Civitas Review

What Comes First: Families' 'Wants' or Society's 'Needs'?

1
Jun
27

You have to give credit to the chairman of the Wake County School Board for frankness in discussing what's important.

Someone in the district passed along to us an e-mail Kevin Hill sent to at least one parent in response to an inquiry about the assignment plan:

 Thanks for sharing. I do not know where the Board will go, but I continue to hear from more than a few parents about issues with the current plan. I do not intend to return to the "old" plan, but whatever direction we go will provide entrance points for parents moving to Wake County and to parents who have had children in private schools and wish to take advantage of the public schools. I agree with the following: " 'Parent choice' proceeds from the belief that the purpose of education is to provide individual students with an education. In fact, educating the individual is but a means to the true end of education, which is to create a viable social order to which individuals contribute and by which they are sustained. 'Family choice' is, therefore, basically selfish and anti-social in that it focuses on the 'wants' of a single family rather than the 'needs' of society." -Association of California School Administrators

Respectfully,

Kevin

Kevin L. Hill, Chairman

Wake County Board of Education/District 3

A little background:  Some Internet sleuthing indicates that quotation Hill cites has been linked to the Association of California School Administrators since at least 1979. I’m awaiting a call-back from that organization to see if such a link is accurate.

However, the saying has achieved a life of its own on in cyberspace, with quite a number of blogs quoting it. In any case, Mr. Hill took it to be a useful summary of his views, whatever its provenance, and that of course is the real point.

In response to a query from us, Hill emailed back that the email was genuine, and by way of explanation he enclosed a copy of his response sent to two people who had asked about it:

You both have asked about the quotation I shared with a parent and asked for an explanation.  I have been out of town eight of the last ten days (Home Sunday) and am now just catching up.  In hindsight, I chose a poor example to link the birth of the common school movement and compulsory attendance laws in Massachusetts with the desire to educate all children.  The “viable social order” I think about comes from the 1850s and refers to the importance of a free public education and reinforces the importance of democracy and the American way of life.  Public schools are just that, public schools and they are tasked with providing the best education for all children. My comment refers more to what many people believe — That our current generation is more of a “me” generation, as opposed to generations past which were more of “we” generations.”  There is no way that any assignment process will please all parents.  My point is that our task as a community is to look for the most good for the most children.  Hence, the good of the public as a whole. 

Any effort to read more into my comment is a stretch and directs attention away from what we as a community should be talking about – Providing an excellent education for all children!  I will refrain from using historical context for examples in the future.  Now that I have explained myself, maybe we can get back to the important work at hand . . . Providing for all children in Wake County.

Respectfully,

Kevin

Kevin L. Hill, Chairman

Wake County Board of Education/District 3

In his response to us, he also noted:  “The letter is a matter of public record.  I consider the matter closed.”

It still seems to be darned interesting to me. He admits it may have been a poor choice of example. Yet we can’t help but think that many liberals share these views, even if they are more tactful about expressing them.

Let’s take another look at the quotation, starting with the first section:

'Parent choice' proceeds from the belief that the purpose of education is to provide individual students with an education. In fact, educating the individual is but a means to the  true end of education, which is to create a viable social order to  which individuals contribute and by which they are sustained.

Does that mean a democratic social order? Or another kind of order? Tragically, in modern history, sometimes social advances become vehicles for domination by government.

Some bloggers see this in the ACSA statement as far left-wing. But you don’t have to go that far; it seems to me to be a rather clear, if unusually candid, expression of what liberals everywhere actually think. They believe society comes first. To be charitable, let’s assume they believe that upholding the “viable social order” is the best way to improve the lives of individuals.

However, my colleague Brian Balfour points out:

"But this notion of 'the public as a whole' or a 'common good' is an indefinable concept. There is no such thing, only a collection of individuals.

"If we are to take the concept of 'the public as whole' to any logical conclusion it means it is good for every single individual – an impossible task, especially for some central figurehead. There is no way to know what each individual views to be “good,” and then to somehow satisfy all of their criteria without overriding the preferences of some.

" Therefore, Hill is merely justifying his desire to force upon the community what he considers to be 'good,' and apparently feels morally entitled to impose his views upon others, for their own good of course."

Moreover, as history has shown, making the individual primary is not in conflict with establishing a viable social order, but the best way of promoting the social order.  When individuals are free to make their own choices, society also flourishes. You can go back to ancient Greek democracy and the Roman Republic, and look at societies up to today’s free countries, and it’s clear that where individual freedom is nourished, society also benefits.

Let’s go on to the conclusion of the original quote:

 'Family choice' is, therefore, basically selfish and anti-social in that it focuses on the 'wants' of a single family rather than the 'needs' of society."

Think about it: In this quotation, a family’s values and goals are not the most important thing in society. They are not even a flawed but legitimate and necessary endeavor. They are wrong – “selfish” – and destructive – “anti-social.”

At the Conservative Leadership Conference, American Enterprise President Arthur Brooks spoke on the primacy of moral concerns. That is, for human beings, moral issues are more important than anything else. (And he will return to such themes when he speaks at our luncheon event July 18 in Charlotte.)

In other words, for the left, this is a moral issue. In the quotation, the family really is morally wrong. It is not just a social institution that can be improved; it is an institution whose selfishness is opposed to the “viable social order,” and therefore is an enemy of that order, and thus of the primary good.

I hasten to explain that I'm confident Hill surely didn’t consciously mean that. But one problem is that underneath liberalism’s bright face lie subterranean currents that are far darker. Many liberals don’t understand this; but nevertheless they imbibe these dark ideas, which inevitably color their ideas and behavior.

And this need not be anything nefarious; often these values just fail on their own terms. Let us return to Hill’s explanation, as it pertains to a current controversy: “There is no way that any assignment process will please all parents.  My point is that our task as a community is to look for the most good for the most children.  Hence, the good of the public as a whole.”

Now, just looking at the assignment plan, no one expects any plan to satisfy all people. But the previous plan tried to give people the power to make their own choices, as much as possible. There is a lot of spinning about the new plan, but it’s hard to see it as anything but putting the district’s “needs” first. As in so many cases, that probably means families’ “wants” will be a distant second. For liberalism, this is not about efficient use of resources; it's about right and wrong, and those who claim families come first are just wrong

Finally, that is why (as Brian Balfour suggests) any centralized plan is likely to fail.  Some families are most concerned about diversity, some want a school nearby, some want the best academic programs, some want the best sports teams, others just want friendly teachers, and on and on. No single plan can satisfy more than a small fraction of them. And when the plan aims at one broad, abstract principle, it likely will fail to satisfy anyone.

The whole problem with trying to achieve “the good of the public as a whole” is that there is no whole, just 146,000 students who all have their own unique needs and wants. Trying to serve “the public as a whole” is a recipe for failure. It seems like a paradox to liberals, but if you instead try to offer families and students the most choices so they can control their education, in the end you’ll have the best results for the most students. (See Frederich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom.”)

This may seem like a minor business, but it’s revealing nonetheless. We are sure Mr. Hill wants to do the best by the district. But he’s mixed up on what’s most important. And until a majority on the board puts families and students first, that faction is likely to flunk out in their quest to improve the district.

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