The Role of Parents in Education
The education of children is one of the more consequential issues in American politics. This is so, not merely because of concerns regarding the poor quality of education in many locations throughout the country, but also because the issue is used to justify alterations to established institutions and norms. The family and the individual dignity and welfare of the child are among these institutions and norms. Debate regarding education thus tends to wander into such areas as “parental rights” and whether children “belong” to society. These are the issues of actual interest to progressive ideologies, and education is merely one front on which the ideologues seek to advance their agenda.
The idea that society has an interest in children that diminishes the role of families was expressed by former MSNBC commentator Melissa Harris-Perry when she claimed, in 2016, that “…we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.” This claim of Ms. Harris-Perry is not an original one nor, as history has demonstrated, a successful one. Children were regarded as children of the state in ancient Sparta, but the practice did not endure. In Book III of The Republic, Plato has Socrates float the idea that wives and children of the Guardian class be shared for the benefit of the state. This idea is expanded upon in Book V, wherein it is suggested that children not be permitted to know their birth parents at all. It should also be noted that it has been about 2400 years since the writing of The Republic. Advocates of the idea that children belong to the state have had ample time to prove their theory, yet the family remains the center and fundamental unit of every enduring society, and parents remain the stewards of their children’s upbringing.
It may also be noted that the institution of the family precedes that of the state, and in all relevant examples, survives it as well. Given this fact, it is the proponents of change in favor of the state who bear the burden of proving their case, and they have been consistent in their inability to do so. There is something weird, dystopian, and hopeless about the notion that children belong to the state, or indeed, “belong” to anyone. If such a circumstance is necessary for the existence of the state, both the rationale for the state and its moral existence collapse.
Given the intellectual, practical, and moral fragility of the idea that there is some benefit to the state usurping the role of parents and families, it is not surprising that acolytes of centralization and state authority have narrowed their focus to the more modest issue of education. Thus, we may review Terry McAuliffe’s declaration that he did not “think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” This did not serve him well in his gubernatorial campaign. The public rejected the notion that parents’ role in their children’s education is subordinate to that of “experts.” The public also rejected the unfounded assertion that parents who expressed concerns to school boards and educators were a fringe minority or a species of “domestic terrorist.”
The idea that parental concern is a form of unhelpful meddling in education has not gained much traction, and for good reason. History provides few, if any, examples of societies that failed because parents were too involved in their children’s education. The reasons for this include that educating a child is not the same as, or a substitute for, raising a child. It is the parents who are responsible for the latter and, while education is an essential part of a child’s upbringing, it is only part of the process by which children develop into healthy, productive and happy members of a society. Parents must also be concerned with development of the child’s character and values, a process that necessarily continues beyond the time spent in the schoolhouse. The care, nurturing, and development of a child into a thriving individual involves more than formal education, but mishandled education can impede such development. This is one reason that parental involvement in education is not merely a discretionary accommodation by the educational system, or a “right” grudgingly tolerated within narrow limits; it is essential to the processes by which children, families, and societies flourish. Theories of education must be compatible with raising of the children, rather than the other way around.
Competent teachers are vital to education. Children who are exposed to good teachers are, in a real sense, blessed. No one should discount the contribution that talented educators can make, but nor should they confuse this with role of parents. In the ordinary case teachers and parents are not adversaries, but neither are they equals. Parents have unique bonds with their children that develop both long before and long after any interactions with a particular educator. The parent has responsibilities to the child — legal, moral, and innate — that transcend those of any teacher or administrator, and this precludes the idea that any part of a child’s education is not appropriate for parental surveillance and concern. Moreover, discrete considerations of a child’s upbringing, such as matters of sexual maturity, religious belief, and the bases of moral conduct remain parental responsibilities despite certain social theories that claim they are properly the concern of educational bureaucrats.
There are, of course, exceptions to the ideal of committed parents who are stewards of their child’s development and who take an appropriate interest in their children’s education. There are also some exceptional educators — teachers, coaches, counselors — who have a disproportionately beneficial effect on a particular child. But it is poor practice to formulate policy as though the exceptions were the norm. There are bad parents, just as there are bad teachers, but this is not a valid reason for interposing education professionals between parents and their children. It is far from established that educational institutions are optimal for, or even capable of, addressing complex issues that affect a child’s life, without appropriate parental involvement. Parents do not need to justify their involvement in their children’s education, but educational bureaucracies do have to justify interfering with such involvement.
Like many issues in contemporary discourse, the discussions and controversies surrounding education are not about what they appear. They are not really about academic freedom or parental rights or equity or inclusion. They do not arise from concern that education might be impaired by heightened levels of parental attention or annoying transparency. The issues are not really just about education. They arise rather from the millennia-old fact that the traditional role of the family is an impediment to cultural fads and ideological abstractions.