Quote of the day--"we don't need no education, we don't need no thought control" edition

>> Friday, March 16, 2012

...I am unconvinced when Rachel Goldberg, a secular home-schooling mother from Charlotte, North Carolina, echoes what I hear from home-schooling parents of every stripe on the subject of government oversight. "I don't think there should be any regulation of home schooling," she says. "I'm not a libertarian or a conspiracy theorist, but I am fiercely protective of my kids and my choices about how to raise them. It's none of the government's business how I teach them. Just as I wouldn't want the state to require me to submit menu plans and quarterly nutritional assessments (even though I believe nutrition is vitally important), I don’t want the state to require curricula plans, portfolios, etc."
-Kristin Rawls, "Home-schooled and illiterate",
Salon/AlterNet, March 15th, 2012


So, here's the thing: as I've tried to point out before, one of the things about being a democratic republic is we are the government. We vote for people to represent us, our representatives (depending on which branch of government we voted them into) vote for laws and/or implement them, etc. It isn't us and them, it's us and us, and while the reality is undeniably complicated by the graft and corruption in the system and by the way in which various structural inadequacies have been amplified by money and custom without any kind of regular housecleaning, the bottom-line-in-principle is if we don't like what "government" is doing, we can always kick the bums out of office. (And replace them with fresh, new, exciting bums! Sorry; I didn't want you to think my cynicism was losing its edge.)

I mention this because it goes to the heart of how Ms. Goldberg (a local, too, I'm disappointed to notice) is pretty goddamn dangerous. And how she's wrong. I mean, it's the same exact thing: she's wrong and she's dangerously wrong.

See, let's go back to what she's saying: she doesn't think "government" needs to be telling her how to raise her kids. Fair enough, up to a point. Only up to a point. Because, see, her children, assuming she doesn't leave the country to raise them somewhere else they never return from, are ultimately going to be voters, participating in our representative democracy. They are ultimately going to be part of the collective effort we all make to govern ourselves. I'm a little embarrassed to state the obvious here, but if we're going to govern ourselves, it's in everybody's best interest if we all know what we're doing, right? Or, to quote somebody misattributing Thomas Jefferson, "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." This is the original reason we have compulsory public education in the first place; I'd love to say it's mostly motivated by a laudable progressive or Enlightenment goal of simply trying to make everybody smarter because smart equals good, but the truth is that western democracies have emphasized education primarily out of a common self-interest in producing electorates that won't collectively shit the nest.

I'm not saying that's worked as planned.

If the primary purpose of education in a democratic republic is to create intelligent and informed voters (with all the things we usually talk about--like career opportunities, self-improvement, the inherent good of knowledge, etc.--being not-entirely-incidental side benefits), then you bet your life I'm interested in what your kids are learning. Damn straight. I don't want them voting for something stupid, or (to be more generally accurate) voting for somebody stupid. Actually, you know, I even have to backtrack here to add that I'm talking about representative elections when in reality a lot of these future voters will be voting for other things, too: they'll be voting for municipal bonds; they might end up in a referendum state; they could be called for jury service and asked to vote on a question of civil liability or criminal guilt; etc. Anyway, they're going to be voting and I'd like them to know one or two or ten thousand things before they start using that franchise they're automatically going to age into when they turn eighteen.

And who am I? I'm the government. Just like you. See what I did there? When someone like Ms. Goldberg says it isn't the government's business what her kids learn, it sounds nice and it appeals to a sentiment we all feel about wanting to be left alone, but she's essentially wrong. It isn't my business what her kids know, think, or believe--until they step into a voting booth and we attend the annual civic ritual of inflicting our opinions upon each other, whereupon I'd really like to trust that her kids' opinions are reasonably well-informed and have some toehold on reality.

I don't much care if she homeschools her kids or sends them to a private school--not in principle, anyway. If she's imparting her kids with enough history and science to know what, how and why things have happened; enough math to demonstrate an ability to think logically and symbolically; enough literature, music, and art to be invested in our common culture; and enough language to be able to communicate all of the above: well, good. They don't have to like any of these subjects (I cannot tell you how much I generally hate math), they don't need to be able to recite Shakespeare by heart, they don't have to be experts in any or all of those things, and they absolutely don't have to agree with me about anything. They just need to be informed and reasonable, and one way to get to that point is for everybody to consent that there are some kinds of standards that kids have to at least be exposed to.

This is our business. We implement it through our government, which is composed of ourselves.

Go ahead and read the rest of the Rawls article, by the way, if you're in the mood for a real-life horror story; most of the article is focused on religious home-schoolers (unlike Ms. Goldberg, whose political and religious beliefs are never quite specified), and they're more than a little terrifying. Not because they're religious, but because they're deplorably archaic in how their religious beliefs frame and set everything: the Quiverfull people raise their girls to be semi-literate housewives and their boys to be Puritan farmers. One almost wishes they could be given a time machine back to one of their preferred eras, though I confess I'm being heartless when I say that, since my thoughts run less to their happiness than to the prevalence of tuberculosis, cholera, etc. Lives tended to be, to borrow from a familiar line, nastier, more brutal and short before we had all this nice science and a secular government willing to take citizens' money and turn it into roads and sewer systems and easements for public/private partnerships to put regulated power and communications lines through. These days, if you do somehow get cholera in the developed world, you just pick up the telephone machine and they drive the ambulance machine right up to your house to take you back up the paved road to the hospital. Eighteenth Century America, not so much--but hey, on the upside: nobody told you how to raise the kids who survived childbirth and their first five years on Earth!

Good times.


Seth Friday, March 16, 2012 at 12:49:00 PM EDT  

On the other hand, what happens when compulsory education leads to worse outcomes? What if the schools in Texas or Georgia decline to teach evolutionary biology (or teach it in a class on speculative fiction), and you, as a resident in one of those states, lack the political clout to change that curriculum? I mean, there's a chicken and egg problem -- in an ideal world, a literate and thoughtful electorate would ensure that the education system functions as it ought to. But where does that literate and thoughtful electorate come from? It might come from a functional education system, but we don't have one yet. And I know what you're thinking -- well, we should establish a uniform curriculum across the states. But to establish such a thing would require a literate and thoughtful electorate....

I'm just saying, I have some sympathy for people who just want to opt out of the whole mishegas and do what's right for their own kids.

Eric Friday, March 16, 2012 at 1:35:00 PM EDT  

Seth, to be clear: if parents want to homeschool their kids, I'm not going to begrudge them that prerogative. There are some complicated issues regarding the advantages and disadvantages of socializing the little tykes in public or private settings, but that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish I'm not even getting into today.

But society nevertheless has an interest in what these kids are taught, and we manifest that interest primarily by statute--contrary to what Ms. Goldberg asserts, government has an interest in how her kids are reared.

Two more points in direct response to your comment. First, that state-mandated standards are a floor, not a ceiling. You want to home-school your kids on evolutionary biology even though it isn't on the state curriculum, by all means. Saying that the state has an interest in making sure homeschool kids are able to pass competencies on subjects x, y and z doesn't preclude any parent from teaching the other 23 letters of the alphabet. Second, there's yesterday's entire conversation: just because the state requires your child to be competent in x, y and z doesn't mean you can't also teach your child that the alphabet ends around the letter s but they need to know about the heretical letters so they're prepared to face the infidel on his own Scrabble board when the time comes. (My metaphor may be getting a little strained.) We've been talking about this typically in the context of someone learning about evolution even if they don't believe in it because that's where the front is in the culture war, but I can certainly imagine teaching my hypothetical children how to pass the state examination on Biblical Literal Orthodoxy even while pointing out all the problems with it. I don't think that's terribly unfair either way, honestly.

Seth Friday, March 16, 2012 at 4:34:00 PM EDT  

I think those are useful points, though the second point, especially, complicates the notion that the public and the state have a compelling interest in the curriculum kids are exposed to. Because your two posts taken together suggest two possible benefits to the democracy of education. One benefit is the transmission of useful information -- science, history, economics -- so that voters can make informed decisions. The other is to teach people to consider and analyze new arguments.

Clearly if the school requires my kid to take Biblical Literal Orthodoxy (textbook by Tim LaHaye), the time being used to learn that non-information is time my child isn't learning actual information that might make him a better, more informed voter. On the other hand, it is exposing him to an actual mode of thought that he's likely to encounter in society, which gives him an opportunity to learn how to analyze and debate. And maybe that is a valuable skill for voters to have, too.

So I guess the question one has to ask is, is that trade-off worth it? If the student has fewer hours in the week to study the facts of science, but he's spent that time learning facts of non-science and, under the parent's tutelage, applying the methods of science to disprove nonsense, is the republic as a whole improved by that trade? And is there a tipping point -- some percentage of nonsense in the curriculum at which the value of the debunking exercise no longer outweighs the opportunity cost of not studying actual information?

I don't know that I have a good answer to those questions. But it's an interesting tension.

Nick from the O.C.,  Friday, March 16, 2012 at 11:05:00 PM EDT  

Everything I needed to know, I learned in kindergarten.

Public school kindergarten.

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