David Gelertner's latest op-ed in the Los Angeles Times ("Let's Get Rid of Public Schools," May 13, 2005) serves to cement his place as the mental midget of conservative letters. I am drawn to his writings not as a moth to a flame but rather as a gawker to a freeway car crash; As the esteemed Milhouse van Houten said on The Simpsons, "I fear to watch, and yet I cannot look away!" This new piece really takes the dumbstick cookie. His essential point is that it is time for public education to fade away as an institution, to be replaced by (theoretically) superior privately run schools. The entrepreunerial educational system, he says, will be better because they will cater to the whim of the market (in this case, the parents of the children they are educating).
This is a truly disturbing development in the Education of Little David. As an education professional (an Ivy League professor - of computer science - no less!), Gelertner should have a more nuanced view of education that has some sort of grounding in reality rather than the The Fairy Land of Would-Be Conservative Wonks. This is taking the free market to rather absurd lenghts, don't you think?
Gelertner happily and blithely ignores the fact that private education institutions are expensive. I assume, of course, that he will rebut with "but with lots of competing schools, prices will be manageable," which is nonsense. Just ask anyone paying out of pocket for health insurance. The worst performing schools can be found in rural and urban areas, but they all have one thing in common: poverty. The worst performing schools are found among those who can least afford to pay for private schools. Even government vouchers or saving on property taxes will not make up the deficit for poor families struggling to get by. As college fees, even for well-subsidized systems like the California State Universities, demonstrate, even middle class families struggle to meet education costs that only amount to several thousand dollars a year. As costs of living rise (especially in urban areas), wages remain stagnant, and benefits like retirement and health insurance come out-of-pocket, a private education serves as nothing more than an added cost to poor, working poor, and middle class families.
Similarly, Gelertner's constitutional argument (the words "public education" do not appear in the Constitution) is the same steady line of hokum that conservatives will feed you when the interpretist arguments don't work in their favor. Literalism is the last refuge of the wrong. The idea that something not expressly mentioned in the Constitution has no right to exist merely perpetuates the myth that the Constitution was a static document, never meant adapt to the times. This flies in the face of the political philosophy of Founders like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who believed that subsequent generations should not be bound by the decisions of their predecessors.
It is this statement that really makes the blood vessels in my brain burst, however:
"I believe that public schools have the right to exist insofar as they express a shared view of public education. A consensus on education... gives schools the right to call themselves public and to be supported by the public. Once public schools stop speaking for the whole community, they are no different from private schools. It's not public schools' incompetence that have wrecked them. It's their non-inclusiveness (emphasis his)."
Oh, but it gets worse. Here's the culmination:
"To find out where things stood 100 years ago, check the celebrated 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910). 'The great mass of the American people are in entire agreement as to the principles which should control public education.' No one would dare say that today.
"'Formal instruction in manners and morals is not often found' in American public schools, the Britannica explained, 'but the discipline of the school offers the best possible training in the habits of truthfulness, honesty, obedience, regularity, punctuality and conformity to order.'"
At last, the professor is revealed for the charlatan he is. It's not so much that Gelertner objects to schools as places of learning, it's what they are learning. Instead of education, Gelertner would see socialization. You're not supposed to go to school to learn your ABCs and 123s; you're supposed to go to school to learn to obey your parents and conform to society. As I have written of before, we see that critical thought has no place in a conservative education (since critical thought must by necessity come from an adversion to conformity).
The idea of a "consensus education" is ridiculous on so many levels, not the least of which is that we live in a pluralistic society. Apparently, Gelertner feels that since two percent more of the electorate decided to vote for Bush, this means that all education in the country should conform to a white-male right-wing conservative world view. Because obviously, that must be the consensus. Presumably, then, should 51 percent of the electorate vote for Spanky McLiberalpants or whomever the Democrats nominate in 2008, schools should start teaching a far left curriculum.
Ah, no, Mr. Gelertner will say, I think they need to acknowledge that conservatives are out there and that they think differently. Golly, he's right. Let's segregate the kids with liberal parents from the kids with conservative parents, and have them sit in on only self-affirming classes that never challenge their parents' worldview. Then, we can put ideology on our college applications, to ensure that enough conservative kids can get a college education, because as we all know, they don't get any. God forbid that schools teach children to think and parents learn to be fricking parents by discussing things with their children.
In the marketplace of ideas, as in the marketplace of goods, consensus and tastes change. Community standards, that which Gelertner thinks schools should teach, change. Confronting the uncomfortable inconsistencies in our beliefs is important to making reasoned (and reasonable) decisions. We do this by thinking critically, and this is what education is supposed to teach us. One of the reasons standards and tastes change is because we learn new things from thinking critically.
Gelertner can't help but play the "wait for me, guysh!" card and take a few swings at the old conservative punching bag of multiculturalism. Of course the multiculturalism they attack isn't the multiculturalism any modern liberal or even one educated past the '70s would recognize. He appears to conform to Irving Kristol's inaccurate belief that multiculturalism would have American students learn "more about George Washington Carver than George Washington." Complete nonsense, as my rampantly liberal California public education (from first grade all the way through grade school) can attest to. We see this same nonsense in the American history standards Lynne Cheney has been pushing on the Department of Education. Rabid multiculturalism, the belief that America has no culture or that it is evil, has been consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs. There is a difference between being proud of America and ignorant of the myriad of cultures and subcultures that exist to give this country its unique and wonderful flavor.We can see which one Gelertner and his ilk favor.
Conservatives often complain about liberalism in schools and universities. "Liberal bias" they scream until hoarse, until their vocal chords give out for a few blissful moments where peace and silence reign. Unfortunately, it never lasts. The new rallying cry of conservatives is their flip-flop on affirmative action. Oh no, not for the darkies and jigaboos, but for ideology. Conservative students must be respected (translate: must not have their world view challenged)! But, if this rampant ideological abuse by professors is true (and I must confess, I've never seen nor heard hide nor hair of this, and was educated at that bastion of liberalism, the University of California), why is it that all these professors are liberal? Why are all the school teachers and social workers and psychologists and basically everyone in academia except free-market economic zealots and international relations hardliners a liberal?
Because education begets liberalism. People who live in close proximity to other people, who engage in an exchange of ideas, learn to challenge their own preconceived notions and change their opinions. This is a hallmark of liberalism: critical thought. Conservatives love to engage in, and indeed are very good at, the first part: critical. They serve us liberals a valuable service in doing so. They point out the errors and inconsistencies in our thought, forcing us to adapt, reconsider, and change. Unfortunately, conservatives like Professor (oh how I weep for the Yalies!) Gelertner would rather liberals didn't offer the same service for them. That he would force this narrow worldview on his children is sad; that he would have it forced upon all our children is detestable.
Cross-posted at Los Punditos.