Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Defusing the Culture War

Will Wilkinson, who is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute as well as proprietor of The Fly Bottle blog, likens the ongoing culture war over Evolution in public schools to the problem of putting warning labels on foods in his article at Reason.com:

When ninth graders in Cobb County, Georgia grudgingly withdraw from their backpacks copies of Biology, by Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine, they are faced with an “advisory” sticker hinting at dark forces at work within. It reads: “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

The sticker is there because the Cobb County school board put it there. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued. Why make a federal case of it? The ACLU argues that since the sticker picks on evolution, and evolution alone, there are grounds to believe that the sly stickering forces seek to sneak religious doctrine into the curriculum. That, says the ACLU, is illegal. Pro-science anti-stickerites argue, correctly, that evolution is both a theory and a fact. And there is no good reason to exhort students to be open-minded, careful, and critical about evolution in particular. Students should approach all topics with such an admirable, enlightened spirit.

But the Cobb County controversy is not really about the merits of the theory of evolution, or whether all the alternatives are, as the ACLU argues, motivated by religious faith. The bigger fight is about who gets to impose their beliefs on whom. It’s just the latest symptom of a deeper illness that necessarily afflicts a system of publicly provided education.

Imagine you live in a town where you are required to pay several thousand dollars of taxes each year into a public fund that is used to buy food for the entire community. There is a publicly elected “Menu Board” that determines each year’s offerings. You wanted rye this year? Sorry! The Board voted for Wonder Bread. Again! You could, in principle, opt out of the public food system and buy rye, pumpernickel, or seven grain oat-nut crunch at a fancy private store. But you’ve already paid thousands in taxes, and can’t afford to pay twice for everything you eat. The Menu Board picks it. You eat it.

Imagine the controversy. Vegetarians (“You’ll get lentil loaf and like it!”) will lock horns with the Atkins lobby (“You can have my bacon when you pry it from my dead cold fingers!”) to wrest control of the Menu Board. The kosher set will fight against shrimp-lovers; Mormons will rail against the Starbucks crowd; Hindus will agitate against the forces of barbeque.

Public school boards and curriculum committees are like menu boards for our children’s minds. Isn’t what we teach our children more important than what we feed them? Bitter and divisive conflict over curriculum is inevitable. Miller and Levine’s Biology is to creationists what pork is to Muslims. Getting a Cobb County sticker with your biology book is like getting a little note with your pork chop: “Warning: Not Halal.”

Wilkinson's solution to the problem is to provide school vouchers to parents so that they can make the menu choices for their own child's minds. I tend to agree. Some of the nastiest battles of the Culture Wars have centered around who controls the public schools. Religious parents object to moral and academic subjects that do not align with their religious values. Secular parents do not want religion forced onto their children, or to have their children to be singled out for non-participation in organized prayer. These issues of control also divide along political lines as well as religious, when teachers or school boards take it upon themselves to promote particular political or social viewpoints, such as anti-military, or pro-gay marriage views.

Vouchers can act as a safety valve to de-fuse many of these controversies, and would serve the interests of parents on all sides of these cultural divides. It would also send a very strong message to the special interest groups that have been fighting to gain control of school policy agendas by placing the responsibility and the authority for the moral and cultural development of children squarely in the hands of parents.


Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I feel strongly both ways. A largely common curriculum administered--I choose to ignore the degree of competence involved in that process--to all students helps a very diverse nation to start most discussions with a similar knowledge base.

Many conservatives (Bennett, for one), in fact, have argued that our colleges should be less trade schools and return to an undergraduate course of study concentrating on the foundations of our civilization.

It is hard to do that and turn around and certify a curriculum that puts a particular scientific discipline on disregard for purely theological reasons.

I live near Dearborn, home of the largest Muslim community in the US. Do they get to have madrassas?

I am all in favor of vouchers, BTW. But I'm not sure they will defuse the culture wars--how mad do you expect parents to be when Yale decides Ruth's science background is unnacceptable?

December 16, 2004 7:16 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Outside of creationism, I don't expect that there will be much controversy surrounding the science background of homeschooled kids. The state can still establish the curricular requirements for earning the equivalent of a High School diploma. I think that the parents of home schooled kids will be, on average, more motivated to make sure that their kids get the best education possible, and are able to advance into college.

I think that the majority of parents will still send their kids to public schools, the majority of the culture war battles over public schools is coming from a small segment of vocal parents on both extremes of the religious/secular spectrum: the very religious who don't want any mention of evolution or sex education, and the militantly secular who are against the Pledge of Allegiance or are uncomfortable with any mention of god or religion in the school setting.

I don't think that madrassas will make much headway in America, I think that community pressure from both Muslims and non-Muslims will keep these kind of extreme communities from establishing themselves. Most parents want the best for their children and don't want them to grow up to be religious or political pawns. America assimilates new immigrants better than any other nation, you see this kind of radical Islamic activity taking root in countries where assimilation is more difficult or discouraged.

December 17, 2004 1:31 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I essentially agree with everything you said.

In an ideal world, public schools would provide a nationwide lingua franca. But if they ever did, they do so no longer.

But, absent some sort of certification program, people are going to have to get used to a whole lot of nonsense getting taught to children with scarcely a countervailing point of view to be found.

On balance, vouchers are better than the alternative, especially if they knock schools off their pedagogical pedestal and out of their bureaucratic stupor.

But there is almost no such thing as a solution to a social problem without unintended consequences. That they are not unintended does not make them unforeseeable.

December 19, 2004 7:32 PM  

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