Not long ago, I was having a civil conversation with a colleague with whom I regularly disagree. (I know, this type of thing is rare these days.) We got to the heart of the issue, which was a disagreement on a fundamental principle that led us in slightly different directions. I told him that I put an emphasis on liberty in policy decisions. He said he put an emphasis on justice, and we didn’t go much further than that. If we had, I’d have pressed him and said you cannot have justice when someone’s liberty has been violated. He’d have probably said the reverse: You can’t have liberty if there is no justice. The point here is not which of us was correct (probably me), but that we were talking about principles. Now, as much as ever, it is a good time to think about the principles that guide us.
As we try to work towards a better future, we must understand what we are aiming for. Noted economist Thomas Sowell makes this point in his latest book, released today, Charter Schools and Their Enemies. He’s writing about education, but his observations apply to so many aspects of our public life. He writes, “Trying to micromanage the future has a very poor track record—and so does simply letting things drift. What we can do is consider in advance what kind of general principles and specific institutions seem promising.”
When it comes to education, Sowell suggests, “Perhaps the most important of these general principles is that schools exist for the education of children” [emphasis in the original]. This is a point we too often miss. Sowell’s focus in the book is, of course, charter schools. He describes how pushes to increase accountability and regulation of charter schools rarely focus on efforts to actually increase the quality of the schools, but are instead intended to stifle and limit the spread of charter schools. Issues surrounding charter schools are too often framed in us-versus-them terms, so that people think they must either support public education or side with the privatizers who want to destroy public schools. Sowell reminds us that this binary thinking is not helpful. Instead, when thinking about charter school policies (and other education policies), the public and policymakers should be asking, “what possible benefit to the education of children can we expect from this?”
When we don’t agree on principles or share basic assumptions, as my colleague and I didn’t, it is difficult to agree on solutions to problems. That is why it is important for us to understand and agree that schools exist for the education of children. They are not designed to keep communities together. They are not built to provide jobs. They exist to educate children. When we agree on this, we pursue policies that put the interests of children first.
Today marks Thomas Sowell’s 90th birthday. It also marks the release of his latest book, Charter Schools and Their Enemies. Check it out.