Pro-Choice Doesn’t Mean No Taste

January 25, 2010

Amy Gutmann and Suicide Bomber.jpg

Amy Gutmann poses with a student dressed as a suicide bomber at her Halloween party in 2006.  Talk about having no taste.

A regular indictment leveled against advocates of school choice is that they have no taste when it comes to the quality and purpose of education.  As Amy Gutmann, the president of the University of Pennsylvania and author of Democratic Education, put it: “advocates of parental choice and market control downplay the public purposes of schooling, and this is not accidental. It coincides with the idea of consumer sovereignty: the market should deliver whatever the consumers of its goods want.”  If schools should do whatever the consumer wants, according to this way of characterizing choice supporters, then those choiceniks can’t favor particular educational standards or approaches.  Choice supporters wouldn’t be able to denounce a Jihad school, for example, because consumer preference is the only issue that matters.

This caricature of choice supporters is mistaken on many levels.  First, just because choice supporters want to empower parents to select their school doesn’t mean that the choice advocates are unable to have their own preferences about what schools would be better for people.  Similarly, I might believe that smoking is bad for one’s health, even as I am willing to recognize other people’s liberty to choose to smoke or not.  Or perhaps an easier example — I may think a movie is awful and contains harmful messages and still believe that people have a right to see it.  Believing in liberty doesn’t mean being indifferent to what other people like or do.  It just means not wanting to coerce them into doing or liking what I prefer.

Favoring choice does not require abdicating all taste.  Advocating choice requires believing that people have a right to have their own bad taste.  Favoring choice can also be supported by a belief that people are less likely to make bad choices for themselves than someone else would on their behalf.

Second, most choice supporters recognize some need for public regulation of the schools that are chosen.  These regulations could be as minimal as the public health and safety regulations that affect restaurants or could be more extensive to include instructional issues.  The point is that almost no school choice supporters are anarchists, so there is no need for the Amy Gutmann’s of the world to act as if they all are.

Choice supporters can have personal taste and standards and most also favor public standards that place limits on choice.  At least most choice supporters would have better personal taste and standards than to pose for a photo with a Halloween party guest dressed as a suicide bomber, even though almost all of us would recognize someone’s right to have such awful taste.

Mostly Harmless

September 8, 2009

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?