These posts on education are moving pretty slowly, aren’t they? Not very bloglike; deficient in zip and quotable quotes. Sorry about that. But I’m really trying to think rather than respond to the various positions already out there and already well-known. I’m trying very gradually to stitch together a reasonably coherent overview — with help from your responses.

I want to return to the question of stakeholders that I raised in an earlier post. The four major groups who want to have a say in the shape of education are: the state, religious organizations, parents, and the students themselves. (There might be others, but these are the chief ones.) Which voices should be the dominant ones?

Most people agree that as students get older they should have a greater and greater say in what they study, though usually within structured options. (For example, a college student may freely choose to major in economics but will face mandatory courses within that major.) But early in a child’s education, at least through elementary and middle school, she won’t get to make a lot of the calls unless she’s in an unschooling environment. So who decides what she studies?

Throughout most of what we like to call the developed world, the state makes those decisions: the freedom American parents are given to determine their children’s education is frequently derided (when not greeted with puzzlement) by Europeans. Among many people, state control of education is as much a given as state control of the Navy. But does that make sense?

The most common arguments in favor of the state controlling education, either directly by running the schools or indirectly by certifying them, are familiar. First comes the claim that the state can hire experts to design curricula and teach classes better than parents could, but when it is pointed out that at the very least this is not always true, the stronger claims emerge: that the state has a powerful and abiding interest in creating an educational system that is sufficiently consistent to generate social cohesion and to create cohorts of good citizens.

It is not clear to me that the American educational system, taken as a whole, does either of these things, but even if it did, there’s still a question to be asked: Why should the desire of the state to shape good citizens trump the desire of parents to shape good family members, or strong contributors to the local community, or faithful practitioners of a religious life, or whatever the case may be? Even granting that those models of good living are inimical to citizenship, which I do not grant, how do values like citizenship and social cohesion get to be the trump card in educational debates?

They get to be the trump card in a social organization in which the state is understood as the chief custodian and guarantor of the good. And that’s the point that most people who think about education, in the West anyway, take for granted. If there’s going to be a serious debate about how education ought to work, it has to start with the question of whether the state deserves that place. You need to imagine what the world looks like when we’re not all seeing like a state.