Tuesday, August 28, 2007

When Democracies Go Bad

Zie and I had a discussion in the comments to her post on language charter schools which I think is really branching out into something very different than the merits of any particular school - that is, basically, if we let democracy choose the method of teaching our children, can we let democracy choose the content?

You can tie this to "Jewish issues" in a number of ways; not only in the curriculum fights regarding the Arabic and Hebrew language schools Zie referred to in her post, but regarding curriculum choices among schools in the Middle East and with creationism and school prayer generally.

In the United States, the First Amendment pretty much bars taking a religious standpoint, but let me posit the following hypothetical:

The appropriate curriculum-deciding body in a school district in Rhode Island, elected and supported by a majority of the people in that area, are significantly dissatisfied with the current state of the federal government. In response, they wish to teach their children a relatively jaundiced view of the federal constitution, with an emphasis on state sovereignty.

Therefore, they vote to only have textbooks which describe Rhode Island's ratification of the Constitution as an act of national extortion by the other twelve colonies and emphasizes the corruption and tyranny of the Lincoln administration during the Civil War. This view will produce citizens highly skeptical of any federal power and wishing to dismantle much of the federal administrative state.

The position taken by this hypothetical Rhode island curriculum-setting body is not objectively true. But, if we assume that it is supported by a majority of the constituents in the jurisdiction, and does not violate the Establishment Clause, should we really object?


harley said...

Pedant, I had no idea you were such a majoritarian. You do know that you're putting forth the same argument as William Jennings Bryan made in the Scopes trial, right?

The Pedant said...

After typing a lot, there are two principles at work here.

1) I really don't trust any elites other than myself. If I can't run everything, can't nobody run everything.

2) I can explain the thinking behind this at length, but basically, I believe there are times when being free or being moral demands that you ignore the truth of the situation; that the liberty we desire brings us far closer to violence and anarchy than is "scientifically" perfect and the moral equality of man we demand is to some extent unsupported by science.

harley said...

Alright, but you're not suggesting that noboday run everything. You're suggesting that the majority run everything. I don't need to remind you of the dangers that the tyranny of the majority incites.

At times, being ethical demands that you acknowledge the truth of the situation and still act according to what's best for the group. Or acknowledge that what is true is not necessarily what's best for the group, but that what's right is more important.

The first example that comes to my mind? The ethical and legal ramifications of torturing terrorist suspects.

Anonymous said...

Someone please explain to me an example where truth and morality ae in conflict. -TR

DK said...

I think they have every right to teach American history however they want to kids. But then we have a right to bring in Union troops and clobber them into submission.

The Pedant said...

Harley - I do believe that the majority has to be run by certain guiding principles. I'm not against the First or Fourteenth Amendments. However, that's not the same as saying that since something has been shown as "true," no one can object.

Rooster - I often wonder whether a number of the moral imperatives of our system - treating each person as an equal human being with the same potential, various freedoms, etc. are scientifically provable.

At this point, I wager, they are not. The longest-running governments with the most proportionally happy people, historically, are vicious command autocracies. And our various nods to the science of addiction and genetic triggers to behavior knock away the underpinning that all men's actions are equal under the law.

I find that belief that there should be freedom of speech, for example, is basically on faith, especially the unrestricted American version which nobody else subscribes to.

Anonymous said...

I have never personally felt any such imperative to treat someone equal in the sense that his "potential" is the same as everyone else's. People quite obviously have different degrees of potential. None of the major Enlightenment thinkers thought otherwise. However, they also tended to think that each person has the ability to be a moral person worthy of happiness (from Hume we get the concept of the "judicious spectator"; from Kant, and later Rawls, the "reasonable and rational" human being), and therefore every person deserves to be treated with some measure of dignity. These are idealized states, not descriptions of empirical reality -- as such, they are not undermined by neuroscientific and biological discoveries. I think that the evidence bears out the idea that most adults (i.e. the ones that aren't brain damaged, mentally handicapped, psychotic, etc.) share a capacity to be altruistic, despite whatever contingencies (environmental or genetic) stand in opposition. This is not the same as saying that every human being will be a moral person, or that it is equally easy for every person to be moral. Very little "faith" is required. -TR