One of our Brave Writer moms asked the question: What is the purpose of education—specifically of educating the masses or public education? That stayed with me all day. Here’s how I think about it.
Several years ago I was a part of a political discussion list online. Members on the list were from all over the world (not just the United States). In a conversation about education, I shared the virtues of homeschooling and the members of the group reacted positively to my characterization of what homeschooling offers to children. Except for one person. A French woman, living in France. Her comment stunned me:
“Homeschooling is not democratic.”
‘Scuse me? I read her comment twice. “What do you mean it’s not democratic? It’s the most democratic. Our democracy allows for individual choice, for the freedom to pursue happiness according to your own ideals. By allowing a variety of educational models, we are providing individuals the right to choose the education that’s right for their children, rather than trapping them into an education that is subpar or not tailored to the student.”
How could she argue with that?
She did. Here’s what she said (paraphrase),
“Education is the vehicle for becoming an equal citizen in any society, and should not be tied to a person’s socio-economic or geographic limits. If homeschooling is a superior model of education and only those with the finances, physical health, sufficient education themselves, and the ability to keep a parent home full time, then it is not available to all equally. If a parent has to keep their children in a poor public school due to their inability to afford a private school or because they can’t homeschool for any reason, that child through no fault of his own is receiving an inferior education to others. A democracy means we are equals. We cannot be equals if we do not all get the same education. Parents should work to improve the public schools together, not abandon them.”
She went on: “A democracy is not built on equal opportunity to choose an education method but on equal access to the same quality education.”
I have to be honest here. This line of reasoning stopped me cold. I had never seen it through that lens.
I thought about the two revolutions: The American Revolution and the French Revolution. The American Revolution was built on the notion of individual rights culminating in the right to pursue an individual vision of happiness (not a one size-fits all version of happiness—not one version of religion or employment or education enforced for everyone, but a variety of choices we make for ourselves). Our highest ideal: the individual right and freedom to make something of self—seizing opportunities, working hard, creating the outcome, being responsible for both success and failure.
The French Revolution had a different emphasis. Because of the abuses of power in the hands of the monarchy and the elite, the everyday person revolted demanding that each citizen be no better than any other. A leveling of the playing field and the protecting of the least advantaged became the clarion call: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
Enriching yourself at the expense of others was suspect! The pursuit of happiness was prized when it included everyone, not when it competed (so the thinking goes). They might say that if a society allowed for a variety of educational models, it might be creating a new hierarchy.
Education, then, was seen as the foundation of all citizenship—of active participation, of creating the conditions (the rails) on which our democracies thrive.
The education of the masses (public education in its truest sense) is a democratic principle—a choice to say that all lives are of equal value. Each life deserves to have access to a cache of information and a set of skills that make participating in the public square (participatory representative government) possible. Not only that, but education is also the chief vehicle for innovation and economic development which helps the country to thrive.
So that gets me back to school choice versus working harder to ensure that public schools are created equally, providing all citizens with a quality, sufficient education.
It is with this pair of ideals in mind (the right to customize educational choices and the obligation to provide a robust, complete education to all) that I think about my role in the debate about school choice.
It does us the most good to remember that it is a privilege to homeschool—it is a choice we make due to our dissatisfaction with other methods of education including public education, and our capacity to actually DO the task (health, economics, and personal educational level as sufficient). Not everyone has those capacities (immigrants, poorly educated, the working poor, single parents, chronically ill).
Homeschool provides a critique of other models of education. Let’s not hoard the insights! It’s worth it to share what we’ve learned. It’s also worth it to work for schools to include homeschoolers in after school programs or part time enrollment—bringing together two styles of education.
That said, with privilege also comes obligation
and responsibility to our fellow citizens.
It matters that we care about the education of all our children (not just our own families) when we think about educational policy and reform. Tax structures for how schools are funded matter, even if my kids never go to public school. I care about those laws and would love to see them reformed. It is in everyone’s best interest to have a well educated populace.
What happened when I listened to this counterpoint about democracy and education was that I paused—I saw for a moment the limits of my own vision of education. I want to be more aware and supportive of innovation in the public school system, and more conscientious about how I can contribute what I know about learning to the larger narrative of education in America.
It is also why I never vilify the choice to put children in school—the successful education of the masses globally is the revolution of the ages. It is staggering to think of how many people can read today, for instance, compared to the rest of history. And that ability DOES make a difference on every level of social and global cooperation.
If we say we value education, it’s important to value it wherever we see it and to find common ground and to give our best to it. At least, that’s how I think about it having been an elite privileged home educator.