On Liberty

Time to celebrate the life and opinions of one of the greatest home educated people ever, a man whose name became a byword for freedom and the right to do pretty much as you please. Step forward John Stuart Mill, perhaps the greatest intellect of the Victorian Age. His father was a proponent of what we would now call Hothousing, where a child's intellectual development is deliberately stimulated and accelerated with the intention or at least hope, of producing a genius. James Mill accordingly taught his son at home from infancy. By three, the child was learning Greek. By eight, he had read Xenophon in the original and was learning Latin. He was carefully shielded from the influence of other children, meeting in general only adults. His academic achievements throughout adolescence were outstanding until, at the age of twenty, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Some autonomous types are probably shaking their heads at this point, muttering that this is the sort of thing one would expect with such a structured education!

Mill's most famous book is On Liberty. In it, he sets out the framework for the liberal society where anybody should be able to do what they please, as long as it does not hurt others. This was radical stuff in Victorian Britain. He argued that sexual conduct was a private matter and that if a man wished to harm himself, that was his own business. These principles have become embedded in our modern world to such an extent that we tend to take them for granted.

I have in some quarters a reputation for being the sort of person who wants everybody to be compelled to educate their children just as I did my own child. Some even seem to think that I am a fan of the intrusive state, a state which meddles in the private lives of its citizens and wishes to involve itself in private affairs such as childrearing. This is sheer nonsense. Let us look at what John Stuart Mill had to say about home education in On Liberty. He must surely be the last person one would accuse of having a statist mindset.

'A state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another:'

'An education established and controlled by the state should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments'

I am sure that all home educating parents will cheer such opinions. Remarkable that they were written a hundred and fifty years ago. Mill was a great supporter of home education. It had worked for him and he thought that it could work for most people. He was not at all a fan of schools, especially state schools. He believed that the law should grant to every child the right to an education, but that, 'it might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased'. Mill believed that the legal situation with children and the idea of freedom in relation to children was misunderstood. He said;

'It is in the case of children that misapplied notions of liberty are a real obstacle to the fulfilment by the state of its duties.'

He believed that the law should not only allow parents to educate their children, but that they should be compelled to do so, because;

'to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society; and that if the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the State ought to see it fulfilled'

In other words; he was all in favour of home education, did not love the idea of state schools and thought that all parents should be able to educate their children as they wished. So far, so good and I doubt that anybody will disagree with his views on the matter, at least among home educators. He was however concerned that some parents might shirk their duties and ignore the child's right to an education. How could one ensure that this did not happen?

'The instrument for enforcing the law could be no other than public examinations, extending to all children and starting at an early age. An age might be fixed at which every child must be examined, to ascertain if he (or she) is able to read. If a child proves unable, the father might be subjected to a moderate fine and the child put to school'

He goes on to outline a system for checking regularly that the child is receiving an education; his idea being that the freedom of the parents had to give way in this matter to the rights of the child. This is such a lucid exposition of the theoretical underpinning for the notion of regular monitoring of home education, that I urge all readers to track down a copy of On Liberty and read it, or at least the bits about education. they are to be found at the end in the section called Applications.

That one of the most famous of all home educated men, who was also the architect of many of the freedoms which we today enjoy, should take such a position is heartening in the extreme. I cannot do better than recommend that any parent who sees any sort of contradiction between the rights and freedom of citizens and the duty of the State to monitor home education regularly, should read this very useful book.