All Your Children Are Belong to Us

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.

4 Responses to All Your Children Are Belong to Us

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Gold star for using one of Know Your Meme’s best pieces!

  2. Mike G. says:

    I respectfully disagree with you here.

    First, I’m not sure how you decide whether someone is making a Kinsley gaffe here (accidentally saying what he really believes), or simply making a phrasing gaffe. Which might be more along lines of less controversial “responsibility for the children belongs to.” I’ve know Paul a bit over the years, and I suspect the latter.

    Second, I’d quibble with characterization of Paul as pillar of Left. Left-leaning, sure. Has had epic battles with amigo Jim S at Pioneer, sure, that probably would have benefited from some sort of beer summit.

    But if Diane R or AFT is “pillar” of Left, Paul is not same. His charter position evolved to moderately pro-charter, helped engineer cap lift in Boston, though certainly many forces were involved. Also has done some things to irritate the traditional establishment. And is avowedly pro Common Core is even a “pillar of Left” position?

    He may put more faith than I do in district reform, and he’s no Rhee. But he’s not a “Let’s just cure poverty and not do anything to change schools” sort of guy. Just my opinion.

    • Hi Mike — I should have just said “education establishment” without the addition of “Left” (although the establishment does lean pretty heavily to the Left.) Thanks for the correction.

  3. This concerning all the children in the Ontario public schools from the minister of education, Mr.Pierre la Pierre in the early 70’s. “The home is an extension of the school not the school an extension of the home.” That from memory. Moral Values Education came along at the same time. Basically, that was the state helping the children to determine which of their fellow classmates was the most worthless in the class and therefore expendable. Kathleen Gow write her refutation on these acts of social Darwinism in her classic book, YES, VIRGINIA THERE IS A RIGHT AND WRONG. My details might be a bit fuzzy but it must be on=line somewhere.

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