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My Quora experiment

Generally I stay away from Quora because of all the inanity there, but I keep going back because there’s just enough good stuff (e.g. Keith Winstein keeps posting there).

After reading one of Philip Greenspun‘s blog posts (I forget which one) I got to thinking about public education. Two peculiar things about it are (a) we pay to send other people’s children to school, even though education seems to be a private benefit (certainly college is considered to be one), (b) we make it illegal for a parent not to. (a) is simply liberal, once you see that education is a public good, not a private one, so not really more puzzling than public investment in roads. But (b) requires some justification since on the surface it sounds like meddling in personal liberty, as well as unnecessary since isn’t education in one’s self interest?

I did some web searches around (b) and didn’t turn up very much. Mostly discussions of public education go to (a), talking about all the benefits of an educated public, and don’t address (b). The best reason I found was that forcing parents to send their kids to school protects the children since it keeps the children from being exploited for their labor in factories, on farms, and so on. Self-interest is not a good evaluation heuristic here because the parents’ interest may be at odds with the child’s interest.

There was also something about integrating the children of immigrants.

Maybe there is so little dissent from compulsory education that nobody questions it. You don’t see picket lines with people shouting “no more education”. As Philip would say, parents like the free day care.

My pet rationale for compulsory education is that it is defensive: children grow up to be voters and jurors, and when we are falsely accused we don’t want to be judged by the ignorant. We have to coerce people to be less ignorant, since otherwise they would choose to be ignorant. That is just a theory. Maybe school helps enlighten students, but public opinion polls would suggest it’s not very successful at it.

I want to emphasize that I’m not being polemical; I’m not asking the question because I have an axe to grind about how children ought to be free to skip school and parents have no responsibility if they do. I’m just looking for an answer to what I thought was an obvious question of political philosophy, and a relatively uncontroversial one given that you don’t hear a lot of fighting about it.

From time to time you do hear people complain about paying property taxes when they don’t have children or when their own children don’t benefit from the local public schools, and it would be nice to have a sensible answer to such complaints.

So I tried Quora. The way I asked was: “Why do we require, and pay, other people to send their children to school?” There were three serious flaws with this way of asking, and as a result the exercise was unproductive.

First, it is two questions; requiring and paying are very different things, as I say above, and they have different rationales. Most of the answers addressed the ‘paying’ part while completely ignoring the ‘requiring’ part. I’ve found something similar with email: if you ask two questions in an email message, the response(s) you get back will invariably answer one or the other but not both. If you have two questions, send two messages.

Second, it does not make clear that I was looking for a rationale for requirement that would decisively overcome the liberty argument.

Third, it talks about sending children to school, when it should be asking about compulsory education – home schooling is perfectly OK. So I got an answer picking at this flaw in the question, without giving me any response to the ‘requiring’ part.

I hope my report of these missteps will be of help to someone else formulating a question for Quora or any similar forum. A better question would have been: “What gives us a moral right to tell others that their children have to get an education?” – that actually helps generate hypotheses, such as uneducated = dangerous (making it similar to the imposition of building codes).

What useful information did I get? Here are excerpts (I am quoting people out of context, go back to quora.com for justice to them):

“The more educated people there are in your world, the larger your pool of potential good friends will be and the more interesting your life will be.” – this goes to (a), not (b).

“Because the collective cost of ignorance to society is far, far more expensive.” – this says why you would want to require education, not why you would have a right to do so.

“Requiring kids to go to school isn’t the only way kids can be educated.” – as I described above, the purpose of this response was to (justly) put in a plug for home schooling.

All the other answers were about benefit to society and why the public pays for education. No quarrel there. One responder taught me the term “merit good”, which was nice.

Did I learn anything? Yes, about how not to post questions to Quora, but not about the question at hand.

[addendum 2016-06-07: This Language Log post contains the kind of information I was looking for: James Garfield in his 1881 inaugural address said “All the constitutional power of the nation and of the States and all the volunteer forces of the people should be surrendered to meet this danger by the savory influence of universal education.” referring the danger that illiteracy poses to the survival of the republic. That is, he says it’s not just a Good Thing, it’s a matter of addressing an existential threat, and therefore necessary.]

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