I missed this while it was happening, but it got some attention in the NYT today. New Hampshire has enacted a law that seems to give parents unilateral power to line-item veto their kids’ curriculum in public schools. The law looks like a can of worms, because the parents’ substitute material has to be “sufficient to enable the child to meet state requirements for education in the particular subject area“. Here’s some text from the state’s science curriculum framework:

Science is not a matter of belief; rather, it is a matter of conclusive evidence that can be subjected to the test of observation, reasoning and peer review….

The science is based on two fundamental assumptions:

1. A naturalistic explanation is sufficient to account for the functioning of the universe.

2. The universe can be understood using logic and rational thinking.

It’s easy to imagine a parent who finds these offensive, and hard to imagine what could replace them that is both different and the same enough to satisfy them if they are viewed as “state requirements”. Perhaps “state requirements” for science is something content-free, like “X classroom hours of instruction labeled science“. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds in practice.

However it goes forward, the idea is simply stupefying, figuratively (for me) and literally (for the kids). It’s right that parents have a lot of power over their children, but there are rights they don’t have, like physically abusing them and denying them adequate nutrition. Maybe Plato was wrong about the relative importance of what you eat and what you think. The idea that someone educated twenty or thirty years ago knows everything that should be known by someone in school today is a spectacularly reactionary proposition; let’s bring the world to a stop now, and forever. I guess I’m not surprised that there are parents, perhaps after too many long cold winters alone in isolated farmhouses, cruel and vengeful enough to want to make their kids as dumb as they are, or dumber. But this was passed over the governor’s veto, and in a state with a well-regarded public education system that’s cheap, has a very low dropout rate, and good test scores.

This piece of evil does raise questions about what schools can and can’t demand of students (note to self: remember to go over this with students early this semester). Assuming there is a collective public education obligation at all, with grades and some sort of testing, what can we demand of students? There would seem to be a category of facts like mathematical theorems, uninteresting and vacuous to debate, that we can just require students to recall to pass a course. But what about evolution: when we “teach it”, are we demanding that students say “organisms evolve over time through natural selection for fitness” on the exam? If a student doesn’t believe it, who gets the failing grade – her, or the teacher? – or does she have to lie to pass the course? My view is that the school has the right to force students to recount the principles and processes, and the evidence that supports the model, but all they have to believe/know is that “Miss Smith and the textbook say that the theory of evolution says A,B,C, and they offer reasons A,B,C for saying so.” The words in italics are tacit and easy for students to miss, and I think we owe it to them to point out that they are assumed as part of any exam answer and almost any lecture even though we don’t say them every time. After all, we can teach classical Greek theology without worrying about seeming to tell students that Zeus is the source of lightning, or even that there is a literal Zeus.

Of course there are parents who don’t even want their kids to hear what scientists believe about evolution, or what Communists say about economics, just as theocratic states don’t want alternative religions on offer at all. I believe this view comes from a deep insecurity about whether what we believe will actually hold up against an alternative, and a natural desire to avoid starting a process that might end with me discovering I’ve been wrong about something important for a long time, or my child doing some independent thinking (and maybe going to Hell). In my father’s formulation of this childishness, “I’m glad I don’t like lemons, because if I did, I’d eat them, and I hate the things!”

I can feel my policy analysis students tightening up when we start looking at markets and what prices do, and I think their resistance is similar to what’s going in in New Hampshire, and perfectly understandable (note to self: see previous note to self): “This is starting down a path that seems to lead to valuing everything at how much money people will pay for it. I don’t want to be a person who believes that, but the prof has been doing this for a long time and I don’t think I’m quick enough, or know enough, to get off the path by arguing with him if it leads where it seems to be going. [Furthermore, I have no idea how delicate his ego is nor how vengeful he is when students push back.]“ This condition is not the level of arousal and curiosity that leads to learning, it is a state of fear that arrests it. It seems to help to recognize it explicitly in the classroom, but it’s really hard to reassure adults who feel the earth moving under them in many ways, including very scary ways (factory closing? job lost? house foreclosed? priests and coaches abusing children? the president is going to be either a member of a weird cult, or a black guy who talks better than anyone I ever met, or a serial adulterer? my daughter what? …I want the world to be the way it was when I felt like I could deal with it!).

I think I understand the pain of the Granite State citizens who have grasped at this very ill-advised device for reassurance and comfort. It’s a rare political leader who can guide them to a more adaptive response; I hope they get one, because this little cry of anguish may be the source of a world of hurt for a lot of kids who deserve better.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.