I Love Homeschooling, But Homeschooling Is Not A Human Right, By R.L. Stollar
Let’s get a few things out of the way first.
First, I generally enjoyed being homeschooled from K-12. Homeschooling is no panacea, but it was a generally positive experience for me personally. Second, I am all about human rights. Since studying human rights theories in high school and college for academic debate, I have desired to understand human rights, understand how to promote them, and defend others when their rights are being attacked.
Third and finally, I am not a fan of Germany’s almost-ban on homeschooling. (“Almost-ban” because Germany does, in fact, allow homeschooling for families of sick children or families that travel significantly.) As an American and a former homeschooler, it rubs me the wrong way.
But Germany’s almost-ban on homeschooling is not a violation of the fundamental, human right to homeschool. Because there is no such human right. It does not exist.
There is no fundamental, human right to homeschool, peoples.
Now before you raise the pitchforks, throw the stones, and shout “Kill the beast!,” hear me out. And while you hear me out, re-read the three things I started with. When I say there is no fundamental, human right to homeschool, I say that as (1) a fan of homeschooling, (2) a human rights advocate, and (3) a critic of their almost-ban on homeschooling.
So put down those pitchforks and stones and save “Kill the beast” for a Disney movie and let’s talk about some basic human rights theory.
Defining Human Rights
Human rights are things — usually freedoms — that are guaranteed to you simply because you are a human.
These rights assume that every human being — whether male, female, adult, child, gay, straight, black, white, and so forth — is a moral and rational being who deserves dignity and respect. Because of this, these rights are universal. Whether or not the government that you live under chooses to respect these rights, you still have them. They are indivisible.
There have been many articulations of rights people have — ranging from the Magna Carta to the Bill of Rights. Each of these articulations have dealt with different types of rights — natural, civil, and so forth. The concept of human rights arose after World War II and the Holocaust. When the United Nations was created in 1945, governments wanted to create a contract between each other to avoid similar international horrors in the future. The result of this was the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. It delineated thirty fundamental rights that people everywhere should be guaranteed.
You can read a simplified version of the thirty rights from the UDHR here, or the full text of the UDHR here. What you will observe in the declaration are universal concepts of ethics: no slavery, no torture, no unfair detainment, the right to privacy, freedom to move, freedom of expression, right to education, and so forth.
Classifying Human Rights
Now you might wonder, What qualifies a right to be a “human” right?
This is a highly debatable matter, and people everywhere — including human rights theorists — disagree on this all the time. But most people agree with either one of the following two key frameworks:
Human rights are both international and high-priority norms that require robust justifications that apply everywhere and support their high priority. They need to be so international and so high-priority so that they can actually be justified as binding on every nation everywhere in relationship to every single human being. They need to transcend cultural diversity and national sovereignty.
This is why in most human rights treaties and declarations you see abstract and universal concepts rather than precise particulars. We can all — theoretically — agree that freedom of speech is a human right. But what about the freedom to make porn? That is a very specific freedom that will not hold up against the standard of cultural diversity and national sovereignty. The more specific you get in defining a human right, the less binding it is.
The four main standards for what are human rights are (1) universality (applies to all human beings), (2) indivisibility (inherent to human beings qua human beings), (3) interdependency (each right depends on the others), and (4) interrelatedness (each right enhances the other rights). Put together, this means that “all rights are equally important and necessary in creating a strong and healthy society.”
If a particular right is not as equally important and necessary as other rights in creating a strong and healthy society, then it is not a human right. It can be a civil right or a political good or a privilege, but it is not a human right.
Freedom of Movement Versus Freedom to Move By Horse
Let us look at a particular example: freedom of movement.
Freedom of movement is a human right.
What are some ways in which one could move? You could move by foot, by car, by train, by boat, by plane, by horse, and so many other ways.
Is travel by horse a human right?
No. Freedom of movement is a human right. But movement by horse is not a human right. Protecting the former is an international high priority. Protecting the latter is not. Furthermore, protecting movement by horse would be protecting a particular vehicle for achieving a general right, but not the general right itself.
It is the same with homeschooling.
The right to education and the right to educational freedom are both human rights, according to Article 26 of the UDHR:
Everyone has a right to education… Elementary education shall be compulsory… It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups… Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
What are some ways in which one could educate or be educated? You could be educated by public schools, private schools, home schools, tutors, co-ops, and so many other ways.
Is education by homeschooling a human right?
Like travel by horse, homeschooling is not a human right. But like freedom of movement, educational freedom is.
Furthermore, you must keep in mind that human rights are inherent to individuals as individuals.
You cannot have a human right to another individual.
So while one can argue that homeschooling should be considered a parental right, it cannot be a human right because no individual has human rights to another person. You have the human right of movement, but not the human right to make another person move.
This is the inherent balance contained within Article 26: the right of a child to an education, and the right of a parent to follow his or her conscience regarding their child’s education. These need to be balanced. So if homeschooling has a potential to interfere with the human right to an education (of the child), then it cannot itself be a human right.
One can certainly argue that homeschooling is such an important vehicle for preserving the human right of educational freedom, that banning homeschooling is a violation of educational freedom. But educational freedom is the human right, not homeschooling.
Human Rights Inflation
To say homeschooling is the human right confuses and conflates categories.
But it does more than confuse and conflate. It also inflates. A vital aspect of human rights as international policy is that the list of human rights — as stated in treaties — has currency. In other words, the stated human rights actually mean something. So when one country violates them, other countries are rightly in an uproar. Violate freedom of religion and that is a big deal.
The more “rights” you add to the list of human rights, the less that list means.
It loses currency. Once you start adding things like “right to travel by bus,” “right to travel by car,” “right to travel by donkey,” “right to travel by cat,” it diminishes the impact and value of “right TO freely move from one place to another.”
This is called human rights inflation.
What HSLDA and other likeminded homeschool advocates are pushing for, this adding of homeschooling to the list of human rights, is guilty of that very thing.
They are contributing to human rights inflation. They are not alone, mind you. This is a problem that human rights theorists and politicians and international policy experts have wrestled with for years now. According to Foreign Affairs, there is “a gross inflation in the number of human rights treaties and nonbinding international instruments adopted by international organizations over the last several decades.” This is because “Human rights once enshrined the most basic principles of human freedom and dignity; today, they can include anything.”
Why this is a problem is succinctly expressed by the Spectator:
[When people translate] any and all grievances and demands into the language of ‘rights’, they are causing an inflation of the whole concept… The result is that at some point there will be a collapse of the whole system… If living in a one-bedroom flat is now to suffer a fundamental human-rights abuse, how [does one] get remotely exercised about the gassing of children or the desolation of whole nations?
Please Stop Calling Homeschooling a Human Right
As much as I value homeschooling and dislike Germany’s almost-ban on it, I consider it fundamentally irresponsible to set forth homeschooling as a human right. Just, no. No, no, no. I do not say this because I hate homeschooling. I would say this same thing about any number of other thinkers and advocates who set forth particular vehicles for achieving general rights as actual rights themselves. This does a disservice to rights language and only serves to undermine the vehicles one wants to protect.
If HSLDA and other likeminded homeschool advocates want to champion the actual human right of educational freedom, then by all means — go for it.
HSLDA, champion the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 26.
Champion all aspects of that declaration and all aspects of that Article’s expressed human right, including compulsory education. Champion the child’s right to receive a good education. And also champion the parent’s right to direct what sort of education a child gets. But you cannot pick one part of a human right and then disregard the other parts.
Article 26 is about the right to education and the right to educational freedom. It is not about homeschooling.
Saying otherwise is how you play cultural warrior, not how you play human rights advocate.