Progressives and the Lure of Finland: A Word of Caution

Right-wing pundits and pseudo-journalists often bemoan what they see as the overarching power of the State and its ever-growing tendency to take over our lives. I seldom take these prognostications of doom seriously.  I fail to see the looming threat posed by universal health coverage or an increased minimum wage. Every once in a while, however, something comes along to remind me that even the paranoid have enemies, and even those prone to demagogic excess may sometimes have a point.

The something that came along recently was the Youtube clip of a discussion between Cenk Uygur, the head honcho of the Young Turks’ Network (TYT), and Ana Kasparian, that network’s star.  For those unfamiliar with it,  TYT is an on-line network appealing primarily to millennials.  It identifies itself as progressive, disdains what it calls “corporatist” or “establishment” Democrats (i.e., moderates) and is unabashedly supportive of the presidential candidacy, past and (it hopes) future, of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  I discovered TYT during the 2016 Democratic National Convention. and have watched its main show with some regularity since then. Though I frequently disagree with its positions, its left-wing opinion journalism provides a good counterbalance to the right wing youtube clips that I also watch regularly.

The lead-in to this particular discussion was innocuous.– a story about a Florida school district that was contemplating constructing subsidized housing for teachers, some of whom were being forced by climbing housing prices to live at great distances from their schools.  Uygur and Kasparian discussed the pros and cons of the district’s proposed remedy, concluding that it would be better if the district paid its teachers enough to enable them to live in regular housing in the  neighborhoods where they teach.  That in turn led to a generalized discussion of the problems of American education, which gave Uygur the opportunity to trot out his solution of choice .– following the example set by Finland.

According to Uygur, Finland has in recent years turned what had once been a mediocre school system into a top-rated one through a series of reforms.  He mentioned a few, but the one that clearly interested him most was the abolition of private schools, a reform that he advocates for the United States.  His rationale is that forcing the children of the rich and powerful to attend public schools would “within two years”  — where he gets that time frame from he doesn’t say — raise the priority given to public school funding and thus improve dramatically the quality of public education.  Of course, the same political influence that he hopes to harness for the benefit of the public schools would first be wielded to prevent the adoption of his scheme, but Uygur has an answer to that problem.  All he claims to need is for progressives supportive of his scheme to take over municipal governments in a few cities and turn them into demonstrations of the wonders of his plan.

Kasparian, who had initially remained silent when the discussion turned to Finland, at this point chimed in.  She posited, reasonably enough, that all of society would benefit from improvement in the overall quality of public education, and she proceeded to argue that  private school parents should “think of it as a collectivist thing rather than an individualistic thing.” Lots of luck.

I have not done extensive research on Finnish education, but a quick internet search suggests that the improvement of Finland’s schools may not be as durable an achievement  as  Uygur and Kasparian believe.  Nor is it clear that the particular facet of the Finnish school system that they emphasize — the abolition of private schools — is primarily responsible for the system’s recent successes.  Finland, moreover, is an ethnically homogeneous  nation of five and a half million.  How well the lessons of its reforms could apply to a country of the size and diversity of the United States is at best open to question.

Uygur and Kasparian apparently believe that non-public school student bodies consist  solely of children whose affluent parents want them to benefit from an educational quality that the cash-strapped public schools cannot afford to match.  They make no mention of those parents  — such as halakhic Jews or devout Catholics —  who may have religious or philosophical reasons for wanting their children educated in schools that reflect an ideology that progressives disfavor.  Many parents make significant financial sacrifices to enable their children to attend religious schools, but  Uygur and Kasparian may not know any such  parents. Militant secularists that they are, however, they might see the burden that such a proposal would place on religious education as a fringe benefit.

As an American, I find this proposal disturbing; as a Jew, I find it terrifying.  By supporting an educational “reform ” that would include the abolition of private schools, Uygur and Kasparian are advocating exactly what right wingers accuse them of advocating.  They are prepared to trample the rights of parents to raise their children in accordance with their own values in the name of an abstract concept of equity predicated on influencing the political behavior of parents.  It is precisely the kind of social engineering that lends credibility to conservative accusations of elitist paternalism.

Uygur and Kasparian may not realize it, but the notion of forcing all children into public school is not exactly a new one.  In 1922, the State of Oregon adopted by voter initiative a law to impose such a requirement.  It was a product of the anti-Catholic nativism that had begun in the progressive era and reached a crescendo after World War I. In the 1925 case of Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the United States Supreme Court held Oregon’s attempt to impose such a requirement  unconstitutional. The Court’s opinion, written by Justice McReynolds, sounds surprisingly contemporary:

[T]he Act of 1922 unreasonably interferes with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control: as often heretofore pointed out, rights guaranteed by the Constitution may not be abridged by legislation which has no reasonable relation to some purpose within the competency of the State. The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.

Uygur and Kasparian would probably bristle at being compared to the nativists responsible for the legislation struck down by the Supreme Court in Pierce.  The advocates of universal public education in the 1920’s, however, would probably also have denied that nativism and xenophobia were their primary motivations.  From their perspective, they were enlightened main line Protestant reformers eager to share the benefits of their progressive outlook with their less enlightened fellow citizens. With the benefit of hindsight, we may view them less charitably.

I am not worried that Uygur’s proposal can succeed in the foreseeable future.  The constitutional, political and practical obstacles would probably be insurmountable.  But the condescending attitudes that underlie this proposal — the assumption that Uygur and Kasparian know better than parents how to raise their children and that progressives are entitled to use other people’s children as pawns in pursuit of a political goal — will likely find expression elsewhere in progressive platforms.  And if, as seems possible, the public, in belated horror at the political wreckage that is the Trump administration,  proves to be unexpectedly open to progressive ideas, those of us who find our ideological home somewhere between today’s polarized extremes will need to proceed with caution.

Yes, I know, loud voices on the right complain of threats to liberty  every time government seeks to assist our less fortunate fellow citizens.  If we too  become hypersensitive, seeing threats to freedom where they don’t exist, we diminish our credibility and risk being ignored when the threats are real.  But if we allow our fear of uncomfortable alliances to intimidate us into silence, then we will  have no one to blame but ourselves when we find increasing obstacles to perpetuating our heritage.  Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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