Sunday, May 20, 2007

Go to school, learn the rules, don't be no faker!

This post from PZ Myers raises a very important point about decentralisation and local accountability. What if the quacks get control? Families and schools are always a problem with regard to liberty - no-one has the right to experiment on the public without their consent, but youth is the one experiment that is performed on everyone.

It may be your right to believe that heliocentrism is an atheistic doctrine that must be suppressed, but it's surely a grave infringement of the liberty of others to enforce it on their kids. Not to mention an infringement of the children's liberty. The glib answer is that you can always send them somewhere else, but this instantly crashes into all the problems of "choice" as a solution for schools (inequality, oversubscribed schools, self-fulfilling signals, lack of real choice in many places), not to mention that it implicitly accepts that the people left behind will just suffer.

Robert Waldmann remarks that there is no evidence that any society has ever put too much money into education. I think he's right. But this is rather what I was getting at in this post. Education is an investment that cannot be readily replaced if it goes wrong - in the example it's much more like the hole in the ground that you can't replace in 50 years than the Ethernet switch, which you can swap out in half an hour. Hence, it's not enough to say that if the creationists (or paedophiles, fascists, jihadis etc) get a school, it will eventually fail. By then the damage is done, it cannot easily be put right, and it bears most heavily on those least able to put it right.

2 comments:

dd said...

I think the answer is that if this happens and you don't want it, you get together with the other parents and have a bit of a campaign. Direct democracy really works for schools - it's not just a dichotomoy of elected representatives versus market mechanisms. I've seen this work on a number of occasions; schools rely so much on the cooperation of the parents that it's really not possible for even the crankiest crank to continue in the face of genuine opposition. Of course, if the parents believe in crankery too, then there's a problem but this is problem that probably can't be blamed on the education system. I think I'm in favour of a lot more importance being given to this sort of informal democracy, as it puts more weight on active participation.

(I'm also a little more sceptical than you about the long lasting effects of crank education; two of my friends were brought up in cults and they do OK, but this is argument by anecdote)

Alex said...

Alternatively, it's an example of the well-known paradox that greater decentralisation requires stringent standards. For example, I think a highly decentralised education system would probably require a national curriculum more than the current system - you have to have a guarantee of basic principles, against which the school management can be held responsible.

Similarly, if you're going to give different bits of a company extensive autonomy, you better have good financial controls. And if you're going to have something with no central governing body, like the Internet, you need to have technical standards to make everything interoperate. In fact, good interoperability standards REDUCE the need for central governance.

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