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Uncle Sam Wants You to Scrub Toilets


I’ve gotten a very diverse reaction to column today on Newt Gingrich. If you’re interested in the Gingrich speech I was referencing, here it is.

There are a lot of angles I couldn’t address in the column. One of them is the contradiction within the liberal critique of Newt’s comments. Let’s stipulate that Gingrich should not have picked scrubbing toilets as the ideal hypothetical workfare job for under-privileged kids. But with that caveat, given how liberals view the role of schools, is there any principled argument against Newt’s basic point: That the schools should take it upon themselves to teach kids basic values they’re not being taught at home?

You can’t say that liberals don’t believe schools should teach kids values. Schools spend an inordinate amount of time teaching values — and that’s not always bad. We can argue about the controversies another time, but no objective person would dispute the fact that schools teach values — of racial tolerance, sexual equality, etc. — every single day.

You can’t say that liberals oppose the schools “correcting” for the shortcomings of parents. School lunch and breakfast programs are invariably defended on the grounds that many parents just can’t manage to take care of such things, either for financial reasons (the preferred liberal explanation) or because they don’t have the time (also accepted) or because they’re just bad parents (politically incorrect). Every five minutes there’s a new controversy about some public school pushing sex-ed on younger and younger kids against the wishes of parents. Every year the librarians lie about banned books when their real complaint is with parents second-guessing them.

It seems to me that if you are a conservative who is at peace with the existence of public schools and their role as substitute parents, then the conservative critique is not that the schools impose values, it’s that they impose the wrong values, or that they fail to sufficiently impose the right ones.

Traditionally, parents are supposed to teach kids the importance of hard work, punctuality, responsibility, respect for elders, etc. If parents can’t or won’t do that, then I don’t see why liberals should oppose the schools stepping in to do so. Now, the response from a liberal might be “We don’t oppose that, but making kids scrub filthy toilets is demeaning and bound to fail.”

Again, fair enough. But here’s the problem: Any serious attempt to teach poor inner-city kids the old fashioned values of self-respect and self-discipline are going to be open to the charge of being “demeaning.” Holding values-education hostage to the self-esteem of kids is a surefire way to ensure that you don’t teach some important values and end up boosting the self-esteem of kids to their detriment.