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On Education and the State

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 [1]. The four major groups who want to have a say in the shape of education are: the state [2], 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 [3] 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 [4].

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20 Comments To "On Education and the State"

#1 Comment By libertarian jerry On October 22, 2012 @ 8:15 am

The 10th Plank to Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto calls for free,compulsory Public Education. If that doesn’t tell you something nothing will. In America,today Public Education has become Public Indoctrination. Public Education is one of the cogs in the wheel that helps create a nation of sheep. Basically Public Education doesn’t train young people to be self sufficient and self reliant it teaches them to obey and not to question authority. The only answer is a complete separation of education from the state by having a Constitutional Amendment,similar to the First Amendment,that separated religion from the state. Unfortunately I don’t see this happening any time soon.

#2 Comment By john personna On October 22, 2012 @ 9:11 am

NPR Planet Money just had a bit on the tremendous payback to society of pre-school. I gather This American Life did a similar story, though I did not catch it. To an empiricist, that would be the answer.

A developmentally sound pre-school earns the state more tax as students earn more and saves the state money as fewer are arrested. With realities like that, it’s easy to punt on the philosophy. But then, I’m a pragmatist.

(After hearing that story I even wonder if we do too many Pell grants and not enough pre-school.)

#3 Comment By Binx On October 22, 2012 @ 10:01 am

Yes, Jerry, the state school is the state church in disguise. And it is failing to produce good citizens because it is failing to teach civics.

#4 Comment By matt On October 22, 2012 @ 10:03 am

Under “the state”, do you include individuals who want to live among educated people? When most people you have contact with can read, do math, and have been exposed to realms of history and science, everyday life is much easier and more pleasant. Anyway, this interest should be included in your stakeholders list.

Also, I’m surprised you didn’t include the teaching profession as a stakeholder.

On a different note: the state maybe tends to dominate our discussions because it is not merely another interested party. Rather, the state apparatus is that through which a *duty* to educate, or a *right* to be educated, can be enforced. If education is among other things a matter of justice, the state’s going to be at the center of that story.

#5 Comment By CK On October 22, 2012 @ 10:19 am

“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.”

If that were actually the case, then this should be the model employed:


#6 Comment By Alan Jacobs On October 22, 2012 @ 11:35 am

matt, “the state” is by definition not “individuals,” though individuals contribute to the nature of the state. Good point, though, that all sorts of people have an interest (or believe they do) in living among the educated.

As for the teaching profession, I don’t think there is such a thing. Teachers have very (sometimes radically) different interests according to whom they work for.

#7 Comment By john personna On October 22, 2012 @ 11:43 am

Matt went in a couple directions I also considered (though I chose another as my theme). The “state” mandate to schools is the result of a scrum. And we all know, we have this flocking situation in the US, as parents choose a house near “good schools.” All that makes me unsure that there is a uniform national model for “state” behavior.

#8 Comment By john personna On October 22, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

Just to follow on, when you say above “why should the desire of the state to shape good citizens trump the desire of parents to shape good family members …” what that really leads to is more flocking, as in “get my kids out of this creationist state.”

#9 Comment By Aaron Gross On October 22, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

What’s “the state”? If you’re including institutions like school boards, well, I think it’s inaccurate and awfully misleading to call those “the state.” We’re not libertarians here. And school boards do have a lot of say in what gets taught and how.

Once you stop calling school boards and similar governing bodies “the state,” you can see that they aren’t some kind of entity that exists over and above the local community. To some extent, they represent the members of the community in their roles as parents, employers, etc. So the “desire” of “the state” is definitely not just “to shape good citizens.”

I think tax-funded, government-run schools are probably the best situation we can have nowadays. I won’t argue that now, because I don’t want to jump ahead of you. For now, I’ll just point out that having tax-funded, government run schools does not mean that “the state is understood as the chief custodian and guarantor of the good.” I think you’re shooting from the hip here.

#10 Comment By Adam On October 22, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

I believe the state should be the major stakeholder for the following reasons. There should be a level of “indoctrination” as a previous commenter described above. As we live in and are citizens of the United States of America(at least in my example), there is the requirement of learning our history, governmental system, and cultural heritage. As citizens, we also have the requirement to contribute what we are able for the betterment of the country and ourselves individually, and a well educated people are better able to contribute rather than become wards of the state. In short, we have responsibilities as citizens towards our country, as well as personal freedoms within that framework. Parents and students provide the next level, and should act as foil when necessary to state overreach. I give the least position to religious organizations since by definition I give the largest role to the state and I believe religion to be a personal choice. I do, however, believe religious studies should be at least an elective choice above the grade school level.

#11 Comment By Alan Jacobs On October 22, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

Adam, I don’t know that I agree with you, but I’ve got to give you major props for supporting a position with reason and evidence!

When I say that I don’t know whether I agree with you, I just mean that you are right that the state has some legitimate claims on us, but I’d like to hear more about the limits of those claims. we have responsibilities as citizens, but the responsibilities aren’t infinite. I might — I’m not sure, but I might — want to argue that if I am law-abiding and tax-paying, I could thereafter choose to pursue the life that I see as good even if my priorities aren’t the same as the state’s.

#12 Comment By matt On October 22, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

“As for the teaching profession, I don’t think there is such a thing.”

Huh? If that’s true, how do you categorize the significant influence exerted by the NEA and the AFT (see recent events in Chicago)? It’s not the state, which is their bargaining partner. One could argue whether it’s for good or ill, but are you saying it doesn’t exist?

In any case, I’d be more interested to hear whether you think there is a justice question that transcends the ‘stakes’ held by various the parties.

#13 Comment By Alan Jacobs On October 22, 2012 @ 5:00 pm

Matt, there are many teachers, at all levels of education, who don’t belong to and don’t support the NEA and the AFT. Those are very influential organizations, but they represent some teachers, not “the teaching profession” as a whole, which is why it doesn’t make sense to speak of that whole profession as a single stakeholder. Rather, you have many kinds of teachers who pursue fundamentally different professions in service to different stakeholders.

#14 Comment By Adam On October 22, 2012 @ 5:20 pm

I think the responsibility does go both ways, and I agree we make the choice as to our level of commitment to the state as adults, once we reach the minimum as you describe, “law abiding and tax-paying”. That said, the idea of citizenship and belonging to a society that provides so much collectively should come with an understanding of service and history. We should not educate out of purely altruistic intentions, but also expect a return on investment. I think while I wholly support the right of the individual to do as he or she pleases as long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of others, I also believe in the strength of the whole and the commitments within the structure that rise above simple individualism. It is a give and take and the balance is always precarious. On the whole I’d rather fight on the margins for balance rather than leave everything up to the individual and hope it turns out for the best.

#15 Comment By Maria C. Mitchell On October 22, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

Matt speaks as if there would be no education, or that most parents would choose not to educate their children, or that children would remain uneducated – unable to read or do math – without the intervention of The State. This, of course, is silly, and I’m not sure where one would get this idea. Just taking our local schools for an example, the graduation rate and “testing” scores are abysmal. You already have people working cash registers that couldn’t count back change if their lives depended on it. And that’s WITH all of the State intervention in the world.

And we do not have schools in order to give teachers a job. I don’t care if they have government jobs or not. Talented teachers these days have many options besides State run institutions. Teachers – especially teachers of math and science – can make a great living teaching in private schools or even homeschooled children. Of course, there are no union bennies or tenure – but, that’s life.

Why should teachers – or any beaurocrat – dictate to parents how to educate their children?

#16 Comment By matt On October 22, 2012 @ 6:26 pm

Neither does it makes sense to speak of parents or students or religious organizations as “single stakeholders.” I thought the categories were meant to capture a species of stakeholder, not a unanimous body. Teachers surely “want to [and do] have a say in the shape of education”, and not merely as an amplification of, say, the parents, children, churches, or states they may work for. Wouldn’t an analysis of crime policy include the police as stakeholders, or an analysis of defense policy include the military?

#17 Comment By Alan Jacobs On October 22, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

Aaron: Unfortunately, or usually unfortunately, local school boards have very little autonomy: they are subject to both state and federal law and so have no choice but to be instruments of the state. They rarely have much say about either curriculum or textbooks, for instance.

Adam, re: “I’d rather fight on the margins for balance rather than leave everything up to the individual and hope it turns out for the best.” Me too, but — as has often been noted in the pages of The American Conservative — one of the major problems with the rise of the modern state has been the weakening or destruction of the “little platoons,” the mediating structures that used to help form and direct individuals. As I’ll try to explain in later posts, I think those mediating structures should have a much greater role than they currently do in directing education. (This is relevant to Aaron’s point as well.)

#18 Comment By Fran Macadam On October 23, 2012 @ 3:14 am

Whoever pays for education, gets to decide what spin to put on what’s taught. When a group which is dominant, gets to mold what is taught to those whose opinions are as yet unformed, and really not in any position to seriously question, it is not in the makeup of very many in that position of power to do other than what serves their own economic interests.

The way of the world is marked by practice of and belief in dominance, so that will be what is both practiced and taught. All the rest, mostly quickly forgotten as unintelligible detail, is merely commentary.

Additionally, when public education was proposed by reformers in the 19th century, as a way to address the evils of child labor, the support of industrialists was only obtained by creating an education system modeled upon a factory, that would train future laborers to sit long hours at desks and to be moved around in shifts signaled by bells. This method was more important to them than the actual content of what was taught – with a nod to the future assessment of a McLuhan, the medium was the message.

#19 Comment By Aaron Gross On October 23, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

I think that everything I said still stands even if you look at only the state and federal governments. Lots of what they do is not at all intended to “shape good citizens.” On the contrary, deciding how evolution will be taught is a classic example of the state resolving conflicts in society. That’s very, very different from being understood as “the chief custodian and guarantor of the good.” So I still think you’re shooting from the hip there.

#20 Comment By Maughold On October 23, 2012 @ 8:02 pm

I deeply appreciate these reflections – thank you!

Interestingly, Anthony Esolen is pursuing an analogous and similarly rich vein of inquiry over at Front Porch Republic: