Mostly Harmless



By 09/08/2009

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Many electrons have already been spilled on Obama’s speech today to the nation’s school children.  When news first broke of the planned speech, alarms were raised by Michelle Malkin, Glenn Beck, and Neal McCluskey (among many others).

This was followed by a counter-backlash from the left as well as folks on the right, including the Wall Street Journal and Tunku Varadarajan at Forbes, who said that the initial reaction was “overwrought” and “demented” (respectively if not respectfully).

The counter-backlash is correct that the speech is basically harmless.  Telling kids to stay in school, say no to drugs, and the like is the sort of thing that Nancy Reagan used to say (and people used to mock not because it was indoctrinating but because it was likely ineffective.)

It’s worth stepping back from this kerfuffle to wonder why the president making a speech to the nation’s school children while they are in school is such a big deal.  The counter-backlash wants to suggest that the original backlash against the speech was motivated by crazy, conspiratorial thinking.  Presidents talk to the country all the time, they note.  And if the problem is supposed to be in the lesson plan proposed by the U.S. Department of Education, teachers can use or ignore these suggestions as they wish, just like they can regularly choose lesson plans.

But that is at the heart of the backlash and is not entirely crazy.  Parents sense a lack of control over what their children are taught in school.  This is as true of every day’s social studies lesson as it is of Obama’s speech.  Most of those lessons, just like the president’s speech, are likely to be unobjectionable to most parents.

But on a fairly regular basis schools teach (or fail to teach) some things that are contrary to the values that parents would like conveyed to their children.  To those of us who see education as an extension of child-rearing, compulsory education privileging government-operated schools is an intrusion of the government on this parental responsibility.  To others, the intervention of the government is a positive good, protecting children from potentially dangerous values of the their parents and assuring allegiance to a common set of ideals necessary for our society to function.  As an empirical matter, government-operated schools are actually less effective at conveying that common set of ideas than are schools selected by parents.

Amy Gutmann, in the widely read book, Democratic Education, argues that this is not really an empirical question.  The principle is that there should be some democratic input into what is taught to children, not just parental control.   But in a chapter in the book, Learning from School Choice, I dissect Gutmann’s book to show that her scheme isn’t democratic at all.  She believes that local democracies should control schools as long as they avoid discriminating and repressing.  The problem is that almost everything of importance that they do could be portrayed as discriminating or repressing.  So who, under her scheme, resolves these disputes about what is permissible for local democracies to control in schools?  Unelected judges and unelected teaching professionals.  Gutmann’s proposal is really to substitute the dictatorship of an elite for the dictatorship of parents.  As I’ve argued before, I prefer to trust even poorly educated parents to make decisions in the best interests of their own children than well-trained but differently motivated bureaucrats.

So, beneath the over-reactions and counter-over-reactions on Obama’s speech today is a real issue — Who should have primary responsibility for raising (educating) children?




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  • [...] an effect on that? Anyway, I commend to you two thoughtful perspectives on the whole episode: by Jay Greene at Education Next and by coolreformchick at [...]

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