Harvard Mag’s Anti-Parent Broadside Needs Vigorous Response

The Catholic teaching about the primacy of the parent in a child’s education stems from natural law.

A runner crosses Harvard Yard on March 23, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A runner crosses Harvard Yard on March 23, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (photo: Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s comments branding homeschooling, in an Arizona Law Review as rife with “danger” and full of “risks” hit the mainstream press recently, perhaps because of a summary in her university’s alumni magazine. Harvard itself is planning a June conference that appears to be stacked with homeschooling opponents.

I want to bring the discussion around to a more basic element in Catholic social thought: the role of the parent as primary educator of a child. If we really took that notion seriously, it would have implications not just for homeschooling but the whole educational enterprise. And that is why it is anathema to that establishment (and why homeschooling is in the elite’s rifle scopes).

As I once asked: “Is education for schools or for children?”

The answer to that question bristles with ramifications for the whole educational enterprise. If, however, we take seriously Catholic teachings about (1) the primacy of persons and (2) the primacy of the parent as educator of one’s child, it is the core question.

Is education for an institution to transmit or for a child to grow and develop?

The answer to this core question also determines who is the primary driver of education: the parent or the state. It’s clear where Professor Bartholet stands:

The legal claim made in defense of the current homeschooling regime is based on a dangerous idea about parent rights — that those with enormous physical and other power over infants and children should be subject to virtually no check on that power. That parents should have monopoly control over children’s lives, development and experience. That parents who are committed to beliefs and values counter to those of the larger society are entitled to bring their children up in isolation, so as to help ensure that they will replicate the parents’ views and lifestyle choices (emphasis added).

As usual, before you can get to the real agenda, you have to clear away a lot of the strawmen blocking the path. No one is suggesting parental “monopoly” hermetically seals a child off from external influences, as if that were possible in the modern world. Elsewhere, Bartholet accuses homeschooling of being a hotbed for abuse and intellectual stultification. Nor would a Harvard Law Professor be ignorant of the fact that there are parents who rear their children “in beliefs and values counter to those of the larger society” (think Amish, Mennonites) whose doing so has been recognized as a matter of constitutional right, e.g., Wisconsin v. Yoder, striking down the Badger State’s compulsory schooling law as applied to Amish and high school. To the best of my knowledge, none of the legal establishment considers the Yoder precedent (precedent is so precious when the talisman Roe is threatened) in need of reversal.

No, once we cut through the rhetorical underbrush, we find what might really be irritating Bartholet: that parents might rear their children to share their “views and lifestyle choices.” As John Hirschauer observes, Bartholet’s really undermines what she claims. Insisting that children have a “right to exposure to alternative views” really means two things: there is an obligation that children be “exposed” to secular views and values (as Hirschauer observes, Bartholet is not demanding that a kid in a secular school raised by secular parents be sent to a monastery to learn about alternate views) and society has a duty not just to be “viewpoint-neutral” itself (a dubious contention) but also a duty to impose that same dictatorship of relativism on families through education.

That is a really audacious agenda. But it’s not too bold when, as fellow Harvard Summit participant Prof. James Dwyer of William and Mary appears to assert, the “reason parent-child relationships exist is because the State confers legal parenthood.” 

 (Don’t be shocked. The Supreme Court ruled in 1976, in Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, that a state cannot allow a father a say in whether his unborn child is aborted because the state lacks that power and so cannot “delegate” it to the father. Remember that, “Daddy Delegate.”)

The Catholic teaching about the primacy of the parent in a child’s education stems from natural law. It used to be clear when we affirmed that sexual intercourse was intrinsically bound up with proles et educatio, the “procreation AND EDUCATION” of children. Of course, since modern society is profoundly confused about sex — a confusion shared at least by many nominal Catholics and, apparently, a few bishops — that teaching has not been emphasized.

But the notion of parental primacy in education used to be promoted by the Catholic Church in the United States in connection with the right to choose Church-based education. In an earlier time, when the Church urged “every Catholic in a Catholic school,” the injustice of the financial burden imposed on Catholic parents — having to pay for public schools their child did not use and for Catholics schools they did — was highlighted. One would think that an era that preens about its “social justice” and “diversity” commitments alongside its dedication to eradicating “inequality” would take up the standard of kids and parents to be able to go to the school they choose without financial barriers in the way.

We know, of course, that secular social justice posturing is often that: feel-good “virtue signaling.” The unspoken assumption is not that parents can “choose” but that the public school educational monopoly must be sustained at all costs, ostensibly in the name of a “social good,” practically given the political constituencies to which various politicians are beholden.

Over time, parental primacy in education shifted from school choice (the bishops seemed quietly to move away from “every Catholic in a Catholic school,” religious vocations were down, and parochial schools were consolidating/closing) to the cultural wars. The first wave was sex education, defined in purely biological terms. But sex education quickly migrated, especially as AIDS first spread, to a second wave (moral judgments, e.g., since kids “will do it anyway,” this is how we use a condom) and now to a third wave (any “educated” person “certainly” believes in gender theory). Again, benighted parental perspectives were truncheoned by the Weltanschauung of “sex experts.” (That parental primacy was further undermined by the federal courts insisting that, while most schools won’t give a child an aspirin absent parental consent, schools can certainly effect a minor’s “Constitutional right” absent parental consent or even notification to have an abortion. I wrote about that paradox last year when the pro-life film “Unplanned” debuted in 2019 and was rated R: a kid could obtain an abortion, but couldn’t go watch a movie about one.)

As Christians and even Catholics increasingly ask how to live in a society whose dominant culture is increasingly pagan and antagonistic toward their values, the “Benedict Option” one response — advanced by Rod Dreher in the eponymous book — is one response. It calls for living in self-conscious communities, distancing from the post-Christian culture of the larger society, trying to preserve one’s values.

Although it increasingly tempts me, I am not yet a convert to the Benedict Option: I prefer the more robust, “we’re here and we’re in your face with our values” response that the John Paul option provides (although I’ll admit JP2 was sometimes too sanguine about modernity and not enough “in your face”). But what Barthelot makes clear is that the Benedict Option would be under enormous pressure: the secularists will not reach a modus vivendi and allow committed Christians to withdraw to their own space. Theirs is a “take no prisoner” vision — and be sure, your kids will be their prisoners, because your parenthood is a state-conferred privilege.

This year is an election year, and Catholics are a sizable plurality in American society. Are we going to vote like that identity means something? Are we going to claim our kids back from the “village elders” who “know better”? Are we going to ask — loudly, unapologetically, with all its implications and without accepting talking point pablum in response: “is education for schools or for our children.”

All views expressed herein are exclusively the author’s.