What is a fallacy?
At its heart, a fallacy is an exercise in faulty reasoning. Fallacies can be divided up into both formal and informal categories. A formal fallacy is applied to arguments which may or may not be valid, but which fail to follow the established rules of logic. Even if your argument is sound, you will still be found guilty of formal fallacy if you fail to demonstrate a traceable progression between premise and conclusion.
Informal fallacies are arguments that may be formally valid, i.e., they play by the rules of logic, but are rationally unpersuasive. Informal fallacies are, in Carl Cohen’s word, “mistakes in reasoning that arise from the mishandling of the content of the propositions constituting the argument.” Typically informal fallacies are employed by desperate people who, lacking actual evidence, must resort to rhetorical subterfuge. Though many of these are fairly easy to spot, the more finely-woven varieties can be devastating in the hands of a skillful manipulator.
Though both parties could legitimately be accused of the infamous “non sequitur” (latin, “it does not follow”), whereas the error of the formalist can be demonstrated mechanically, i.e. “you broke the rules,” the error of the informalist can don a dapper bow tie and enjoy a pleasant night on the town. And therein lies the key danger.
I was recently made aware of a seething cauldron of these well-dressed and dangerous fallacies in a recent article published by Harvard Magazine entitled The Risks of Homeschooling. Though written by Erin O’Donnell, it’s caustic momentum is sustained throughout by one Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor of law and faculty director of the Law School’s Child Advocacy Program.
In case you haven’t already guessed, Bartholet isn’t an homeschooling advocate. In fact, you might even say (and you should, because she says so herself) that homeschooling is a growing threat to both our children and the very fabric of democracy. But here’s the kicker. Rather than presenting her argument based on a careful analysis of actual evidence—you know, as one would expect of a Harvard publication—she opts for the novel approach of trying to “prove” her thesis using a war machine constructed entirely of logical fallacies.
She begins by trying to convince us of the widespread abuses rampant on the homeschooling hearth.
As an example, [Bartholet] points to the memoir Educated, by Tara Westover, the daughter of Idaho survivalists who never sent their children to school. Although Westover learned to read, she writes that she received no other formal education at home, but instead spent her teenage years working in her father’s scrap business, where severe injuries were common, and endured abuse by an older brother.
This fallacy is known as a hasty generalization, and it occurs when accusations are leveled at larger groups using an insufficient number of samples as proof. Here, we are led to believe that the unfortunate experience of Tara Westover typifies the experience of homeschoolers in general. But not only does Bartholet fail to offer any evidence to support her claim, she also fails to grapple with the large pools of data which seem to indicate that homeschooled students are generally happier and fare better in life than their publically schooled peers. I’d also direct your attention to the hundreds of up-voted comments on the article reporting happy homes and thorough education if I knew I wouldn’t be accused of an appeal to anecdote.
Not content with one fallacy, however, Bartholet follows through with another (most fallacies like to travel in packs.) She states “that (Westover’s abuse) is what can happen under the [unregulated homeschooling] system in effect in most of the nation.” This is known as a slippery slope fallacy. It sees an allowed small step (not that I view any child abuse as a small thing) as proof that systemic corruption is inevitably en route. Without saying as much, Bartholet wants us to believe that without the perpetual scrutiny of educators and “advocacy” groups, children everywhere will be left to the savage whims of *gasp!* parents. Once this happens, it will surely only be a matter of time before North America will be ruled entirely by angry, abused children.
As long as we’re here, we may as well get aquainted with another fallacy called an appeal to emotion. This happens when people take a subject or demographic best suited to elicit sympathy—children in this case—and inject them into their fear-mongering argument, making them seem even more big and scary. Bartholet states, “I think it’s always dangerous to put powerful people in charge of the powerless, and to give the powerful ones total authority.” Here, innocent, impressionable children are set up against the backdrop of authoritarian, power-hungry parents. What does Bartholet see driving this parental regime?
Surveys of homeschoolers show that a majority of such families (by some estimates, up to 90 percent) are driven by conservative Christian beliefs, and seek to remove their children from mainstream culture.” Bartholet notes that some of these parents are “extreme religious ideologues” who question science and promote female subservience and white supremacy.
Without even touching “some estimates,” I’ll leave you, gentle reader, to try to reconcile all the varied contradictions here. I just want to point out that both science-questioners and white-supremacists are foisted onto the same “religious ideology” continuum. I’m sure there’s an ad hominem attack or two in there somewhere but I’ll let you discover those for yourself.
What then, is Bartholet’s alternative? Easy. You just substitute one authority (a parental unit) for another (a government Borg.)
“It’s. . .important that children grow up exposed to community values, social values, democratic values, ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints.”
This statement is a veritable crown of sparkling ironies, but notice primarily here that Bartholet, a through-and-through product of her own celebrated institution, demonstrates a consistent, not to mention undemocratic, intolerance towards “other people’s viewpoints”: namely, the viewpoints of homeschoolers. One really doesn’t need to dig very deep to realize that the government school experiment has not only failed to create open-minded, tolerant, thoughtful citizens, but rather have produced an anti-contingent of reactionary, narrow-minded ideologues. For Bartholet, and others who share her sympathies, the only institution which should be permitted to indoctrinate is the state —all others must be rendered invalid and oppressive. Because children, right?
As a shining example of such “social values” she holds up Germany, whose draconian laws currently prevent any and all homeschooling. In this seemingly throwaway statement, I believe Bartholet tips her hand. Using the rise of child abuse and the unraveling of democracy as a riot shield, deep down she seems upset that the arms of the state are currently impeded by parental authority. Her posture seems to indicate she honestly believes everyone would be happier if they simply let father government take the reigns on training our children.
Happily, “she concedes that in some situations, homeschooling may be justified and effective.” Unfortunately if the sweeping regulations she wanted were enacted, “legitimate” homeschoolers would be just as illegal as the illegitimate ones. Something tells me her heart wouldn’t be broken by this.
My agitation in all of this is not that such illogical opinions exist, but that they are held to by people in power, and published by credible sources. This is how corruption spreads. Not by admitting a view as the perspective of fringe radicals, but by serving it up as a viable alternative, held by rational people. Remember, normalization is the first, and most effective tool in the oppressor’s toolbox.
**Addendum: A homeschooling graduate of Harvard has since written an informed, well-researched response here and it is a fantastic read.