It was recently announced that Westminster council would be a joining a few other councils in London that perform annual visits on families where parents have decided to home-school their children. Obviously, the home schoolers aren’t happy about this – they feel it contravenes their right under the Human Rights Act to privacy, it’s intrusive and it treats them as suspects instead of caring parents who have made an alternative decision for their child’s education.
Homeschooling is something that a lot of people have very strong opinions about. Most people who have strong opinions about it are well intentioned, in that their primary concern is the well being of the children involved, but almost all of those who have strong opinions whether they admit it or not, have an ideological agenda.
A large part of the concern from secular quarters about home schooling, is the ‘indoctrination’ of children with ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity, whose proponents arguably form quite a large proportion of parents who decide to home school. I understand their concern. From the perspective of some, me teaching my children that the Bible is the inspired word of God is akin to teaching my children that little green men from planet Zorg are holding the planets on the tips of their pinky fingers. Never mind that the idea of a omnipotent, omniscient being is a vastly different concept from flying spaghetti monsters or other ways of likening God to the ridiculous. There are many who have little problem with what they call ‘moderate’ Christianity, as long as it espouses mainstream views about evolution and sexuality. Fair enough.
What I don’t understand, is this idea that only certain ideologies are indoctrination, but the others are simply alternate world views. In a Guardian article entitled ‘The dark side of homeschooling: creating soldiers for the culture war’, the writer states “Too frequently…the consequences of putting ideology over children include anxiety, depression, distrust of authority, and issues around sexuality.” We would all agree that anxiety and depression are awful things to inflict on any child but tagged onto the end are ‘issues around sexuality’. What are these issues? Disagreeing with the mainstream view that sex before marriage is ok? Promoting abstinence? Promoting traditional gender binaries? She adds that ‘sensible’ homeschooling is fine. The problem comes with how we define ‘sensible’ and who is allowed to define it.
Unfortunately, in bygone eras, atheists were seen (and in some sectors still are), as societal deviants- people who would be seen to be indoctrinating their children with harmful ideas about the world in which we live. Christian denominations that fell outside the mainstream such as Quakers or other independent church groups, were also persecuted. Thankfully, society is more accepting of these viewpoints now in the sense that no mainstream governmental organisation (in the UK at least), would deem atheists unfit parents. No mainstream media organisation would say that if Richard Dawkins had children, we should be cautious about him being allowed to homeschool, despite him having very strident views about religion.
My point is this – every parent teaches their child to adopt a worldview that they deem to be appropriate. If they allow their child to understand opposing world views, but strongly propose and defend theirs, isn’t that normal? Yes, there are some world views that I think are completely ridiculous and completely offensive, but as long as the parents aren’t physically or mentally abusive, is it the governments place to intervene? Indoctrination is generally defined as teaching someone to accept a set of beliefs uncritically. I’m concerned that we’re beginning to use the word to mean ‘teaching your child a view that falls outside of the mainstream opinion, and one that society at large deems to be unreasonable or offensive’. And I’m not sure that that’s a good idea.