Posted by: bkivey | 12 May 2010

Santa Clara Commissars

In a recent news item it was reported that the Alum Rock Union School District in Santa Clara county, CA, was considering a proposal to require parents of school children to ‘volunteer’ at least 30 hours per school year. Gustavo Gonzalez, the school board vice-chair, has said that “studies show students do better when their parents are involved.” as a justification for the proposal. While I have no doubt that the statement is true, the fact that an individual or group would think that subjugating a population to their well-intentioned vision illustrates a common human failing, that of thinking that a favorable specific result justifies a general coercion.

I can further illustrate the point with an example from Honolulu, HI. Folks who have visited or lived there know that drivers tend to think of speed limits as loose suggestions, an attitude that makes getting around markedly more dangerous than many other places. At one time there was road work taking place at a major intersection and after-hours the road crews used large steel sheets to cover the excavation. Because the steel was loose and slippery people were forced to slow down when crossing them. This led one city council member to publically observe that perhaps steel sheets should be placed at strategic locations throughout the city to curb speeding. Not long after, a Letter to the Editor in the Star-Bulletin took the council member to task for suggesting that the streets be made less safe in order to curb an unsafe behavior.

I took a course in school on situational ethics and the primary illustrations were those of scientists who worked on biological weapons, even going so far as to test them on human subjects. The point was that the researchers were not necessarily innately evil, but had become so focused on achieving a result that they had become blinded to the reality of what they were doing. So it was with the road brouhaha and so it is with the Alum Rock Union School Board.

This behavior is a human failing and respects no division, but does seem to be more noticable among those who claim the greatest compassion for others. These folks will take a datum and rather than provide leadership so that others will want to achieve a desired outcome, instead look to coerce others into a course of action. As an illustration, this sentence from a NY Times blog pretty much sums up the attitude:

Although it’s not clear whether state law permits districts to require parents to donate time to schools, proponents say that’s besides the point.

I’ll just let that sink in for a bit.

Apparently the question of whether a course of action is legal or even moral is ‘beside the point’ as long as a higher purpose is served. Because we all know that it’s about the children. In a similar vein, Mr. Gonzalez states that “We are trying to create a culture of strong parent-guardian-family participation.” It looks like Mr. Gonzalez and his fellow Board members remember the part about the big stick but not the speaking softly.

I found it indicative of cultural attitudes in journalism when I saw that the majority of reporting on this item emphasized the potential economic hardships rather than the usurpation of individual liberty. The implication is that it’s OK to be forced to give up liberty if one is not poor. I suppose that those who enjoy a higher standard of living are somehow stealing freedom from the poor. It’s so unfair!

The Alum Rock Union School Board is setting itself up for failure. If they wanted to make a statement, a resolution would have done the job nicely and may even have encouraged some parents to volunteer. Even if they pass the proposal, they have no way to enforce it. Nothing erodes authority or credibility faster than to issue an edict and have it ignored, or worse, ridiculed. They have certainly forgotten what they were elected to do: provide the means by which teachers can provide a good education to the District’s schoolchildren.

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