The school district here made a well-intentioned but poorly vetted decision to hold school on Martin Luther King Day this year, on the theory that the holiday would be more meaningful for kids if it were accompanied by a day of school programming on King. The many people who protested the decision at last month’s school board meetings made more good arguments than I can repeat here. It seems a particularly bad idea to single out MLK Day, of all holidays, for different treatment, especially in a way that makes it seem like, well, not a holiday. Nobody asks whether Labor Day or Memorial Day might be more educational if the kids went to school.
Many parents explained that they would prefer their children to spend the day in the company of family or at community- or church-sponsored activities. I don’t blame people for wondering whether the school district’s celebration of the day might be less than ideal. Of all holidays, Martin Luther King Day seems like a particularly bad fit for school.
One problem for the school district is that King stood for something: that there was political, philosophical, and religious content to his message. Fifty years later, there is still great disagreement in America about what racial justice means and entails. The school district can’t (and shouldn’t) tell kids what opinions to hold on politically charged issues. As a result, the district is likely to confine its celebration of King to his role in history fifty years ago, rather than to his relevance today, or to limit itself to high-level generalities (civil rights are important; all people are equal under the law) or to some vague notion of “service.” A public school is also poorly situated to discuss the role of Christianity in King’s life, which would be central to any understanding of him. In other words, any school celebration of King is likely to be impaired by institutional constraints.
It doesn’t help that schools are particularly authoritarian institutions, while King’s mission required him to confront authority at every turn. It would be easier for the district to teach about King if it had a history (on the other 179 school days) of emphasizing the importance of individual conscience rather than reflexive obedience to authority, and of welcoming dissent and criticism rather than trying to quash it. It also doesn’t help that the district has been accused of disciplining minority kids, and referring them to special education, at disproportionate rates. At the same meeting at which the board discussed MLK Day, it discussed its plan to require IDs and background checks of parents who want to enter their kids’ schools. (After a lot of people objected, the board decided to revisit the plan at a future meeting, but the central administration is apparently still pushing for it.) It’s hard not to conclude: School district, teach thyself.
So many people want to see our schools as agents for transforming society that it’s easy to forget that the school system is a creature of society and likely to embody as many of its faults as its virtues. An enormous, bureaucratic, political institution is much more apt to reproduce the status quo than to transform it. Trying to urge humane values on school officials is a worthwhile effort, and I certainly don’t think it’s futile. But the state will probably never be the ideal candidate for teaching kids about political protest, civil disobedience, or the rights of the individual against the state; the conflict of interest is too great, and the likelihood of mixed messages high. That’s another good reason not to make kids spend Martin Luther King Day in school.