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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 state.

 

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