You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.
With Public Discourse on an August hiatus, it has been the season of satire, parody, and irony. Within the past few weeks, both “Foggy Bottom” and “Anonymous” have taken to the internet to skewer a too-long, too-meandering, and too-needy essay by a former editor of First Things. In a different category, but equally well-meaning, was the former teen star Miley Cyrus’s send-up of the sexualization of pop music and child musicians; at least, I think that’s what that was. And, finally, we have had the latest in a string of satiric and ironic pieces by “Allison Benedikt,” the surely fictitious creation of an editor at Slate, whose “leftist manifesto” is titled “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person.”
I wish I had had the idea myself: pretend to be a lefty and endorse views so crazy that the liberal case is totally undermined. Only a conservative of true craft and ingenuity could have come up with this strategy, and Benedikt carries it off to perfection: many, it seems, are the casual readers who have utterly failed to see what she is up to, and have unthinkingly assumed that she is a leftist manifesto writer who actually believes what she writes. But the tropes she relies on are so extreme, they can surely only come from satiric opposition to the very practice she defends, that of sending your child to a public school.
Begin with a tactic no right-thinking liberal would ever use: gross moral judgments about the character of those with whom you disagree.
We can surely count on a liberal to have read and internalized J.S. Mill. And was it not Mill who wrote, in what every left-of-center thinker takes to be the guiding star of his public persona, “The worst offence . . . which can be committed by a polemic is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men.” We should, writes Mill, condemn “either want of candor, or malignity, or intolerance of feeling,” but should not infer “those vices from the side which a person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question to our own. . . . This is the real morality of public discussion.”
Now, everyone knows that conservatives think this stigmatization is the biggest tool in the liberal box: don’t argue, just smear. And yes, conservatives can point to the marriage debate (or lack of it), or the quick and casual accusations of racism following the George Zimmerman trial, or the advice given by the New Atheists to mock and shame, rather than argue, with opponents. But please: genuine liberals are just not like that! They recognize that people of good will can disagree, that disagreements lead to differing courses of action, and that such differences do not moral wickedness make. Believing that is part of what makes them liberal!
So it was wickedly clever of Benedikt to make her lefty exactly like the stereotype of the dogmatic and intolerant liberal that conservatives like to complain about. What better way to end the discussion of public, private, and home-schooling, than by making the argument come from the mouth of someone whose views are expressed more intemperately than Savonarola’s.
But Benedikt does not stop there! Conservatives love to portray liberals as willing to sacrifice the rights, opportunities, and perhaps even lives of the present generation on the altar of the future. And sure, they can point to abortion as a relatively minor case in point. But in reality, no one really thinks that way any more—it is so Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist, so retro. And probably nobody really thought it was a good idea even then—things just got out of hand. But boy, does Benedikt run with this one.
Send your kids to public school and they can get a crappy education, she writes with an admirably straight face. Your kids won’t have to read books, won’t be taught any history, and will go to college without knowing the dates of the Civil War, but at least they will be able to get drunk before basketball games. You know that doesn’t happen in homeschools!
You yourself will need to squabble with the PTA and heaven knows who else, and the benefits might not be seen for generations, but your obligation is to those future generations, not to doing what you think is best for the moral, spiritual, and intellectual character of your children.
Conservatives complain as well that liberals lack self-knowledge. They praise toleration while squelching dissent, condemn fideism while questioning nothing that the New York Times offers, and disdain cheap rhetorical victories while calling their own side the “Brights” and the other side, well, you get the picture. Is this just hypocrisy, or a strange inability to see in themselves the failings they complain about in others? Conservatives, believing the best of their liberal friends, assume it is the latter.
So if we conservatives were going to lampoon liberals, it would be essential that they be utterly incapable of making sound judgments about themselves. And that is, in the end, what makes Benedikt’s essay so brilliant. Benedikt the character presents herself as living proof that going to a lousy school, and subsequently learning nothing in college, does not effect any permanent damage. “I’m not proud of my ignorance,” she says, “but guess what the horrible result is? I’m doing fine.”
Come on: didn’t you laugh uncontrollably when you got to this point of her essay? I did: because as Benedikt’s creator knows, and you know, and really everybody knows, someone who makes only bad arguments is not doing fine at all! Arguments, as liberals and conservatives will agree, are our best path to truth, and bad arguments, if they hit the truth, do so only by accident and unreliably. Inability to recognize the difference is really a disability, and if your education leads to that end, it has served you very poorly indeed.
In a classical education, of the sort that many private schools, homeschools, and even public schools still look to for inspiration and guidance, a student’s intellectual character was shaped so that he or she could recognize good arguments and criticize bad ones. Students were taught to recognize and present reasons for their views, but were also given sufficient breadth of knowledge of human character—in part through reading history and literature—that they could sympathize with reasons, positions, and persons, even when they ultimately believed them to be mistaken.
And how should you argue against those with whom you disagree? Mill once again gives voice to what a liberal approach would be here: argue against the best and smartest of your opponents. Grant the possibility that they might be at least partly right, even if not entirely. Take your opponents seriously. The “Allison Benedikt” with whom we are presented in “You Are a Bad Person,” by contrast, does none of these things. She lists the reasons for which people school privately as including religious instruction, for example, but by her subsequent silence, she indicates that she does not consider this a reason against which she must offer even a bad argument.
“Allison Benedikt” is not doing fine, and her ills should teach all of us, liberal and conservative, something about the purposes of education. Her ills, however, show nothing at all about which method—public, private, or home-schooling—well-meaning and responsible parents should adopt for their children. That, I take it, was the deep lesson her creator’s satire was attempting to impart.
Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute.