School choice is good for democracy

The belief that a society or a nation can be unified – its barriers of religion, class, and race broken down – by bringing its children together in common schools that express a lowest-common-denominator vision of national life is a persistent theme throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and has especially been evoked against schools created by immigrant groups to teach their children within their own religious tradition.

Critics like Jeff Spinner-Halev counter that pluralism is a positive social good, and allows individuals freedom to shape their own lives in terms of real choices:

A relentless diversity flattens the pluralism of society. … A pluralistic society is not a place where every institution mirrors the ethnic, racial, and gender composition of society.  A pluralistic society has different kinds of groups with different kinds of memberships. …  This kind of society will offer its members more choices than one that is diverse “all the way down.” … the irony of a diversity that is taken too far: eventually it makes society more homogeneous rather than heterogeneous. … A society that has different institutions with different audiences, customers, clienteles, or students will be more pluralistic than a society where all the institutions are composed of the same people.

Advocates for an educational system that encourages non-government schooling argue that freedom in educational provision and the pluralism of the education provided requires the flourishing of alternatives to the schools operated by government, but only if these alternative schools are not compelled – or seduced – into adopting a pédagogie d’état which makes them essentially similar to government schools.

For the sake of freedom of conscience and of expression – itself founded on the principle of tolerance as well as ideological and philosophical principles of non-discrimination – no educational monopoly by the state can be justified within the democratic order. Freedom of conscience and expression are meaningless if children are subjected to mandatory indoctrination in a particular viewpoint selected by the state.

The 20th century saw a steady increase in the role of government in taking over functions that traditionally had been met by families, religious associations, and other civil-society institutions, and also in addressing needs that had previously been ignored. While the benefits of this expanded state role are manifest, there has also been a weakening of what could be called the muscle or fibers of society. In many respects, individuals are free as never before in human history to shape their lives and even their identities as they will, but in important ways they are also subject to manipulation that can be harder to resist than outright authoritarianism. One of the primary spheres of this manipulation is the education of children and youth.

Isaiah Berlin, in his famous essay on “Two Concepts of Liberty,” pointed out “to manipulate men, to propel them towards goals which you – the social  reformer – see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.”

Policies that protect individual liberties may nevertheless oppress individuals if they refuse to recognize the role of associations and institutions in making it possible for individuals to choose to live by norms that differ from those promoted by the dominant consumer-oriented culture. It is a bias of extreme liberalism to see individuals exclusively as self-shapers detached from communities of tradition and shared behavioral expectations. Political philosopher Michael Sandel has defined the role that these inherited communities play in the development of a stable identity and character: most people “conceive their identity – the subject and not just the object of their feelings and aspirations – as defined to some extent by the community of which they are a part. For them, community describes not just what they have as fellow-citizens but also what they are, not a relationship they choose (as in a voluntary association) but an attachment they discover, not merely an attribute but a constituent of their identity.” Choosing to remain loyal to such a community and to the norms which it imposes is as much a human right as is choosing to reject an “inherited” group, and deserves the same level of protection.

A central goal of such communities (and this includes non-religious groups organized around ecology and similar perspectives) is to socialize the children of members into becoming themselves loyal to the beliefs and norms of the group, “to provide a child with an identity, sense of purpose, and orientation to life strong enough to tie him to that life and identity throughout adulthood.”

Some liberal theorists like Amy Gutmann insist it is the responsibility of the State to liberate children from these inherited worldviews and help them to become self-defining autonomous individuals.  “As philosophical conclusions,” William Galston counters,

these commitments have much to recommend them. The question, though, is whether the liberal state is justified in building them into its system of public education. The answer is that it cannot do so without throwing its weight behind a conception of the human good unrelated to the functional needs of the sociopolitical institutions and at odds with the deep beliefs of many of its loyal citizens. As a political matter, liberal freedom entails the right to live unexamined as well as examined lives – a right the effective exercise of which may require parental bulwarks against the corrosive influence of modernist skepticism. I might add that in practice there is today a wide-spread perception that our system of public education already embodies a bias against authority and faith.

Thus, to take an issue about which there is much current discussion, even if not all Muslims – or even a majority of them – in Europe want to have their lives shaped by Islamic rules and tradition, it is profoundly unjust for public policy to make it difficult for those who do make that choice to live it out and to communicate it to their children through schooling informed by that tradition – provided that the common norms of the host society are respected.

(Image from

Avatar photo

BY Charles Glenn

Charles L. Glenn is professor of Educational Leadership and Development and former Dean of the School of Education at Boston University, where he teaches courses in education history and comparative policy. From 1970 to 1991 he was director of urban education and equity for the Massachusetts Department of Education, including administration of over $200 million in state funds for magnet schools and desegregation, and initial responsibility for the nation's first state bilingual education mandate and for the state law forbidding race, sex, and national-origin discrimination in education. He is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

Glenn is author of a number of books, including the historical study The Myth of the Common School (1988, 2002), which has been published as Il mito della scuola unica (Milan 2004), El mito de la escuela publica (Madrid 2006), and will be published in Portuguese in 2012. He has also published Choice of Schools in Six Nations (1989), Educational Freedom in Eastern Europe (1994, 1995), Educating Immigrant Children: Schools and Language Minorities in Twelve Nations (1996), The Ambiguous Embrace: Government and Faith-based Schools and Social Agencies (2000), as well as some twenty articles in four encyclopedias, and several hundred other articles, book chapters, and monographs on education policy.

In 2002 he and Jan De Groof of Belgium published Finding the Right Balance: Freedom, Autonomy and Accountability in Education, a study in two volumes of how 26 countries balance educational freedom with common standards and accountability, pupil and teacher rights with the integrity of school mission. An abbreviated version appeared in Italian as Un difficile equilibrio, and in English (for distribution in Eastern Europe) as Education Freedom.

Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education (2004), a substantially revised and expanded version in three volumes, covers 40 countries. A new four-volume edition will add more than a dozen countries, and up-date the others, for 2012 publication.

Glenn is currently completing a series of books on the history of educational policy in North America and Western Europe. His book on The Netherlands and Belgium, Germany and Austria, Contrasting Models of State and School: A Comparative Historical Study of Parental Choice and State Control, was published by Continuum in April 2011. A companion volume, The American Model of State and School: An Historical Inquiry, is in press, and he is writing Challenging the American Model of State and School: School Choice and Cultural Pluralism on the antecedents and prospects of current structural reforms of education.

African American/Afro-Canadian Schooling: From Colonial Times to the Present and Native American/First Nations Schooling: From Colonial Times to the Present were published by Palgrave Macmillan in June 2011. His book-in-progress on the harmful influence of certain ideas about education, The Genealogy of Bad Ideas in Education, will be published by ISI Books. His next project will be The Contested School: State and Church in France, Italy, Spain, and Mexico.

Glenn is active in educational policy debates in the United States and Europe, is vice president of OIDEL (the Geneva-based NGO promoting educational freedom worldwide), and a member of the boards of the European Association for Education Law and Policy and the Council for American Private Education, and of five scholarly journals. He has served as a consultant to the Russian and Chinese education authorities and to states and major cities across the United States, and as expert witness in federal court cases on school finance, desegregation, bilingual education, and church-state relations in education. His BA and EdD degrees are from Harvard, his PhD from Boston University.