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Mon 22
Freedom to teach should be mistaken for political indoctrination

Freedom to teach should be mistaken for political indoctrination

An expert in freedom of education, Jan De Groof discusses homeschooling and the different aspects of indoctrination in elementary and higher education

Renan Barbosa

After a bill was sent by Jair Bolsonaro’s (PSL) government to regulate homeschooling, the debate on the subject will once again catch fire on the National Congress. On the same morning the government presented the text, Gazeta do Povo spoke about the issue with Jan De Groof, one of the world’s leading experts in freedom of education, who was in Brazil at the invitation of the Ministry of Woman, Family, and Human Rights.

A professor at the College of Europe, in Belgium, at the University of Tilburg, in the Netherlands, and commissioner of the Belgian government for that country’s universities, De Groof headed UNESCO’s right to education mission from 2007 to 2010, where he still acts as a member. During the conversation, De Groof spoke about the positive results of homeschooling, and the myth that children who are educated this way are not able to socialize.

“We know from studies that most families who opt for homeschooling are very much opened to social life,” he said. “Based on researches done in the United States, 95 percent of children who are homeschooled are successful in their high school exams,” he added.

De Groof, who wrote several books and organized several compilations about the subject, analyzed the different options to regulate homeschooling, from the most rigid to the most flexible ones. “The state should regulate, but respect the options and choices made by parents, and the freedom to opt for homeschooling,” he sums up.

Still on the topic of freedom of education and freedom in education, as the professor stressed during the conversation, Gazeta do Povo inquired De Groof about the limits of the freedom of teachers in elementary and higher education. In none of these spaces, according to the academic, freedom of teaching should be mistaken for political indoctrination – although this is a concept difficult to be formatted. “Academic freedom does not mean the freedom to say anything you want, it is a freedom to talk about the academia, the freedom to research, the freedom to adopt several lines of research, it is not about politics,” says De Groof.

Here is the full interview:

The Brazilian government presented a bill about homeschooling. What are the best guidelines and principles for a legislation on this subject?

There are good practices on the legal framework for homeschooling, but there is a variety of possible legal frameworks. Even within Europe there is such variety, even though the majority of the countries there are in favor of a possibility of opting for homeschooling. Only some countries prohibit homeschooling in Europe, among them Germany and Greece. Surprisingly, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of the margin of appreciation of the states on the matter. What does it mean? It means that courts should check if there is a motivation for the state’s prohibition of homeschooling, based on national differences. This margin of appreciation is guaranteed to the state, for instance, based on the reason that it has not been proven that homeschoolers are able to socially integrate themselves. We often see the expression “risk of a parallel society” in the decision, but that should be seen critically, since we know from studies that most families to opt for homeschooling are extremely open to social life, and their children attend sports clubs, associations, and churches.

So this prohibition is a bad example of regulation. But what would be a good one?

The best examples are countries in which there is a soft regulation, among them most of those which allow homeschooling. Most countries regulate homeschooling to some extent. In the United States, there are states which have no regulation whatsoever, others with a moderate regulation, and those with a strict one. I am convinced that the state should regulate – to the benefit of children, because there should not be any contradiction between the rights of children and the freedoms and convictions of their parents. This balance should be found in the regulation. I am not a nationalist, but the Belgian model is extremely good. First, parents must register their children as ‘homeschoolers’ – once again, in some countries, parents have to register their sons in the national ministry, but in most of them this registration is made in a local authority, in a local school. Second, society requires parents to show the results of their children’s education, and this can be done every two or three years. Third, the assessment – in some systems, a test is done on local schools, but others, like Ireland, have a nationwide test. In short, the state should regulate, but the options and choices taken by parents and the freedom to opt for homeschooling should be respected.

You’ve spoken about studies on the sociability of homeschooled children, but what do we know in terms of learning results, when compared to students of regular schools?

Based on researches done in the United States, 95 percent of homeschooled children are successful in their high school exams. This should not be seen as an argument against homeschooling, because it is a very impressive success rate.

How much do such results depend on the type of regulation?

This is a good question, but there are no studies about it. What is there is an impression that the fulfillment of basic requirements and transparency in the legislation, results, and assessments are indicators of success. Besides, there should be some sort of room for the state’s inspection, but flexibility is crucial. And most legal systems do not require parents to have an education degree.

Speaking about freedom of education, there is another problem often discussed in Brazil: the political and ideological indoctrination of children in schools. Some critics said that there is no such problem. Does this problem exist? If it does, what are the solutions a society could adopt to prevent that?

The first question is the meaning of indoctrination. There is a big debate about that in Brazil, but also in other places. We should also establish a distinction between elementary and higher education. When we discuss elementary education, we should also make a distinction between public and private schools. […] In confessional schools, of course, a religious education cannot be considered a form of indoctrination. In short, we must watch out for all these nuances, and the state regulation should find the balance between freedom of education, freedom in education, and the demands for quality and equality. But even in the private sector, there could be indoctrination: let’s say, a radical teacher who is misusing his mission as a professor. It is not about proselytism, but about giving the teacher freedom to make decisions – such as liberty vis-à-vis the school’s ethos, and this is not something homogenous: there are Catholic, Evangelic, Montessori schools, and so on. Public schools are an entirely different matter, and I published a book about it. There are several approaches: there one that preaches schools should be neutral, and even then, there is a negative neutrality, in which you do not allow professors to express their convictions, and positive neutrality, in which there is space to express convictions, but in a moderate way – taking into account the age group of the students, for instance. The pluralistic approach, on the other hand, understands that the state should be objective and critical with all information, but should allow some margin of debate, taking also into account the age group of the students, but even then no indoctrination should be allowed: the school cannot be misused for political purposes.

But, if that happen, and many people in Brazil defend that it should be allowed to happen, both in private and public schools, how should we deal with this problem?

First of all, it is about the responsibility of the school and responsibility in the school. The responsibility of the school is to articulate its mission, its ethos. Politics is not a common aspect of the school life, which does not mean the political debate should not be allowed at schools, but this should be done within a transparent framework, and by people who are completely objective. And how do we get to know this ethos? By the involvement of the families, parents should get involved with the construction of this ethos along with the directors and coordinators, and both parents and teachers should stay true to this ethos. Second, on a different level, comes the state. I am not in favor of a law regulating all aspects of school life, but the legal framework should allow each case to be discussed individually along with the ethos of the public schools: if the curriculum is pluralistic, based on science, and stimulates the critical spirit, according to each country’s judicial system.

We were discussing elementary education, but there is another debate in Brazil, involving higher education. Is there any basis on fighting the political use of universities, or should freedom in these spaces be as broad as possible?

Once again, it is a question of rights and responsibilities. Academic freedom is an individual right – but it is a complex and delicate concept. The first question is that academic freedom is a constitutional value, independent of any other constitutional value, which is university autonomy, but supported by it. They are interlinked. Academic freedom is an individual right, but also a duty: it is not just an empty box, but it requires ethical standards from each researcher, professor, and student. What does it mean? Academic freedom does not mean the freedom of saying anything you want, it is a freedom of talking about the academia, the freedom to research, the freedom of having several lines of research, it is not about politics. This does not exclude the political debate from the universities – but the academic authorities have to take their responsibility. There are conditions for that to happen: the diversity of opinions must be ensured, and there should be no extremism, there is no place in the university for anti-democratic, xenophobic or Holocaust negationist discourses. However, this is completely different from a professor trying to proselytize or using the university for political discourse.

How to deal with this?

Certainly not by calling the police. The key to the solution lies in academic responsibility. If the professor is proselytizing, this must be detected, the professor should be warned by the academic authorities, according to the internal rules of the university. There should be rules, and they should be followed according to some due process of law.

Since you mentioned the due process of law, do students have the right to record their teachers or professors? This has been an ongoing debate, especially in elementary education.

In my point of view, there is no reason for a teacher, who is there as a professor, with a public mission, to say something in a local public that cannot be recorded. Not even privacy serves as a reason for that. There is no reason not to be transparent.

Some critics say it undermines the trust on the educational process.

Usually, students are writing down and recording what their teachers are saying. That’s life. Everything you say in class is public by definition. There is no room for secrecy. There is privacy, but not as long as you are doing your work.