Public Education and the Common Good: Is It Wrong to Send Your Child to Private School? — Matthew Petrusek

February 6, 2014

Allison Benedikt, a writer for Slate, published a self-described “manifesto” against private schooling (see Reference below). With a mixture of sarcasm and sermonizing, the article—polemically entitled, “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person”—seeks to convince readers that opting for private over public education is not only a sign of ignorance, but of moral corruption. 

Yet nestled in the over-the-top invective is a sober and potentially serious charge: by favoring private education, Benedikt maintains, parents are aggravating the deterioration of public schools in the United States, which, by almost every metric, are failing to provide millions of children with the knowledge and capacities necessary for college and beyond.
 
Benedikt’s solution is for parents to go, as she puts it, “all in” on public education, even to the detriment of their own children. “[It] seems to me,” she argues, “that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately…Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.”
 
There are two related arguments here. First, Benedikt is making an empirical claim about a hypothetical cause and effect relationship between increased enrollment and educational outcomes: if every parent were to send their children to public school, then public schools, she believes, would improve. Second, she is also making a strong normative claim: parents ought send their children to public school, she implies, because everyone has a duty to seek the “common good.”
 
Setting aside the persuasiveness of Benedikt’s empirical claim, her normative claim itself deserves serious scrutiny. Does a concept of the “common good” support Benedikt’s proposal, especially since it requires some parents to harm their children by knowingly choosing a “mediocre” education for them when they have other options?
 
The “common good,” like the terms “justice” and “fairness,” can be as elusive to define as it is to achieve. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a Doctor of the Catholic Church whose writings have foundationally influenced the Roman Catholic conception of the common good, provides a framework for one possible definition. “[All human] law,” he writes in his Summa Theologica, “is chiefly ordained to the common good [and] any other precept in regard to some individual work, must needs be devoid of the nature of a law, save in so far as it regards the common good.” In other words, for any individual action to be considered moral, its ultimate aim must be to serve the common good.
 
Does Benedikt have a potential ally in Aquinas? If every action must ultimately serve the common good, one could, perhaps, conclude that each parent ought to choose the school for their child that will advance the good of all children. That is precisely Benedikt’s position.
 
Yet Aquinas also writes: “Offspring signifies not only begetting of children, but also of their education, to which as its end is directed the entire communion of works that exists between man and wife united in marriage, since parents naturally [support] their children.” Parents, that is, not only have the responsibility of creating children, but of educating them as well.
 
Setting aside the difficulty of applying Aquinas’s conception of education to a contemporary one, Aquinas provides a perspective on the common good that ultimately appears to challenge, rather than support, Benedikt.
 
To serve the common good, for Aquinas, is not to act with an eye to attaining some aggregate good whose sum is greater than any “costs” that might be accrued along the way; it is not an end-justifies-means form of moral reasoning. Rather, the end itself—the common good—must be represented in every means to attain it. This representation takes the form of individuals always doing what is just in every relationship they have. For parents, that means upholding their duty to provide the best education possible for their children.
 
Deliberately giving your child a “mediocre” education for the sake of some perceived social benefit would thus not advance the common good, for Aquinas. It would violate it.
 
In other words, the common good can never justify causing avoidable harm to another—especially one’s child.    
 
This insight certainly does not solve the public-education crisis in this country. Nor does it aid those who, regrettably, have no choice but to send their children to troubled schools. Still, Aquinas does provide at least one helpful, if negative, principle to guide parents as they navigate the increasingly complex educational landscape. Whatever you choose, do not intentionally make your own child a casualty in the name of perceived progress. Not, that is, if you care about the common good.
 
Resources and Further Reading:
Benedickt, Allison. "If You Send Your Kids to Private School, You Are a Bad Person.” Slate.com, August 29, 2013.

Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Theologicahttp://www.newadvent.org/summa/.

Copleston, F.C. Aquinas: An Introduction to the Life and Work of the Great Medieval Thinker. New York: Penguin, 1955.

Photo Credit: Pressmaster / Shutterstock
 

Petrusek_2013_125x188.jpgAuthor, Matthew Petrusek, (Ph.D. Religious Ethics, 2013, University of Chicago Divinity School) is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

 

 

 


ac_110325_151102_1489c9b397c70eff40990f.Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/god-theological-accounts-and-ethical-possibilities.

 

 

Publication author: 
Matthew Petrusek