Among my vices is the collection of reports of conflicts between public schools and their parents over the moral and civic content of the curriculum at every level from kindergarten through high school. These battles seldom challenge directly the reality or authority of human good; though we disagree on which are which, we do agree that particular actions can be really right or wrong. Rather the bitter local fights concern two sorts of issues.
The first is at the very general level. Citizens disagree about the source of the good. What is it that makes an act wrong or right? Just why is male supremacy or greed or lying evil? Who is entitled to say so, to impose duties and then, to ask government to enforce rules through law? What or who is it that makes gay marriage or drugs, gold mining, guns, or gossip something that the school should either encourage or censure? The answers given include scripture, natural law and various forms of hedonism: There is a God, and he simply has willed it so; or this activity tends either to frustrate or fulfill something called human nature – or it maximizes the sum of individual pleasure.
As a moral authority, God is a subject forbidden to the school; and the claims for nature are difficult even for adults to understand. The pleasure concept by contrast is easy; it is unfortunately circular. It holds that it is our moral duty to maximize pleasure and thus minimize duty; in this escapist theme our schools can stick to a superficial utilitarianism, but call it civic duty or the pursuit of happiness. It is an idea with no identifiable content, offensive to those parents who believe in concrete forms of the real good. It is especially galling to parent-objectors whose income leaves them no other choice of school.
The second and more frequent subject of citizen conflict is the state schools’ teaching about specific behaviors – either to approve or to condemn. We witness this daily in the schools’ diverse treatment of the environment, sex, animals, marriage, abortion and national defense. If you live in a mining town, the classroom message about the environment may differ from the take in Chicago. My morning paper today tells of a 7-person school board, five of whose members are ultra-conservative Jews. Good, but in that district’s schools what is likely to be said in class about modern Israel? Many a public school (or its individual classes) simply clams on the hot issues of life; many others take sides – if only by the wink and the nod. It depends on the teacher. This form of relentless unpredictability I call the Bingo Curriculum.
As our national bingo dealer, America’s public school is a crucial reality in the debate about school choice. The unpredictability of any specific moral curriculum plus the imposition of this random ethic upon the lower-income family, which can’t escape, requires some specific and ingenious defense. I can think of none beyond that of settled habit plus the self-interest of the school establishment and the teachers’ union.