Bryan Caplan  

The World's Worst Argument Against Homeschooling

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I've heard many arguments against homeschooling.  Here's the worst:

"Bryan, you've got to send your kids back to public high school."


"Well, you've got to understand that high school is miserable."

"I remember it well.  How is that an argument for high school?"

"Because it prepares you for the misery of life.  Having a job is just like being in high school.  Without that preparation, you'll never make it in the real world."

The obvious objection: Suppose your kid is incredibly happy in high school.  Everyone's nice and encouraging.  He's learning piles of material.  Day after day, he comes home and says, "High school is a dream come true."  What kind of a parent would react not with elation, but alarm?  As in: "Eek!  My kid's may be excelling academically, but he's totally not being prepared for the harshness of adult life.  I'd got to immediately move him to a school where he's unhappy... for his own good!"  None I've ever encountered. 

Sure, parents occasionally sentence their kids to military school, but they do so because the kid is behaving badly now, not because they fear their studious, well-mannered kids will grow up to be snowflakes.

So what's the best argument against homeschooling?  Conformity signaling, of course.

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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Matthew Moore writes:

Doesn't conformity in itself have value to the individual conforming?

My old math teacher always used to say that being an eccentric was a hard life, because you constantly have to justify yourself. Being different is psychologically stressful, especially for kids.

Anecdotally, home schooled kids are on average just a bit weird. Not sure which direction the causality goes in, or if it's a spurious correlation (both caused by weird parents, maybe).

baconbacon writes:
My old math teacher always used to say that being an eccentric was a hard life, because you constantly have to justify yourself. Being different is psychologically stressful, especially for kids.

Eccentric people who go into professions with daily interactions with dozens of people tend to self select for those that like being weird.

Dan writes:

The best argument against homeschooling isn't conforming signaling, it's actually learning to have social interactions. The make-shift interactions relied upon by homeschooling parents (where home schooled students play sports, etc. with other home schooled students) suffers from extreme self-selection bias - most parents who home school are not your average person. Nearly all of the home schooled individuals I have met do not have the ability to disentangle the nuance of daily interactions, which high school is actually quite good at preparing you for. Hundred and hundreds of hours learning to interact with others within a structured environment that you cannot control. Who your child is surrounded by at school is the underlying factor.

Pat writes:

Between this and the IQ post, I just shake my head at the people you're talking to. I'm not doubting that you have conversations like this but I do doubt that it's a common argument.

Rob writes:


I actually think one of the advantages of home schooling is that they have interactions with all ages, as opposed to be grouped with a bunch of similar aged children for hours upon end.

Arthur B. writes:

I had a miserable, horrible, experience in junior high school, but I think it did make me tough. I don't have a counterfactual to assess if the tradeoff was positive, but I do know that toughness is a valuable skill. It's a skill that is much safer to acquire in a low stake environment than in a high stake one. That is not true of every skill, lacking toughness when you do need it can put you in much more trouble than lacking algebra when you need it. How do you suggest homeschool kids acquire it?

wd40 writes:

In my experience most homeschoolers are children of parents who do
not believe in evolution and other science and therefore do not want their children to be contaminated with such ideas. This is a form of child abuse. One would hope that regulations about content would overcome the desire of the parents to keep their children ignorant. But I think such regulations are not that effective.

This argument does not apply to Bryan Caplan. If more people were like him, I would not be skeptical about home schooling.

John writes:

Well Bryan, I've never heard anyone make this argument against homeschooling. Whatever happened to the old ideological turing test? The closest I've ever heard was someone arguing that people who send their kids to private school are depriving the public schools of decent pupils, which drag down the educational "mixing" experiences of the remaining students. I've never heard anyone argue that making people miserable is a desirable attribute of the public school system (even if that's what ends up happening in reality).

LD Bottorff writes:

The population of previously home-schooled is in the hundreds of thousands and the current home-schooled population is in the millions. There are enough that we could easily find out whether or not people who were home-schooled are socially adapted.

Anecdotally, public schooled kids are anti-social. They aren't mature, their teachers aren't mature, and they spend way too much time on social media.

Does anyone really believe that our prisons are filling up with home-schoolers who got in trouble because they didn't get enough socialization?

Silas Barta writes:

That's like saying you should give your kids heroin so they have some practice in beating an addiction.

A writes:

"Reasoning from a mood change" - Scott Sumner if he was a psychologist. If the value of high school is the development of self management skills in a brutal world, then a sustained good mood might indicate success. A home schooled child might display a similar mood without a similar indication.

Duncan Frissell writes:

Educational non-conformists can signal conformity to other standards. Home schoolers, classical school attendees, graduates of colleges free of Federal control (sans federal funding) may signal religious or political views that attract jobs from co-believers (particularly if most of the competion are illiterate, godless, commies). How valuble are illiterate, godless, commies to employers anyway?

Thomas Sewell writes:

When I hear these types of arguments, it makes me consider taking them to the extreme a bit:

"Ideally we'd send all children to a group of pedophiles each day. That way they could be properly socialized and learn how to be tough in order to survive.

Even better would be if the pedophiles could be specifically matched up with their pupils by ensuring they have the most opposite values as their parents as possible."

I don't see how the less extreme variations anti-home schooling folks routinely use are logically better.

It appears some people have a natural instinct to want others to suffer just like they did. It's a perverse form of translating the fact that shared suffering creates social bonds into a suggestion that therefore we should arrange for more people to suffer together.

By the late teens, early 20s, my extensive experience is home schooled children on average demonstrate much more maturity, social skills, depth of knowledge, ability for hard and/or creative work and focus than a typical district school representative.

Joe writes:

If misery is helpful, perhaps we can chemically induce cluster headaches into every student. The suffering would be so great we would be able to cut school in half and still come out ahead in total net suffering per student.


A writes:

@Thomas Sewell, that logic only holds if you assume that outcomes simply scale up and down with stimulus intensity. By the same reasoning, you shouldn't exercise a muscle, because at extreme intensities you can cause permanent muscular-skeletal injuries.

AlanG writes:

While I was growing up in 1950s-60s San Diego, there really wasn't any home schooling. The only private schools were the Catholic schools and there was one 'girls' high school and one military school. The vast majority of us turned out OK (we had our 50th HS reunion 18 months ago and it was good to see the large number of people who were very successful in their business career).

I'm totally agnostic on home schooling. Both of our daughters attended public schools, got scholarships to exclusive private universities and earned graduate degrees. Yes, it's an n of 2.

It might be nice to see a breakdown of reasons for home schooling. I know one key one is religious. What are the others? Are there no private school alternatives that might accomplish the same goal?

Cullen writes:

I can't say I've ever heard this argument either, not that I doubt Bryan has. The objections I hear to home schooling are some combination of paternalism (e.g., the objectors don't want the parents giving an improper or incomplete education) or, most commonly, the idea that home schooled kids are weird. The latter is usually because they presume home schooling kids will have zero socialization. Typically, those people also object to letting kids be home schooled but also participate in public school sports/activities.

Benjamin R Kennedy writes:
So what's the best argument against homeschooling?

It's simply cost. Modern high schools have robotics labs, swimming pools, theaters, etc. Homeschooling parents often do not have access to these facilities. Not only that, by choosing to homeschool you are throwing away a massive government subsidy to pay for your child's education, and forgoing a sizable chunk of parental income.

The "socialization" argument is bunk

Thomas Sewell writes:

@A: Then at some point, you'd need to make an argument with evidence for some specific stopping point where the misery/toughness level of Public schools are above that stopping point, but other places are still below it.

It's funny how even with the wide variety of public school misery levels, you typically hear students/parents complaining about the specific misery level of their local school, but not about some mythical stopping point where if it was just a little better or worse it'd be an ideal level of induced misery.

When someone says, "That school is full of bullies!" and they start an anti-bullying campaign, it's hard to find someone arguing that "No, it's just that the school is around the right level of misery for inducing toughness in the students, so don't worry about the bullying issue."

@AlanG: Many of the motivations for Home Schooling, Private Schooling and Alternative Public Schooling (i.e. Charter schools, Magnet schools, etc...) are very similar. In the end, the parents believe their children will be better off if they choose something other than their standard assigned District School. Students who don't "fit" their assigned school are obviously going to be over-represented among home schoolers. That can be because they are too smart, too stupid, have a disability, have a special ability, don't agree with the local level of indoctrination, etc...

A Private School may be too expensive, a magnet school may be too far away, there may be no Charter School available to attend, or parents may want their kids to get a more customized 1x1 education than is available at any of the "school" options. You can potentially come up with categories of reasons, but it's not like "most" home schooling parents make their choice for the same specific reason, unless you generalize it out to the fact that their kids aren't getting the education/treatment they think they deserve and they don't have a better option.

As we do in most other decisions, it makes sense to defer to a Parent's idea of what's best for their child in terms of education, absent some overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They're typically the adult with the most direct knowledge of their Child's needs and the best motivation for pointing them to a positive outcome.

Rex writes:

I was homeschooled for a year did not like it. Wish I could have just gone to regular school. I think kids can be surprisingly adept at deciding what works best for them (within reason).

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