Does a social contract require us to put our children in schools?
Tony Jones produced an interesting argument against homeschooling. As I understand it, Tony says that we are obligated by a social contract to send our kids to school, and by the fact that we must support society as a whole by not “dropping out.” As he explains, “I live under a mandate to be the most involved, missional societal participant that I can be.”
Tony’s argument makes two assumptions. One is that he has a obligation to be involved in (and to help improve) society. The other is that that this obligation forbids homeschooling. For the sake of argument, I am going to concede the first point, although it is very vague. I take it that the point is–very vaguely put–that we should live as parts of society, not cutting ourselves off. A hermit is not a complete human being, and a life cut off from others is impoverished.
The second point is the more interesting. So, does our obligation not to turn our backs on society require us to send our children to schools? Let me give a series of reasons to think this might not be the case.
First of all, U.S. schools are terrible. I can guarantee that my children will get a fantastic education if they stay home with me. Now, while my children will not be so much “part of society” while they are school-aged, they will certainly be part of it when they are adults. Well, it seems to me that they be more socially effective with a stellar education.
Moreover, dropping out of a deeply ailing institution–as the public school system has become, in many ways–puts much-needed pressure on that institution to achieve meaningful reform. As more and more people turn to homeschooling, simply because schools in the grip of bankrupt educational philosophies (like Dewey’s…) are not living up to their promise, more genuine choice is achieved. In a calculus of the extent to which we are meeting our societal obligations, this shouldn’t count for nothing.
The next issue is more to the point: while we might have an obligation to improve society by being part of it, how far does this obligation extend? If you are in a good position (due to career, physical proximity, or connections of friends and family) to fight drug abuse, should you become an addict and live among addicts? Of course not. But by parity of Tony’s reasoning, one might think so: perhaps, by joining the addicts, I can improve society in profound ways that I could not do from outside the addicted fold. This is speculative, however, and I am sure no one believes any such thing, and certainly no one is obligated to act a certain way due to such speculation. The point is that, clearly, there are lines and standards we are justified in drawing: our obligation to improve society by being part of it does not impose endless requirements on us. Another example. I imagine someone (maybe not Tony) saying that I am not being part of society because my family doesn’t watch network or cable TV, and have almost no exposure to televised sports and celebrity news. These things are deeply ingrained parts of our society, and yet my family has almost completely cut itself off from them, because we find them to be a waste, compared to what we could be doing with our time. Am I really obligated to waste my time in this way, simply in the interests of being able to interact more effectively with others who do waste their time that way? Prima facie, no. Does Tony have some reason to think otherwise?
Tony’s argument is, as you can see, woefully incomplete. He hasn’t got a prayer of clinching his argument unless he can explain in much more detail why participating in this particular institution is so important. Getting an education is, granted, extremely important. But why is it so important to our obligation to improve society that we send our children to substandard public schools in order to get that education? If Tony has addressed this question, I am afraid I missed it.
I could go on, and would like to, but I’m being instructed to get dinner. I think I have made enough of an argument for now, anyway.
About the author
I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, and WatchKnowLearn.org, and ReadingBear.org. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.