Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Education will never end racism by changing people’s minds. That’s not how mediation works. The distribution of information affects the distribution of power and vice versa. This relationship requires neither agreement nor enlightenment.

For instance, our fractious mediasphere pits audiences against each other not only by stoking antagonisms, but also by creating parallel universes with sharply divergent assumptions and rules for debate. What one camp calls “affirmative action,” another calls “discrimination.” These terms don’t just name different opinions, they designate different realities.

Milton Friedman’s highly influential argument in support of school vouchers addresses a universe parallel to ours. It has set an agenda for every Republican administration since Reagan’s. In Media U, we ignored it, although we took pains to include other conservative voices. Overlooking Friedman now strikes us as a mistake. The economist failed to grapple with the problem of mediation that is at the core of our book, and in this he tellingly resembles many other influential thinkers we chronicled.

To make a case for school vouchers in 1955, Friedman acknowledged that education has “neighborhood effects.” Like the influential authors of Harvard’s General Education in a Free Society (1949), he assumed that schooling should provide a common benefit in the form of training students for citizenship (see Media U for discussion of this key document). “A stable and democratic society is impossible without widespread acceptance of some common set of values and without a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens,” Friedman argues. “Education contributes to both.” For this reason, it benefits not only the individual who attends a given school but also “contributes to other people’s welfare.”

This benefit warrants state financial support but not, he maintains, state control over how resources are expended. The cause of liberty demands that parents and students retain decision-making authority: thus, vouchers.

Segregation provides Friedman a limit case. In a lengthy footnote, he acknowledges that “public financing of the private operation of education–has recently been suggested in several southern states as a means of evading the Supreme Court ruling against segregation.” Although Friedman himself “deplore[s] segregation and racial prejudice,” he argues that the state’s authority does not extend to “my–or anyone else’s–views, whether about racial prejudice or the party to vote for, so long as the action of any one individual affects mostly himself.” In contrast, he affirms the state’s authority to “prevent the use of violence and physical coercion by one group on another.”

Like violence, we would say, education powerfully affects those it addresses. When classes affirm poems as insightful or theorems as correct they do not necessarily create consensus or compel deep and abiding belief. They do establish what counts as knowledge within certain domains. They also reinforce standards for ranking and certification, with all that entails for individual advancement. It hurts to be wrong in class. What pupil has not known that sting?

We are not saying that a course on the Constitution that leaves out the three-fifths compromise or welcomes only white students is the same thing as being beaten by the police. In each case, however, those in authority inflict harm. Moreover, when students choose their classes, they do not decide what they learn in the same way as a voter chooses a party or a candidate. Not knowing what you’re getting into is the essence of the pedagogical situation.

Friedman reasons the other way around. He likens educational choices to airing one’s opinion in order to propose vouchers as a bottom-up solution to America’s race problem. Private actors would be free to “develop exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools.” Parents would be free to choose. Opponents of segregation would “try to persuade others of their views; if and as they succeed, the mixed schools will grow at the expense of the nonmixed, and a gradual transition will take place.” In this appeal to persuasion, Friedman mistakes the violence of mediation for freedom of speech.

In so doing, he marks the edge of the school’s “neighborhood effects” and affirms that training for American citizenship can accommodate institutionalized racism. Because it is a matter of contending viewpoints, he reasons, citizens should be free to use neighborhood money to exclude other citizens.

As if to acknowledge the contradiction between advocating education for citizenship on the one hand and defending public funding for segregated schools on the other, in latter decades Friedman abandoned the “neighborhood effect.” Writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, the Libertarian blogger and lawyer George Leef draws attention to a 1979 publication in which Friedman recounts his struggle “to induce the people who make” neighborhood effects arguments like the one he once made “to be specific about the alleged benefits. The answer is almost always simply bad economics.”

As homo economicus rises, the citizen falls. In 1955, Friedman perceived vouchers as a way to reconcile education’s public benefit with individual liberty. Revisiting the idea in a 1997 polemic, “Public Schools: Make them Private,” Friedman proposes vouchers as merely a transitional step on the way to a fully private system of primary and secondary education.

And yet, a whiff of the neighborhood effect remains. Observing the growing stratification of US society into haves and have-nots, he predicts that “[w]e shall not be willing to see a group of our population move into Third World conditions at the same time that another group of our population becomes increasingly well off. Such stratification is a recipe for social disaster.”

Friedman does not name racialized inequity as explicitly in 1997 as he did in 1955, but he doesn’t need to. This legacy is encoded in the spectre of “Third World conditions” and the “deterioration of our central cities.”

Enter education, again, as villain and champion. “So far,” Friedman asserts, “our educational system has been adding to the tendency to stratification.” Nonetheless, “it is the only major force in sight capable of offsetting that tendency.”

We could propose any number of more directly redistributive mechanisms (reparations, anyone?). Friedman’s appeal to education preempts them, and it does so in a manner that extends the category error that conflates violent mediation with individual choice.

The 1955 article asserted that the state had no warrant to constrain educational choices, even if it had a reason to fund them. The 1997 argument against “government schools” is not that they constrain liberty, but that they do a bad job. Friedman particularly feels that our schools are technologically “backward.” They fail to use computers in “an imaginative and innovative way.” Private enterprise will know how to shake this up, he believes, just like it revolutionized the telephone industry after deregulation.

Young Friedman fancied that neighbours would compete to convince one another about segregation and the best-argued approach would win. Older Friedman proposed that the market will force “innovations in the ‘luxury’ product” that will inevitably “spread to the basic product,” thereby saving our society from dissolution. “Good” education seems self-evident, and it follows the money. “We all know,” he asserts, that there are “some relatively good government schools in high-income suburbs” while inner city schools are failing. Meanwhile, private schools for “elites” are “superior.”

How will we recognize educational innovations as improvements? Because the luxury market adopts them or because they thwart our descent into “Third World” conditions? Friedman believes a sufficiently competitive market will guarantee that educational innovations entail social improvements. This faith we cannot share.

Nonetheless, Friedman’s contention that education should help to reduce social stratification remains enticing, not least because here is one point where parallel universes miraculously intersect. His evolving case for vouchers rightly centers the question of who should determine what a “good” school is and who should pay for it. He correctly reasons that each of us has a stake in the educational decisions others make.

Friedman wrongly imagines, however, that determinations about educational quality can take place absent considerations of the classroom’s potential to harm students. Absent, that is, acknowledgment that schools mediate choices and contribute to a distribution of power. Education’s effects are insufficiently described in terms of “persuasion” or “innovation.” They have to do with thicker, more difficult matters like what can count as history, or whether affirmative action and racial discrimination are at all the same thing.

Envisioned as a means to reconcile shared interests with individual liberty, vouchers fail to grapple with the school’s mediating function. But traditional arguments in favor of public, or government, schools have not fared much better. They too tend to emphasize “improving” minds, as opposed to mediating social relations, and then proceed to argue over questions of funding and administration. One consequence, we have observed, has been a loss of faith in our educational system’s ability to distinguish merit from inherited privilege. Schools must make that distinction, we think Friedman would agree, if they are to counter the violence of social stratification.