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Monday, April 20, 2009

School Choice and Virtue

Photo of Wilson Library at Montgomery Bell Academy (CC)

In my last post I argued, with Auberon Herbert, that school choice is the best way to challenge the status quo and produce new ideas in education. This is a point much emphasized by contemporary advocates of school choice. This argument, however, was one among several arguments Herbert makes in his essay "Education: Help or Hindrance". Of the several paths Herbert's argument takes, I found one of particular interest: private education, he argues, supports virtue in parents:

The effort to provide for the education of children is a great moral and mental stimulus. It is the great natural opportunity of forethought and self-denial; it is the one daily lesson of unselfishness which men will learn when they will pay heed to none other. There is no factor that has played so large a part in the civilization of men as the slow formation in parents of those qualities which lead them to provide for their children. In this early care and forethought are probably to be found the roots of those things which we value so highly–affection, sympathy, and restraint of the graspings of self for the good of others. We may be uncertain about many of the agents that have helped to civilize men, but here we can hardly doubt.

When parents have to make decisions it forces them to ask questions about their values, to consider what is important to them. They are forced to be responsible for not only the material well-being of their children, but for their intellectual well-being. The children are not the only benefactors of school choice. For parents school choice is a school in virtue.

What, then, is likely to be the effect when, heedless of the slow and painful influences under which character is formed, you intrude a huge all-powerful something, you call the state, between parents and children, and allow it to say to the former, “You need trouble yourself no more about the education of your children. There is no longer any occasion for that patience and unselfishness which you were beginning to acquire, and under the influence of which you were learning to forego the advantage of their labor, that they might get the advantage of education. We will give you henceforth free dispensation from all such painful efforts. You shall at once be made virtuous and unselfish by a special clause in our act. You shall be placed under legal obligations, under penalty and fine, to have all the proper feelings of a parent. Why toil by the slow irksome process of voluntary efforts and your own growing sense of right to do your duty, when we can do it so easily for you in five minutes? We will provide all for you–masters, standards, examinations, subjects, and hours. You need have no strong convictions, and need make no efforts of your own, as you did when you organized your chapels, your benefit societies, your trade societies, or your cooperative institutions. We are the brain that thinks; you are but the bone and muscles that are moved."...This cynical assumption of the weakness and selfishness of parents, this disbelief in the power of better motives, this faith in the inspector and the policeman, can have but one result. Treat the people as unworthy of trust, and they will justify your expectation. Tell them that you do not expect them to possess a sense of responsibility, to think or act for themselves, withhold from them the most natural and the most important opportunities for such things, and in due time they will passively accept the mental and moral condition you have made for them. I repeat that the great natural duties are the great natural opportunities of improvement for all of us. We can see every day how the wealthy man, who strips himself entirely of the care of his children, and leaves them wholly in the hands of tutors, governesses, and schoolmasters, how little his life is influenced by them, how little he ends by learning from them. Whereas to the man whose are much occupied with what is best for them, who is busied with the delicate problems which they are ever suggesting to him, they are a constant means of both moral and mental change.

This is to me a particularly fascinating argument given much of the debate revolving around schools today. The lack of parental involvement is an oft-bemoaned fact of public education. Local politicians in particular love to speculate about ways increase parental involvement. Government, Herbert argues, is the cause: it crowds out parental virtue. Education being provided without the parents ever needing to think about the content of that education is precisely the cause of at least some part of parental neglect. "The history of our race," Herbert argues, "shows us that men will not do things for themselves or for others if they once believe that such things can come without exertion on their own part... government half a century ago had provided us all with dinners and breakfasts, it would be the practice of our orators today to assume the impossibility of our providing for ourselves."

Understanding this effect of public schooling on parental virtue leads us to think about the proper path in a particular way as well. We realize that voucher programs and the like are necessary first steps in the direction of complete privatization. We cannot immediately privatize schools altogether. We must first allow parents to learn the virtues taught by school choice, virtues which our public schools have caused them to forget.