All Your Children Are Belong to Us

A few months ago I excoriated someone named Allison Benedikt here, in response to her alarming article that if you send your children to a private school, you are a bad person.  Her reasoning, such as it was, boils down to the assertion that we have a duty to send our children to public schools, irrespective of whether the schools are good, bad, or frighteningly lousy, and notwithstanding any educational needs of the specific child in question, because herding all children into government-run schools will be good for . . . the schools.  It will be good for the schools because if parents have skin in the game (even if it’s actually their children’s skin), they’ll somehow “get involved” and whatnot, and magically the schools, the quality of instruction in which is driven by decisions made by far-off bureaucrats, will improve.  Among her article’s other shortcomings I pointed out at the time, she doesn’t explain how several generations of poorly-educated Americans (because they’ve been herded into lousy government schools) are supposed to recognize a bad school or figure out how to make it into a good school.

We may count among our blessings that Allison Benedikt is not in any position to enforce her Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz theories on the backs of our children.

To see, however, how thinking like hers plays out when cloaked with governmental authority, we offer a recent decision of a family court in Germany.  In that country it is illegal to home-school your children.  The government actually does assert an over-riding monopoly on one of the more important tasks of raising succeeding generations of humans.  There is a family there, living in a town called Darmstadt, called Wunderlich.  They wanted to home school their children (four of them).  The child care mavens swooped down and back in the fall physically carted the children off to whatever Germany does with neglected or abused children.

I might here add that, unless I’m overlooking something, there is not even an allegation that the children have been physically, sexually, emotionally, or mentally abused, at least not in any reasonably accepted sense of those expressions.  The government’s objection, and its sole objection, was that the Wunderlichs wanted to teach their own children in their own home.  Period.

The German “justice” system then swung into action, stripping the Wunderlich parents of their right to determine the children’s place of residence, their right to make educational decisions, and their right to make application to public authorities (it doesn’t say whether in respect of their children or on their children’s behalf).  Since the fall school holidays the children have been in “proper” schools.

The Wunderlichs (as well as one of their children who appears by reason of his age to have some sort of independent judicial rights) filed some sort of action (being thoroughly unfamiliar with German juvenile procedural law, I have no idea how one might characterize it in terms of an American analogue) seeking to have their stripped rights restored to them.  The department of children’s services (Jugendamt) in addition to opposing the parents’ and the child’s petitions filed a cross-petition seeking to have removed from the parents also the additional right to apply for what I’ll call child support services (“Hilfe zur Erziehung,” which transliterates as “help with raising”).  I should mention that the children apparently once more live with their parents.

The parents were quite frank that the reason they wanted to have their parental rights restored is so that they can apply to emigrate to France, where homeschooling is perfectly legal.

The Darmstadt family court ruled on December 18, 2013.  Here’s the original opinion in German; here’s an “unofficial translation” courtesy of the Home School Legal Defense Association.  There’s a bit of a write-up at the HSLDA site.

There are several striking aspects of the opinion:

Again, there is no hint that the children’s physical well-being is endangered.

There is no assertion or finding that the quality of education (in a purely pedagogical sense) the children are receiving is insufficient, by either German or any other standard.

There is no assertion or finding that the children’s emotional or mental condition has been adversely affected.

In the judge’s defense, he refers to a decision of a different court, the Oberlandesgericht Frankfurt am Main, which he alleges “extensively” established that the children’s welfare is “endangered” through the parents’ refusal to send them to a regular school.  Now, I am unfamiliar with the respective jurisdictions of the Darmstadt family court versus the appellate court in Frankfurt and whether they are in the same chain of command, so to speak.  I am unfamiliar with the extent to which the proceedings in that court are binding in any other proceedings under some equivalent to the doctrines of res judicata, collateral estoppel, or full faith and credit.  I do find it curious that a judge would fail to quote or describe at all any of the specific findings or any basis for them, or to explain why those findings are binding in the present proceeding.  Maybe that’s how judges in Germany express themselves; to this ol’ redneck lawyer it seems a mite strange to adopt someone else’s factual conclusions lock, stock, and barrel without even describing them.

There is no assertion or finding that the children are not able to engage in what Americans would describe as “extra-curricular activities.”  Here it’s helpful to remember that in Germany schools as such simply do not have nearly the array of non-classroom “activities” that form such a major part of what makes an American school the place it is.  In my own experience, German schoolchildren are every bit as likely and in some respects more likely to engage in non-classroom activities, but they’ll do so through either their own clubs or the youth divisions of an adult club.  And boy howdy! the Germans sure do like their clubs.  They have to be registered, of course (e.V., as in “eingetragener Verein,” a registered club; just by way of example, the long-time soccer champions from Munich are actually F.C. Bayern München e.V.), which means that you can look up the clubs in any city.  You’ll find clubs for chess, clubs for pipe smoking, clubs for specific card games, clubs for cross-country skiing and for downhill skiing, clubs for handball, volleyball, fencing, water polo, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, basketball, gymnastics, photography, painting, sculpture, theater, folk dancing, brass bands, chamber music, jazz, choral societies . . . .  If you didn’t have to make a living you could probably spend an absolute majority of your evenings each month at some function of an e.V. and never participate in the same activity twice during the month.  The family court judge doesn’t even hint that the breadth of age-appropriate activities is denied the Wunderlich children.

The judge acknowledges that the Wunderlichs and their children enjoy freedom of movement.  In fact this is a constitutional right under the German constitution (Grundgesetz).  But the exercise of that constitutional right is, according to the family court, overlaid with some nebulous examination of the children’s “best interests.”  No citation to authority is given, by the way; it would be like some judge ruling that an intact family could not leave Arkansas for Iowa without first examining whether the children’s “best interests” would be served or harmed thereby.  No, dim bulb:  Constitutional rights trump things like “best interests of the children”; if you want to infringe a basic right of being an American, you need to show something more substantial that a judge who disagrees with a decision.

Notwithstanding the complete lack of findings, or in fact even any mention of evidence — documentary or live — which might have supported any unstated finding, the dear old judge, after explaining what is being asked, by whom, and for what reasons, rules that the children’s services’ petition is well-taken and should be granted; in contrast, the parents’ and children’s petitions are “unfounded” (“unbegründet”) and to be denied.

According to the Frankfurt appellate court, and the family court endorses this finding, the “concrete danger” to the children lies in (i) keeping the children in a “symbiotic family system” (O! the horror of it all!!); (ii) the failure of the “form of education” that corresponds to “recognized” and “fundamental” standards for development in the societal order.  Get that:  It’s the “form” of education that matters.  The concept of the substance of what the children are actually being taught simply does not enter into this judge’s analysis. 

By his lights, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wanting to school his children (if he’d lived to have any) at home would have failed to provide them the recognized standards of fundamental development in the (ahem) societal order then prevailing.  Let’s just put it out there:  You have to permit the Wunderlichs of the world to educate their children contrary to the dictates of modern Germany so that you may permit the Bonhoeffers of the world to educate theirs contrary to the dictates of the next national socialist state to emerge.

According to the judge, the actual damage which consummates the danger to the children arises from the very fact that the children have not, except in recent weeks, attended a “regular” school.  They’ve been deprived of all the benefits of sitting in a classroom.  Oh my ears and whiskers.  Not only that:  The parents’ struggle has for its goal binding the children to themselves to the exclusion of others; the children have until now grown up in an “isolated family enclave.”  Only recently has this “straightjacket” been removed through the intervention of “pädagogische Fachkräfte.”  I can’t translate that phrase; there’s no English equivalent to “pedagogical technician.”

The parents’ emigration plans would set all this at naught.  In fact, in France the children would not only be “exposed to the insufficient influence” of their parents, but would also be isolated by being surrounded by a foreign language.  They would grow up in a “parallel society” without learning to integrate themselves or engage in dialogue with people who think otherwise than they, in the spirit of a “lived tolerance.”  Huh?  “Intolerance” is now a basis for the state’s intervening in the child-parent relationship?  Just whose “tolerance” is the benchmark, your honor?

The balance of the opinion consists mostly of excoriation of the guardian ad litem, whom the court takes to task for allegedly representing not the children’s interests but rather the position of the parents.  In truth it sounds as though he didn’t do a terribly diligent job of making an independent investigation and report to the court.  On the other hand, if all this stuff has been already decided in another court, what’s the point?

I will say one thing, and this may be just an oversight of expression by the dear ol’ family judge.  He refers in several places to the children growing up “isolated.”  That’s a pretty strong expression to use.  But the only specific form of “isolation” he refers to is isolation from the school atmosphere.  I mean, if I were a judge and wished to emphasize that my compelling parents to send their children to a “real” school was to get them out of the house, I’d sure as hell make specific findings as to the children’s not being permitted friends outside the family, not participating in activities outside the family, not appearing in public, and so forth.

The overall sense of the opinion is of course that the state has a legitimate interest in compelling not just education of children (there’s not a single word in the entire opinion that finds the children’s factual knowledge or reasoning skills to be deficient) but the education of the children in a particular fashion and to inculcate in them a particular mode of thought.  You would think that in Germany of all places making that kind of universal claim upon the formation of the human mind and spirit would be a shot no longer on the table (to borrow a favorite P. G. Wodehouse expression).  Apparently I am wrong.

All your children are belong to us.  Gleichschaltung!

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