A Problem of Paternalistic Schooling

“The problem of poverty or underachievement is not that the poor lack freedom. The real problem is that the poor are too free.”

–Lawrence Mead: The New Paternalism: Supervisory Approaches to Poverty

This is the philosophy undergirding David Whitman’s “An Appeal to Authority: The New Paternalism in Urban Schools.”  In his essay, Whitman studies the success of 6 schools across the country, attributing their success to their embrace of “The New Paternalism:” Crystal-clear expectations for behavior and “no-excuse accountability.”  “Paternalistic schools,” he explains, “teach character and middle-class virtues like diligence, politeness, cleanliness, and thrift.”  The school is to do the job that the parents are failing at; parents are asked only to ferry their children to the school and Whitman includes “don’t demand much of parents” in his top-ten list of “habits of highly effective urban schools,” mostly KIPP-style charter schools.

As the parent of a child who would probably benefit from a highly structured environment, I understand the appeal of this model.  I often feel like a failure as a parent and don’t doubt that a school culture devoted to good behavior would improve my son’s chances at becoming a productive citizen.  So would joining the military.  The more disciplined, the better.

I have heard that Soviet schools provided excellent discipline too.  They also, for a period of time under Stalin, included in their paternalistic education an explicit curriculum of breaking family bonds.  The values taught in Stalin-era Soviet schools were deemed superior to whatever children were getting at home.  Just to be sure that students received the correct education on all fronts, children were encouraged to report their parents to the authorities if there were any discrepancies between what they were learning at school and what they were learning at home.

Replacing the parent and the child’s home culture didn’t really work for Soviet education and it’s not going to work for us today.  The quick-fix solution promised by “The New Paternalism” is still old, better left on the trash heap of history.  Education that is rooted in family, in community, and in relationships, is messy and difficult, but necessary for a democratic people.