Monday, July 31, 2017

Pluralism, Democracy, and Silos

CATO Institute, the Very Libertarian thinky tank, has been maintaining an education "battle map." You can see it in all its interactive glory right here. 

The battle map is a plotting of various school-related conflicts around the country. It encompasses controversies as well as kerfluffles that escalate into court. And if you're wondering what the point is, well, that's hinted at here:

This map aggregates a relatively small, but especially painful, subset of such battles: those pitting educational effectiveness, basic rights, moral values, or individual identities against each other. Think creationism versus evolution, or assigned readings containing racial slurs. The conflicts are often intensely personal, and guarantee if one fundamental value wins, another loses.  

Neal McClusky, CATO's education guy (and one of the reformy guys who can have a civil disagreement on twitter), lays out his thinking here in the Washington Examiner, where we get a bettrer explanation of what is emerging as a new school choice talking point: "Pluralism and equality need educational freedom."

McClusky opens by noting that Americans bristle at the idea of discrimination, a word that "connotes exclusion for not just superficial, but also hateful reasons."

But we should not let our immediate, understandable feelings keep us from asking: Might there be acceptable, perhaps even good, reasons that schools would not work with some people?

McClusky offers several reasons for creating different educational silos (which is awkward, but I'm going to try to stay away from the charged word "discrimination"). They mostly boil down to the big one in his title:

First pluralism. Ours is a nation of greatly diverse people — myriad religions, ethnicities, languages, cultures — and we must allow unique communities to educate their children in ways that the political majority, which controls public schools, might not select, and do so without having to sacrifice their education tax dollars. We must enable people to choose schools that share their values, or cultures, or views of history, on a level playing field. If we do not, we doom them to unequal status under the law, and even risk their withering away in a generation or two.

Okay, then.

I don't think we share the same vision of pluralism. And probably not democracy, either.

If I understand what McClusky is suggesting here and elsewhere, it's a sort of benign balkanization. Everyone should get their own corner of the country where things can be just the way they like it, and they can cast out everyone who doesn't see things the same way, and their "values, or cultures, or views of history" can be passed on, unchallenged and unmixed with differing views.

Let me first acknowledge that this is one of those tensions in America that goes back to Day One. The Puritans didn't come to establish a colony based on pluralistic religious freedom-- they came to establish a colony where everyone would worship the way that Puritans were sure was correct. Southern colonists didn't come to establish a land where all men were created equal; they were quite certain that all men were not so created, and they set up a society that was based on that belief. Only oddball places like crazy-quilt New Amsterdam and radical Rhode Island willingly embraced the challenges of letting children of many beliefs play in the same playground. And as the nation expanded, the common response to finding yourself out of agreement with your neighbors was to move away. By and large the problems and solutions of a pluralistic society have been forced upon us.

It's a challenge we have periodically risen to. Colin Woodard's American Nations posits eleven different regional cultures, which could have resulted in eleven different nations-- but didn't. Circumstances forced cooperation upon them, and they battled out joint agreements that did not really satisfy anyone, but which allowed enough cooperation to allow the nation to exist at all. There's a huge debate to be had about the efficacy of all of this (as you may have heard, cooperation flagged a bit in 1860 and has never entirely recovered).

But some choice advocates these days seem to be arguing that freedom and democracy mean the ability to do exactly what you choose, only what you choose, and never having to do things you don't want to do. This is freedom as defined by a three-year-old

Nor does the school-choice-is-democracy argument even achieve that freedom, because what it would mean is that taxpayers without children have no say at all in how their school taxes are spent. That's not really going to reduce the number of pins on the battle map. It's just going to subject some folks, depending on what choice oversight their state prefers, to taxation without representation.

In fact, the whole business seems like a big fat new entitlement-- you are entitled to send your child to a private school at public expense, and you are entitled to have a school for your child that presents your child only with your culture and values (and now that I type it out, the whole thing seems kind of snowflakey, too).

McClusky does acknowledge one of the problems of benign balkanization-- the real possibility that some "values, or cultures, or views of history" will be at direct odds with our values as a nation. And this is a fuzzy area for hard-core choicers-- how exactly does a nation manage people whose choice is objectively and demonstrably bad?

There are other problems with this vision. If all citizens are to have equal access to schools that share their values etc, who will be responsible for leveling the playing field? If the folks who want a particular flavor of culture in their school cannot have it, not because of regulation, but because they are too poor to create and support it, whose responsibility is it to level that playing field? And who then decides which requests for assistance in setting up a school for a particular culture is a legit request? Or does is each cultural silo only entitled to the schools that it can afford, and if it's too poor, tough bananas? Because we already have that system in many states (and it is growing in popularity)-- we sort people out according to their ability to provide their own stuff with the people who can provide themselves lots of stuff over in this gated silo and the people who can't provide themselves with much stuff gathered together and then somebody inside the gated silo announces, "Everyone should be free to just take care of their own stuff."

I also anticipate a great deal of difficulty sorting out the silos. The battle map includes lots of sorts of conflicts, so it's not like we can just say, "Okay, all the Catholics go to Catholic school" because when we factor in beliefs about gender and sexuality and curriculum and fund raising and ethnicity, we'll find that silo is still filled with conflicts and battles.

But mostly I just can't see how this is pluralism. First of all, I don't see the value in ending all conflicts-- or rather, sorting people so that the conflicts are not obvious, because if conflicts exist, you don't help anything by just trying to avoid them instead of dealing with them (as a divorced guy, I think you should take my word for this). Just because you can't see the people who disagree with you doesn't mean they've disappeared. What value is there in making conflict appear to go away by sending all the conflicted parties to separate schools? McClusky suggests that these conflicts are all-or-none and so no compromise is ever possible, and I suppose that is theoretically true, though I like to count "You may disagree about everything but you must find a way to live in the same country" as a worthy compromise.

Pluralism-- a variety of viewpoints and cultures and approaches to life-- has largely made us a stronger country. Even aspiring to it has been mostly good for us. And yes-- to make that kind of thing work, individuals have to give up some of their freedom to do only the things they want to do. But who doesn't? You get married-- you give up some freedom. You have children-- you give up some freedom. You get a job-- you give up some freedom. And sometimes, because you're born into a particular community or family or race or creed, people take freedom away from you without you having a say at all. And if you grow up in America, you live in a pluralistic society where no one culture gets to have its way all day every day.

Why would we want students to have an experience that suggests otherwise?


  1. Several times as I was reading through this piece I started to skip to the comments to write all of my brilliant (ahem) thoughts, only to keep reading and find that you said pretty much the same thing (only better) a paragraph later. Well said.

  2. "But some choice advocates these days seem to be arguing that freedom and democracy mean the ability to do exactly what you choose, only what you choose, and never having to do things you don't want to do. This is freedom as defined by a three-year-old." Brilliant!

  3. Yes!! What Dienne and Jason just said. Another great article I can use in my verbal fight for the public school system. (I seem to know so many non educators who seem to know all about it.)

  4. Yes, this isn't pluralism or multi-culturism; It's separate-culturism. Another example of an attempt at "separate but equal" (the equal part not important) with no one knowing anything about anyone who's different from them.