The right of a child to a good education

I wrote recently about the children in some Ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools who spend most of their time studying the Torah and other religious materials and very little time on regular secular education, leaving them woefully unprepared to work in the modern world. As a result of that post, I became interested in the question of to what extent religious groups can deny access to secular education for their children.

The key legal precedent that is used to justify religious parents’ control over decisions concerning their children’s education is the 1972 case Wisconsin v. Yoder which looked at whether the Amish had the right to pull their children out of school at the end of 8th grade, even though state law required compulsory education up to the age of 16. In a case involving two Amish students who were only 14 and 15 when they completed 8th grade, the US Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that they did have the right to be withdrawn from school.

In his majority opinion Chief Justice Burger argued that that the ‘sincerity’ of the community’s religious beliefs was a key factor, and used the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment to justify giving preference to protecting the interests of the religious community over the interests of the individual child.

Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law required them to cause their children to attend public or private school until reaching age 16, but the respondents declined to send their children, ages 14 and 15, to public school after they completed the eighth grade.

The State stipulated that respondents’ religious beliefs were sincere.

In support of their position, respondents presented as expert witnesses scholars on religion and education whose testimony is uncontradicted. They expressed their opinions on the relationship of the Amish belief concerning school attendance to the more general tenets of their religion, and described the impact that compulsory high school attendance could have on the continued survival of Amish communities as they exist in the United States today.

As a result of their common heritage, Old Order Amish communities today are characterized by a fundamental belief that salvation requires life in a church community separate and apart from the world and worldly influence. This concept of life aloof from the world and its values is central to their faith.

On the basis of such considerations, Dr. Hostetler testified that compulsory high school attendance could not only result in great psychological harm to Amish children, because of the conflicts it would produce, but would also, in his opinion, ultimately result in the destruction of the Old Order Amish church community as it exists in the United States today.

Although the trial court, in its careful findings, determined that the Wisconsin compulsory school attendance law, “does interfere with the freedom of the Defendants to act in accordance with their sincere religious belief,” it also concluded that the requirement of high school attendance until age 16 was a “reasonable and constitutional” exercise of governmental power, and therefore denied the motion to dismiss the charges. The Wisconsin Circuit Court affirmed the convictions. The Wisconsin Supreme Court, however, sustained respondents’ claim under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, and reversed the convictions.

In a strongly worded dissent, Justice William O. Douglas (who was often far ahead of his time in that many of his dissents later became the majority view) said that it was the child’s interest that should be paramount, not the religious interests of the parents or the community. He said that the lower courts should have canvassed the opinions of the students and not assumed an identity of interests between parent and child, pointing out that “Canvassing the views of all school-age Amish children in the State of Wisconsin would not present insurmountable difficulties. A 1968 survey indicated that there were at that time only 256 such children in the entire State.”

The Court’s analysis assumes that the only interests at stake in the case are those of the Amish parents, on the one hand, and those of the State, on the other. The difficulty with this approach is that, despite the Court’s claim, the parents are seeking to vindicate not only their own free exercise claims, but also those of their high-school-age children.

On this important and vital matter of education, I think the children should be entitled to be heard. While the parents, absent dissent, normally speak for the entire family, the education of the child is a matter on which the child will often have decided views. He may want to be a pianist or an astronaut or an oceanographer. To do so he will have to break from the Amish tradition

It is the future of the student, not the future of the parents, that is imperiled by today’s decision. If a parent keeps his child out of school beyond the grade school, then the child will be forever barred from entry into the new and amazing world of diversity that we have today. The child may decide that that is the preferred course, or he may rebel. It is the student’s judgment, not his parents’, that is essential if we are to give full meaning to what we have said about the Bill of Rights and of the right of students to be masters of their own destiny. If he is harnessed to the Amish way of life by those in authority over him, and if his education is truncated, his entire life may be stunted and deformed. The child, therefore, should be given an opportunity to be heard before the State gives the exemption which we honor today.

In a recent development, you may recall the case of Amish leader Sam Mullet and his associates who were sent to jail for forcibly cutting the hair and beards of those people whom he felt were heretics. It turns out (and I did not know this before) that prisoners are required to attend classes that lead to a GED, the diploma equivalent to high school, as part of the attempt to help them rehabilitate into society upon their release. Mullet objected, saying that being forced to study beyond a certain level violated his religious beliefs. Upon review, the prison officials agreed to exempt them from the requirement.

It is quite extraordinary that even adults will reject education because of their religious beliefs, so afraid are they that knowledge will weaken religion’s hold on them. Is it any wonder that the Amish (and the Hassidic) communities are also some of the poorest because they have such low levels of education?

I suspect that just as the shift to the best interests of the child was a key step in enabling the adoption of children by gay parents, a similar shift may in the future end the power of religious communities to stultify the intellectual growth of their children by only allowing them access to a useless religion-heavy curriculum.


  1. jamessweet says

    I’m a little conflicted on issues like this. There is a part of me which wants to say that allowing this sort of shenanigans helps to inoculate society against a hypothetical oppressive government — basically, I sometimes am inclined to see it as an important part of giving people the right to full-on “opt out” of the system.

    OTOH, there’s little doubt that it is doing these children direct harm, arguably even irreparable harm. I find it sickening that the law tends to be so lenient towards parents who deny their children medical care for religious reasons, and I have difficulty articulating clear reasons why this falls in a different category. Maybe it doesn’t fall in a different category.

    I will say, I think the analogy to adoption by gay parents is flawed… while there is a superficial similarity in the sense that both involve the “best interests of the child”, in one case you are talking about giving (adoptive) parents more rights, and in the other you are talking about giving them less rights to do what they want with their children. That’s not an argument either way, mind you, I’m just observing the two issues are pretty different.

  2. says

    The key legal precedent that is used to justify religious parents’ control over decisions concerning their children’s education is the 1972 case Wisconsin v. Yoder…

    …possibly the worst recent SCOTUS decision EVER. Allowing one religious group to ignore the laws that should apply to everyone equally — just because those people were so gosh-darn sincere and nice* — totally undermined the most basic principle of equal protection of the laws. Didn’t those old fools read the words carved into their own building?

    * You think Burger would have said the same thing about a Wiccan community? Don’t make me laugh.

  3. says

    jamessweet, I’m sorry. I don’t see the point in your argument. If the children wish to continue their education against their parents religious beliefs, I simply do not see any conflict at all. They deserve to have the right to give themselves (however ridiculous it is that they would have to take a stand) the best opportunities in life that they can.

    If you’re mother was a homeopath and you sincerely (and with knowledge of your mother’s dissenting views) wanted to pursue a path in chemistry, why in the fucking world would her opinion on the subject have any legal resonance on whether or not you should be able to take a course in chemistry in high school? As long as the course is accepted within the wider scientific society there is literally no reason why a child should be held back because of strongly held beliefs.

    In closing, fuck that shit.

  4. says

    In addition to that, I don’t think children should be able to opt out of schooling that is approved by a majority of scientists and educators full stop. Regardless of how children or parents think that education might somehow harm the children it’s ridiculous to think that a child should be able to grow to adulthood without the basic underpinnings of education that are needed in today’s society (however, I’m not having a go at homeschooling, as long as it holds up to a basic standard).

  5. angrymudcrab says

    @ #1, jamessweet:

    The trouble with your scenario is the people who need the opt out the most don’t get it. I’m not worried about some hypothetical tyranny trying to brainwash kids, when there are millions of petty tyrannies out there actively doing so. Anecdotal evidence is anecdotal, but for what it is worth, I was homeschooled for religious reasons from third grade to the end of high school. My parents are hard core conservative and at the time were deeply enamored with the extreme conservative movement within the Catholic Church. They weren’t schismatic over it, but they basically wanted to roll back Vatican II and restore the Church to the way it operated before the 1960s.

    The curriculum we used was by a program called Seton Home Study School. It was essentially trying to recreate a Catholic private school curriculum for people who couldn’t afford a private school. It wasn’t horrible, since the Church isn’t as hostile to education as some sects. It also had the added bonus being actually accredited, so I was able to get into college. So in that regard I was better off than a lot of people homeschooled for religious reasons.

    One of the more interesting part of the program was the history curriculum. It was a whitewash of Catholic history and included such fascinating things like: how the suppression of the Hussites and forced re-conversion of the Czechs to Catholicism was a good thing, how the Spanish and Austrians were trying to preserve civilization during the wars of religion, how the Spanish conquests in the new world were actually good for the natives, how Franco wasn’t such a bad guy, the Hungarian Arrow Cross and the Romanian Iron Guards were just misunderstood. I suspect this next part was due more to it being based in Virginia than Catholicism per say, but it was also in favor of secession. So while slavery is mentioned as bad, it was presented as being more humane than Northern industrialists treatment of their workers(which was admittedly quite bad). It further presents the Civil War as a legitimate attempt by the South to preserve their culture in the face of Northern/Federal tyranny. So fun times there.

    Another interesting part of the curriculum was English. The Catholic Church believes in something called natural law, essentially mankind is hardwired to know God’s law, and even in the absence of formal exposure to the Catholic Church, will still try to express it. What this meant for me was I had to read Catholic themes into not just Catholic literature, but Pagan and Protestant literature as well. Robinson Crusoe was a fun one, since he started out a nominal Catholic because he owned land in Brazil(which meant he had to follow the state religion of Catholicism) and became a hard core Protestant during his time on the island. Another good one was having to read Catholic themes into the Iliad, as well as Sohrab and Rustum. So I had to write essays on how Protestant and outright non-Christian literature had Catholic themes in it.

    This was all on top of the obvious Catechism class. Another feature of the curriculum is that no matter what class you were in, the things you sent in to be graded had about 50/50 chance of coming back with the grader invoking some saints blessing or exhorting you to pray that the scourge of abortion was ended. Didn’t matter what class it was.

    The math and science front was definitely lacking. The trouble with teaching is that it is hard to teach what you don’t know. My dad majored in English. My mom never finished college but was majoring in Theater before she married my dad and dropped out. Both were were interested in history as a hobby. This meant that I learned to read and write tolerably well and they didn’t heavily scrutinize any history books I got from the library(which is how I figured out the history curriculum was rubbish). In math we got through early Algebra before running into a wall. My dad reached the end of what he fully understood, and about the same time he had to be at work more and didn’t have as much time to work on it. So I had to teach myself Math from then on, all while not knowing what I was doing and with no help. This meant I barely got through enough math in to graduate, what I knew was shaky, and the lack of grounding would also hurt me later on in college. Physics, chemistry, and biology were a joke. We did the bare minimum and pretty much everything I know about those subjects I learned on my own or in college later.

    Then we get to the social front. This is more due to my parents’ situation than the curriculum. For a while when I was young, we lived in a community that had a large Latin Tridentine Mass, and while there was a heavy ideological slant, I was able to play and hang out with other people my own age. After a few years we had to move due to family business, and the parish we went to was a small one comprised of old people using the Novus Ordo Mass. This, combined with the small number of homeschoolers in the area meant I spent several years with my parent being the only people I had meaningful contact with.

    The Catholic abuse scandal was actually a good thing for me. Either none of the priests at the churches we went to were pedos, or they just didn’t fancy me. So I got through being an altar boy without being raped. More importantly, the scandal shook my parents’ faith and since we’d moved into a new area with more liberal congregations, so we stopped going to church then. This was the first time I really started to doubt Catholicism. I’d had doubts before, but pushed them down because everyone I knew was Catholic and I figured that people smarter than me had resolved any of them. We got internet access about the same time and I started to interact with people who weren’t Catholic on the internet. By the time I got to college I didn’t believe it anymore.

    That said, once I got into college, it was bad. Before going to school, my dad hugged me and said something to the effect of, “don’t let them brainwash you into being a liberal”. I spent three years on the verge of a nervous breakdown, didn’t make friends, ask for help, or take advantage of the school’s therapists. I’d been taught to distrust others my own age and therapy was “liberal bullshit”. Part of the problem was I didn’t know what was true anymore. I didn’t believe in Catholicism, but Atheism was evil and when you are raised the way I was you can’t just pretend religion doesn’t exist and get on with your life. It took me a long time and I tried to read about other religions but none of them really made sense. Somehow I got onto the Atheist part of youtube, and that helped out a great deal, and eventually it clicked that the burden of proof was on the people making the claim, I didn’t have to exhaustively disprove everything I didn’t believe in, and that it was ok to be an Atheist. As far as academics went, I was trying to major in CS, but the lack of math background and the fact I was too afraid to ask for help in classes I was struggling in meant it didn’t work out. I was stubborn and held out longer than I probably should have, but I eventually switched to geography and graduated a year and a half late, but hey, I got the fancy piece of paper.

    Now, like I said, this is all anecdotal, and frankly, I got off light compared to a lot of people who were homeschooled. I count most of my childhood as wasted years, and my time spent at college, while helpful and necessary, was miserable. I was intellectually and emotionally crippled by this rubbish. I’m getting better, but what should have been the best years of my life are gone, and there is no way of getting them back.

    TL;DR – Parents shouldn’t be allowed to sequester their children in a fantasy world. My parents weren’t trying to screw me over, they were just incredibly ignorant. Just because you are a parent doesn’t give you the omniscient ability to know what is best for your child. My instinct is to ban homeschooling outright, but at the very least it needs to be tightly regulated and monitored. The same goes for all religious schools. I don’t care if people whine about tyranny, because frankly, the government has done me less harm than my family has.

  6. Mano Singham says

    Thanks so much for writing this. I found it a moving testimony to the problems that can occur with putting such strict restrictions on a child’s education even by well-meaning parents.

  7. Mano Singham says


    Looking at it from the point of view of the parents, you are right. But I was looking at it from the point of view of the child. The best interests of the child applied in both cases will, in the adoption case, send them to the home that will provide them with the best environment while, in the education case, will enable them to have the best education.

  8. Corvus illustris says

    My instinct is to ban homeschooling outright, but at the very least it needs to be tightly regulated and monitored. The same goes for all religious schools. I don’t care if people whine about tyranny …

    What I really take away from your story is the case for banning homeschooling. State education departments can keep a short leash on private schools, including those maintained by religious sects (and particularly yeshivot–see Mano’s posts–the NY/NJ situation is simply corrupt), but there’s really a different homeschooling scheme in each home “school”. There are no labs for science, and, of course, the “teaching staff” may just not be up to the job, as your folks seem not to have been.

    One of the more interesting part of the program was the history curriculum … how Franco wasn’t such a bad guy, the Hungarian Arrow Cross and the Romanian Iron Guards were just misunderstood.

    (Jaw drops.) This isn’t just pre-Vatican II–this is cozying up to the fascists, in the strict 1930s-’40s sense. The RCs used to be big for this, but I thought they–even the Tridentine-mass guys–realized that this Pius_{12}-ish policy didn’t make them look really wonderful after WW_2. There’s no way to whitewash the historical facts.

  9. angrymudcrab says

    It is not just the ability of the “teaching staff”, but the collection and organization of the curriculum as well. For all it’s faults, Seton at least had a coherent preplanned package that my parents could just use. They also have graders and are accredited. A lot of homeschool parents don’t have that, they have to just make up the curriculum as they go along, and once they are through the kid has to take the GED, but depending on how badly the parents did they don’t have the abilities to pass that. A major part of the problem imo, is that the results depend heavily on the existing knowledge of the parents, their ability to set up and maintain a proper teaching system, all on top of normal responsibilities like having a job. Most parents can’t do that. For all people denigrate teachers, it is a lot of work, especially when you have to set everything up from scratch. I know that even with Seton helping it got to be too much for my parents towards the end, I can’t imagine what it would be like for a family with a less stable income or educated parents. There is very little to make sure that the kids are actually being educated and treated well. Some states have laws requiring you to register(I think, this is based on overhearing my parents talk about it), but a lot of the times you can fly under the radar.

    For the fascist stuff, I think the reason a lot of the attitudes don’t sound out of place from the 30’s and 40’s is because these people regard that time as a good one, at least as far as the Church was concerned. In America it was when we had a strong system of parochial schools, the idea that reform was necessary was far off, and religion in general was afforded more respect. In truth it goes further back than the 40’s. If you want to know where they think things started going wrong there are two events. The Protestant Reformation(also known as the Protestant Revolt), and the French Revolution. They hate both these events because they disrupted what they think should be the proper role of both church and state.

    They are monarchists at heart, provided the monarchy follows Catholic teachings. More generally, the state is to be subordinated to the Church. Temporal authority is derived from the Pope, who derives his authority from God Himself. This means that a government is illegitimate if it does not meet the approval of the Pope, and if necessary he has the right to depose it. In practice this hasn’t been exercised since the middle ages, and even then it was difficult to enforce. However, that is the theoretical framework they view the world through. So if a government fulfills it’s end of the bargain, it is a good government and can be allied with. In the end it is very authoritarian, with everyone answering to the Pope, who answers to God.

  10. steve84 says

    The irrational fear Americans have of an “oppressive government” would probably seem ridiculous to anyone who has ever lived under one.

  11. Corvus illustris says

    Because I’m b. 1938, Catholic ed (all Dominicans) right through the pre-Vatican-II B.A., I can attest independently to everything you say about them, except perhaps I would say “absolutists at heart” rather than “monarchists.” But I did google around looking at pieces of Seton’s materisl (most is pay-walled for the obv reason), and found them appalling. A biology unit that mostly consists of readings that “begin with Hippocrates and go up to Michael J. Behe” (not an exact quote, but exact substance). What? Even in my small boondock Catholic HS we cut up worms, frogs, etc., and used a contemporary textbook. Our history courses were tendentious, naturally, but they were even preferable to the contemporaneous public-school courses, which were too heavily focused on the USA.

    I apologize for the offensive tone of calling your folks “teaching staff.” And having taught college for my entire adult working life, I know how hard it is to put a course together from scratch.

  12. angrymudcrab says

    @Corvus illustris:

    No need to apologize. I was using the quote marks in the same sense as you did and trying to expand on what I posted earlier, not defend their foolishness. There is a reason we have schools. It is a hard job and most people don’t have the time, knowledge, or interest to do it. The sad thing is that I am probably one of the luckier people who have been homeschooled. I was in an accredited program, my parents were able to least teach me enough to get into college and I was fortunate enough to graduate. If I am what a good homeschooling result looks like, that is pathetic. I spent 5.5 miserable years playing intellectual catchup to people my age who went to the incompetent, dangerous, and licentious public schools. Whats more, they seemed more put together mentally and emotionally than I was. I know things aren’t exactly sunshine and kittens in the American public school system, but homeschooling is playing with fire, and your kids are the ones who will get burned by it. Children have to grow up and live in the real world eventually. Preventing them from learning the things they need to function in it will only make the transition more painful.

  13. says

    I’m very glad to discover this post. This is a subject of much of my blogging, since I write about the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, which is a) totally insane (in fact, that’s my Guardian article linked in the comment above), and b) used in private schools and so protected by the same kinds of laws you’re discussing.

    I agree with the general arguments above – that the child’s interest should be paramount. What I think could be problematic, though, is suggesting that asking the children what they want will give the best answer. If children have been indoctrinated from birth to believe that their religion is the only way, it’s probable that a great deal of children aged 12 (for example) would opt to continue being educated in that religious tradition.

    There are books by fundamentalist educators where the authors claim their children have said “Thank you for spanking me Daddy. I know you’re doing it because it’s best for me.” I do not think the authors are lying. I think the children are really educated. The question is, what would the children choose for themselves if they had full access to all the information and arguments, and were mature enough to make a rational decision?

    In the case of the Amish children, I think that it’s unlikely that many rational, autonomous individuals would choose not to be educated past the 8th grade. But if the courts had asked the children and the parents, I think they would have almost unanimously opted out of education. So then it becomes a question of whether society (or the government, or the “experts”) knows what’s right for the children better than either the children themselves or their parents. And that’s when we get into a situation that does seem tyrannical. Can you imagine forcing 13 year olds to go to school when they believe it’s against the will of both God and their parents? On the other hand, I fervently believe that in the long term, education is the best thing for them. It’s not an easy decision.

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