One of the underlying factors in today’s battles on public education is two polar opposite views of parenting.
Parents who want to ban books from school libraries and tell teachers what parts of American history to teach and how to teach it generally come from a parenting style that could reasonably be characterized as “more controlling.”
Parents who advocate for free access to school libraries and trust teachers to choose an age-appropriate curriculum generally come from a parenting style that could reasonably be characterized as “less controlling.”
These two parenting styles occur on a continuum, so we see parents falling at many midpoints between the two extremes.
Now, if these two extremes sound familiar to you, maybe it’s because we’ve heard this before when talking about adults and their political views. This is the essence of George Lakoff’s description of two perspectives that shape different definitions of what is “moral.”
“If these two extremes sound familiar to you, maybe it’s because we’ve heard this before when talking about adults and their political views.”
Lakoff, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, explains in Moral policy that conservatives most often adopt a strict father model of life, which begins with the idea that “life is difficult and the world is fundamentally dangerous”. As in a “traditional” nuclear family, a strong father figure must dominate, authority must be preserved at all costs, and children must learn lessons through hard knocks and punishment. The strict father model values “discipline, authority, order, limits, consistency, purity and self-interest”.
Liberals, he writes, most often adopting a nurturing parent model of life, which begins with the idea that a good upbringing within a loving family unit will lead children to grow into caring adults who care for themselves and others. This model values “empathy, benevolence, self-awareness, social connections, fairness and happiness”.
Strict fathers (and by extension strict mothers) want to restrict the books their children have access to – and the books other children have access to – because it is a way of controlling the children’s environment and, in their view , to protect children from harm. . Same with American history, which has become hyper-politicized today. A strict father/mother fears that the children will be exposed to facts they do not believe to be facts and that the vulnerable child may not yet be strong enough to resist the siren song of liberalism. Therefore, build a high fence and keep everyone inside.
Trust of foster parents if their child finds a book in the school library that introduces a new idea, the child will ask a parent, teacher or family member to help them understand. The purpose of these families is not to build fences but to start conversations – which can be risky, yes, but worth it. These parents assume that other families provide their children with the same opportunities, so they rarely see the need to control what other children borrow from the library.
I started to realize this when a member of our local school board invited me over for coffee to find out more about why I had gone to a school board meeting last year to speak out against the banning of books and the repression of programs.
“One of the main issues facing schools today is determining where the boundary between home and school lies.”
One of the main issues facing schools today is determining where the boundary between home and school lies, he said. How much land do parents have to give up to the school when they drop off their children? And how much ground does the school have to cede to parents when the students go out at the end of the day?
Finding that balance is not so easy as it might first appear. Take, for example, the issue of food.
Some parents do not expect the school to provide breakfast, lunch or dinner for their children as they are able to feed them well at home and send nutritious packed lunches with them . Other parents depend on school breakfast and lunch programs (and weekend food bags) because they cannot afford to feed their families; their children would go hungry without school food.
What one family would see as an intrusion from school, another family sees as a lifeline.
I might add that the same may be true for library books.
Types of books that may not draw a second look from the majority of students could be a lifeline for other students. Students with physical differences need to see themselves represented in books. Non-white students need to see themselves represented in the books. Students who have questions about their gender or sexuality should know that other children have been on this path before. Students who have immigrated to the United States need to know how we are a nation of immigrants and they are not the first to take this journey.
“The kinds of books that may not attract a second glance from the majority of students could be a lifeline for other students.”
But there is an important difference between school libraries and school canteens. Although privileged children may not need breakfast or lunch at school, they should be exposed to a variety of characters in their reading. They need to know that not all of the main characters in the Life Story are white or born in the United States. They need to see women represented in leadership roles. They need to understand that children in wheelchairs are just as smart as anyone else. They need to learn that we are a nation of immigrants – and so were their ancestors.
This week I heard about a school district where administrators are proposing a potential compromise in the school library war. They will keep all approved books on the shelves, but they will let parents know which books their children have borrowed. That sounds like a lot of work — especially to appease a crowd that typically opposes paying taxes to fund public schools — but it could be a fair trade-off.
The main thing is that Strict Father/Strict Mother families should not be allowed to set the agenda for an entire school, just because they have the narrower views. School districts should not be forced to give in to the uncommon lowest denominator. This removes the “public” from public education. There are many private schools based on the ideals of the strict father. If you need ultimate control, send your kids there.
Public education requires meeting the needs of the great diversity of our population, not the ruling majority or the strong minority. And all of our children deserve a balanced diet for body and mind.
Mark Wingfield is executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.
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