April 21, 2020 - 8:21am

When it comes to the education of children, is absolute liberalism even possible? In Homeschooling: Parent Rights Absolutism vs Child Rights to Education & Protection, published by the Arizona Law Review, Elizabeth Bartholet, a law professor and faculty director of the Law School’s Child Advocacy Program at Harvard University, argues that home schooling should be banned in the interests of children over their parents.

Home schooling, Bartholet argues, can leave children at risk of abuse. It can also abandon children ideologically, with parents who ‘want to isolate their children from ideas and values central to our democracy, determined to keep their children from exposure to views that might enable autonomous choice about their future lives’ such as ‘racial segregation’ and ‘female subservience’. Bartholet recommends a presumptive ban on home schooling, with parents required to demonstrate a justification for adopting the practice rather than the reverse.

This points to a fundamental paradox. In effect, Bartholet suggests that in order to promote ‘tolerance of different viewpoints’ among the young, the education of the young by those with different viewpoints must be constrained. First Things columnist and integralist-in-chief Sohrab Ahmari remarked drily of Bartholet’s arguments: “Thank God our enemies are committed to a neutral regime that couldn’t be used to advance any one comprehensive account of the good”.

The liberal Bartholet is clearly reluctant to see children exposed to different (i.e., implicitly, incorrect) viewpoints when they are so young they may go beyond ‘tolerating’ them and actually believe them. Rather, it appears that liberal adults must be produced via less than liberal educational means.

But the paradox cuts both ways. American Christian post-liberals have in recent years argued keenly for a political order explicitly oriented around not liberal ‘tolerance’ but positive moral (religious) values. These same post-liberals seem unhappy about the way a ban on home schooling would represent an illiberal infringement on the ability of minority viewpoints (such as theirs) to educate their children according to their own values. When it comes to the young, then, liberals and post-liberals adopt each others’ positions.

The question of how much control the state should have over the ideological shaping of children bears consideration for both. Although liberalism may style itself as value-neutral, even the most liberal culture cannot function — as Bartholet more or less explicitly acknowledges — without some measure of shared ideals and values. And where it was once the case that shared values were transmitted via a majority religious faith, in a post-Christian world how else is the common culture to be transmitted save via state education?

Conversely, it is difficult to see how a society where all parents educated their children at home, according only to their own value systems, would not — absent a strong shared religious faith — be even more radically atomised than the one we currently have. Precisely, in fact, the dissolution of common culture post-liberals themselves decry.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.