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Friday, August 29, 2008

A Parent's Right

I read this article this morning and it made me wonder: where did the concept that it is a parent's right to choose how his or her child is educated come from? After all, that isn't entirely true. As I understand it, children are required by law to attend a school, and if a parent cannot afford a private school, then that school must be a public one or home-school. Therefore, the right isn't a complete one anyway. The parent has no right to say, "I run a farm, and I want my kids to grow up to be farmers like me. They don't need any of that fancy schooling, they just need to stay home and learn how to work the farm equipment." While home-school is an option, there are still certain requirements that must be met. Enforcement of those requirements is an issue in and of itself, but there is still the precedent that the state dictates that a child needs to be educated in some manner, and a certain amount of that educational requirement is specifically outlined. Since that has been accepted, I am not sure what right is being violated by changing the standards of required education to become more rational and secular. Of course the argument can be made that the right to religious practise is being violated if teaching one's religious doctrine as fundamental truth is a vital tenant to one's faith. Yet that is the crux of the whole right to religious practise - depending on how one defines religious practise, virtually any law or ruling can be interpreted as violating one's religious rights. No one tries to make the argument that sanctified murder through ritual sacrifice is a valid exercise in religious freedom in our modern society, even if ritual sacrifice is a fundamental tenant to one's religious practise. It is therefore seen that there are and must be limits on the right to religious practise, which immediately draws the questions of what are those limits and who gets to decide on them? It is this amorphous nature to the right of religious practise that, to me, makes it fundamentally untenable. It would seem indoctrinating children with religiously based education is a greater violation of the children's right to a proper education aimed at giving them an equal opportunity for participating in society than it is a violation of the parents' right to choose the content of the children's education.

(In a related issue, I have always thought it a little bit unfair that a person's anathema toward a particular object or behaviour, if under the blanket of religion, is given more credence than another person's individual loathing or obsessions. This is particularly troublesome when there is no way to measure the degree to which a person is invoking his right to avoid a particular action or practise based on religious reasons actually cares about the religion in question)

I know this fairly outside of my purported subject matter of science (with an emphasis on computational neuroscience), but I thought it was worth writing about. I know I've recently told some of less-computer savvy relatives about this blog, so I'd like to point out that it is possible to leave comments if you think I've come to erroneous conclusions or made false claims (or if you agree with me and would like to shower me with adulation).


Jolly Bloger said...

Man, that's such a hard problem. I'm a libertarian, so I value individual rights above pretty much any form of government regulation. In practice, that mostly means having to defend the worst kinds of human scum, because it is only at the margins that freedom is attacked. However, the entire philosophy breaks down when it comes to children, because kids are completely reliant on their parents.

What do you do when the rights of the parents conflict with the needs of the child? I'm not so heartless as to say screw the kids, parents have the freedom to neglect them, but adding more regulation to education scares the hell out of me. Not because I'm opposed to secular and rational education, but because in order to do this, you have to set up a framework where government decides what everyone must be taught.

Governments can change drastically in short periods of time. What if, ten or twenty years from now, the culture shifts and the Swedish government is full of fundamentalists? Or alternative medicine quacks? Or people who simply believe that math just isn't that important for a ten year old? Then the very weapons that well meaning secularists and rationalists put in place could be used against them, and it would be extremely difficult to oppose it.

I'd much rather put up with some people believing things that are wrong (we always have the opportunity to debate them though!) and keep the freedom to believe whatever I want, and teach whatever I want to my children, because the alternative is for "truth" to be decided by politicians - and the free market of ideas basically shut off to children (they are never taught to question ideas or authority). I see it as a short term solution on very thin ice.

Mozglubov said...

And there is the other shoe... your point right there is the single biggest argument against government regulation of anything, and that is because, once that control is in place, it can so easily be high-jacked for personal ends by politicians. It just sucks for the people who get screwed because politicians are not trustworthy enough in the long run.

cornucrapia said...

I completely understand the viewpoint of the Jolly Bloger, very similar to my own. As uncomfortable as I am with religious indoctrination of children, I think I fear the state mandating an education program for all children a little more. I wonder if the solution would be some manner of legislation forbidding the restriction of access to knowledge to children? That is to say, teach them all about Jesus, teach them that the world is flat and that people who are different from you are evil, but if you're going to do that you're also not allowed to prevent them from reading, say the origin of species or the god delusion. In practice I imagine such a policy would be ridiculously hard to enforce, so I've essentially provided a third unacceptable alternative, you're welcome :P