Why we need public school: Pluralism is how progress happens

Here’s the link to this article by Adam Lee.

MAR 02, 2023

Two children studying and doing schoolwork | Why we need public school: Pluralism is how progress happens
Credit: Pixabay


An openly white supremacist homeschooling network raises hard questions about how much control parents should have over their children’s education, and what public school offers that homeschooling can’t replace.

The battle over public schools is a clash of values.

There’s no such thing as neutral or value-free education. Every choice about what to present or what to omit from the classroom carries ideological weight.

That’s why red-state politicians want to present one version of the world, a version that’s scrubbed of references to racism, LGBTQ people, and non-Christians. They want to present their perspective to the exclusion of all others, and they demand that no white student should ever be exposed to facts that make them feel bad or that might cause them to question their parents’ worldview. They want public school to be (ahem) a safe space that doesn’t challenge their preconceptions.

On the other hand, liberals and progressives want an education that’s pluralistic and secular, one that presents a diversity of viewpoints without demanding that students adopt one of them in particular. We believe that this is the way for young people to mature into informed adults who have the power to choose for themselves. And if it stirs up some uncomfortable emotions along the way, that’s not a bad thing. Confronting facts that challenge what you believe is the only path to wisdom and personal growth.

Why is pluralism so important? To find out, let’s consider the opposite scenario: a disturbing case of anti-pluralistic education. What happens when education is purged of every viewpoint except one? When that desire is taken to an extreme, we end up in a dark and ugly place.

Unmasking “Dissident Homeschool”

“Dissident Homeschool” is a chat channel on the messenging service Telegram with several thousand subscribers. According to a report in the Huffington Post, it’s a haven for neo-Nazis and white supremacists seeking advice on how to raise and educate their children away from the “corrupting” influence of liberal, democratic society.

The owners of the channel, who went by the handles “Mr. Saxon” and “Mrs. Saxon”, created lesson plans steeped in their hateful ideology. They wrote about teaching their kids to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday and copying out Hitler quotes as penmanship exercises. Their history curriculum pours hate on Martin Luther King and celebrates American racists like Robert E. Lee and George Lincoln Rockwell. Even math lessons are twisted into a tool to teach kids that non-white people are violent and dangerous.

This Nazi couple claimed to be proud of their beliefs, but their actions showed the opposite. They knew their racist ideas were evil, shameful and indefensible. That’s why they tried to keep their real identities secret. That’s also why they taught their children not to repeat these teachings where outsiders could hear:

We do not start teaching our children these things until we know they are able to *not* say certain things, and to keep things quiet around certain people. Also, when our children do have that “accidental racism”, we as parents can quickly step in and chuckle, and say “Oh kids! They say the darndest things!”

Despite these precautions, they weren’t careful enough. From clues they disclosed about themselves, an anti-fascist group called Anonymous Comrades Collective unmasked them as Katja and Logan Lawrence from Upper Sandusky, Ohio.

The Huffington Post followed up with additional confirmation, including relatives who recognized their voices when they were interviewed on a Nazi podcast, Achtung Amerikaner.

Because of the First Amendment, there aren’t legal consequences for teaching these ideas, abhorrent as they are. But the social consequences are very real. Shortly after being unmasked, Logan Lawrence was fired from his family’s insurance business. They’re now pariahs, as they should be.

The value of homeschooling

The idea of secret Nazis among us, taking their kids out of public school to teach them racism, sounds like a test case for why homeschooling should be banned. However, I wouldn’t go that far.

What I would say is that most kids are better off in public school. Most of us parents, even the best-educated and enthusiastic ones, aren’t qualified to teach every subject in a standard curriculum. It’s an incredible privilege to have an array of professionals working together to teach our kids.

However, homeschooling can be a vital safety valve. For kids who are suffering persistent bullying or harassment, or who have special needs the school can’t or won’t address, it’s valuable to have as an option. There are thousands of atheist, agnostic and secular families who homeschool for these reasons. Plus, especially since COVID, it can be a way to protect medically fragile kids from disease.

That said, homeschooling shouldn’t be a free-for-all. Society has a responsibility to ensure that everyone gets an education that meets basic standards. Ideally, homeschooling would be well-regulated. There should be a curriculum of topics that have to be taught, and at least occasional inspections or tests to ensure that homeschooled kids aren’t falling behind.

If homeschooling has a bad reputation, it’s because most homeschool families are religious fundamentalists, or belong to other ugly ideologies like this one, who want to raise their children in a bubble. They do it so they can control their kids’ access to information and prevent them from learning facts their parents don’t approve of.

Pluralism and progress

This story is a cautionary tale about the virtues of pluralism. Besides the other virtues of public education, it’s intrinsically good for young people to meet and get to know people whose beliefs and cultures are different from theirs. Public schools are better at offering that experience than either homeschooling or exclusive private schools.

It’s not proof against every evil ideology—I’m not claiming that no Nazi ever graduated from public school—but it makes it harder for the most hateful ideas to take root. When you get to know Black, or Jewish, or gay, or Latino, or atheist people, you can see that they’re human beings who are the same as you, with the same aspirations and the same struggles.

It’s through encounters with different cultures and different ideas that moral progress happens. In some right-wing visions for society, there would be no more public schools. Instead, every family would seek out a private school that taught dogmas they agreed with. Everyone would be sorted into ideological silos, never having to learn about or come into contact with anyone or anything that’s different, new, or challenging. That’s a recipe for stagnation and factionalism.

Pluralism opens up our intellectual horizons. It’s what leads us to see the world through other eyes. It’s what nudges us to consider perspectives other than the familiar. And, through hearing critiques and dissents from what we already believe, it’s what pushes us to reevaluate those ideas and see if they hold up. It’s the vital ingredient in people forming views that are truly their own, rather than just mindlessly regurgitating what they’ve been taught. It’s no surprise that it’s anathema to Nazis, white supremacists and other acolytes of hate. And, for the same reason, you should immediately be suspicious of any politician who proposes to limit pluralism by banning or burning books.

Adam Lee


Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include “Daylight Atheism,” “Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City,” and most recently “Commonwealth: A Novel of Utopia.” He’s published editorials for NBC News, Political Research Associates, The Guardian, Salon, and AlterNet.