The central meaning-giving task in our lives

As I said before, I’m shifting to a different lens on this issue. I’m going to work through passages of William Galston’s Liberal Pluralism and The Practice of Liberal Pluralism, and Amy Guttman’s Democratic Education. The questions are: how should we think about the tradeoffs between parental rights and societal interests when it comes to public education? When is it okay for society to override what parents want for their children? Are there any limits, if any? The answers to these questions aren’t always obvious.

Let’s start with a lengthy quote from Galston’s first book (starting on p. 102):

What I want to argue is that the ability of parents to raise their children in a manner consistent with their deepest commitments is an essential element of expressive liberty. As Eamonn Callan rightly suggests, parenting is typically undertaken as one of the central meaning-giving tasks of our lives. We cannot detach our aspirations for our children from our understanding of what is good and virtuous. As Stephen Gilles insists, loving and nurturing a child cannot in practice be divorced from shaping that child’s values…
…It is understandable for parents to fear that their children may become embroiled in ways of life they regard as alien and distasteful and, within limits, to act to reduce the risk that this fear will be realized. Callan links these parental expressive interests with core liberal freedoms: ‘…the freedom to rear our children according to the dictates of conscience is for must of us as important as any other expression of conscience, and the freedom to organize and sustain the life of the family in keeping with our own values is as significant to our liberty to associate outside the family for any purpose whatsoever.’

…As parent, I am more than the child’s caretaker or teacher, and I am not simply a representative of the state delegated to prepare the child for citizenship….The hopes and sacrifices…reflect the intimate particularity of the parent-child bond, the fact that the child is in part (though only in part) an extension of ourselves. [Emphasis added]

Many Americans consider the theory of evolution to be distasteful. Are we really surprised they oppose teaching it to their children? Even if we disagree, aren’t we obligated to at least sympathize with their desire to raise their children how they want?

None of this means that parents have complete power over their children. They clearly don’t. But it does mean we should reflect carefully before we infringe upon perhaps the most meaning-giving task in parents’ lives.


1 Comment

  1. Great point, and one that has been strangely downplayed by conservative evangelical Protestants in the long creation/evolution debates. Don’t get me wrong: there have been plenty of attempts to claim “persecution” by the state, most famously in the Mozert v. Hawkins County case ( But by and large, the strong case for parental rights has been obscured by a much weaker and more difficult claim to represent better, truer science. We saw this most recently in the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate. What if Ken Ham had done more to insist that creationist parents have the right to teach their kids their beliefs?

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