Why Can’t Daniel Read?

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.


  1. I just read this, and as you can imag­ine we too have been fol­low­ing this case closely…well, as close­ly as you can when you know how biased the media is. How­ev­er, the oth­er night I was at a gath­er­ing of like mind­ed peo­ple and this top­ic was brought up. One of the women there has actu­al­ly been attend­ing court hear­ings, etc. She said that the truth is: he can’t read at his grade lev­el, but that he can read. Take that as you like.

  2. I too was trou­bled when i heard that he could­n’t read. I went from “well, I don’t know much about their reli­gion, or enough about the case, so I can’t com­ment on the sit­u­a­tion,” to “ok, what the heck is going on here?” and imme­di­ate­ly feel­ing that the sit­u­a­tion is that of neglect.

    Read­ing at grade lev­el can mean a vari­ety of things. How many grade lev­els behind do you need to be in order to “not be able to read?” For 13 years old, that would have to be sev­er­al years behind I would imagine.

    Fam­i­ly val­ues and choic­es get you to a mature age where you can think and act for your­self (usu­al­ly in a bad way at first until you get the hang of it) but in order to start your own path of nor­mal adult life or work or intel­lect, I beleive you must be able to read, oth­er­wise you are trapped and are lim­it­ed in lear­ing on your own.

    I don’t know. Again, we are giv­en the infor­ma­tion the media gives us. We could have a very dif­fer­ent view if we were observers of the fam­i­ly instead of the media.

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