schools’ role in enhancing liberty

I’m going down to New York and back today for a public discussion at the CUNY Graduate Center. My fellow panelists and I have been asked to address the following questions (among others):

  • What are the goals of civic education?
  • What are current competing interests and debates around the role of public education in children’s civic development?
  • How do claims by parents and political interest groups conflict with children’s rights to school-based conversations about civic engagement?

I may put the following views on the table. One view is that parents should instill ideological (or religious) commitments in their children, while schools should only teach “civility and civic duty in conventional participation.” (Quoting Michael McDevitt and Ally Ostrowski, who are critical of this view.) The reason for this division of labor could be deference to parents and families and fear of the state.

A second view (more classically liberal) assumes that parents will try to instill ideological beliefs, but their influence is problematic, because they can limit their children’s freedom to understand and choose among diverse values and ideals. Schools should increase freedom by exposing kids to a range of values and supportive arguments, including those held in other families. In this theory, as in the first one, schools are committed to “civility and conventional participation,” but now that means civil discussions among diverse people about controversial issues.

McDevitt and Ostrowski show that the empirical reality is a lot more complicated. Many parents do not instill political beliefs in their kids. Sometimes, robust political discussions in schools cause students to bring ideas home that influence parents. For some students, exposure to ideas not espoused at home strengthens their own identity as members of their families. Children react in diverse ways to influences from parents, peers, teachers, and schools–sometimes experimenting with opposite views.

Philosophically, I endorse the liberal position that schools should widen students’ intellectual options, even if doing so undermines the influence of parents. In fact, I think a serious critique of libertarianism begins with the recognition that parents have potentially tyrannical influence over their offspring, and liberty requires state education. Of course, no politician could get away with espousing this position: “We will take your children away from you during the daytime for 13 years so that they are free to choose different values from yours.”

The classical liberal position suggests that teachers should be neutral. Political neutrality is a bit of a chimera, because institutions always have strong implicit or explicit ideologies. Nevertheless, teachers can choose either to indoctrinate their students or to organize vibrant, unpredictable, unconstrained discussions. The latter is the classical liberal approach.

It is, however, an empirical question which pedagogy maximizes students’ real freedom to choose their own values and goals. Jim Youniss and Miranda Yates wrote a book about a particular Catholic school in which the teachers are openly religious, Democratic, and liberal. Most of the students are African American Protestants of varied ideologies. The authors find that the teachers’ strong and explicit value-commitments do not cause students to convert but rather stimulate them to serious and lasting reflection and engagement. So the question is whether value-neutrality or explicit commitment is a better strategy for teaching young people to think critically. I do not think we have a clear and universally applicable answer to that question.