“I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Although French philosopher Voltaire might not have uttered those exact words, they express a sentiment we think is central to the social constitution of a free and open society. As we have argued in previous columns, the constitution of our nation is not just the written document directing and binding our federal government, but the assumptions, habits and predilections of its people.
Nowhere is this principle more important than in our educational institutions, especially in universities and colleges but also in K-12. We disagree with most of the positions of Karl Marx and Ibram X. Kendi. But we defend our colleagues’ choice to teach their work and promote their views. That is partly because we choose to teach the work and promote the views of Adam Smith and Thomas Sowell. But also because respectful discussion and engagement is how we learn, grow and find better solutions to our common problems. A well-educated university student is one who has been exposed to a variety of views, especially those at odds with one another!
But what if a majority of voters or their legislative representatives think universities, or, for that matter, K-12 schools, should or should not teach certain ideas? He who pays the piper calls the tune? Right? We really don’t know the law on this, but even if legislators can assert such authority, in our humble opinion it is almost always a bad idea for them to exercise that prerogative.
First, forbearance might be the essence of a free society: to impulsively pass laws today based on current passions is dangerous (see Federalist Papers). Second, trying to micromanage what must or must not be taught in thousands of classrooms from the perch of the General Assembly is a fool’s errand. What is a violation of the law? Who decides and with what consequences?
So what are parents to do if their children are being taught material they deem offensive? Talk to the teacher, the principal and school board members. Local activism is the best strategy, not top-down directives. As a last resort, switch schools. Perhaps concerned legislators would do better to work on expanding school options than legislating against particular content. Ultimately, educational institutions are directed by the same social constitution as the rest of society. We pray it remains free and open.•
Bohanon and Curott are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.