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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
12 Jul 2006

When Everyone Was Homeschooled

by Matthew M. Anger

My son, keep the commandments of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother. Bind them in thy heart continually, and put them about thy neck. When thou walkest, let them go with thee: when thou sleepest, let them keep thee, and when thou awakest, talk with them (Prov. 6:20-22).

A reviewer of Steve Kellmeyer's recent book, Deception: Catholic Education in America, makes an important but seldom acknowledged point:

Once upon a time in America, parents taught their children at home. They might use governesses, tutors or family members; whoever they used to teach their children, parents were given and took responsibility for their children's education (Mary Gildersleeve, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, November 2005).

It is a fact worth repeating because it has implications not just within the context of the immediate homeschool vs. public school debate. It is relevant to Christian education and parenting as a whole.

In the past forty years of Church crisis, conservatives have consistently emphasized the achievement of Catholic educational establishments prior to the 1960s. Understandably so. But if Catholic education was as perfect as it seemed to be in the 1950s, how did the moral and intellectual meltdown of the next decade take place? And have newer traditionalist establishments been entirely free of the scandals that pervade our society? While this does not negate the validity of outside-the-home instruction, it does raise some good questions.

Rise and Fall of Parochial Schools

In solving any problem one needs to look beyond proximate cause and effect. Otherwise we fail to see the more remote, yet ultimately fundamental, issues. This is often the case in discussions on religion within the American context, because our response is ambiguously framed by individuals (perhaps well-meaning) who are already two or three times removed from a valid source of orthodoxy. The issue of "parochial schools" appears to fit this paradigm. As Mary Gildersleeve reminds us

Compulsory education laws, passed in the United States during the 1800s, took [catechetical] responsibility away from all parents. Catholic parents lost the opportunity to teach their children at home, to teach their children the Faith. American bishops acted to protect their own. As public schools blossomed, many with a Protestant agenda, the bishops encouraged (and later demanded) the establishment of parochial schools in every diocese in America. Further, the bishops strongly encouraged the American Catholics to send their children to diocesan schools.

Parochial schools initially performed well. So long as they were staffed by devoted religious and priests, Catholic children were taught their faith. But with the Vatican II-era and concomitant collapse of religious teaching orders, a secular agenda took over. Nor did it help that the influx of salaried lay teachers caused costs to skyrocket making the parochial alternative difficult on material as well as spiritual grounds.

Return to Normalcy

While the establishment of formal Catholic schooling met many needs, it was not a panacea. Moreover, it was a reaction to another problem — unfair competition by state backed schools. Seen in that light, the shift back to homeschooling is not so much an emergency "stop gap" as a return to normalcy.

It is Steve Kellmeyer's contention that the parents remain the primary catechists. Homeschoolers, in particular, have a big advantage, since they have already undertaken other aspects of their children's education. Looked at from a classical ethical perspective — which goes back to Aristotle's critique of communism — ownership engenders responsibility. Take away that direct ownership and involvement, not only on an economic, but on a social and instructional level, and you have problems. When parents fob off their kids on schools and teachers, they are less likely to take a serious interest in their formation.

Working in the Aristotelian tradition, classic economists like Milton and Rose Friedman (Free to Choose) offer a calm but withering analysis of public schools. As with other statist monopolies, the biggest problem with government controlled education is that parents have no real "buy in" in their child's instruction. For all the hype about PTA and parent involvement, it can only foster a climate of moral neglect. On their own initiative, however, parents have responded through homeschooling or through private institutions (and the promotion of vouchers).

The Friedmans give every encouragement to educational alternatives, thus echoing the view of Hilaire Belloc in the 1920s: "The right of the parent over the child is prior to the right of the State." Of course, reform cannot happen without a change in moral attitudes. Most parents seem happy enough letting the tax-funded "village" raise their child. Sadly, the widespread relinquishment of family responsibility is part of a larger pattern within Catholic culture. We see it, for example, in the tendency to equate social teaching with trade union politics. Such ideological dependence — growing out of the 19th century invasive secularism — views lobbying and "activism" rather than personal accountability as the answer to everything.

The Totalitarian Classroom

In terms of the American experience, less than 200 of the past 400 years involved state-run education. All of the Founding Fathers were instructed by parents and tutors, and even after the rise of public schooling, prominent Americans like Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Orville Wright and Wilbur Wright, and George Washington Carver received their education at home.

In the overall Western experience, state controlled education is the exception. In ancient times that exception was Sparta. It was also an early precedent for anti-family ideology. As classical scholar E. B. Castle says: "In Sparta and Athens... we are confronted with two highly contrasted educational ideals which can be easily recognized in educational practice today" (Ancient Education and Today). To put this in context, consider what the Greek chronicler Plutarch tells about the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus (c. 800 BC).

Lycurgus was of a persuasion that children were not so much the property of their parents as of the whole commonwealth.... [N]or was it lawful, indeed, for the father himself to breed up the children after his own fancy; but as soon as they were seven years old they were to be enrolled in certain companies and classes, where they all lived under the same order and discipline, doing their exercises and taking their play together.

Lycurgus wanted to control education so strictly as to regulate marriage. Children were subject to harsh discipline and exercise. Eugenics (and homosexuality) was even more arduously pursued in Sparta than the rest of pagan Greece. Spartan women were scorned by other nations for their aggressive, unfeminine behavior, while boys learned to be deceitful and ruthless to outsiders, even as they displayed automaton-like loyalty to their own. Presaging militaristic Prussia and Hitler's Reich, Spartans lived only for the state which, in turn, existed only for war. In key respects, the structure of Sparta's totalitarian education is indistinguishable from the aims of the left-liberal establishment.

More Lessons from History

By contrast with the Spartans, the Athenians, who reached the greatest heights of intellectual and artistic achievement in ancient times, relied consistently on private institutions. In republican Rome, the family was the school. Speaking of the Romans, Plutarch relates Cato's loving instruction of his son, which included everything from writing and history to boxing and military science. Elsewhere, he mentions Tiberius Gracchus' widow Cornelia, who took "upon herself all the care of the household and the education of her children," thus proving herself "so discreet a matron, so affectionate a mother, and so constant and noble-spirited."

E. B. Castle says that in this "closely knit family life the boys and the girls of early Roman times received their education as much from the mother as from the father...." Though education would later become more refined, with the influx of Greek learning, "home training... was essentially a school of morals; filial obedience, modesty of mien and deportment, self control, were the things that mattered." Rome gradually accepted the Greek school system. Yet it remained free from public direction, even in the late empire when some teacher salaries were paid out of public funds. Even more than Athens, the family in Rome was seen as the building block of society. Cicero appealed to citizens of the late Republic in these terms

I ask you to listen to me... as a Roman citizen, who thanks to his father's care has had a liberal education and who has loved study from boyhood, yet owes more to experience and to the lessons of the home than books.

Of all ancient role models the best example (and the one frequently overlooked) is that of the Hebrews. Says Castle, "It is surprising that a people who produced a superb national literature over a period of a thousand years did so without establishing a single elementary school." In this regard, Pope Benedict XVI offers a relevant insight in his meditation on the Holy Family in Nazareth:

Jesus grew up a Jew in "Galilee of the Gentiles," learning the Scriptures, without going to school, in that house where the Word of God dwelt…. Especially we recognize from the masterly way Jesus reads the Scriptures, his confident knowledge of them, and his command of the rabbinical tradition, how much he learned from their time together in Nazareth (Journey to Easter).

As in other early civilizations, the lives of children were often austere, yet there was a warmth and solicitude that surpassed even the best pagan cultures. The practice of infant exposure (infanticide) was completely unknown to this people to whom God had revealed his commandments.

The Restoration Begins at Home

Looking at education in light of ancient examples and modern experience, Prof. Castle believes that the first need of children is "a closely knit family life…where there is discipline without tyranny and security within strong bonds of affection." He also says that all new developments and activities geared towards children, even the kindness of responsible teachers,

can never be substitutes for the ungrudging care of a mother or a father. From the enduring quality of the Jewish family, from the failures as much as from the successes of Greece and Rome, comes the hard truth that it is in our homes that children first learn what to want and what to admire, what is important and what is trivial, what has quality and what is shoddy, and that these things are the roots of education.

Schooling outside the home has its place. Even in a future when public schooling dwindles or disappears, private schools will fill a major role. Yet there is no doubt that parental schooling is underestimated. We must be careful not to end up in a situation like that which gave rise to public schools in the first place — parental apathy and an overdependence on outsiders to do our job for us. It is axiomatic that unless education begins at home (even if completed elsewhere) children will more readily fall prey to un-Christian influences.


Matthew Anger is a freelance journalist who has written essays on history, philosophy and literature from a Catholic perspective. He lives with his wife and eight children in the Richmond, Virginia area. He has recently edited The Eyewitness, a volume of short stories by Hilaire Belloc.

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