This week Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez threatened to take away a cherished right of parents in his country -- the right to direct their child's education. Of course, Chavez did not directly threaten this right. Like most state authorities, he attacks through regulation.
Chavez threatened to close or take over private schools that did not submit to his government's oversight and its new curriculum and textbooks. After all, Chavez reasoned, "Society cannot allow the private sector to do whatever it wants."
Of course, most everyone believes that neither public nor private schools should do whatever they want. What Chavez likely means is that his government does not want private schools teaching content that threatens his regime's outlook.
Not surprisingly, Chavez's recent pronouncement merely follows the Soviet tradition articulated in the 1919 book, ABC's of Communism:
When parents say, "My daughter," "My son," the words do not simply imply the existence of a parental relationship, they also give expression to the parents' view that they have a right to educate their own children. From the socialist outlook, no such right exists....The parents' claim to bring up their own children and thereby to impress upon the children's psychology their own limitations, must not merely be rejected, but must be absolutely laughed out of court.
As usual, such views are justified by appealing to the need to promote the common good or some other positive goal. For example, Venezuela's education minister (who also happens to be Chavez's brother) says Chavez merely wants to promote "critical thinking" through his regulation.
Unfortunately, the Chavez-like desire to reduce parental freedom and to regulate private schools for "society's interest" appears to be growing in America. One finds academics at places such as Stanford calling for increased state regulation to make sure home and private schools do not "aim solely to replicate and reinforce the worldview of the parents or cultural groups of the children who attend the school." Similar to the case in Venezuela, such appeals are justified as ways to protect freedom and critical thinking.
Those truly interested in freedom and critical thinking should actually recognize two opposite points. First, parents primarily need to protect "critical thinking" in their children by ensuring that public schools (even more than private schools), through their curriculum and pedagogy, do not aim solely to replicate and reinforce the worldview of those in power.
Government bureaucrats who relish control, like Chavez, delight in public schools. After all, public schools can more easily be used to promote nationalist sentiment in children.
Even the Texas public school my first grade son attends requires him to memorize the American and Texas pledges of allegiance as part of his citizenship grade. Whatever one thinks of the activity, it must clearly be recognized as state-enforced and mandated indoctrination.
The recent opening scenes of the movie Joyeux Noel provide us with a sobering reminder of ways such indoctrinating nationalism can spin out of control. The movie begins by showing German, French and English school children quoting each country's pre-World War I textbooks about the evil flaws of enemy nationalities. Examples of how countries use public schools to indoctrinate children into political ideologies could easily be multiplied.
The second point citizens who value "critical thinking" and "freedom" must remember is that these ideals are best protected when parents enjoy well-protected rights to choose private or home schools. The open competition of worldviews promoted by allowing private and home schooling helps foster freedom and diversity of thought.
Not surprisingly, the emergence of young forms of democracy in countries such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Ukraine went hand-in hand with the legalization of home and private schooling. In other words, countries and educational systems that give wide freedoms to private and home schooling and support parental choice also tend to exhibit more respect for a range of human rights such as freedom of speech, conscience and religion.
In contrast, highly centralized and repressive political states, often communist or totalitarian (e.g., China, Vietnam, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Iran), outlaw home and private schooling and mandate public school attendance for all.
In light of these realities, we need to protect parental freedom and the freedom of private and home schools. They can play a crucial role in helping us raise up children with enough courage to think critically about and challenge the "truth" told by the controlling Hugo Chavez's of the world.
Perry L. Glanzer teaches in the Department of Church and State and the School of Education at Baylor University.
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