Yes, Parents Have the Right to Shape Their Kids’ School Curriculum
“Parents must cooperate closely with the teachers of the schools to which they entrust their children to be educated; moreover, teachers in fulfilling their duty are to collaborate very closely with parents, who are to be heard willingly …” (Code of Canon Law, No. 796)
The Washington Post recently published an opinion piece with the headline, “Parents claim they have the right to shape their kids’ school curriculum. They don’t.” Toward the end of the article, the authors argue for the title’s claim by appealing to the precedents set by law. Even if parents remove their children from the public schools, “parental rights remain subject to state regulation and override.”
As a student of philosophy, what catches my attention is the perspective on rights. What are our rights? More importantly, where do they come from? Why do we have them? Only when this question is answered — and it is a philosophical question, not an educational or legal question — can we begin to answer questions about who has what rights. Everyone has a philosophy about rights, whether he realizes it or not. Everyone has a philosophy, whether it has been examined or unexamined, adopted through reason or indoctrinated through society. It is important, though, to seek the truth about this matter since claims about rights take center stage in political discourse. (By the way, the nature and purpose of government is another philosophical topic.)
The authors of the Post article seem to think that our rights are given to us by the government. No other appeal is made to any other source of rights. Whether the authors have any other personal convictions about rights is not clear.
The philosopher is concerned with asking the question whether or not the government is our only source of rights. If that were the case, then it would never make any sense to argue that the government is not granting people their rights. If women in some countries are not granted the right to an education, then they do not have that right, and there is no basis for arguing that they do have that right since the only source of rights is from the government. This also means that there is no right we enjoy that cannot be taken from us by the government.
This conclusion strikes us as wrong. Even our Declaration of Independence refers to “unalienable rights,” which implies that the government is not the only foundation of our rights. That founding document states that our rights are given to us by God, but the knowledge of these rights are discoverable even apart from divine revelation. Those unalienable rights — what we could call intrinsic rights as opposed to civil rights — are known by the same way morality is known by perennial philosophy: the common essential nature of the human person. Despite all our differences, we are all humans because we share this common essential nature. That is the basis of morality, justice and rights.
Humans are rational and social animals. “Rights” refer to the right relationship among people; our natural relationships as social beings dictate proper order between individuals and groups. These rights are intrinsic because they are built into the very nature of what it means to be human. That is the foundation of rights. Civil rights should be derived from these intrinsic rights.
What then when it comes to parents and education?
As social beings, what is the foundation of society? The family. The union of a man and a woman is what generates new members of society and provides the context for them to be raised. A society composed of mere individuals will die out after one generation. Since the family is the place where children are raised, and since children are by nature rational creatures, the primary duty of education lies with the parents. If communities have established educational facilities and curricula for whole populations of children, it is because parents have entrusted part of the formation of their children to the community.
The parents, however, still have the primary right and duty to make decisions about how their children are raised. If the government does not grant parents their unalienable right to have the final say in their child’s education, then civil rights contradict intrinsic rights. These are the “fundamental rights” put in quotation marks in the first paragraph of the Washington Post piece. Schools and communities operate on the authority and permission of parents, and they do not have the intrinsic right to contradict them, whatever the government says or will say.
What about the goal of education mentioned in the article? It is said that the goal of education, threatened by parental control, is that children learn to think for themselves. That, however, also expresses a certain philosophy — a philosophy of education. The mind, however, is not an instrument primarily for operating on its own; its meaning is to find truth. Education is not so much learning to think for oneself, but to think well, and the danger of indoctrination is just as present in a school as in a home.
The state does indeed bear a high responsibility for the education of its citizens, but that is only because of the essential nature of the human person as a rational being — the same essential nature that reveals an even higher duty of the parents for the education of their children. If the community has a duty to educate its citizens, it is because of the duty that is first incumbent on the parents and is then entrusted to the community.