Illiberal Education Is Not a Public Good

March 10, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

University education isn’t a public good deserving taxpayer subsidies if it’s going to actively undermine our democratic and republican form of government, I write in OCPA’s Perspective in light of recent events at OU. Among other examples, this one stands out:

Recently, OU expelled students for using racial epithets, in flagrant violation of long-established First Amendment law. Six months later, the university paid $40,000 for a performance by a hip-hop artist who uses the same derogatory epithets. He also insults homosexuals, brags about physically abusing women in their genitals (hello, Donald Trump supporters!), and calls for the murder of police officers. Respect and toleration for others apparently go only one way at OU.

The question here is not whether the people targeted by OU in these cases are right or wrong. The question is whether OU believes that wrong ideas are best corrected and right ideas are best vindicated through open discussion and debate in a social atmosphere of free inquiry for all sides. The particular merits of the speech acts at issue in these controversies are, here as always, irrelevant to the question of whether everyone ought to have free speech.

Today, there is no longer a unique need for universities because they produce technical knowledge. Two hundred years ago, that may have been a key argument for institutions of higher learning; today, it is the universities who are constantly striving to catch up to Google and other leading technical innovators.

If universities are a public good, it can only be because there is an inseparable connection between truly liberal education and political freedom – because liberal education inculcates a respect for the integrity of the human mind that is the only possible justification for political freedom.

A hundred years ago, educator J. Gresham Machen summed up the connection between liberal education and political freedom: “Reasonable persuasion can thrive only in an atmosphere of liberty. It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument. He will very naturally be in no mood to appreciate our argument until we lay aside our club.” Machen even testified to the U.S. Congress against a scheme for federal control of education on grounds that it would remove freedom for diverse ideas in education. (The more things change, the more they stay the same!)

Because I’m not a university administrator, I welcome your free thoughts in reply!


When “Helping the Poor” Means “Keep Out”

February 3, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my latest on the unwisdom of means-testing school choice programs:

Sometimes the worst thing you can do for the poor is “help the poor.” What we want to do is tear down the walls that prevent poor people from making themselves into non-poor people. That’s what “helping the poor” ought to mean. But all too often, it really means building walls between poor and non-poor people, reinforcing the divide rather than tearing it down.

Throwing middle- and upper-income people out of school choice programs is a classic example of hurting the poor by “helping” them. It creates a sharp, government-enforced division between two separate and very unequal populations. On one side of the wall are poor people, who receive school choice; on the other are non-poor people, whose tax dollars provide them with school choice.

This division shuts down educational innovation, greatly weakens the political coalition in favor of choice (and of protecting private schools from government interference, which is clearly going to become a threat whether there are school choice programs or not) and in the long run creates an us-versus-them power competition between the poor and the non-poor that the poor are going to lose.

As always, your thoughts are welcome!


Choose Families, Choose Choice

September 30, 2015

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The new OCPA Perspective carries my argument that the government monopoly on schools undermines the institution of the family, and school choice would strengthen the family:

Are schools an extension of the family, helping parents raise their children the way the parents want them raised? Or are schools an autonomous branch of the technocratic state, answering not to parents but to professional experts who know how children ought to be raised better than parents do?

The creation of the government school monopoly was one part of a general inversion of the social order going on in the 19th century:

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the family had been understood as the primary unit of society; larger political and economic structures existed to mediate relations between households, not between individuals as such. Relations between individuals within a household—such as the work of childrearing—were the family’s business, except in extreme cases. All that was now gone. The family was no longer primary; the technocratic state was primary.

The failure of the school monopoly has reoped the question of whom schools work for:

School choice and federal centralization of power are both responses to this failure. Some are seeking to reverse course, hoping that the moribund school system can be revitalized by putting parents back in charge. Others are seeking a stronger technocracy that will be more capable of achieving its goals.

I close with the reflection that social conservatives could bring something important to the school choice coalition not currently provided by the two factions that now dominate it, progressives and libertarians. As always, your comments are most welcome!


Brooklyn’s Dilemma: School District Lines and Racial Segregation

September 24, 2015

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Brooklyn by race (one dot = one person)

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today on NRO, Reihan Salam writes about a controversy involving school district lines attendance zones [see correction below] in his Brooklyn neighborhood. A nearby public school (P.S. 8) is oversubscribed; another nearby public school (P.S. 307), which is located in another attendance zone, is undersubscribed. Officials are therefore trying to redraw the lines and move an appropriate number of households in the neighborhood – which is, no fooling, called “Dumbo” – from one zone to the other.

Easy peasy, right? Not on your New York life.

P.S. 8 is 59% white and 15% free/reduced lunch; P.S. 307 is 90% black or Hispanic and 90% FRL.

Salam notes:

More than one Dumbo parent has tried to explain to me how they’re totally different from other people who fight against integration. They explain that what they really want is a better world in which we spend far more on our public schools, not mentioning, or perhaps not knowing, that New York city spends $20,331 per pupil, almost twice as much as the national average of $10,700, and that much of this money is spent very inefficiently. Of course they want integration, they’ll tell you, but only if it entails no sacrifice on their part. “It’s more complicated when it’s about your own children,” says one Dumbo parent. Well, yes, it is more complicated, and that is exactly what every parent believes, whether they are in Brooklyn or South Boston or Kansas City.

“Dumbo parents,” indeed.

There is more to this story than a political dilemma in Brooklyn. One of the biggest problems in the research on racial segregation in schools is getting the public – and, too often, the researchers! – to understand how school district lines, attendance zones, etc. are drawn in ways that ensure racial segregation in public schools. Research on racial segregation is often conducted in ways that ignore this, making public schools appear much better integrated than they actually are.

The only really viable solution is school choice. It not only breaks the link between place of residence and place of schooling, thus helping overcome residentail segregation; it entirely circumvents the political (and therefore racially fraught) process of drawing school district lines. Of the eight empirical studies examing the impact of school choice on racial segregation in schools, seven found that choice reduced segregation, and one found no visible effect.

Image: University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service (via)


Toddler Technocracy

July 27, 2015

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on why the endless expansion of government’s role in childrearing, at the expense of the family, is something we ought to be concerned about:

Rounding up toddlers into the nurseries of the all-providing, all-benevolent state is certainly good for public employee unions, but is it good for the state and its children? Fully 76 percent of Oklahoma’s four-year-olds are in government pre-K. The average U.S. state has only 23 percent….

The whole idea of pre-K, like the idea of Kindergarten before it, is (as the Germanic name suggests) a product of the technocratic European social welfare state….Believing he could use his superior scientific understanding to improve the early development of children, Friedrich Froebel created the world’s first Kindergarten in 1837. He theorized that children would develop better if given more opportunity to socialize with peers rather than with their families and others. American admirers of the European technocratic experiment were quick to follow suit; in 1856, the first U.S. Kindergarten was founded less than an hour’s drive from where I live in Wisconsin.

I argue that the technocratic view of the world that makes endless expansion of pre-K seem like a step forward is dangerous – dangerous not only to social equality but to the moral foundations of the social order. Not that pre-K by itself will destroy these things, but it is a symptom of a deeper problem.

As always, I welcome your thoughts!


School Choice and Religious Freedom

October 30, 2014

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective has published my article on how school choice promotes religious freedom, pluralism, and peace:

It’s folly to be afraid of letting religious institutions participate in public programs on the same terms as everyone else. That kind of oppressive Kemalism has only exacerbated religious hatred when it’s been tried in places like Turkey or France. Americans have historically been more enlightened.

Believe it or not, school choice often helps children learn to respect the rights of those who don’t share their faith, and has never been found to have the opposite effect. A large body of empirical research (reviewed by Patrick Wolf in an article titled “Civics Exam” in the journal Education Next) finds that private school students are more likely to support civil rights for those whose beliefs they find highly unfavorable. Five of these studies have specifically looked at school choice programs; of those, three found the choice students were more tolerant of the rights of others while two found no difference. No empirical study has ever found that school choice makes students less tolerant of the rights of others.

The occasion for the article is an unwise legal decision as an Oklahoma school choice program winds its way through the painfully slow processes of the legal system:

If the church is burning down, don’t call the fire department! That’s using government funds to benefit a church. If someone scrawls swastikas on the synagogue, don’t call the police! And heaven forbid we allow the mosque to use our municipal water and sewer lines. Alas, Judge Jones doesn’t see things that way, and the case will continue its four-year journey through the courts.


Sentences that Aren’t Worth Finishing

September 24, 2014

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Robert Pondiscio: “Our earliest thinkers about education—men like Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, and Horace Mann…”