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School Choice and Viewpoint Diversity: Competing Visions. A Dialogue Between Greg Forster and Robert Pondiscio (Part 2)

This blog is part of our new “Heterodox Dialogues” series, which models constructive disagreement among authors who hold opposing or conflicting views. Through an exchange of essays, authors refine their perspectives, find constructive compromises, and offer new solutions.

In part 1 of this dialogue, Robert Pondiscio and Greg Forster debated the relationship between school choice and viewpoint diversity in K-12 education. Forster, a school choice advocate, argues that choice would increase viewpoint diversity, while Pondiscio, also a school choice proponent, argues that choice must be understood in the additional context of educational norms that foster civic virtue.

Forster’s Take A Response to Pondiscio: Respecting the Rights of Cultural-Minority Parents

I’m honored to be exchanging views with Robert Pondiscio, for whose long career working to improve education I have the highest respect.

Robert frames his response to my essay with a statement that implicitly attributes to me several views I do not hold, and his response regularly refers back to this initial straw man. He writes: “Offering school choice as a universal solution to all that ails American education has become a familiar and reflexive argument among libertarians for whom there is no such thing as a good ‘government school’ and no problem that choice can’t fix.” I did not offer school choice as a “universal solution to all that ails American education,” I am not and have never been a libertarian, and I did not say that there were no good government schools. In fact, all the government schools I attended, from kindergarten through the University of Virginia, were reasonably good — although they did not do a good job of handling viewpoint diversity in the classroom.

Robert seems to think he is disagreeing with me when he says that “viewpoint diversity within schools, not merely between them, is indispensable,” but that is exactly what I said in my essay. My argument is that political conflict is undermining schools’ — especially public schools’ — ability to provide this. I support choice not only because it is necessary to serve students who have diverse needs and preserve a diverse society — because pushing all families into culturally homogenized schools, in obedience to what Charles Glenn calls “the myth of the common school,” entails the suppression of cultural minorities — but also because it is necessary even to preserve viewpoint diversity within the classroom. The attempt to force families that do not share one another’s beliefs and educational priorities to share culturally homogenized schools breaks the bond of trust between parents and schools, and forces parents into a permanent state of political war (such as the one we are now experiencing over critical race theory) for control of the schools that are forming their children. Teachers and schools will not feel safe allowing real viewpoint diversity to happen in their classrooms unless they know parents trust and support them.

Hence, Robert is mistaken to attribute to me a lack of concern for what goes on inside the public school system. It is precisely there that my proposed policy would have the biggest positive impact. That is where the educational damage done by political conflict is concentrated.

As an alternative to my approach, Robert points to a globally common practice in which the government funds, and exercises a high degree of control over, multiple school systems that are diverse in one respect (religion), or at best a few respects, but are in other respects culturally homogenized by the government in the name of “quality control” and/or preserving social peace. But, as Glenn found when he studied schools around the world, the attempt to use political power to culturally homogenize schools is no less divisive when it is applied to schools that are diverse in their theological commitments, and can be more so. It certainly would be here.

This is also my response to Robert’s view that I am indifferent to shared, public, democratic concerns in education. The global approach to which he draws our attention is typical of countries that do not share the unique commitment to cultural diversity that is inherent in the American experiment in equality and freedom. I want an education system that aligns with our shared, public, democratic commitment to respecting the rights of cultural-minority parents, as opposed to the power of the elite class among the dominant culture, who are always so sure they know how to educate the children of cultural minorities better than their parents do.

I will stipulate that schools in the current system are not homogenized in areas like pedagogical technique. My point, as I think is clear in the original essay, is about cultural homogenization — Glenn’s “myth of the common school.” As a matter of structural logic and of plain historical record, our current system was designed with the goal of cultural homogeneity.

I did not say that switching schools was easy. But having the option to do so, however difficult, is essential to removing coercive force from the center of the educational relationship: establishing trust between parents and schools. And if school choice programs were expanded on the scale I would prefer to see, switching would get a lot easier as new schools were created.

Even though I am not libertarian, I am convinced by logic, history, and scientific study alike that if we create an educational system that respects the right of cultural-minority parents to control the education of their children, they would not raise their children to be narrow-minded, democratically ignorant bigots. They would expose their children to multiple viewpoints, and cultivate viewpoint diversity in their classrooms, much more than we do now. And they would teach their children to respect the rights of others, just as we have respected theirs. This is why I believe the kind of culturally diverse society George Washington envisioned in his “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport” is possible, and I do not see on what other grounds such a society can be built.

Pondiscio’s Take A Final Response to Forster

In the final analysis, Greg Forster and I are intellectual allies and school choice proponents. That we see different advantages, uses, and effects of choice matters less than our broad agreement that school choice would be a net positive for students, families, education, and America at large. It’s important to state this at the outset, lest my concluding comments be read as a critique of school choice. But thoughtful advocacy, as distinct from mere activism or mindless cheerleading, does not shy away from complexity or refuse to acknowledge potential side effects. If we wish to advocate for a laissez-faire vision of choice, as Forster does, it is incumbent upon us to acknowledge, not elide, its weaknesses. Nor can we pretend the foreseeable downside effects do not exist or trust they will resolve themselves. This obligation to be clear-eyed and candid falls particularly upon those of us who advocate for choice, which is self-defeating if it is not informed choice.

I don’t believe I accused Greg of being a libertarian, but I’m surprised at his eagerness to distance himself from a venerable intellectual tradition. But regardless of the political label he prefers, his position and argument is distinctly libertarian, in both its suspicion of any productive role for government in education (if he sees one, he offers no hint) and his assumption that a reverence for viewpoint diversity will spring organically from schools of choice. Despite his insistence that choice “would expose their children to multiple viewpoints, and cultivate viewpoint diversity in their classrooms, much more than we do now,” he offers no suggestion as to what will cause its flowering.

If “political conflict is undermining schools’ ability to provide” viewpoint diversity, it is simply lost upon me — and I suspect our readers — the means by which it will take root and grow if we explicitly encourage families to seek the fellowship of like-minded souls in enclaves of intellectual monoculture for the education of their children. Those of us who are choice advocates need to at least acknowledge this risk and describe our plans to address it. That is, assuming we regard it as a risk at all. Forster does not; I do.

To be clear, I hear Forster saying that viewpoint diversity matters. I just don’t see any evidence of it in the picture he paints. It just doesn’t make sense: If our differences on race, religion, or politics are so deep and intractable as to make school choice the answer, what magic force will prompt a sudden patience for divergent views once we distance ourselves from those who hold them? Nowhere in Forster’s original essay or response to mine does he explain the mechanism. My fear is that Forster’s vision of choice is not preparation for citizenship in a diverse nation. It is preparation for separatism, hostility, and contempt. This is a grave thing to ignore in a country as diverse and divided as the U.S.

Forster is no doubt correct to say teachers and schools “will not feel safe allowing real viewpoint diversity to happen in the classroom unless they know parents trust and support them.” But Forster wants parents with divergent views to decamp to schools where the culture, curriculum, and presumably teachers are aligned with their views. This is literally the opposite of encouraging viewpoint diversity — unless he means encouraging it to leave.

While I cannot claim direct experience observing the school systems of other nations, it is my impression from those who have, such as Dr. Ashley Berner, that Forster is incorrect to claim other nations ”do not share the unique commitment to cultural diversity” of the U.S. and therefore we can learn nothing from them. The heterogeneous populations of countries as different as Belgium, the Netherlands, Israel, and Indonesia is why they practice educational pluralism.

In the U.S., our Constitution, which delegates control of education to the states, precludes the adoption of anything like the national curricula common to other countries. As I discussed in my previous reply, this makes it unlikely we will ever see the wholesale adoption of the precise pluralism models common to them: a diverse collection of schools, public and privately run, all funded by government dollars but required to teach a national curriculum. This does not make choice or pluralism a nonstarter in the U.S. But it does require an explicit commitment to shared knowledge and viewpoint diversity as an educational norm and a civic virtue in schools of choice.

This, in sum, is the Achilles heel of Forster’s vision: his seeming lack of curiosity or concern about classroom practice and the public purpose of education. To Forster’s way of thinking, it is enough to normalize choice, set parents free, and let the market provide. But despite our shared enthusiasm for choice and giving parents far greater control over the education of their children, there is a public dimension of education in which we all have a stake. It cannot go unattended. “Schooling in a democracy is not just schooling,” E.D. Hirsch Jr. has noted. “It’s also citizen-making.” An essential outcome of public education in a diverse country must be social cohesion. It requires an explicit moral commitment to tolerance, intellectual rigor, and — as much as it may rub free-market purists the wrong way — at least some commitment to teaching a common body of knowledge, which as Hirsch has tirelessly demonstrated is an essential component of nationhood and its “speech community.” Successful nations can have more than one language, but “it’s the common shared, often unspoken background knowledge and values that ultimately enable citizens to understand one another and function effectively,” Hirsch wrote. Forster, however, is content to roll the dice and assume that will take care of itself. I do not share this confidence.

I am pleased to have Greg Forster on the side of school choice, mostly. Choice needs all the friends it can get. It’s asking a lot of Americans to accept an entirely new paradigm for educating our children, breaking the stubborn weld that for generations has allowed ZIP code and ZIP code alone to determine where the vast majority of our children go to school, and the conditions under which they are treated and taught. But Forster does choice no favors by promoting it as a means of avoiding contact with divergent opinions. It can and must be far richer and more nourishing than that for both mind and soul. Regardless of the tradition or model of school one chooses, we have something like a sacred obligation to prepare the next generation of citizens — and every generation — to grapple honestly and in good faith with our differences, not avoid them.

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