Mostly Harmless

Many electrons have already been spilled on Obama’s speech today to the nation’s school children.  When news first broke of the planned speech, alarms were raised by Michelle Malkin, Glenn Beck, and Neal McCluskey (among many others). 

This was followed by a counter-backlash from the left as well as folks on the right, including the Wall Street Journal and Tunku Varadarajan at Forbes, who said that the initial reaction was “overwrought” and “demented” (respectively if not respectfully).

The counter-backlash is correct that the speech is basically harmless.  Telling kids to stay in school, say no to drugs, and the like is the sort of thing that Nancy Reagan used to say (and people used to mock not because it was indoctrinating but because it was likely ineffective.)

It’s worth stepping back from this kerfuffle to wonder why the president making a speech to the nation’s school children while they are in school is such a big deal.  The counter-backlash wants to suggest that the original backlash against the speech was motivated by crazy, conspiratorial thinking.  Presidents talk to the country all the time, they note.  And if the problem is supposed to be in the lesson plan proposed by the U.S. Department of Education, teachers can use or ignore these suggestions as they wish, just like they can regularly choose lesson plans.

But that is at the heart of the backlash and is not entirely crazy.  Parents sense a lack of control over what their children are taught in school.  This is as true of every day’s social studies lesson as it is of Obama’s speech.  Most of those lessons, just like the president’s speech, are likely to be unobjectionable to most parents. 

But on a fairly regular basis schools teach (or fail to teach) some things that are contrary to the values that parents would like conveyed to their children.  To those of us who see education as an extension of child-rearing, compulsory education privileging government-operated schools is an intrusion of the government on this parental responsibility.  To others, the intervention of the government is a positive good, protecting children from potentially dangerous values of the their parents and assuring allegiance to a common set of ideals necessary for our society to function.  As an empirical matter, government-operated schools are actually less effective at conveying that common set of ideas than are schools selected by parents.  

Amy Gutmann, in the widely read book, Democratic Education, argues that this is not really an empirical question.  The principle is that there should be some democratic input into what is taught to children, not just parental control.   But in a chapter in the book, Learning from School Choice, I dissect Gutmann’s book to show that her scheme isn’t democratic at all.  She believes that local democracies should control schools as long as they avoid discriminating and repressing.  The problem is that almost everything of importance that they do could be portrayed as discriminating or repressing.  So who, under her scheme, resolves these disputes about what is permissible for local democracies to control in schools?  Unelected judges and unelected teaching professionals.  Gutmann’s proposal is really to substitute the dictatorship of an elite for the dictatorship of parents.  As I’ve argued before, I prefer to trust even poorly educated parents to make decisions in the best interests of their own children than well-trained but differently motivated bureaucrats.

So, beneath the over-reactions and counter-over-reactions on Obama’s speech today is a real issue — Who should have primary responsibility for raising (educating) children?

3 Responses to Mostly Harmless

  1. […] Jay Greene comes at this from a similar angle.  “Parents sense a lack of control over what their children are taught in school,” he […]

  2. allen says:

    And the “kerfuffle” suggests that the decision about who should be in charge is being rethought by those who gave up their decision-making power against the promise that the experts would make better decisions. I wonder if that change of heart, or mind, or both, isn’t what’s driven charter law into forty-four states? I’ve yet to read anything substantive about the forces responsible for that little accomplishment.

  3. (Jay Greene): “…compulsory education privileging government-operated schools is an intrusion of the government on this parental responsibility…As an empirical matter, government-operated schools are actually less effective at conveying that common set of ideas than are schools selected by parents.”

    Two points:
    1) “Compulsory education” puts compulsion before education. Before anything else, schools which assemble their clientelle through compulsory attendance statutes teach children that strangers will command their time and that their parents will be powerless to prevent this. I can imagine a few lessons more destructive of families and of the values of a market-oriented democracy, but not many.

    2) Often, the words in which people express their arguments predispose them to their conclusions. For example, “mass transit” means literally how lots of people get around. The term could apply to bicycles and roads or to shoes and sidewalks, but proponents of centralized transportation systems pull a bait-and-switch to leap from an agreement that a “mass” of people must “transit” from home to work to the conclusion that some city or other needs a centralized transit system. Similarly, defenders of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel’s exclusive position in receipt of the taxpayers’ K-12 education subsidy pull a bait-and-switch when they confuse “education” with “school” and “public education” with “government-operated schools”. Part of this confusion relates to a deep ambiguity of language. “Somewhere in Hawaii a woman gives birth every five minutes—and we have to find that wahine (woman) and make her stop!” is a comment on syntax which probably has parallels everywhere. Even with their precise notation, mathematicians have to pay attention. “For all X there is a Y such that F(x,y)…” “For all” really means “for each”.

    “Parents should control the education of their own children” still leaves open the possibility that the mechanism through which parents exercise this control requires them to do so through collective action. Who composes the resolutions on which parents vote? When are the Board meetings? Who holds the gavel? Who counts the ballots?

    Why suppose that collective decision-making processes will yield results which better represent the preferences of individuals, collectively, than will market mechanisms? What does it mean to aggregate the preferences of individuals? What would Americans eat if we voted on each day’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu? How many people would prefer the result of such a process to the result of the current market-oriented mechanism?

    My response to advocates for universal health care: “I didn’t know the universe was sick.”

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