Today is Mary Wollstonecraft's 250th birthday, or at least it would be if she wasn't dead, but that sort of goes with the territory once you get over the age of 100. Not that she made it that far, sadly. Appropriately I've spent my day today writing and reading about the home schooling movement in the United States.
This was a rather eye-opening exercise for me. In the UK home schooling is largely the preserve of ultra-left-wing hairy types who think that even montessori schools are too restrictive, pushy parents of precocious oddballs, and parents whose children have severe mental or physical disabilities which preclude easy integration into the public school system. Only around 15,000 children are educated at home, and this education is closely monitored by education officials to check that it meets with national curriculum standards.
In the US, however, it seems that homeschooling is the preserve of a rather different demographic. A quick perusal of the Department of Education's statistics shows that 72 percent of parents who homeschool their children are motivated by relgious beliefs, and 30 percent of parents polled gave religious beliefs as the primary motivation behind their decision to homeschool their children. Also, rather more children are homeschooled in the US than in the UK -- around 1.1 million in total, or 2.2 percent of the school-age population.
I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to the current state of educational research on the merits of homeschooling in general, so I don't feel able to make any broad sweeping statements about the validity of the practice in general (although I'd really like to). When it comes to the religious homeschoolers though, it's pretty hard to remain neutral on the subject. You see, they go into great detail about the motivations behind their decision to homeschool their children. These reasons range from the merely bigoted to outright batshit insane. Some talk about how high schools are hotbeds of promiscuity and sodomy (where children are told that gay men aren't demons in disguise!), while others rant about crypto muslims, communist conspiracies, and mind-control flouride in the drinking water.
Behind all the rants about the state of the public school system there is one overriding concern that comes up again and again. These people are concerned about their children being subject to influences beyond their control, or worse still, having their ideas contradicted. These children are educated entirely within the bounds of their parents' beliefs, entertained only by media they approve, and play only with the children of other, similarly megalomaniacal, parents. By homeschooling they hope to isolate their children from any and all influences not under their complete control; indoctrinating them with their own warped perspective on the world. In fact, for people so vehemently opposed to cloning, they seem remarkably intent on making identical copies of themselves.
If you doubt the worrying levels of bonkers of which I speak, watch this video or read some of the things on this website. The US has a Marxist education system apparently. Funny that none of my American friends mentioned this...
To go back to Mary Wollstonecraft, here's a little chunk from her 1791 masterwork A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which discusses far more than just women's rights. Here's what she had to say on homeschooling --
The good effects resulting from attention to private education will ever be very confined, and the parent who really puts his own hand to the plow, will always, in some degree be disappointed, till education becomes a grand national concern. A man cannot retire into a desert with his child, and if he did, he could not bring himself back to childhood, and become the proper friend and play-fellow of an infant or youth. And when children are confined to the society of men and women, they very soon acquire that kind of premature manhood which stops the growth of every vigorous power of mind or body. In order to open their faculties they should be excited to think for themselves; and this can only be done by mixing a number of children together, and making them jointly pursue the same objects.
A child very soon contracts a benumbing indolence of mind, which he has seldom sufficient vigour to shake off, when he only asks a question instead of seeking for information, and then relies implicitly on the answer he receives. With his equals in age this could never be the case, and the subjects of inquiry, though they might be influenced, would not be entirely under the direction of men, who frequently damp, if not destroy abilities, by bringing them forward too hastily: and too hastily they will infallibly be brought forward, if the child could be confined to the society of a man, however sagacious that man may be.
Besides, in youth the seeds of every affection should be sown, and the respectful regard, which is felt for a parent, is very different from the social affections that are to constitute the happiness of life as it advances. Of these, equality is the basis, and an intercourse of sentiments unclogged by that observant seriousness which prevents disputation, though it may not inforce submission. Let a child have ever such an affection for his parent, he will always languish to play and chat with children; and the very respect he entertains, for filial esteem always has a dash of fear mixed with it, will, if it do not teach him cunning, at least prevent him from pouring out the little secrets which first open the heart to friendship and confidence, gradually leading to more expansive benevolence. Added to this, he will never acquire that frank ingenuousness of behaviour, which young people can only attain by being frequently in society, where they dare to speak what they think; neither afraid of being reproved for their presumption, nor laughed at for their folly.
-- Vindication of the rights of Woman, Chapter 12: "On National Education"
If I ever invent a time machine I'm sending a decent obstetrician and a midwife back to 1797 right away.