Public schools are probably the issue over which the most contentious political battles between modern liberals and conservatives are fought in the US today. On the surface it seems like a struggle over policy, budgets, unions and curricula. These are certainly relevant concerns, and much conservative opposition and liberal support revolves around them. But for liberals there is a deeper and more abiding issue. It goes beyond mundane policy and transcends into the realm of faith itself. Liberals have a fundamental faith in the redemptive power of public education. Thus by opposing liberal education policy conservatives prove themselves not only to be political rivals, but outright heretics that do not share the faith. This is why they are subjected to withering, self-righteous opprobrium for suggesting even the smallest common-sense changes to the system.
For liberals the public schools are not conceived of as a bureaucratic system dedicated to teaching children the basic skills they will need to succeed in life. Nor are they thought of as a dystopian program aimed at “indoctrinating” children and turning them into mindless, corporate drones (leave that meme to the anarchists). No, for liberals the public schools are are the means by which social justice and racial equality will finally be achieved. They are no less than a vehicle for the redemptive transformation of society itself.
“Great teaching is about so much more than education; it is a daily fight for social justice.” –US Education Secretary Arne Duncan
A recent Slate editorial titled “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person” by one Alison Benedikt illustrates this point quite clearly. You don’t send your children to public school? You are selfish. You are a sinner. You are undermining the national redemptive project that liberalism has been using public policy as a proxy for since the Civil Rights era.
It’s not about the actual education, nor should it be according to Benedikt. She admits that she knows nothing about such things:
“I am not an education policy wonk: I’m just judgmental.”
If you do not send your children to public school you shall be judged and found wanting.
What makes this editorial unique is how blatantly Benedikt confesses the true liberal faith when it comes to public schools. She does not claim that public schools are superior. She does not claim your children will be better off. Indeed, she acknowledges that neither you nor your children are likely to see any benefit from public schooling. It may actually be a hardship or detrimental. But that is not the point. It’s not about your children’s education today in the material world. It’s about social salvation in some nebulous future world, even if your kids never live to see it.
“…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.”
Faith is an important component here. Simply forcing the issue with government power won’t do. Without choice, morality means nothing.
Banning private schools isn’t the answer. We need a moral adjustment, not a legislative one.
Indeed, we all need to be transformed by the redemptive power of public education. This is the true liberal feeling about it. Public schools more than anything have become the new liberal church and teachers and administrators the new priestly class. Yet another unintended consequence of killing God. No wonder there is so much resistance to prayer in schools (unless it is to the Holocaust or Martin Luther King of course). We cannot have our postmodern church of equality polluted by an alien (real) religion, now can we?
This is why liberals will go out on a limb for the teachers’ unions even as they destroy the budgets of local communities. This is why any attempt at instituting performance standards for teachers is fought tooth and nail. This is the source of animosity towards private and charter schools. They are not just alternative schools. They are the Church of Satan. They are cesspools of greed and iniquity. Why? Because they highlight and entrench social inequality.
The liberal redemptive dream is one of absolute equality. This is why quality is not only irrelevant to Benedikt, but valuing it is downright sinful. Public Education more than any other institution is where she imagines the promise of egalitarianism can be realized. It is where all racial, religious and class boundaries can be erased by mixing children of all backgrounds together.
“…there’s more to education than what’s taught. As rotten as my school’s English, history, science, social studies, math, art, music, and language programs were, going to school with poor kids and rich kids, black kids and brown kids, smart kids and not-so-smart ones, kids with superconservative Christian parents and other upper-middle-class Jews like me was its own education and life preparation.”
Preparation for what exactly she does not say.
“Whatever you think your children need—deserve—from their school experience, assume that the parents at the nearby public housing complex want the same.”
Really? Why? There is no reason to assume this at all.
The racial narrative here is interesting. Do you think when she talks about the denizens of “the nearby public housing complex” she is talking about whites? Asians? Jews? No, of course not. The various euphemisms (the poor, the underprivileged, disadvantaged, low-income, urban, inner-city, people in a housing project etc.) that are used by white liberals when talking about black people are quite transparent and hilarious. As always with liberals when they talk about “fairness” and “equality” the racial subtext is clear. If race is mentioned explicitly, as it is above, it is only in the context of a laundry list of various religious and ethnic groups that all must be mixed together. But let’s not fool ourselves here. While general race mixing is no doubt appealing to Benedikt, what she is talking about is white people sending their kids to school with black people. Blacks are uniquely unequal and uniquely in need of redemption and salvation from whites according to the liberal view. No self-respecting white liberal would ever say it aloud, but they all believe it. The liberal race narrative inevitably resolves to a Rube Goldberg version of White Man’s Burden.
The idea that blacks can be improved by simply exposing them to whites in the schools has been a part of liberal educational canon ever since school desegregation in the 1960s. What is funny is that the opposite is not assumed. It is implicitly acknowledged by the substance of this editorial that white children will thrive perfectly well in an educational environment that is free of blacks. Why else would the author feel the need to shame white parents? Obviously white children are expected to do fine. Why else would liberals institute a regime of busing to mix up the racial demographics of the schools? Whitey cannot be trusted to demand integration all on his own. Once again we see the implicit liberal narrative of white supremacy creeping in here. It is taken as a given that the worst possible fate for blacks is to have whites turn their back on them.
Indeed, it seems that liberals treat exposure to blacks for white children in the schools not as a growing experience, but rather as a form of penance for the original sin of white privilege. No doubt some kind of proxy punishment for the Southern sin of resistance to integration during the Civil Rights era is at play here as well. Liberals will never tire of punishing Southern whites. Never again!
It was the Civil Rights movement that gave birth to the new liberal theology of Public Education as social salvation through redemption for blacks and penance for whites, but the battle is not won 50 years later. Some still refuse to repent.
Don’t just acknowledge your liberal guilt—listen to it.
Always more work to be done. There are heretics out there.