When “parens patriae” runs amuck

No child left behind! Like all utopian slogans, it sounds good until you look at what it means. The problem is that the slogan only makes sense if the state can become a universal supplier of adequate education—that is, if it can take on the parental role in raising children. It can’t, though, because its relation to the individual is much too formal and undiscriminating. It’s as if someone tried to have children raised by the Post Office or the beta version of some robot or artificial intelligence program. The Church has noted repeatedly that parents simply can’t be replaced as the primary educators of their children. If the parents don’t do their job, the state might be able to help some children in some ways, but the idea that it can make up for parental failure in all cases, as the slogan demands, is simply wrong.

Since it’s wrong, it leads to destructive policies. One is that young people who don’t belong in school are kept there: reducing “drop-out” rates becomes a goal in itself regardless of whether it makes sense for anyone involved. Another is that the limited capacity of some children to benefit from the education that is offered is denied, so that everyone else is held back by their limitations: Special needs pupils “make majority suffer”. Another problem brought on by the view that nothing is done properly unless it’s done to state standards and under state supervision is that the robotic approach state bureaucracies have adopted in their own dealings with children gets applied universally. The results include anti-spanking laws, various “zero-tolerance” rules, and a cluster of bizarre cases in which Baby pictures are treated as pornography. And a final problem is that since girls are more compliant, and bureaucracies require compliance, the educational system is now engaged in a campaign to abolish boys.

My question: does it matter that none of this helps children, or is it solely important that in principle everything has been seen to, and how it actually works out is unimportant detail? The outlook of those involved in policy seems the latter—whether a policy works or not is less important than that there is a policy. Because policy, and not successful policy, is their business.

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