There is no challenge more important or urgent today than the education of the young. Specifically, the great three-part question of our time is: by whom, in what, and how are our children to be educated?
This question has, of course, been a principal concern of philosophers throughout history. Socrates, for instance, captured something central to the human experience when he asked rhetorically in Book II of Plato’s Republic, “Don’t you know that the beginning is most important part of every work and that this is especially so with anything young and tender? For at that stage it’s most plastic, and each thing assimilates itself to the model who stamp anyone wishes to give to it.”
Socrates’s query is a vital one that every society throughout human history has taken up as central to its existence and wellbeing. This is especially true of how we teach history, and the history of our nation in particular. It makes a difference, for instance, whether a nation’s children are taught to hate or to love their country. History teaches us that a nation which hates itself cannot stand.
The Fundamental Issue of Our Time—Redux
As we all know from the past eighteen months, there has been a low-grade civil war in the United States over the tripartite question of in what, by whom, and how America’s children are to be educated.
We’ve all seen the videos of school board meetings around the country erupting into pitched verbal battles. Parents are outraged and in a revolutionary state of mind, while the Education Establishment is doubling down on promoting its extremist, far left-wing agenda.
On the “what” question, Americans have debated the history of America’s past over the course of the last couple of years. The proponents of The New York Times’s 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory have, for instance, taught America’s children that the United States is and always has been a systemically racist nation, which means that all of its core religious, cultural, political, and economic institutions are immoral. By contrast, the opponents of The 1619 Project and CRT want their children taught a history that is both true and patriotic; they want their children to learn what is good about America before they learn about its vices.
On the “how” question, Americans have debated whether instruction should be online or in-person since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And if classes are in-person, should teachers and students be required to wear face-hiding and voice-distorting masks? The teachers and their unions have supported teaching their classes online, while most parents want their kids in school and maskless. (Consider what it means to teach young children how to read with a mask on!)
Finally, the question of “who” should teach our children has emerged as probably the single most important cultural-political question of our time. The proponents of the government school system believe that government-trained and government-certified teachers using government-designed curricula should be teaching America’s children. Implied in this argument is the assumption that government—and only the government—should have the right and authority to educate the young.
Historically and philosophically, the case for government schooling was first made by Socrates, who claimed that “we must supervise the makers of tales; and if they make a fine tale, it must be approved, but if it’s not, it must be rejected.” In other words, the rulers of society (the “we”) must design, control, oversee, and approve or disapprove the curriculum used for all children.
Socrates’s position, though having some philosophic defenders throughout history, did not become popular until the twentieth century when “progressives” and totalitarians of the so-called “common good” school of Left- and Right-wing thought adopted and put it into practice.
The debate over who should educate children, or at least the debate over who should have the right and authority to determine in what and how children should be educated, has been given new life in this country in recent years.
What we might call the “Socratic” position on education was expressed recently by Terry McAuliffe who, in his election campaign for governor of Virginia, infamously said “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
After McAuliffe’s career-ending bloviation, his Education Establishment fellow travelers rushed to his defense. One Washington Post article announced that parents may think they “have the right to shape their kids’ school curriculum, but “they don’t!” At Politico, three professors declared that the idea of “parental rights” was a “dangerous legal illusion.” In the most laughably absurd article of the bunch, a writer at NBC News mocked the proposition that parents have the right to determine the cognitive content of their children’s minds. Parents, she continued, should “keep their noses out of school curricula.” That role should be left to the experts, namely, the Education Ruling Class.
And then, of course, we come to highest expression of twenty-first century Socratism as expressed in the views of Melissa Harris-Perry, who said . . .
Ms. Harris-Perry sums up quite nicely the “common good” theory education, which is precisely what parents have been rejecting in this country for the past couple of years.
The Fundamental Question
At the heart of the parent eruptions that have taken place at school board meetings all around the United States is one grand question: Who should have the final say in determining what children learn in taxpayer-funded schools, parents or government officials?
All of the debates over Critical Race Theory, Critical Gender Theory, pronouns, bathrooms, pedophilic pornography, mask and vaccine mandates, online learning, etc. are secondary and superficial relative to the “who shall educate the children?” question. And beneath this fundamental question are even deeper questions about the rights of parents and children, which I have been addressing in this series of essays. (In the weeks ahead, I will be writing on children’s rights and education.)
In some way and on some level, virtually all parents believe that they do or should have the ultimate right to determine what and how their children are taught and by whom. Having been denied this indispensable right, America’s moms and dads are now rising up to protest the violation of their most basic human right qua parents. Whether they know it or not, this is what they’ve been fighting for.
But here is the problem: this right is so fundamental to the human experience and it has seemed so obviously self-evident to people around the world through all time that it has never really been properly explained, defended, or recognized.
Fast forward now to this series of essays, which has attempted to go to the root of the issue.
The broader purpose of this series so far has been to demonstrate philosophically that parents—and only parents—have the sole right and authority to determine in what, by whom, and how their children shall be educated. (I shall explain what this principle means for government schooling at some point in the near future.)
My principal concern in this particular essay is to explain how and why parents must assume the responsibility to control the education of their children.
Applying Parental Rights to Education
Earlier essays in this series (e.g., “The Fundamental Issue of Our Time,” “Is There a Right to an Education,” “The Role of Rights in a Free Society,” “Education and the Rights of Children and Parents,” “The Redneck Guide to Parents Rights” and “Parental Rights Defined and Defended”) examined how the principle of individual rights applies to parents and their rights qua parents and, more specifically, how those parental rights apply to the education of their children.
My argument has been clear and consistent: as a result of having a right to their children, parents also have certain jurisdictional rights over their children, which means that they have a right to raise their children according to their values without the interference of other individuals or the State. This is especially true with regard to education.
I consider parental rights to and over their children to be contextually absolute and inalienable, which means they must be respected and protected. To be more precise: a parent’s right to and over his or her child is absolute and inalienable relative to third parties but is contextually relative to the child’s right to life.
In a properly constructed free society dedicated to protecting the rights of individuals, parents can expect and demand from their neighbors and the government a large sphere of autonomy and noninterference when it comes to raising and educating their children. Individuals will and do disagree about how to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate children, but no one—including the State—has a right to force parents to raise their children in a manner of which the parents disapprove.
The government of a free society cannot and should not force its particular conception of the “good” on parents and their children. Education must be the special preserve of parents and, ultimately, over time, of the child himself.
American courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court in particular, have deemed a parent’s right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and education of one’s children a fundamental right deserving of “heightened protection against government interference (Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 .”
Think about what it would mean to deny parents the fundamental right to educate their children on the grounds that the State has a right to ensure that all children are educated according to State standards.
Take the following hypothetical.
Imagine a married couple who not only homeschool their children but give them a world-class education by virtually any standard. The children have been reading and reciting classical texts their whole lives, and they’ve been trained to a high degree in maths and sciences. Their SAT scores are all above 1500. Each child in the family plays two instruments. (I have known many such families.) Imagine further that the parents refuse to provide the State with documentation of what and how their children are being educated on the grounds that the State has no moral right to monitor, control, or regulate how that parent’s child is being educated.
Consider another hypothetical.
Imagine a married couple without college degrees who have taught their children the three Rs (i.e., “readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic) to a level of basic competency necessary to function in society. When each of the couples’ three children turns 14, their formal schooling ends and they begin apprenticing on their father’s commercial fishing boat. By the time each child is 18, they have learned the trade of commercial fishing and now have the right and the resources to lease their own trawler and to start careers as fishermen. Likewise, the parents refuse to prove to the government that their children have been educated according to State standards.
How should the State treat both sets of parents?
Under these circumstances, does the State have a compelling interest to arrest and imprison the parents and to put the children in foster care under its truancy laws? Is it right and good that government officials should be able to legitimately arrest, fine, and imprison the first set of parents for the crime of giving their children a world class education or the second set of parents for giving their children a basic education and a trade they can use for the rest of their lives?
The answer in both cases must be obviously “no” (or “hell no”), at least not if you choose to live in a free society that recognizes and respects the rights of parents to and over their children.
In a free and just society, parents must have the right to either educate their children themselves or to arrange for their children’s education with a third party without any supervision or oversight from the State. Thus, it would be a gross violation of the parents’ rights for the State to attempt to enter the home or, worse yet, to remove a child from a home because the State does not approve of certain kinds of education.
The Proper Role of Government in Parental Rights
Still, this can’t be the whole story.
A free and just society must have objective laws and policies in place that protect the rights of children when they’re violated by one or both parents. If parents fail to protect their child’s right to life—indeed, if they demonstrably abuse their child physically or cognitively—the government of a free society does then have a compelling claim to serve as the agent-protector of the child’s rights. (What that rights-violating abuse would be when it comes to parents and children is a very complex topic in the philosophy of law, which is beyond the reach of this essay.)
Generally speaking, though, the government’s role vis-à-vis children—indeed, its only role—must be strictly negative (as it is with adults): i.e., to protect children from objectively demonstrable physical and cognitive abuse. A proper government in a free society must have the authority to protect children from those who would deny a child’s right and ability to grow into a rational, self-governing individual.
The State cannot force parents to feed their children certain kinds of foods, dress them in certain kinds of clothes, shelter them in certain kinds of domiciles, or educate them in a particular way, but it can remove children from homes where they are being starved or maimed, or where they are being abused cognitively.
Parents have a right to feed their children broccoli against the child’s cries of disgust or red meat against the howls of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), but they do not have a right to feed their children poison.
Not only do parents have natural rights to and over their children, they also have natural responsibilities connected to their rights that should be recognized in the legal system of a free society. These moral responsibilities go beyond the negative responsibility to not violate the rights of their child. Parents also have positive responsibilities connected to the sustenance, rearing, and education of their children.
Parents have a moral responsibility to feed, clothe, and shelter their child, i.e., to sustain a child’s right to life. They also have a moral responsibility to ensure their child receives an education (e.g., to communicate verbally) sufficient to the minimal requirements for self-governance.
These responsibilities are inseparable from and go hand-in-hand with their rights as parents and they are just as important.
Because they have created and chosen to bring into the world a new human being and because that child is initially in a state of total dependency, parents must assume and fulfill certain moral obligations—chosen obligations—to their child. In fact, in some cases, it should be a crime for parents to not assume their parental responsibilities.
The moral responsibilities of parenthood are among the most important and challenging obligations that any individual can assume in a lifetime. Parents have a responsibility to their children that can, under certain limited and defined circumstances, be enforced by the State, that is, to ensure that the child is not denied the physical and mental means or ability to live and to achieve some “good” over time—a “good” ultimately chosen by the child.
From whence derives this responsibility, and what, if anything, should happen to those parents who do not fulfill their parental responsibilities? And how can this natural responsibility be recognized in the law?
The proper lens through which to view the unique relationship between parents and children and the legal means by which to sort out their mutually reinforcing rights and responsibilities is the language of contracts.
By virtue of their choice to create and give birth to a new human being and given the nature of their creation (i.e., a dependent, rights-bearing being), parents enter into a tacit moral agreement with each other by which they assume the responsibility to sustain, nurture, protect, and educate their child into adulthood.
The right to create in this context does not, however, include the right to destroy or maim in the same way that a property owner can destroy a house that he has built. Indeed, quite the opposite is true.
By choosing to create and bring a child into the world, parents assume certain fiduciary obligations that are analogous to a particular kind of contract recognized in law: third-party beneficiary contracts. As third-party beneficiaries, children are not a party to the contract, but they are the intended beneficiary of the contract—a contract between a mother and a father.
In order for the parents’ limited property right to and over their child to be recognized and protected by the government, they must also enter into a tacit legal agreement with the government, the purpose of which is to guarantee the parents’ exclusive “possession” claim to their child in exchange for a promise to sustain and nourish (physically and cognitively) for a limited period of time that which they have created (i.e., a rights-bearing being).
The primary responsibility of parents is to provide their child with the physical and mental sustenance necessary to become a self-governing adult. In addition to feeding and protecting their child, parents have an obligation to ensure that their child reaches the conceptual level of human cognitive development. The paramount parental objective should be to provide the necessary means by which the child will gradually grow into a rational, independent, responsible, and productive adult.
Parents therefore have a moral and a legal obligation to sustain and nourish the body and mind of their child—which means to feed, clothe and protect their progeny; to facilitate the development of the child’s rational faculty; as well as to provide the child with some kind of education so that son or daughter can earn a livelihood as an adult.
Ultimately, the primary moral responsibility of parents is to provide their child with a home environment that is benevolent and rational—one that equips the child to act on his or her own judgment so that they can eventually govern themselves. This means that parents have a moral responsibility to provide their child with, at the very least, some minimal education so that said child can live as a rational, rights-respecting adult. Such a minimal requirement would include the parent providing their child with the ability to speak, read, and write in the language of the place in which they reside.
It is also important to note that the parent–child relationship and the tacit contract that binds it together evolves over the course of time. At first, the parents bear full responsibility for the child’s well-being and the child owes its parents nothing morally. In legal terms, if the parents default on their tacit contract with their child—if they refuse to provide the child with the means to life—if in effect they commit not only criminal fraud but assault and battery or worse, the government then should have the authority to serve as the child’s temporary representative or agent.
The government of a free society must have the authority and the right to protect children from abusive or criminally negligent parents, and it can represent the them in a suit against the parents for a violation of the child’s rights.
Over time, however, parental responsibilities recede and the responsibilities of children increase—responsibilities for their own well-being and responsibilities to respect the property rights of their parents (e.g., the parent who tells his daughter, “if you live in my home, you must respect my rules”). Majority-age children also have a moral, though not a legally enforceable, responsibility to respect their parents for the good the parents have done them.
As I’ve suggested already, the topic of this essay—i.e., the responsibilities of parents—is difficult and complex. What I have attempted to do here is to provide a general outline of how to think about the issue. I’ve left many important questions unanswered. In the next essay, I shall take up the question of children’s rights, which I hope will go a long way to answering many of your concerns.
Excellent and succinct description of what should be the parent's relationship to their children and the state's only responsibility for the welfare of children. I have always believed it is most important to state the principles and the ideal first whenever one is trying to solve a difficult problem and that is exactly what you are doing.