Harvard’s Bizarre Take on Homeschooling

For one Harvard professor, the real crime of homeschool parents is practicing parenting without a license.

(photo: Artwork by Dominica Clark)

An article in Harvard Magazine called “The Risks of Homeschooling” by Erin O’Donnell has been making the rounds lately in the Catholic homeschooling world. Since the article casts a wide net of aspersions upon a form of education that many of us hold dear, numerous Catholics have strenuously objected to it.

But it’s not only Catholics who have objected to O’Donnell’s article; even atheist homeschool parents were offended by its accusatory tone. Though it’s tempting to ignore and dismiss the article, I believe it’s important to respond from the perspective of a second-generation homeschooler.

Let me say at the outset: since I was first homeschooled at age 10, I’ve been reading diatribes against homeschooling, but this one set new lows for blanket accusations and bare assertions. Extensively quoting a piece by Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet, O’Donnell claims that homeschooling “violates children’s ‘right to a ‘meaningful education,’” disallows children from being “protected from potential child abuse,” and “may keep them from contributing positively to a democratic society.”

And that’s only the beginning.

We homeschooling parents are presented as little better than jackbooted thugs — and moronic ones at that. Homeschool parents are called “extreme religious ideologues” who “question science,” “promote female subservience,” and encourage “white supremacy.” We are also apparently illiterate. She observes that “people can homeschool who’ve never gone to school themselves, who don’t read or write themselves.”

The article concludes with another quote by Bartholet: “I think an overwhelming majority of legislators and American people, if they looked at the situation … would conclude that something ought to be done.”

Ah, and now we get to the heart of it: the real crime of homeschool parents is practicing parenting without a license.

Though some have written excellent responses to this piece, it’s impossible to fully answer each particular point in this article’s litany of misplaced accusations. Instead, I’d like to take a different approach. Because while I can understand why some homeschool parents might be infuriated by this article, I’m primarily struck with a much different emotion: sadness. Some people might actually believe some of what is presented in the Harvard piece and think it is true — and they will never know the joy of homeschooling.

When I read pieces like this, I often wonder why the journalists didn’t do some meaningful field research about homeschooling such as, say, visiting a few homeschooling families. If they did, they might learn something. Ironically, insofar as they call us “science deniers,” they seem to refuse to employ the basic tool of science: observation.

The Harvard article contains a cartoon that illustrates their perception of homeschooling: a sad and lonely homeschooled girl is trapped in her house behind books and bars and looks wistfully at happy non-homeschooled children playing outside. I showed this article to my sixteen-year-old daughter Dominica and asked her to draw a picture of what homeschooling is really like. So she grabbed an iPad and her digital pen and drew the picture you see above: a girl lying on the floor reading a book, one child reading to another, a young boy playing with his dog, a girl practicing violin, a beautiful mother holding a cup of hot tea teaching her son arithmetic (check the spelling, Harvard!). That’s what homeschooling is really like.

(By the way, Dominica has also just submitted the manuscript for a novel that she wrote and illustrated. Talented as she is as a writer and artist, her real ambition is to become the first woman Navy Seal. Apparently, she missed out on our “female subservience” and “refusing to contribute to democracy” homeschool classes.)  

Rather than observe the quiet joys and successes of homeschooling in real life, pieces like O’Donnell’s take a it might work in practice but it’ll never work in theory approach to homeschooling. Maybe that’s wise, because it most certainly works in practice. We homeschoolers have grown up to be successful attorneys, computer programmers, human resource managers, teachers, speechwriters, real estate agents, novelists, mortgage originators and department store managers — and that’s just my brothers and my kids!

To be clear, I’m not arguing that homeschooling is a panacea. We homeschool families have our struggles. In fact, I’ve anecdotally documented some of our family’s foibles and imperfections in two books.

You see, homeschool families have a basic problem that is simply impossible to overcome: homeschool families are composed of imperfect people. But it does make me wonder why homeschooling is graded on a different scale than rival academic institutions. For four decades, homeschooling has always had to prove itself by going over a bar that was higher than the one set for any other form of education — and homeschooling has soared over it.

Maybe it’s time people started acknowledging that — even the folks at Harvard.

Notre Dame Cathedral before the April 15, 2019, fire

Chauvin Verdict, Notre Dame, Catholic Schools and Homeschool Ban in France (April 24)

A jury in Minnesota has found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of all charges. How has the nation reacted? Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond offers some analysis on this news. Then we turn to Joan’s coverage of Catholic schools as they evaluate the last year and look ahead to the future. And then, we hear from Register European Correspondent Solène Tadié about the homeschool ban in France, and get updates on the rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral and the controversial building of the largest mosque in Europe. But she also brings us information on an abbey of French nuns who are providing Gregorian Chant for the world through a one-of-a-kind app.

Nicaraguan police place Bishop Rolando José Álvarez under house arrest Aug. 4 at the diocesan chancery in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

Nicaragua Needs More

EDITORIAL: Although the Vatican has offered a muted response, Pope Francis must do more to condemn human-rights abuses in Nicaragua before the Ortega regime exploits papal silence to justify its immoral actions.