“Public Schools in Utopia”

by Sam Buntz

Recently, Allison Benedikt, writing in Slate, declared, “If you send your kid to private school, you are a bad person.”  I totally disagree with this—and not just with the broad generalization itself, but also with most of its underlying principles.  I don’t at all think Ms. Benedikt is a fool or particularly ill-intentioned—I just don’t believe she reasoned out the implications of what she was writing to a very profound degree.

Now, in the interests of fully disclosing my own history, I was educated at a private Montessori school up to fourth grade, and then attended public school until I graduated from high school.  So, I spent most of my education in the public system, took the good with the bad, and here I am.  I have no personal beef with public school, nor any bias in favor of private education.  What most concerns me are the principles at stake—namely, the classic dilemma of individual liberty opposed to the common good, but also the greater claim that having everyone participate in one system will somehow improve it.

Benedikt assumes that if we (voluntarily) sent every kid in America to public school, the public school system would ultimately improve over the course of generations.  She writes, “…it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.”  The rest of the article proceeds by taking this assumption for granted—rather than attempting to defend it or even explain, exactly, the mechanism by which universal participation in one system of education will improve public education as a whole.  She says that even religious and behavioral or learning issues aren’t compelling reasons for a family to send their kids to private school—“compelling” being a pretty subjective term, as an Amish person in Lancaster County or a New York Hasidic Jew would obviously find religious reasons very compelling, and a parent with a child dealing with cerebral palsy or a dyslexia—disabilities the local public school might be woefully unequipped to deal with—would certainly find such reasons compelling, as well.

Benedikt’s argument—insofar as it is clearly articulated—also only makes sense if you’re willing to argue that people should sacrifice not only their own basic, human rights and interests (the integrity of their belief systems, the physical and mental well-being of their children) in the favor of a distant common good that might not benefit people with the same religious beliefs or medical difficulties, but would (in theory) generally benefit the average person to a possibly greater degree.  Even if this were true—and it isn’t—it’s ridiculous to ask someone to sacrifice their concern for their children or for the perpetuation of their religious beliefs because it possibly could benefit everybody generations later—or at least everyone who doesn’t have any specific concerns and falls squarely in the median zone of every statistical measurement.

Even if Benedikt were correct—and this would lead to a general increase in the common good—it would still be a morally unconscionable way of doing it, a classic case of bad means leading to a good end.  But the idea that a universal public education system, with total participation and with no rival private systems to compete with, could somehow manage to correct itself over time in favor of the general interest, seems extremely dubious to me.  It leaves out all that we’ve managed to learn about the perils of group-think, about the necessity of leaving big societal programs (like education) somewhat decentralized, so that, if the central system most people use (public education) doesn’t get something right—adopting a particular method to deal with a learning disability, for instance—one of the outlying systems or marginal systems (Catholic schools or Montessori schools or Waldorf schools or take-your-pick) might provide a better alternative.

If there’s only one system—or even just two or three—it will, I think, easily settle into stasis.  No energy can enter into it from outside—it ceases to be open to anything—and it will gradually grind down to as low a level as it can possibly reach, while still, technically, functioning.  That, to my mind, seems like a much more likely outcome of universal public education.  But having multiple systems—and the ever-abiding potential to create entirely new systems—would actually (for the aforementioned reasons) keep the public school system working at a higher level.  Benedikt assumes that universal participation means that, since every parent would have a stake in the system, all would pitch in to make sure it improves.  But, without other systems in which experimentation and innovation can occur, how does something truly new enter into the public school system?  How do improvements arise?  You can’t just materialize them magically—you need to have an element of competition, with different interests free to move in different directions, to see varying outcomes and measure them against each other.

The Harvard philosopher, Robert Nozick, argued that a real “Utopia” would not be some sort of utterly unified ideal society, but rather a state of liberty in which all parties were allowed to pursue their own “utopias”, creating different patterns of community and voluntary organization that would succeed or fail based on their ultimate value.  Ms. Benedikt—who I’m sure is well-intentioned, and who makes her argument in a tone that is pretty light, and not overly serious in the first place (even though we’re meant to take it seriously)— proposes the opposite state of affairs, while also disregarding the liberty and dignity of religious minorities and of those dealing with learning, medical, and behavioral disabilities.  I offer these remarks as a corrective and not as an attack, and I hope she—if she happens to read them, somehow—will reconsider her views.


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