Over the last decade or two, while other barometers of order and civilization have slipped, the American home-school movement has grown. American kids in general may have a shakier grasp of science, economics, literature and math; TV reality shows may advance from strength to strength; the North Pole may be melting; governments from Eastern Europe to Mexico might be caving to organized crime. But home schooling in the United States has thrived.
The movement's most recent victory was a decision this year by a U.S. immigration judge to grant political asylum in Tennessee to a German couple who insisted, against German law, on home schooling their kids.
One reason for America's new role as a haven for home schooling — at least according to its advocates — is Washington's ongoing refusal to ratify a U.N. treaty called the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which turned 20 in 2009, and the debate over this treaty is nothing less than a front in America's culture war.
The CRC lays out a series of "rights" for children that a government should try to ensure. They include the right to an education, the right to health care, "freedom of expression" and "freedom of thought, conscience, and religion." A range of conservative groups in America fear the treaty would limit U.S. sovereignty by giving a U.N. panel of 18 "persons of high character" in Geneva the authority to criticize American laws that fall afoul of the convention.
"To the extent that ... a group of unaccountable so-called experts in Switzerland have a say over how children in America should be raised, educated and disciplined — that is an erosion of American sovereignty," Steven Groves at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, told Fox News rather sensibly in 2009.
On the other hand, the tenets of the treaty are so uncontroversial to most of the world that only two nations have failed to ratify it — America and Somalia. Near the end of 2008, President-elect Barack Obama said he would revisit the ratification question.
"It is embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land," he said at the time. "I will review this."
He hasn't, so far. Whether he does may not matter because a government can sign on to the convention with "reservations" that detach the nation from certain tenets under international law. (Some Muslim governments, mindful of Sharia, have excused themselves from parts of the treaty using reservations.) Conservatives argue that the U.S. Constitution elevates any treaty to the "supreme law of the land."
But some lines in the convention really upset the Home School Legal Defense Association, which defended the German family in its quest for asylum in Tennessee. The tenet on "freedom of religion" gives a child the apparent right to disagree with parental opinions about God. A right to "freely participate in cultural life and arts" might be construed as a growing boy's right to watch whatever he damn pleases on TV. And a right to public education might be construed as a limit on parents who want to remove their kids from a public school.
If the convention were ratified in the U.S., argues the HSLDA, "parents no longer would have the basic right to control what their children watch on TV, whom they associate with, and what church they attend."
Except that the convention hasn't been powerful or nasty enough in the wider world to rob parents of such basic rights. (At least not as a class — there are a few isolated horror stories.) In Europe, where the right to home-school tends to be trumped by an unusual but very European insistence on enforcing democratic participation — which may mean going to school or, lately, exposing your face in public buildings — the CRC has not been the main obstacle to education at home.
Personally, I don't see why Washington should call its sovereignty into question just to pay lip service to "children's rights," which in America are pretty well protected. But at least two aspects of the treaty seem worthwhile. I think a kid needs the explicit right to question his or her family religion, particularly if the parents want to home-school their children as part of a cult. And the right of a child to read Darwin and learn about evolution ought to be codified somewhere.
This right is implied but not spelled out in the convention; and of course such clear legal articulation would be a call to arms for the Christian home schooling wing. Loathing for Darwin explains some of the passion against the CRC as well as the culture-war undertone. Not everyone home-schools to teach Genesis over evolution, but it's an enormous unspoken motivation for the growing movement, which can only weaken scientific literacy in the years to come.
Insisting on exposure to Darwin, moreover, would be consistent with America's Enlightenment roots. The CRC can stand or fall; but it may be time for folks in Washington to start asserting a few basic American values.