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Public Education and The Liberal Way of Conflict

by Christopher Chantrill
January 28, 2007 at 12:00 am

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OUR PUBLIC schools, liberals teach us, are a foundation of democracy. Without a socialization in which every child partakes of the democratic culture of the public schools we would divide into warring classes and subcultures.

That is the liberal line. But some have dared to question it. In Market Education: The Unknown History, Andrew Coulson suggested an alternate narrative.

Back in the old days, say about the time that Tocqueville was marveling at Americans and their voluntary associations, Americans educated their children in what we would now call diverse ways. There were public schools. There were charity schools. There were city academies. Schooling was a complete mish-mash, but Americans were about 90 percent literate, and parents could educate their children at the school of their choice.

Then along came Horace Mann with a better idea. He persuaded the people of Massachusetts to centralize and rationalize their schools into a state-run system.. His idea would help unify the people and it would cut crime, he predicted.

In fact, according to Coulson, it set the people at each others’ throats. When there is only one system of education then people must enter the political arena to fight for their beliefs. And too often politics is winner-take-all.

The first notable result of government education was the Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844. Catholics wanted the Catholic Bible to be allowed into the public schools of the City of Brotherly Love alongside the Protestant Bible. The Protestant majority said: No.

Things can’t be that bad today, surely? In “Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict” released last week, Neal McCluskey of Cato Institute looked at the recently concluded 2005-06 academic year. He found 150 notable conflicts over public school policy.

Whether over the teaching of evolution, the content of library books, religious expression in the schools, or several other common points of contention, conflict was constant in American public education last year.

Hot issues included Intelligent Design, Freedom of Expression, Book Banning, Multiculturalism, Integration vs. Segregation, Sex Eduction, and Homosexuality. The incident count is probably on the low side because McCluskey only included incidents that hit the media.

In 2004 [American Library Association] executive director Beverly Becker said her groups received reports of 547 book challenges and estimated that perhaps three times that many went unreported.

But how can we keep the nation together without the public schools to provide a “foundation for democracy?” McCluskey asserts that we have got the cart before the horse. Humans find unity because we want to work together, not because some authority has forced us to get along.

In the absence of authority what is it that makes us want to get along?

The answer is commerce. While suspicion, animosity, and prejudice have been inescapable components of American society... Americans have been very adept at overcoming their worse natures by letting their desires for mutual gain overcome those natures.

Most recently, it is illegal Mexican immigrants and American employers that have been indulging their “desires for mutual gain.”

So what went wrong? Why have our liberal friends, high-minded to a fault from Horace Mann to John Dewey, from James Conant to Derek Bok, built a system of such eternal conflict?

The answer according to Matthew d’Ancona has been developed by philosopher John Gray in The Two Faces of Liberalism. Gray argues that there is a

fundamental tension in the modern world between the centre-Left belief that liberalism leads to ‘consensus on the best way of life’ and the classical liberalism that seeks only peaceful co-existence between radically different value-systems.

Of course when our liberal friends say “consensus” they refer to the outcome of a trial by political combat in which the liberal winner takes all.

The classical liberal and modern conservative concept of “peaceful co-existence” is different. It grows out of Burke’s little platoons and Hayek’s assertion that millions of ordinary people engaged in voluntary cooperation will always outperform in aggregate the expert and the activist, the “man from Whitehall” or Washington.

This difference between the “Two Faces of Liberalism” is nowhere more keen than in the current debate over gay adoption in Massachusetts and Britain. The issue is not whether gays may be allowed to adopt. That is already legislated into law. The issue is whether Catholic adoption services should be allowed to opt out of the center-Left consensus that gay adoption is a “right.”

Let us frame the issue another way. On gay adoption will the orthodox center-Lefties allow Catholics to practice a heresy? Or will they instruct the Holy Office of the Consensus to show the heretics the instruments of torture?

In both the United States and in Britain the center-Left speaks with one voice, whether the issue is education, abortion, gay adoption, or Social Security. It’s our way or the highway.

It’s a way that leads to conflict.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Robert N Bellah, "Religious Evolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3.


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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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