The Bullies in Charge

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thomas Sowell notes that the current crusade against bullying in government schools fails to live up to its name, even under cursory examination:

The current media and political crusade against "bullying" in schools seems likewise to be based on what groups are in vogue at the moment. For years, there have been local newspaper stories about black kids in schools in New York and Philadelphia beating up Asian classmates, some beaten so badly as to require medical treatment.

But the national media hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil. Asian Americans are not in vogue today, just as blacks were not in vogue in the 1920s.

Meanwhile, the media are focused on bullying directed against youngsters who are homosexual. Gays are in vogue.
Sowell then goes on to note that, as with other past anti-discrimination policies, the focus of this latest crusade is on speech, and results in restrictions on what members of certain demographic groups can and can not say:
Women can say anything they want to men, or blacks to whites, with impunity. But strong words in the other direction can bring down on students the wrath of the campus thought police -- as well as punishments that can extend to suspension or expulsion.

Is this what we want in our public schools?
I was with Sowell until the last sentence: I think he should be asking, "Do we want government-run schools at all?" For one thing, a socialized educational sector makes parents powerless to take action to protect their own children. For another, government schools are inherently bad at preventing bullying.

Clearly, some "public" government schools fail miserably to prevent even the worst kinds of bullying, and so will some private schools. But, unlike today's feudal system, in which transferring a student out of a dysfunctional school is nearly impossible (for legal and economic reasons), a fully private educational sector would make any parent better able to withdraw his child from or altogether avoid schools with reputations for such problems.

Worse, and even setting aside the many well-intentioned, but discriminatory anti-discrimination laws we have on the books (which exacerbate this problem), government institutions are inherently bad at policing non-criminal behavior that may, in certain contexts, be objectionable. This is because the sole proper purpose of a government is to protect individual rights, which include freedom of speech, as Sowell notes.

In a fully private educational system, a school might properly decide to punish children for using epithets as insults or intimidation, since such behavior would detract from its mission to educate its pupils. Parents, aware of such rules, may judge whether the school is really fostering a good educational environment or is merely attempting to indoctrinate the children, and act accordingly.

But a public school is a government institution, and if it attempts to proscribe or prescribe behavior (outside of, for example, punishing or preventing actual crime), it is necessarily in the position, as a part of the government, of forcing these rules on its pupils (and on parents, whether they agree or disagree with them), and, in the process, violating individual rights. But schools, as educational institutions, clearly have to have some rules. Thus a bad precedent is set by the very fact that the government is running a school and has had to dictate rules from the outset.

Because of this precedent, choices like the following come up: protect Asian students from being beaten up by black students or raise the legitimate specter of Jim Crow by keeping a sharp eye on your black students; and watch out for your gay students or blanket-violate freedom of speech (in the name of having a legally-consistent policy). Such schools are damned-if-they-do and damned-if-they-don't, and which action they take (since the principle of non-initiation of force went out the window from the outset) will be a function of which political pressure group is in power.

Bullying happens any time large numbers of children are gathered together, but the best way to keep it to a minimal level (and train children out of it) is to get the government out of education. In a government education system, with its blurred boundary between proper rules and improper laws, administrators and faculty are placed in the position of bullies. What they do is not guided by proper principles of government or education, and so the best will be hamstrung and the worst unleashed.

-- CAV

No comments: