Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Thoughts on Atheist Private Schools (and private schools generally)

An accurate title for this blog posting would not easily fit in the title screen. It continues the discussion of atheists setting up a string of private schools that focus on teaching real-world facts and sound reasoning that I started yesterday. However, it is also a blog posting that discusses two problems with private schools - and, actually, two problems with free market solutions. In other words, it is a posting on a narrow subject matter that has some vary broad applications.

This is a continuation of a discussion I started in the previous posting that at least examines the option of setting up atheist schools that can take advantage of school voucher systems to get children into schools that focus on teaching then the facts of the natural world and sound reasoning. If these voucher systems are going to exist, then reason suggests offering parents the best possible education option - for parents who are interested in their child's education. I did suggest in that posting that most parents prefer to pay for indoctrination rather than education.

I argued in that previous post that setting up a set of atheist private schools has a problem that comes from the fact that such schools tend to promote tribalism. These schools tend to focus on promoting the idea that "us" - the group that hosts the school - is intrinsically better than "them" - the outgroup that that does not learn the same things that the ingroup consider to be true and important. History shows us that there seems no limit to the atrocities that tribalism can inspire, all of the way up to mass torture, slavery, and genocide. The French Revolution provides evidence that an atheist tribal movement can become just as deadly as any religious tribal movement.

This does not deny that there can be a benefit to private education. If atheists were to set up a group of private schools, I have little doubt that they could successfully market this particular product. "We are not going to teach your child myth and superstition. Your child will know what the best scientific minds think is true of the universe we live in. Furthermore,we will teach them critical learning skills. Those other (religious) schools have to dull your child's wisdom and intelligence to keep them from questioning religious doctrine. We won't do that."

This, however, highlights the problem between establishing a set of private schools and promoting tribal hostility. The claim that "Our school is better than any competing school" translates without effort into "Our people are superior to other people."

The challenge for private schools would be to create a product that can handle these types of problems.

Here, we expose two problems.

One is a problem with unfettered capitalism. Capitalism states that competition for dollars will inspire entrepreneurs to create products that provide people with what they value. In talking about private education, we assume that what people value - what they are seeking to purchase - is the education of the child. Thus, competition in the private education market would produce the best and most efficient education. Those businesses that produce the most education at the least cost would become the market champions, and the world would be a better place.

However, this assumes that what people value - what they want to purchase - is knowledge and understanding of the facts of the world. If this is true, private education would produce the best institutions for teaching the facts of the world.

However, what many people really want to purchase - what they value far more than they value truth - is cultural dominance. They value seeing "us" in power as masters and "them" being made to serve. To the degree that this is the case, the value that private schools have to offer - that which will help them dominate the market - that on which they will innovate - is in indoctrinating the child into the tribe. The most profitable and successful private schools - the market leaders - will be those that can sell tribal dominance to the tribe that already has the most wealth and political power.

The general problem is that the free market is great at innovation and creating the things that people want to buy, but there are some things that those with power and money want to buy where there are many and strong reasons to object to having those goods in the market to be purchased. Tribal cohesion and dominance over others would qualify.

The second problem is that capitalism does not innovate to benefit those who have no money. One of the effects of having half of the global wealth in the hands of 1% of the population is that, if you are an entrepreneur and you want somebody to pay you for your good or service, them you had better provide a good or service that this 1% wants to buy. They have enough food, clean water, and access to medical care. Therefore, innovation in the area of growing more and more nourishing food, providing clean water, or providing basic medical care will not be high on your list. Providing luxury goods - vacation opportunities, entertainment, art and other forms of conspicuous consumption, gadgets, and the like - would be high on the list.

The atheist private school system could produce the best education on the planet in terms of factual knowledge and sound reasoning, but only for those who had the means to pay.

The problem facing those at the bottom of the economic system is not only that they have less money, but the money they do have needs to go first to food, water, security, and health care. Nobody is going to get wealthy innovating education goods to sell to the global poor. Nobody is even going to get wealthy innovating in the distribution of food, clean water, and health care. Here, too, the global poor does not have the means to compensate the entrepreneur for these investments.

None of this contradicts the actual benefits that would come from creating an atheist school that proved superior in teaching factual knowledge and sound reasoning. Simply imagine a school where the teachers can teach the facts of science where science teachers did not have to worry about offending religious sensibilities. Imagine history classes that did not have to tip-toe around the conflicts between archaeology and biblical literalism. Imagine a school where students in the 9th and 10th grade can discuss the cosmological arguments for the existence of god and the argument from evil. One can imagine that the children could come out of a system like that much better off than children whose teachers are trying not to offend religious sensibilities - or, worse yet, a system where religious myths lacking evidence are taught as fact and faith is taught to be superior to evidence and reason.

That is - if those children can leave such a school without thinking that their duty to humanity is to lead the atheist tribe in a purge of all things religious.

One can attempt to design a set of atheist private schools that answers the first problem simply by resolving to teach the importance of accepting different group. Teaching the facts of the world should include teaching about tribalism and its dangers. However, the problem here concerns the question of whether this school can actually be successful. Recent research reveals that atheists are human beings - that the facts of human psychology are applicable to them. This suggests that if two atheist private school systems came into existence - one dedicated to teaching the dangers of tribalism and another devoted to promoting and championing the atheist tribe as superior to all others, that the latter would dominate the market.

As for the second problem, there is simply no way for the market to correct for the fact that private schools will serve the interests of those who have the money to pay for them, and fail to innovate to serve the interests of those who have no money to spend. Some sort of redistribution is going to be required - some way to get those with money to finance the education of those who do not have money. We can try to rely on private contributions - charity - but, here too, the rich will tend to demand that their charity go to providing an education that favors the class that is paying the money. They will be more likely to fund beliefs and values that preserve their status and position over those that challenge their status and position.

The challenge of providing a quality education to all lends itself to no easy solution. At least, there is no easy solution that I can think of.

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