In the interest of full disclosure, my wife is head of an innovative private start-up school in Austin. My son is a student there, along with six other great kids. Last week we celebrated the school’s first anniversary. My wife was glad to break even. Maybe next year she’ll be able to pay herself a small salary. But she isn’t really in it for the money.
In our city, however, voters just approved two bonds for the government schools totaling $489.7 million. Yet despite having to compete with “free” and being forced to subsidize her competition, my wife goes on. You see, she is a true believer—in her educational philosophy, in her school community, and in our son.
There is probably no greater threat to real community than the conflation of community with State power. Yet look around: You can see this conflation used almost daily to justify all manner of injustices. And many of these injustices are committed against children.
I realize evoking “the children” is almost always a cheap rhetorical tactic—a conversation killer, maybe the punch line of a joke. But education is as personal for my wife and me as it is an issue of general principle. All around us, people are using the vagaries of community not only to achieve any of a thousand illiberal ends, but to perpetuate the government school system and specifically to propagate the idea that children are the property of the State.
At The Freeman we’re familiar with all sorts of collectivist bromides. Still, if I had read Harris-Perry’s sentence above in isolation, I might have been tempted to give her the benefit of the doubt—especially if we think of community not as the State, but as what it is and should be: the voluntary association of people who find one another, work together, and provide assistance to each other in times of need.
Community is not something that can be fashioned by elites or simply coerced into being. It is an emergent phenomenon. It is the product of intertwining commitments. Community is built by a free people and held together by invisible bonds—bonds of love, charity, and trust. Community cannot be fashioned by State largesse, central planners, or police power. So, yes, communities can certainly participate in the development of children.
But Melissa Harris-Perry is not talking about real community:
Award-winning education reformer John Taylor Gatto, who understands real community, has written volumes about the effects on children of 12 years in government schools:
I don’t have to look. I remember it well: “Line up.” “Remain in your seats.” “Raise your hand.” “Open your books…” “Head down on your desks.” “The bell is about to ring.” “Today we’re covering…” “You’re tardy.” “Tests up to the front.” “You passed.” “You failed.” “CAT” “ACT” “SAT” “State standards” “No talking.” “Pass up your work.” “First period, second period, third period, lunch.” “No, you can’t go to the bathroom.” “You were so obedient today; here’s a sticker.” It often seems more like an internment camp than a community.
But if Harris-Perry had been talking about a more Aristotelian idea, we might have concluded she was speaking figuratively, perhaps idiomatically about the relationship between families and communities. After all, we human beings need each other to develop fully, and a good-neighbor ethic is perfectly consistent with an individualism that respects freedom of association. I call it “rugged communitarianism.”
But Harris-Perry’s worldview is not rugged communitarianism. It is ruthless collectivism. It’s a worldview that compels people to sustain a system that cartelizes teachers and alienates children from the very communities in which they will eventually have to live.
What’s most troubling to me is that Melissa Harris-Perry claims State ownership of children before a very nice camera, in a most unapologetic fashion, so as to be piped into the living rooms of a lot of people. She represents millions. Her words and image were taken and packaged up by complicit producers, color-treated, and allowed to represent the ethos of an entire television network.
I try to distance myself from TV rhetoric, hysterical talking points, or the otherwise squirrely narratives of an increasingly polarized media. But Harris-Perry’s words chilled me to my bones. I knew once I saw that commercial I could never let my child set foot in a government school.
It’s not just because I think of my son as belonging to me, though admittedly he’s mine in some limited sense. I think of my son as also belonging to himself, more and more every day. He is in the process of becoming the captain of his own life. He is not the product of a five-year plan. Nor is he a bucket into which any expert’s contrived curriculum should be poured like so much thin gruel. My son is an amazing person ready to undertake learning pursuits that could go down any of a million forking paths. At six, he is certainly no pliable drone to be molded by standardization and trained to serve Harris-Perry’s collective. And he won’t be at 16 or 26, either.
My son, like almost every other child, is an autodidact. Unlike other children, though, he is a member of a dynamic school community that includes people of all ages. He is not the product of a State contrivance—a Skinner Box that requires he sit at attention at one desk arranged 5 x 5 while a State employee reads from a script. My son’s school community is much more robust than any institution that purports to prepare children for life by taking them out of it. And his community is as unique as he is, because each member of that community is unique and their collective actions are the product of intimate, localized processes. The pedagogy offers a living quest, not standardized tests.
In Melissa Harris-Perry, I had seen the face of statist collectivism. It was soft, sweet, and delivered at very low cost to millions in a glossy TV ad. Thankfully, a lot of people were outraged by that MSNBC spot. But some weren’t.
In fact, people who think like Melissa Harris-Perry are legion. Many are parents. Generally, they work in education, at all levels, feeding like parasites on the wider economy. In fact, they are educating most people’s kids. And that is why, year by year, more people sound like Harris-Perry. She is the product of an ideology forged in Bismarck’s Germany, refined in Mussolini’s Italy, and given expression in our U.S. school system. I’m sure a great chunk of Americans saw the Harris-Perry ad on television and nodded their heads as if someone—finally—had brought clear articulation to what they’d secretly believed all along: Government is our parent.
As Gatto reminds us: "Institutional leaders have come to regard themselves as great synthetic fathers to millions of synthetic children, by which I mean to all of us. This theory sees us bound together in some abstract family relationship in which the state is the true mother and father; hence it insists on our first and best loyalty."
The public school system—planned for your kids by central power elites—is the status quo. It has been for a long time thanks to the fully subsidized childcare it offers. Those who express any skepticism about this scheme are painted as radicals, or worse—uncaring, atomized individualists. People like Gatto, whom I quoted above, are considered fringe. Why? Because, as Gatto himself reminds us, “The sociology of government monopoly schools has evolved in such a way that a premise like mine jeopardizes the total institution if it spreads.” Gatto describes teacher innovation or system critiques of the schools cartel as a “bacillus” the system must eradicate.
Any system is composed of agents who benefit from the system, so the system wants to protect and perpetuate itself. And you know, that’s kind of understandable. But behind this dangerous conflation of community and State in education, there is also an ideology. It is like a religion, only its adherents worship government.
As my wife enters her second year of operation, she will go forward undeterred. As she competes with government schools, she has a lot working against her. People like Jason Sabo, quoted at the opening of this article, join Melissa Harris-Perry in conflating community with State power despite the high costs of exit and voice. Sabo laments:
Despite all his lamentations, Jason Sabo is willing to have more of your money taken and dumped into a system that makes him stand in the rain for golden tickets. It reminds me of a family of faith healers wondering why their child’s cancer isn’t improving. I will leave any Willy Wonka allusions and simply ask: What makes people like Sabo think the system that rations feedback is going to get any better?
Meanwhile, my wife has no problem “partnering with parents.” And that is exactly why I am optimistic.
Most people love their kids more than the State. More and more people are seeing that, despite having already to pay for government schools, they want more for their kids and for their neighbors’ kids, too. They, like my family, are no longer willing to participate in the Soviet factory model of education and its tendency to alienate children. They, like my family, see there are better, relatively inexpensive alternatives—even if we have to create them ourselves. It’s just another way that an alert community can outcompete Leviathan.
We have to. It’s for the children.