Private education: in defence of hypocrisy
I am a bitter opponent of private education. All my political hackles rise whenever the subject is mentioned.
Yet of my four currently school-aged children, one (‘A’) is educated privately (at a specialist choir school), and another (‘B’, who is dyslexic) will shortly be in private education (at a hip, Indian-cotton swathed, high-fibre, bongo-drumming, holistic school). The two others (‘C’ and ‘D’) are currently in state primary schools. There are two older children too (‘E’ and ‘F’) They were both educated privately, at a fairly traditional school.
How can I live with myself?
One way would be to avert my eyes from the apparently plain discrepancy between my actions and my political convictions. That’s often been my strategy. But I want to attempt some kind of defence – at least in relation to A and B, and lay the ground for a potential defence in relation to C and D, should we choose to educate them privately.
In relation to the older two, E and F, the only defence possible is the ‘Can’t help it’ defence (see below), which isn’t terribly impressive. With hindsight, they’d have been better off, the community at large would have been better off, and my integrity would be less embarrassingly bruised, had they gone to the local comprehensive. I’ve learned a bit since they were schooled.
But what about the others? I’m not going to discuss the merits for the individual children of private v state education. To keep the ethics simple, I’m going to take it as read that the private option confers a benefit on the individual child concerned, and does not involve an individual detriment. I’m also going to assume that the state schools to which the children would have gone would have benefited from their presence and disadvantaged by their absence, and that private education is intrinsically politically (and hence ethically) offensive.
A: The singer
He wanted to go. He begged to be entered for the audition. He was given a scholarship.
The decision in this case was based purely on our respect for A’s autonomy. It was personally painful, and mighty inconvenient.
That respect of course has limits. We wouldn’t respect his autonomous decision to start taking heroin or robbing banks. But a desire to sing Tudor church music fell squarely within the penumbra of acceptability.
Does it follow from our respect for A’s autonomy that we’re neoliberals? And in particular does it follow that it is sufficient justification for our choices about our children’s schooling that those choices are an autonomous expression of our wishes? No on both counts. To frustrate the autonomy of a child is a far more serious thing than to hem the exercise of our autonomy round with caveats. Not least because to do anything to another person is more morally serious than to do it to oneself. Another reason is that almost the whole purpose of A’s education to date has been (we have thought) the facilitation of his autonomy: it has been to allow him to be him. If singing is part of what he is, to deny his identity-affirming wish to sing for several hours a day would be to frustrate the principles that have governed his education (principles which trump our merely political convictions). And it would be prevent him being him: we’d be killing something fundamental to him. That’s morally not much different from murdering or causing serious personal injury.
B: The dyslexic
I’ve written before (here) about B’s extraordinary way of perceiving the world.
That way is totally at odds with the way that, in a state school whose curriculum is designed to produce net contributors to the GDP, he’d be told was normative. There would be strenuous and (on the part of the individual teachers involved, very well-meaning) attempts to make him ‘normal’. If these attempts succeeded, B would be diminished. As in the case of A, we’d be endorsing personal injury.
C and D: The currently State-schooled children
I’m not sure what will happen to them. But let’s assume that we’ll take them out of the state system and send them to join B amongst the bongos. Would that mean that we were ethically bang to rights?
Well, not necessarily. Two defences would then be open to us. The second is available as a fall-back defence in the cases of A and B, and is the only possible defence in the cases of E and F.
It would be possible to articulate, for C and D, an argument, similar to that used for A and B, based on identity truncation. But on the facts it would be disingenuous.
The two seriously arguable defences are below.
Defence 1: Privately educating our children will change (for good) the ethos of society.
There are two ways in which this might happen.
The act of pulling them out of the state system might help to provoke an examination (by the State and others) of the reductionist, measurement-obsessed ethos that provoked the withdrawal. (Some chance).
(b) Producing fighters against the ethos
This sees the school as a revolutionary training camp. It is objectionable to pay to send them there, but the offence is outweighed by the good that C and D, so trained, will do to undermine the system that made that decision necessary. I find it rather convincing. But then I would, wouldn’t I?
Defence 2: Ethical automatism: I can’t help favouring those close to me, and so I’m not culpable in doing so
Where the utilitarian calculus says that actions X and Y produce identical results in terms of overall benefit (or avoidance of detriment), we are consistently much more reluctant to perform action X than action Y where X involves hurting someone who is physically close to us, and action Y does not. The classic example is the ‘fat man’ variant of the trolley problem. (See here for a good outline and discussion of the various variants). Almost everyone would pull the lever, killing one person distantly in order to save five. Few would push the fat man in front of the train to save five. Similarly with Peter Singer’s child drowning in the pond. We’d all happily jump in the pond to save her, ruining our suit. Far fewer of us make donations totaling the value of that ruined suit to save the life of an invisible child in Africa.
What is going on in these sorts of situations is of course extremely complex and much discussed. I observe here only: (a) the fact that this is how people react; and (b) the fact that a parent is likely to feel warmer towards a child than towards a fat man – the altruistic warmth being fuelled, no doubt, by kin selection and reciprocal altruism.
The fat man and related examples are traditionally adduced by cold-hearted utilitarians to show the incoherence of our intuitions. I think that there is a powerful argument against incoherence, but cannot make it here. My only point is that, incoherent or not, I’m inescapably in thrall to my intuitions, or parental love, or whatever you want to call it. And if I can’t escape from them, isn’t it hard to condemn me?