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December 02, 2004

public, private, and schools

Don Herzog: December 2, 2004

The public/private distinctions -- plural deliberately chosen, thank you very much -- are awfully slippery.  That means they'll be hard to sort out crisply here, but more important that it will always be easy for political actors to play fast and loose with them.

If a public school teacher can decide that a 7-year-old student has misbehaved for explaining to a classmate that he has two mothers, who are gay, something has misfired dreadfully.  But I bet some people will think allowing students to share such information in school, let alone encouraging -- or requiring -- them to treat the messenger and the news with respect, counts as "promoting a homosexual lifestyle," or some such bugbear.

Susan Okin wanted the liberal state to use the public schools to declare war on gender formations, which she saw as radically unjust on their own terms and as having dreadful larger political implications.  The argument is a political nonstarter, or, worse, counterproductive.  (Can't you hear Rush Limbaugh sneering?)  Still asking the public schools to keep silent on everything that's controversial -- evolution, gender, you name it -- or simply to report multiple positions -- evolution and creationism, equality and homophobia, &c -- is indefensible.

Some battles here have to be fought.  These days some serious conservatives, and some serious reactionaries, have mobilized to take over school boards.  If you were troubled by the news that some states are watering down evolution, and some textbook publishers are too, just wait.  This is one of many reasons it's politically suicidal, as well as indefensible on grounds of principle, for liberals to spend so much time and energy whispering in the ears of appellate court judges.


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Posted by: Bill Sherman

Well put, Don. Liberals seem to have long ago forgotten that victories aren't won, they're built. They can be built in a number of ways, and one way is by building vocal grassroots organizations that intimidate leaders. In this way, I think David V's earlier post misses the point; the question is not whether the statistics show that GWB didn't benefit from gay issues on the ballot, but whether anti-gay advocacy groups have successfully trumpeted the idea that he did. Conservatives have decided to fight this fight in the open, and until liberals do the same at the local level, the perception will be that all the momentum is on the right.

Posted by: Bill Sherman | Dec 7, 2004 12:50:37 AM

Posted by: Wild Pegasus

This is an inherent problem with putting education in the hands of the state. As long as schools are funded and organised politically, the dominant ideology that underlies their educational methods will be organised politically. If schools are separated from the state, the ideologies that underlie the schools will be chosen by parents. Put another way, fundamentalist Christians can have their schools, and progressive liberals can have their schools.

Of course, if you are of one side or the other and believe you have the right to use the apparatus of the state to indoctrine children, this argument isn't going to go far with you. But you also have no right to complain when someone of a different philosophy beats you at the polls.

- Josh

Posted by: Wild Pegasus | Dec 7, 2004 4:49:39 AM

Posted by: Dean Esmay

The funny thing is that it is the right that has long felt that it's the embattled party in the schools, not the left.

School prayer was thrown out not because local school boards and parents wanted it thrown out, but because liberal activists used the courts to get it thrown out.

Discussion of creationist ideas did not get thrown out of classroom discussions because local school board through grass roots action removed them. It's because liberal activists ran to the courts and had them thrown out.

How anyone did not expect a grass-roots reaction against these folks having their ideas not debated out, but simply and suddenly forcibly thrown out by dictate, I have no idea. But grass-roots conservative action got its start in reaction to just such things.

If we forget history on these things then we wind up seeing our opponents the wrong way: remember, things like prayer and creationism aren't things the right is suddenly trying to force into the classroom. It's stuff the courts forced out that they're attempting to re-introduce.

This may make no difference one way or the other to your opposition to such things but it should change how you perceive what your opponents are trying to do and what drives them. THEY FEEL THEY WERE THROWN OUT AND ARE JUST TRYING TO GET BACK IN.

Mind you, I'm an atheist. I'm merely giving you an insight into how these folks see the issue.

Posted by: Dean Esmay | Dec 7, 2004 5:07:31 AM

Posted by: Demetrios

Dean Esmay, I can't help but feel that "liberal activists made it happen" sounds an awful lot like a non-neutral conservative who isn't really as high- and open-minded as you are thoughtful and self-aware enough to portray yourself. "Liberal activists" are people too, some of them even consider themselves Americans, but maybe that's a leap you haven't quite been able to make since you left the left, because it was insular, now you're not a conservative either, though some people think you are, maybe it's 'cause you use the phrase "liberal activists" scornfully to describe the left but can't seem to allow "conservative activists" to form on your lips, the rightists being just THEY, school boards and parents, normal Americans who form a pro-prayer bloc, after all, it was "liberal activists" who did it all, or so it appears you are saying. They're not THEY, they're not really part of American society, they stand outside of it, imposing a point of view on others -- according to you, offering by the way no evidence. Who would have ever thought that such a complicated matter as the separation of church and state could be so easy? But that's what it means to have "liberal activists" around. "Liberal activists" make the blame easy to assess.

But hey, THEY FEEL THEY WERE THROWN OUT AND ARE JUST TRYING TO GET BACK IN, as you say. Now there's a lot of stuff THEY have complained about, like segregated schools, general social strictures on race-mixing, etc. Why are we the hated, nefarious "liberal activists" supposed to feel bad about this? After all, it's not as if a single one of us is a parent or a member of a school board; we're not really part of society; truth be told, we're just tricksters. We just like to mess with people. By the way, thanks for being an atheist but not taking stuff from THEM; if only I had the courage to walk away from the left, too.

Is it just being a "liberal activist" that's transgressive for you? How DO you feel about "conservative activists", by the way? I read over on Atrios that more than 99% of the complaints that the FCC receives come from Brent Bozell's group. Isn't that funny? But they're not "activists", right? They're just THEY, the true roots, the real deal, the ones who were wronged by the liberal activists, THEY are just defending themselves against illegitimate imposition of separation of church and state by liberal activists who aren't grassroots.

Posted by: Demetrios | Dec 7, 2004 8:48:15 AM

Posted by: Steve

Come on-the reason Dean said "Liberal activists made it happen" is because liberal activists made it happen. How about a counterproposal: on all these controversial issues, let the parents vote on what to do: gay rights education, prayer in schools, singing Silent Night at Christmas, evolution/creationism. The reason all these issues have gone the way they have is because 'liberal activists' and courts have imposed a decision on the majority-not because the majority is getting its way. And the reason why the majority is fighting them is because they don't like a minority imposing a viewpoint upon them. You may believe that the majority is wrong, and you may believe that the majority is so wrong, it deserves to have power taken away from it by the 'liberal activists' and the courts, but its impossible to believe that it hasn't happened.


Posted by: Steve | Dec 7, 2004 9:16:57 AM

Posted by: Rocky

How about a counterproposal: on all these controversial issues, let the parents vote on what to do: gay rights education, prayer in schools, singing Silent Night at Christmas, evolution/creationism.

Indeed, let them vote with their feet.

Posted by: Rocky | Dec 7, 2004 9:39:36 AM

Posted by: Steve

"Indeed, let them vote with their feet"

If and when school vouchers come, they will.

Posted by: Steve | Dec 7, 2004 10:01:36 AM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

Demetrios, you're attacking the messenger because you don't like the message. Had Dean substituted for "liberal activists" a more politically acceptable term, such as "progressive reformers who believe in social justice" and still made the point that many things have been changed by judicial action rather than consensus politics, it would still be accurate. It's not about 'liberal activists' or 'conservative activists' opposing them, per se, its about a group attempting to use the political process to overturn changes made through the judicial process. The resistance of then-conservative courts to the programs of the Roosevelt administration that led to the court-packing controversy is another example (but with the roles reversed) of this kind of disagreement.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 7, 2004 10:02:41 AM

Posted by: baa

I'd love to know how the Left2Right community breaks down on the school choice issue (no points for guessing Professor Schmidtz's position...).

As a small "r" republican myself, I find lots to like about the nationalism-building functions that in theory could be provided by public schooling. My local public school system, however, doesn't do much civic virtue inculcation, and provides educational services I have no intention of subjeting my children to. So let's hear it, luminaries of Anglo-American philosophy, which of you:

a) prefer school choice on principle?
b) prefer school choice on principle, but think in the American context it would work poorly?
c) prefer public school on principle?
d) prefer public school on principle, but think in the American context it is working poorly?
e) some subtler position that resists the easy public/choice dichotomy, but perhaps also irritatingly refuses to fess up about who gets to direct the education of students

Posted by: baa | Dec 7, 2004 10:04:17 AM

Posted by: aelph

Steve says "let the parents vote on what to do". While I understand some of the comments on here about school choice and voting with feet, others are baffling. To use two examples from Steve's post, if a school wants to let parents vote on whether or not to sing "Silent Night", fine. But voting on whether to teach evolution or creationism? We may as well take votes to see if we'll teach that the earth is round or flat this year. Science should not be subject to public opinion, and the state and the schools should always be "biased" toward the *facts*.

Posted by: aelph | Dec 7, 2004 2:36:06 PM

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti

aelph writes:
Science should not be subject to public opinion, and the state and the schools should always be "biased" toward the *facts*.

The statement is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough to carry the weight aelph seems to want it to.

"Facts" are essentially observations of phenomena, not explanations of how those phenomena occur, how they are connected to other phenomena, or what they mean.

Evolution is not scientific "fact" it's an hypothesis, a theory seeking to explain phenomena. It happens to be one I think is true and best supported by the evidence, but I wouldn't go (much) further. Should the schools teach evolution? Sure, as a theory, and even as the best theory available. As incontrovertible "fact"? No. Should creationism be taught? Well, I'd vote no because I'm not convinced it's worthwhile, but that doesn't mean I think the state schools should prevent teaching of creationism (at least in its more respectable forms) in places where parents wanted it taught as an alternative.

Surely, the history of science is full of examples of received theories being taught as eternal truths to the exclusion of other ideas, and then turning out to be demonstrably wrong, replaced by other new theories that ossify into orthodoxy.

Indeed, scientific theories are subject to popular opinion, not the exclusive property of a self-defined clerisy. Whenever they are funded through the political process by the public fisc -- whether directly by government funds or indirectly as general university funds -- they are a matter of public policy. And, there is an argument that private scientific theorizing may well be a matter of public interest as well, at least insofar as the theories may be tainted by the biases of those paying for it. More open debate on scientific ideas (and imparting enough mathematics to the masses to make reasonable sense of them) would be a good thing.

Posted by: Rob Perelli-Minetti | Dec 7, 2004 3:30:19 PM

Posted by: Steve

I happen to agree with you-I buy evolution, don't buy creationism.
But the other issues I mentioned, as well as the evolution/creationism issue, make me question what my own personal opinion has to do with it. In other words, while I could see 'imposing' evolution on undesiring parents, because it is science, I don't see 'imposing' gay rights, secular Christmas, prayer in schools, affirmative action, etc etc on parents. In other words, where do you draw the line between 'so wrong it can be imposed on people by an elite' and 'wrong but if the majority wants to be wrong, I guess we have to let them'? I would have thought that the distinction between science and non-science would have sufficed (and I would have agreed with you-impose evolution, let parents vote on gay rights). But by and large, the Left doesn't buy it-they seem to think that all wrongs are so wrong they can be imposed on the majority (that's the whole point of this post, after all). And given that, I can't really justify imposing the views of an elite upon the masses-even on subjects that I happen to agree with (evolution/science and prayer in schools).


Posted by: Steve | Dec 7, 2004 3:38:08 PM

Posted by: Don Herzog

The whole point of the post? My initial post? No, no, I sure hope I wasn't that unclear. I'm the guy who thinks that lots of stuff, but not everything, properly gets left to messy old majoritarian/democratic politics to sort out, and who complains that the left these days has a bad habit of trying to win by whispering in judges' ears.

Posted by: Don Herzog | Dec 7, 2004 8:46:57 PM

Posted by: Mona

I often agree with Dean Esmay, but if he is arguing that our courts' rejection of so-called "scientific creationism" in public schools is illegitimate, I could not more strongly disagree. Creationism is a narrowly sectarian rendering of the Genesis creation account, and is not science. It has no place in a science classroom, and no business being taught in government facilities (like public schools) as science. That is the central issue here: creationism is NOT science, and is a sectarian creation myth. Most creationist entities require those who "research" for them to take oaths abjuring all attemtpts to prove facts, hypotheses or theories that run contrary to an inerrant reading of the Xian Bible -- whatever that is, it is not the methods of science.

That said, I strongly favor school choice. If Xian fundamentalists wish to teach their children that the Earth is 6,000 years old, and that the myriad languages which exist resulted from the Tower of Babel dispersion, let them do so in private schools. When their progeny have to compete with others in the real world, they will, however, be at some disadvantage.

Posted by: Mona | Dec 7, 2004 9:44:04 PM

Posted by: PJ

Interesting idea for a website, and some very thoughtful arguments. As a confirmed red-stater, I thought I'd contribute -- one of the things that is so very frustrating to me is the way issues are framed -- "equality vs. homophobia" for instance. Do you really believe there's no position inbetween? And why do you assume that since I disagree with homosexuality, that I therefore hate gays? I don't hate them; I believe some of their choices are wrong, but then I also disapprove of married men keeping mistresses, people abusing drugs, and those who speed through residential neighborhoods. Et cetera, et cetera. There's room for argument on all these points, of course, but my point is that I'm not "phobic" about these things.

But if I don't whole-heartedly embrace gay "issues" then obviously I hate them? That's a little too simplistic, guys. And it comes across as very hostile to me and people like me. If you'd rather have a more civil debate, it'd be a good idea to think about these things.


Posted by: PJ | Dec 8, 2004 9:14:51 AM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

As another poster noted, government institutions are inherently subject to political battles for control. The only significant change is that the other side's ox is now being (or about to be) gored. The simple libertarian solution is, of course, to eliminate government run schools. Then I wouldn't have to worry about my children being force-fed creationism *or* environmentalism. (I know the basic thread has to do with homosexuality, but sexual politics haven't quite ascended to the cult status of environmentalism yet.)

This is a fine example of why "Left versus Right" discussions are so inadequate. A generation ago, American politics was fairly straightforward: the Right let you keep your money in return for running your life, the Left left you alone in return for all your money. Now both "sides" want too much of both. Wherein lies any real difference?

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Dec 8, 2004 10:01:43 AM

Posted by: aelph

Should creationism be taught? Well, I'd vote no because I'm not convinced it's worthwhile, but that doesn't mean I think the state schools should prevent teaching of creationism (at least in its more respectable forms) in places where parents wanted it taught as an alternative.

There's no such thing as a respectable form of creationism. It's all akin to teaching gravity is caused by invisible purple gnome magic, and it has no business in a science classroom, ever (At least not in any school that receives tax funding). I see no room for compromise on this specific issue. Evolution should be the only theory taught because it's the only theory that actually meets the definition of *science* (The punctuated equilibria dispute is probably a bit much for even high school biology.)

On other issues Steve brings up, we can talk. I could care less if you have a Christmas tree in a school as long as you would be likewise amenable to the symbol of someone else's religion there. If it's fair for one religion, it's fair for others. As for prayer in schools, if you're talking about mandatory prayer, we have nothing to discuss, but as for voluntary, I do believe anyone who wants to pray in school on their own can do so. If you want a specific time set aside for optional prayer, I'd question that, not on the grounds that "prayer is bad", but on the grounds that schools are for educating students, and such a thing would not be a use of school resources in pursuit of that purpose. Affirmative action I don't get you bringing up, as that has to with hiring and jobs, not the school system.

As for the main topic here, homosexuality, I'm not sure what room for compromise there is because I'm not sure really what the other side's position is. What exactly is happening in the school system vis-a-vis homosexuality that is considered objectionable? It's been 10 years since I finished high school, and I don't recall the subject even ever coming up while I was there.

And how is "environmentalism" being taught in schools? If Mr. Ridgely is refering to human-caused global warming, that *is* the scientific consensus, and thus it belongs in a science class.

(I'm not going to address the issue of whether or not we should have government-run schools, as that's a bit too academic for this thread. The point here is to find a realistic compromise between the right and the left, and only in someone's pet theory fastasy world are public schools going to be abolished. Even if I decided to agree on the merits of eliminating them, that position is politically untenable.)

Posted by: aelph | Dec 8, 2004 12:29:43 PM

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

"If Mr. Ridgely is refering to human-caused global warming, that *is* the scientific consensus."

No doubt it is. Whether the scientific consensus is always or in this particular case correct, I'll leave for a different discussion. However, determining what public policy should be concerning global warming (or endangered species or any of a number of other typically Green issues) is not.

My experience as the parent of school age children has been to witness, albeit vicariously, repeated examples of teachers arguing policy positions in their science curricula. I find that every bit as objectionable as I would find teaching creationism in lieu of or even as a viable *scientific* alternative to evolution. (As an aside, I'm not troubled by a teacher informing her students that many people reject evolution because of their religious beliefs.)

As for "pet theory fantasy worlds," mine or anyone else's, many political realities were highly improbably only a few generations ago. One can support the value of an educated public without having to support public education, at least as it is currently constituted.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Dec 8, 2004 1:03:40 PM

Posted by: Polish Immigrant

Bush could destroy the earth and I will still vote Republican. I want school choice (vouchers are not good enough) and nothing short of it will satisfy me no matter how much explaining you are going to do.

BTW, "global-warming-caused-by-humans" is a religion. Most scientists are going to the same church. But there are some who are not afraid of inquisition.


Posted by: Polish Immigrant | Dec 8, 2004 2:41:25 PM

Posted by: slarrow

Well, to get back to some of your original statements, Don...

"But I bet some people will think allowing students to share such information in school, let alone encouraging -- or requiring -- them to treat the messenger and the news with respect, counts as 'promoting a homosexual lifestyle,' or some such bugbear."

Well, yeah. Some of us would get just a little excited if the conversation went something like this:

Child of lesbian couple: "But I do have two mommies!"
Child of husband/wife couple: "No, you don't! You can't have two mommies! You can only have one mommy and one daddy!"
Teacher: "Now, that's not true. Most people can have a mommy and a daddy, but some people can have just a mommy or just a daddy or a mommy and grandma, and some people can have two mommies and some can have two daddies. What we must all remember is that all of these are okay."

So now the child comes home and tells his parents that there's no difference between a man-woman marriage and a homosexual union (or unmarried or divorced people, which would surely include some of the kids in the classroom) and that Teacher said so. You might think that's enlightened, and why not? The child now thinks there are no moral (or otherwise) distinctions between couples, something you appear to believe, so there's no problem, right?

And color blind people can't see the number 2 here, either.

Now none of this is to say that the teacher was right in sending the kid to the principal's office. It's to point out the difficulty in crafting a truly neutral ground on this issue, especially in grade school. Sure, it's easy to mock this teacher, but the situation calls for a pretty nuanced answer that will be transmitted through the communicative prowess of seven-year-olds.

As for the drive to win local school board elections, welcome to the fray. I agree with you that liberals need to get into the arena and try to win influence like that locally and democratically. It's about time; it's not just "these days" that liberals have advanced their agenda by whispering in judges' ears. That was Dean's point.

Posted by: slarrow | Dec 8, 2004 3:57:52 PM

Posted by: CDH

Has anyone here actually studied Darwinian evolutionary theory and/or intelligent design? I'm fully aware that Creationism and ID are two separate theories, but the fact remains that Darwinian evolution is an unproved theory that is yearly losing ground within the scientific community. Just see the credentials of the biologists on the Dissent from Darwin list. That so many liberals believe Darwinism to be provable fact demonstrates that the leftist public school agenda is not about science vs. fiction but god vs. godlessness. There is, at the very least, just as much evidence for ID than Darwinian evolution, so why not teach both? Or neither? Why is it that any rational or scientific challenge to Darwinism is met with so much hostility by the left, that a textbook making a perfectly accurate statement, that Darwinism is but a theory, can't even pass the left wing smell test? It seems to me that the biggest problem with evolution in public schools is not only that it was forced upon a dissenting majority, but that it is, really and truly, nothing more than a replacement of one unprovable theory with another.

Posted by: CDH | Dec 9, 2004 5:50:00 PM

Posted by: Bernard

'There is, at the very least, just as much evidence for ID than Darwinian evolution'

This is a stone-cold certain sign that you don't know what you're talking about. Intelligent design offers no testable claims, and so it's not possible to gather scientific evidence. It's a technical-sounding rejig of the age old 'god of the gaps' idea.

Basically ID says 'if humankind has yet to work out how something works, it's likely that God is behind it.' Where Young earth creationism and its ilk offer up claims which can be pulled apart by empirical testing, ID simply unfolds back to the furthest reaches of our knowledge. The obvious problem is that any number of similar ideas can be offered ('everything we don't understand is secretly the work of the invisible pink unicorns which keep the universe running'), and all are equally untestable.

With regard to evolution, as a right-leaning libertarian i'd be quite happy for it not to be taught in schools. I think school science leans too far toward telling children what our current understanding of science is, and not enough toward teaching the basis of the scientific method. If kids could be taught effective analysis skills, I think we'd have much slimmer grounds for these 'who is indoctrinating who' arguments.

Posted by: Bernard | Dec 9, 2004 6:12:11 PM

Posted by: Jeff

I'd like to drift back to what I thought was a really interesting idea in the initial post, namely that there is common ground on the idea that certain things are private and should be left alone by the state while other things are public and cannot be left alone by the state, but there is little common ground on what should be private and what public. In other words, we have an agreed principle, but little agreement on how it applies.

Perhaps this means that the principle is unworkable. Or perhaps it means that more time needs to be spent on determining how it needs to be applied.

In a different post, for which comments have now been closed, it was suggested that perhaps the state should get out of the marriage business altogether. The decision of two people to live together is arguably one of the most private decisions anyone will ever make. While enough counter-arguments occur to me that I was not convinced, I was intrigued. The state's role in legitimizing marriage is historically recent: people were getting married, having babies etc. without state blessing for millennia. But then the author of that post went on to say that the state should recognize civil unions. I must admit I am utterly baffled. Clearly the author of that post must see a public interest that so obviously requires state support that pointing it out is superfluous, and yet the distinction between the public nature of civil union versus the private nature of marriage escapes me completely.

If, however, it is true that both the American left and the right believe that the state should not intrude on the private domain, then that principle by itself is too general to help in any concrete case. As several comments to this post have suggested, the governmental monopoly on free education necessarily involves the state in a host of issues that are divisive and possibly private. Governmental subsidies to the arts also involve the state in issues that are possibly private and divisive. I could multiply examples, but an activist state will find it very difficult to avoid intruding into many things that many consider private. Some agreement on how to define the private might make our politics less rancorous.

Posted by: Jeff | Dec 15, 2004 6:37:39 PM

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