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


(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!

Jason and EdChoice Hit the Big Time

January 28, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Jason and EdChoice have both hit the Big Time bigger than Blank Reg – Jason is joining the EdChoice team as national policy director.

Not sure whom this is a bigger win for! Jason hits the big time by joining EdChoice and EdChoice hits the big time by hiring Jason.

What I do know is that thanks to his work here at JPGB, an image search for Jason’s name turns up Dawn of the Dragon Slayer, Emperor Palpatine and “Who Watches the Watchmen?” Let’s make sure we keep Jason in the think tank business and well away from the Imperial Senate!


In time, you will call ME National Policy Director!

The Mythbusting Never Ends

January 12, 2017


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my latest under the somewhat discouraging title “Ed Choice Mythbusting Never Ends.” At least I’ll never be out of a job:

The funniest thing in the article is where McCloud mocks the emergence of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and then complains about precisely the problem ESAs solve. After making fun of the choice movement for switching from vouchers to ESAs—because apparently it’s a bad sign if you’re willing to move from a good idea to a better one—McCloud asserts that “vouchers would inflate the cost of private education.”

Indeed, vouchers do inadvertently raise private school tuition. That is one reason the movement is switching from vouchers to ESAs, which allow parents to buy education services without creating an artificial tuition floor for schools. It’s also true that even ESAs raise economic demand for education services in general—but that’s just another way of saying they empower parents to pay for those services!

McCloud’s article provides a public service in one respect: It collects almost all the school choice myths in one place. Maybe I don’t mind so much if the defenders of the status quo make my job easy after all.

As always, your thoughts are appreciated!

Nine Lemons Dancing

December 24, 2016


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Via Byron York, this delicious datum from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel regarding the Milwaukee teachers’ union:

After Act 10’s passage, the 4,500-member Milwaukee union took a hard look at the local’s work and found that 85% of its time went toward litigating disputes and misconduct cases involving 2% of its members.

But remember, the unions are all about delivering a better education to your kids, rubber rooms and lemon dances are a myth, and voluntary unionism is a threat to the republic.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!

Trump and School Choice

December 14, 2016


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I was grateful to be included in this Washington Post article on Trump and school choice yesterday. My post on Trump’s racism and illiberalism gets a mention, but the Post is right that another division is also important:

Free-market purists believe that parents know best, that they can choose the best schools for their children without intervention, something that could force poor-quality schools to close. On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that intensive oversight and regulation are necessary to ensure that the schools from which parents are choosing are high-quality.

As long as Mike is taking his lumps out in the wild, wild west of Arizona, maybe he could rethink which side of this unavoidable civil war – unavoidable because opponents of parent choice have made it so – he really wants to be on.

Another point: I don’t blame the Post for describing advocates of parent choice as “free-market purists” while describing opponents of parent choice more neutrally. It is we in the parent choice camp who have chosen to make deep investments in “free market” ideological rhetoric. Everything we’re saying about markets is in fact true, but it’s a bad idea for us to make “markets” and “competition” the main points in favor of choice.

This was one of the main arguments of my recent series on “the next accountability.” As I wrote at the end of the series:

Markets and competition as drivers of efficiency and performance are important. But they do not provide the moral norms and narratives needed to inform the next accountability. The best case for universal school choice does not center on them. These should be secondary, not primary themes.

We should develop ways of articulating these principles as the basis of the next accountability:

  • The purpose of education is to help children develop the knowledge, skills and virtues they need to live a good life—achieving and appreciating the true, good and beautiful—and to live as good citizens of a community where we disagree about what is good.
  • To cultivate these, we need teachers who are wise professionals (possessing the qualities they seek to instill, and guided by an independent professional ethic) and schools that are free communities (where shared purpose, not the arbitrary dictates of distant authorities, shape a shared life).
  • Teachers and schools can educate the individual student for free pursuit of the good life as he or she sees it, and also for good citizenship and respect for others’ rights in a diverse community, because of what we share in common as human beings and as fellow Americans.
  • Teachers and schools should be held accountable to do this by parents and local communities—the more local the better—because they are in the closest moral and social connection to schools, and can therefore hold them accountable in ways that support their social fabric rather than disrupting it.

Is this too much to ask of a highly polarized education reform movement, strongly committed to moral narratives that center on either markets or test scores? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Pass the Popcorn: We Were Voyagers!

December 1, 2016


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I am a girl who loves my island; I am the girl who loves the sea

It calls me!

I am the daughter of the village chief; we are descended from voyagers who found their way across the world

They call me!

I have delivered us to where we are; I have journeyed farther; I am everything I’ve learned and more

Still it calls me!

This delightful movie speaks, not always clearly but always movingly, to some of the central tensions of advanced modern life. We need both tradition and discovery; we need both inner-looking integrity and outward-looking responsibility. Ultimately, we need God, who alone can transcend and reconcile these contradictory needs, sweeping aside the artifical barriers we create to divide them for our own purposes.

I’m not sure what’s more amazing, that a movie this good has four directors, or that two of them are the directors of The Little Mermaid – the high water mark of the Bad Old Disney – yet the occasional intrusions of Bad Old Disney thinking are actually swept up and incorporated (probably against rather than according to the directors’ purposes) into a whole that is very much of the New Disney, the Disney that cares about the transcendent.

Only very general spoilers follow, nothing highly specific. But if you intend to see the movie, better to set this aside and come back when you’ve seen it.


“When It’s Time to Find Home, We Know the Way”: Tradition and Discovery

Moana is raised in a closed, tradition-bound society but longs to explore and discover, which she can only do by leaving her island behind. We, living in an open, scientific society, long for stable sources of identity, meaning and purpose, which is why we like to watch movies that take place in ancient times and places, when people knew who they were.

If this had been a Bad, Old Disney movie, the lesson would have been that “tradition” is either a bad thing or, at best, something that must bow the knee to the Brave New World and the quest for knowledge and discovery that will inevitably marginalize tradition. (Remember the great modernist quip in Sleeping Beauty: “After all, this is the fourteenth century!”)

Not here. Moana discovers that her traditionalist father has withheld from her the elements of the tradition that favor exploration and discovery – he has suppressed the part of the tradition that is anti-traditionalist. She discovers that her ancestors were voyagers who explored the world and colonized the empty islands as they found them.

“We are explorers reading every sign,” sing her ancestors, but also: “We tell the stories of our elders in a neverending chain!”

“We set a course to find a brand new island everywhere we roam” but “when it’s time to find home, we know the way!”

“We know where we are, we know who we are!”

Traditions embody commitments that are not themselves traditional, or at least not tradition-bound. The village didn’t just sprout up on the island; the villagers came from somewhere.

In the Bad, Old Disney, tradition was simply a relic to be surpassed by the great voyage of discovery. Here, the voyagers have a tradition – voyaging is the tradition – and it tells them who and where they are.

Her father has suppressed all this because a new danger appeared on the ocean; like all traditionalists, he thinks safety is to be found by retreat into a closed system of tradition. But traditions themselves speak against this; they point outside themselves to the higher things that traditions exist to serve.

Traditionalists always want to burn the boats. But it was our ancestors who made them.


“I Am Moana”: Identity and Purpose

We need tradition because we need identity (“we know who we are”). We need discovery because we need purpose, a calling to which we aspire (“it calls me”). But it’s hard to hold on to both.

Identity requires an inward movement toward integrity, in the literal sense of that term – we need wholeness, a fitting together of all our pieces into a sum greater than the parts.

Purpose requires an outward movement toward responsibility – we need to be called out of ourselves, to serve something higher than ourselves.

Identity without purpose is narcissistic. Purpose without identity destroys our humanity.

The moment of greatest crisis, which I will not reveal, comes when Moana can no longer attach the person she is to the calling for which she has been chosen. The crisis is resolved when an outward calling brings her to an inward realization of their connectedness.

As I’ve said, there’s some intrusion of the Bad, Old Disney in Moana. It comes in the form of “look inside yourself,” “follow your heart,” “be who you are on the inside,” etc.

But here, that language – which remains dangerous – is used in the service of higher things. “Look inside yourself” is playing with fire, but as Moana shows, it is (to borrow a fine phrase from Allan Bloom) fire with which we must play if we are to transcend it.

Family is part of the answer. This is one of those rare (but less rare than they used to be) Disney movies with an intact family at the center. And it is noteworthy that her father, her mother and her grandmother are all necessary to Moana’s story. Without any one of them, the story either wouldn’t happen or wouldn’t happen the way it should.

In the family, both identity and purpose are provided for. Your family loves you and wants you to be a person with wholeness, but also calls you out of yourself to the service of others – at first, the others within your family, but ultimately the community at large.

The unconditional love of the family is essential. One of the lessons of the movie is that efforts to earn love and acceptance are futile; the love and acceptance thus “earned” are not authentic love and acceptance.

However, the family is not enough. A greater love is required.

Moana’s grandmother passes on to her the suppressed part of the tradition, and clarifies for her the calling for which she was chosen, because and only because a higher power to which the grandmother is devoted has provided for her to do so.


“The Ocean Doesn’t Help You”: The Mystery of Divine Calling

Darkness is rising and monsters have appeared because we sought to steal from the gods the power of creation itself.

To redeem the world, the ocean has chosen Moana for a high and dangerous quest. If anyone else attempts to stop her, the ocean intervenes to keep a path to her quest open for her.

Moana herself, however, the one who has been chosen for the calling, can refuse the calling if she chooses.

At first there’s no question what she will choose, because the outward calling that comes to her from the ocean connects so clearly to the inward calling she senses inside herself, that she understands to be the true center of her identity.

But then comes suffering and failure. And the ocean doesn’t help. If the ocean wants these things done, why doesn’t it help?

“The ocean doesn’t help you” says the unwise man, “you help yourself.”

That turns out to be empty. When the unwise man gets wiser, he says of his efforts to help himself: “It was never enough.”

It never is. But the ocean still doesn’t help.

At first, the divine call resolves our tensions – by its transcendent authority it supercedes and breaks down our artificial divisions between tradition and discovery, between identity and purpose. It demands both; because, and only because, it demands both with an authority higher than both, it gets both.

But then the ocean doesn’t help.

At the end of all things, Moana is left floating alone on a raft at night, in the middle of nowhere, unable to find the path to her quest.

She has been chosen for the calling, but she can refuse the calling if she chooses.

She faces the same question she thought she had left behind her: “Moana, do you know who you are?”

The divine call, coming to her from outside, has not resolved that question. She must resolve it inwardly. She must – dare I say it – look inside herself.

Not for narcissistic self-expression but to discover who it is that the ocean is really calling.

And what she discovers leads to a surprising redemption.