Increasing numbers of U.S. Muslims are opting for home schooling. It's a bad idea for one simple reason: They are segregating themselves from mainstream American society. A recent piece in the New York Times on the struggles faced by Pakistani-American girls in Lodi, California, highlights the problems caused by home schooling. Although many Muslim, as well as Christian, Jewish and secular parents view it as a necessary alternative to the social ills plaguing public schools, such as drugs, violence, promiscuity, and the celebration of the hip-hop/celebrity culture (to name just a few), the adverse consequences on their children are very real and usually last a lifetime. The biggest problem is that home schooling by traditionalist religious communities perpetuates the creation of social ghettoes, whereby students are often alienated and disconnected from the larger American culture. It fosters a kind of balkanization that, ultimately, is not good for America or for the students.
Take the case of the Pakistani-American girls profiled in The Times article. Coming from traditional Islamic families, many of the girls were forced to leave public school and study at home. This is because their parents want them to cook and clean for their male relatives and siblings. It was also done to prevent the girls from being exposed to liberating female cultural mores, such as wearing Western clothes and spending free time after school with friends.
"Some men don't like it when you wear American clothes - they don't think it is a good thing for girls," says Hajra Bibi, a 17-year-old who is now studying at the 12th-grade level. "You have to be respectable."
Moreover, many of the parents insist the girls remain isolated so that they can intermarry with relatives or close friends from the same villages in Pakistan. The goal is to reinforce their ethnic and religious identity. This serves only to act as a bulwark against assimilation into American culture.
"Their families want them to retain their culture and not become Americanized," said Roberta Wall, the principal of the district-run Independent School, which supervises home schooling in Lodi and where home-schooled students attend weekly hour-long tutorials.
It's not just that these girls are being denied the opportunity to participate fully in American life. They are also the victims of a deep-seated misogyny, which seeks to reinforce the traditional Pakistani male-dominated culture. The Times piece points out it is the girls, and not the boys, who are forced into home schooling. Of the more than 90 Pakistani or other Southeast Asian girls of high school age who are enrolled in the Lodi district, 38 are being home-schooled. By contrast, only 7 of the 107 boys are being home-schooled-often due to academic-learning issues. Once the girls finish high school they are married off. Many of the boys, however, go on to university.
This may be acceptable in Pakistan; it shouldn't be in America. I am all in favor of parental choice in education. And if some Pakistani-American parents in Lodi, or anywhere else, want to use home schooling as a way to keep their daughters isolated, educationally deprived and sheltered, that is their right. But it is their children who are losing out. Their educational development is being stunted; their professional prospects are being severely narrowed; and their integration into American society is being held back. Europe is already dealing with the serious consequences of large, unassimilated Muslim populations. America should not replicate that failure here.
The only way to reverse this trend towards voluntary religious segregation is to stress the benefits of assimilation. This should not be done through coercion or denying parents the right to home-school their kids, but the way millions of previous immigrants were successfully absorbed: social pressure and the cultural melting pot. For all of its flaws, the melting pot approach has served America-and its numerous waves of immigrants-very well. It can do the same for this generation's Muslim newcomers.
To succeed, however, Americans must re-embrace it, and jettison the destructive ideology of multiculturalism. If we don't, then we'll gradually start to see a new apartheid emerging in this country-not a separation based on race (as in South Africa or the Jim Crow South), but on religion. This is a recipe for disaster.