In Praise of Educational Pluralism

by Danny Shahar

Danny Shahar is a research fellow at FEE.

I often hear it said that if the government did not determine what our children are taught, we would have no way to assure they learned the right things. The idea here is that every child deserves a proper education and that, although government education has its share of problems, at least we can keep an eye on who is being allowed to teach and what they are teaching. The free market, on the other hand, would supposedly allow us no such control; schools could simply teach whatever they wanted, and our children might grow up thinking that up is down, black is white, and right is wrong.

While this argument comes from the best of intentions, it is completely misguided for two basic reasons. The first, which has been widely discussed elsewhere, is that it gives an unreasonably pessimistic view of how a free-market education system would look. In a free market, competition would force producers to cater to their customers or risk losing business to other firms. This should lead us to expect that when customers are free to choose, producers will end up creating better products, not worse.

And in fact we can see this happening in the real world. For example, the success of graduates from particular universities reflects on the quality of the education there, with the consequence that universities are constantly trying to better themselves and their current students in order to compete for the best students in the future. The same seems to be true of private and preparatory schools at the high-school level and below. Although the government funds a number of these schools, universities and private schools are generally permitted to make their own decisions about what they will teach and who will be doing the teaching. And yet we do not see these institutions systematically teaching their students poorly or indoctrinating them with false ideologies. On the contrary, it seems fair to say that these more laissez-faire systems generally perform far better than our centralized public-school system.

But there is another reason to question the idea that governments must be involved to ensure that our children receive a proper education. That reason is that there is no such thing as a proper education. Different people have different conceptions about what kind of lives they want to lead, what kind of knowledge is important, and how they want their children to be raised. These differences do not represent one group’s being right and the other’s being wrong. Rather, a free society will always be characterized by reasonable pluralism in values and worldviews. But if this is the case, then it seems the idea that we should all get together under one roof and democratically decide how to educate our children is a bad one. Instead, it’s sensible to welcome a number of different approaches to education, with the crucial decisions about how children are to be educated ultimately being left to their parents. As philosopher David Schmidtz writes in Elements of Justice:

In effect, there are two ways to agree: We agree on what is correct, or on who has jurisdiction — who gets to decide. Freedom of religion took the latter form; we learned to be liberals in matters of religion, reaching consensus not on what to believe but on who gets to decide. So too with freedom of speech. Isn’t it odd that our greatest successes in learning to live together stem not from agreeing on what is correct but from agreeing to let people decide for themselves?

For far too long we have ignored the possibility that in a society which embraces freedom of belief, religion, and expression, it is best to respect people’s freedom to decide for themselves how they want their children educated. I understand that some may feel shocked by the suggestion that they do not know what is best for everyone else’s children. But for the rest of us, it is clear that the only fair and equitable solution to the differences in our values and worldviews is to reject the flawed model of centralized government education and to put the power to choose back in the hands of parents.

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