Best of 2022: A School Pact for the Woke Wars
In looking for highlights from 2022, I picked one of my more prescient articles from this year: my case for school choice.
One of the big stories of 2021 was the election of Glenn Youngkin as governor of Virginia, which hinged on the issue of parental control of education. It was an agenda that looked like a political winner then—though I should note that it has yielded no noticeable practical result for Virginia parents—and it proved to be a winner again in November’s mid-term elections. See a hilariously hysterical meltdown in The New Yorker. What makes this more grimly amusing is that the core readers of The New Yorker are far, far more likely to have their own kids in private schools than the average American.
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But this article does note something worth thinking about: the question of the “precise logical relation between the conservative-libertarian axis” on this issue. For the “libertarian” part of the coalition, parental control over education means giving parents freedom to choose among different schools and approaches to education. For the conservatives, it means church ladies trying to take over school boards so that some parents can have more control over what other people’s kids are taught. These are not compatible goals.
But school choice winning on the ballot favors the pro-freedom side on this issue, and while opposition to censorious left-wing “wokeness” may be one of the driving forces behind it, I argued last January that school choice is actually the best hope for a truce in the woke wars—one that I hope will also appeal to liberals of all stripes.
See below for my overview of a longer piece published in Discourse.
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I’ve been writing a lot recently about the "woke wars,” particularly when it comes to education and the public schools.
On the one hand, the left is clearly trying to impose its warped views on race and American history into the curriculum. On the other hand, the right’s responses have often tended toward the authoritarian. Both sides are fighting like a dog over a bone to see who can control the curriculum. But despite their rhetoric, not enough people on the right are pushing the one solution that would actually take that issue out of the realm of politics and turn it back into a private decision made by the parents themselves.
Over at Discourse, I propose just such a solution to our school wars, drawing on some European examples.
School choice is viewed as a radical libertarian experiment here, but in some European countries it has long been a normal way of doing things. The example that is probably most interesting in our current context is Belgium, which adopted a form of school choice in 1958 under what is called the “School Pact” that ended the “Second School War.”
Belgium’s School Wars were part of a larger battle over church and state. In a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-confessional nation, conflicts over education are inevitable, but Belgium’s School Wars centered around the Catholic Church’s attempt to maintain its dominance by fending off competition from secular public schools. This eventually ended in a truce: Funding both kinds of schools and letting parents choose between them.
I went on to discuss some of the contentious history of America’s school war, including vicious sectarian battles over the King James Version of the Bible. I then apply the lessons to today’s context.
The solution to our first school wars was ultimately to push religion out of the classroom. By keeping public education secular, we could keep it denominationally neutral and end the school wars. But secular schools did not remain philosophically neutral, and the problem today is the rise of a new dogma—in the form of Critical Race Theory and related leftist ideologies—that has many of the characteristics of a religion, complete with original sin and confession, which is being rapidly imposed on the curriculum by its votaries. They see it as their goal to induct children in their creed in the same way and for the same reason as Sunday school: Drum it into the little tykes’ heads while they’re young, on the theory that they will remain loyal followers when they grow up.
In effect, this has created a new religious war over the schools—not Catholic versus Protestant, but woke versus non-woke.
There are many advantages to some version of school choice, including the ability to seek out a better quality of education. Government-run schools are basically a wing of the welfare state and tend to work like every other good provided by the state: free of charge, but very low in quality.
And school choice also poses the risk that along with government vouchers will come attempts at government control of private schools. This is why I favor a tax-credit system rather than vouchers. But I think we will face the same problem no matter how the system works. If a large percentage of America’s children ever end up going to private schools—no matter how that happens—the mania for control that produced public education in the first place will simply transfer over to an attempt to regulate private schools. But at least the mechanisms and rationales for such control would be far more indirect and harder to implement.
The wider point here is that only freedom can foster social peace. If we have the right to make decisions for ourselves and our own families, then we won’t have to know or care so much about what somebody else is teaching their kids in their own schools.
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