In my study of education, one of the most common assumptions I find among scholars is that public educational institutions do a better job of providing a liberal education, one that helps students think critically about different worldviews, than other forms of education. This assumption stems less from evidence and more from the liberal hubris that state institutions can and will accomplish most ends better than nonpublic means.
One finds this belief on open display in a recent New Hampshire case regarding homeschooling. The case concerns the education of Amanda Kurowski and a disagreement between her divorced parents. The mother has homeschooled Amanda and wishes to continue to do so for religious reasons. The father is apparently worried about the daughter's "rigidity on faith" and believes she "would be best served by exposure to different points of view at a time in her life when she must begin to critically evaluate multiple systems of belief and behavior and cooperation in order to select, as a young adult, which of those systems will best suit her own needs."
What is disturbing about the case is not a judge stepping in to solve a dispute between parents. Unfortunately, when it comes to warring parents, the court must make some decisions. What is worrisome are the misconceptions Family Court Justice Lucinda V. Sandler has about liberal, home, and public education that she uses to make her decision. She ordered that Amanda must attend public school, because "Amanda's vigorous defense of her religious beliefs…suggests strongly that she has not had the opportunity to seriously consider any other point of view."
The fact that a child might provide a rigorous defense of her beliefs actually demonstrates the strength of homeschooling. I'd like to believe my nine year old son could mount a vigorous defense of his faith, but I'm not sure he could right now (he goes to public school). Being able to make such a defense, moreover, is the first step toward critical thinking and not a sign that it's not developing. Before asking a child to make complex judgments as an athlete or musician we must first make sure he or she has mastered playing the basics. The same is true for worldviews. In order for a child to begin thinking critically about different worldviews, he or she must first understand his or her own. Thus, it is not at all clear why the state should favor an exposure to multiple worldviews at an early age versus an in-depth education about one's own religion.
In addition, merely because a child can mount a vigorous defense of his or her religious beliefs does not mean that the child has not seriously considered other points of view. Of course, I cannot say that I know many fourth graders who are at the developmental stage where they can "evaluate multiple systems of belief." We would need to find some empirical means, beyond the prejudices of Judge Sandler, to determine whether Amanda was less capable than other ten year olds in these sorts of evaluations. Judge Sandler apparently used no such criteria. If she did, she would probably need to lower her expectations. I often teach college students educated in public schools who have trouble with the sort of tasks she expects of ten year old Amanda.
This leads to the second problem with Judge Sandler's views. She assumes that public schooling will actually provide the opportunity to seriously consider other points of view. I wonder if the judge actually attended a public school. In my public school experience, I have found public most young kids are too inhibited or scared to talk about their faith or worldview outside of the classroom. In truth, the main education Amanda is likely to receive would come from socialization or peer pressure that would encourage her to engage in the basic American cultural practices of other ten year old girls at her school. While I would like to believe that such activities would include discussing and "critically evaluating multiple systems of belief," my experience makes me inclined to believe that those activities are more likely to be texting and talking to friends about school, clothes, boys and the latest relationship drama, playing sports or music, and enjoying the latest Hannah Montana show.
Within the classroom, it is also doubtful Amanda will encounter serious discussions about various philosophical or religious worldviews. Teachers and textbooks tend to avoid controversial issues. If anything, she will be socialized into a secular world that largely ignores religious faith. As one University of North Carolina scholar noted in his study of public school textbooks, "The underlying worldview of modern education divorces humankind from its dependence on God; it replaces religious answers to many of the ultimate questions of human existence with secular answers; and, most striking, public education conveys its secular understanding of reality essentially as a matter of faith. Indeed… at least in its textbooks and formal curriculum students are indoctrinated into the modern (secular) worldview and against religion." Sending Amanda to public schools does not in any way ensure that she will receive a liberal education.
Ultimately, Judge Sandler's decision relies more about her own biases than what we know about how to help children receive a liberal education that prepares them "to critically evaluate multiple systems of belief and behavior."