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.