Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How Not to Get It

No sooner do I write about (or, more accurately, note Jonah Goldberg's writing about) homeschooling as a weapon against collectivism, then we get this story about a recent California judicial decision. The decision, by a state appellate court, found that a California couple could not homeschool their children because they were not properly licensed teachers. In the piece, Walter P. Coombs and Ralph E. Shaffer argue that this is a sound decision because, in effect, the burden of proof is on parents to establish that they are fit, relative to the officially credentialed public-school establishment, to teach their own children:

The decision has caused anguish among families who fear that they may now be required to demonstrate that home schooling is an adequate replacement for their children's attendance at a public institution. The court's decision means that home schoolers must be given some substantive instruction in social studies and not simply spend their time watching Fox with its strange assortment of oddballs pontificating on current events.

There has always been something decidedly elitist and anti-democratic in home schooling. It smacks of a belief that privileged children should not have to associate with the other kids in the neighborhood and that by staying home, they would not be subjected to the leavening effect of democracy.

It is an interesting choice of words. "Attendance at a public institution" is the presumption, and homeschooling is a mere "replacement." (Leave aside the predictably elitist cheap shot about homeschooling parents plopping their children down in front of right-wing TV all day. Drawing attention to that would be ad hominem, and I know that Professors Coombs and Shaffer are too good for that.) "Leavening," of course, is the rising of bread after the flour has been transformed by yeast. And so evidently public schools are the magic yeast that turns the crude raw material of "privilege" into the wonderful nourishment of "democracy."

This is philosophically revolting. It presumes, just as Mr. Goldberg argues fascism always does, that children are the property of the state, to be transformed into whatever the state values. The notion that parents might have a basic right to raise their children as they see fit simply does not show up in this analysis. Children do not belong to their parents; they belong to society, where they will be properly hammered into shape by any means necessary by the likes of Professors Coombs and Shaffer.

When I was a brand-new professor I used to transmit the standard argument that economists make for public schooling (as opposed to letting the private sector decide how to produce schooling in the same way it decides how to produce cars). That argument said that educated citizens are central to democracy, and that while the free market might do a great job of providing education leading to monetary reward – job training in particular -- it could not do a good job of providing the sort of education to a particular citizen that mostly benefits every other citizen, education about good citizenship in particular. It is a standard sort of market-failure argument.

But I am now older and wiser. I see that the public-school system is first and foremost a way to promote the interests of the pressure groups that run it. Sometimes these groups are employees – teachers’ unions and administrators in particular - with a financial stake in protecting the system from competition. And sometimes they are people with ideological axes to grind -- people who want bilingual education to protect the cultural heritage that it is really parents’ job to protect, environmentalists who want to inflict their beliefs on the children while the children are still young, teachers unions who believe in collectivism, etc. It never occurs to the public-school establishment and its enablers that parents have a right to believe -- and have good reason to believe -- that the public schools actively transmit values that they find revolting, and that parents can transmit the essence of American citizenship (which, they might quite reasonably believe, is about much more than mere "democracy") much better than the schools can. But never mind all that; children are brought into this world to be properly "leavened."

The Nobel economist Robert Solow, a perfectly mainstream MIT liberal, was once asked why he opposed school vouchers, given what he knew about economics. He answered that economics had nothing to do with it; all of the economic arguments -- about the virtues of competition, etc. -- strongly favored vouchers. Instead, he said, the reason he favored public schooling and opposed vouchers was that public schooling, along with his time in the American military, was what made him thoroughly American. Alas, in 2008, he is more right than he knows, and therein lies the problem.



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