Education, are important touchstones for homeschoolers to reference as we insist on learning in our own ways in the face of professional overreaching and bureaucratic development.
Green presents some strong arguments against any government attempt to standardize families and how they learn, including some interesting insights into Tasmania, which, for reasons that have eluded me, is considered an excellent model for homeschooling regulation by UK and Irish homeschoolers. Ms. Green shows all is not well in Tasmania for homeschoolers, nor is it time to rest in the UK either: Green ends her book with a description of recent unfair media attacks upon homeschooling in Scotland.
Her sources in England provide fascinating first-hand accounts of the turmoil and fear homeschoolers faced during the months of media coverage, Parliamentary debate and intrigue. Further, many of her larger points also resonated with me, particularly her essay “So What’s Wrong with a Parallel Society Anyway?” Germany and Sweden have used this argument, in conjunction with the professionals-only argument, to stop homeschooling in their countries. Green writes:
Societies have very different ways of handling minority groups and “outsiders.” I have to admit that one of the things I love about my adopted country of Canada is the way Canadian society makes a good faith effort to respect the cultures and wishes of its many minority populations … I arrived here [in Canada] in the post-Pierre Trudeau moment of multiculturalism, and I have loved living in a place where the dominant image is of a Cultural Mosaic as opposed to a Melting Pot. I don’t want to be an ingredient in a soup, thank you very much. I would much prefer to be my own individual paint blob or bit of glass in a work of art.
As the son of a proud Italian-American father (my mother says she’s a Heinz: 57 different varieties mixed-up in her gene pool!), I grew up around some family members who were more comfortable speaking Italian than English, who loved to visit “Little Italy” in Manhattan, yet, were also incredibly in love with, and loyal to, the United States. I know, firsthand, that a country can thrive without its population being homogeneous.
I do have reservations about some of the book’s essays, such as the one about social engineering; it echoes arguments about Outcome-Based Education we heard in the early nineties in the United States and Green’s essay doesn’t really add anything new. I think Green’s social engineering argument could have been more strongly linked to the parallel society issue, thereby moving the issue beyond standard conservative talking points on OBE.
By arguing that education is a freedom or a right that should be protected by the government, we end up becoming dependent on the courts and government officials for guaranteeing that right, which, in turn, makes that right or freedom dependent upon future court and political decisions. Right now, our personal learning, and whom we decide to learn with or from, is currently our own family’s business until we become compulsory school age; then, in some places, we must register as homeschoolers to continue learning as we want to do. By encouraging a "rights mind-set" to protect homeschooling we will probably be protecting lawyers' and politicians' jobs more than our right to homeschool. Green does not go down this path in her book, but whenever someone claims something is a "fundamental freedom" I worry what the next step will be in their argument.
One of my favorite passages in this book deals with the issue of government regulation of homeschooling. Green notes, “Suddenly, the state is a member of your family, making sure that you are doing “it” right, whatever “it” is. So instead of just living, you are living, like the Truman Show, with a camera in your life, in your brain, watching your every move. You find yourself stepping back from the moment, from the experience, thinking how you will write this up in eduspeak to please the “monitors,” the “authorities,” the teacher who has been assigned to sign off on your educational provision. That’s not life; that’s performance art.”
Ms. Green makes a point early in the book that she is in favor of notifying the government when families want to homeschool their children, a point I support, though for slightly different reasons. She writes:
A notification-only law is not the same as registration. It is not a licensing scheme. It implies no power on the part of the state to refuse permission to home educate.
At the same time, the family would be notifying the state of its intent to maintain complete control and administration of the child’s education. This could, possibly, benefit home educators in several ways.
By making such an intent official, home-educated children could never be confused with those classified as “missing education,” or “excluded,” or “truant.” Those terms would be restricted to students whose relationship with public school has broken down, not those who have chosen to have no relationship with public school whatsoever.
… Finally, such a system allows for a multi-tiered approach. Those families who want a notification-only relationship with their local authorities can have just that. Those families that want some level of support may be able to enter into negotiations with the local authority to see what might be available to them (although, traditionally, this approach does come with strings attached).
Further, there is, to me, an important point that gets muddled in this book, namely, that education is not the same as teaching and learning. Education is the professional commoditization of teaching and learning, whereas teaching and learning are everyone’s birthright. Teaching and learning are natural activities, two heads of the same coin, that we can unconsciously engage in, such as when a parent coos and babbles at their newborn child, or that we can consciously engage in, when we have the need or desire to do so. Educators have long-encouraged strong distinctions between informal learning and formal learning, devaluing the former and promoting the latter. But careful observers of how people learn, such as John Holt, Peter Drucker, and Sir Ken Robinson, show us how porous those informal/formal distinctions are in the worlds of childhood, work, and academics, and how informal learning is far-more used in life and work than our formal learning in classes is used. Yes, there are instances where specialized, formal instruction makes sense—I want someone trained in brain surgery to operate on my head—but that doesn’t mean we all need to go through medical school, just those who chose to and have the ability to do so.
I encourage you to read and discuss Kelly Green’s important contribution to homeschooling. It is a timely overview about the problems homeschooling is currently facing worldwide. Just because things are okay for homeschoolers in North American now, doesn’t mean our situations will remain that way. All it took in Germany was one family’s court case to make homeschooling illegal for all German citizens. In Sweden, politicians and educators fueled fears about people who are different and coupled it with a belief that professional education made other forms of learning unnecessary; that’s all it took to make homeschooling illegal there in less than a year. In the UK, a report by a consultant to the government nearly made independent homeschooling extinct in a few months. We delude ourselves if we think such things can’t happen to us; laws and attitudes can change quickly, particularly when institutional hubris, social conformity, and money collide. Green’s A Matter of Conscience: Education as a Fundamental Freedom provides us with much food for thought and action in this matter.