May 18 2023

The Fight over Education

Published by under Education
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There is an ongoing culture war, and not just in the US, over the content of childhood education, both public and private. This seems to be flaring up recently, but is never truly gone. Republicans in the US have recently escalated this war by banning over 500 books in several states (mostly Florida) because they contain “inappropriate” content. There are a few issues worth exploring here.

First, I think it is an important premise to recognize the value of public education. As educator Dana Mitra summarizes:

Research shows that individuals who graduate and have access to quality education throughout primary and secondary school are more likely to find gainful employment, have stable families, and be active and productive citizens. They are also less likely to commit serious crimes, less likely to place high demands on the public health care system, and less likely to be enrolled in welfare assistance programs. A good education provides substantial benefits to individuals and, as individual benefits are aggregated throughout a community, creates broad social and economic benefits.

I think there is broad agreement that education is a good thing. It’s also increasingly necessary in a world run by technology and information. This is part of why there is so much debate about public education, because there is general appreciation for the fact that the stake can be high. At the same time there is some suspicion of anything so large and critical as education being run by the government, and it is easy to spin education as “indoctrination”. Interestingly, it seems that the people who complain the most about indoctrination in schools also seem the most willing to engage in indoctrination themselves. What they really seem upset about is that their beliefs and values are not routinely being indoctrinated.

One specific question that has arisen in American politics is – what is the role of parents in determining curricula? This is embedded in a more general question of democracy – to what extent do we cede authority to experts to make specific decisions? For example, congress usually does not get into the weeds when it comes to regulation. They create the FDA, give it a mandate, supply it with funding and authority, and then let the experts make the detailed decisions, such as whether or not to approve a specific drug for a specific indication. Could you imagine if we needed a legislative decision about every single regulatory decision? Not only is it unworkable, it injects politics into decisions that should be dispassionate and evidence-based. Now imagine if we needed a popular referendum on every single minutia of regulatory detail.

If we think a regulatory agency is not doing their job well, then voters can enact their will through their representatives who can alter the rules that govern the regulatory agency. But they still should not micromanage specific decisions that should be informed by high levels of technical expertise. Whenever they do this, the outcome is usually bad.

The same is true of education. The overall goals of education are a shared mission that we democratically agree on. But the details of school curricula should be determined by educational and topic experts. This does not mean that parents are not involved. In the US education is regulated at the very local level. This starts at the State level, and then gets more local from there, down to individual schools. Parents have a great deal of power influencing the quality and content of their local schools – but they should not be micromanaging content. It also does not seem either democratic or prudent to allow single parents to have a veto on curriculum content because of their personal ideology or preferences. This is a recipe for the most radical and ideology voices to meddle in public education to an unfair and destructive degree.

Florida has opened the floodgates to exactly this kind of meddling, leading to a rash of book banning, usually under the guise of protecting children from age-inappropriate content, but often transparently just pushing their own ideological agenda.

This raises another question. First, parents always have the ability and the right to teach their children whatever they want at home. They can take them to church, involve them in community activities, and otherwise exert whatever control they wish over their ideological environment. Does this level of control also have to extend to public schools? This is actually an interesting ethical question – should parents have the right to completely shield their children from exposure to ideas the parents don’t like? At some point, can this be considered intellectual neglect or abuse? We don’t let parents not school their children at all, so that seems to be acknowledgement that the state has some legitimate interest in childhood education that trumps parental rights.

An easier question is whether or not one parent has the right to shield all children from ideas that parent does not like – no.

This then leads to the notion that parents can always homeschool children or send them to private school. But this just kicks the ethical can down the road. What rights and responsibilities does the state have in ensuring that such non-public education is adequate? In the US accrediting private schools is completely voluntary. Further, many of the recognized accrediting organizations are themselves ideological (in the US usually Christian). Some popular Christian schools teach demonstrable pseudoscience. What is the responsibility of the state in such cases? It seems, for now, nothing.

In the end we need a thoughtful balance of parental rights, collective rights, and state responsibility. There will always be questions along the edges of these sometimes conflicting priorities. Those will have to be hammered out at school board meetings and state legislatures. But it seems right now the pendulum is swinging way too far in the direction of individual parental control, at the expense of the rights of other parents and their children, with a net negative effect for society. I don’t think this is in response to any thoughtful analysis of how best to balance these priorities, but rather seems to be a cynical political ploy. A backlash is starting to happen, but will require vigilance and effort.

The stakes remain high. Public education is a critical part of our society’s infrastructure, and we neglect it at our own peril.

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