The Stifling of Dissent In Public Schools


Compelling Belief, by Stephen Arons, New York: McGraw Hill, 1982, 228 pp., $19.95.

A school principal I know commented recently (quite bitterly, I might add) that administrative decisions in schools have become cumbersome and confounded because many must first be cleared by the district legal staff. He's right. So pervasive are the legal implications of management decisions that most states now require, for their prospective school executives, a course in "school law" wherein such matters as the rights of parents, students, and teachers are discussed. The most cursory review of the textbooks used in these courses illustrates well the effect that a rising tide of legal decisions has left on administrative practice.

If my friend believes he must check with his legal staff now, he should read Stephen Arons's book. Here the force of school law looms to rush over the breakwater and establish a new high-water mark—one that, if established, will forever overshadow those old, more mundane legal artifacts such as collective bargaining and due process in suspension issues. Arons's focus rises above matters of civil law and pushes ahead to the complex (but eminently more fascinating) matter of constitutional law. Indeed, riding on the crest of Arons's legal wave is the premise that public schooling, as presently constituted, may well be a process depriving untold thousands of families of their basic, First Amendment rights.

Arons, an attorney who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, has been interested in schooling and the First Amendment for over a decade. His seminal paper, "The Separation of School and State: Pierce Reconsidered," appeared in the Harvard Educational Review in 1976. It laid the legal foundation for the argument in the present book. Further legal buttressing is built into his chapter "The Manipulation of Consciousness: A First Amendment Critique of Schooling," found in my book, The Public School Monopoly (Ballinger, 1982). So the book under review here has a history to it and should be seen as an extension of arguments developed in the above-mentioned and other works.

Arons believes (and this certainly is not a novel observation) that the public school system evidences relatively little variance in terms of what is taught or how it is taught. Yet the conventional wisdom of American schooling would have us believe that the practices present in our public schools are the result of a "marketplace of ideas"—a consensus that emerges from competing viewpoints and thus is representative of democratic processes. The somewhat standard fare found in our schools, proponents usually argue, is then simply the manifestation of the type of schooling desired in a free society.

Rather than being the bedrock of democratic decisionmaking, schools, Arons claims, are reproductive of majoritarian interests—interests that leave little room for questioning and plurality. To the degree that state-mandated schooling provides so little diversity, students are not encouraged to conceive of dissenting ideas or to perceive of contradictions between their own self-interest and that of a majoritarian-sustained ideological orthodoxy. The consequence of such standardization, which is structural and cultural in nature, is as damaging as might occur if schools intentionally taught a narrow, state-directed curriculum, as in most totalitarian states.

More critical, however, the restricted manner in which ideas and beliefs become formed in schools can, according to Arons, be seen to violate the guarantees of the First Amendment. While most legal decisions would not reflect such a position, Arons argues that the First Amendment has been narrowly interpreted to include only the exercise of speech and ideas. Citing the work of such legal scholars as Thomas Emerson and Alexander Meiklejohn, Arons claims that free expression is not possible without an important precondition—freedom in the formation of beliefs and opinions. To the extent that most public schooling severely curtails this formative process, serious First Amendment concerns are manifest.

Arons addresses these complex matters (discussed explicitly at the end of the book) through a review of factual "case history" material, although the use of this material is largely for hortatory purposes. The first case reviewed in the book is that of a protracted attempt to ban certain curricula from the Warsaw, Indiana, school system. The second case chronicles attempts by the educational bureaucracy in Amherst, Massachusetts, to discourage a family from instituting a "home education" program. A final scenario is devoted to the conflicts that developed between the state of Kentucky and the Owensboro Christian Academy over the matter of the state regulation of private schools.

What draws these three cases together is the "corrosive, irreconcilable, and proliferating conflict between government and family." The marketplace-of-ideas theory would have it that such conflict can be minimized through the free exchange of ideas and via an accommodating school administration. Arons disagrees and notes that, in trying to smooth over conflict, public schools suppress minority beliefs and therein raise First Amendment concerns. Conflict will always be present in a state educational system within a democracy because schooling can never be neutral, will always reflect some system of values, and will engender resistance on the part of those who disagree with the dominant value system.

At times, Arons appears to romanticize the efforts of the dissenters he describes (especially the home-school advocates). Yet he makes clear that there is no right or wrong, that all schooling is a form of value inculcation and that there is little difference between the book "censors" in Warsaw and the book "selectors" who sit on statewide textbook selection committees. He chides groups such as the ACLU who come to the rescue of schools when some individuals attempt to censor books, yet notes that those same attorneys who are so ready to save the schools from bigots fail to see that the "socialization by persuasion" that occurs in public education is as effective and patently offensive as the "socialization by coercion" sponsored by many fanatics.

This book raises many important issues, though I did find some of them overstated. More bothersome perhaps is the excessive rhetoric and minimum documentation (the book has no footnotes or references) pertinent to many points raised. The careful scholarship present in Arons's earlier work is not as evident here, and the author relies more on claims than on well-developed arguments. The organization of the book is a bit confusing as well—18 chapters in a 222-page book comes out to 12 pages a chapter—a factor giving the book a somewhat choppy style.

Arons does not believe that the courts demonstrate any inclination to reinterpret the First Amendment to cover a "belief-formation" aspect, although he sees this stance as fundamental to his case. Yet even if the courts were to be so predisposed, I am concerned about the consequences that might ensue should the state, as Arons argues, remove itself from schooling except in those cases where "compelling state interest exists." Arons's conception of "compelling state interest" is so minimal as to basically remove government from any authority over schooling. But is this direction commendable? Will an absence of all government authority over schooling necessarily lead to freedom? Or will it merely result in control under different auspices, the consequences of which may be more severe for people than occurred when "government" was involved? Certainly, more discussion of these issues is warranted. These are matters of considerable significance, not to be swept away by appeals to constitutional law alone.

In sum, Arons's book is provocative and stimulating, although at times more an article of faith than a well-conceived argument. Despite some criticisms, I plan to give a copy of the book to my friend, the principal; some good and valuable discussions will take place.

Robert B. Everhart is associate professor of education and sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and editor of The Public School Monopoly.