So. Betsy DeVos will be our new Secretary of Education. Every educator I know is freaked out about the fact and what it portends for public education in this country. Will she use her power to divert public moneys to private and religious schools? (Definitely.) Will she preside over the complete dismantling of the Department of Education? (Who knows?) Will her actions bake racial and class segregation even more deeply into our educational system? (Probably.)
Freedom of individual choice does not sit comfortably alongside equality. We value both, but they often work against each other. The more we enforce equality of inputs and resources, the more likely we are to constrain individual choice. The more we empower individual freedom, the more likely we are to end up with un-equal outputs. It’s a difficult balancing act.
Democracy is hard because we are maddeningly inconsistent. We talk about the importance of individuality, freedom, and choice, but our advocacy kind of depends on the thing we’re choosing. The Right believes firmly in individual choice when it comes to guns, schools, and health care, but stands firmly against personal choice when it comes to things like family planning. The Left is exactly the opposite.
Individual liberty is obviously an important part of what makes us Americans. But where to put the boundary between the rights of the individual and the needs of society has been a tricky issue. It’s something our founders thought hard about, and it’s something that has troubled thinkers and authors through the ages. John Stuart Mill, writing in 1869, said:
As soon as any part of a person's conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it, and the question whether the general welfare will or will not be promoted by interfering with it, becomes open to discussion. But there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person's conduct affects the interests of no persons besides himself, or needs not affect them unless they like (all the persons concerned being of full age, and the ordinary amount of understanding). In all such cases there should be perfect freedom, legal and social, to do the action and stand the consequences.
This is why the rights to and limits of individual choice are moving targets. There are personal decisions that, in 1869 or even 1939, would have affected no persons besides yourself--which, today, would absolutely affect other people. We force every driver to wear a seat belt and buy automobile insurance. We didn’t used to. Why are those limits to free action necessary now? Because today we are so pressed up against each other that every stupid action any one of us makes in a car will have consequences that affect other people, either directly (you hitting me) or indirectly (my rates going up because too many people are terrible drivers, or my taxes going up because too many people in too many road accidents have no insurance and have to go to the emergency room).
Individual freedom to make choices about children’s education was severely limited in the middle of the 19th century, when compulsory public schooling was introduced. At the time, some children went to school; some did not. Some children were educated at home by parents or tutors; some simply went to work. Some girls were taught the same things as boys; some girls weren’t taught how to read. It was very much a family-based decision, based on the values and needs of the family. The government decided that the needs of the industrial revolution and a rapidly diversifying population required some kind of Assimilation Machine that would spit out functional, employable Americans, regardless of what was fed into it. Which is why some families greeted the introduction of compulsory schooling with a snarl and a shotgun. They weren’t fighting to maintain their children’s ignorance; they were fighting for the right to make their own choices. Bad choices, you might say. Choices motivated by fear, racism, and xenophobia, you might say. But still: their choices.
A hundred and fifty years later, astonishingly, the fight goes on. Many parents want to send their children to private schools, religious schools, home schools—whatever kind of school they want-- and they want public moneys to pay for the choices they make, so that educational decisions aren’t just a privilege of wealth. Some of those choices are motivated by a fierce devotion to a good education and the feeling that their current options are limited and sub-standard. And some of those choices may well be motivated by things like fear, racism, and xenophobia.
So: their children; our society. Who gets to make the decisions?
It’s a tricky question, isn’t it? On the one hand, we know that public schooling in this country has been a great equalizer, a way for children from different backgrounds, nationalities, and cultures to some together and become One People. On the other hand, our current generation values diversity and individuality over conformity, and many people fear the whole idea of assimilating into some “norm,” whether it’s a capitalist, consumerist, media-soaked kind of norm or a secularist, humanist, one-worldist kind of norm. On the one hand, a public school is a place to inculcate the core ideals and values of a culture. On the other hand, families have their own core ideals and values, and should have the ability to protect their children from ideas they don’t believe in.
Or should they? Where is the line between public and private? The shrinking of our world makes it a very complicated problem. A hundred years ago, you could grow up thinking and believing any wacky thing as your parents might want you to believe, and it would have limited public consequences. Basically, your education would affect just you, and perhaps a small group of your friends and co-workers. Now, with social networking and with people changing jobs and home cities, you and your ideas may touch and affect hundreds, perhaps thousands or millions of other people. To what extent should government care about the effect of weird, bad, diverse schooling on the public at large?
And to what extent should government care about you--little old, individual you? When you are a minor, your parents get to make choices about your life. Should there any limits to that, for your own protection? Should you, as a minor, be protected from your parents’ bad choices? And if so, who gets to say which choices are bad?
When I was teaching in New York City, the department of education created a wide array of magnet middle and high schools, to provide some measure of choice without succumbing to charter schools or handing out vouchers. Every parent got a thick book in the spring, listing every possible school. Parents made their choices, and some computer algorithm figured out who would go where. But some parents chose not to choose. They let their children go to their regularly zoned, neighborhood school. And what happened? The better students went to small, magnet schools, all over the city. The students with more educated parents went there as well. The students with engaged, activist parents went there. The students whose parents paid attention and cared went there. And, by and large, whoever was left over ended up at the zoned school.
And who was left over? The kids whose parents chose not to choose, or didn’t know how to choose, or were too busy, distracted, or un-informed to know that the choice mattered. Choosing not to choose was unmistakably a bad idea; the old, zoned schools became depositories of the least motivated, hardest to educate children, staffed by teachers who lacked the seniority to transfer elsewhere.
Is that all right? In a system where parents get to choose what’s right for their children’s education, is there any role for “nanny-state-ism,” any role for the government—local, state, or federal—to say that certain choices are off the table because they will harm the child—for his own sake and on behalf of the larger society of which he will someday be a part?
From the most brutalist, Libertarian, Ayn Rand position, you’d say No—there is no role for government. If you’re too stupid to make good choices for your children, then they will fail and you will fail, and good riddance to the whole bunch of you. Excellence and strength should be allowed to rise, and weakness should be culled from the herd through its own bad actions. It’s the same position Jerry Seinfeld referenced when joking about motorcycle helmet laws. This is the position that values individual freedom to act over pretty much any other social good, because it sees extreme individualism as the greatest social good. It’s an extreme position, and you can easily imagine more moderate versions of it.
From the most collectivist, social-welfare-oriented position, you’d say Yes—there is a role for government to put forth rules and set legally binding and enforceable limits on behalf of the health and welfare of minors. This is the position that values equity and the health of the community over individual freedom. For the good of all of us, individuals have to be protected from their worst impulses and decisions. This, too, has extreme and more moderate versions.
When we’ve worked well as a society, we’ve found ways to move to the middle and honor both sides of the equation, providing choice but also accountability to standards of what Good looks like. Unfortunately, we’re not in a very moderate or understanding frame of mind, these days. We’ve come to believe that the life of the republic is a zero-sum game; only one side can be right, and each side, thinking it’s allied with God, must fight the forces of evil to the death.
That is a lie, and it is nonsense, and it will eventually destroy us. That much seems obvious to me. I wish it seemed obvious to more people.