Dana Goldstein is one of my favorite policy and political writers working today, and this response to the recent n+1 piece on unschooling is a good example of why. Goldstein is fair, measured, and diligent with her citations, while at the same time quite critical in her effect. It’s a great piece. (Astra Taylor’s piece is unfortunately not online.)
I’ll cop to it: I fear that the impetus for some homeschooling and unschooling parents lies in flatly illiberal and inegalitarian impulses. I grew up in a racially and socioeconomically diverse hometown with a similarly diverse public high school, and I couldn’t be prouder or happier to have gone to school there. What I learned by coming up, K-12, surrounded by children who were not like me on many dimensions was that this diversity is in and of itself the best education. Not just in the lefty, diversity-loving sense that I value personally, but in the self-interested sense that being exposed to real difference makes you a better and more intelligent person. Finally, I value it from a democratic perspective. Pluralistic human societies remain an experiment, and the public education presents us with at least the possibility of consistent and meaningful exposure to difference in the formative years.
But not everybody wants his or her child exposed to difference. In addition to the public high school, there were two big private high schools in my hometown. Plenty of the parents who sent their children to those schools were good, principled people, and I count many of their children as friends. But there was also always an element of gross classism and racism, floating out there. Indeed, the administrations of those schools (Xavier High School and Mercy High School of Middletown, CT: you’re welcome, guys) were often among the very worst, speaking in the newspaper with evident disdain for the public high school. That the public high school had a significant amount (though still a minority) of poor black and Hispanic students was not a coincidence. And some ugly minority of the students at those schools were always ready with a thinly-veiled crack about the “wrong sort of people” at Middletown High. While I was at school, a star basketball player at Xavier got (illegally) drunk and busted his face. His buddies covered it up, briefly, by claiming that they had been jumped by a bunch of Puerto Ricans from the public high school.
My fear about homeschooling is that it takes this ugly logic that is sometimes prevalent in private schools and brings it to another level: not only is my kid too good to be educated alongside the public school rabble, he or she is too good to be educated with anybody. Certainly, the Christian extremist variety of homeschooling tends to be justified along precisely those lines; they don’t want their children attending school with the impure. Which, to be sure, is their right. But it is decidedly illiberal. The fact that homeschooling and unschooling are the province of those privileged enough to be able to put them into place only serves to make the aesthetics more unappealing. To be clear, I’m not accusing Taylor or her parents of this sentiment. But as Goldstein says so eloquently, people like Taylor have got to consider the larger costs of the educational philosophy they espouse– particularly because it is precisely the worst off who have the most to lose.
Where I do get genuinely unhappy with her piece is in its almost prototypical application of “this worked for me/my child, let’s try it for everybody.” Yes, I’m sure Taylor’s unschooling experience went over gangbusters for her and her siblings. Just as I’m sure many students who are homeschooled go on to great success. But these people, like Taylor, come from demographic backgrounds (socioeconomic security and educated parents) that give them an overwhelming statistical advantage for educational success. The data strongly suggests that someone from a stable, two-parent home with educated and middle class or better parents would succeed academically in whatever kind of school (home, public, private) he or she attends. Selection bias is not an important consideration in education. It is the important consideration.
When I wrote at Balloon Juice about the near-uselessness of teaching grammar, I got some pushback: don’t some people learn grammar? Don’t some students go from not knowing grammatical terms and sentence structure to knowing them? Sure. The problem is that it appears that these are exactly the kids who already demonstrate advanced grammar skills in their writing. Before they know the name of parts, they show ability to use those parts. Although I’m not ready to say this with any certainty, the suggestion from the extant research is that those kids who succeed at learning formal grammar are those who came from linguistically-rich backgrounds in the first place. For those who aren’t similarly predisposed to grammatical fluency, meanwhile, the numbers on in-classroom grammar instruction are absolutely dismal.
One thing that can’t be stressed enough about our current educational discourse is that it is dominated by people from socioeconomic and educational privilege. Our media and punditry is made up, almost exclusively, of people who went to elite colleges. And as elite colleges are made up in overwhelming numbers by the affluent and those whose parents have college degrees, our whole conversation is skewed. It’s perfectly common for a high-profile blogger, journalist, or think-tank fellow to have gone to elite private schools throughout K-12 education, moved on to an Ivy League university, and then gotten a job surrounded by other people from the same background. Many of them have literally never been exposed to educational disadvantage. Never. That’s why I say some in our media and punditry should take advantage of programs that would allow them to teach disadvantaged kids for a few years. They could put their money where their mouths are, and they might even do a little good in the process.
Finally, I’ll end on a more controversial note. At one point, Taylor complains that those who call unschooling an option for the privileged “impl[y] that most people are not gifted.” Well. First of all, if “gifted” has anything whatsoever to do with “above average,” then the statement is pure nonsense. Of course, most people are not gifted. If they are, “gifted” is a term that has no meaning whatsoever. For many reasons, I feel alienated and disconnected from many of my liberal peers. One of those reasons is the common assumption that all people are of equal talent or ability. This is a notion that is contrary to both the educational data we have and the anecdotal experience of anybody. It must be nice to live in a world where you can assume that everyone around you is gifted and brilliant, but that is most certainly not the world we live in.
I am not a fellow traveler with many in our discourse who make this argument. The concepts behind g, IQ testing, the heratibility of intelligence– all of these things are controversial. And not just politically controversial, either, but scientifically controversial. I have argued against racial genetic fatalism in print many times. But that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as natural ability, and it doesn’t mean that intelligence is evenly distributed. If we on the left are going to be a constructive force in the educational debates, both politically and academically, we have to get past the cheery but false notion that everyone is equally capable of everything. That attitude is used as a cudgel against our public schools, and worse, in its refusal to deal with reality, hampers our efforts to help the most disadvantaged kids.