Art Carden  

I'm Proud to Be a Bad Person

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Why Can't Labor Be More Like H... Slate's Hanna Rosin on the "Ge...

Perhaps you've read Allison Benedikt's "If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person" at Slate. We're homeschooling our kids instead of sending them to the elementary school a few blocks away, so I guess that makes us "bad people." The article doesn't deserve the attention I'm about to give it, but a lot of people are talking about it and at least a few people are probably taking it seriously. So here it goes:

1. Exit, not merely Voice, is a way to make government-run schools more effective. Indeed, Kevin Grier makes this point (and directs us to this post by Alex Tabarrok): "exit makes voice effective. Or to put it another way, voice without exit is of limited use (think about complaining at the DMV)."

2. Ken White at Popehat offers the bit-by-bit dissection (HT: a commenter on Munger's blog). A choice passage:

If you asked me to summarize my domestic political outlook, you could do worse than this: I want to minimize the ability of people like Alison Benedikt, who tend to encrust government, to tell me how to raise my family or live my life. I believe in free expression, free worship, free conscience, personal responsibility, the rule of law, strictly limited government (and the strict limitation of people with clipboards and people with guns and badges, thank you very much), and that the best society is one in which free people make free choices, not one in which you allow the Alison Benedikts of the world to make the best interests of your children subservient to the best interests of a collective imagined by a smug self-appointed elite.

2a. Benedikt argues that in the long run, she was fine in spite of a lousy government school education. White notes the problem with her logic:

I will note that some elementary logic classes might have helped her: if bad education is not so bad, why is it terrible that it persists, and why does its persistence act as a moral imperative for people to eschew the best interests of their children?

2b. Here's a comment from Lizard at Popehat that's also quite wise:

"Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good."

Sorry, I'm calling this one a troll. Nobody talks like an Ayn Rand villain in real life -- no one is that honest.

3. My children are not your sacrificial animals. Jimmy Stewart nails this in Shenandoah. Again, my kids are not sacrificial animals, and I'm neglecting my duty as their father if I let people pretend they are.

4. There are a lot of ways to help the underprivileged beyond warehousing my kids in a government school for a few hours a day and then trying to overcome a series of collective action problems that stand between Right Now and more effective education. We're working to develop resources not only for our kids, but for others.

5. This is John Lennon Political Economy, or at least Underpants Gnomes Political Economy:

Phase 1: Put your kids in government school and advocate for change.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Schools are Awesome.

HT: The Estimable Michael Munger.

EDITED 12:38 PM Central: The KPC post linked above was by Kevin Grier, not Munger. My mistake. I saw it on Munger's Twitter feed.

EDITED 12:41 PM Central: Thanks to William Bruce for catching that it was Grier and not Munger.


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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Quinn writes:

I made it partially through and stopped. I can only believe this is just an attempt at page views by Slate and not a real opinion. More precisely, I WON'T believe this is a real opinion because doing so it actually a little depressing.

Dave Anthony writes:

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Rex Pjesky writes:

This is your best post ever (so far), Art.

Chris H writes:

Seems to me like democratic fundamentalism at it's worst. What I read in that article was, a) faith in collective action and politics, b) a mistrust of market and market-like mechanisms (such as exit), and c) a preference for egalitarianism over improving outcomes (yes she does have this faith that somehow in the long run outcomes can be both egalitarian AND improved but two generations without said improvement is apparently worth sacrificing for the egalitarian ideal).

I will say that if she thinks that 90% of all school kids going to public school isn't enough to make change (is she seriously saying that the vast majority of public school families can't outvote the tiny minority of private school families?) then I'm not sure what percentage is needed. To me her hypothesis already seems falsified, though perhaps she's relying on the dynamics of particular school districts where private schooling might dominate more. Or maybe she just thinks the parents of private school kids are more likely to promote effective changes, but then once again I'd point to that 10% figure and ask how they are supposed to outvote the 90% who apparently support worse policies?

Steve Z writes:

I agree with the sentiment expressed above: this is your best post yet, Art.

The essential problem with the article is not that it's a parody --- it isn't --- but that the extreme communitarian ideas it contains are usually coated with pablum and sweet lies to disguise how loathsome they taste. The author --- Benedikt --- essentially wants everybody to sacrifice their children on the altar of the State. But this is self-evidently a Maladiktat. If the argument is taken at face value, there is no reason it should not be extended further. A lot of the problems with schools allegedly have to do with bad parenting. So why not replace parents with the state, too?

Indeed, why should we have any 'ownership' interest in our kids at all? You can't own a child, only the state can own anything. So why don't we have "public parenting" programs that take kids from the cradle to the grave, and denounce the kulaks who don't submit their kids to the public parenting programs as refuseniks and wreckers?

paula writes:

Hear, hear! Thanks for the response. I did read that article yesterday, started posting a comment and then had to get back to work so abandoned it. Appreciate you doing the hard yards and curating some of the best responses.

Having a few alternatives to the state school system also provides the possibility of innovation, which is stifled in our monopolistic elementary school system where top down control, centralized standards, and mandated bureaucracy make change slow. It a massive undertaking to change this system and adopt new, better educational methods. Private alternatives give us a window for innovation, IMHO.

William Bruce writes:

It was Angus, not Mungowitz, who wrote that post over at KPC...

Art Carden writes:

@Everyone: Thank you for the kind words. @William: Thanks!

Mike Hammock writes:

Thanks for posting this, Art. My response to the article was

Imagine if someone said "If you buy a car other than a GM, you are a bad person. Instead of switching to another car company, you should persuade GM to make cars more to your liking." People would rightfully denounce it as stupid.

I was very disappointed that Matthew Yglesias referred to the article in a positive manner in a recent post.

Scott Scheule writes:

Shame on all those Jews who fled Germany ca. 1935 rather than staying and working to fix the situation. They might have had a mediocre outcome at first, but it would have been worth it, for the eventual common good.

Jeff writes:

In an attempt to be charitable to the author, didn't Charles Murray propose something similar when he said the elites need to burst their own bubbles and start mixing with the middle/lower classes more, so that the elites' values and behaviors rub off on them? Of course, in the case of often rebellious teenagers, I suspect this is likely to backfire and many of the upper class kids will wind up adopting the attitudes of the lower class kids rather than vice versa. Especially given one of the author's concrete examples of this mixing is her memory of getting drunk with some kids from a trailer park before a sporting event.

But if you think that peers matter in a child's development, as a parent, that makes it all the more imperative that you keep your kids away from bad influences in bad schools. After all the time and resources parents put in to raising kids, the idea that they would or should then let them be treated as some kind of common pool resource to aid in the education/development of other people's kids is the type of ludicrous idea that only be offered up by someone who doesn't have kids and probably shouldn't.

As Art notes, too, there are a lot more effective ways than warehousing kids in schools to help them build social capital. If your goal is to help underprivileged kids, probably the best way to do that is not to change the mix of kids they associate with, but change the mix of adults.

As an aside, the durability of the Underpants Gnomes meme is both surprising and amusing.

Mike Hammock writes:

Perhaps we could solve all Detroit's problems by making it illegal for people to leave Detroit.

Maniel writes:

Kind of a soft target, but fun nonetheless.
Quote from Ms. Benedikt: "I went K–12 to a terrible public school." She has, with the best of intentions no doubt, declared her candidacy for poster child exemplifying the risks inherent in a public-school education and put the subject article on exhibit as (rather compelling) evidence.

Tom Lindmark writes:

Unfortunately Ms. Benedikt's article is a roaring success. As a troll piece it succeeded in securing enormous coverage on the Web.

Methinks writes:

There are a lot of things that I could say in response to this post, but I will just sum up all my thoughts in one word: BRAVO!!!!!

NZ writes:

Everyone's talking about power of exit and communalism, but for me the article is mostly about whether sheltering your kids is good for them.

My experience is that not being sheltered was very good. Of course, I come from a family of high-IQ intellectuals, so it was never really a question of whether I was going to develop a love of learning and have the drive to pursue it. This remained true despite that I went to a gang-ridden public school, many of my classmates were criminals, and I spent more time doing drugs and playing rock music than doing homework and playing sports.

When I got to college (I graduated high school by the skin of my teeth) I was ready to apply myself and I became a top student. Meanwhile my college classmates were discovering freedom for the first time and many of them became alcoholics and flunked out.

My life has turned out a lot better than many of the kids I knew who went to private school and studied hard.

Where will I send my daughter? I don't know yet for sure, but I'm biased in favor of sending her to public school, even to a rough public school. She has the genetics and the home environment to succeed regardless. I guess it mainly depends on whether there are enough other decent families in the area who are banding together and also sending their kids to public school. There use to be a kind of patriotic sensibility about doing that, but I don't know if it has persisted.

dave smith writes:

NZ...that is not what the Slate article's argument was.

Rob writes:
I want to minimize the ability of people like Alison Benedikt, who tend to encrust government, to tell me how to raise my family or live my life.
Living one's own life freely is a very different thing from "raising" one's family freely. Unfortunately, the latter typically includes coercion against other people (especially children).

A lot of libertarian arguments do not recognize childhood as the coercion problem it really is. (Not saying that government makes it better though)

Jake writes:

My children do go to public school, not that I'm particularly happy about the fact, but I agree wholeheartedly that exit and voice are both means of signaling that change is necessary for an organization. The difference of when they will be used, of course, depends on the degree to which those who are subject to the organization feel that voice will result in positive change. The fact that so many parents in so many places choose the, "Anything but the public school" option, whether private, homeschooling, cooperative education programs, or charter schools, is a testament to the fact that voice, after having been tried for a generation or more, has mostly failed.

NZ writes:

@dave smith:

I think there are two components to the article. One is a public goods argument, that to fund the public good, the people who have something worth contributing have to contribute. I found that argument pretty straightforward.

The other component is the "Is sheltering good?" question. (It mainly comes up in the second half of the article.) I found that component more stimulating.

Jacob A. Geller writes:

I think some people -- e.g. Lizard -- are ignoring this (admittedly parenthetical) passage from Benedikt's piece:

"By the way: Banning private schools isn’t the answer. We need a moral adjustment, not a legislative one."
So when Kevin White writes "I want to minimize the ability of people like Alison Benedikt... to tell me how to raise my family or live my life. I believe in free expression..." he's presenting a straw man argument plus a contradiction.

The straw man: She's not "telling him how to raise his family," in the sense that she's calling for the government to forcibly move his kids out of private school and into public schools. She's "telling him how to raise his family" in the sense that she's urging him to voluntarily place his kids in public school, so that he has a stake in the betterment of kids who need him more than her children's peers at private school.

The coercion: In other words, she's engaging in "free expression," that thing Kevin believes in so strongly. She is advancing a moral claim which not only doesn't require any coercion, it even explicitly rejects coercion as a means to advance that moral claim, and that's just what happens when people are free to voice their opinions.

I happen to think she's wrong, for many of the same reasons you do (yes, you), but I'm pointing this out anyway because some of the commenters (e.g. Lizard) seem to have missed it.


PS -- The sensible libertarian response to this piece is in points #1, #3, #4, and #5. Risking your children's future well-being as part of a quixotic attempt to fix the public system -- even if it's a purely voluntary decision to so! -- represents a form of (voluntary?) subservience to a government institution which, given the available evidence, is likely to make education worse not better, OR, at best, is unlikely to improve education more than the alternative strategy of allowing more school choice. There is a good libertarian response, but it's not to compare Benedikt a "character from an Ayn Rand novel." She's wrong, but she's not a fascist. Hitler didn't say, "You know, I think you really ought to join the army," he said, "You're joining the army, or else, period."

kudamm writes:

I find the reaction to the Slate piece really interesting. The headline is provocative, sure, but her argument, which I take to be that public schools would be a lot better if their demographics (voluntarily!) tracked the median US student more closely, instead of just lower-income students who can't opt-out, seems reasonable enough. Don't studies of K12 support the idea that student performance is most closely correlated with family income (and presumably parental IQ)? Also that the presence of higher income kids in a class tend to raise lower income kids' test scores (rather than the reverse)? Hasn't Bryan Caplan written here about the limited influence of nurture over nature in child rearing and outcomes? Whatever - I think the vehemence of the response to the article (part in parcel with the whole climate of parental anxieties about education) is telling, as if the school integration battles of the 1970s morphed, with only some generation loss, into concerns about "school quality". Public school exit, it should be noted, has been happening since then, with little to show as a reforming influence.

Biases: public school alum and parent. And liberal east coast college/uni alum. (But Econlog fan!)

JKB writes:

She misses the simplest solution. Even if your kids are in private school, get involved in the public school. You are still part of the public and have a financial interest in good schools for everyone. So take some time to go to the school board meetings, comment in public forums, push reforms via the electoral process. Even those who don't have kids at all or who are aged out of the public school system can participate. The added benefit is that someone without a vested interest, i.e., student, in the school can take a bigger picture view and also sustain activism beyond the 5 or 6 years that a kid is in a school before moving on.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Several good points above.

One to add: When we started the first K-8 Charter School in an area, the local school district started dramatically improving and trying to impress parents. Where before they had a blase attitude about little things like completely losing track of children during the school day (no, really, parents would come to pick up their little children and the elementary school would have no idea that they had wandered off hours before...), suddenly all the local elementary schools started music and art programs to try and convince parents to keep their children there... obviously responding to market demands.

So yeah, the only effective means I've personally witnessed of improving local public schools was the help hundreds of families leave them, causing them to need to respond to competition.

LD Bottorff writes:

It is apparent from the last sentence that she is addressing this to well-to-do liberals who send their children to private schools. Those of us who aren't liberals are hopelessly amoral.

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