Public Schools, Private Schools, Home Schools, and Democracy

Tem42 has challenged me about being a bit vague on specifics in my writeup on public schools. I am guilty. But my main point was "a modest preparation for democracy."1

I have no doubt that Tem42 and her2 acquaintances who have been home schooled are no more undemocratic than other populations, but my concern is for the spread of home schooling, and private schooling throughout the country, whether the United States, or my own Canada.

I am also confident that Tem42 is well-educated and sensitive. It is not with the academic program of home and private schools that my concern lies. I am not sure that it is an academic program that imparts the instinct for democracy.

On the contrary, the more specific, and detailed the preparation for democracy is, the more specific models that are prescribed, the more specific models that are proscribed, the less it has to with democracy, in my opinion.

It has always seemed to me that democracy was less a program than a process, and an imperfect one at that, a work in progress--a practice. In one sense, it is liberal. In one sense it has to do with a sort of marketplace. In one sense it has to do with the commons. But none of these is exhaustive, nor even truely exact.

I relate an experience to convey my concerns.

When I attended the University of Toronto, I lived for a time in the Campus Co-operative Residences Inc. Residents owned and controlled it.

One year, I received the job of assigning rooms to those who wanted to live there. I had steeped myself in Co-op philosophy and was determined to live up to the tradition. What a controversy! I felt then, as I do now, that the object of living together there, was to learn how to live together. This requires that instead of having homogenous houses, the houses should be heterogeneous: Out of all those applying in any year to live there, each house should as closely as possible be representative of that mix.

I did not last long on this job; the feeling there was each house should be racially pure--there is no other way to say it. I was told the "Indians", East and West, wanted to live together, so they were sent down to the worst kept up3, and most distant house.

This is what the majority wanted, I was told, so it must be democratic. Maybe, but when were we going to learn how to live together. Now I know how wimpy that sounds, but isn’t that the goal of democracy?

Living in the vertical mosaic that is Canada, I know this is easy for me to think of, than those who live in the melting pot. And I am the first to admit that Canada is not perfect.

My point is that home schools are often composed primarily of families, and maybe neighbours from the same demographic groups. Their whole reason is to allow parents to provide a thorough program of study, to make up for the perceived lacks in the public schools, especially in the areas of science, mathematics, religion, and morals.

Private schools also draw from particular groups, mostly defined by money. And they serve to inculcate specific class consciousness. One of the most exemplary of these, in Canada, is Upper Canada College, for the children of rich businesspeople. In Ottawa there is the Lysee Claudel.

It is not so much what we learn, or where we live, even though that is not, of course, unimportant, but how, and with whom, we go about doing it. Living, and learning, without exposure to any but our own class, race, gender, is no preparation for democracy.

I admit to not being totally innocent in this regard. When I lived in San Francisco I went to a private school--Lick-Wilmerding High School. In my defense, I say that “Lick” was not selected by money, but by competitive examination. There was some diversity of race and class.

Surfing the internet, I came across an idea that pretty much sums up my concerns. It is “the twilight of common dreams.”4 If a people, or a country is to hold together, there must be a sharing of some common purpose, of some dreams. Today, we are so dispirited that the only things exciting us are lower taxes, more cops, more control of those different from us. We can no longer put ouselves in another’s shoes. We can no longer empathize.

We are so afraid we can envision nothing other than what is seen on television, not realizing it is all a commerical vision, provided by an entity that wants our money, and for us to shut up.

1. One of many inspired observations of Neil Postman.

2. Tem42 is not too unhappy with this, so I'll leave it.

3. I know; I lived there for an year. I still think that if a majority of the students who lived there were caucasian, then it would have been better kept up--or sold.

4. This is a phrase of Todd Gitlin, professor of Culture and Commjnications at New York University.

Good point -- except I don't think public schools solve the problem. I have never been to a public school (American), but the impression I get is that the kids in public schools manage to seperate themselves into groups, despite sitting in the same room all day. Also, from what little I know of the subject (almost nothing), this gets worse in the later grades. It may be that I am wrong.

I have had experience with homeschoolers, and while I have only met one(!) black homeschooling family, otherwise I think homeschoolers may be more used to getting along with people who hold diverse backgrounds and ideas than publicschoolers are. Most (not all) homeschoolers have contact with other homeschoolers. Many homeschoolers are weird. Vegitarians, vegans, christians, wiccans, unschoolers -- you name it. Also, homeschoolers tend to be used to getting along with people of many different ages--otherwise you wont have anyone to play with. Public schools are well known for careful stratification and segregation of age groups.

On the other hand, I haven't had a chance to meet the reclusive homeschoolers. They could be terrible.

I won't say that one is better than the other, but I won't let you say homeschooling is worse. Not without an argument, anyway. (And I wont say anything at all about private schools).

I am proud to say that I am homeschooled. The only time I have been in a public school was for kindergarten, and I don't remember much about that except that it wasn't very pleasant. I am quite used to getting along, and living peacefully, with all types of people. Regardless of age, race, background, religious beliefs, etc., I see people as people and like them all, unless I have a good specific reason not to. Contary to some people's image of homeschoolers, I have not been brought up in a bubble. In fact, I am about to go off to college in a month, and it's not going to be that major of a change for me (besides the leaving family, home, and pets part...I'll hate that). I am probably a lot more comfortable socializing with absolutly anyone than your typical public highschool student. While I can't speak for all homeschoolers by any means, I have found staying out of the public education system has led me to have a more democratic sense of mind than I have seen in many a public school graduate. But I do know that's not the case with all homeschoolers. Especially the ones who are homeschooled almost strictly for religious purposes (or "safety" combined with religion). Those children do tend to get raised in bubbles and have a much harder time dealing with the idea of democracy, if they even choose to try to at all. Those are the types of homeschool families I do not support very much. But don't get me wrong, there are plenty of families who homeschool their children for religious reasons, but yet honestly prepare them for the way the world really works. And those children have a much greater potential for turning out with a democratic sense of mind.
Just my two cents....

I suppose my concern is that, while public schools may promote democratic citizenhood, they are less likely to induce good republican citizenhood (using "democratic" and "republican" in the sense of governmental models, not in the sense of donkeys and elephants).

Looking at the government of the US from the perspective of the framers, a liberal (protecting the liberties of people) society is preserved by a parliamentary republic which is sufficiently conservative (slow and hesitant to act or intervene). Such a legislature can be realized by having many factions represented (the more the merrier), producing gridlock and all flavors of legislative logjams as safeguards to keep the government from being able to do much of anything (read: "being able to step on too many people's rights") without truly broad-based support. Indeed, the reduction of much of US federal politics to two-party scuffles is itself problematic to this model, but that's another node.

I postulate that a state-run school system such as that in the US, particularly when constrained by current jurisprudence, is inamicable to a healthily factionalized populace. Rather than encouraging a diversity of epistemologies, it teaches and allows for only that subset which is naturalistic and positivistic (after all, one allowing for authoritative revelatory knowledge could necessitate a supernatural/transnatural authoritative revealer, much as special creation demands some flavor of creator; this raises First Amendment issues). Rather than encouraging a diversity of worldviews, children are largely indoctrinated using the majority cultural orthodoxy of the time (which is a polite label for political correctness; consider emphases upon "tolerance" as an intrinsic virtue without respect to the object of tolerance). The philosophical and political goals of the NEA (that is, a particular union's majority orthodoxy) can also find their way into standardized curricula (e.g., the outcome based education debate) or "acceptable" practices (the line between corporal punishment and abuse). Even the practice of holidays is problematic; how do you initiate a child into a culture which widely practices Christmas (or even worse, Easter) when speaking about Christ in any sense except as an object of historic textual criticism is verboten?

Taken over the long term, such constrictions cannot help but diminish the mindshare held by dissenting opinions (quite apart from their pragmatic, legal, and rational strengths), thus de-factionalizing (homogenizing) the population and diminishing the protective value of an adversarial republican government.

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