Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What's happening with the Neubronners

The Neubronner family in Bremen has been having some tough times recently. After they received a letter announcing yet another increase in the fines imposed (now totalling 7 500 euros) and threatening them with other punitive measures (not elaborated on in the letter), they decided to send their sons to school for the time being. They were concerned, having heard a rumour that the school authorities planned to remove their sons from their custody right before or during the Christmas period, and decided that this step was necessary so that they could at least have a peaceful Christmas.

Thomas is coping ok, although he is incredibly bored and can't bear to look at the acts of brutality among his classmates. Moritz, however, is already showing signs of strain. He told me last night that every three minutes he counts the days till the Christmas vacation and tells his teachers at every opportunity that he is only going because of the Zwangsgeld and the threat of his parents losing custody, but he hates school. Dagmar said that he has already started getting the cough which he had continually when he was previously at school for two years. The other boys tease him maliciously and call him a truant because he was being home educated. In spite of all this, he is demonstrating quiet perseverance while he bears his burden. He is particularly proud of the fact that, in spite of being unschooled (or because of it), he is top of the class in his year and second best among the students in the year ahead of him.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Moving away from a pluralistic society

One of the things I was busy with recently was a translation of the recent judgement of the German Federal Court in the matter of a home educating family who had two of their children removed from their custody, which was taken over by the local Jugendamt (something akin to a welfare office for children). What seems to have happened is that the Jugendamt official responsible for the children's education and place of residence got to know the family and realised that there was really no danger to the children's welfare. He allowed the parents to take the children to Austria and register them as resident there, after which he himself applied to the Austrian education authorities to register the children as homeschoolers in Austria, according to that country's laws.

The court, dealing with the parent's appeal against a lower court's refusal to return the children's custody to them, took a dim view of this and not only upheld the lower court's decision, but declared that the Jugendamt official was incompetent. It decided that the custody of the children should be handed to another office more capable of upholding the original intent of the removal of custody - the enforcement of the children's compulsory school attendance.

The work of translating this document was a very emotional experience for me - I'm sure there isn't a homeschooler who can read this without the bile rising up inside them. The sheer arrogance of the judges just takes one's breath away. How else can one explain a statement like this one,

"There is no necessity to call for such a report, as the advantages of school attendance and the relative disadvantages of home education, as described by the Higher Regional Court – in line with the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court – are accessible to the judges’ expert knowledge, with no other evidence being necessary, and furthermore are covered by the the evaluation of the legislators of education law in Germany as well as that of the Constitutional Court."

And the following statement is a slap in the face for every civilised country (for example, Germany's neighbour, Austria) in which home education has been permitted for decades :

"The mental and emotional welfare of the children is lastingly endangered because the first Party rejects and hinders the school education which is important for the development of the children in a pluralistic society. It is a moot point whether the home education of the children ensures an adequate transfer of knowledge, as children should also grow up in community life. "

It is ironic that this (and other German courts dealing with homeschooling cases) has the cheek to mention the importance of living in a pluralistic society and then states, elsewhere in the judgement :

"Society at large has a rightful interest in working against the formation of religiously or ideologically coloured “parallel societies” and in integrating minorities in this respect."

A few minutes after doing an internet search on the word pluralism, I started thinking that the judges's expert knowledge of pluralism is on a par with their knowledge of homeschooling.

From the Encyclopaedia Britannica -

Pluralism assumes that diversity is beneficial to society and that autonomy should be enjoyed by disparate functional or cultural groups within a society, including religious groups, trade unions, professional organizations, and ethnic minorities.

From -

A condition in which numerous distinct ethnic, religious, or cultural groups are present and tolerated within a society.
The belief that such a condition is desirable or socially beneficial.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - ,

The strongest version of political pluralism claims that all these value systems are equally true (and thus presumably all ought to be tolerated), a weaker view is that these value systems all ought to be tolerated, and probably the most common version of the view is that some of these systems (the reasonable ones) ought to be tolerated.

On the one hand, this and other similar judgements highlight the importance of pluralism, but then they often go on to talk about the "common good" (or similar words, such as the "interest" of "society at large", as I translated it). If I am understanding it correctly, these courts themselves are not only not acting in terms of an understanding of pluralism, they are actually making a mockery of the term. I know that Wikipedia is not necessarily the most unbiased source, but I was riveted by what their entry on political pluralism has to say about the "Common Good":

Pluralism is connected with the hope that this process of conflict and dialogue will lead to a definition and subsequent realization of the common good that is best for all members of society. This implies that in a pluralistic framework, the common good is not given a priori. Instead, the scope and content of the common good can only be found out in and after the process of negotiation (a posteriori).
Consequently, the common good does not, according to pluralists, coincide with the position of any one cohesive group or organization. However, a necessary outcome of this philosophy is that the beliefs of any particular group cannot represent
absolute truth. Therefore any group with a philosophy that purports to hold both absolute truth and identify the common good is wrong - their belief system is irrelevant and cannot represent truth that impacts on others who do not hold to the given belief system.

It seems to me that the German political authorities and courts are busy identifying the common good (stopping homeschooling because it supposedly creates parallel societies) without even attempting to discuss this issue. They have decided that homeschooling is bad for the common good and enforced mandatory school attendance is good for it and basta!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Buying into the Ivy League illusion?

I was chatting to someone who had been reading my blog recently and she made a comment that I thought was really interesting. She asked why homeschoolers often go on about how they (or other homeschoolers) are attending Ivy League Universities in the USA, something she finds a bit of a contradiction.

My first introduction to homeschooling was an article about the Colfax brothers, who had attended Harvard after being homeschooled. I think that there was an element of "Wow, if they can do that after being homeschooled, then it must be okay", that guided my initial reaction and opened me up to this possibility. I, personally, have had no experience of American universities at all, but my friend had attended both an Ivy League institution and a state college. She said that, in her experience, Ivy League universities are over-rated and not worth the extra tuition fees. The state university that she attended had a much higher standard than the Ivy League university.

She wanted to know why, when homeschoolers prefer to give their children a more individualised (and cheaper) education than they could receive at overrated private schools and then brag that their children are attending these overrated universities.

My immediate reply to her was that first of all, home educators who attend Ivy League universities are usually there on scholarships. Also, I am sure that there some careers in which a particular elite university has a very good course in this discipline, making it worthwhile to attend this college. Generally, homeschoolers don't attend such institution - your average American ex-homeschooled kid is either getting an education at a community or state college or deciding to avoid the option of university altogether, rather concentrating on in-job training or starting their own business.

However, I think that we homeschoolers should examine our assumptions about education and ask ourselves to what extent we are buying into an illusion when we spotlight those homeschoolers who take the Ivy League route. Are we being taken in by the snob effect of these schools (and is this what makes them so expensive) or is this truly education of a high quality which home educators should be proud of achieving?