Who Decides? Part 2
originally posted 1/18/07
In my introduction to education and homeschooling I discussed my conversation with Prof. Rob Reich, who is seen as an opponent by most homeschoolers, and his view that parents should not have sole control of the education of their children. His opinion was echoed in comments by Elliot, who feels that the government should determine what is taught to all children. These two people, along with many others outside homeschooling who discuss how to ‘limit’ it, or structure it, or regulate it, etc. all seem to touch on the core topic involved without quite realizing what that core topic really is. Even Prof. Reich, with a Ph.D. in Political Science, at first didn’t realize that regulation of homeschooling is about the power of the state to control or eliminate pluralism.
Pluralism is, briefly, the concept that in a democratic society there will exist people and groups that disagree with each other and that this is OK. In deed, some argue that this disagreement is good and that the resulting dialogue can lead to discovery. Yes, multiculturalism is part of this idea of pluralism, but pluralism is more of a realpolitik acceptance of reality than an attempt to make a ‘rainbow coalition’ of enforced diversity.
In other words, pluralism is the acceptance of the fact that there are people who think electricity and automobiles are potentially sources of personal character erosion, there are other people who hope and plan for the transformation of mankind into technological creatures with little remaining attachment to their human roots, and that these two groups coexist, already, in the world. While the Amish and Transhumanist have little in common, they are both elements of American society (and world society, for that matter). I don’t know Prof. Reich that well, but I suspect that if I told him I planned to create a program that would convince the Amish that their lifestyle was backwards, mistaken, ‘wrong’, etc. he would at least be disturbed. After all, the Amish, although small, are part of what makes the world a rich, interesting place. They both reflect and raise interesting questions about the role of technology in human culture and how we can and should react to change.
At the same time, if I were to tell Elliot that ‘the State’ has guidelines that would force transhumanists to tell their kids (or, uh, whatever they consider their progeny) that posthumanist ideas are immoral, unnatural, or too fantastic to be believed, he would likewise be disturbed. While a fringe movement in as many ways as the Amish, transhumanists also raise questions about man and machine and how they can and should affect each other. The Amish and the transhumanists have radically different concepts of the nature of man and nearly-opposite views of the role of technology, views that they will likely never reconcile – and that is OK. Even if their differences in outlook and belief add nothing to the ‘greater good’ of the society around them, they are equal in their rights to hold their beliefs as they do – if we do, indeed, live in a free and pluralistic society.
I always become concerned when I hear discussion of what is good for ‘the state’ or for ‘society’, especially when discussing education. What if ‘the state’ we are talking about it, oh, Nazi Germany? Or Castro’s Cuba? Or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge? All of these ‘states’ had clear ideas of what was good for ‘the state’ and made education a keystone in their creation of their vision of a better ‘state’, didn’t they? During the American Civil War the Confederacy had laws forbidding the teaching of literacy to slaves – once again, for the good of ‘the state’. When we look at the parents who taught their children that fascism was not perfect and Jews not inherently evil in the Austria of 1939, or the parents who teach modern Cuban children that speaking out against the ruler-for-life is not immoral, or Cambodians that insisted to their kids that a better life didn’t require the extermination of 1/3 of their fellow citizens, or the person who taught the children of slaves to read and write, we do not see someone who is working against the Good, do we?
No, what we see in these situations is people want to pass on their own values, despite what intentions or convictions ‘the state’ may have, and that the most powerful way of passing on those values is through teaching them to their own children. This is something so important, so central to the very concept of being a parent that we really can’t imagine it being separated from the very nature of parenthood. It is also the primary method that beliefs and values are passed down through generations. Groups as varied as the Assyrians and some American Indian tribes knew that the most effective way to eliminate an opposed group was to force their children to be raised in your own group. This forced assimilation was accomplished by simply taking these potential enemies while they were children and teaching them that your own ways were the best, even the only, methods and beliefs. In no more than a few generations the former opponents would vanish, absorbed into your own group and holding your own beliefs.
Remember all those feel-good examples of iconoclast parents breaking the rules to teach their kids in defiance of ‘the state’? Here’s the deal – in order to allow those sorts of heroes, you must also allow the other sort of hero – you know, the people who teach things you disagree with. Right now in Sweden, kids are being taught not to trust ‘the Jew’; in London, parents are teaching their children that Blacks are shiftless and lazy; in China kids are being told that Americans are all greedy and lazy; in San Francisco kids are being told that homosexuals are deviants; in Canada children are being taught that that Hitler fellow may have been right about a few things. You may disagree with every one of those positions (in fact, I hope you do), but if you think you can ban parent’s from teaching those things to their kids, what makes you different from the Nazi’s who wanted to ban the idea that Jews are just people? Why are you superior to the Klansmen of Indiana? In what substantial way do you differ from the faculty of Bob Jones University in 1968?
Plurality and a free society demand that for free speech to really be free, we must, and I mean must, tolerate the speech we like least. Most importantly, it means that we must allow the transmission of beliefs across the generations. You don’t like fascists? Fine, teach your kids to not like fascists, too. But does that mean that a grandson of someone who fought for the Royalists in the Spanish Civil War can’t teach his own kids that Franco was fighting for the life and future of Spain? Can he not teach them that the Falangists were the good guys and made the nation a better place?
Or, for an argument closer to home and the American homeschooling movement, can you demand that a homeschooler teach their child that evolution is “right”? If so, why? Here’s another step; a fair number of homeschoolers, especially the earliest, were radical Leftists, not Christian Fundamentalists. Can you demand that they teach their children that Capitalism is “right”? After all, Communism is a total failure as an economic system (see: the Soviet Union, pre-economic-reform China, Cuba, Cambodia, etc., etc.) and Capitalism is the system that runs the Western economy. It is obvious that those narrow-minded, doctrinaire Marxist parents are doing their kids no favors by giving them a sheltered, even blinkered, view of the world. I say that the government should demand that they be taught the truth about Communism being wrong and Capitalism being right; after all, it is in the best interests of the children…. Right?
Still not a clear example? State after state after state has passed bans on gay marriage. The concensus is obviously that the average American is opposed to gay marriage – does that mean that homeschoolers should instruct their kids that gay marriage is ‘wrong’? No? OK, then why should it teach that gay marriage is ‘right’? Because you think it is?
The list of contentious issues is a long one with these just a starting point. It is important that the contentious issues raised by opponents of homeschooling are not about math, or spelling, or handwriting.
Prof. Reich mentioned during our discussion that he was concerned that homeschooled kids could grow up so sheltered, so narrowly educated, so focused on the ideology of their own parents, that they were literally unable to interact with people from a different religion in a meaningful way (I find it telling that he discussed this in the context of religious belief, not politics or some other cultural element). He wanted to ensure that homeschooled children receive enough education about other points of view that they can interact with them. I asked him if he was aware of kids so narrowly indoctrinated and he admitted that he does not, even anecdotally. He also admitted when I asked that public school doesn’t really educate kids for this, either. I think that this attitude is more important than Prof. Reich realizes. There are no standards for comparative religion studies in the public school systems that I am aware of – why have higher standards for homeschooled kids?
The NEA’s stated opposition (well, at least in the situation mentioned) is about kids ‘not being exposed to people from a range of cultural and economic strata’ (to paraphrase). Now, I have no idea who diverse the students are in, say, Blake Elementary (with 11 students) or Russell High School, but if this exposure is so very critical (and I think that remains to be proven), then why must homeschoolers ensure it when it is so very absent from many public schools? Indeed, a great deal of the NEA’s focus in recent years seems to be beyond traditional education.
Prof. Reich’s example was not about kids unable to do enough math to make change, or unable to read well enough to fill out a job application (topics we will touch on next time), but about the cultural outlook of children and young adults. Indeed, all of these hot button topics about homeschooling are not about reading (homeschoolers are better), or writing (homeschoolers are better), or mathematics (homeschoolers are better) [again, the next article will be in academic performance, so be patient]. Nope, even the ‘socialization’ bugbear is really not the main issue. The issues, the hot buttons, all the things that get opponents of homeschooling frothed boil down to cultural outlook.
This is why many on both sides focus on evolution/creationism. Those homeschoolers who leave public schools because of evolution clearly state that they feel the public schools are being used to subvert the beliefs and values that parents want their children to develop and support. While many who want to force all children to learn evolution claim that understanding evolution is a pre-requisite for being a functional adult, let’s be honest – how many public-school educated adults (or high school seniors) can state what the definition of evolution is? [If you think that evolution is defined as “a change in allele frequency over time”, you got the question right. If not, maybe your education was lacking….]. Just as importantly, since many of the arguments for an imposed curricula is because it is for ‘the good of the child’ or ‘the good of the society’ or ‘the state’ – how important is an in-depth understanding of evolutionary theory to you?
I assume that it isn’t very important to your life at all. Unless you wish a career in evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology you really don’t have any need for an in-depth understanding of evolutionary theory. If you have a career outside of certain branches of biology, you might not need to know (or believe) anything about evolution at all. Isaac Newton developed calculus while quite ignorant of evolution, John Locke published his ideas that the legitimacy of government exists only with the consent of the governed 70 years before Darwin published The Origin of Species, the Bill of Rights for the United States was written and adopted also more than six decades before Darwin published on evolution, and the rules of logic, reason, and rational deduction were developed in ancient Greece by men who explicitly believed in the spontaneous generation of life.
In short, those ideas seen as cornerstones of democracy (natural rights, the nature of government, equality of people, etc.) and of science (rational deduction, logic, mathematics, etc.) can, have, and do, flourish even in the direct rejection of evolutionary theory. The claim that a child must be taught evolution to be a ‘good citizen’ is ludicrous and the claim that a child must have an in-depth understanding in and acceptance of evolution to be prepared for a career is only true if that child must have a career in evolutionary biology.
Is there any wonder than many homeschool advocates, even ones with degrees in biology and a deep understanding of evolutionary theory, suspect that the advocates of mandatory evolution education may have, shall we say, a deeper agenda? The public debate between the religious and secular elements of society has largely been centered around evolution since about, oh, 1859 or so. While many believers in religion accept evolution as a scientific fact in varying degrees, some (especially Fundamentalists) do not. Despite the rather broad acceptance of evolution among the general body of believers, it cannot be denied that evolution is still a primary tool of opponents of religion who attempt to portray religious belief as inherently wrong. While some proponents of demands that evolution be taught to children are honestly only interested in a well-rounded science education, to deny that some are motivated by anti-religious prejudice is, at best, naïve.
This, again, cuts to the cultural basis of this debate. While the most often stated reason homeschoolers cite for their decision to teach their own kids is to give their children a better education, over 38% cite religious reasons and over 12% state that they object to what the local/available public school teaches. These parents obviously want to control the cultural, moral, and ethical education of their children. I do not see how this can be opposed without opponents admitting that they want control of the moral, ethical, and social education of children to be taken, in whole or in part, from parents. Prof. Reich was kind enough to simply state that as his own position. Elliot simply states that parents have no such control if ‘the state’ decides that certain morals, ethics, etc. are ‘minimum requirements’.
Remember those examples of parents bucking the trends and teaching their children their own morality I gave above? This is because in any society there will be people who disagree with one another – that’s just the way it is. When those people are a minority or distrust/disagree with some element of society they will attempt to avoid it and/or replace it with their own version of it. One example from the American education experience is the Catholic school system. When Catholic immigrants began to reach America in large numbers they found that the existing public schools were anti-Catholic with explicitly anti-Catholic sentiments expressed by teachers and textbooks. This attempt by the mainstream to forcibly assimilate Catholics was met with the creation of a separate network of schools built, maintained, and funded by Catholics. These schools were opposed by the Know Nothing Party, a group that also wanted to mandate minimums in education for all children – mainly to make sure they were taught the ‘proper’ (read ‘Protestant’) version of the bible.
Do any readers wish to argue that Catholics were wrong to want to preserve their culture and beliefs in the face of this hostility? If you think that they were, what do you have to say about the history of mandatory public schools as a tool to purposefully destroy American Indian culture? After all, the intent of those who determined that American Indian children would be forbidden to speak their language and taught that their religion was superstitious nonsense had, at heart, the very best interests of those children. Did the parents of those children have any right to reject public schools and the ‘minimums’ the state had determined? To insist that they, the parents, could determine what their children should learn, thank you? According to Elliot – no, they didn’t. If ‘the state’ determines that all kids must learn that animism is silliness, irrationality, and superstitious; well, that’s a minimum to get by in the modern world, isn’t it? And Prof. Reich with his concern that parent’s not be allowed to completely determine what their children learn is just a few steps back, in my opinion.
How about today, when public school curricula actively promote stances that conflict directly with Catholic beliefs? If parents concerned with these issues can send their kids to Catholic schools, why not homeschool them? The Amish won a long court battle that allows them to have their own schools so that their children can be taught as their parents wish – including not following the compulsory education laws. Why are the legitimate desires of the Amish to pass on their beliefs and culture worthy of being honored, but not homeschooling parents who happen to be, say, pagans?
This desire to strip parents of their authority over their children or to claim that the interests of ‘the state’ trump the interests of parents in their own children are, at heart, anti-democratic. The essence of democracy is that each person is inherently valuable and all are equal before the law. The natural rights that we pre-suppose when we discuss democracy include the rights to think, speak, and believe as we wish. Our children are, ultimately, the most powerful agent of change that exists in any society, especially in a democracy. After all, our children will continue to work, vote, and act within a democracy long after we are dead. People do not work hard to pass on frivolities to their children, and they do not sacrifice their time, money, and opportunities to educate their kids in things that they, the parents themselves, find unimportant. Homeschoolers do what they do not only to provide a superior education for their children, but to attempt to preserve and spread their own beliefs – in effect, to preserve their own culture.
Limiting this ability is, in the end, limiting the speech and beliefs of the parents in a very critical manner. Prof. Reich is stating, implicitly, that parents do not have an unfettered right to exercise their beliefs or to express in speech their heart-felt thoughts. Elliot is saying that ‘the state’ (which is, after all, the people in a democracy) trumps the desires of its citizens. In each case, the underlying statement is ‘you can believe whatever you like, I guess, but don’t expect us to allow you to promulgate it’.
In many ways, the desire to determine what homeschoolers can and cannot, must and must not, teach their children is just a shade of the Know Nothings and the Indian Office. It is someone determining that they know best, or at least better. It is the belief that someone, either yourself or an ‘expert’, is better/smarter/better educated/more ‘mainstream’ than a parent and that you need to intervene in how they raise their child – for the good of the children, of course! Eventually, with enough education, you can finally get the population all thinking the right things, believing the right truths, and acting in the proper manner….
You ever read Brave New World?