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Agreeing to Disagree

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from the magazine

Agreeing to Disagree

Summer 1992

Richard Vigilante, formerly editor of the City Journal, is writing a book about the Daily News strike.

Early this spring, New York City Community School District 24 in Queens made headlines by saying “no” to that part of New York City’s multicultural curriculum that says first-graders should be taught “to be aware of various family structures, including gay or lesbian parents,” and “to acknowledge the positive aspects of each type of household.”

New York Newsday got the story across with a bold color front page featuring the illustrated covers of books the curriculum suggests might help our six-year-olds “acknowledge the positive aspects of each type of household.” Among these were Daddy’s Roommate and Heather Has Two Mommies, which “Includes a section on artificial insemination of a gay woman.”

District 24, where I happen to live, is in the heart of white ethnic Queens. Heather Has Two Mommies is not flying here. The local school board not only banned the new curriculum guide (as it tossed out the city-sponsored sex education curriculum five years ago), it has also started a little counterrevolution by sending a letter to other community school boards warning that the values of the new curriculum are “not in consonance with those of our communities.” Another district, in the Bronx, followed suit and abandoned the new curriculum as well.

On all sides the argument has proceeded on predictably disingenuous terms. Gay
activist groups want the city to force District 24 to accept the curriculum, professing to believe that building a tolerant society requires schools to teach children about the “positive aspects” of homosexual sex some years before many parents normally would tell them about the other kind. The New York Civil Liberties Union and other civil libertarians claim to believe that the school board’s objections to Heather’s two mommies is an act of censorship. Somehow, after all these years, the NYCLU still seems not to grasp that if government speaks (whether through the schools, the National Endowment for the Arts, or any other organ) it will inevitably say some things and not others. If that be censorship, then nothing isn’t.

Nor are the neighborhood leaders conspicuous for their frankness. If local parents and school officials spoke what was really on their minds, they would probably say something like: “Get Heather and her excessive number of mommies out of here because we think homosexuality is wrong. Gay rights was invented the day before yesterday, and we have several thousand years of moral and biblical teaching on our side, so go jump in the East River.”

Instead they claim the local school board is concerned not with lifestyle issues, but with questions of “age-appropriateness,” as Ralph Fabrizio, a sympathetic community superintendent of District 20 in Bay Ridge, to Newsday. In this way, opponents of teaching lesbian artificial insemination to first-graders move the debate away from the tumultuously shifting sands of moral judgment and toward friendlier, value-neutral territory. After all, “age-appropriateness” could just as easily be used to explain why the first-graders are not doing calculus this year.

At first glance, it seems an obvious tack for District 24 to take. In a large racially, culturally, and morally diverse city, no group wants to be accused of imposing its morality, especially if it is religiously based, on public school children. No one wants to be accused of violating pluralism. But in practice the scruples in this particular debate are rather one-sided. Ralph Fabrizio may be chary of openly championing morality in public schools but the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power is not. “This is the way to combat homophobia,” proclaimed Kate Barnhart, spokeswoman for the youth educational lifeline committee of the AIDS Coalition. A Stuyvesant High School student who says she often reads books such as Heather Has Two Mommies to children for whom she babysits, Barnhart has no doubts about the moral mission of the curriculum she champions: to eliminate prejudice and promote tolerance and pluralism.

But if Miss Barnhart and her allies are promoting tolerance, why is all this tolerance about to provoke another of the knockdown, drag-out fights we have seen so many of lately—almost always in the school system—over abortion and birth-control counseling, bilingualism, free condoms for high school students, Afrocentric versus Eurocentric curricula, and on and on ad nauseam?

Aren’t pluralism and tolerance supposed to be ways of avoiding conflict? And speaking of imposing values, how is it that pluralism requires Middle Village and Rego Park to surrender their beliefs because activists from somewhere else are annoyed at how folks in Queens want to raise their children?

The brouhaha breaking out between Middle Village and Greenwich Village is only one small battle in a much larger war over not only who will control the public schools but who will control the public norms. The two villages are fighting to define pluralism, and claim it for their own advantage. Unfortunately, in the heat of these battles, and under the influence of the city’s current arrangements for running the public school system, the working definition of pluralism seems to be “let the toughest interest group win.”

Do we really need these fights? Is there no way out without either side surrendering? Is it absolutely necessary, before proceeding with education in New York, to first settle a few little moral arguments that have been around for all of recorded history? Must we divert from the primary mission of the schools the enormous energy these fights require? Can a city with schools as bad as ours really afford to be putting its energy into cussing matches rather than into reading and math?

I do not mean to suggest that the moral, religious, political, and personal beliefs at issue are not important. They are very important, but they are not easy to settle, especially in New York; the fights over them tend to cluster around institutions like the schools and can be enormously destructive. If we cannot avoid these fights, we will drive out of our public schools a large and important segment of the public. As Mary Cummins, president of District 24, put it, “They can call it whatever they want.... If they try to impose it on us, they won’t have any kids in the public schools.”

In the past twenty years, education researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that a school or school district afflicted with political dissension, or other vitriolic conflicts about the school’s mission, will be significantly worse at educating students than a harmonious and united school or district. When the city’s villages go on the warpath over conflicting moral values, education is the victim. Good schools, like well-managed companies, have a clear and highly focused sense of their own mission. They stress academic achievement and make every effort to avoid distractions. But when teachers are caught in the middle of culture wars, they are expected to make room for an increasingly broad and sometimes contradictory array of moral and educational beliefs. “Every day a principal opens his mail and there are three more requests to teach something else,” Herbert Greenhut, who recently retired as a history teacher from Manhattan’s Robert F. Wagner Junior High School, complained to the New York Times. “Schools are being asked to incorporate all these things at the same time they are looking to improve the basics, such as reading and writing and math.”

The good news is that these fights are as unnecessary as they are destructive. They are not, as some people seem to believe, the price of pluralism. Rather, they are a result of a distortion of pluralism, made necessary by the inability of our political and bureaucratic institutions—especially the school system—to accommodate peacefully the increasing diversity of this society. But by reforming our institutions, we can restore genuine pluralism.

True pluralism consists in a set of beliefs, commitments, and institutions that allows different communities, with profoundly different values and customs, to live peacefully and productively in the same place without surrendering those beliefs and customs, except as absolutely necessary to the civic peace or the most pressing of common goods. Pluralism rightly means that groups of people who disagree on questions of profound importance agree not to use those differences as excuses for civil wars or uncivil behavior. It means in the proverbial but telling phrases that we “agree to disagree, “ to “live and let live,” even though we live differently.

Pluralism means, certainly, not behaving rudely or uncharitably or brutally to people because of what they do in private. But pluralism is more than the personal virtue of tolerance. It is a civic accomplishment: New York is one of the most pluralistic societies on earth not simply because New Yorkers are a tolerant lot, or because New York is home to many different types of people, but because over the years it has done a reasonably good job (with some spectacular failures, of course) of being a good home to many communities without pressuring them to assimilate before their time, or to sacrifice their fundamental beliefs.

In New York this old, easygoing pluralism is losing out to a new, far more ambitious variety that Professor Fred Siegel of Cooper Union has aptly named “enforced diversity.” Rather than asking us to live together in peace despite our deepest disagreements, enforced diversity asks us to surrender, or pretend to surrender, those disagreements.

The “enforced” part of enforced diversity is obvious enough: The school system, for instance, backed by Justice Peter P. Cusick of the State Supreme Court, has refused to let parents 11 opt” their children out of the public high school condom distribution program, despite some parents’ religious objections. And no one asked parents what they thought of the “Teenager’s Bill of Rights,” prepared by the New York City Department of Health for the Board of Education, which asserts such principles as “I have the right to decide whether to have sex and who to have it with.” But where does diversity come in?

Actually we are being asked to make a diversity trade-off. We are to surrender (in effect) our diverse moral and religious beliefs so as to make it easier to accept diverse lifestyles and less likely that we will beat each other up. Rather than the old pluralism of conscious self-restraint (for the sake of the civic peace, I won’t ride you out of town on a rail) we are to practice agnostic pluralism (I won’t ride you out of town on a rail because we have—or admit to—no disagreements worth fighting over).

This enforced diversity, however, has a narrow scope: It applies especially to sexual mores and restrictions on personal behavior arising from religious principles. About such matters, we are all to adopt, outwardly at least, a laissez-faire position, regardless of the strength of our personal feelings and preferences. On such matters, “yes” is the only right answer, no matter what the question. “No” is always wrong, “no” denies diversity; it “discriminates” where being indiscriminate is de rigueur.

Pluralism always requires effort; tolerance is hard. But under this new notion of pluralism, the sacrifices are all extracted from one side—people, like my neighbors, who have a great personal investment in traditional religious or moral codes, which they are henceforth to treat as unimportant. Thus Judge Cusick can flippantly dismiss the parents who objected to the condom program, saying they have nothing to complain of since “all the program does is expose the children to other ideas on the subject, distasteful as they may be to petitioners.”

The attempt to move Heather and her mommies into the first grades of District 24 is a perfect example of enforced diversity. At first the Heather curriculum may seem to support real pluralism because its stated goal is get kids to behave well toward those who are unlike them. But to ask people not to beat up or discriminate against gays is very different from propagandizing them to change their moral and religious beliefs about homosexuality (or condoms, or abortion, or whatever), which is what the curriculum actually does.

Insisting that all citizens treat gay people decently requires no sacrifice of a legitimate right. Gay-bashing is not a right, it is a wrong. The entire society, more or less, believes it to be so. All the major religions, the primary source of the moral opposition to homosexuality, agree that it is so and that gay-bashers harm themselves, corroding their own characters and endangering their own souls.

On the other hand, to ask people to accept in their own children’s schools a curriculum that undermines or contradicts their own deeply held moral beliefs is to ask of them an enormous sacrifice. If Americans do not have the right to maintain, for themselves and their families, moral beliefs taught for millennia by the religions to which between 70 and 90 percent of the population subscribe, then a lot of us are living in the wrong country.

The distress of parents who are told their six-year-olds are to be taught the positive side of homosexuality is sufficient testimony to the sacrifice being required of them. To ignore or slight this sacrifice, or to dismiss as bigots the people of whom it is being demanded, is arrogant and cruel, an act perfectly suited to a modern government bureaucracy. It is not tolerance but moral and intellectual imperialism.

Nor will all this bullying promote tolerance. Tolerance means respecting the dignity of other human beings regardless of their beliefs. On the contrary, the implicit message of the new curriculum is that we can be tolerant only of those with whom we are willing to surrender our disagreements. This inversion of pluralism teaches both moral lassitude and intolerance in the same breath, a remarkable feat.

Real pluralism does not ask citizens to make any sacrifices to conformity that are not clearly necessary for the civic peace or the common good. Real pluralism says that any fight we do not really need is a fight we should avoid. Governing by enforced consensus is the furthest thing from living by pluralism. Pluralism is a modest program. The aspiration to consensus is monstrously ambitious, and it produces monstrous fights.

The fights don’t promote tolerance either. People hate being pushed around, and they really hate losing. The city’s “traditional” communities—especially white churchgoing Catholics, but also black Protestants and traditional Jews—are learning to think of gay activists as blood enemies, rivals in a struggle for cultural and political power that can produce only one winner.

In fairness, the gay activists have reason to believe that they cannot back off, that there is no substitute for victory. Right now folks like those in District 24 may be saying no more than “leave us alone.” But really, the gays believe, the Middle Villagers have their minds set on their own all-too-familiar form of moral triumphalism and yearn for the status quo ante Stonewall.

When District 24’s rejection of Heather made the news, Matt Foreman, executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, told the New York Times that “there are few gay and lesbian people who have not felt the agony of going through grade schools and high schools being taunted by their schoolmates, being beaten up by their schoolmates.” A decisive victory in the cultural wars must be an attractive temptation for those who were treated that way. The city’s gay activists, and the many other supporters of the new curriculum who are neither gay nor activists, would find the notion that they are in some way oppressors incomprehensible. Mary Cummins of District 24 and Ralph Fabrizzio of District 20, they would say, did not have to spend half their lives in a closet.

The belief that there is no substitute for victory, however, does not come only from painful memories of being on the losing side. The true source of the impulse to fight to the finish is a defect in the city’s political institutions, especially the school system. Those institutions are not capable of accommodating the city’s current extraordinary level of moral, religious, and cultural disagreement.

When school officials justify pushing these sorts of programs on unwilling constituents, one is struck by the practical note they tend to take. So often their explanations come down to: “We couldn’t do it any other way.” As Tyll van Geel, a professor of education law at the University of Rochester, told the New York Times, “We are such a diverse society that it’s extremely difficult for schools to come up with a curriculum that doesn’t ring somebody’s bell.” Karen Norlander, a lawyer with the New York State Education Department, was even blunter: “The future of public education would be hard-pressed if we came to a point where a parent could dictate what the child can learn and what the child cannot learn.”

One wants to scream: “Well, who the heck else should dictate it, lawyers from the state education department?” But one doesn’t because attorney Norlander is right. There is no way a centrally administered school system consisting of a thousand schools and a million students can custom-build an education for the children of every disgruntled parent.

Schools may be timid or bold, but they cannot be neutral: Inevitably they will teach some things and not others, accept some lifestyles and reject others. In choosing norms, should we impose the will of the majority and disregard the rights of the minority? To ask is to answer. On the other hand, the city’s scheme for promoting the values of the minority at the expense of the majority makes even less sense. Yet in a centralized, winner-take-all system, some values will win and others will lose. So we fight. The system guarantees it. In a big system in the most diverse city on earth, we will fight like hell.

There is a way out of the dilemma: public school choice. Under choice, parents choose which of the city’s public schools their children attend. But schools also choose. They have considerable discretion over teaching methods, curricula, personnel, budgeting, and so on. The more choices schools can make for themselves, the more choices parents have. When parents choose, they vote with their feet on the choices schools have made.

Under a true choice program, Heather and her mommies would make it through the front door of only those schools that invite them, and would be confronted only by children whose parents chose the schools that make them welcome. Overnight, the fight over Heather becomes moot.

Choice might make moot as well the fights over the broader multicultural curriculum, bilingualism, and even condom distribution and birth-control counseling. By contrast, the current school system, in which the parents of a million children are denied control over what those children are taught about some very sensitive questions, is a machine for the creation of conflict. It virtually forbids pluralism, inspiring repeated high-stakes wars of neighbor against neighbor, with unconditional surrender the only acceptable outcome.

The current system, however, does something even worse than making kulturkampf victories necessary: It also makes them possible. It tempts people—mostly bureaucrats but also activists and just plain citizens-with the possibility of power over other people’s lives. Centralize power over one million New York City school children, and one successful power play can give control to people who hunger to impose their beliefs on others.

The prospective loss of this power is probably what motivates some opponents of choice. But most opponents have more legitimate fears. Some fear that choice will undermine measures they believe are truly necessary for the civic peace or the common good, for instance, the condom distribution program. That program, under which the schools give out free condoms to students without parental notification or permission, meets vigorous opposition in parts of the city, but its defenders argue it is crucial to public health, particularly the fight against AIDS.

Actually choice helps here, too. If there is a clear and compelling public health argument for condom distribution, the program should apply throughout the high schools, even under a choice system. So far, however, the clear and compelling argument has not been made. Condom opponents claim, for instance, that the public health story is ambiguous, that similar programs elsewhere have raised the level of teenage sexual activity (and pregnancy) and thus do not help fight AIDS. The advocates of condoms, including the chancellor, have not really bothered to reply. They do not need to: With a few votes on the central board, they can have their way throughout the system.

But if it were the custom, as under choice, to leave most important decisions to the schools, then, when the authorities thought it necessary to trump that custom, the political burden would be on them to make a compelling case for doing so. If they cannot, if the evidence is ambiguous, then let citizens make their own judgments and choices, rather than picking a destructive fight for an uncertain benefit. But if the pro-condom evidence were compelling, even parents on the losing side would be happier knowing they had not been treated lightly. If you want to impose a consensus, try building one first.

One of the other common arguments against choice is that it would tend to produce a more fragmented, Lebanonized society, particularly in a city of immigrants. On the contrary, choice is more likely to heal divisions among ethnic and racial groups than to widen them. Take the question of the broader multicultural curriculum. Its proponents believe that teaching New York’s school children more about African and Asian culture would not only make for better-educated students but improve the self-image of children of color. Opponents are a tad skeptical of the self-image argument, but certainly not hostile to that goal. And of course they agree that students would be better off for knowing more about the world. Their real fear is that in practice multiculturalism will turn out to be a vehicle for shoddy scholarship or racism. The real argument is about (anticipated) practice, not theory.

Choice would dissolve that argument. Most parents would want to keep what seems sensible about multiculturalism and dispense with the nonsense. Overwhelmingly they would favor schools where multiculturalism meant a better grounding in world culture and disfavor those where it meant hatred and philistinism. Being parents, not theorists or activists, they would judge by results, one school at a time. A few schools might attract a constituency for a hateful version of multiculturalism, but they would find themselves preaching to the choir more often than making converts.

By not forcing a citywide consensus on the question, we might find that we actually have one. In the very process of giving people choice, we would not only settle the argument over multiculturalism but increase the likelihood that the answer would come out right.

The moral and cultural issues I propose we put on the back burner, the fights I am suggesting we walk away from, are not trivial. They address some of the most fundamental concerns of human beings. But municipal government, particularly a municipal government often unable to cope with even the routine challenges of urban life, is not the arena within which to wage these battles. Even as the government of New York must learn to concentrate on delivering basic municipal services before indulging in programs no other city in the country even attempts, so also the citizens of New York must learn to stay focused on common needs and the common good, and not be distracted by more visceral but irresolvable disagreements.

Each of us has but so much time and energy. If we accept a system that forces us to fight over condoms, we will not pay enough attention to the debate over new school reforms. If local school board elections are fought, and political coalitions forged, over the questions raised by Heather and her mommies, then those elections will not be fought over how to raise reading and math scores. This is New York. We will always be able to come up with something to fight about if we need the recreation. Until then, let’s get back to business.

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