Wednesday, September 28, 2022

CATO Misses The Mark On Reading Restrictions

Neal McCluskey, the point man for education at the libertarian CATO Institute, took a quick look at Banned Books Week, suggesting that PEN America is missing the root problem of Book "Bans" (his quotation marks). 

McCluskey opens by noting the PEN America report of book bans in the US, and he has this to say 

To what does PEN attribute the rise? Organized right‐​wingers, including such groups as Parents Defending Education and No Left Turn in Education. PEN is largely correct about the immediate cause, with people on the right increasingly sounding alarms over “critical race theory” and “gender ideology” in public schools.

But then he pivots to what has been CATO's refrain on the issue of public education

But as is often the case, the PEN report misses the root cause: public schooling itself, which forces diverse people to pay for, and de facto use, a single system of government schools.

This has been a recurring refrain--that public schools cause conflict by putting people with different beliefs in the same building. McCluskey is a serious grown up and no dope (something I would not write about everybody in the reformy choicer universe), but I always find this argument troubling because it can so clearly be used to argue in favor of segregation. Nor do I believe you can effectively run a country, state or community by simply separating all the people who disagree with each other into their own distinct silos. It speaks to one of the fundamental flaws of Libertarian thought, which is that government regulation and laws ceased, we would have a level playing field and everyone would have a fair shot at whatever goodies they wanted out of life. But for THAT to have a hope of working, we'd have to be able to wave a magic wand so that everyone started life on the same footing, which they don't, because everyone starts life with advantages and disadvantages, and the playing field is, therefor, never ever level. And while I share the Libertarian distrust of a government's ability to make the playing field more level or just, I do not agree with the notion that we should revert to Might Makes Right. 

But I digress.

McClusky says PEN America almost gets it when they note that the problem comes when choices made by librarians or educators are "overridden by school boards, administrators, teachers or even politicians." 

Ironically, PEN calls efforts to get school boards or state legislatures – popularly elected bodies – to remove books “undemocratic.” But that is almost the textbook definition of “democratic,” and for many public schooling defenders democratic control is a crucial aspect of public schooling. The people collectively decide what ideas the newest generation is exposed to.

That said, the PEN report is correct in perceiving a huge problem with elected bodies making decisions about what ideas are off‐​limits to school kids. What if the political majority – or a powerful minority, as PEN asserts about right‐​wing activists – wants to use its power to impose its values on the politically less powerful? That is dangerous. Indeed, a recipe for oppression.

McCluskey gets a lot right here, but by conflating several options, he slides past an important point. Educators and librarians decide what books will or will not be available to students. They do not decide which book students will be forbidden to encounter. Libraries have only so much space, and there are only so many days in the school year, so it is normal and necessary for librarians and educators to say, "We'll get this book and not that book." 

Deciding which ideas the students will be exposed to, deciding which ideas they will have access to, and deciding what ideas will be off-limits are three very different decisions. The first two are a normal part of school; the third is not. And while choice advocates argue that only parents should be able to decide any of these, there is nothing about the first two items that keeps parents from deciding, and no power in the world that can be exercised by school or parents that will make the third possible. 

McCluskey concludes

To protect people without political power government must neither empower experts nor political majorities to decide for everyone what books will or will not be accessible to children.

That's not the power that the anti-book crowd are trying to grab. They are trying to decide what books children will be forbidden to read. No amount of disempowering public schools or actual education experts will change that; these folks have already made it clear that "At least my kid won't have to read that awful book" is not an adequate answer for their concerns. We've already seen places where folks have made it clear that they don't want to see choice schools that cater to Those People.

Deciding what books will be available in a school building does not restrict the rights of students. Deciding that students must be forbidden to read certain books is a direct attack on their rights, and depending on free market forces to defend those rights is a vain hope. 

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