Thursday, September 1, 2011

Joe's Take: Whose Child?

Who should shape the worldview and moral code of children -- parents or the state? That issue, which dates back at least to Plato, was raised anew by the recent story about the New Jersey school district that, to the distress of parents, assigned books with steamy sex scenes and vulgar language for summer reading.

When societies debate the role of parents and government in raising children, schools are often at the center of the swirl, and for good reason. Schools are powerful conveyors of values and culture, transmitting an ethos that can support or erode what is taught at home. There is justifiable cause for concern when public schools fill the minds of children with images, words, and ideas at variance with the values of their parents.

In a talk two years back at the National Press Club, John E. Coons, professor emeritus at Berkeley Law, listed some of the topics about which children can receive conflicting messages at school: sex, euthanasia, animal rights, war, the environment, abortion, gay marriage, health care, Al Gore movies, scientism, Columbus, and corporate greed. And that’s just for starters!

Schools, said Coons, “teach a rich lottery of values, and to the extent that this is true, the child of the not-so-rich parent takes moral pot luck.” He argued that providing parents with greater choice in education would enable them to choose the values to which their children are exposed and help them ensure that what is taught at school comports with what they teach at home.

Thirty-five years ago, Stephen Arons, professor of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, struck the same theme of providing parents choice as a means of protection against state intrusion on their right to raise children in accordance with their beliefs and values. In a classic essay for Harvard Educational Review in 1976 titled “The Separation of School and State: Pierce Reconsidered,” Arons wrote that when a public school attempts “to inculcate values that a particular family may find abhorrent to its own basic beliefs and way of life,” the family is faced with the choice of “(1) abandoning its beliefs in order to gain the benefit of a state-subsidized education, or (2) forfeiting the proffered government benefit in order to preserve the family belief structure from government interference.” There’s a bit of a problem, however. “Conditioning the provision of government benefits upon the sacrifice of fundamental rights” is unconstitutional.

Arons concludes that “compulsory education may have to be revised to eliminate its economically discriminatory nature and to preserve freedom of belief for families in search of adequate education.” No doubt many parents in the offending New Jersey school district would welcome such preservation of their freedom right now.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director) 

No comments:

Post a Comment