There was a book I remember once consulting, on the manifold problems of Soviet agriculture, whose author’s dedication read “to the USSR, for making an economist’s life so interesting”. Any volume on American conservatism could have a similar dedication, for one could happily spend a lifetime tracking the Escher-esque byways of a movement which argues that an inherent respect for inherited authority is an expression of the essence of a society born in a violent revolution whose participants saw it not merely as a local skirmish but as a world historical event.
When your country is founded on a document of abstract principles, there is no conservatism (which is, if it is anything, the assertion that human good resides largely in embedded and barely-spoken concrete traditions, which we subject to the test of human rights at our peril). There are various ways of getting around this paradox – such as the bizarre “strict constructionist” interpretation of the constitution, by which it is held that the Supreme Court should attempt to divine what was on the mind of the framers at the time they were writing the thing.
Thus, in a key second amendment (right to bear arms) case last week, much discussion turned on whether the original framers would have agreed to a ban on machine guns, had they known about them – an analogy being an 18th century Massachusetts statute banning the storage of gunpowder on the ground floor.
In this area, most would suggest there are more rational ways to make social policy on lethal force. The same goes for another equally core issue, education, and that distinctive American institution, homeschooling.
Two and a half million American children are being homeschooled at any one time, around 5% of children in education, twenty or so times the proportion in any comparable country. Alone among developed nations, America’s churches have declined to develop their own low-fee independent school system – in part because so many churches are stand-alone evangelical outfits – religious groups resorting instead to exiting the system altogether.
Educational levels in this vast subculture vary enormously from the excellent to basic glorified truantism, and many in the homeschool movement argue that HS kids average better on tests than public school kids (though since a lot of the former don’t sit at all, the figures may be skewed).
Now, California, not a huge homeschool state, has imposed a law limiting the practice to parents with some form of teaching qualification, and the Right has gone spack over this latest intrusion by the behemoth of the state in everyday lives. Most countries that permit homeschooling mandate some form of educational training – short of a full Dip.Ed – for parents doing it. The US alone thinks Jesus and the banjo might be enough, and in most of Arkansas it probably is. California seems to dissent.
Now here is the point about “conservatives” and homeschooling, and the contradictions thereof. Though they marshal stuff about state compulsion, etc, the crucial point about schools is not simply what they teach, but what they do, in promoting base social connections beyond the family unit.
In the archives of the clay tablets unearthed from the Sumerian city-states in central Iraq – the ones the US army hasn’t ground to fine dust yet – there are numerous examples of homework, as well as marginal comments about how boring it is. The school, in other words, is as old as post-tribal society, and is an essential part of maintaining its solidarity.
Where clans and tribes used to exchange children as a way of establishing emotional links between unrelated people, cities and states use schools, not merely to connect families in a common process, but to teach that there are authorities, and obligations to people other than parents and clan. School is an essential part of understanding your general obligations to those who are different. They don’t have to be state-run schools, but a full society depends on them challenging you to become other than merely a clone of your kin.
But therein lies the difficulty for homeschool parents who think that state schools are anti-educational pits of secular nihilism, not unfairly depending on your school district. In order to get the education they want, they essentially have to withdraw from society, or one major dimension of it. The HS movement has developed networks to mitigate that, with sports leagues and camps to mimic school equivalents, but it’s fairly minor compared to the thorough process of becoming that school creates. The fused role of parent and teacher, the one segueing into the other, is a pretty powerful figure, and not easily examined critically by the resulting pupil/child.
Though the HS movement likes to give itself a frontier gloss, just about the second building that frontier towns built was the schoolroom (mall was the first). In fact homeschooling is a very postmodern movement in which social solidarity has frayed to the same degree as have many people’s sense of their own beliefs. Many homeschooled kids are kept that way because of parental fears that their literalist evangelical beliefs will not survive the challenge of the world, a funny thing to think about something you believe to be the Truth.
Conservatives ought to be concerned about the institutions that produce social solidarity and particular tradition, but many American conservatives fervently support the eminently liberal doctrine that abstract rights are paramount, whatever their social consequences may be. Why do they support that? Because liberal rights are at the root of America’s founding so that’s what they, as conservatives, should support.
That paradox pretty much explains much of the weirder flora and fauna of American political life, but you have to wonder what it produces should it spread significantly, down the track. What would a society in which ten or twenty per cent of kids were homeschooled look like? Though conservatives fulminate about postmodernism, HS is as postmodern as a post-op transgender lesbian couple breastfeeding their pet chimp. Homeschooling is as wildly optimistic that social arrangements can be configured anyway you like without loss, but the fact of it staying within the family disguises its radicalism.
“California law explicitly says that school teaches loyalty to the state! Loyalty to the state!” says leading conservative John Stossel. He’s shaking so furiously at this indoctrination, his American flag pin is almost falling out of his lapel.