Civic Education and Teaching at Home
posted by Aaron Saiger
I’m delighted to have been invited to be a guest on this forum. I thank Danielle for the invitation and the blog’s other authors for their hospitality.
I thought I’d begin by chiming in on the recent exchange over Jim Fleming and Linda McClain’s proposal to require homeschooled students to participate in civics education within public schools. The ur-text here, of course, is Justice McReynolds’ claim for the Court in Pierce v Society of Sisters that “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.” McReynolds identifies the central issue as the choice of who does the teaching, rather than what is taught. Following his lead, I can easily accept Catherine Ross’s proposal to set civics curricula that all, including homeschoolers, much teach; but I reject that teachers must be state agents. Abolishing families’ right to opt out of public instruction is too close to the state’s ideological conscription of its children.
Pierce is in bad odor in some circles. Dean Chemerinsky, for example, recently reiterated his long-held position that it should be abandoned in service of educational equity. Also, as both a doctrinal and theoretical matter, one need not apply Pierce to home schoolers. Private schooling, unlike home schooling, at least guarantees children access to adults and adult ideas from some source other than their parents.
But I stand up for Pierce‘s claim that the choice of teachers is fundamental to liberty. And this does extend to homeschoolers. Indeed, it’s precisely for a reason suggested by Catherine that I recoil at forcing homeschooled students into public schools: Civic education is accomplished at least as much by modeling for children what liberty, citizenship, and republicanism are as by telling them what they are. Coercing all children to attend to agents of the state, who will explain to them what it means to be a citizen, models for children a grossly illiberal civic orthodoxy. That lesson will be learned even if the content of those agents’ civics lessons are liberal, pluralist, and tolerant.