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Breaking Liberal Taboos on Education

by Christopher Chantrill
July 10, 2004 at 8:00 pm

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IS THE WIND changing on education?  Three straws seem to suggest so.  First there was the calculated outburst from Bill Cosby.

It’s comical to read solemn liberal commentators worrying about whether it was right for Bill Cosby to wash the dirty laundry of the black community right out where whitey could see (as if anybody cares after 40 years after the civil rights acts).  Still, he did say what no white American would be allowed to say, and certainly no conservative American.  In a speech on May 17 at a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education he railed against parents that bought their kids $500 sneakers but wouldn’t cough up $200 for “Hooked on Phonics.”  And then a month or so later, he broke the taboo again at a Rainbow/PUSH conference in Chicago, in case anyone didn’t get the message the first time.  Responding to accusations over washing dirty laundry in public, he reminded his audience that their “dirty laundry was getting out of school every day at 2:30... cursing and calling each other n-----.”  “They think they’re hip," the entertainer said. "They can’t read; they can’t write. They’re laughing and giggling, and they’re going nowhere."

Meanwhile in The Daily Telegraph, English teacher Francis Gilbert reminded us of what we already know, or ought to know.  A disruptive lower-class child does better when challenged.  Writing about a boy who started out as a discipline problem Gilbert observed: “He became competitive about his work when he saw that other boys - tough characters like himself - wanted to do well.”  It was not positive self-esteem that motivated this boy, but the desire to compete with his peers.

On top of that, the British government suddenly announced a five-year plan on education that would increase “choice,” allow successful schools to expand, and even allow “selection,” permitting schools to interview and select the students they admit.

Only the government didn’t call its new policy “selection.”  The abolition of “selection” in schools is a sacrament of the Labour Party church in England, indeed, so holy that it is taboo.  To mention the word “selection” in a meeting of Labour Party members of parliament would shock them just as much as any mention of sex is supposed to have shocked a Victorian matron.  Since time immemorial, the Labour Party has believed that it is wrong for schools to stream students by ability and to send college-prep students to one school and vocational students to another.

Of course, they might be right.  But notice what is missing in their appreciation of the issue.  Notice what they have assumed without even batting an eye.

Yes, you guessed it.  They have not given a thought to what a parent might want for his or her child.  They have assumed, as bien-pensant elitists, that it is their job to decide how children will be educated.  Parents?  Shmarents!

Let us conduct a thought experiment.  Imagine a system of charter schools, funded by the taxpayers, but with each school a quasi-independent entity where the principal, assisted by a board, determines the curriculum and hires the teachers.  Obviously these schools will range from quasi-military academies to arts academies to science schools to unstructured progressive idylls.  Some parents will want to send their children to the military academy, others to the progressive school.  But what happens if everyone wants to send his or her child to the military academy?  Why, then the military academy will have to select which children to admit.  Evil “selection” will rear its ugly head.

That’s the rub, isn’t it?  Only in a one-size-fits-all, liberals-know-best system can we avoid the issue of selection.  Only if every parent is forced to send children to the school selected by the government’s bureaucrats is there no selection issue.  The parent has no choice in where to send a child to school, and the school must accept all students in a specified catchment area.  So when progressives, whether Labour Party loyalists in England or liberal activists in the United States, rail against the injustice of “selection,” they are also railing against the right of parents to send their children to the school of their choice.  Which side would you rather be on?

All across America, parents are making choices about their children’s education.  They move to areas with good public schools; they learn how to manipulate the system to get their children into the program they want.  They send them, if they can afford it, to Montessori schools, to Waldorf schools, to military academies, to college prep schools.  They choose adventurous schools, rigorous schools, progressive schools, art schools, and science schools.  Or maybe they home-school them.  But woe-betide that any government school should select its students based on ability or intelligence!

But wait a minute!  Public universities select by ability!  What’s going on, senator?

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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