Benjamin A. Kleinerman is the R.W. Morrison Professor of Political Science at Baylor University. He is the Editor of The Constitutionalist.
Although they have since retreated from it, the controversial statement by the Michigan Democratic Party is still worth discussing insofar as it reflects a certain view of public education that is shared by others and has its roots all the way back to Plato’s Republic. The controversy over it also illustrates well what it means to be a liberal constitutional regime. The Michigan Democratic party’s statement:
Not sure where this “parents-should-control-what-is-taught-in-schools-because-they-are-our-kids” is originating, but parents do have the option to choose to send their kids to a hand-selected private school at their own expense if this is what they desire. The purpose of public education in a public school is not to teach kids only what parents want them to be taught. It is to teach them what society needs them to know. The client of the public school is not the parent, but the entire community, the public. (bold and underline in the original).
Before discussing this very notion of education, the obvious, distasteful, and, I suspect, unconscious elitism in this statement should be noted first. Certain parents, likely those with the means to do so, have the option to send their kids to hand-selected private schools, while other parents must accept public education. This means that parents with the money for private school do get to decide what is being taught to their children. These parents can “hand-select” their children’s education. So, seemingly, although public education is necessary to teach kids “what society needs them to know,” some kids, i.e. rich kids, can be exempt from that necessary education. It would be much more distasteful but not all that different to say that the children of parents who can afford to hand-select private schools don’t need to know the same kinds of things as the children of poor parents. The poor kids need to be educated for the public’s good; the rich kids can be educated for their own good. This begs the question: why would the Michigan Democratic Party have endorsed, even if only briefly, such an elitist sentiment?
The elitism is ultimately unconscious but also telling; it arises almost accidentally from a fundamental discomfort with the very argument of the statement. It stems from a fundamental confusion at the bottom of this whole sentiment. On the one hand, some parents can hand-select whatever private schools they choose for their children. Why are they permitted to make such choices? Why aren’t they compelled to send their children to the same public schools as everyone else? It would be unfair and untrue to say that they’re permitted to do so simply because they’re rich. The elitism of the statement is accidental; the Michigan Democratic Party doesn’t truly believe that only rich people should be able to hand-select their children’s school. Instead, the Michigan Democratic Party really does believe in the freedom of all parents to educate their children as they see fit. They believe in this principle because they believe in liberal democracy. In a liberal democracy, the public exists for the sake of the private. As long as they are not in conflict with the public good, private decisions over things like education or religion take precedence over the public’s concern for these things. Although some Catholics might think that the imposition of the Catholic religion might be good for the public, a constitutional regime like ours privileges the individual’s right to choose their own religion over what anyone else might think would be for the “public good.” For similar reasons, parents are permitted to educate their children in parochial schools that teach a variety of different religions as they also provide a more general education. A constitutional regime like ours preserves the freedom to choose which religion to practice, whether to educate your child in that religion, and where to do so. Although, hypothetically, there might be some public education which would be superior to these private systems, our regime chooses the sanctity of the private over the conceivable good of the public.
In their guarantee of this private right, the Michigan Democratic Party reveals that it isn’t ultimately illiberal. Their commitment to liberal constitutionalism caused them to call for private education even as they also made their far-reaching claim about the nature of public education. They arrive at a public good justification for public education, even as they remain liberal constitutionalists who believe in parental choice. In fact, because that commitment runs alongside their attempt to justify the independence of public education, they end up sounding uncomfortably elitist. There is a fundamental confusion between their two commitments that they failed sufficiently to think through. Although likely the product of an over-zealous intern, this statement nonetheless indicates the problematic character of public education in a constitutional regime committed to private choice.
This then brings us to the most controversial part of their argument, which was not its less obvious elitism but its very obviously aggressive statism. And I’m engaged in this investigation not as a further part of the “gotcha” politics that this statement so easily invites; instead, I think this statement reveals something important about a society’s constant temptation in regards to education.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates claims that justice requires the abolition of the family and the replacement of it with guardians who would educate with a view to the justice and laws of the city. The justice which follows from the particularity of the family is, it would seem, a constant threat to the general justice of the city. Families must be abolished because the city qua city can never be fully just so long as people are interpreting justice from their particular familial concerns. We will always think our brother deserves less punishment for his crime than we think a stranger deserves. So, in Socrates’s presentation, the public good requires not just a public education independent of the family but the complete abolition of independent families. In the city of The Republic, private goods often conflict with the complete public good, and so they must be abolished.
Although those calling for the independence of public education from parental control are obviously not imagining the abolition of the family itself, Plato’s teaching remains useful insofar as it indicates the direction that public good concerns, taken on their own, ultimately lead us. The absolutism of the MDP’s statement, “It is to teach them what society needs them to know,” follows from its not unjustified belief that the nature of education produces a certain type of citizen. If public schools educate children to be tolerant and anti-racist, they will likely become tolerant and anti-racist citizens. Because liberal constitutionalism wants, even needs, tolerant citizens who aren’t racists, it makes some sense for public schools to attempt to educate them accordingly. By contrast, if parents, who could themselves be intolerant and racist, are in charge of their children’s education, then they might produce the types of people who will not be good citizens of a liberal constitutional regime.
Even liberal constitutionalism, which privileges the private over the public, needs a certain type of citizen. Oddly enough, the very commitment to the private over the public requires a public education that teaches children the importance of this distinction. Tolerance—which is more or less the unified aim of public education—undergirds a liberal regime in which one religion isn’t privileged over another. The constitutional commitment to treat all people equally also seems to require an education in anti-racism. In other words, even though the regime’s principles point ultimately to privileging the private over the public, they would seem to require a public education that excludes the private. In order to make people tolerant and not racist, they must be educated to be such by the public, over and against private parents who might have educated them otherwise. The inevitability of a need for public education seems to persist even in a regime that has intentionally reduced the concern for public goods.
This problem emerges from the fundamental contradiction between the liberal commitment to privileging the private over the public and the regime’s need to educate a certain type of citizen. To some degree, that problem had been ameliorated in the past by acknowledging the important role parents play in their child’s education and by involving them, both through public school committee meetings, etc., and through regular meetings between parents and teachers. Although there was always some tension between public education and a liberal regime committed to privileging the private, that tension was kept below the surface by not insisting on parental exclusion and, conversely, by parents not insisting on public exclusion. As long as neither side insisted on the logical conclusion of their side of the argument, the tension could persist despite the friction.
As with nearly everything in a liberal constitutional regime, public education has always rested on a consensus around some principle of moderation. The concern for the public accommodated the concern for the private and vice versa. It is perhaps a telling sign of the decline of our regime that neither side wants to accept that accommodation. Parents insist on exclusive control over their children’s education in the name of the private and educators insist on exclusive control in the service of the public.
Perhaps the problem is that neither side understands anymore what a liberal constitutional regime is. Educators fail consistently to appreciate that the public good isn’t the supreme and only consideration. Children’s education is meant to serve their private good as much as if not more than the public’s good. We educate children so that they can be a thriving member of society; we want them to be a thriving member of society because we think it’s good for them. In a liberal constitutional regime, the state exists to serve the individuals within it, not the other way around. The MDP statement reverses this relationship. In reversing this relationship, the MDP statement betrays a profound misunderstanding of the nature of our regime. Or, it might be more accurate to say that by following the logic of public good to its conclusion, they end up undercutting a regime premised on not following this logic to its conclusion.
But the parental insistence that they are the only ones in control of their children’s education is also misguided. Although liberal constitutionalism attempts to promote the pursuit of private goods, it still requires a certain type of citizen. The regime needs citizens who understand the value of religious toleration and equality. We also need citizens with sufficient education that they can be thriving members of society. We should expect both public and private education to cultivate such citizens; parents must understand that the regime does have at least that much of a claim to their children.