Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Would Privatizing American Education Threaten Democratic Values?: An Analogy Between Schooling and the Media

This article... argues that, in an increasingly fragmented world, privatised control of civic education in state-funded schools in England threatens the integrity of public education and the civic objectives of state schooling.

This quote is taken from an abstract for an article in a prominent education journal. It voices a common criticism towards the idea of privatizing American education, via either a voucher or a wholly private model. The argument is that, by getting rid of the "common school," education becomes unstandardized and, hence, threatens the idea of a common value set needed for a functioning democracy. Here is a nice summary of what the argument often looks like:

The Undermining America Argument: Choice will siphon off needed funds from public schools and, as a result, the quality of public education in the United States will suffer. In addition, choice will undermine democratic values and lead to segregation and division.

The problem I have with this argument is twofold. First, it contains an assumption that I am not convinced is valid: democracy relies on the citizenry sharing common values. While this statement is often bandied about as fact, it is generally never, but really should be, argued for. But this is a discussion for another time, as this objection is not the one which concerns us here.

The primary reason I object to the argument that a plurality of private schooling option would undermine necessary common values is simply that the conclusion is dubious. And such can be seen if we look at an analogy: that of the media, and whether it functions best as a monopoly or plurality.

The irony that one notices is that the biggest defenders of public "common" schooling tend to be on the political left. This has been true since John Dewey and Edward Thorndike all the way to the present day, as seen with Jonathan Kozol and Alfie Kohn. (Yes, the right supports public ed as well, but vouchers and privatization seem to be primarily a "right wing" phenomenon). But another argument found primarily on the left argues against the "monopolization" of the media. There is a disjunct between these two arguments. One the one hand, it is said that monopolizing education is healthy for democracy, and on the other, that monopolizing the media is unhealthy for a democracy.


Wouldn't one expect that those in favor of pluralism in the media would also be in favor of pluralism in education? Both the media and the education system, after all, have to do with the exact same thing: educating citizens. Why is it that there exists no argument that pluralizing media sources would result in an undermining of democratic values?

The reason is that those in favor of citizens having a plurality of media sources to choose from argue, rightly, that a diversity of voices is good for democracy and when news sources become monolithic, a well-educated citizenry is threatened. An extremizing of this argument can be seen here:

Arguably, the US's much-vaunted "free media" practice a form of adroit self-censorship that's all too reminiscent of Soviet models of the past. Example: could a state-owned American media machine have been much more avid as a cheerleader for the US occupation of Iraq?

In other words, the minute we have an entirely state-run media (or corporate run monopoly on media) then the easier it is for society to be indoctrinated rather than educated.

But I fail to see how this argument would not also work brilliantly as an argument against a monopoly of state-run schools! Let's try it out by taking the above quote and changing a few words:

Arguably, the US's much-vaunted "liberal education" practice a form of adroit self-censorship that's all too reminiscent of Soviet models of the past. Example: could a state-owned American school system have been much more avid as a cheerleader for the US occupation of Iraq?

The point I am trying to make here is that, if critics of privatization of schooling as a threat to common values were consistent, they would also be equally against pluralism in journalism and the press. If different people get their news from different places, we will ot all receive the same news, and therefore (allegedly) democracy will break down.*

Of course, we rightly realize that a plurality of media sources does not hurt, but helps democracy by offering people a choice on what news to receive, and keeping everyone in check by making it extremely unlikely that the type of indoctrination hinted at in the above quote could take place. People can choose their news and news organizations must compete with each other.

The exact same can be said for why pluralization of education outlets is a benefit to democracy. Allowing choice in educaiton means that one source (federal or state governments) do not control the curricula for every child. This means that, while certain schools will choose to indoctrinate in certain ways, a diverse populace will be sustained. Schools will be forced to compete for business, and as a result, will strive to produce better education than competitors. (Can you imagine how low the quality of news would be if the federal government or Foxnews were the only game in town with no one to compete against?)

In closing, democratic values are not threatened, but strengthened by, a plurality of news media sources. No one (save for Dr. Sunstein) takes seriously the argument that, for a democracy to function, we must all receive the same news. Thus, I don't see how the education situation is not directly analogous. No one should take seriously the idea that for a democracy to properly function, all students must receive exactly the same education.

*[Ironically, legal professor Cass Sunstein actually does make a similar argument in his book Republic.com, where he argues that the proliferation of media sources is a bad thing because it produces a fractious polity which, apparently, makes democracy less workable rather than more robust. Not many agree with Sunstein, for good reason.]

1 comment:

  1. Seems like the reason people trust centralized schooling but distrust centralized media is that people go with what they know. The education that's already run by the government is "good enough" and any flaws in it are considered to be problems in the implementation rather than problems in the system. On the other hand, we still have a perception of a plurality in the media, and it's also seen as "good enough".

    The news organizations are rapidly consolidating, though, so we may need to start worrying more about the media.