Monday, July 30, 2012

EE For Kidz, Episode 1: For Which It Stands

In an earlier post, I pointed out the temptation for educational institutions to cobble nationalism from the kinderdenken of young students. I now sort of wonder what constitutes coercion in the arena of speech in schools.

Children are, in the words of Piglet, Very Small Creatures. They are small, weak, (relatively) stupid, and easy to intimidate. Being so unskilled and helpless, and noting that they oft need coerced for their own safety, it might be tempting to assert that they have limited or no Constitutional protections. Case law on the issue is sometimes bad, sometimes good, but always a bit disappointing. The question of whether or not it's appropriate to force children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance should be easily and simply resolved each and every morning in every classroom in every public school in the land (hint: Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech).

But lest I get too far from my question, it seems to me that there's no good bright-line rule for when it's acceptable to coerce children. Obviously, when their health or safety is in jeopardy or when their actions would violate the law, it's fine to be coercive. Indeed, it would be negligent to refrain from coercion in cases of imminent danger. Children frequently lack agency. But is it okay to coerce them because they have poor planning skills? Parents make their children eat their vegetables and do their homework not to revel in their authority but for the long-term (private) benefit of their wards. I think most folks would say this is acceptable. Do nationalist sentiments help children? Does this produce better adults? We can clearly see that basic literacy and numeracy obviously benefits the student and society at large. So for the Pledge, cui bono?

In a nebulous, unaccountable sense, the State benefits from totemic nationalism: elites are able to maintain a standing mercenary Army filled with Soldiers raised with the flag in their eyes and patriotic slogans on their lips. It's a pretty good deal if you make your bread sending fire and tumult overseas, especially since teachers are earnestly complicit (for reasons I don't quite fully grasp) and youngsters are just so darn easy to coerce. Threaten them with a trip to the Principal's office and you can see with your own eyes just how pliant they are. Granted, schoolhouse threats aren't the same as those that would void a contract in court, but from the kid's perspective, a smear of shame feels similar to Jimmy The Goon looking around and saying,"nice business you got here... sure would be a shame if something happened to it."

I'm prepared to claim that the morning recital Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is not euvoluntary. When it's pressed, the court cases linked above seem to suggest that it's occasionally not even merely voluntary. I am not prepared to claim the practice should necessarily be abandoned. In an n-player coordination game, defecting from the established coordination point is irrational. Any politician who suggests an end to the Pledge would be pilloried as anti-American. Still, I think it might be worth it for thoughtful parents to consider more carefully the importance of state-sponsored ritual. Is it at least possible that the parochial nationalism supported by the morning Pledge can contribute to public sentiments against wealth-creating trades that happen to cross arbitrary political boundaries?

My apologies to any parents who might be offended by my remarks that your kids are stupid. I'm a parent myself and though my daughter is the apple of my eye, at eight months, I'd hardly trust her to do a Jarque-Bera excess kurtosis test by hand.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?