[Ilya Somin (guest-blogging), April 6, 2006 at 9:33pm] Trackbacks
Public School Curricular Decisions and the Constitution:

This is a post I sent to a con-law e-mail list about Eugene's analysis of the Miami school's decision to exclude a pro-Castro book from the school library. I thought it might be of interest to some VC readers as well:

It seems to me that running a public school necessarily involves choosing between different ideas on the merits, and excluding at least some of them. We cannot teach all conceivable viewpoints in, say, a public school history class. Therefore, schools will probably teach the Holocaust without much (if any) consideration of the views of Holocaust deniers. Similarly, they will teach science courses without including the views of the Flat Earth Society. To say that this is unconstitutional is to say that public schooling itself is unconstitutional.

The same goes for school libraries. They cannot stock copies of every book ever published. Therefore, they have to make choices based in part on the quality of the book's content and how it fits in with the school's curriculum. The perceived accuracy of the ideas in the book is going to be a part of any evaluation of quality. Holocaust denial books, pro-flat earth books, and others will inevitably get short shrift.

Although I agree with the Miami school's decision in this particular case, I do not like the general idea of giving government such power. Obviously, they will sometimes use it to indoctrinate children in ideas that are wrong and exclude ideas I think are right; and even the exclusion of mistaken ideas can also cause harm for Millean reasons. Worse, the indoctrination - if adopted as policy by a state or federal government - could spread to millions of children across a wide area, not just to those who attend any one school.

To my mind, the best solution would be to get government out of the business of supplying education (though it could still fund it through vouchers or tax credits). That would reduce, if not eliminate, the state's ability to engage in large-scale indoctrination of children. Individual private schools might still make bad decisions on these issues, but there would be no centralized authority capable of enforcing a dangerous orthodoxy throughout the whole of the nation or an entire state. But I do not think that this approach is required by the Constitution. So long as we have public schools, we must also give the state the power to determine which ideas will be represented in the curriculum and which will not.

UPDATE: This is not essential to the more general argument I am making in the post. But it may interest readers to know that my parents (like nearly all children in the Soviet Union) were members of the Soviet Pioneers, the youth organization group on which the Cuban Young Pioneers were explicity modeled (even the name is virtually identical). The main purpose of both organizations was to indoctrinate children in communist ideology and teach them to hate the regime's enemies (both domestic dissidents and foreign opponents, especially the US). Most if not all the children were well aware of this for the good reason that it was constantly drummed into them. An elementary school textbook that discusses the Pioneers without mentioning their main function is inexcusably misleading. It would be like a textbook that portrayed the Hitler Youth (which had many similarities to the Pioneers) as an organization focused on sports and camping without mentioning that its main purpose was indoctrinating German children in loyalty to the Nazis.

I still remember watching a documentary on the Hitler Youth with my father when I was 9 or 10, and him commenting on how the rituals and indoctrination methods portrayed in the film were so similar to those he experienced in the Pioneers.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Public School Curricular Decisions and the Constitution:
  2. School Libraries and Kids' Books That Seem To Put Communist Cuba in a Positive Light: