Why Fight Educational Freedom?

As reactions to Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict have started coming in, a few recurring objections have emerged to letting parents choose schools that comport with their values. Andrew Coulson, in an excellent post, responds to the arguments of one group in particular: defenders of evolution-only biology instruction. I won’t focus on that camp since Andrew handles them so deftly, and because many of their objections are really just specific examples of the more general complaints I’m going to tackle.

Unfortunately, many of the broadsides launched against Why We Fight employ what I’ll call the “boogeyman gambit”: attacking the entire notion of school choice on the grounds that some parents might choose fringe schools. As Red State Rabble contends:

Cato’s solution to Balkanization? Balkanize the schools. A Christian fundamentalists school here, a Muslim Madrassa there. Hey, there might even be enough money left for a school with a science department somewhere. 

These kinds of attacks are easy, and all too often effective, frighteningly suggesting without any support that somehow the nation will explode with maniacal kooks if we stop forcing people to fund public schools and let them go to institutions of their choice. Give people educational freedom, we’re supposed fear, and the name “Bob Jones” will replace “Horace Mann” on schools across the country.

Right.

Were such fringe groups truly the great threat Red State Rabble makes them out to be, then their schools would already swamp the nation. Parents are, after all, allowed to send their children to private schools as things stand now. Yet with very few exceptions, we hear little or nothing about a threat from private education. Which leaves two possibilities: either the malevolent hordes that Red State Rabble envisions going wild with school choice don’t actually exist, or they’re not so zealous that they’d be willing to part with private school tuition to indoctrinate their kids. Sure, we’re supposed to believe, they’re single-minded fanatics about their causes, but not so much that they’d sacrifice money for them!

Another frequent objection to letting parents choose their kids’ schools is that American children need to be steeped in a shared worldview, lest they be in constant combat as adults. This arose as a major line of argument in a Free Republic discussion about Why We Fight, and is very similar to the “Americanization” mission given to industrial-era public schools, where immigrant students were taught to reject the customs and values of their parents’ lands — and often their parents themselves — and adopt the values political elites deemed proper.

Now, if one were willing to accept a system that would, by definition, quash any thoughts not officially sanctioned, then in theory one would be okay with a public schooling system intended to force uniform thought. In the context of an otherwise free society, however, getting such a system to work is impossible, because it would require that incredibly diverse and constantly combative adults create and run an education system that somehow produces uniform and placid graduates. It’s no more realistic than hoping a tornado will drop houses in a more perfect line than it found them.

The practical result of our trying to make uniformity out of diversity has, of course, been constant conflict, as Why We Fight makes clear. Moreover, there is another by-product of this process that no one mentions when they weave scenarios about choice producing schools steeped in ignorance: our schools right now teach very little, especially in the most contentious areas like evolution and history, because they want to avoid conflict.

When it comes to teaching the origins of life, for instance, while evolution stalwarts might think they have the upper-hand because courts have regularly ruled in their favor, the reality on the ground is often that, courts or no courts, teachers dodge evolution. As the New York Times reported in February 2005:

Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, said she heard “all the time” from teachers who did not teach evolution “because it’s just too much trouble.”

“Or their principals tell them, ‘We just don’t have time to teach everything so let’s leave out the things that will cause us problems,’ ” she said.

So here’s what happens when evolution supporters fight to the political death to keep dissenters’ tax dollars in the public schools: Neither evolutionists nor creationists get what they want. It ends like a dispute between children, with someone taking their ball home and no one getting to play.

As one can imagine, because it potentially involves the stories of every group ever on Earth, history instruction often ends up even more denuded than science, thanks to the controversy-avoidance instinct. As Diane Ravitch explains in great detail in The Language Police, history textbooks — and, as a result, history classes — have been rendered utterly barren by the need to pass muster in highly contentious, politicized textbook adoption processes. The result is that nothing very critical ever gets said about any group, and students do not learn anything interesting or meaningful about history. The entire subject, it seems, has taken its ball and gone home.

Which brings us to the fundamental problems with the anti-choice arguments thrown at Why We Fight: they ignore the utter failure of the system we have now, and rest on baseless scare tactics. Choice opponents, however, can only ignore the very real consequences of not having choice for so long. Pretty soon, parents on all sides of the public school wars will unite around just two things: exhaustion with the all the fighting, and demands for school choice.