Academic journal article Texas Review of Law & Politics

Producing Trousered Apes in Dwyer's Totalitarian State

Academic journal article Texas Review of Law & Politics

Producing Trousered Apes in Dwyer's Totalitarian State

Article excerpt

VOUCHERS WITHIN REASON: A CHILD-CENTERED APPROACH TO EDUCATION REFORM. James G. Dwyer. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2001. Pp. 256. $32.50.


The Supreme Court's recent placement of its imprimatur on Cleveland's school choice plan1 makes it imperative to critique the various voucher proposals, including the one set forth in James Dwyer's Vouchers Within Reason: A Child-Centered Approach to Education Reform.2 As his subtitle suggests, Dwyer favors a "childcentered" educational system,3 driven by consideration of what are, in Dwyer's view, the best interests of the child.4 For Dwyer, "[s]drooling is about shaping minds, fostering skills, providing socializing activities, and generally preparing young people for adult life."5 To help the child grow into an autonomous adult with "the capacity and disposition for reasonableness," he argues, a sound educational system should provide:

practice in analytical, synthetic, and creative thinking, regular opportunity for expression of one's ideas, intellectual empowerment, exercises in active listening and dialogue, emphasis on understanding the point of view of others who think differently and being open to revising one's own beliefs if they prove less rationally justifiable that [sic] alternative beliefs, testing of students' ability to muster evidentiary support for a position and to distinguish good and bad arguments, and encouragement of curiosity and inquisitiveness.6

He further emphasizes that this sort of education ought also to impart the concept that "men and women are inherently IMAGE FORMULA9

equal."7 He sees this education enterprise as a "prerequisite ... for realizing one's human potential."8

Although I might quibble with Dwyer as to emphasis and wording, I will adopt this view of a sound-or at least partially sound-education as my own for purposes of this review. None of these ideas is novel or radical. I suspect that people with vastly diverse worldviews could subscribe to this fairly general educational vision. But what do we mean by these words? Specifically, how do we interpret and implement this vision of education in a pluralistic society in which some (even most) of its members are committed to the idea that life, community, culture, and history possess inherent, universal, and transcendent meaning and purpose while other members of that same society are committed to the idea that these elements contain meaning and purpose only insofar as we ourselves create meaning and purpose?

Turning Zelman v. Simmons-Harn:s on its head, Dwyer's answer is that the state (as opposed to parents, church, and community) should a) control "child-rearing norms"9 generally and the educational apparatus specifically, b) exercise its control to ensure that all students receive a sound secular liberal education that will allow the student to choose her own meaning and way of life, and c) control "the content even of the religious instruction in religious schools" to ensure these ends.10 In other words, in Dwyer's conception of the liberal state, the state should not tolerate authentic pluralism in educational goals and methods. Instead, it should proceed in designing an educational system from the secular liberal premise that life, community, IMAGE FORMULA12

culture, and history contain only those meanings and purposes that each autonomous individual ascribes to them.11

In his 1998 book Religious Schools v. Children's Rights, Dwyer argued that the state should pervasively regulate private schools to ensure that the curriculum and pedagogy are consistent with the state's (read Dwyer's) understanding of the child's temporal educational interest.12 At that time, he saw potentially "insurmountable practical obstacles" to his project;13 but he held out hope that one day, even if "in the far distant future,"14 children attending religious schools would be protected from the harmful "authoritarian and repressive approach to education" some Catholic- and fundamentalist-run schools visited upon their young minds and psyches. …

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