Children’s relationship to the political community is fundamentally different from that of adults, because it is mediated through their belonging to a family and living under the authority of their parents.
Children belong not to parents, but to the whole community. So claimed Melissa Harris-Perry in a recent MSNBC promo spot that has sparked heated controversy.
Harris-Perry argued that if we are going to start investing adequately in our public schools, “we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.”
Now, if she simply meant that families and community members should support each other with neighborly gestures, such as—to take her own example—offering to drive a child home from school when the parents temporarily cannot, then her position is hardly controversial.
But her words are much more than just an exhortation to neighborliness or volunteerism. They reflect the troubling but not uncommon view that the education of children, particularly their formal education, is first and foremost the task of the state rather than parents, and that the state has primary educational authority over children, at least once they are old enough to attend school.
This is effectively the position that political theorists such as Amy Gutmann and Stephen Macedo take when they argue, for instance, that the state can and should require children to be exposed to values and ways of life that conflict with those they are learning at home, that the state at least in principle has the right to mandate such “diversity education” programs even in private schools and home schools, and that parents in principle have no right to opt their children out of such programs, even if they have a moral or religious objection to their content.