There may be some persuasive arguments to be made for sending your child to a public school system you don’t trust. The obvious one is that you have no choice, which is true for many Americans. There are also some good reasons to write a “manifesto” called “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person,” the best of which is to cause people to focus on the problem of the failing and unacceptable public school system, and what should be done about it. However, Allison Benedikt, who actually wrote an article with this title and presumably this intent, failed so miserably at making a coherent and persuasive argument of any kind that her provocative title amounts to an unethical assertion itself: if you are going to make a blanket indictment of the character of millions of people, you had better be able to produce an ethical argument or two, or at least demonstrate that you comprehend a little bit about ethics. Allison doesn’t. Based on this piece, I not only wouldn’t trust her (oh, by the way, Allison, the core objective of ethical conduct in your profession—any profession, actually—is trust) to provide advice about how to educate my child, I wouldn’t trust her to walk my dog.
Here is Allison’s argument for why it is unethical to send your children to public school if the school system in your community is inadequate (as most are) and you can either afford to send the children to a private school or homeschool them, which Allison either leaves out of her discussion because she assumes it is obvious that she is condemning homeschooling parents too, or because she really hasn’t thought about the issue of public education thoroughly enough to think to include it in her manifesto. I suspect the latter…
“…It seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good….Everyone needs to be invested in our public schools in order for them to get better. Not just lip-service investment, or property tax investment, but real flesh-and-blood-offspring investment. Your local school stinks but you don’t send your child there? Then its badness is just something you deplore in the abstract. Your local school stinks and you do send your child there? I bet you are going to do everything within your power to make it better…In many underresourced schools, it’s the aggressive PTAs that raise the money for enrichment programs and willful parents who get in the administration’s face when a teacher is falling down on the job. Everyone, all in.”
I expect someone engaged in calling particular conduct wrong to attempt a valid ethical analysis of it. This, which really is the sum total of the writer’s thesis, just reeks of ethical ignorance. For example, it seems as if she wants to apply a Kantian test to the conduct she deplores: if sending a child to private school is ethical, then everyone sending their children to private schools must be a societally acceptable result. She doesn’t do that, however, presumably out of ignorance or because she doesn’t want to consider the answer. Her analysis begins with using the Kant universality test to determine whether it would be good if everyone sent their children to public school, even when the schools are lousy, and reaches an ethically absurd conclusion.
This is incompetent, because the declared thesis of her essay isn’t that people who send their children to public school are good, but that people who send their children to private school are not. Testing the first using Kant, who declared that conduct can only be judged moral if it would lead to unquestionable good results if it were made the universal standard, doesn’t logically validate or or invalidate the second in any way: everybody choosing public school and everybody choosing private school could both be beneficial to society, in different ways. Moreover, Benedikt doesn’t prove the first would be desirable! She just assumes it, in defiance of actual history and experience, using what appears to be purely ideological, socialist/collectivist presumptions to bypass reality, which is what rigid ideologies do so well.
In fact, after the better part of two centuries in which virtually everyone in America sent their children to public school, and being active the PTAs was a ritual of middle class existence, the schools got progressively worse, not because of the parental participation, necessarily, but in spite of it. Benedikt doesn’t give any explanation for why it “seems to her” that universal participation would naturally and inevitably—though very sloooowly—improve the public schools, perhaps because the contention makes no sense. Monopolies tend to get sloppy, arrogant, and contemptuous of the consumer, which, in fact has happened in education to an alarming degree. Institutions and professions, like businesses tend to get better when they know consumers will go elsewhere if they don’t, not when they operate in a culture where one is a “bad person” who isn’t willing to sacrifice the education of his or her own children to the objective of a better school system generations from now.
The author’s position, in fact, is based on a very different contention, one rooted in Marxist theory: that our first duty is not to the welfare of our own children, but rather to the collective–the government. The breach of parents’ natural and presumed loyalty to the child whom they brought into the world, who must trust them implicitly and who is, for almost two decades, dependent upon the parents for sustenance, protection, wisdom and unconditional love is the real ethical outrage. It compromises the ethical values of responsibility, loyalty, respect, autonomy, care, kindness, compassion and most of all, trust, all based on unjustified reliance upon the imaginary power of the PTA to overcome the intransigence of teachers unions, incompetent and timid administrators, lawyers ready to pounce on any attempt at real discipline, sexual predators lurking in the classrooms, idiotic “no-tolerance” policies interpreted by random assortments of fools, and an institutional attitude that places tests score and job-qualifying diplomas over real education as the ultimate objectives.
Hilariously, Benedikt’s entire argument rests on a self-contradictory rationalization: “It’s no big deal.” She explains that she went to a lousy public school system, she got a crummy education, and see? It didn’t hurt her any—here she is getting paid to write idiotic essays for Slate! Uh, but Allison—if education is as inconsequential as you claim, why is paying billions for a public school system so essential that we are all bad people if we don’t submit our children to its incompetencies? Don’t you see, Allison? The fact that public schools no longer teach basic logic and reasoning does matter…look at you. Similarly, Allison thinks that many generations of badly educated adults exercising more control over badly operated and staffed schools will produce education Nirvana in five generations or so. I think if Allison had a better education, she’d realize what a ridiculous idea that is.
Even if it wasn’t a ridiculous idea, Allison’s grand plan violates another Kantian ethical principle, the most important one of all: the Categorical Imperative, that powerful idea that dictators, totalitarian despots, radical leftists and fascists find so inconvenient. It tells us that it is wrong to sacrifice human beings to grand utilitarian objectives. Sacrificing one’s children for a utilitarian objective that won’t even be accomplished by doing so violates the principle spectacularly. It would make Kant throw up, I suspect.
I don’t really think Allison is a bad person: the title of this post represented some rhetorical devices that I learned about at a good, private educational institution. I think she’s a bad liberal, which is to say a lazy and uncritical one who swallows ideological cant whole even when it should cause intellectual indigestion. I think she’s an awful writer, who makes a provocative and sweeping condemnation that she not only can’t back up with persuasive argument, but doesn’t even try. She knows nothing about ethics, which means that she had no business writing an article with “good” in the title. I don’t think she’s very bright, and she admits to being badly educated, which she only thinks is okay because she’s not very bright. And I know she’s a hypocrite, because she and her husband, it seems, sent their own child to an expensive pre-school. Nevertheless, an incompetent collectivist is far less dangerous than a persuasive one, so Allison is, in the end, harmless.
She’s not a bad person. She just wrote a terrible article,
Spark: Pope Hat
Graphic: San Sebastian Festival