Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Stop making education a political football

The Cato Institute's Andrew Coulson explains to Wired why government monopoly schools inevitably breed battles over curriculum and exacerbate social divisiveness. He argues that it's better to let families guide their own children's education -- even if they teach them a dose of nonsense.

Actually I would. I would say you should leave all these decisions to individual families. The alternative is to make the government the arbiter of truth. You either leave it up to families, or you say the political process is going to decide what truth is. We've tried doing this before, and you get any number of problems. Deciding evolution is truth and teaching it in biology classes is not effective. You also set up a conflict, because we have one of the most pluralistic societies on the planet, and we don't see eye to eye on history, math, reading, evolution ... it goes on and on. You say there has to be an official truth, you force people into conflict. You have a battle, it's a knock-down drag-'em-out fight, and it's zero sum. For every winner, there's a loser, and that's why we're still fighting the Scopes-Monkey trial 80 years later. It solves nothing basically to say the government will declare, this is truth.

I addressed this issue in a column four years ago (please excuse the funky formatting). Among other points, I emphasized that government schools often teach nonsense too.

No lesson is too trivial to become a political football. In 1997, New York State ordered public school teachers to treat the Irish potato famine of the 1840s as an act of genocide by the British. Historians debate the causes of the famine, but Empire State politicians know that only one interpretation stirs the passions of Irish-American voters.

It's no surprise that people compete to have their ideas taught in the public schools. Despite the growing popularity of homeschooling, vouchers and other schooling alternatives, most American children learn in classrooms supported by their parents' tax dollars. After paying those taxes, few families can afford alternative schools, so determined parents fight to mold government institutions to resemble the schools they would pick if they had the resources, and they are assisted by political groups interested in shaping public debate. Nobody wants hateful ideas and propaganda force-fed to their children, but people don't always agree on which ideas are hateful and which information is false. As a result, lessons are often crafted to please, or avoid offending, those with the most political clout.



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