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The Big Question: How Silly Can a Philosopher Be?

The Atlantic magazine contains a section called “The Big Question” that’s sometimes humorous and occasionally idiotic. This month’s issue manages to wrap both into one answer.

“Which current behavior will be most unthinkable 100 years hence?” the magazine wonders. Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who occasionally contributes to the magazine, offers a gem of an answer.

“Unsupervised home schooling,” Dennett writes. “When we come to recognize that willfully misinforming a child—or keeping a child illiterate, innumerate, and uninformed—is as evil as sexual abuse, we will forbid parents to treat their children as possessions whom they may indoctrinate as they please.”

And he’s not even finished. “They may teach their children any religious creed they like, but only if they also teach the uncontroversial facts about the world’s religions so their children can make an informed choice when they grow up.”

So there.

What is there to add?

If one begins with the premise that a parent would even intend to keep his/her child “illiterate, innumerate, and uninformed,” one can pretty much write anything. It’s unlikely there’s a parent, ever or anywhere, who set out with that goal.

Further, the intention of homeschoolers is to provide a better education than what is available at the nearest government school. Perhaps, in some cases, the homeschooler is incorrect, and the school could have done a better job. But in any event, the goal was to provide quality.

Also, Dennett takes a dim view of parents. We don’t consider our children “as possessions,” we consider them as “our future.” The reason we teach our children to read, to count and, yes, to pray, is because we believe those children need the tools to succeed in a difficult world.

In fact, Dennett is the one who’s guilty of treating children as property — property, in his view, of the State. He’s using the old Jesuit formulation “give me a child and I’ll show you the man.” Of course the State wants to control education, so it can raise people who will support it unquestioningly.

Homeschoolers answer to a higher authority than any government: Themselves.

As for “uncontroversial facts” about religion, what would those be? That different people have different beliefs? Just about everything else is controversial. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Is Islam a religion of peace? Is enlightenment even possible? The answers to most religious questions are unprovable. They rely on faith.

Faith, by the way, is what homeschoolers have. Faith in the future…  of humanity and of the students themselves.

Homeschooling is taking off because it works, and because it empowers parents. The bigger question isn’t whether it’ll be banned in 100 years; it’s “what will government schools look like in 100 years, with dwindling student populations?”

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