Michael Kinsley famously quipped that a gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth — or at least what he or she believes to be true. Gaffes cause a stir because they are seen as windows into the inner-thinking and motivations of political causes that are normally disguised by carefully “messaged” political discourse.
Paul Reville made just such a gaffe during a pro-Common Core event last week when he declared: “the children belong to all of us.” Reville, the former Massachusetts education secretary and current Harvard Ed School professor, is a pillar of both the Left education establishment and Common Core advocates. He was trying to dismiss Common Core critics as a “tiny minority,” arguing that the state should ultimately control how children are educated since children do not belong to those few parents, but to “all of us.”
Reville’s indelicate phrasing stoked a bit of a political storm because it was reminiscent of last year’s gaffe by a MSNBC host, who said “we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to their communities.” Many parents recoil at the notion that their children belong to others, especially the government, even if that idea is actually at the core of efforts to centralize control over education.
The view that children in some sense “belong to all of us” has a long pedigree. Almost thirty years ago, Amy Gutmann tried to articulate and defend the collective interest in children and an active government role in education in her book, Democratic Education. And here is my brief rebuttal from a recent book chapter:
Amy Gutmann, among others, has used the observation that children are not “owned” by their parents to assert the need for a sizeable role for the state, at least in the education of children. Since the future liberty and autonomy interests of children may be distinct from the plans and preferences their parents have for them, she argues in Democratic Education, the state needs to play a significant role in ensuring that parents do not infringe upon the interests of their children.
But it is revealing that advocates of this view restrict this significant role of the state to education. If they really believed that the state needs to play an active role in ensuring that children’s interests were being protected, then the government’s involvement wouldn’t end at 3:00 in the afternoon. They should want the government to make unannounced visits to children’s homes to ensure cleanliness, adequately stocked pantries, and an enriching environment. The fact that most of us would consider such actions by the government to be unnecessary for children and unreasonable to parents if they occurred after 3:00 in the afternoon indicates how unnecessary and unreasonable they are in education as well. And the fact that Amy Gutmann and others are unwilling to be consistent in advocating an active government role 24 hours a day suggests that they are not so much concerned with safeguarding children’s interests as with rationalizing the status quo in education.
Unlike Gutmann, I am willing to be consistent in deferring to parents in the raising and education of their children. In my ideal vision, we would treat the dominant parental role in education the same way we treat the dominant parental role in raising children generally. In the absence of demonstrated gross parental negligence or malevolence, parents should assume responsibility for educating and raising their children. The state should only intervene if there is evidence of serious neglect or abuse, with respect to education in particular and with respect to child-rearing in general.
And if you’d like to read a broader critique of Gutmann’s book see pp. 85-88 of this book chapter I wrote on civic education more than a decade ago.