I have been closely following the story of Daniel Hauser for the past few days, after ignoring it for at least a week of news cycles. What I initially dismissed as a sad story of no interest has become intensely emotional for me, as it became clear how very close to home this story was for me in almost every respect.
Daniel Hauser (in case you come to this blog for your news) is a thirteen-year-old boy from southwestern Minnesota. This past January he was diagnosed with a form of cancer called Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This is reported to be a highly treatable cancer in its early stages, and he underwent one round of chemotherapy immediately following his diagnosis. Then, to the astonishment of his doctors, he and/or his parents refused further treatment, opting to pursue “alternative treatments” elsewhere. The mechanisms of the state — social services and the courts — intervened, and a judge ruled last week that Daniel must receive treatment for cancer, overruling his and his parent’s professed objections to such treatment on religious and conscientious grounds.
I know that I read this story through a very different lens than most, because I did not shake my head in bafflement at the inscrutable ignorance of the parents who would deny their son the most advanced treatment available. Instead, I felt a stomach-wrenching sense of identity with this family, a sternum-stinging “there but for the grace of God go I” moment. This could have been me.
The parallels are chilling for me. I come from a large Catholic family, growing up on the rural fringe of every aspect of the mainstream. I was homeschooled, too, dropping out of first grade and never looking back. And throughout my adolescence, my mother and I chose to address our chronic health issues not in a doctor’s office, but through a wide variety of “alternative” methods. Along with these “alternative” health choices came a certain degree of paranoia, a real fear that if worst came to worst, some sinister “them” might step in and force us to undergo treatments we felt were unnatural and harmful.
Fortunately, it never came to that. Our health struggles were real, but not of the dire severity as that with which young Daniel Hauser is stricken. We made the informed choices we felt were best suited for us, but we did so outside the scrutiny of the state, the media, and the public. And today both my mother and I are active, healthy, involved members of our communities, still quietly making choices that are outside the mainstream. So I count myself very fortunate that I was never plunged into the nightmare that Daniel is living through right now.
So yes, I bring a very different, and probably much more sympathetic, lens to my reading of this still-unfolding tragedy. I think I really know the kind of fears this family is feeling, in kind if not in degree. But there is one thing that I cannot fathom, that I find very, very troubling: why can’t this thirteen-year-old read?
I recognize that not everyone has the inclination to read, that literature is a pleasure some (many, even) can and do choose to forgo. And homeschooling as a movement has not been about academic excellence, but rather on what fits best for each individual child and family situation, allow children to develop, learn, and flourish at their own pace, something no school can systematically guarantee. And, especially in the rural communities I grew up in, most of the families we knew teaching their children at home were not aiming for a future in any kind of intellectual mode of production (as my old roommate Josh would say); these were good, honest, hard-working folks who wanted their children to grow up in their families, rather than in an institution. The results have been overwhelmingly successful from my perspective. These children are now adults, good, honest, hardworking members of their communities, many with young families of their own by now. They may not peruse the New York Times while they sip their morning coffee, they may work with their hands from sunup to sundown, they may even drive a pickup truck. But every one of them can read.
That Daniel Hauser reportedly cannot read at all cast a long and grave shadow over my sympathy for this family. If this seems harsh, please hear me out. Barring any serious learning disability (which is not unheard of, but I have read no hint of one in Daniel’s case) there is absolutely no excuse for a thirteen year old in a homeschooling family being not just functionally but totally illiterate. There is nothing more basic, regardless of whether you aspire to be an honest hardworking farmer, or have your sights set on an academic ivory tower. Homeschooling may be about allowing children to learn at their own pace as they explore the world around them and allow their curiosity to guide them to a whole range and depth of knowledge (I am allowing my bias toward “unschooling” to show here), but it is also about preparing them to live and thrive in the world. Failing to equip a child to do so in this manner is deeply upsetting to me, not the least because, in the glare or media scrutiny, this makes a badly misleading portrait of homeschooling, and invites naysayers (and they are still legion) to damn us all for shortcomings we have never been guilty of.
I completely understand the urge to shield one’s family from the world outside, a world that seems very inhospitable to the values that one holds in spite of their utter variance with the (secular) mainstream. I understand the fear of “them”, and I think this case shows, to those who are willing to see it, that that fear is sadly well grounded. But I cannot understand that these apparently-loving parents have allowed this child to reach this age without giving even the basic tool of written language. There may yet emerge a valid reason for this, but I have difficulty imagining what that excuse could be.