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A “Tough Liberal” vs. the Boston Globe’s In-House Reactionary

Al Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, was one of the great labor heroes of the 20th century. He came from hearty immigrant stock, was a product of public schooling, and understood the importance of universal, public … Read More

By / October 18, 2007

Al Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, was one of the great labor heroes of the 20th century. He came from hearty immigrant stock, was a product of public schooling, and understood the importance of universal, public education to instill American civic values. As Arch Puddington writes in a brief review of Richard Kahlenberg's biography of Shanker, Tough Liberal:

Shanker always regarded the American public school as a key institution of democracy–the one place where different groups might come together to learn what it means to be American. Without it, he believed, America would devolve into a balkanized society with few common ideals.

Jeff Jacoby, who has the unenviable job of regularly publishing troglodytic denunciations of what Bill O'Reilly characterizes as the "secular progressive agenda" on the op-ed page of the Boston Globe, (the sort of journalistic real estate where such broadsides are least appreciated), yesterday made the case for abolishing public schools. Jacoby has never been a particularly original columnist, usually taking his cues from better known conservative scolds. This is unfortunate, considering that the staid Boston media scene — so heavily invested with holier-than-thou, old-school liberals — could really use more intelligent, independent conservative/libertarian voices, especially since the death of the inimitable David Brudnoy to AIDS three years ago. A friend refers to Jacoby as "the poor man's Charles Krauthammer," but this column is more reminiscent of David Gelernter's 4-month-old Weekly Standard cover story, "A World Without Public Schools." Take your ideas where you can get 'em.

Jacoby, an Orthodox Jew and a political conservative, does not like the fact that in public schools "the only views and values permitted are the ones prescribed by the state." For this week's outrageous example of crazy Massachusetts liberalism gone awry, he chooses an incident from several years ago in which the parents of a second-grader in Lexington, Massachusetts–birthplace of the American Revolution, a fact not lost on the nuttier-than-Snickers home-school movement–had a very public conniption over the fact that their son's teacher read a picture book to the class in which a prince marries another prince. The parents brought their case all the way to federal court, but they had no ground on which to stand: gay marriage is the law in Massachusetts, and, as the Reagan-appointed judge ruled, the state is “entitled to teach anything that is reasonably related to the goals of preparing students to become engaged and productive citizens.” One would presume that Jacoby would not take issue with the teacher reading a book about racial harmony (though his contention that "Americans differ on … the reverence due the Confederate flag" as a rationale to oppose government involvement in education casts doubt), and since both miscegenation and same-sex marriage are legal in Massachusetts and same-sex couples live in Lexington and send their children to public school, it is entirely appropriate–indeed, expected–that teachers would help their students understand the different types of families that form their community.

For conservatives, the answer to this conundrum is actually quite simple: if you don't like having your children learn about households with gay parents, move to another state where gay people don't have the right to get married (currently 49 out of 50) or adopt (like Florida or Mississippi). Opponents of gay marriage lost in Massachusetts, and, in the instance Jacoby describes, they have been hoisted on their own petard. Odd, then, that conservatives who so frequently complain about gays and other dangerous social liberals using the courts to get their way would bring a federal case over a picture book.

To make the case for abolishing public schools, Jacoby starts his column by citing what he describe as a "ringing endorsement of parental supremacy in education."

"We are opposed to state interference with parental rights and rights of conscience in the education of children as an infringement of the fundamental . . . doctrine that the largest individual liberty consistent with the rights of others insures the highest type of American citizenship and the best government."

From where did this "leave us alone" sentiment emerge? Why, the 1892 Democratic Party platform! Jacoby tells us. "Thus in a little over 100 years, the Democratic Party – and much of the Republican Party – has been transformed from a champion of "parental rights and rights of conscience in the education of children" to a party whose leaders believe that parents "don't get to impose" their views and values on what their kids are taught in school." This is quite a metric–"over 100 years"–for describing the supposedly rapid and devastating downfall of American civilization. The country has changed a lot since "a little over 100 years" ago, I'd argue mostly for the better, but Jacoby seems to disagree.

One wonders what other elements of the 1892 Democratic Party platform Jacoby would like to uphold (remember, this was back when racists predominantly voted Democrat). He writes as if it is somehow hypocritical, or desultory, for the Democratic Party to change its position on a topic 100 years later. What kind of argumentative tactic is this? It's either incredibly–almost brazenly, horrifyingly–reactionary, or moronic. But it's hardly the first time Jacoby has played a game of Surprise! with his readers. Just a few months ago, in a particularly lame brief for "intelligent design," he asked if Cambridge University would today hire a "theology-and Bible-drenched individual" who "forecast the date of the Apocalypse" and calculated that the world was created in 3988 B.C. "Of course not!" us wise-thinking, egghead Massachusetts liberals answer, and that's the answer he expects us to give. But, we're wrong, for Cambridge did hire such a man, such a backwards hayseed; he actually turned out to be no less a scientific genius than Sir Isaac Newton. So there! Jacoby exults. Except Newton was appointed to a Mathematics chair in 1668. And he also believed in alchemy. This is not to say Newton wasn't brilliant, but we admire him today in the same way we admire the slave-holding founders of the country: as men of their time, emblematic of the prejudices of their era.

What era does Jeff Jacoby want to live in? Who knows? Or, rather, who cares? His smarter-by-half, high-school debating tactics would be cynical were they not so stupid..

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