In the words from a Ring Lardner story, “Shut up he explained.” In the Supreme Court’s words, however, parents have rights.
The court, in 1925, struck down an Oregon law requiring children to be educated in public schools. The ruling says: “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments of this Union rest excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.” Oregon’s law was “an unreasonable interference” with parents’ liberty “to direct the upbringing of the children.”
In McAuliffe’s defense, the former governor likes private schools so much he sent at least four of his five children to them. Today’s question, however, is whether parents should resist state attempts to standardize their children’s thinking about contested interpretations of the nation’s social past, present and future.
The lengths to which the standardizers will go are revealed in the Sept. 29 letter the National School Boards Association sent to President Biden, saying that students, teachers and school board members are “susceptible” to “acts of malice, violence, and threats.” Some of the alleged acts protest particular teachings about race. Others concern pandemic health protocols. With clunky grammar unbecoming for educators, the NSBA says these “heinous” acts “could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
Local authorities can and should cope with disorder at contentious school board meetings. But the NSBA’s letter, exemplifying the hysteria that is the default mode in today’s discourse, calls for a vast mobilization of federal power, including three Cabinet-level departments (Justice, Homeland Security, Education), the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and enforcement actions under a slew of laws, including the Gun-Free School Zones Act, the Patriot Act, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Violent Interference with Federally Protected Rights statute and the Conspiracy Against Rights statute. The U.S. Air Force can stand down, for now.
Instead of gently reminding the overwrought NSBA about state and local responsibilities, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a 291-word memorandum aligning the Justice Department with the NSBA’s alarmism. His memorandum speaks of a “disturbing spike” in disagreeable behaviors. The NSBA says these include “cyberbullying.” Feeling unjustly abused online apparently also qualifies as “equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism.”
Garland ordered a federal-local law enforcement “coordination and partnership” in an all-hands-on-deck response to “harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence.” What counts as intimidation might be a function of a particular individual’s timidity regarding criticism. “Harassment” might take its meaning from whatever immunity from harsh commentary to which particular officials feel entitled.
Given Garland’s commensurate response to the NSBA’s disproportionate rhetoric, consider President Biden’s laconic response when asked about the progressive mob that followed Arizona’s Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema into a restroom to protest what the mob considered her insufficient enthusiasm for Biden’s domestic agenda. Biden said this was not “appropriate,” but it “happens to everybody” and is “part of the process.” Does Garland, however, consider this mob’s action “intimidation” and/or “harassment” requiring a hair-on-fire federal response?
What historian Edward J. Larson calls “the most widely publicized misdemeanor case in American history” concerned public school curricula: In 1925 — that year again — John Scopes was a high school teacher in Dayton, Tenn., when he agreed to become the defendant in a trial testing Tennessee’s law against teaching “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”
Progressives, like many others among the highest animals, are situational ethicists. They think parental insurrections against religious fundamentalism are wholesome but that parental objections to anti-racist fundamentalism are impertinent. Darwinism ignited culture wars — skirmishes, at least — in the 1920s when high school education became common in the South, where religious fundamentalism was strong. Today’s resistance to teaching children that the nation is permeated by “systemic racism” perhaps derives somewhat from parents at home hearing political propaganda pouring from their children’s computers during virtual classes. If so, two cheers for virtual learning.