March 2, 2022 // Perspective
When I was in high school, my English class read Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” in an edition that showed Daphne in the altogether, as she was transformed into a laurel tree.
The principal caused a minor flap when he directed us to use a different version. Nowadays that instruction would land him in federal court.
The issue of what children can read has taken on cultural and political significance lately. The Washington Post reports that “at least 27 states are considering legislation this year that would limit how race, and in some cases gender, can be taught in schools.”
Alongside disputes over the curriculum, we see efforts to remove controversial books from school libraries. There is a lot of pearl-clutching on the left over these conflicts. Terry McAuliffe, running for governor of Virginia last fall, said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
The idea that parents should venture to instruct school boards, or worse, that legislatures should wade into the business of teaching, somehow upsets the natural order of things. I’d like to make a few observations that we might keep in mind in this discussion.
First, this is not a free speech problem. The First Amendment forbids the government to regulate the content of speech by private parties. But this regime doesn’t make sense for speech by the government.
Government speech necessarily takes one point of view (e.g., in favor of immigration or higher taxes) and rejects others. The way we control government speech is by voting the speaker out of office.
Public schools are run by the government, and they have always taken a particular point of view. McGuffey Readers, widely assigned in the 19th century, taught early Americans a set of Calvinist values: piety, righteousness, honesty, industry.
Horace Mann, the father of the common school movement, proposed bringing together students from a variety of backgrounds and teaching them principles of character appropriate for a free society. The Pledge of Allegiance that children recite today is designed to promote the value of patriotism.
Second, a public school teacher works for the government. When she is on the job, she can’t claim the same First Amendment freedom a private citizen has. She may want to design a class around the 1619 Project or ask the library to purchase “Melissa” (an Alex Gino book about a transgender girl in fourth grade). Those may well be condign lessons for her students.
But government speech is subject to democratic control. It is both natural and appropriate that the legislature should weigh in on how we teach about race and gender.
And because the ultimate authority in a democracy lies with citizens, it is equally fitting that parents should speak to teachers, and if need be, to school boards about what they want their children to learn.
Third, if we look at the problem from the other side of the classroom, we reach the same conclusion.
Last fall, a group of students and educators sued Oklahoma to enjoin a law governing the teaching of race and gender in public schools. The law violated the First Amendment, they said, because it would “rob (them) of the information, ideas, and instructional approaches … essential to the preservation of America’s democratic system.”
But as I said above, when the government speaks, it necessarily takes a point of view. That’s how a democracy works.
It would turn the system upside down if we allowed courts to order government employees to put forward a different and competing set of ideas. It would be particularly undemocratic to do this at the behest of a group who are not yet allowed to vote.
Mind you, I’ve said nothing about what we should be teaching. Only that this is a matter for the people to decide, not courts or bureaucrats or teenagers.
Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @CatholicPres. Catholic University’s website is www.cua.edu.
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