Why Americans Will Never Stop Fighting Over What's Taught in Public Schools

Of all the arguments in favor of public schools, one of the less persuasive, so far as I'm concerned, is the insistence that only tax-supported, government-run institutions can inculcate the tender minds of our nation's youth with our "common culture" (PDF) or "shared values" or some such nonsense. For starters, the people making this case disagree with one another on what that culture and those values are, but they're all sure they'll win the tug of war over who gets to control the curriculum. If you want evidence that the battle over who gets to determine what's "common" continues, have a peek at proposed legislation in Tennessee touching on matters of human sexuality. As Reason 24/7 noted, this is the latest effort to make discussion of homosexuality off-limits in the public schools — except, maybe, for school administrators who want to warn parents that their kids might be a little light in the loafers.

Among other things, SB 234 (PDF) says:

At grade levels pre-K through eight (pre-K-8), any such classroom instruction, course materials or other informational resources that are inconsistent with natural human reproduction shall be classified as inappropriate for the intended student audience and, therefore, shall be prohibited.

The bill goes to specify that it "shall not prohibit":

Any school counselor, nurse, principal or assistant principal from responding appropriately to a student whose circumstances present immediate and urgent safety issues involving human sexuality. Parents or legal guardians of such students shall be notified as soon as practicable of the circumstances requiring intervention

This is sort of the flip-side of the old Heather Has Two Mommies controversy, during which social conservatives fretted that gays and lesbians were trying to normalize homosexuality via the school library shelves. Now the socially tolerant set (in which I include myself) warn that "it’s inexcusable to make counseling professionals out LGBT or questioning young people to family members," as Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, puts it.

These high-stakes political struggles for who gets taught what range far beyond issues of sexuality, and can involve craven efforts to stroke constituencies by requiring very specific takes on certain issues. That's what happened when the New York State legislature required that the Irish potato famine be taught as a deliberate act of genocide. Why would they do that? Well, New York has a lot of Irish-American voters who carry grudges from the old country, and lawmakers figured they could buy a few votes by bypassing the ongoing debate among historians over what actually happened.

Honestly, these battles are inevitable so long as we treat the public schools as an oh-so-necessary medium for transmitting a largely non-existent common culture that we then fight each other to define. And they'll continue so long as control of the curriculum is a political plum with which to court interest groups.

Far better to keep education options open, so that we can teach our kids our own values, and our own ideas about the world. Then they can debate with one another, and come to their own conclusions, without an official version mandated by politicians.

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  • BakedPenguin||

    ...only tax-supported, government-run institutions can inculcate the tender minds of our nation's youth with our "common culture" (PDF) or "shared values" or some such nonsense.

    I don't find this argument less persuasive, I find it very persuasive. Public schools should be eliminated because of their potential as indoctrination centers.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I have many additional reasons for eliminating them.

  • Professional Target||

    As do I. But for me the worst among them is the fact they teach my kids verifiable lies. Health class tells them it's "healthy" to eat like a farmer instead of like a hunter-gatherer. Health declines in neolithic transitions show the folly in that, yet they teach it.

  • Pro Libertate||

    The government has no business pushing propaganda or any views I don't share on my kids. I want them to learn English, math, science, and history, without the political biases, focus on standardized tests, etc. Se,, I want my kids to learn something useful and to be prepared for the real world.

    Incidentally, I'll handle the ethics and morality, thanks. Leave my kids the hell alone.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    While I agree with the "The government has no business pushing propaganda" point, I find the attitude that your children are chattel property that you're free to dispose of however your like to be equally disturbing from a Libertarian standpoint.

  • From the Tundra||

    So what? My 7th grader knows and ignores the lies. Health class provides some good laughs for us. Dare was equally entertaining. Seriously, I think a lot of this depends on where the schools are. Here in suburban Minneapolis, I have been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the teachers at me kids' schools.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    ...the teachers at me kids' schools.

    So... are you a pirate, or a leprechaun?

  • From the Tundra||

    Um, leprechaun pirate, actually. Clearly not the proofreading sort, though.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    I was going to go with Popeye, but the rest of the post was written well enough that I didn't.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Where did you get Episiarch's school photo?

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Of course, this battle has been made possible by the ever-increasing centralization of funding and control in the grasping claws of the Dept of Ed.

  • Restoras||

    That alt+text. Well played, Tuccille, well played.

  • Homple||

    I, for one, welcome the power of unionized, un-firable, education school programmed government employees to indoctrinate our kids with whatever collectivist claptrap suits them without any oversight by parents.

    Idiotic parents who care what their kids are taught but have no individual influence on the bureaucratic blob that is the school system should just shut up - especially if they try to influence their elected representatives to get a little control over said bureaucracy.

  • Professional Target||

    I rally don't appreciate the sarcasm puddle that's dripping out the bottom of my screen. I'm running out of paper towels.

    Oh, damn! It's in the carpet...

  • $park¥||

    Oh, damn! It's in the carpet

    Don't worry, a good stern talking-to will get it right out.

  • Homple||

    A Reason commenter who doesn't appreciate sarcasm?

    Sorry if I hooted your feewings.

  • Dr. Frankenstein||

    No dark sarcasm in the classroom. The comments section of H & R on the other hand. 80% dark sarcasm.

  • BakedPenguin||

    I'm eating my chicken strips right now, so there better be some fucking pudding after.

  • Spoonman.||

    I have been wondering for years what the hell "dark star chasm" meant.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    To your credit, Dark Star Chasm could easily have been the title of a Pink Floyd album. Your heart was in the right place.

  • WTF||

    It's a black hole.

  • nicole||

    Then they can debate with one another, and come to their own conclusions, without an official version mandated by politicians.

    GD anarchists, trying to force people not to force people to do shit and shit.

  • Rights-Minimalist Autocrat||

    You're trying to force me to live without your money!

  • Drax the Destroyer||

    No said you HAVE to LIVE.

    Boy, I can't wait to say that to real person's face.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    This American has stopped fighting. My kids will never attend a public school.

  • $park¥||

    It's a good thing the huddled masses share your luxury.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    I guess I missed your point. What is your point?

  • nicole||

    I assume it's that lots of people are stuck with them because they can't afford other options.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Well, that's a whole can of worms that brings up vouchers, people having kids they can't afford, and a host of other topics.

    Even so, I certainly didn't mean to imply that people who are stuck in them shouldn't do what they can to change the schools or to use some of their free time to supplement or counteract what happens in the schools.

  • From the Tundra||

    I think that's it, NEM. You gotta do what you can. I am lucky to be able to spend a lot of time with my kids. My wife and I are both very skeptical consumers of conventional wisdom and have tried to pass this along to the kids. I don't think that letting someone else teach them math, biology, etc. means that I abdicate any responsibility for helping them learn to think critically and embrace their inner anarchist.

  • BakedPenguin||

    I've mentioned them before, but watching The Lottery or Waiting for Superman is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Anyone who can watch those movies and not be convinced teachers unions are utter scum is beyond help.

  • Archduke Pantsfan||

    See also The Cartel

  • ||

    Waiting for Superman made me tremendously angry even though I knew going in about the issues. Putting faces to the tragedy set me off.

  • Tonio||

    Can't speak for Sparks, but since the vast majority of people do attend public schools for their entire education we are at the mercy of the ill-educated, heavily indoctrinated masses.

  • John Galt||

    Wise choice, Elf.

  • ||

    Public school indoctrination itself is fraught with various problems. Take for example evolution: on one hand, it is a must to teach in order to debunk creationism, but on the other hand the basic idea of evolution is that creatures aren't created equal (if they were, natural -- and sexual -- selection would have nothing to operate on), which flies in the face of equal opportunity.

    It isn't easy being a commissar of public enlightement.

  • Tonio||

    The supreme irony of progressivism is the insistence on the teaching of evolution through natural selection while insisting on social policies which reward the unfit at the expense of the fit.

    I want evolution taught because it's the best explanation for the observed facts; the fact that it inherently debunks the most toxic religious beliefs is just gravy.

  • ||

    I want evolution taught because it's the best explanation for the observed facts; the fact that it inherently debunks the most toxic religious beliefs is just gravy.

    Indeed.

  • John Galt||

    It's taken some years to manufacture a generation of the World Socialist's version of the National Socialist Hitler Youths, but, they have done it. A relatively few number years from now these nasty little hardcore statist ignoramuses won't just be voting like mindless followers, they'll be running the show pretty much by themselves. At which point it's highly unlikely Americans (assuming there still is an America) will be fighting over what's being taught in their indoctrination centers..er.."schools."

    It's not a far stretch from where we're at now to simply trusting, or at least knowing better than to question, the central planning authorities.

  • Tonio||

    Young Pioneers, JG.

  • Libertymike||

    Time to go off topic to the only topic that matters for king and subject alike:

    GO RAVENS!

  • Drax the Destroyer||

    As a Denver "fan" (i.e. LOSER), I have conveniently forgotten about anything "important" happening this weekend other than my own brain's destruction at the hands of vile IPAs.

  • Gladstone||

    The purpose of the American Public School system was primarily to indocrinate the Catholic Irish immigrants into becoming proper American Protestants. My have things changed!

    The purpose of public schools everywhere is indocrination. Mostly in battles against the Catholic Church. Unfortunately many classical liberals supported these schools since they believed it would teach the kids to be proper liberals and to fight Catholicism.

  • Tonio||

    You want some cheese with that whine, Gladhand?

  • Gladstone||

    So did I say anything incorrect? The public schools are clearly no longer interested in promoting mainline Protestantism since School prayer and the bible are banned.

    And the classical liberals that supported said schools was clearly a mistake since government funded schools it turns out have an incentive to teach kids to love the government.

  • BASTIAT||

    You say: "There are persons who lack education," and you turn to the law. But the law is not, in itself, a torch of learning which shines its light abroad. The law extends over a society where some persons have knowledge and others do not; where some citizens need to learn, and others can teach. In this matter of education, the law has only two alternatives: It can permit this transaction of teaching—and—learning to operate freely and without the use of force, or it can force human wills in this matter by taking from some of them enough to pay the teachers who are appointed by government to instruct others, without charge. But in this second case, the law commits legal plunder by violating liberty and property.

  • BASTIAT||

    In creating a monopoly of education, the government must answer to the hopes of the fathers of families who have thus been deprived of their liberty; and if these hopes are shattered, whose fault is it?

  • ChrisO||

    Since American schools apparently cannot even teach the basics competently anymore, whatever else they do is of secondary importance. It's much easier for a parent to overcome a bunch of social studies bullshit than it is to go back and correct poor instruction in language and mathematics.

  • Homple||

    Really? Contrast showing your kids how the binomial theorem works with convincing them that, contrary to their social studies book, people are better off with free markets than under an all encompassing welfare state.

    Math is easy, social studies is hard.

  • ChrisO||

    I'm a language guy. Math is not easy for me. Especially since I haven't actually performed feats of algebra for about 30 years.

  • Homple||

    The thing about algebra (at least at the high school level) is that you can easily prove correctness, making argumentation unnecessary.

    Much harder to counter government-sponsored social studies propaganda.

  • NL_||

    The "common values" trope seems at odds with the usual progressive gripe that entertainment and food are so bland and commercialized and nationalized that the whole country has been homogenized.

  • Gladstone||

    Once everyone is homogenized in the right way then things will be perfect.

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