Pluralism and School Choice

Allow me to jump into the exchange from a few days back between our own Neal McCluskey and the American Prospect’s Matt Yglesias on science education. One of the key arguments against school choice is that only the government can be entrusted with the dissemination of truth. Matt writes that in both private and public schools:

… children are going to be coerced into doing something or other. Under the circumstances, I think there’s good reason to take a pragmatic attitude – better than children be coerced into learning correct science than incorrect science.

The implication being that government schools are more likely to have correct teachings. (By the way, it’s totally outrageous to say that teaching is “coercive,” just because the kids don’t get to pick what they will be taught.) Neal rightly notes that it’s not always obvious what’s correct. Neal proposed school choice in the first place precisely because government school boards keep trying to get creationism into the curriculum. If there is a single curriculum in a district, then, unless it is remarkably homogenous, there will be some kind of ideological power struggle over control of its contents. Matt seems to assume that the side of “correct science” will tend to win in school board battles, and that public school teachers are somehow less motivated to teach falsehoods about science than private school teachers. It is truly hard to see why.

Take, for example, former Weather Undergroud terrorist Bill Ayers’ attempt to work his communism into the science curriculum through “radical” teacher education:

In 1997, Ayers and his mentor Maxine Greene persuaded Teachers College [Columbia] Press to launch a series of books on social justice teaching, with Ayers as editor and Greene serving on the editorial board (along with Rashid Khalidi, loyal supporter of the Palestinian cause and the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University). Twelve volumes have appeared so far, including one titled Teaching Science for Social Justice.

Teaching science for social justice? Let Teachers College professor Angela Calabrese Barton, the volume’s principal author, try to explain: “The marriages between capitalism and education and capitalism and science have created a foundation for science education that emphasizes corporate values at the expense of social justice and human dignity.” The alternative? “Science pedagogy framed around social justice concerns can become a medium to transform individuals, schools, communities, the environment, and science itself, in ways that promote equity and social justice. Creating a science education that is transformative implies not only how science is a political activity but also the ways in which students might see and use science and science education in ways transformative of the institutional and interpersonal power structures that play a role in their lives.” If you still can’t appreciate why it’s necessary for your child’s chemistry teacher to teach for social justice, you are probably hopelessly wedded to reason, empiricism, individual merit, and other capitalist and post-colonialist deformities.

Columbia’s Teacher’s College, it is worth emphasizing, is one of the most prestigious and influential schools of education in the U.S. As you’ll see reading Sol Stern’s eye-opening article, Bill Ayres is a man who looks with admiration to the example of tryannical murders like Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, and he would like to get teachers to push their ideology into the science curriculum. Stern goes on to discuss Eric Gutstein, a public school math teacher, who incorporates socialist politics into his math lectures.

It’s odious that government schools should provide a platform for either creationist pseudoscience or vicious, pseudo-intellectual anti-liberalism. But there is simply no way around this if government insists on providing, as well as financing, education. There is no way creationist types are going to stand for Ayres’ and Gutstein’s nonsense, and vice versa, ensuring that curriculum will be politicized. And there is no mechanism that makes it likely that the truth will win. Average parents, who just wants their kids to get a decent education, and don’t have strong feelings about the origins of life, or their oppressed relationship to capital, aren’t going to be on fire to make sure only the truth is taught. Their kids just get stuck with whoever wins the fight, or caught in a balance of powers unrelated to their interests. You don’t solve the problem of ideological pluralism simply by hoping that the government school boards and teachers will get it right. They clearly often don’t, ensuring that everyone has to learn a few favorite falsehoods.

Worse yet, often nobody wins the ideological fight. Opposed ideological agendas often don’t balance each other out, but simply create a pedagogical muddle. Education schools, when not teaching “Proletarian Revolt through Algebra,” teach a great deal of insipid therapeutic pablum, and textbooks afraid of saying anything anybody might possibly disagree with often avoid saying anything at all. Kids in government schools too often end up knowing nothing, not knowing the wrong thing. I do not believe that by not teaching intelligent design the government schools are therefore churning out little Richard Dawkinses by the thousands.

I’ll happily run the risk of a few creationist and Marxist private schools at the margins if that’s what it takes to create a system that actually succeeds at educating children. The surpassingly small minority who get a boatload of ideological hooey will at least be capable of speaking intelligently about Leviticus or The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. That, at least, is something.