Friday, October 5, 2007

Ban private schools? - the freedom issue

In response to my suggestion that we ban private schools, Joe said:

"the problem I have here with all this discussion is that there seems to be an assumption that it is a reasonable response to unfairness to tell people that they are not allowed to provide something for their own children, if not everybody else can also provide it."

This is, of course, an important point. The freedom to help your children as best you can is important, and not to be trodden on lightly.

I am not suggesting that whenever a freedom produces any unfairness or inequality, we should take that freedom away.

For example, I am not here arguing that people should not be free to, e.g. teach their own kids to read, on the grounds that this causes an unfairness and inequality - i.e. because other parents are unwilling or unable.

But "freedom" doesn't trump all other principles on every occasion.

Surely, where there is a very great unfairness caused, and indeed, serious harm being done, by people taking advantage of a freedom, there can be a good case for curtailing that freedom.

For example, we don't allow the richest parents to buy their children all the best university places (hmm, well, having taught at Oxford, I'm aware that, on occasion, we do - but of course the practice remains frowned upon and rightly so). This is a "freedom" we don't permit. And for very good and obvious reasons.

But notice that it is exactly the same sort of reasons that motivate my suggestion that we take from parents the freedom to buy their children all the best school places.

"Freedom" doesn't automatically trump the kinds of considerations I am raising.

13 comments:

john said...

Stephen,

"Surely, where there is a very great unfairness caused, and indeed, serious harm being done, by people taking advantage of a freedom, there can be a good case for curtailing that freedom."

I think Joe's point is that you have failed to demonstrate that a very great unfairness and indeed serious harm is being done.

To use your own analogy, surely a lack of literacy skills in young children due to lack of parental interest or ability creates a far greater inequality of opportunity than a the parental ability to purchase 'the very best school places'.

potentilla said...

What john said.

Which is also what I said in a comment to an earlier post in this series. The greater the curtailment of freedom, the more careful you have to be about proving harm. Freedom is not an automatic trump card, no, but it is an important consideration.

I don't know about "surely" in the comment above; but there are lots of factors which might be related to the (putative) over-representation of the children of the (comparatively) rich in "top" jobs. Some of them will be correlated with getting a top job and some will (probably) actually have a causal relation. There must be absolutely shedloads of sociological and economic studies (of varying quality) which are a propos (ie I don't suppose there is actually a lack of data). If you want to draw the conclusion, you have to wade through it all and cite.

Hugo Hadlow said...

On a small note: if we didn't let parents buy their kids the best school places, those school places would not exist. This is not the same with universities, where the places do exist even though they cannot be bought [much]. You have lapsed back into an earlier, flawed argument that banning private schools would improve the education of the poor.

Your argument is strongest when you admit that banning private schools would not improve the education of the poor, but would enable them to get better jobs, by lowering the education of the rich so that the rich don't get the best jobs.

Hugo Hadlow said...

Anyway:

Okay, maybe there doesn't have to be a hard and fast rule, like "freedom always trumps fairness". Maybe in some cases it does and in some it doesn't. We have to rely on our moral intuitions, though mindful that they may be wrong. Analogies apparently reductio ad absurdum can sometimes seem to show that our intuitions are contradictory in two analogous cases, forcing (or at least encouraging) us to reconsider our intuitions in one of the cases.

The christmas presents question is not analogous: not getting as many presents is not going to do many children serious harm. But the parents-teaching-at-home case is:

Some less-than-brilliant parents are going to have brilliant children, but won't be able to teach them to read. Those children will have make do with school. Some clever parents are going to have less-than-brilliant children, but will be able to give them extra help with reading. This etc could boost their progress throughout their school career, leading the kids with less "native wit" to get better jobs. This is the serious harm to the kids with more "native wit" but less able parents.

How is this different from paying for private school? It is exactly as unfair. Most people, I expect, would regard it as a gross curtailment of freedom to ban parents helping their children with homework. Stephen, it is up to you to show why this is different. Are your intuitions different when money is involved?

Ron Murphy said...

It may be desirable that the possession of native wit should not be disadvantaged by school, or even by family. Does this mean that native wit should be positively advantaged - positive discrimination? Should the "better" (assuming greater native wit is better than lesser native wit) always be promoted above the "lesser" in order to achieve "equality"? Equality of what?

The same problem exists with many capabilities, not just native wit and the education provided: health and access to health services, hunger and access to food, ...

What's the balance between promoting the better at the risk of leaving behind or discarding the lesser? Fairness appears to be an ever receding goal - a concept, like infinity. Follow these rules:
1) Make a consistent high quality education suddenly available to all (no resource or access problems). Those with higher native wit would be advantaged, since they'd make better use of it.
2) Introduce corrective brain surgery to bring the lesser up to scratch with the better. Surely the better should have access to the same corrective surgery to improve their capabilities, so maintaining an imbalance. We don't have corrective surgery, so instead let's just boost the education provided to the lesser - oops! Denial of service to the better and the breaking of rule 1.

Which is required, equal access to a service that improves your capabilities or equality of capabilities? This appears to be the basic question here.

Joe Otten said...

The other commenters have covered what I would have said, so I will say something else.

There is a way to counteract the unfair schooling advantage that can be bought. That would be to establish a class of top state schools, say one per major city or county, selecting on aptitude only, with sufficient resources poured in to ensure they are better than the public schools.

Of course it is utterly unfair that the lucky clever children would get so much more spent on their education than the rest of the cohort.

OTOH, this is more or less how the university system operates (pre-tuition fees at least). And private universities hardly get a look in.

Anonymous said...

Hogo said the following in relation to some parents being able to better educate their children at home(giving them a head start)than others:

"How is this different from paying for private school? It is exactly as unfair. Most people, I expect, would regard it as a gross curtailment of freedom to ban parents helping their children with homework. Stephen, it is up to you to show why this is different. Are your intuitions different when money is involved?"

Couldn't that line of reasoning be extended to paying directly for a university place? By allowing parents to pay for preferential consideration are we not allowing them to, at the very least, buy for their children a higher probability of being offered a place in the better universities. Preferential consideration is the crux of the issue NOT that kids are better educated in private schools - that may or may not be case. Private schools students appear to recieve more offers of places than is academically warranted. That is the core of the unfairness.

By the by, I'm not convinced that these universities actually are better, but having attended one gives a status benefit that allows graduates to get better jobs than they might have otherwise managed.

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