Core Philosophy

Public Schools Exacerbate the Culture Wars

Written by Dr. Matt Bateman on November 18, 2021

One of the strongest and most persistent arguments for compulsory public schools has always been that they foster cultural and civic unity. This idea has been around in America as a serious policy argument since at least the 19th century, with echoes of it in the Founders' writings. And there are versions of it, both in theory and practice, going back to Antiquity.

But, looking around at the US today, it seems that in fact, they accomplish the opposite. Public schools are a major, maybe the major force for division in US society.

Race. Evolution. Sexuality. Patriotism. Covid. For a century our schools have been loci of acrimonious civic controversy.

Why? Why is it that an institution that is supposed to serve as the common ground and melting pot of culture is instead the cause of fractiousness?

America is a place where controversy thrives. This is a good thing. And this doesn’t mean that we aren’t engaged in a common project or that we don’t share a common humanity. We do. But public schools skew this dynamic: they maximize controversy and minimize common ground. They accomplish this not by intent, but by creating a contentious dynamic:

  1. Public schools are a strong, quasi-coercive default for where to send your children to school.
  2. Parents are sensitive about the well-being of their children. One is least likely to compromise, defer, or concede with respect to one’s children.

The very grounds on which we are quasi-forcibly brought together are also the grounds on which we are maybe the least likely to see eye to eye.

The very obvious point that parents are sensitive about their children is not something we are conscious of in the context of public schools. Children are politically treated as table stakes, when every parent treats them as representing the highest possible stakes. Racial justice, science and religion, public health—inevitably, and not at all unreasonably, these issues become issues of education. But where division exists and when the ground shifts beneath our feet, we don’t want our children to be in the vanguard. Public schools force children to be in the vanguard.

People who very much disagree on the upbringing of their children, all must “agree” to send their children to the same place. This is not a good recipe for objective thought, intentional change, or civic compromise.

And what determines who wins? That is, how are the schools run? It’s not even clear. Public schools are controlled by ossified, semi-democratic bureaucracies that are accountable to… whom? Legislators? Voters and taxpayers generally?

Public schools drive parents to dig in their heels. Things that they might typically take thoughtfully and in time are turned into urgent, sensitive matters of custodianship, where one must battle those who are opposed and who are equally activated and sensitized. Public schools draft parents into the culture wars.

The two most recent examples are CRT and covid. Neither of these discourses would be as toxic if it wasn’t for how they played out in public schools. Indeed, covid is, by and large, a solved issue in non-public schools. And, though controversy over semi-recent leftist takes on race very much exist in private schools, the toxicity is playing itself out much more quickly.

Mechanisms that involve parental choice are less divisive than legislation and contentious board meetings. These controversies live on in school boards, in anti-CRT legislation, in public school vaccine/mask/distancing/etc. mandates, in union posturing over health and safety. That is, they thrive in the operating structure of zip-code-default public schools.

Public schools are structurally, even if not by intent, an attempt to force premature agreement using people’s children as pawns.

If you had to come up with a strategy to polarize positions, nurse toxicity, acrimony, could you do better than this?

I’ve hedged “force” and used “quasi” twice above because there are, of course, outs. There is private school, homeschooling, and, increasingly, charters and vouchers. The wealthy and/or committed can opt out. But the attractor basin is very real and very much institutionalized in the law. Along many dimensions of cost, it’s costly to opt out and cheap to opt in. This means that it’s expensive to avoid a circumstance where parenting is coextensive with being a culture warrior.

To the extent that there is a default option—which is definitely, sort of the case—it warps responsibility. Instead of choosing, say, a school, you are now choosing your degree of participation in an ugly, circuitous battle to shape the approach of the default school. Again, the point is not intent. In intent, public schools are meant to promote unity, not division!

This is a paradigmatic case of a structural issue. Public schools structurally are places that surface controversy and are governed by win-lose, zero-sum dynamics.

This is why school choice is so important. It’s structurally better.

Parents need to be able to think about and make choices about their children’s education. Thought and choice go together. Conversely, a lack of responsibility corrupts thought; it forces thought into dysfunctional channels.

The current approach to public education undermines choice, corrupts thought, and thereby escalates the culture wars whenever they impinge upon the upbringing of children—which is often, since the upbringing of children is and ought to be intensely value-laden.

Dr. Matt Bateman

Dr. Matt Bateman earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught and continued his research at Franklin and Marshall College in the Department of Psychology, on topics ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary theory to philosophy, before joining the LePort Schools as Director of Curriculum and Pedagogy in 2014.

In 2016, Dr. Matt Bateman became a founding member of Higher Ground Education. He is now Vice President of Pedagogy for Higher Ground and the Executive Director of Montessorium.