Moral failure confession time: while I was a graduate student working on my doctorate, on a nearly daily basis, I committed an act that most everyone would regard as “bad.” I worked at an organization which operated a coffee pot in the lounge for its employees. The idea was that anyone who used the coffee from this particular coffee maker would drop a few coins in the tin can next to the pot to help purchase coffee and filters to keep the coffee flowing for everyone. Very early on, however, I came to realize that this procedure was never enforced, and I could take as much coffee as I liked without paying for it. Though I did feel guilty about this, I justified my theft of coffee to myself with the fact that I was a broke college student doing a poorly paid job, but the reality is, the reason I took the coffee without paying for it is that I experienced no negative consequence from my bad action. For a long time, I was able to shove the nagging guilt aside, but I am happy to report that before I left that job, I attempted to make amends by buying several large tins of coffee for the office. Perhaps this act made up for what I had taken, but honestly, I’m not sure.
It seems self-evident that I ought to feel guilty for taking coffee without paying for it, but it’s not self-evident exactly why I should I feel guilty. Our intuition about the wrongness of my action is that I’ve violated an implied contract. There is a tacit social agreement by everyone who uses the coffee pot to offer compensation for what they take, and when I take coffee without offering compensation, I am in violation of this contract. In this case, I am what philosophers and economists refer to as a free rider, a person who obtains a share of a common good without sufficiently contributing to that good. Free riders seem to violate our sense of fair play, which is why we tend to frown on people like me in the workplace. Nobody likes a freeloader.
Perhaps aside from the immorality of free-riding is the idea of its irrationality. On first glance, the easiest argument against free-riding is, “If everybody else adopted the same attitude about the coffee as I have, very quickly the shared collective good of the communal coffee pot would expire, and then no one would get coffee.” If I value the lounge coffee pot, it is, then, in my rational interest, to contribute meaningfully to the coffee fund. A rational person recognizes that her participation is necessary in order to have a shared good. Another consideration involves recognizing that one feature of rationality is consistency, and the good life is one marked with internal consistency. It is impossible to be a rationally consistent person and remain a free-rider, because it is inconsistent to expect other people to constantly pay for a collective good while refusing to do so oneself.
A lot of ink has been spilled over the evil, irrational free rider, and lately I’ve been taking these ideas into account as I try to make a decision about the direction my family is headed. My oldest daughter is headed to kindergarten this year, and as any responsible parent does, I’ve been examining all the options for her education, trying to figure out what form of education would produce the best possible outcome in her life. One very compelling option is to begin my daughter in a home school program. There are a number of reasons this seems really attractive, however I do worry that the free-rider problem bears consideration as I opt out of the public school system in our county. Given my civic commitments, in the long run, it appears that educating my children at home is irrational, and perhaps it even might be immoral–though not a mortal sin, to be sure.
Isn’t Homeschooling Best? So What’s the Hangup?
Homeschool advocates in the United States are fanatically trumpeting from the mountaintops the virtues of educating one’s children at home, and their arguments are fairly compelling (on a personal level, some of the smartest people I’ve ever met were homeschooled or are homeschooling their children). They’ll assert that studies such as this, and this clearly point to the fact that homeschooled children have far better learning outcomes than those who attend public schools. There is even evidence that suggests that homeschoolers (defying many stereotypes), are better socialized than children in public schools.
I should point out, though, that there is good reason to suspect that such data is not entirely reliable. As far as I can tell, all the empirical studies that compare learning outcomes of homeschoolers to that of public schoolers are unfairly skewed in favor of homeschooled students. Public school testing data is readily available for examination, but in order for researchers to examine the learning outcomes of students taught at home, parental permission must be obtained to collect such data. It makes sense, given the voluntary nature of the testing done on homeschoolers, mostly high-acheiving families would participate. While the results of the studies described above are impressive, it seems to me that they should be taken with a fair amount of skepticism.
But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that our brothers and sisters in the homeschooling movement are entirely correct in their assertion that home based learning produces the best sorts of social and educational outcomes for those who are homeschooled. Even if this is the case, I can’t see this as a justifying reason to remove my daughters from the public school system, as it seems to me that if we choose to do this, our family becomes free riders. There are at least two collective goods that I (and I think most western liberals) value with which a decision to avoid public education would conflict:
An Educated Populace
In an 1816 letter to Charles Yancey, Thomas Jefferson wrote that a healthy democracy is one “where the press is free, and every man is able to read.” I don’t think it a overstatement to claim Jefferson held the view that in an educated citizenry is necessary to a functioning society of self-governing individuals. From the early colonial era, Americans’ commitment to educating the young for the benefit of the community has been nearly universal. There are political, practical, and productive goods to be gained by supporting the collective good of an educated populace. Politically, an educated individual is better equipped to manage her world via the democratic vote. Practically, I think we can all agree that having a teller who can count correct change at the grocery store is a significant public good. In the realm of productivity, public education has been central in the cultivation of wealth and development in the modem era.
I can’t imagine living in the United States without a reasonably educated population, and I recognize that compulsory public education is intrinsic to our ability to live a flourishing life, as it aims to empower people to best maximize their intellectual potential. Regardless of our participation in the public school system, we all benefit from its existence. If I am truly committed to the good of an educated populace, and I daily benefit from this good, I can’t justify my lack of participation in the social convention that makes that common good possible without somehow overlooking the free rider problem. If I am to be rationally consistent with a pro-homeschooling position, I have to say that it would be best if everyone homeschool their kids, and as a former high school educator who has dealt with my share of parents, I can say with a good deal of certainty that this would have a dramatically negative effect on the collective good of an educated populace, for reasons I’m sure you can imagine. Even if I could perhaps instruct my children better than their public school teachers (I’ll admit, I have an earned doctorate, and I don’t think I could handle high school math), I still don’t think this justifies removing my children from the system outright while still reaping the benefit public education provides my family.
Conservatives frequently bemoan the lack of patriotism in younger generations of American culture, and to some degree, their critique is salient. While I’m certainly not a flag waver that tears up at Fourth of July parades, it does seem that there are some positive benefits of a sense of civic responsibility. In a flourishing life, I ought to regard my neighbors with concern and care, because we have a shared experience. Whether I recognize it or not, my community helps make up my identity, and as a result, I owe something morally to those who make up my community. A sense of civic pride and responsibility is a common good that helps us look out for one another and work toward the betterment of our shared world.
An important way that civic pride is cultivated in the United States is through the school system. Children from the community are brought together daily, and without much direct instruction about community responsibility, these schoolers’ common experience helps them build a sense of identity and loyalty to their location and those in it (if you doubt this, go to a high school football game, and you’ll get a powerful sense of how much civic pride exists even in our narcissistic, anti-patriotic age).
I don’t see that homeschooling my children can be squared with valuing the common good of civic responsibility cultivated in the school system. I can’t bemoan the lack of patriotic or civic spirit in 21st Century America on the one hand and remove my daughters from one of most powerful forces for cultivating such a spirit in their lives. If politics is important, I must be involved to the degree that my neighbors are involved, and the nucleus of that involvement is the neighborhood school.
One might fairly point out that there are trade-offs that I am making with my children’s involvement in the public school system, provided that we accept the evidence of homeschooling’s effectiveness in producing positive learning outcomes. Am I sacrificing educational excellence in my family for less important collective goods? This to me, seems a very live question, but I think there are two responses to this worry: First of all, its not clear to me that my children will be all that educationally disadvantaged by their involvement in the public school system. As a university professor, i have taught students from all educational backgrounds (urban and rural public schools, parochial/private schools, home schools), and I have to say that I have had the privilege to interact with brilliant students (and absolute morons) from all of these backgrounds. Even in the struggling American urban public school system, it is still possible to get a great education that sets one up for future success. Secondly, even if I am trading a bit of educational excellence for some collective good, this may be a trade-off worth making for the goods I’ve described above. I believe that I prefer my girls lose a couple hundred SAT points in favor of their obligations to the community and commitment to an educated society. But again, I doubt that this is a trade-off that one must make.
One might also point out that even if I remove my children from the public school system in my district, I am still supporting the institution with my tax dollars, and therefore I am entitled to the public goods that the system provides. Perhaps this is a way out of the dilemma that justifies my kids’ lack of participation. However, this objection fails the consistency test I’ve described above, because if everyone removed their kids from the system while still paying their taxes, the schools would stay open, but the common goods of an educated populace and a sense of civic responsibility would not be achievable. Again, in order to live a rational life, it is important that our values can be carried through consistently, and the tax “out” fails the consistency test.
if you regard my coffee pot etiquette as a moral failure, and you condemn my act as immoral and/or irrational, does it not follow that removing my children from the public education system while still enjoying its positive benefits is similarly immoral or irrational? Honestly, I’m sort of terrified to send my children into public school, but I can’t see a way to around it if I hold the above described civic commitments. I know that a number of my readers have a lot more experience with home schooling than I do. Perhaps there is something I’m missing. Is there a justifying reason for removing my kids from the system that still affirms the collective goods I’m concerned about? Understand that I am honestly asking, as I am very interested in navigating this problem. Right now, however, I have to conclude that if I value an educated populace and a the virtue of civic identity, I need to involve my children in the institutions that make such collective goods possible.