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Freedom of Thought and Majority Rule in the Public School: The Bankruptcy of Liberal Ideology?

reviewed by David Tyack - 1984

coverTitle: Freedom of Thought and Majority Rule in the Public School: The Bankruptcy of Liberal Ideology?
Author(s): Stephen Arons
Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA
ISBN: 0870235249, Pages: , Year: 1986
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Nearly a half-century ago, in American Inquisitors, Walter Lippmann probed the conflict between majority rule and freedom of thought and conscience in American education. He imagined a conversation on the subject between Socrates, Thomas Jefferson, and William Jennings Bryan. This is how it ended:

SOCRATES: Well, how would you gentlemen compose your fundamental principles, if a majority, exercising its fundamental right to rule, ordained that only Buddhism should be taught in the public schools?

BRYAN: I’d move to a Christian country.

JEFFERSON: I’d exercise the sacred right of revolution. What would you do, Socrates?

SOCRATES: I’d reexamine my fundamental principles.

In Compelling Belief Stephen Arons has attempted just such a reexamination. He has reached the striking conclusion that “the present structure of public education” (not just certain coercive practices in schools) is unconstitutional because it violates First Amendment freedoms. One need say no more to show that Arons’s book is provocative. He has gone beyond the familiar liberal contention that dissent in public schools needs protection; he argues that intellectual freedom and majority rule are irreconcilable under the present system of public schooling. The only constitutional remedy, he suggests, is a radical pluralism in which families determine how their children are to be socialized. The state should get out of the business of shaping children’s values.

The book has substantial virtues. Arons writes vividly and clearly about substantive issues of policy. His voice is humane and empathetic in speaking about many kinds of dissent, both congenial and uncongenial to him. He makes a point often blurred in liberal discussions of freedom of conscience: Certain kinds of values, of world views, are so deeply held that compromise—finding a golden mean—is meaningless. The dissenters come across as real people whose convictions—fundamentalist or hip, traditional or radical—set them at odds with mainstream values (or the confused cultural amalgam) that inform instruction in public schools. The school people with whom dissenters come in conflict are less convincing. While some of them have names, the sources of their motivation are not clear: they tend to be faceless bureaucrats. They seem to be agents of some monolithic “government.”

Arons gives three case studies of conflict between parents and public educators. He examines efforts of competing groups to censor what is taught in schools. He describes how parents try to educate their children at home and the legal challenges they face in the process. And he analyzes how government attempts to control private schools. Whether the issue is conflict over women’s roles, creationism in science, the adequacy of home instruction, or accreditation of counter cultural schools (both anti-authoritarian and fundamentalist), Arons concludes that the gap between state-imposed orthodoxy and the aims of parents is so great that only the ideological disestablishment of public education can remedy the constitutional violation. Although he is vague about how to accomplish this disestablishment, he believes that parents should be able to educate their children as they see fit, but at public expense.

In a moment I shall return to this question of how schooling could be both free and radically pluralistic. To the extent that there is a bit of Henry David Thoreau in most Americans, it is an appealing notion. But before jumping to prescription, let us take a further look at Arons’s diagnosis of contemporary schooling and its historical context, both ideological and institutional.

Stephen Arons is a talented lawyer and a skilled writer. He builds an advocate’s case for dissenters in uphill conflict against the powerful orthodoxy of the state. But are there shadings, competing values, and contrary interpretations that are neglected in this pleading? I believe that there are.

Arons exaggerates the impact of public schools as socializers. Schools are only a single influence on young people among a large array of shaping forces, and one that may be less potent than the influence of the media, peer groups, parents, and voluntary groups like churches.

Schools are also less monolithic than Arons suggests. Many studies of schools in different kinds of communities have stressed how various arc the values that they teach, in both the official and the hidden curriculum. One reason that schools are so diverse in what they teach is that there is not, in fact, one monolithic government that determines what they teach. There is an immensely complicated web of governmental influences that impinge on public education: federal, state, and local; legislative, executive, and judicial. And there are, besides, complex forms of private power that shape what happens in schools, ranging from the textbooks that publishers provide to the clout of test-makers to the influence of pressure groups. Amid all these intersecting forces, teachers frequently have considerable autonomy in what they do behind the classroom door.

Arons only briefly mentions the legal and institutional changes in the last generation that have expanded freedom of dissent and protection of unpopular beliefs and practices in public schools. What Lawrence Friedman calls “normative dominance” —the desire to give one’s cultural views the sanction of law—has a long history in public education. Dominant WASPS have banned foreign languages in elementary classrooms, required the teaching of the Bible, imposed “temperance” instruction, demanded flag salutes, and legislated belief and morality in many forms. In the past judges have been deferential to school authorities and given students and parents short shrift in countless court cases. In recent years, however, there has been a significant increase in legal protection of free expression for both students and teachers, in due process (as in suspensions of students or dismissal of teachers), and in sensitivity to freedom of religion and to ethnic differences.

Legislatures and courts have also done more to guarantee racial and sexual equality in the last quarter century than in the previous century. While schools are still discriminatory in many ways, they have come to reflect and respect the pluralism of the larger society more than many observers would have thought possible a generation ago.

Arons makes a good brief for the rights of parents to educate their children according to their lights, but what of the rights of the children? of their teachers? of members of the community who do not have children but who have a stake in how the next generation is educated? Should parents alone have rights? Or are the rights of different groups to be balanced? Arons does quote Justice William O. Douglas’s perceptive dissent in the Amish case. Douglas warned that to grant the parents’ wishes was “to impose the parents’ notions of religious duty upon their children. Where the child is mature enough to express potentially conflicting desires, it would be an invasion of the child’s rights to permit such an imposition without canvassing his views” (p. 59). Arons also notes that some children may not want to be educated at home. One could multiply the examples of conflict between parents and children over schooling; consider, for example, a young woman who wants a medical career but is denied that opportunity by traditional parents. Although it is also a one-sided view, one might convincingly argue that a prime purpose of public education is to liberate children from the provincialism of their parents, whether their parents are rich or poor.

Consider the interests of teachers and nonparents. Are teachers simply to do the bidding of parents and to lose what tenuous academic freedom they might enjoy, or is “freedom” for them simply to consist of finding a school where parents’ values are congruent with their own convictions? And should nonparents have no opportunity to influence how the next generation is educated? If so, that would violate an ancient faith that public education is a common good to be provided by all for the benefit of all. If only parents are educationally enfranchised, and schools must do what they and only they desire, then the rights of others would clearly be compromised. A far more accurate and principled view, in my opinion, is to see the claims of different parties in tension and needing to be adjudicated and adjusted through the political, legal, and institutional processes built up over the years for that purpose.

A related issue is the use of schooling to forge common values that may serve as a source of social cohesion. As an integrationist, Arons does recognize the value of interracial education. But the issue goes beyond race. A well-conducted school can provide young people of different ethnic, class, and religious backgrounds a chance to learn together under conditions that promote greater social understanding. In discussing the “ideological defense of government schooling” Arons does mention these functions (pp. 121-22). along with the issue of protecting children from “bad” parents, but he presents the traditional rationale only to dismiss it.

At one point Arons admits that conflict over the purposes of schooling can be valuable, but this insight evaporates. It is true that social and political conflict can be painful and disruptive, as he demonstrates, but conflict can also produce commitment and clarification. An educational world in which each like-minded group of parents evades conflict by training children in its own way is a world in which the free market of ideas has little play and in which narrow views may be perpetuated without contest from generation to generation. By contrast, negotiating differences, whether in school boards or legislatures or individual districts or courtrooms, may be a way to arrive at values held in common. To be sure, majorities must draw the line at imposing values where the constitution forbids the violation of conscience. Seeking to give all groups an adequate voice in this negotiation of values is a harder path to follow, but it is one that matches a historical quest for a common school that serves the common good.

Arons is ambivalent and inconsistent in advancing his doctrinally pure solution of radical pluralism—the control of educational socialization by parents. His sympathies clearly go to the dissenter, as has been the case with many liberal and radical observers before him. He has no desire to write a brief for the benefit of the New Right or for the Reagan administration’s program of tax credits. He declares himself against “an individualist ideology” (p. 27) and recognizes that collective solutions are required for collective problems. One senses that he would be unhappy about the emergence of neo-Nazi schools, even if they admitted blacks and Jews. He wishes to benefit those at the bottom of society. Indeed, he claims that “the present structure of public education is unconstitutional because the primary victims of the unequal distribution of liberty in education are the poor, working people, and racial minorities” (p. ix). But nowhere in his extensive case studies does he really demonstrate that last contention, seemingly vital to his case. On the contrary, he argues that the dissenting families he treats “are often the ones that have the greatest energy and concern available for child rearing”; one might add, they also have surplus funds to engage in lawsuits and in building alternative institutions. The history of “free choice” in education is not one to comfort the advocates of racial integration and equality of opportunity for the poor.

How does Arons propose to reform American free education? He explains (p. 214) that “it has not been the purpose of this book to comment on . . . proposals” (to expand family choice in education) but rather to analyze the causes of conflict between parents and the state. The one specific remedy he does discuss—the Washington, D.C., plan for income tax credits turned down by a plurality of the voters there—he attacks for its racial and class bias. One is left, then, with no specific alternative, no clear plan for separating school and state. The schemes for parental control that seem most politically possible—for example, Reagan’s tax credit plan—promise to aid those on top of society more than those on the bottom (for many of the reasons Arons astutely describes in the D.C. case). Thus it is not clear where his disestablishment would lead or how it could benefit the dispossessed.

Ironically, his arguments may comfort most not those on the bottom of society but those who wish to evade collective responsibility and to retreat to rugged individualism. In retrospect from the future, the book may be viewed as one of a whole genre of attacks on the “public school monopoly” that rationalized the resurgence of privatism in the 1980s.

We are left, then, with a set of sensitive case studies of dissent and a lawyer’s brief that claims that the remedy for these conflicts is in effect to dismantle the present system of public schools. Arons is not a pessimist about the possibility of reform; ultimately he wants his critique to lead to a hopeful restructuring of the education of the public. But his lack of clarity about how to work toward that goal is a radical defect of the book. His solution of radical pluralism, while doctrinally pure and provocative, jettisons the quest for a common good in the vain hope of mitigating conflict. This could be interpreted, unfortunately, as a counsel of despair in a society that is at once pluralistic and in desperate need of a sense of responsibility for the welfare of all.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 85 Number 4, 1984, p. 653-657
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 885, Date Accessed: 1/17/2022 3:08:25 PM

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