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Homeschooling & Bullying

The vile Turpin case in Los Angeles does not justify more state intervention in home education
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Damon Linker is understandably horrified by the Turpin case in Los Angeles — homeschooling parents kept their children in lockdown and under torture — and calls for changes. Excerpt:

Public schools shouldn’t be in the business of using a comprehensive secular ideology to stamp out all vestiges of traditionalist religious belief in their students’ minds. As long as that’s what’s happening in public schools, such believers will have a compelling case in favor of home-schooling.

But that doesn’t mean that such schooling should be completely unregulated. There can and should be greater oversight. As Young suggests, annual checks by a state government employee, empowered to look for signs of abuse and evidence that kids are actually being educated, would seem to be a minimum required by a commonsense concern for the well-being of the children involved. Sure, the home-school lobbyists will object. But then they will find themselves in the awkward position of defending the right of the Turpins to torture their kids undetected.

Damon’s a friend and I’m a big fan of his work, but this is not one of his better columns. “Defending the right of the Turpins to torture their kids undetected”? Really? In all honesty, it’s the kind of column that I write from time to time, frankly, motivated by moral outrage over a particular incident. It’s easy to let one’s heart get out ahead of one’s head. Alan Jacobs took fierce issue with Linker’s column, in a way that highlights how Linker’s take does that. Excerpts:

Spousal abuse is surely a greater blight on our society than child abuse by homeschoolers, so I make this proposal: In households of married people, annual checks by a state government employee, empowered to look for signs of abuse by one spouse of another, would seem to be a minimum required by a commonsense concern for the well-being of the adults involved. Sure, some pro-marriage lobbyists will object. But then they will find themselves in the awkward position of defending the right of men to beat their wives undetected.

Please don’t try to tell me that children can’t choose their parents while marriage is a voluntary arrangement that can be ended by either party. We know from long experience how many people, especially women, remain in profoundly abusive relationships because they fear something worse. As in sexual relations more generally, “consent” is a vexed concept.

Though perhaps you have another objection: my plan is unworkable. There are not, and could never be, enough state government employees to visit every household of married people. If so, you have a point. It is, I admit, far easier to direct the suspicious attentions of state power on tiny minorities of people whom you despise for cultural reasons than to address truly widespread social tragedies.

You see where he’s going with this. Jacobs is pointing out that we would never advance the cause of such a massive intrusion of state power into other areas of domestic life for the sake of protecting individuals within families from bad actors within those families — even if, as in the case of wife-beaters, there are far, far more of them than there are of homeschooling monsters like the Turpins. Saying that we should not do that does not amount to defending the right of wife-beaters to torture their wives undetected.

More Jacobs:

I confess that I speak as an interested party here, because my wife and I taught our son at home — in conjunction with a homeschooling co-op — from seventh grade through high-school graduation. And we did not do it out of conviction that public schools are intrinsically evil. We are products of public schools ourselves, throughout our entire education. We did it because he was relentlessly bullied over the course of an entire year, and no teacher or administrator or local government employee or state government employee did a damned thing about it. We did it because I myself had been relentlessly bullied for several years in elementary school — I was two years younger than most of my classmates and a very easy target — and no teacher or administrator or local government employee or state government employee had done a damned thing about that either, and after what I had been through I could not stand by and watch my once-happy son descend into sheer and constant misery.

When people who cry out for mass surveillance of homeschooling families articulate some strategy for addressing the far, far larger problem of bullying in schools — I’ll even allow them to ignore spousal abuse — then I’ll believe that they care about the children. Until then, I’ll continue to believe that recommendations like Damon’s exemplify plain, straightforward bigotry against religious conservatives.

That really resonated with me, the bullying part. People choose homeschooling for all kinds of reasons. In my family’s case, we did it not because we wanted to shield our precious babies from the Heathenous Public Schools™, but because we really did (and do) believe that we can do a better job teaching them what we believe they need to know. We have never lived in a state that doesn’t care what you teach kids. Our kids have had to take state assessment tests every year, and they’ve always done very, very well. I think that’s a reasonable expectation from the state, frankly.

We have also been flexible about their schooling. Like a lot of homeschooling families, our kids have been part of co-ops with other kids and parents, sharing the teaching and giving the kids social opportunities. For the past several years, our kids have been attending a classical Christian school that is a hybrid model, offering classroom instruction in the mornings, and expecting parents to homeschool in the afternoons. People who think there is a single model of homeschooling, and only one motivation for doing it, are simply wrong. It is also the case that there are bad homeschooling parents, and believe me, homeschooling parents cannot stand them, because in living up to the world’s stereotypes of homeschoolers, they confirm the world’s prejudices.

Anyway, bullying far from the determinative reason my wife and I chose homeschooling, but it was not a minor reason, either. Both of us were bullied in school — and no administrator did a damn thing about it. As I’ve mentioned in this space before, in the incident that started two years of misery before I was finally able to go to another school, some older boys held me down in a hotel room on a school trip, and tried to take my pants down to humiliate me in front of their girlfriends, who were laughing. I was 14, but they were all older and bigger, and there were so many of them. Two adults who were chaperoning the trip were in the room, and literally stepped across me, pinned to the floor, as I begged them for help. They wanted out of the room. As far as I can figure, they didn’t want to be on the outs with the cool kids, who were my bullies — and who eventually let me go without unpantsing me.

That’s where it began. It didn’t end until I got out of  that school. And I was not the only kid who was the recipient of that crowd’s bullying.

Today David Brooks has a column about the power of touch, for both good and for evil (he’s connecting it to the discussions in public about sexual abuse and harassment). He writes:

If the power of loving touch is astounding, the power of invasive touch is horrific. Christie Kim of N.Y.U. surveyed the research literature on victims of child sexual abuse. The victims experience higher levels of anxiety throughout their lifetimes. They report higher levels of depression across the decades and higher levels of self-blame. They are more than twice as likely to experience sexual victimization again.

Over the course of each year, people have many kinds of interactions and experience many kinds of mistreatment. But there is something unique about positive or negative touch. Emotional touch alters the heart and soul in ways that are mostly unconscious. It can take a lifetime of analysis to get even a glimpse of understanding.

I have spent the past 37 years thinking, one way or another, about what happened to me on that hotel room floor in the summer of 1981. It’s not that I obsess over it, but rather that it keeps coming up when I interrogate myself to understand why I feel so strongly about certain things that seem unconnected. To be clear, nobody in that hotel room touched my genitals, but they threatened to, and threatened to do so in a humiliating way. As I’m typing this now, I can feel my temples begin to throb, and a band of tension cross my chest, just remembering what it was like to feel the hands of those older boys pressing down on me, holding me down. And you had better believe I remember what the faces of those two adults who walked across me, with me begging them to help, looked like as they exited the room.

So much of the way I see the world was determined right there in those few minutes in that room, I now understand. My white-hot loathing of bullies, obviously, but also my deep contempt for authority figures who have it within their power to defend the weak, but who do not. There is little question in my mind that if not for summer 1981, I would likely have come through the fire of confronting and writing about the Catholic sex abuse scandal with my Catholicism intact. And I wasn’t even molested, or in any way harmed by a Catholic priest! 

Still, for me, that moment became an emotional archetype, imprinted in my flesh, for the way the world works. The powerful will tend to abuse those without power, and absent the intervention of authority, will get away with it. The corruption of authority — the Law — is the worst thing, because it leaves the weak at the mercy of the wicked and the strong. And look: ordinary people who would never bully anybody else are often willing to ignore the pleas of the weak and suffering, because to hear them and believe them requires those ordinary people to confront the fact that the imaginative structure they use to keep chaos at bay is false.

Just this morning I was drinking tea with a friend who told me that when she was a little girl, she was molested by her widowed grandmother’s boyfriend. She finally found the courage to tell somebody. Her molester went to prison (she wasn’t his only victim, as it turned out, but she was the first one who spoke up). She told me that her grandmother hated her for a long time over it. Granny was willing for her granddaughter to be a sexual sacrifice rather than lose the love of the man she had put at the center of her personal world.

A sexual abuse victim I knew in New York told me that when he went home from parochial  elementary school one day in the 1960s and told his mother that the principal, a monsignor, had raped him, his mother — working-class Queens Irish Catholic — slapped him hard and told him never, ever to speak that way about a priest. That kid became the sex slave of the monsignor — and later in life, a sexually promiscuous alcoholic whose affairs were often with priests. When I knew him, he had found sobriety, but was an emotional mess. Yet I believed him, in large part because he became a source of mine for damaging information about sexual abuse cover-ups in the Archdiocese of New York — information that I was able to substantiate.

Can you imagine? Your grandmother spiting you as a child for speaking out against your molester. Your mother effectively turning you over, as a child, to a molester priest as his catamite. All because those in authority — in this case, in the family — preferred to see children suffer rather than confront ugly truths.

However, the Turpin children were held captive and tortured for years by the only authority figures they knew: their parents. It is easy to understand how people — including adults who were once homeschooled in harshly authoritarian environments — can have the same gut reaction to this that I do, though for other reasons. (N.B., I don’t have any reason at all to think that Damon Linker does.) In my recent Benedict Option book, I featured comments from a young woman who had been homeschooled under conditions she described as cultish, by paranoid Christian parents. She lost her faith, as did her older siblings. I included her words in my book as a warning to those attracted to the Benedict Option not to ignore its potential for darkness.

So, look, I understand why Damon Linker (and others), in their entirely justifiable rage over that, want the state to be more involved in the lives of families like that. It makes intuitive sense, but then you stop and think about what that kind of involvement would mean, and you may reach the same conclusion that Alan Jacobs did. I hope you would, anyway.

But Alan and I know from personal experience that the state cannot be relied on to protect the weak from bullying and abuse, and going to public school or some other form of conventional schooling is by no means a preventative against harmful abuse. It is one thing to abuse children behind the walls of a home. Child abuse that may not be sexual, but that changes lives forever, can and does happen in the hallways, locker rooms, bathrooms, and classrooms of schools — and indeed, right under the noses of authority figures who prefer to look the other way, and to lie to themselves about the kind of men and women they are.

UPDATE: Reader Violet comments:

Rod, as a public school teacher, may I note in reference to your anecdote about the homeschooled teen boys that can barely read, that in my husband’s 9th grade English class there are some teen boys that can barely read, and when asked to write a paper turn in a half page handwritten and badly spelled, without a single complete sentence. Are these children troubled at home, naturally incapable, or poorly educated? All this to say, testing and public schooling are not necessarily giving better results for some teen boys.