I’m going to start with the conclusion of this note, because otherwise I think readers from one or the other of our two political tribes will autotune it and lump/dismiss me into the other tribe.
I believe two things.
First, I believe that parents, not the State and never the State, are responsible for their children’s education. That responsibility does not end when we drop our kids off at the bus stop, no matter how convenient that might be for parents or the State, and it means that parents absolutely have a huge say in what is taught and how it’s taught in public schools.
Second, I believe that our children should be taught the fact that racism is embedded in our nation’s history, and they should be taught those lessons a lot better than I was. True story: I first heard of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre from the HBO series Watchmen. Worse, for a couple of episodes I assumed it was a fictional plot device, part of the alternative history that weaves itself through that script. I mean, obviously it’s not possible that an event of this magnitude would be totally absent from my education. It had to be fiction.
Now if I were a betting man – and I am – I would be prepared to wager a considerable sum that most readers would largely share those two beliefs if asked about them separately and without additional political context. Unfortunately, nothing is without political context in modern American society, and as a result it has become nearly impossible to hold these two beliefs simultaneously, in public, at least. It’s like being pro-vax AND anti-mandate. Crazy, right?
This note is about the narrative process that makes it so difficult to hold these two beliefs at the same time. And why it’s so important that we do so, anyway.
The issue of Critical Race Theory in our elementary and secondary schools dominated every local election in the United States this past cycle, and I think it will dominate every local election for the next decade. But it wasn’t Critical Race Theory that was the issue. It was Critical Race Theory! TM, a meme-rich narrative of Resistance! TM to the oppression we face from carpetbagger elitists who have infiltrated our public schools and seek to turn our children into little Maoist cadres. I think Critical Race Theory! TM is a sham, a diversion, a largely fabricated thing of minor consequence in real-world but of huge consequence in narrative-world. I think it’s a cartoon in the technical sense of the word – an abstraction of an abstraction intentionally drawn for the political or economic benefit of the cartoonist. I think it’s part and parcel of Fiat World, where with enough cartoon power the mere declaration of a thing is enough to make it a thing.
But Critical Race Theory! TM works. It works in the same way that every other polarizing social issue, like Tear Down The Statues! TM or But The Bathrooms! TM, works. It’s a dog whistle for one side of the political spectrum and an obedience collar for the other side, such that the intentionally incendiary framing of the issue, combined with highly useful idiots on the periphery of both sides, push ALL of us into increasingly polarized positions.
Here’s the canonical Epsilon Theory note on how these cartoons push us.
And here’s specifically how this dog whistle / obedience collar process pushes us in the case of Critical Race Theory! TM , where those of us who are opposed to the politicization and cartoonification of our public schools are pushed into support for ridiculous positions like this from NBC News.
Or like this from the Washington Post.
In their search for issues that will deliver Congress in 2022, conservatives have begun to circle around the cause of “parents’ rights.” In Indiana, Republican Attorney General Todd Rokita recently introduced a Parents Bill of Rights, which asserts that “education policy and curriculum should accurately reflect the values of Indiana families.” In Florida, the legislature passed an even more comprehensive bill, assuring that the state and its public schools cannot infringe on the “fundamental rights” of parents. A growing number of states are allowing parents to sue districts that teach banned concepts. And in Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin has made parents’ rights a centerpiece of his campaign for governor, staging “parents matter” rallies and declaring, “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.”
Given this frenzy, one might reasonably conclude that radicals are out to curtail the established rights that Americans have over the educational sphere. Yet what’s actually radical here is the assertion of parental powers that have never previously existed.
These aren’t fringe publications. This is NBC News. This is the Washington Post.
But increasingly this is what it means to be opposed to the bullshit use of Critical Race Theory! TM as a political weapon. You have to be for equally bullshit positions like these, where the statement “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.” is presented as a wild-eyed, dangerous assertion of radical Republican politics.
I wrote this four years ago, in a note titled Clever Hans. We’ve put the note outside the paywall if you want to read the whole thing. I can’t say it any better than this, so I’m going to say it again. This one is from the heart.
We homeschool our children.
I don’t talk about this very much in public, because most people assume that homeschoolers are either religious zealots or antisocial freaks, and we’re definitely not the former. Maybe a bit antisocial, but I wouldn’t call it “freakish” per se. We just don’t like seeing neighbors’ houses. Or neighbors. People, really … okay, maybe a little freakish after all. But that’s not why we homeschool.
We homeschool because we want to be more active participants in our children’s education. That’s not a knock on our local public schools, which are as good as they come. That’s not a knock on private schools in the area, many of which are world-renowned. We homeschool because most of the practices and structures of the modern school, public or private, exist for the benefit of the institution, not the child. There’s nothing evil or bad about this, it’s just inherent in the logistics and organization required for any effective institution responsible for hundreds or thousands of people. But it’s not just logistics. It’s not just the bus schedule. It’s also the curriculum. It’s also the homework and the testing. It’s also the social structures and social behaviors that are embedded in the modern school.
Modern education is a perfect example of the Industrially Necessary Egg — spotlessly clean and cool to the touch, not because that makes for a better tasting egg, but because the protein factories that supply mass society with mass quantities of eggs require chemical washes and refrigeration to turn a profit. That’s fine. I get it. We live in a big world where lots of people want eggs, and the protein factories satisfy that desire pretty effectively.
But what’s not fine is that we have all been nudged into believing that the Industrially Necessary Egg is the Best Egg, that a fresh egg, which isn’t scrubbed clean and never sees a refrigerator, is an Inferior Egg. We have all been nudged into believing that of course 13-year olds should be grouped with other 13-year olds during most waking hours, that of course there should be a clear delineation between home life and school life, that of course the school day should mirror the adult work day, that of course classroom lectures are the most effective pedagogy, that of course children can only be socialized by letting them roam free in a big flock from one semi-shepherded environment to another.
I don’t begrudge the practices and structures of modern schools. Necessary is as Necessary does.
I don’t begrudge the taxes that I pay to support these schools. Don’t tell anyone, but I’d pay even more to support public education and public safety.
What I begrudge is the question that I always get when I tell someone that we homeschool our kids: “Don’t you worry about their socialization?”
My response: “Don’t you?”
My god, hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers have doubled over the past 10 years. Tell me you don’t know a family touched by this tragedy. Tell me you don’t see how our children are sexualized and objectified at a younger and younger age, not by predators lurking outside some gender-neutral bathroom, but by themselves, adrift in the vast oceans of social media. Tell me you don’t see how drug and alcohol use by our children is changing in form, where instead of getting high to party they get wasted to obliterate themselves.
None of this is the fault of the Industrially Necessary School. But it’s not unconnected, either.
So yeah, we want to be active participants in our childrens’ lives, and that’s why we homeschool. Not to shield them or isolate them from reality, but to be there for them as counselors and teachers as they confront reality. And not just to be there for them when mass society allows us, when it’s our turn during the work week to take responsibility for our own kids, but to embrace that responsibility all of the time. Because it IS our responsibility all of the time, no matter how much mass society facilitates and nudges us into partially abdicating that responsibility so that we can work longer and longer hours in service to the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy.
I know that homeschooling isn’t for everyone. I know that homeschooling is impossible for most. I know that when I say “we homeschool” it is entirely a royal we, where my wife shoulders 99% of the burden. But I also know that you don’t have to homeschool outright to be a truly active and engaged participant in your child’s education. Everyone can do that.
Being an active and engaged participant in your children’s education isn’t a political statement. It’s a statement of advocacy for the most important people in our lives – our children. See, I think the only way to survive Fiat World is to be an advocate. We must be advocates for our health, our livelihood, and our autonomy of mind. But most of all we must be advocates for our children.
We have to raise our hands and say enough. We have to say that when it comes to our children, a principled middle ground exists despite the polarizing impulses of Fiat World. We have to say that yes, parents are responsible for their children’s education AND yes, our children should be taught the fact of embedded racism in our nation’s history.
I am not afraid of that responsibility. I know that it is my responsibility, no matter how convenient it might be to pretend it didn’t exist. Because I have faith that in shouldering this responsibility, my children will do better for themselves and the world.
Nor am I afraid of those facts. I am not afraid of my children learning those facts, no matter how convenient it might be to pretend they didn’t exist. Because I have faith that in knowing these facts, my children will do better for themselves and the world.
And in that I find a foundation for a life well lived.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.