Libertarian-bent lawyer Tim Sandefur posts this note at Panda’s Thumb:
Neal McCulskey of the Cato Institute and Matthew Yglesias of The American Prospect have a debate going over whether school choice programs would help resolve the evolution/creationism controversy. Here’s McCulskey’s first post, Yglesias’ reply, and McCulskey’s rebuttal.
Vouchers. Parental choice is an issue across the curriculum, but it is especially poignant in sex education, biology, and history. In those three areas there are national movements to direct curricula, some of the movements in each area based on a great deal of misinformation and disinformation.
McCulskey’s first post suggests that the two sides in the science vs. creationism dispute simply “want their beliefs and morals respected.” This from the CATO Institute? Well, CATO is more respective of differing views; but most on the pro-voucher, right-wing side of this discussion or any other regularly suggest the views of the opposition are not worthy of consideration. Not tolerating fools lightly generally marks conservative heroes. I suppose the issue for McCulskey is fuzzed up a bit — it appears he thinks the creationist side perfectly rational. Having monitored that particular debate for three decades, I view it differently. Now with more than nine court cases decided, in federal and state courts and the Supreme Court, it is clear that there is no scientific basis for creationism, nor for its modern daughter, intelligent design.
McCulskey’s call for “respect” for parents’ wishes to teach their kids and other kids pseudo-science is out of place. The drive to get evolution out of biology is driven by a view that truth as viewed by the parents who oppose evolution is every bit as valid as reality, though evidence supporting the view runs the gamut from non-existent through bogus, to extremely weak.
Once upon a time in America, American parents held a firm consensus on the value of education. In a distinct departure from European tradition, Americans viewed education as a path to a better life. Learning to read, learning mathematics, learning history, geography and literature, was a ticket to a better life. Even on the frontier, or especially on the frontier, knowledge meant survival. In the drive to populate the swath of the North America that would be the United States, knowledge of science and crops was essential — it is useful to remember that the Great Plains were considered unusable desert until the invention of a plow that could break up the sod to cultivate food crops in place of the wild prairie. One of the big issues for new settlements was where to find teachers, the issue of whether there would be education having been assumed by law and culture.
The consensus in favor of mass education began to break down even before compulsory education took hold, in the 1930s. The trial of John Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925 was an early indicator. The Cold War struggle to impose prayers, Bible readings and other signs of religion, by law, indicated the breakdown of the consensus was underway. Angst over a perceived moral crisis in post-birth control pill sexual revolution illustrated the spread of the problem.
Consensus still exists that kids should know how to read; the problems come in considering what they read. One group fears what children will do if they learn what scientists know about how life diversifies; one group fears what children will do if they know the full story of human sex and procreation, and how to prevent procreation; one group fears that children get the wrong ideas about history.
There is irony that our nation spent so much of the 20th century combating the ill-effects of propaganda by foreign nations, propaganda which poisoned discussion in culture, politics and economics. Having won a couple of the bigger skirmishes, the World Wars and the Cold War, many who opposed propaganda then, propose propaganda now.
McCulskey urges that we let the propagandists off the hook, let them take their “share” of the education money, and go teach what they want to their own children. It’s not an entirely harmless proposition, at least to those of us who think education matters. Science matters, for public and personal health reasons, for one. History matters, as we can see from the continuing struggles for civil rights and human rights.
It seems to me it is important that we achieve a consensus again, and that the consensus be tilted in favor of more accurate information, not less. We have standards of weighing the value and accuracy of information, in science, in history and social policy, and in law. We need to get a consensus on using those tools of reason to promote our teaching our children how to reason.
One thing we know from our brief history as the United States. The moral issues do not get easier the more we know. To function as a free, democratic republic, and as a free society, we need good information, and our kids need that information and the reasoning tools to use it to make good policy.
Clearly, when it comes to countless disputes in education, what is truly right or truly wrong is very difficult to know. With that in mind, we must answer the question: Is it better that government impose one idea of what’s right on all children, or that parents be able to seek freely what they think is right for their own kids?
He may not note the irony — it’s not the government which urges “one” idea. Nor would we think of allowing such parental choice in all areas. A parent who pulls his kid out of world geography because he thinks the world is flat skirts the limits of abuse by disinformation. (When people get concussions, we ask them questions about time, place and politics to see whether their brains are functioning well; McCulskey is, in essence, saying there are no “correct” answers to such questions; a response that we live ‘in a fifth dimension’ and that the president is Al Gore, while supportable under some logical twists, would earn a head injury patient at least another night in the hospital.) A parent who calls algebra “a tool of the devil” doesn’t get much say in whether his kid takes algebra. A parent who thinks creationism is good science should have no difficulty with his kid learning the contrary, if he is indeed committed to a fair and complete exploration of the issues that relate to whether it is good science or not. That consensus is more important.
Urging vouchers in order to let parents pick their brand of propaganda hurts our ability to achieve consensus on what citizens need to know. Vouchers should not be promoted to avoid a fight on what is important to know. It’s a necessary fight, and a constant struggle. Delaying decisions is unlikely to make them easier.