David R. Henderson  

Home Schooling and Socialization

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The Libertarian Penumbra... Schools and Socialization...

David Friedman has an excellent comment on home schooling and socialization, in response to another commenter, on Bryan Caplan's recent post. Here are my thoughts, two excerpts from "Freedom and Education Versus 'Public' Schools," Chapter 16 of my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey.

First excerpt:

We should become modern abolitionists, like the abolitionists of the nineteenth century who demanded the end of slavery, and for similar reasons. Abolition brings an end to the government's role in schools, which means four things: the end of compulsory attendance; the end of government control of content; the end of government control of who teaches; and the end of the government's practice of taxing some people to pay for other people's children to go to school. With the end of government's role, learning would flourish. I can't tell you how. No one can. I can tell you what I think is unlikely: classes every day in big buildings from 8:30 to 3:00, or, in the case of our local government middle school, from 8:13 to 2:40. The beauty and the power of freedom is that different people use their freedom differently to produce all kinds of results, results that they themselves, and certainly the rest of us, can't predict. I can make some educated guesses though.

If freedom of education were restored, I would expect to see formal schooling occur more often on a part-time basis, giving children time to explore, with their parents or other mentors, the world around them, including the world of work. Many successful adults report that one of the most valuable learning experiences was their part-time jobs when they were teenagers, or, in some cases, preteens. One of my best work experiences, for example, was hunting for golf balls on the local course and selling them to golfers. I learned about the relation between effort and reward. I learned, by trial and error, where to find the maximum number of golf balls in a given amount of time. I learned some minimal negotiating skills. I also learned about exchange rates because the golf course was in Canada and many of the golfers were Americans. During years when the Canadian dollar was worth a few pennies more than the U.S. dollar, I insisted on those few pennies when they paid in me in U.S. funds. (In years that the U.S. dollar was worth slightly more and they asked if I would accept U.S. funds, I said, "Sure.") And I learned all this between ages 8 and 13. I would bet that many parents would let their children use some of their freed-up time to take part-time jobs. Some children would even take apprenticeships. If you wanted to make movies, for example, think about how much you could learn, at age 15, by being a gofer on a movie set.

And finally, after listing 5 ways to free children from the clutches of government, I write:

Finally, if you have teenagers or preteens, or if you are a teenager, open yourself to a new possibility. People say that the reason teenagers are so hard to get along with is that that stage "is part of growing up." But, then, why don't teenagers have the same problems when they work at a summer job or a part-time job during the school year? They are exposed to lots of people, often within a wide age range, but they aren't treated cruelly, and they don't treat others cruelly, nearly as frequently. Could their better attitude be the result of three facts: they are free to quit that job; the other people at the job typically want to be there; and there's not as much time for cruelty when you're trying to be productive? Teenagers treating other teenagers cruelly is part of growing up⎯when compulsory schooling is part of growing up.

Update: If you found the above compelling and/or interesting, as many of the commenters seemed to, then check my follow-on post. But be warned: the content can be upsetting.


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COMMENTS (30 to date)
Shangwen writes:

David, excellent post. I doubt that a government-education abolition would have a lot of momentum, given that public ed is just not as socially obnoxious as slavery, and given that the baby-sitting function is something that is not only a draw but a basic structural component of the adult working life. However, I do agree that there is a lot of dubious activity going for the sake of self-justification, filling time, and political agendas.

I think it is also essential to note how much opportunity is lost by not involving kids in non-classroom activities such as work and scientific activities. Perhaps this is a result of parents agreeing to simply hand their kids over to the education system, who are part of the Expert-Hubris Industry?

DCordeiro writes:

You and David Friedman have it exactly right. Some families are already pursuing the vision you describe with great success.

An interim stage, predicted by Clayton Christensen may be the rapid rise in online education described in his book Disrupting Class. http://www.claytonchristensen.com/#book_disrupting

I don't know or care (much) about when the whole system will change, but those of us making decisions for our own family are learning that we can opt out of the insanity now.

Brian Clendinen writes:

I remember reading on Aidwatch last year, developmental professionals were shocked when someone wrote a book showing how the poorest families in numerousness countries were actually paying to educate the kids in small private schools. An even bigger shocker was the kids were actually getting a significantly better education at a fraction of the price. These schools supposedly could not exist in realy life and this was a just some big hox. Everyone knows only the rich or governments could afforded to educate the poor kids of the world.



As a home school graduate I personally think homeschooling is great and should always be done if possible. Studies pretty much prove that homeschooled students do better than their public counterparts, even when the teacher has no college education (such as my mother/teacher) at less than a thousand dollars a year per students(however this number excludes opportunity cost of lost wages). Granted the studies due not take into consideration parental status so there could a small to no performance gap (50% verses 86% on test for homeschooled kids). The average child is well above the 50% mark on standardized test if they are living with married parents. 95% to 98% of homeschooled kids in the studies come from married two parent families.

I think even more interesting from a libertarian standpoint is the social impact. In one study of home educated adults in Canada, they could not find one instance where anyone in the study was on welfare compared to the 11% national average.

Public school is a form a slavery. I don't remember how many times over the years I have read about truancy officers reporting parents because the home educated kids were not in school. I did my schoolwork in half some times a third of the time my friends spent thru-out every single grade (untill I got to college). I also had a friend who was homeschooled and at 16 was upset that he could not take the GED. Florida law said you had to be 18 to take it. He just did not do any school for two years under they guiess he was homeschooled, and took the GED when he turned 18.

Ray writes:

The majority of the criticism towards home schooling stems from a bias against Christianity and its perceived dominance of our society.

Fortunately, even though atheism is strong in the libertarian ranks, we don't typically see a lot of antagonism towards home schooling since libertarians are centered on individual liberty and not some kind of anti-Christian sentiment.

State run schools such as we have today are a very new thing in the course of human history and so much of the speculation as to what it would look like to get rid of the government schools can be addressed by looking at history. Now a rural family from a century ago doesn't neatly compare to a family of 4 in suburbia today, but parallels can still be drawn I think.

More to the point though is that compulsory attendance in government ran schools is the oddity in societal history, not the norm.

Even looking at this from an evolutionary standpoint, it seems absurd to suggest that the best way develop socially is to surround children with others of the same age for roughly 40 to 50 hours a week from day care age to adulthood - not to mention the time kids spend outside of school with their peers which dwarfs the time spent with family. They're not socializing in a positive sense, but are learning the false lesson that the world operates as their peers see it, not as it really is.

Floccina writes:

I love your last paragraph.

I think rather than abolishing government schools we should shoot for directly charging the rich and middle class for sending their children to the Government schools.

Randy writes:

Agreed. The last paragraph is excellent - especially the last line.

David C writes:

It's a very interesting idea, but I have no idea how to decide whether this is right or wrong.

Clay writes:

The author seems to be considering intelligent responsible families.

How about dysfunctional families, where the parents are chronically unemployed, have a large number of children, and are blatantly abusive and neglectful towards them?

Eliminating mandatory government schooling and the taxation that supports it seems like a complete disaster for the dysfunctional.

roystgnr writes:

The ideas in David's last paragraph are very similar to Paul Graham's theory expounded in this essay.

Steamer writes:
Eliminating mandatory government schooling and the taxation that supports it seems like a complete disaster for the dysfunctional.

Well, in this case, I think that a bit of social darwinism can do no harm - as opposed to mandatory redistribution (which includes taxes that fund schools) that definitely does harm.

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks to so many of the commenters above.
I especially appreciate Ray's historical perspective and I read the whole of the essay that roystgner recommended. I highly recommend it too. My favorite sentence is this: "Maybe one day a heavily armed force of adults will show up in helicopters to rescue you, but they probably won't be coming this month." Sometimes, when I drive by Pacific Grove's government-run middle school on the way home from work, I picture myself running into the school and announcing that they're all liberated.
One disagreement, though: I think the essay's author is wrong when he suggests that imprisoning kids in school has do with industry and with the idea that they can't produce useful things. I think it has entirely to do with compulsion and tax funding.

Mo writes:

I agree, but have always had a nagging problem with school abolition. I'd like to hear David or others respond.

Most of the benefits David suggests are via good, responsible parents. However, what about all the bad parents who would not make sure their kids learn to read? As bad as many schools may be, there are likely people on the margin who school does equip with basic reading and math skills. In our political system, my worry is that those allowed to go uneducated will become my kids responsibility. Under abolition, does the marginal benefit to me of getting to educate my kids better (since I already do much of what David lists) outweigh the marginal costs of having more horribly uneducated people who will be deadweight on society?

Thoughts?

Clay writes:
Eliminating mandatory government schooling and the taxation that supports it seems like a complete disaster for the dysfunctional.

Well, in this case, I think that a bit of social darwinism can do no harm

Darwinism implies weeding out the unfit. How would such a policy weed out the dysfunctional? I'd argue that it would have the opposite effect: Reducing education tends to increase birth rates.

Dan Weber writes:

I've home-schooled my son. If you think home-schooling is about only religion, go look up homeschool groups in your area. I promise you will find one that is secular.

We eventually found a private school that fits. It works like college, where he attends just a few hours a week and has to work on things outside on his own, and he usually gets through that really quickly. So lots of time for other things.

We haven't returning to the public school system, either. There might be some opportunities that aren't available elsewhere. And the free day care is a massive benefit for two-income families.

Scott writes:

Great post, David. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the chapter.

Your views are very similar to those of John Taylor Gatto. Are you familiar with his work? Most libertarians I know consider him a hero which is interesting given his vociferous criticism of IQ testing.

Dan Patrick writes:

I'm a divorced 28 year old libertarian (market anarchist), atheist dad. My son is 6 years old and homeschooled/unschooled. His mom lives in the same town and we each have him for about half of the day. Aside from some math activities, there's not much formal "work" in a classroom sense. His mom and I try to include him in our activities. He also goes to Tae Kwon Do, gymnastics, and acting classes weekly. This Summer he's playing youth league soccer and he attends weekly LEGO club meetings with other kids at the local library. He reads at about a 4th grade level and doesn't seem to have any problem communicating with other people in a wide range of ages. Other adults often comment on his intelligence, manners, and social skills.

He also attended a public pre-K, partial year in public kindergarten, and the rest of the year in a Montessori school.

He was quite unhappy in public school and his mom and I were not happy with the school's inherent authoritarianism. Things were greatly improved at Montessori. He adjusted well to the change and the school had a very comfortable "home-like" feel. We moved after he finished kindergarten and have chosen the current education route.

All in all, I think we do a far more efficient and careful job of educating our son than public schools would. He's also not exposed to any of the negative aspects of public school such as bullying, status competition, authoritarianism, etc.

Matt C writes:

Clay and Mo, you are worried about what would happen to dysfunctional families if we had more laissez-faire education.

First, dysfunctional families, if they are poor, often get pretty awful educations under the present system. To claim a kid was educated, I think he ought to at least be able to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. There are a lot of kids who spend nine years or more in a public school system without getting over this minimal threshold.

Second, I think it is a dreadful error to look at the most dysfunctional 10-20% of the population, and use pathologies found there to justify policies for applying to everybody. If you think there are some minority of kids who would really be worse off with stateless schooling, or school choice, or whatever, and those kids are your core concern, I think you should argue for dealing with that problem separately rather than hobbling the other 85% of the people who you think could handle the responsibility.

Ray writes:

Clay
How about dysfunctional families, where the parents are chronically unemployed, have a large number of children, and are blatantly abusive and neglectful towards them?

Who is going to make that highly subjective call? That I'm a fit parent and should be allowed to have the freedom to raise my child as I see fit, but that my neighbor is not fit, and his children should be carted off to the government schools.

silvermine writes:

Like another commenter said, homeschooling is not just for the religious. It's actually for just about everyone. Poor and rich, black and white, religious and not. Christians, muslims, pagans, athiests, and so forth. In fact, the park group I met with before we moved had all that, and more. Republicans, democrats, libertarians, and who knows what else. All together, kids having a wonderful time. Free range kids.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick writes:

A statistician in the office of the Hawaii Attorney General compiled these charts.
Beth Clarkson, a statistician at Wichita State University, found a similar seasonal variation in juvenile arrest rates in Wichita, Kansas. Juvenile arrests fall when school is NOT in session.

In Hawaii, juvenile hospitalizations for human-induced trauma fall when school is not in session.

The socialization argument for compulsory attendance statutes is bogus. Schools do not prevent crime. They cause it.

Marvin Minsky
Interview
Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery, 1994-July

...the evidence is that many of our foremost achievers developed under conditions that are not much like those of present-day mass education. Robert Lawler just showed me a paper by Harold Macurdy on the child pattern of genius. Macurdy reviews the early education of many eminent people from the last couple of centuries and concludes (1) that most of them had an enormous amount of attention paid to them by one or both parents and (2) that generally they were relatively isolated from other children. This is very different from what most people today consider an ideal school. It seems to me that much of what we call education is really socialization. Consider what we do to our kids. Is it really a good idea to send your 6-year-old into a room full of 6-year-olds, and then, the next year, to put your 7-year-old in with 7-year-olds, and so on? A simple recursive argument suggests this exposes them to a real danger of all growing up with the minds of 6-year-olds. And, so far as I can see, that's exactly what happens.
Our present culture may be largely shaped by this strange idea of isolating children's thought from adult thought. Perhaps the way our culture educates its children better explains why most of us come out as dumb as they do, than it explains how some of us come out as smart as they do.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Malcolm Kirkpatrick,
Nice. Thanks.

Ray writes:

Is it really a good idea to send your 6-year-old into a room full of 6-year-olds, and then, the next year, to put your 7-year-old in with 7-year-olds, and so on? A simple recursive argument suggests this exposes them to a real danger of all growing up with the minds of 6-year-olds.

That's exactly what I said in my earlier post above, but not as well of course. Now I know how to say it better.

Todd Kuipers writes:

I agree with Matt C on not applying state schooling to everyone just to help the dysfunctional - it's as effective in a minimum wage in alleviating poverty.

Beyond the moral argument against compulsion, I'd think that dysfunctional families will do much better under open-market education as the options for schooling of any type are very likely to be of much higher quality than those in the state run systems. Better to identify those kids with issues in their current placement (as any educator (of any type) would have the opportunity to do) and have a true alternative available than stick with vanilla as the only option.

The other thing to keep in mind is: even though families are dysfunctional and do not value education doesn't mean that their kids cannot benefit from alternatives. Kids are often much more astute than their family backgrounds imply and can often make good decisions (as David Friedman argues well when kids have a bit of educational freedom) on how they need/want to be educated.

Robert Brown writes:

My wife and I chose to home school our children for the very reasons you describe: freedom, helping them find their talents to develop fully, and avoid the very negative effects of forced socialization.

My wife and I came to this approach after we both grew up in public and private school environments, taught in a private school, and watched the behind-the-scenes drama of a parent who worked as an administrator in a public school system in the Atlanta metro area.

In the meantime, we have migrated to a hybrid environment called University Model School. (http://www.naums.net/)

I'm going to brag a bit about my kids now...sorry. All three of my kids are regarded as very mature and quite capable of engaging in conversation with adults as adults without being presumptive. My two boys are entrepreneurial (one son runs his own pet care company, and both boys have organized a band and play for paid gigs.), and my daughter is an aspiring and medal winning figure skater with more determination and focus than I have ever seen in anyone. None of this would be possible, in my estimation, in the public school environment in which I was raised.

I could go on about the benefits (and risks) of homeschooling/UMS, but we simply cannot imagine a richer environment in which to raise our family.

Clay writes:

To paraphrase

- "is is an error to design policies around the dysfunctional 20% of society"
- "the dysfunctional 20% often get awful education anyway"

There is plenty of truth to this. On the complete opposite end, there is Warren Buffet's infamous quote, "It’s easy to solve the problems of public education in America. All you have to do is outlaw private schools and assign every child to public school by lottery."

Buffet is right too. Basically, society can help the problem population at the expense of the responsible, academically minded population. Or society can let the responsible population pull ahead while the problem population sinks into disaster.

(Clay): "...there is Warren Buffet's infamous quote, "It’s easy to solve the problems of public education in America. All you have to do is outlaw private schools and assign every child to public school by lottery." Buffet is right too. Basically, society can help the problem population at the expense of the responsible, academically minded population. Or society can let the responsible population pull ahead while the problem population sinks into disaster.

Why suppose this? Some years ago, when I investigated the relation between school district size and NAEP test scores (NCES does not make test score data on individual students, schools, or school districts available to people without an institutional affiliation, so I had to use proxies for 49 States) the district with the highest NAEP 8th grade Math mean score (children of college-educated White parents) was Washington, DC. The State with the lowest 8th grade Math mean score (children of college-educated White parents, children of high school-educated White parents) was Hawaii.

Political control of school harms most the children of the least politically adept parents ("Well, duh!" as my students would say).

Assignment by district allows economic and racial segregation. This policy has political support. Abolish assignment by district and politically adept parents will manipulate the new regime, with G/T classes, career tracking, and academic tracking.

Matt C writes:

> Buffet is right too.

I don't believe he is. I don't think very many people want such a policy, but if we did try to enact something like it, it would be subverted. Malcolm gives some examples of how this could be accomplished.

> Basically, society can help the problem population at the expense of the responsible, academically minded population. Or society can let the responsible population pull ahead while the problem population sinks into disaster.

You don't have to punish the responsible to help the dysfunctional. Generally a) we mostly don't know how to help the dysfunctional, and b) we mostly only want to "help" them in ways that make us feel good or get us paid, and so our attempts to help often don't accomplish much.

I don't have time to go on about this at length, but I used to teach science in a public high school. Part of why I quit was recognizing that what I was doing was *not helping* those kids in any meaningful way, despite pleasant sounding rationalizations (e.g. they're "learning to think") to the contrary. Our ideas about what education should be are broken.

Tracy W writes:

@Clay: "It’s easy to solve the problems of public education in America. All you have to do is outlaw private schools and assign every child to public school by lottery."

So, basically, Warren Buffet thinks that teachers are irrelevant, what kids learn is from other kids?

Well this implies massive savings in education. We can fire all the teachers, principals, counsellors, what not, stop buying any textbooks or lab supplies and just keep around some maintenance staff and a few adults to handle building evacuations. This means that we can close down all the institutions that train teachers too. Oh, and randomly assign all children to schools.

Personally I'm doubtful that Warren Buffet ever said the quote attributed to him, and I'm even more doubtful that it's true.

Clay writes:
You don't have to punish the responsible to help the dysfunctional. Generally a) we mostly don't know how to help the dysfunctional


The easiest way to help the dysfunctional kids from dysfunctional neighborhoods is to bus them to the nice schools in the nice neighborhoods. Obviously, the more dysfunctional kids you add to a school, the worse the school becomes (punishes the responsible).

This is exactly what Buffet is advocating: help the dysfunctional by stripping the responsible of the freedom to segregate themselves.

Matt C writes:

> The easiest way to help the dysfunctional kids from dysfunctional neighborhoods is to bus them to the nice schools in the nice neighborhoods.

Untwist that just a little, and you have something I actually agree with. The most crucial thing that you can do for people in dysfunctional situations is let them leave.

That is, of course, pretty much the opposite of a system where schooling is compulsory and the school you are required to attend is based on your neighborhood (social class). The problem is not that some kids get to attend nice schools. It is that other kids are forced to keep attending crappy schools.

Also, I'll point out that many school districts, including the one I grew up in, have for a long time had forced busing to redistribute kids between the nice schools and the bad schools. This did not "fix" public education, not for any normal definition of fix. It doesn't seem to be a concept in high esteem any more.

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