When the topic of American homeschooling enters a conversation in Germany, listeners almost always do one thing: They rearrange their faces into polite masks, but cannot cover up a quick reflex, as if they have smelled a fart but are too polite to acknowledge it.

The immediate criticism I hear is a fear for the social development of the children. This stems from a widespread cliché that home

image003schoolers are members of American fundamentalist Christian sects who choose to live isolated on 10,000-acre farms in the mountains, engage in incestuous sexual habits and raise their children in a generally strange and anti-social manner. More on that later.

But, the skepticism actually stems from something much deeper and more vital to the German mainstream: It is a cultural assumption here that schools and other institutions (such as the church) wield the ultimate responsibility for the moral and social education of children. The parents are important, too, of course, but only as long as they toe the mainstream line. Children must attend school, preferably the neighborhood school – no matter the quality. Homeschooling is illegal. Waldorf schools and church-sponsored schools were the only alternatives to state schools until very recently. Waldorf schools remain extremely popular here, but they have been joined in the past 10 years by a rapidly growing elite private school sector.  These schools offer an education aimed to produce a workforce for corporate management, not a traditional aim of German schools.

Last semester, I taught a class about anthropology and schooling, and one of the topics we considered was American homeschooling. I started the topic by having everyone read Paul Elie’s short essay The Homeschool Diaries in The Atlantic. I adored the article myself when I first read it. It was engaging, described a route to homeschooling that was based mostly on an economic reality faced by academics in a big metropolitan city but also included cultural values to which I immediately related. For example, he wrote about math tutoring, museum visits, sports and lively history and architecture programs for home schoolers:

A university eduction is our unquestioned aspiration for our children. .. It seems to be the closest model for the education we are now trying to provide. Tightly focused class sessions; expert presentations complemented by individual instruction; hands-on learning in areas that vary from day to day and year to year; education undertaken in the wider world. … (Elie, Paul, “The Homeschool Diaries”, The Atlantic, Oct. 2012, pg. 95)

In light of so many children I see plodding through uninspired mainstream schools, just waiting out their days and wasting their time, I read this article and my heart leapt high. “How wonderful to be able to provide this for one’s children.”

The German students in my course had very different reactions. Many were sidetracked by the writer’s economic situation that in their eyes seemed to have forced him to home school. “How can this be, that he cannot send his children to a normal school, or pay rent to live in a normal apartment in New York??” While I have to agree with their perspective (indeed, what is the world coming to), the realities of New York apartment rents were not the essence of Elie’s article. My students were mostly untouched by what had inspired me: the vivacity of undertaking such an educational voyage with one’s children, regardless of what led to that path. Another student spat out the usual criticism, which was that though Elie described his children’s soccer practices, courses, and museum activities with other kids, this “is not nearly the same thing as staying in the same class together day after day and year after year. They miss out on that bonding through boring school”. Indeed, German students stay with the same group of children most of their way through school. They have the same teacher for the first four years, and the class remains a group throughout the higher grades. The only big alterations are changes of school track. At the end of fourth grade (age 10), German pupils enter either a 1) Gymnasium, which prepares them to enter university after 12th or 13th grade, 2) Realschule (though this has various names), which prepares pupils to enter the white-collar workforce after 10th grade, or 3) Hauptschule, which prepares pupils for the blue-collar trades after 9th or 10th grade (from statista: Das Statistik-Portal). There are new programs which combine these (all very complicated and it varies from state to state) and students are allowed to change tracks. But, in general, the outline of the system is stable and life trajectories are established at the end of 4th grade.

In German, there are two words that carry great legal significance:  Bildungspflicht (compulsory education) and Schulpflicht (compulsory school attendance). Germany is the only European country which maintains the Schulpflicht as a governing dictum (see Bildungspflicht statt Schulpflicht). Some significant historical events underline the culturally defined confusion in Germany about home schooling. Before Frederick the Great introduced the idea of compulsory education, schooling had been confined to children attached to a royal court and wealthy land owners. He thus gave less privileged children their first rights to an education, embedded in the positive associations with the German state. Home schooling remained a possibility until 1938 when Hitler outlawed Hausunterricht, viewing it as a threat to his control. The topic seemed to disappear off the face of the German educational landscape until very recent court challenges sparked by cases in Austria and the US (ie..Amtsgericht Alsfeld vom 28.04.2003).

To home school means to put private good over public possibility. It is this potential conflict with the (in the US public policy) concept of parens patriae, the responsibility of the state to intervene against abusive or neglectful parents, that most engenders skepticism about home schooling among Germans. IS it healthy?  Are parents not endangering their children by choosing another type of education?

Here it might help to bring in Sir Ken Robinson’s criticism of mass education at his famous TED talk.

According to Robinson, compulsory mass education was developed alongside industrialization and this form of education has become outmoded. Public education spends its time and resources on educating children in a specific way, which does not necessarily match the needs of children as small, creative, individual human beings. Industrialization took the focus away from things like the arts and music and poetry and history, as these were not considered practical in getting a factory job. True enough. But the problem was that it also took arts and music and poetry and history away from those children who might have had a factory job and also played the fiddle down at the pub on Saturdays or enjoyed investigating local history to tell stories around the dinner table. It took creativity away.