I recently went to an interesting talk by Heather Gerken on the various ways that political minorities can influence policy within a federal system like ours. I won’t go into her specific thesis here, but she built on the work of earlier scholars such as Albert O. Hirschman, who recognized that people can influence institutions through both “voice” and “exit.” In other words, you can try to change the system from within by speaking up – though, if you’re in a political minority, you might find yourself outvoted. Or you can influence the system by voting with your feet; if enough people “exit,” the institution might eventually have to change.
I thought about those ideas when I read Dana Goldstein’s article titled “Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids.” Goldstein argues that liberals are violating their own ideals by withdrawing from the public schools. If they really cared about “society as a whole” and not just themselves, she says, liberals would “flood” the public schools with their kids, “and then debate vociferously what they ought to be doing.”
I suppose I’m someone who has taken the “stay and fight” approach, though more because of circumstance than principle. But I think Goldstein’s argument is myopic. She ignores the potential of “exit” to bring about positive change, and overestimates the potential of “voice.” Unlike Goldstein, I fully expect that for all my attempts at vociferousness, my kids – like those of countless people who have “stayed and fought” – will graduate thirteen years later from an utterly unchanged institution, if not one that has changed for the worse. If you were trying to design an educational system that would minimize parents’ “voice,” it would look a lot like this one.
Goldstein argues that if people who can afford to homeschool sent their kids to public school instead, less advantaged kids would benefit from their presence. I think that’s probably true, at least to some extent. But she doesn’t acknowledge that there are costs to that choice as well – not just to the kids who would have been homeschooled, but to society as a whole. Goldstein seems to think that liberals should send their kids to public schools no matter how illiberal those institutions are, and no matter how successfully they are instilling illiberal values in the kids who attend them. I think today’s schools are profoundly undermining liberal, humane, and democratic values. Why should that ever change if liberal parents continue to patronize them regardless of what they dish out?
Again, I’m not a homeschooler, and I don’t particularly care whether anyone thinks I’m sufficiently liberal. But I certainly don’t judge anyone who chooses to take their kids out of these schools. There’s no one right answer to how to make this world a more humane place, and the homeschoolers’ answer seems at least as wise as Goldstein’s. If anything, I instinctively distrust the idea that we can create a more liberal and humane society by putting our kids into less liberal and humane environments. By treating kids as instruments for social improvement, that argument mirrors the very same instrumental treatment of children that I object to when it’s practiced by “reformers” who treat kids as soldiers in the battle for global competitiveness. The homeschoolers think that you build a more humane society not by using kids to achieve this or that social end, but by treating kids humanely, one at a time. Can Goldstein be so sure that they are wrong?
More on liberal homeschoolers here. Related post here.