Education vs. Morality
[August 26, 2002]
By S. M. Oliva
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh recently caught my attention with the
following statement regarding children taught at home:
I have little trouble with
the government imposing certain output requirements on home
schooling, for instance requiring the kids to get good results on periodic
tests. (Failing to make sure that one's kids are adequately educated seems
to me to be a form of child abuse, and I think the government is morally
entitled to protect kids against this, though there are obvious pragmatic
and public choice risks even with such requirements.)
Professor Volokh makes two errors in this statement, one
practical and one moral. The practical error is in assuming that "periodic
tests" administered by the state can measure educational achievement. The
moral error, quite obviously, comes in assigning the state a moral
right to "protect" children from their own parents.
The testing error is easily exposed. Daryl Cobranchi, a
homeschooling parent in Delaware, points out that public schools have had
50 years to measure their achievement through testing, and they have
failed miserably. Cobranchi then points out the illogic of applying the
testing culture to home-educated children:
Would ALL of
our kids have to score at or above grade level or face some kind of
retribution from the state? On whose curriculum would these tests be
based? [homeschoolers] usually don't follow the same scope & sequence as
the public schools; would a low score on a test even be meaningful?
Actually, tests are meaningful if you're looking to
measure "output," as Professor Volokh calls it. In subjects like math, for
example, a well-produced test can demonstrate a grasp of concretes and
basic concepts. But too often tests become an end in themselves and not a
means towards obtaining a fully integrated conceptual education. Science
and economics are two areas that tend to suffer in public schools because
of the test-dependent approach. To the extent these subjects are
taught—and few high schools even require economics, if they even offer
it—they are presented to students as a string of unrelated concretes,
usually in the guise of formulas. Little effort is made to teach the
history of science or economics, or to give the student a clear
understanding of the conceptual framework. In this sense, "output" factors
are meaningless, since even a good score does not identify the student as
educated in any objective sense.
Now as to Professor Volokh's view of morality, it seems
he doesn't quite understand the nature of government. He assumes that
government has the moral right to protect children from bad parenting
through the use of compulsory educational standards. But it's not clear
what he's basing that on. Why does the state have a right to
educate children? That's a question you almost never hear asked, and
certainly not one you get a rational answer to.
The correct answer, as Ayn Rand once said, is that "[t]here
are no moral grounds whatever for the claim that education is the
prerogative of the State." After all, if you view the government as a
protector of individual rights, then you can't justify the coercion of
millions of children into public schools for 13 years of their life (to
say nothing of compelling adults to support such schools through mandatory
taxation.) There's no "moral" way to coerce someone to do something, no
matter how noble the aim itself may appear.
Government itself is the subordination of society to
moral law. But that does not mean that any act of government is moral;
quite the contrary, since government is given a monopoly on the legal use
of force, factions in power may improperly subject one group of citizens
to act against their interests. Public education is such an act.
Public schools fail in their mission to educate
children, but they do succeed in one realm they ought not to: the
socialization of children into accepting an immoral theory of moral law.
This is why you often hear homeschooling parents being attacked for not
"socializing" their children enough. In fact, the vast majority of home
educated children are outgoing, intellectually curious, and capable of
learning with remarkable speed and ability. This is not a coincidence.
Children who are taught as individuals will become rational adults.
Children who are taught as a part of a group will become (in most cases)
intellectual vegetables, unable to act without the consent of the group or
an authority figure. This is why tests like the one Professor Volokh
speaks of measure success by the percentage of all students passing. In
other words, it's acceptable for a certain number of students to fail, so
long as the group is achieving. Is this really a moral
model for educating our children?
The parent-child relationship is fundamentally different
than the public school teacher-student relationship, and the two are not
interchangeable (as advocates of in loco parentis theory like to
argue.) A parent has a moral and legal duty to care for a child. A
public school exercises ownership of a student, including their minds and
bodies. The first duty of all public school students is obedience to the
state and whatever random objectives it decides to impose. The state need
only consider its own needs. A parent, in contrast, must act in the
interest of the individual child. If a parent does not, and he thus
breaches his duty to care for the child, then and only then can the state
step in and assert the child's interests. But to presume the parent is
failing in his duty, as Professor Volokh does, is a shocking slander on
the basic integrity of the family. No society can survive such an assault
when the attacker is the government.
Education is too important an undertaking to be left to
the state, and the last 50 years of failure in schools throughout the
country provide all the necessary proof. This is why the government
monopoly on education must end. A free society requires an educated
population, and the only way that can be achieved is through free
and open competition among various educational institutions and
philosophies. Not every child learns best in a home education situation.
But the marketplace must exist to provide children and parents with
alternatives that can be adapted to suit their needs, not the needs of the
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