Tuesday, October 28th, 2008
"Are you for it or against it?" someone will ask. I'm not sure yet. I'm beginning to think I may vote yes. I don't want the state stopping marriage ceremonies. Whether the proposition passes or not, I will be civil towards gay couples and wish to see their rights honored. But there seems to be an awful lot of legislation in many areas to consider. But I would be quicker to accept state recognition of gay marriage if there weren't so many laws in the first place. (In my libertarian utopia, this would all be moot.) One thing I am certain of, however. I do think many of the issues this matter is tied into make it clear that people are really late in deciding we have problems on our hands. If people on TV commercials are complaining that the state is now teaching their children something bad, how is this a new problem? Did they not understand how much power the state had over their children? Did they not realize how much power they were handing the state through the decisions they made?
One of the questions that has come to my attention is how civil law and schooling relate to each other. There is a big argument over whether if Proposition 8 passes, young children will be taught that same-sex marriages are a good thing. Some say that all of them will be taught this with no exceptions. Others suggest this is far-fetched. The more I read on this, the more I suspect there is some distortion on both sides.
But while I am not certain of the future consequences, I know that people are very unaware of current conditions.
My earlier post on government being force brings up something that is invisible to many of us. We just don't see it. But in Massachusetts, compulsory state education began with a display of force that was not so subtle. Eighty percent of the population was against the idea, and some fought over the course of decades. In the 1880's, the town of Barnstable, Massachusetts was the last hold out out and barricaded itself. The army took the town and marched the children to school at bayonet point.
In most states, we have more of a right to opt out than that. Opt out altogether that is. And under certain other legally prescribed conditions opt out of portions of public education while enrolling in others.
In reading the legal documents behind one of the key cases of a public school being accused of violating parental rights, Parker v. Hurley, it appears that the state allows parents to make all kinds of educational decisions. The Old Order Amish can even end their children's education before high school. But once parents choose public school education for their children, the parents' options are narrowed.
The Proposition 8 commercials depict parents who are told that they could not opt their children out of instruction. Now on the face of it, this sounds like a clear violation of rights. That is until we probe deeper. The parents in question chose the public school and said that they support the overall educational goals of the school. What they did not like was how they were not given notice of the curriculum, or the opportunity to opt their children out of instruction they found offensive.
The argument for why they cannot do this is this. To explain to parents everything that a school will be teaching and then allow an opportunity to opt out places a burden on a school. Once the right is recognized, you have to imagine special roll calls at the beginning of each class. You have to imagine the children having a place to go in the school that will be supervised. This could conceivably become very complicated. The parents wanted to selectively pull their children from one part of the day's instruction.
When I first read that parents don't have the right to opt out, I was incensed. But as I saw what the law did and did not allow, the arguments of the other side began to sound at least partially rational. As legal arguments, anyway. And schools being government institutions rather than private ones have less leeway to stray from strict laws and precedents. (This makes what they do rather stupid sometimes.)
The advertising makes the decision sound worse than it was. It is as if we saw a commercial of someone who went to the local fast food joint and claimed she was forced to eat cheese despite being lactose intolerant. How cruel!, we think. Then we find out she ordered the bacon cheeseburger and couldn't get them to hold the cheese. But some other lactose intolerant people had happily ordered plain burgers, and others ate at the salad bar. Suddenly the case doesn't look so clear. Yes, a better restaurant might offer more choices. But the talk of no choice was clearly overstated.
I'm much less worried by the fact that impressionable children will read King and King and more worried by the fact that we hand the children over to the schools in the first place, under the current understanding of what public education is. Though I think to understand this rightly requires understanding differences between what Massachusetts law requires schools to teach and what California law requires school to teach. This is no small task. It's surely beyond the scope of my argument. But reading the Massachusetts laws as cited in the case, it is clear that the Massachusetts state government believes it has an interest in promoting broad tolerance. In part this is because diverse children attend its schools. Who wants a school to be a war zone? Later these students become citizens, and they'll be more peaceful if they don't hate each other. There is a rationale to this. (Assuming that whatever an educator teaches is actually accepted!) But when I read the laws, they are so broad that it is clear that the government believes it can create schooling that results in a certain kind of citizen. It broadly specifies a curriculum that will achieve this. Then books are bought to bring this about.
Comparing the precise legal argumentation of the lawyers in the curriculum battle to the vague attitudinal shaping of the children's book, I was struck by the odd nature of the battle. The schools expect to create tolerance in the children not through a carefully constructed argument. This is not an attempt to win a point through persuasive speech. No. It is the conviction that by having children for many hours day after day, an environment will shape the students. My chief objection is not that this is used to nefarious ends. My chief objection is how total it is. By the end, it is difficult for the student NOT to think in the prescribed ways. And when I think of how the lawyers would argue the government's interest in promoting tolerance, and then look at King and King, I shake my head. The government has an interest in having this silly book read to children because when they are older they will require fewer police to break up their fights? Really? I'm less bothered that children will have King and King read to them than I am bothered by the fact that law courts can declare that reading certain children's books, written in a fairy tale format, fulfills state mandates.
This is an attempt to change people through propaganda. I saw this when I was young. An aunt of mine was a schoolteacher, and always had a lot of books around. (I had some fine hours reading stories like "The Prisoner in Cell 13 in her basement.) Not just any kinds of books, but books of the type you would order from a school district. One I remember was made for children younger than I was at the time I read it. It was about the boy who didn't go to school. He stayed home year after year. He could do nothing. One of my favorite parts was when his mother was baking a pie and asked him to bring in six apples. The boy came back empty-handed. He could not count to six because he had not learned to count because he had not gone to school. Right! The mother is resourceful enough to be able to make a pie for herself but she couldn't teach her son to count. I wondered if other kids who read the book were stupid enough to fall for the book's position that you cannot learn even the simplest things at home. I wonder whether reading such a book to children might fulfill a state mandate to make children feel irrationally dependent on the government.
Keep in mind that government school is not a "have it your way" institution. I do support moves to bring more parent choice into the existing system. But I also see how once this system is in place, changes are difficult to enact. I found the legal argument interesting, as the state recognized the Old Order Amish claim that their religion was a total life commitment, which would be compromised by their children going to high school. Likewise, the state recognizes conscientious objectors. But when people accept the prevailing institutions as a whole, matters change. Piecemeal condemnation can appear arbitrary.
Caesar has never been a good judge of heresy. In our system, Caesar has tried to get out of that business. When we participate in his system, though, and want to boycott specific pieces, we put Caesar in an awkward position. He has to figure out whether our claim makes sense. He has to do this similarly for people of all kinds of other persuasions. How much systematic theology do you expect his judges to learn? When you hear arguments in your own churches and see how people who have sat under the same teaching for years cannot agree on all these positions, do you imagine that Caesar can sort this out? Better to avoid entanglement in the first place. Is there not a wise man among you who can figure out how your children should be taught?
Study the issue and vote as you see fit on Proposition 8. If it passes, there may be repercussions in the schools. Some may be ugly. But I think the real deal with the devil was made when the nation as a whole accepted mass public schooling. There may well be historical cases where a nation crosses a line and turns from God. If children are hearing King and King read to them without their parents' approval in coming years, I'm convinced that the decisive move was made in the nineteenth century. That was when the line was crossed.
12:32 pm Pacific Standard Time
Thursday, October 16th, 2008
For some reason I've been drawn to ghost stories lately. This is not a key genre for me, but the hankering hits from time to time. Some of my favorites in the past have been Rappaccini's Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and the poem The Skeleton in Armor by Longfellow. This year I've discovered The Phantom Coach by Amelia Edwards and Squire Toby's Will by J.S. LeFanu. For me, the appeal of the first was atmospheric. The appeal of the second was characterization.
Anyway, a post at The Kibitzer got me thinking about the song "The Monster Mash." I was probably in about second grade when I first heard that song, and remember loving it back then. The following video uses the original recording:
12:15 pm Pacific Standard Time