Homeschooling is Not Illegal in Germany

I recently got into an exchange on Twitter about homeschooling. My conversation starter was: “Homeschooling makes only slightly more sense than home surgery.” And it got the discussion going.

One thing that all American libertarians, and not only they, absolutely know is that “homeschooling” is illegal in Germany. I think it ties in with notions that European countries are almost Socialist and only a few steps away from full-blown totalitarianism. So it seems plausible that the government would intrude into your home and dictate what you must and must not do. As for Germany, one could also add some Nazi overtones. Of course, this is a caricature of the view I mean, which is usually much more sophisticated. But I think the appeal of the claim comes from some such underlying intuitive reasoning.

Now, this may be shocking for some: But it is perfectly legal in Germany to educate your children at home, whether you do it yourself or bring in someone else for the purpose! There are even constitutional guarantees that protect the family and its autonomy, and also the privacy of your home.

And it is also very common: My father taught me some woodworking, I failed. I also extracted an education from him and my mother by asking questions no end. And I was envious that other childrens’ parents could teach them how to play musical instruments. Many did. Some children could already read and write when they entered school, others had learned a second language at home. I could make this list much longer.

So if homeschooling means that you can educate your children at home as you like, you are free to do that in Germany. What you cannot do in Germany is— and I guess that is what people mean when they make the claim: You cannot only educate your children at home. They also have to spend some time at a school and get an education there. But that does not exclude that you can also educate them otherwise.

When I was in school, hours where only until about noon, only occasionally in the afternoon. It has become more expansive by now. But in any event, there is plenty of time for parents to homeschool their children. And if your children learn certain basics in school that is not necessarily a problem. You can then concentrate on other things that are more valuable to you than teaching them how to tie their shoes (I learned that in (non-compulsory) “Kindergarten,” which is actually not the same as an American “kindergarten”).

Libertarians view it as an infringement of their liberty if they have to send their children to a school. The argument appears to be: You have a natural right to dispose over the minds of your children and shape them in any way you want. Basically, what this means is: Your children are your property and no one should interfere with your use of them.

Now, this is a funny as an argument. Libertarians mostly trace their ideology back to John Locke, and he not only wrote the well-known sequel the “Second Treatise of Government,” but also the “First Treatise of Government.” In it, John Locke takes on Robert Filmer’s “Patriarcha” and specifically the argument that children are the property of their parents and that they hence have the right to do whatever they like with them: maim them, castrate them, kill them, whatever.

On the contrary, John Locke insists that parents are not the owners of their children, but their wardens. They must not do whatever they want with them, but have to act in the best interest of their children. They have to make decisions in their stead because the children cannot do it themselves. That puts stringent constraints on what parents can do with their children and what not. They cannot maim, castrate, or kill them, for example.

Now, how is this relevant for education? A child’s mind develops. If it is not fed with something or not in the right way, it becomes stunted. Take reading and writing, for example. It is very easy for a child to pick it up. But once you are older, it becomes very hard. People who have to learn reading and writing later in life usually master it only too a certain degree. You can learn a language until about age 12 or 13 just from listening to it. It goes so fast that you as an adult are green with envy. And the child then speaks the language without an accent just like a native speaker in a narrow sense: someone who was born into it. And the same goes for many other things.

If you had your own idea about how to feed your child, but got it wrong and it resulted in chronic undernutrition and/or malnutrition, the result would be stunted growth. The child will not be able to reach its potential, be shorter and that also impacts its mental development. Education seems like a pretty parallel case here: If you undernourish or malnourish your child with education, it will be stunted and suffer from it for the rest of its life.

And just like parents should not be allowed to cause stunted growth through their personal fancies about food, they should also not be allowed to cause mental stunting. Yes, that means that parents are not “at liberty” to do what they want and they may view this as an infringement of their liberty. But the relevant point here is that they are only wardens and should only be free to make decisions in the best interest of its liberty. This is not about the liberty of the parents in the first place.

Now as for food, the German government takes little interest. The reason is simple: With an abundant and broad supply, it is extremely hard to cause stunted growth. You have to be extremely careless or even malevolent to effect that. If it turns out that some parents fail to live up to their responsibility, the government can step in, maybe force them to improve their ways or in exteme cases even take the children away and hand them over to responsible wardens. I think libertarians should have no objections here. This would even have to be a function of some minimal state, something that German classical liberals always had on the radar, but which seems alien to many minarchists elsewhere.

As for education, it is not as clear. There are many things where the “stunting” is perhaps not that serious. My parents could not teach me how to play an instrument, but I could then learn it at a later age from music teachers with the support of my parents. Maybe I missed a career as a great musician, but probably not. But then there is also a minimum that children have to learn to be successful in their lives. If they fail to learn it as a child, this is a huge damage, just like stunted growth. And it is not just the three R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic). There are many more subjects where you should acquire at least some basic knowledge.

The confident claim that parents make who want to only homeschool their children is that they are proficient to teach all subjects. Prima facie that cannot be true for most people. I learned Latin, English, French, and Italian in school. How many people can teach that, plus mathematics, the sciences, history, literature, etc.? Not many. Even those who know a lot cannot emulate the whole curriculum of a school. I could certainly not teach sports.

So while it is innocuous to leave decisions about food to parents in the first place and step in only when something goes seriously wrong, it is the other way around for education. At first glance, a school with a staff of teachers for different subjects can provide it, and parents can’t. Hence to ensure a minimum of education so children do not become mentally stunted the go-to solution is that you have to send them to a school. That’s just like you may be a great surgeon and have all the equipment in your basement, but most people don’t. And so “home surgery” on your children should not be the standard option.

My hunch is that those who are so into homeschooling actually want to have complete control over their childrens’ minds and shape them to their liking because they are your property. I see a strong correlation with cranky views here. Homeschooling is apparently also meant to keep your children away from any other influences that you cannot control. That is more like a cult.

As long as you have plenty of time and opportunity to teach your children after school about UFOs, your fancy religious beliefs or your particular political ideology, you can do that also in Germany. Where you hit a constraint is when you want to expose them only to that. And this is in my view prima facie evidence that parents really want to stunt their childrens’ development in a certain way.

One obvious point how this lead to stunting is the social development of your children. I find it very important that I came into contact with many perspectives not those of my parents. It is good to get to know other children from all kinds of backgrounds, that was often very inspiring. I could also see how different parenting styles were. And I had to learn how to get along with others. That is not always a pleasant experience. But then you have to learn that in life anyway. Why not start with it as a child?

But isn’t there a lot of indoctrination going on in schools? Maybe you can view it that way. However, a monopoly on indoctrination by their parents does not do away with the problem. Actually, if you have two sources, this mitigates the excesses. If the government were to take the children away for good, I could see the point, not if you have plenty of time to counterbalance what you think are biases. But schools would also do this the other way around.

And then if the slant of a school bothers you, what you only need is some competition, so you can avoid the blatant forms. The German government does not have a monopoly on running schools. They set some standards, but if you meet them, you are free to set up your own school. Actually, Germany has a long tradition of schools that experiment with new methods. Many schools are run by churches or their orders, there are “Waldorfschulen” that are inspired by anthroposophy (if you ask me: that is pretty weird), and so forth.

As I said, you have to ensure some minimum. But as far as I can tell that offers a lot of leeway. And if it matters to you, you can even host the school you set up in your home and have your homeschooling in this way. What is not possible is that any idiot, to be blunt, can self-certify as a genius who can teach all subjects and then go on to indoctrinate their children any way they want because they are their property.

To sum up: Homeschooling is legal in Germany, just not homeschooling alone. If you have some vision how to run a better school, you are free to do that. Yes, you have to ensure a minimum, and it is debatable what that includes. But it is a good point to have some standard because mental stunting is a real damage that can result.

Maybe those who are into homeschooling will not be convinced by my argument. But they could at least think about whether the German or the American view is right here. Both can be argued from a standpoint of liberty: the liberty of the child or the liberty of the parents. It is not obvious to me why one is self-evidently superior here. And actually, I find the American view inconsistent, and not the German view, which gets the point right that this is about the wellbeing of the child.