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The Real Cause of Indoctrination in Schools

Proposed solutions to classroom indoctrination too often overlook and reinforce the problem’s root cause.

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At school board meetings across America, parents have spoken out about the promotion of ideological content in public school classrooms. They complain about the teaching of “woke” ideas about race and gender, as early as elementary school, which they disagree with or think are age-inappropriate. Many parents and concerned citizens are looking for ways to fight back against this trend. And activists have offered a banner for them to take up: the idea of “parents’ rights.”

But few involved in this campaign or concerned about this issue understand the real source of the problem. It is not simply that advocates of one particular ideology have taken over many of the public schools. And the demand to exert “parents’ rights,” when these are taken to include “rights” to do things like veto library books or enforce changes to the curriculum, does not address the root of the problem but in fact entrenches it. The cause of today’s problems lies in a fundamental element of the public school system itself. To achieve a lasting solution, we need to understand this root cause.

The problem many are appropriately concerned about is that public schools teach children ideas that their parents disagree with. It’s a serious problem inextricable from the public school system. If a situation like this occurred in a private school, summer camp, or any other private organization, parents might well be upset if they found the ideas particularly objectionable and did not have reason to anticipate their inclusion. But they would have recourse to a simple solution: Stop dealing with the organization. A private business has the right to decide what ideas to promote, and a parent has the right to decide whether or not to patronize that business.

But no one is allowed to decide whether or not to fund the public school system. Even parents who send their children to private schools or homeschool them are forced to subsidize the public schools through taxes. For many parents there is no feasible financial option other than sending their children to the local public school. So when a public school decides to teach “woke” ideas, those ideas are imposed on the children whether their parents approve or not — and at the parents’ own expense.

Changing the content of the public school curriculum does not resolve the fundamental issue here. If a public school taught conservative ideas about marriage and family — like the view that marriage can only be between one man and one woman, or that everyone must have children — instead of “woke” gender ideas, this would wrongfully impose ideological content against the wishes of non-conservative parents for exactly the same reasons. The only difference would be that some of the parents who were upset about “woke” ideas would now be happy with their school’s curriculum, while the parents who were happy with the “woke” curriculum would now be the ones forced to send their children to learn ideas they disagreed with.

The particular content of the ideas is not the relevant issue here; what’s relevant is the principle that it’s wrong to force people to fund and send their children to attend schools that promote ideas they disagree with.

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'What’s relevant is the principle that it’s wrong to force people to fund and send their children to attend schools that promote ideas they disagree with.' Click To Tweet

What about ejecting ideology from the curriculum as much as possible and adopting a “just the basic facts” approach? This is no solution, either. Every decision about what facts to teach, when to teach them and how to convey them involves judgments that not all parents will agree with.

For example, take the indispensable subject of American history. How to teach about slavery, Reconstruction, and segregation? There is widespread disagreement over when these topics should be introduced, how their causes and consequences should be described, and how large a part of the history curriculum they should occupy. These disagreements are informed by differing views about the actual history, the value of America, the importance of focusing on injustice versus focusing on achievement, how to judge historical figures who did both great and unjust things, and so on. Schools can’t just avoid these topics if they’re to teach U.S. history at all. No matter what public schools decide, any attempt to teach U.S. history will require teaching some children content that at least some of their parents object to.

No matter what curriculum a public school adopts, it will inevitably rely on money taken by force from all parents (and from all taxpayers) and use that money to teach ideas that some of them disagree with. This is an inherent feature of public schools.

'No matter what curriculum a public school adopts, it will inevitably rely on money taken by force from all parents (and from all taxpayers) and use that money to teach ideas that some of them disagree with.' Click To Tweet

But this violates the rights of parents — and of all taxpayers. In other contexts, we recognize that each of us has the right to choose what ideas we fund. We have the right to contribute to political candidates or advocacy organizations whose ideas we support — and it would be outrageous to force people to give their money to people or organizations whose ideas they oppose. Imagine being compelled to bankroll the Democratic candidate for governor when you want the Republican to win. What relevant difference could there possibly be between this scenario and one in which someone is forced to fund a school that teaches ideas they disagree with? None. Everyone genuinely concerned about rights, then, should realize that there’s something inherently rights-violating about public schools — something that can’t be solved just by changing the decision-making structure at the district office.

There is a relevant parallel to the case of religion. The First Amendment rightly prevents the government from establishing a religion or abridging people’s right to free exercise of their religious beliefs. Forcing individuals to fund a specific religious organization against their will is a violation of their rights. So is forcing parents to send their children to a specific religious school. So, also, is establishing a government-run religion whose activities are funded by taxpayers, many of whom do not believe in this religion.

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We’re used to thinking of religion as a special case, subject to considerations that don’t apply for some reason to other sorts of ideas. But there is no difference, in principle and as it pertains to the issue of rights, between religious ideas and any other ideas. If we think it’s a rights violation to set up a state-run religion whose ideas everyone is forced to fund whether or not they agree, we should take the same view of the practice of setting up a state-run school whose ideas everyone is forced to fund whether or not they agree.

Today’s controversies over ideological content in schools are just one manifestation of deep, fundamental problems inherently involved in public education. Those who are desperate for solutions need to recognize the fundamental problem and not further entrench it. To forge a path to a solution, we must be willing to confront the ways in which the problems in education that frustrate so many people today are unavoidable products of having public education — a system that injects government force into the intellectual realm. Then it will be clear that we need to advocate a move away from government controls and toward freedom in education.


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Sam Weaver

Sam Weaver, BA in English, is an associate fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute and a recipient of the Conceptual Education Fellowship.

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