Friday, August 19, 2011

Does Freedom Equal "The Wild West"?

As I wrote about in June, New Jersey imposes no regulatory requirements on its homeschoolers. (The state does have a legal requirement that homeschooled children receive an education "equivalent" to that available in the public schools. But the requirement is "empty": It has no enforcement mechanism backing it up.) 

But, triggered by a horrendous physical neglect case resulting in the death of a child, a chorus of calls have arisen to rescind that regulatory exemption. As I reported back then, the physical abuse case is merely a rationalization for curriculum controls. New Jersey's largest newspaper, the Star-Ledger, has been leading the charge, beginning with its June 1st editorial.

The charge continued with a major July 10, 2011 piece entitled New Jersey home schooling: The Wild West of education by Julie O'Connor. Dropping any reference to the abuse case, O’Connor takes aim at a narrow range of ideas taught by some homeschoolers that she deems unacceptable. The ideas were lifted from the Conservapedia of Andrew Schlafly. Conservapedia’s purpose is to present a narrow conservative Christian viewpoint on a range of topics. The entire article focuses on Schlafly and the ideas he promotes for his homeschool followers and, based on this, O'Connor calls for legislative action to impose state-approved educational standards.

I left these comments:


Zemack July 10, 2011 at 12:17PM

The key question is: Who gets to force their educational ideas on others? It’s not Schlafly. It’s the government, through curriculum, teacher credentialing, [educational] philosophy, and so on.

The fact that some of the ideas homeschoolers teach are garbage is not the issue. Plenty of garbage is peddled in the public schools as well; ex. Environmentalism. But that is not the fundamental issue, either.

The real danger is in the coercive nature of government-run schools. No one should be forced to financially support ideas they oppose. It is not private homeschoolers who demand that. No one should be forced to pay for the education of other people’s children. It is not private homeschoolers who demand that. No one should be empowered to impose his or her educational ideas on others. It is not homeschoolers who demand that power.

One of the goals of creating clear, agreed-upon curriculum standards is to protect kids against people who have extreme ideological positions,” Harvard professor Robert Schwartz declares. “Agreed upon” – by whom? Whose “curriculum standards” are to be imposed? Who is to be the final arbiter of what constitutes such vague, undefinable criteria as “extreme ideological positions”? Who determines what ideas are “radical”? What of people who disagree? Shouldn't they be free to pursue their own children’s education according to their own judgement? Advocates of state control say no – that would be “The Wild West of education” – the usual type of charge leveled against a fully free society. By that standard, this country’s founding principles of individual rights, free markets, and limited rights-protecting government is an “extreme ideological position”. John Dewey, the father of Progressive Education – the dominant public school philosophy – believed that the purpose of the schools is to prepare children not for a life as reasoning independent adults but to prepare them for authoritarian rule (“social adjustment”). But that’s not “extreme”, right?

For the record, I am not a proponent of homeschooling per se, but of freedom and individual rights in education. I am not a Christian, but an atheist. I defend the rights of homeschoolers because I defend rights, period. I believe that education and state should be walled off from each other in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of church and state. Rather than expand government controls, the government’s role in education should be steadily scaled back through such programs as school choice through universal education tax credits. Then the Schlaflys and Schwartzes can pursue their own educational agendas with neither having the power to impose theirs on each other or anyone else. Others will instead be free to choose among those and other’s ideas according to what they believe is best for their children.


It is standard practice for statists to narrow the focus to a handful of concrete instances of (allegedly) bad behavior in order to steer the discussion away from a broader context. For example, is the absorption by the child of a few objectively demonstrable factual falsities necessarily indicative of a bad education? That question is not answered in this article. Thus, the premise implied in this article is that education is merely about the memorization of specific facts. But, the more important question is: Is the child getting proper mind training? In other words, is the child learning how to understand and integrate the knowledge he is receiving, for instance? A proper education will equip the child with the ability to re-evaluate the knowledge he has received – to think independently - as and when he chooses, whether as an older child or as an adult. Religious dogma does often defy common sense. But plenty of religious people lead intellectually healthy lives, despite holding some erroneous “facts” in their brains. There is more to education than a few bad bits of knowledge.

I also want to focus on O’Connor’s “Wild West” analogy, alluded to in my article commentary, because it really offers a peak into the statist mindset. The Wild West conjures up images of a nearly lawless frontier town, where women and children scurry for cover while routine disputes get settled amid raging gun battles. Force is the name of the game in the Wild West, and law is the ingredient that is missing from the equation. What is the proper purpose of laws? To protect the citizens from the criminals who initiate the use of force.

So think about this for a minute. In New Jersey in 2011, the issue is again force and law. Only now, their relationship will have been inverted if Julie O’Connor gets her way. We’re not talking about the use of force by private citizens against other private citizens. We’re talking about government assuming the role of the criminal in the Wild West, and initiating force against private citizens. What is the enemy? The free flow of ideas.

But it actually gets worse. We live in a mixed economy, where government’s role as an individual rights-protector as envisioned by the signers of the Declaration of Independence has been seriously fractured. America is a long way from its original conception as a constitutionally limited republic. It is more accurate to refer to ours as a system of democratic statism. The government has the power, but its power is at the pleasure of whatever competing special interest pressure groups hold sway over government’s regulatory apparatus at any given moment. Since O’Connor holds that only government-approved ideas may be taught to children, then it follows that those ideas must be determined by the “recognized educational experts” of the political factions that hold immediate sway.

In other words, in the very same– though more “civilized” – Wild West fashion, permissible educational ideas are determined by legislative or bureaucratic fiat arising from the winners of the “democratic” battle over whose ideas may be forced upon all others. Such is the nature of government-run public education. Precisely this kind of battle is currently being fought at the state level in Texas, and such battles happen regularly around the country. And the winners of these battles may not always be to O’Connor’s liking. O’Connor should consider that Andrew Schlafly or other like-minded activists are the “recognized educational experts” behind the Creationist Texas factions fighting to impose “a misguided curriculum that defies science and, well, common sense”. And they may win.

It is largely to escape from ideas that they disagree with but that are forced upon them that so many parents choose private education, including homeschooling. Yet O’Connor and other statists are not content to live-and-let-live. O’Connor throws around terms like “Wild West” and “Free-for-all” to describe freedom of judgement for homeschoolers in the crucial field of educational ideas, and wants to stamp it out in New Jersey. To make her case, she smuggles in the premise that freedom is anarchy and government controls the only antidote, by means of inverting the Wild West analogy. But by inverting the premises of force vs. voluntary choice, and then choosing the side of force, she in fact is adopting the very methods of that lawless frontier town – attempting to settle differences with some homeschooling parents by force rather than persuasion.

Freedom does not mean anarchy. It means the absence from forcible interference from others. It requires a government of laws designed to protect that freedom. Anarchy and statism are two sides of the same coin, and freedom is the only antidote to both.

1 comment:

Kim Catacutan said...

Wonderful post. Love it.