education philosopher

Compulsory Schooling, Captain Fitzroy, and the Problem of Coercion

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, Politics of Education, Uncategorized by KevinCK on July 27, 2009

Occasionally, it happens that an assumption that is highly taken for granted is questioned. In these cases one is asked to defend what one never expected would need explicit defense. In this case, the person asking for a defense is James Bach (author of “Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar,") and the principal is the legitmacy of coercion for the sake of student learning.

Bach and I have been discussing his book and my review of it for several go rounds. He advocates for a non-coercionteacher principal in education that “respect[s] the integrity of a child’s mind” and sees all attempts to direct a student’s mind where it does not want to go as unjustly coercive. I, as a former schoolteacher and PhD student in Education, argue that in many cases, coercion of children is justified, and one instance that this is so is in coercing students to learn things that they may not want to learn but society feels they need to learn.

(It is important to note that I am a political libertarian and probably have much common ground with Bach in the belief that, on the whole, we should do our best to avoid coercive meaures and that only the most compelling counter-claims justify its use. I am also a staunch supporter of a voucher system with a minimal curriculum in order to (a) ensure that all students can be educated formally while (b) ensuring that only a minimal amount of core curriculum is mandated, while the rest is flexible.)

Bach suggests that coercing students to learn what we (society, parents, teachers, bureaucrats, etc) feel students should learn is analogous to kidnapping a foreign tribe and educating them to suit our need. I quote Bach at length:

In the 1830’s, Captain Fitzroy, of the Beagle, kidnapped four members of a tribe from Tierra Del Fuego and took them to England. They were “educated” for a couple of years, then brought back to their tribe along with a missionary. That little expedition ended poorly (comically poorly… look it up). Yet, I can’t see the fundamental difference in Fitzroy’s situation and your philosophy. Isn’t a mind a terrible thing to waste? Weren’t those savages miserable and naked? Even the abolitionist Darwin said they were! Wasn’t Fitzroy working that middle ground between enslaving the whole population and enslaving just a few for just a little while? He thought he was doing the RIGHT thing by kidnapping them. Do you condone that?

fitzroyAs mentioned, I don’t think that analogizing public education to kidnapping a tribe of people has occurred to that many folks over the years and, as such, most of us take such analogies as absurd on their face. But this feeling must derive from some sense that the analogy is unjustifiable and that calling it absurd is justifiable. Thus, explicating the distinction must be possible.

For those who don’t know the story, Captain Fitzroy captained the H.M.S. Beagle and, running across a tribe called the Yamanas, brought several of their members back to Britian.

The aborigine group’s fate would be dictated by the Captain’s intentions: submitting them to a perverse experiment by which they would be educated according to Victorian “civility” principles. They would be taken to England, dressed in nineteenth-century British costumes, converted to Christianity, instructed in the English language typical of a lord, and taught the manners and customs of upper London bourgeoisie.

It is hardly necessary to point out that the first difference, then, between teaching a child to read, write and perform mathematical operations and the kidnapping on the H.M.S. Beagle was in the extremity and scope of the affair. The school system does not steal anyone from their native lands, plop them into unfamiliar territory, convert to new religions, or attempt to remold people’s entire lifestyles. Rather, public schools take citizens already members of the United States and teach them things that, by in large, the majority of their own parents wish them to learn. Schools also give objecting parents the freedom to remove their children from school and have them educated elsewhere.

The biggest difference is between teaching and kidnapping tribesman is not simply the scope of the affair, but how it is done. Kidnapping as in the Fitzroy case, entails stripping someone from their home soil, and recreating them entirely  – their morals, language, manners, etc. And all of this would be done for the sake of imposing a brand new culture on those who’ve lived outside of it. This is completely disanalogous to the situation of educating a US citizen to read or in how the government works. The former is done to take away power or to earn power over an outsider. The latter is done with the intent to give power to someone whose already functioned within the culture being educated in.

At this point, the non-coercionist will object that educating children coercively by forcing their attentions on something they do not wish to concentrate on is an imposition of values. Yes, in a sense, teaching someone how their government works imposes a value on them that they should know how their government works. But I doubt that even Bach could accuse this action of being motivated by anything other than giving the student a power – the power to understand the political forces governing her. (We could leave her politically ignorant of course, but this would be to ensure that she could have no power over her government.)

And I am not sure that imposing values is always a bad thing. We impose values on children when we force them to eat vegetables and something other than the candy they wish to eat. We impose values when we forcefully teach students about the values of refraining from unsafe sex. We impose values when we insist that youth wishing to drive undergo sometimes dull study about the rules of the road (and that 5 year olds may not drive even if willing to do this training.) We impose values whenever we recognize that parents have legal authority to make decisions on behalf of minors. We impose values when we forcibly take weapons away from and demand psychological services  minors who threaten school shootings (as I have had to do with no ethical qualms).

But is all this imposition of value negative? Rightly, we recognize much, most, or all of it to be necessary. We do this out of longstanding recognition that adults can often judge what is necessary for children’s long-term well being than children. (It is this that undergirds our laws that minors be treated differently than adults and that adults have more legal responsibility than children.) Research has repeatedly shown (even before Piaget) that children’s decision making abilities – particularly long-term decision making abilities – tend to be worse than adults. (Exceptions exist, of course, but this does not disprove the general statements of probability.) Young people statistically are more likely to get into auto accidents, binge drink, join cults, lack discipline, etc, than adults. One could, as Bach seems to, see children as every bit as good at gaguing the long term effects of their decisions as adults, but the entirety of the legal system and psychological research disagrees with him.

The analogy that may be more appropriate to educating children via the American education system may be if Fitzroy were to set up schools in the native’s village (after the native parents were quite favoring of the idea) so that the young people could be schooled on more efficient ways to get on in the society they already lived in.

The reason I say this, again, is that a primary difference between compellilng American students to attend school and compelling members of a tribe to be  kidnappeedand brought to a foreign land to "relearn" how to live is a difference of scope, how many vallues are being imposed (learning how to read versus learning that one must worship jesus), intent (learning tools to survive in one’sown culture versus learning how to adapt to a foreign culture one was forcibly put into), and whether the student’s right to self-determination is fundamentally abridged. (Fitzroy forced "students" into fundamtal changes in value and control over onesself. Teaching students to balance a checkbook doesn ot do any such thing.)

Before this post concludes, I also want to point out why I, a libertarian, can be in favor of coercion in certain cases but not others. (I am in favor of education by compulsion, but not of kidnapping tribesman from their homeland). First, as mentioned, a key distinction is that degree of coercion involved. Coercing out of liberty to direct one’s own life trajectory is quite different than temporary coercion that leave’s one’s ability to structure one’s lfe relatively untouched. One can teach John how to read without dictating how he will live his life but for the few hours spent learning to read. One can teach Mary the basics of how government works without leaving her very free to  choose her likes, future career, future lifestyle, etc.

Next, I must say that I do not believe any political principle to be absolute. Any principle, in this case, that of non-coercion, is subject to context and whether there is a competing value that overrides that principle. I am for non-coercion in general, but not when it is reasonable to assume that something greater – safety, well-being, etc – is at stake. This is why I favor involuntary psychological commitals in cases where safety is at risk, and why I supporrt the ability of adults to coerce children in certain instances if it is reasonable to suspect that, in those cases, a child’s future well-being may be effected. (In the case of education, I strongly feel that there are certain minimum skills that children should be equipped with for their own well-being and that a small amount of coercion in these cases is justified by the future probably benefit to the student.)

I hope I have adequately explained why compulosory schooling and stealing tribes from their homeland are notthe same thing. As said, it was hoped that such distinctions would be recognized as invalid by anyone reflecting on the matter for several seconds, but we cannot trust that all people have the same sympathies. One can only wonder whether anyone who believes that educating children cumpolsorily is tantamount to imperialism could see any role for parents at all (other than unbridled support for and noninterference with whatever students may choose to do, whether it be injesting cocaine to the permanent eschewal of eating proteins and vegatables.) Anything less, after all, would be coercive.

[This post may also be found at the blog Liberty and Reason, as I feel the subject is also relevant to issues of governmental liberty and the limits of coercion.]

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