Record: Roger Marples, “Parents’ Rights and Educational Provision” in Studies in the Philosophy and Education 33, no. 1 (January 2014): 23-39.
Summary: Marples, a Principal Lecturer in Education at University of Roehampton in London, here makes a spirited argument against the legitimacy of non-government schooling in all but the most extreme circumstances.
Marples begins by asserting that the claims of parental “rights” go back to Lockean notions of property rights and to claims by philosophers like Robert Nozick and Charles Fried that the child is an “extension” of the parent. Marples disagrees. For him, “treating children as mere appendages to their parents is both to disrespect and undermine their moral status.” (p. 24)
Instead of rights, Marples argues, parents have custodial responsibility for their children. Some interpret this responsibility lightly, asserting that so long as the child is not in “clear and present danger” then whatever a parent does is fine. Marples disagrees, claiming that irreparable damage to the child’s future can be done well in advance of immediate danger. At the other extreme are those (including the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child) who argue that every decision a parent makes should be in the child’s best interest. But this goes too far according to Marples, not only because it would be impossible to really know what is in a child’s best interest but because for most parents a child’s ultimate best interest would probably be to have that child brought up by elite persons of privilege who could give children far more advantages than the average or below average parent could. What we need, then, is a standard whereby a parent is responsible for some “minimal threshold” of a child’s well-being. But what should that entail exactly?
For Marples, part of the minimal threshold of child well-being is the opportunity for the child to develop the potential to choose for herself the values and life course to which she would like to commit. Marples calls this “autonomy.” Thus one of a parent’s responsibilities is to not undermine a child’s autonomy. This stricture applies to the state as well. No party may infringe on what Joel Feinberg calls “a child’s right to an open future.” (p. 28)
Unfortunately, according to Marples, many parents foreclose a child’s future in many ways. Sending a child to “a specialist dance academy when very young,” for example, would compromise a child’s right to pursue her own career. For the rest of the paper, Marples considers whether sending a child to private schools violates this principle of ensuring a child’s open future.
First, Marples considers private schools that are not specifically religious or sectarian. Here he finds that parents are justified in sending their children to such schools only if the available public school is “so awful that it is, in effect, no education at all.” (p. 30) Otherwise, parents sending their children to such schools are doing an injustice to the broader community, for other people’s children, who do not have this opportunity for elite private schooling, must suffer in relation to the few who do. Thus, “in the interests of social justice the case for their abolition is very strong.” (p. 31)
Next Marples turns to explicitly religious schools. Here he finds three reasons such schools should all be forcibly closed. First, they are highly likely to indoctrinate children into a partisan view. Second, they pose a threat to social stability by encouraging “a kind of voluntary apartheid” among religious sects. Third, they threaten a child’s autonomy by attempting to impose on her the parent (or priest or teacher)’s religious and moral views, making it very difficult for such a child to be able to come to her own informed decisions and choices about the life she wishes to lead. “Unless children are exposed to the views…of people with radically different outlooks on life to themselves,” writes Marples, “there is a very real danger of social conflict and strife.” (p. 33)
Finally Marples turns to home education. Here again he allows that in extreme circumstances where available educational options are abominable the interests of the child might make homeschooling the best option. But as with private schooling, he believes such examples are very few. Home educators who choose this option so as to indoctrinate their children more effectively in the parents’ own religious and moral views are violating the child’s right to autonomy.
But will not this obsession with individual rights destroy minority communities like the Amish? Perhaps, acknowledges Marples. But “there are strict limits to what a liberal society should be prepared to tolerate in the interests of minority cultures.” (p. 35) Society should not permit parents who hold intolerant views about legitimate life options (such as, for example, homosexuality) to impose such intolerant views on their children, for doing so inflicts both cognitive and emotional harm that can last a lifetime. Minority cultures that traffic in such intolerant and illiberal views deserve extinction.
Appraisal: I have to say that I find Marples’ arguments here absurd on many counts. So as not to make this post overly long, let me limit my comments to two points.
First, about autonomy. Liberal theorists like Marples seem to me simply to take autonomy as a self-evident good, using it as the basis against which to judge practices they don’t like. But the very concept of autonomy is intellectually suspect. Is it even real? Philosophers have been debating the issue of free will and determinism for millennia with no clear resolution. It is not philosophically self-evident that individuals are capable of autonomous choice. Sociologically speaking, a good case could be made that none of our choices are truly autonomous–we are all the products of the collective cultural forces that have contributed to our lives. The notion of autonomy itself is a great example of this. Few cultures in world history had such a concept. But the concept became popular in enlightenment Europe and spread to the rest of the world through colonialism. Marples is a product of the Enlightenment project, so of course he has been conditioned by his culture to believe in autonomy. He is not exercising autonomy by privileging it. He is revealing his own historical and social influences. Finally, the concept reduces to absurdity when applied consistently. To really avoid prejudicing children toward any future life goal we would have to ensure that they were exposed, for example, to all languages equally. Otherwise we have limited their futures by condemning them to a life among (in Marples’ case) English speakers. What if they would have preferred Chinese or Hindi? Autonomy would require us not to bias them by our linguistic indoctrination. Childhood is, like it or not, one long process of indoctrination. The notion of autonomy is just a phantom concept used to disguise Marples’ real goal, which is to replace one set of doctrines (conservative religion) with another (liberal pluralism).
Second, the practical results of Marples’ claims here would be disastrous for our society and for human flourishing. His throw-away example of sending children to specialized dance schools illustrates well. There are some human activities that can only be done at the highest level by people who have been immersed in them from childhood. Fine art dance is one example, but there are many, many others: various sports (tennis, figure skating, gymnastics, etc.), virtuosic instrumental performance, and so on. In Marples’ ideal world no child would be forced at a young age by eager parents into any one of these specialties. Instead, children should dabble in them all so that they can choose for themselves what they’d like to do. Marples just doesn’t seem to understand the way human motivation works. Children do not deliberate and make rational decisions about what they want to do with their time. They emulate what they see. A child whose parents are both professional ballroom dancers and who take him to competitions from the day he is born is far more likely to develop an interest and cultivate expertise in ballroom dance than is an equally coordinated child whose parents are stock analysts or retail clerks. Should the clerk’s child decide at age 17 that ballroom dance is what he wants to devote his life to, he is in for disappointment, for he will never catch up to the professionals’ child who has been practicing since age 3. Marples’ world of bureaucratic homogenization would drain the color, diversity, eccentricity, and human drama that come by way of the vagaries of birth from our lives. His vision gives me the chills.
Milton Gaither, Messiah College