Elder Holland v. Professor Ackerman

July 29, 2004 | 31 comments
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Last week I got to do the “Teachings of Our Times” lesson in Elders’ Quorum. These are the lessons that take a recent set of conference talks as the text. This months lesson included Elder Jeffery R. Holland’s recent sermon “A Prayer for the Children.” We used the talk and the lesson as a springboard for a good discussion on the Gospel and theories of education.

This is the talk where Elder Holland taught:

    Parents simply cannot flirt with skepticism or cynicism, then be surprised when their children expand that flirtation into full-blown romance. If in matters of faith and belief children are at risk of being swept downstream by this intellectual current or that cultural rapid, we as their parents must be more certain than ever to hold to anchored, unmistakable moorings clearly recognizable to those of our own household. It won’t help anyone if we go over the edge with them, explaining through the roar of the falls all the way down that we really did know the Church was true and that the keys of the priesthood really were lodged there but we just didn’t want to stifle anyone’s freedom to think otherwise.

The gist of Elder Holland’s counsel seems to be that we ought to immerse our children in a simple and clear Gospel message. At the time, I recall that a fair number of Mormon intellectuals of my acquaintance were upset by Elder Holland’s remarks, which they saw as an attempt to blackmail them into conformity with guilt about their children. (Interestingly, none of the people that I recall expressing this sentiment had children.) Elder Holland’s emphasis on rearing children provided a spring board for another discussion that turned out to be pretty interesting. I take it that he was expanding on the idea of raising one’s children in righteousness. Deuteronomy 6:4-7 says:

    Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD and thou shalt love the LORD they God with all thine hear, and with all they soul and with all they might and these words, which I command thee this day, shall in thine heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto they children, and shalt talk of them when tho sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.

The implication is clearly that we are to surround our children with the Gospel so that they grow up to be a certain kind of person. I contrasted this idea with a passage from Bruce Ackerman’s book Social Justice in the Liberal State. Ackerman writes:

    Children are born radically incomplete. Barring genetic handicap, each can function in a bewildering variety of human cultures. The particular use a child makes of his cultural freedom, however, depends on us. If we talk English, the infant will learn English; if Greek, Greek. Our models of behavior provide the starting points for the child’s evolving patterns of conduct.

    These facts are a source of perplexity for liberal and authoritarian alike. Only they respond to the childish mixture of freedom and dependence in different ways. The authoritarian exploits the child’s cultural dependence to limit his cultural freedom. Infancy is a time to plant the seed in good moral ground; childhood is a time for the weeding and pruning needed to transform good young saplings into extra-fine timber. By maturity, a well-educated person can only look with contempt upon the stunted and deviant growths that, unaccountably, inhabit so much of the forest.

    Such horitculturaal imagery has no place in a liberal theory of education. We have no right to look upon future citizens as if we were master gardeners who can tell the difference between a pernicious weed and a beautiful flower. A system of liberal education provides children with a sense of the very different lives that could be theirs – so that, as they approach maturity, they have the cultural materials available to build lives equal to their evolving conceptions of the good.

It seems pretty clear to me that Professor Ackerman is taking aim here at the kind of educational philosophy embodied in the counsel of Deuteronomy and Elder Holland. So I asked my class what we were to make of these competing views of education (broadly concieved)? Do we simply chuck Elder Holland in favor of Professor Ackerman? Do we dismiss outright the idea of liberal education? Do we have some way of reconciling these competing visions?

The Elders’ Quorum of the Little Rock Ward provided a good discussion.

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31 Responses to Elder Holland v. Professor Ackerman

  1. clarkgoble on July 29, 2004 at 7:48 pm

    This is something I’ve been thinking of a lot now that I have a child coming up. My thought is that as more of an adult they’ll choose their own way. Yet we are there to give them the skills and knowledge so as to make that possible. Knowing the gospel as we do, we have to put rules on them so that when they are capable of going off in their own direction they can do so in a more balanced fashion.

    The problem with treating children like wild plants is that there is little order to their life and they have a much harder time being their own person. I’ve seen this in friends over and over again. Being free is free to reject a foundation or build upon it. But without a foundation to correct, accept or reject, one is left rudderless and often wanders until one builds a foundation.

    That seems unfair.

  2. diogenes on July 29, 2004 at 8:17 pm

    I take it that God the Father has not really adopted Elder Holland’s parenting philosophy — that He was willing to watch a third of his children (and probably far more than that before all is said and done) “swept downstream” over the falls because He didn’t want to stifle anyone’s freedom to “think otherwise” . . .

    Agency is dangerous. It kills souls, permanently. It also exalts them. That’s the risk we take as parents, and as children.

  3. Nate Oman on July 29, 2004 at 8:33 pm

    Diogenes: I am not sure that you have offered a completely fair reading of Elder Holland. He is not saying that we ought to coerce our children into acting or believing in certain ways. Rather, he suggests that we ought to send them clear and simple messages about our own beliefs that are not cluttered with cynicism or skepticism. I doubt that Heavenly father was given to snide remarks about the bishop or faux-skeptic posturing. (I am given to both these things, hence my discomfort with Elder Holland’s talk…)

  4. Chris Grant on July 29, 2004 at 8:34 pm

    diogenes wrote: “I take it that God the Father has not really adopted Elder Holland’s parenting philosophy — that He was willing to watch a third of his children (and probably far more than that before all is said and done) ‘swept downstream’ over the falls because He didn’t want to stifle anyone’s freedom to ‘think otherwise’ . . .”

    So, in the premortal existence, you don’t think it was the case that “[Heavenly Father] . . .[held] to anchored, unmistakable moorings clearly recognizable to those of [His] own household”?

  5. Clark Goble on July 29, 2004 at 8:55 pm

    Diogenes, what you say would be true if and only if there wasn’t a pre-mortal life. It seems that we are born not “new and fresh beings” but partially determined beings.

  6. Jordan Fowles on July 29, 2004 at 9:08 pm

    Call me crazy, but I don’t think that Elder Holland’s approach is necessarily at odds with Ackerman’s.

    Just because we don’t express skepticism about the Gospel in front of our children before they have learned the basics and decided for themselves one way or another does not mean that we can’t let them think for themselves.

    Nate said: [Elder Holland] is not saying that we ought to coerce our children into acting or believing in certain ways. Rather, he suggests that we ought to send them clear and simple messages about our own beliefs that are not cluttered with cynicism or skepticism.

    Isn’t this the answer to the question? This implies that Elder Holland’s approach is not at odds with Ackerman’s because it recognizes that Elder Holland simply said that we can send children clear and simple messages about our own beliefs, not force them to believe. Thus, the children are free to learn for themselves, and there seems to be a lot of “wiggle room” allowed under Elder Holland’s approach.

    However, I think the two may differ on the practical day-to-day aspects. For example, if my five year old son one Sunday says “Dad, I’m tired of Church and I don’t think I want to go anymore…”, I would guess that Elder Holland would advocate saying “tough- you’re going to church.” Maybe he wouldn’t, but that is my guess.

    Ackerman, on the other hand, would perhaps say “OK, son” and then perhaps explain why he personally feels church is important and let the kid make a decision based on that. Come to think of it, I think Holland’s talk would also allow this approach.

  7. Jordan Fowles on July 29, 2004 at 9:15 pm

    Here is an example of what I assume the Ackerman approach would be from a friend of mine:

    My friend said that she would abstain from telling her son that he should get married to a woman or from asking him if there was a girl he liked until he decides for himself whether or not he is gay. (He is 4 or 5 years old.) She even gave him a gender-neutral name so as to avoid as much as possible poisoning his mind with notions of boydom or girldom which he did not discover on his own. If he points to a dress in the store, she buys it for him just as readily as if he wants a pair of overalls.

    Is that a picture of Ackerman to an extreme?

  8. diogenes on July 29, 2004 at 10:25 pm

    My trouble with Elder Holland’s philosophy is that I see no incompatibility between skepticism, freedom of thought, and anchored, unmistakable moorings. Skepticism and freedom of thought are the fundamental moorings of our belief.

    Let me be concrete about this: Last Sunday my teenager objected to attending church. When we inquired why, she told us emphatically that “it’s boring and the talks are stupid.”

    I looked at her for a moment, considered my options — and agreed. “You’re right. It is boring and the talks are, usually, with occasional exceptions, stupid.”

    “But,” I continued, “I don’t go to church because it is entertaining or enlightening or even very interesting. I go because the Lord commanded us to, and I always try my best to do what he asks — even when it’s boring and stupid. Which in our ward is admittedly most of the time.”

    I take it that Elder Holland would call this blunt assessment of our sacrement meetings “flirting with skepticism or cynicism.” I call it being honest with my daughter. Pretending that the Church is other than it is, or trying to gloss over its very obvious faults will, in my opinion, lead to disaster. She will see right through any sugar coating that we try to put on it, and she will know that we’re not being straight with her.

    And over the next few years she will very much need to know that we are being straight with her.

    At the moment, the whole family goes to church, and she is not quite old enough to stay by herself, so she goes, too. Quite soon the day will come when can stay home if she wishes, and we’ll honor those wishes. I hope that she chooses to come with us, but she will have to find her own reason for doing so.

    It’s called agency, and there was war in heaven over it. Trying to conceal or evade unpleasant facts that children need in order to form their own opinions — including information that might constitute a skeptical assessment of the Church — is one way of curtailing agency. And in the long run, it never works, which is why we rejected that approach before we arrived here.

  9. diogenes on July 29, 2004 at 10:31 pm

    And having written that, I see that while I was writing it, I was apparently channelling Jordan Fowles, even down to the example.

  10. Julie in Austin on July 29, 2004 at 10:37 pm

    diogenes–

    While I doubt Elder Holland would be that blunt (you know, it would be nice if he would comment on this discussion. anyone have his email? (grin)), I don’t know that what you told your daughter is contrary to his teaching (and it is, in fact, what we tell our son who makes the same objections).

    This is the insight I had when I heard that talk: I will often have a conversation on the way home from Church that mentions something cricital. Of course, my husband knows that I have a testimony, etc., and that is the hidden subtext of my comments. But, do my kids know that if I don’t say it? I have, since hearing his talk, made an effort to say, when I feel compelled to say something critical, something like, “I thought Brother Jones missed the boat with his analogy about X, but I liked what he said about Y, and I have a testimony of it.” Whereas in the past I don’t think I would have mentioned Y at all, taking it for a given that my husband already knows how I feel about it.

  11. Matt Evans on July 29, 2004 at 10:40 pm

    My guess is that Ackerman teaches his children what he accepts as truth, and that his perspective merely reflects his skepticism of moral truths.

    For example, I suspect he teaches his children that the earth orbits the sun and the sun allows the grass to grow. I’ll also bet that Ackerman teaches his children that people deserve to be respected and not whipped. When it comes to believing in God, or accepting faith, that’s the kind of thing Ackerman leaves to his children. And the reason, of course, is that Ackerman doesn’t know for himself.

    In other words, Ackerman teaches his own children to the edge of his knowledge, and resents those who, with greater or different knowledge, do the same for their children.

  12. diogenes on July 29, 2004 at 11:07 pm

    Julie —

    Perhaps I read too much into Elder Holland’s talk, but it seems to me all of a piece with a broader and ongoing campaign in some quarters to whitewash the Church and its failings. I don’t think that approach is honest, and I don’t think it is in our long-term interests, especially as parents.

    I agree that it is important to convey to our children a full assessment of the Church — the good and the bad, and how the former must in our estimation somehow outweigh the latter (or presumably we wouldn’t be there).

    But, caveat, only as long as our effort to recognize the positive is just as honest and heart-felt as our recognition of the negative. We have a number of friends who seem think that President Hinkley’s admonition to accentuate the positive means something along the lines of: “Boy, Brother Jones was sure out in left field speculating about the Adam-God theory in his sacrament talk!” [slight pause, obvious struggle to think of a positive comment] “But isn’t he a swell guy! And he sure knows how to build a campfire!”

    This kind of “balance” is phony. Our friends’ kids know it is phony. My kids know it is phony. I’ll take heartfelt criticism and heartfelt testimony and none of that kind of artificiality — it doesn’t to a thing to keep kids from being swept over the falls.

  13. Nate Oman on July 30, 2004 at 12:02 am

    I don’t think that Elder Holland is arguing for “white washing,” although I can understand how someone might read his talk that way. Interestingly, he seems to be rebuking parents who appear less committed than they actually are. In other words, he seems to be suggesting that there is a kind of reverse white washing that is going on. The question is to what extent there is really a problem of the sort that he is talking about. I suspect that there is some real difference between forthright honesty and carping and a kind of self-indulgent cynacism. It is a no doubt a difficult line to find. My son is currently two, so the sorts of problems presented by Church are a bit more elemental.

    On Ackerman: I am not so certain that he can be neatly reconciled with the Mormon idea of agency. Ackerman seems to be saying more than that we shouldn’t coerce our children. (The issue of what constitutes coercion is a whole other complicated issue, one that Ackerman sytematically ignores in ways that render his whole philosophical project question-begging in my opinion, but that is another issue.)

    Rather, he seems to be arguing against any teleological conception of parenting except a liberal one based on the primary value of self-determination. I take it that raising one’s children in righteousness means that one is NOT indfifferent to the paths they chose so long as they are freely chosen. In other words, I don’t think that Mormonism teaches that the production of a fully autonomous individual capable of defining the good for themselves is the only acceptable goal of parenting. Ackerman does. Indeed, in his book he argues strenuously that the state should seek to systematically undermine parents who attempt to teach their children otherwise.

  14. Ben Huff on July 30, 2004 at 2:25 am

    Elder Holland specifically says there is no place for hypocrisy, and I think that includes whitewashing.
    diogenes’ response to his bored daughter seems to me to fit Holland’s advice. He expressed his conviction that attending church is worthwhile even when it’s boring. If it weren’t worthwhile even when it’s boring, what use would it be? His testimony is stronger and more credible for its admission that the church is full of humans.

    The major flaw I see in what too often passes for liberal education is its neglect of the fact that freedom presupposes knowledge. If you give someone a couple of MTV-style soundbites on a life-style choice and then say, “Which would you like, Door #1 or Door #2?” they are probably choosing from ignorance, which is essentially randomness, not freedom. If it is freedom, it is the freedom of a wheel that has come off its axle and hence is incapable of performing any interesting function.

    Does Ackerman believe in assigning homework, and penalizing kids who don’t do it? Does he think kids should be allowed to just watch TV and play video games all day and night?

    The worst version of “liberal”ism destroys the very idea of moral freedom by denying there is any objective moral truth. But it is only through knowledge of the truth that we can be free.

    Learning enough about the gospel to make an informed choice about it, like learning a lot of fundamental things about human life, takes quite a while. We need to use persuasion and discipline and love to be sure our children take the steps to learn what it is like to accomplish something substantial by working on it consistently, to serve others, to read a challenging book and reflect on its contents, to cook a quality meal by hand, to spend money they earned themselves, and to experience the fruits of faith. If we do this kindly, while allowing them increasing scope for agency, that is truly liberating education.

    We also need to show by example what it really means to make a responsible choice, and provide them opportunities for choice that are suited to their level of knowledge, so that they can practice making responsible choices themselves. If we give them freedom before they have the knowledge to make an informed choice, it is like putting them behind the wheel of a car when they don’t know how to drive.

    If we let our children know clearly what we believe and why, they will be much better prepared to make an informed choice about whether to believe it themselves. We should give them more credit than to protect them from our convictions. If we don’t let them see how important we feel it is to make a right choice, rather than becoming free, they will probably just become apathetic and lost, and never learn what it is to make a responsible, truly free choice.

    If we want our children to think for themselves, rather than stifling the things we want to teach them out of love, we should ratchet up our level of attention to their thoughts and feelings, help them become articulate about their interests and motives, and show by the way we treat them that their feelings and interests and opinions matter.

    And I agree with Matt Evans about the kind of improper control Ackerman is apparently trying to exercise in the name of “freedom”.

  15. Gordon Smith on July 30, 2004 at 3:27 am

    Matt, that was very insightful. I agree completely.

    Oh, perhaps I should add that I know one of Ackerman’s children. Sybil Ackerman was my student, and she is a very nice environmentalist lawyer who now lives in Portland, Oregon. Of course, this knowledge gives me no special insights on his parenting style, but I wanted to demonstrate that we Wisconsinites can drop names, too. ;-)

  16. Gordon Smith on July 30, 2004 at 3:50 am

    Nate: “Interestingly, he seems to be rebuking parents who appear less committed than they actually are…. The question is to what extent there is really a problem of the sort that he is talking about.”

    I imagine this to be a fairly serious problem among educated Mormons. Our training requires skepticism and sometimes engenders cynicism. The mental habits developed in the classroom do not flee when we enter the chapel. We tend to avoid repeating what we know, preferring to explore the boundaries of our knowledge. Our children may strive to keep pace, perhaps without the foundation stones that support our speculations.

    Ben: “If we want our children to think for themselves, rather than stifling the things we want to teach them out of love, we should ratchet up our level of attention to their thoughts and feelings, help them become articulate about their interests and motives, and show by the way we treat them that their feelings and interests and opinions matter.”

    Amen. With all of my failings as a father, and they are many, I have always hoped that my sincere love for and interest in my children might compensate. Ben, that was inspiring.

  17. Chad Too on July 30, 2004 at 9:05 am

    Ben: “If we want our children to think for themselves, rather than stifling the things we want to teach them out of love, we should ratchet up our level of attention to their thoughts and feelings, help them become articulate about their interests and motives, and show by the way we treat them that their feelings and interests and opinions matter.”

    Amen, Brother. May I tag on the end of your great statement that, after validating their feelings/interests/opinions, then tying those back into the Gospel works wonders in building the foundation for a testimony. I try very hard to do this when I’m working with the youth.

  18. Geoff B on July 30, 2004 at 11:27 am

    I also taught this message in my ward on Sunday. It seems pretty clear that Elder Holland’s message is that we shouldn’t let our thoughts be dominated and taken over by cynicism and skepticism. The whole DNA debate in the BoM is an example. A continual skeptic and cynic will point to the DNA issue as something that the Church needs to prove to him before he will believe in the Gospel. Somebody who is truly in tune with the Holy Spirit will approach this in the opposite way: the Church is true (because the Holy Ghost has testified it) until you can prove to me that ALL of the truthful messages are false. The burden of proof needs to be switched around. (By the way, the whole DNA argument is phony, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

    I think diogenes’ approach in teaching his children is pretty close to the mark. There are many days when I have said to my wife, “boy, some of the speakers in our ward are pretty bad.” I’m sure we have all thought that. But apparently the Lord believes that public speaking skills are important. That’s why He has set up His church the way He did. And we are all told to be obedient, and that means sitting through bad public speakers who are learning and developing their own testimonies through the process of public speaking.

    One last point: my personal philosophy is that I am financially and legally responsible for my children until they are 18. That means that my children must come to church with me every Sunday until they are 18, whether they want to or not. After that, they can do whatever they want, and I will still love them if they end up Hare Krishnas. I also have a responsibility to have daily family prayers, reading from the scriptures and FHE. I have a responsibility to teach them important lessons about saving money, modesty, chastity, personal responsibility, integrity, etc. If I fulfill my part of the pact and perform my duties, I have “set my house in order.” But personal agency for children starts at 18, not at 12 or 13. That’s my take anyway.

  19. Dave on July 30, 2004 at 1:34 pm

    I confess I viewed Elder Holland’s remarks as a form of manipulation by guilt, but with a little editing he could have said exactly the same thing by pointing up the positive influence of faithful parents and cautioning against the harmful effects of a negative example. I think he got the tone wrong, but then who doesn’t from time to time? After stewing a bit, I managed to just forget his remarks and go on with life (always a productive strategy for dealing with off-base remarks one hears in church), at least until Nate stirred up old memories.

    Let me say something nice about whitewashing. Granted, it can be done so clumsily that it fails of its intended effect, but most people possessed of basic social skills can manage to avoid direct criticism and say something nice about someone without being either insincere or hypocritical. It makes everyone happier, it is a social grace that we acquire over time and with practice. It applies to online conversations and exchanges as much as face-to-face conversations, by the way. It’s the busybodies who think it is their place to vent their critical opinions in all places and at all times that are the problem. If Adam-God is inappropriate at Mormon pulpits, let the Bishop deal with it. If Elder Holland really was practicing guilt by manipulation (and I could be wrong), I’ll let his Bishop deal with it.

  20. diogenes on July 30, 2004 at 2:08 pm

    I agree with Dave that pleasantries are sometimes an important social skill.

    However, I don’t think we are talking about social skills here so much as we are talking about family instruction. False or questionable doctrine over the pulpit may be the Bishop’s problem, but it is not only the Bishop’s problem. My job is to guide my children, which, unfortunately, frequently means doing damage control after Church instruction. At a minimum I want to reinforce any correct principles they may have learned, but just as often I need to correct the incorrect principles they may have learned (including at various times, but not limited to, virulently racist and homophobic, doctrinally incorrect, and demonstrably factually inaccurate claims made by Primary/YM/YW/SS instructors).

    So if Adam-God comes over the pulpit, it is going to be discussed in our home. I may or may not say anything pleasant about the speaker’s campfire-building skills.

  21. Dave on July 30, 2004 at 2:34 pm

    Diogenes, I think even Elder Holland would approve of you or anyone else correcting false or wacky statements of the type you’re describing, especially in your own home with your own kids. Holland’s actual remarks are against skepticism and cynicism, states of mind or styles of communication, not the correction of specific incorrect or misleading statements. Furthermore, he is worried about how kids react to skepticism and cynicism, which are sophisticated postures subject to misunderstanding by adults but especially by kids.

    That said, don’t think I’m disagreeing with you. I recall comments a few years back about East German LDS parents who would have to “deprogram” their kids every night around the dinner table from the false ideas and values taught that day in school. On occasion I feel the same way around the dinner table after church. But kids don’t really pick up that much in church. And, surprisingly, kids are actually pretty good at judging when a teacher goes out of orbit on some idea or tangent.

  22. Adam Greenwood on July 30, 2004 at 3:25 pm

    I agree with Nate Oman that Ackerman probably isn’t advocating Jordan-Fowles-and-Diogenes-esque ‘here’s why you should go to church, but the choice is yours.’ I think he had more in mind something like, ‘Not only don’t you have to go to church, but I’m not going to share my reasons for going with you because it might influence you. Instead, I’ll give you a book in which an atheistic religion-baiter and a fundy bible-thumper degate the issue. Really, come to think of it, you’ve been going to church for a while now and perhaps you ought to try a different lifestyle for a while, see which you prefer.”

  23. obi-wan on July 30, 2004 at 4:52 pm

    Dave:

    At the risk of seeming to Gordon to be a name-dropper (see the “Utah Mormon” thread), some years ago I became fairly well acquainted with one of Elder McConkie’s grandsons. He related that as a child, each Sunday, at an extended family dinner, Elder McConkie would go around the table and ask each grandchild what he or she had learned in Sunday School that day. As each child recounted the day’s lesson, he would correct whatever doctrine needed correcting, and then move on to “deprogram” the next child.

    Now, I understand that the idea of McConkie in particular correcting doctrine may make one’s hair stand on end, but the general idea of counteracting whatever might have gone awry in church each Sunday is the right one.

  24. jeremobi on July 30, 2004 at 8:50 pm

    Matt: “Ackerman teaches his own children to the edge of his knowledge, and resents those who, with greater or different knowledge, do the same for their children. My guess is that Ackerman teaches his children what he accepts as truth, and that his perspective merely reflects his skepticism of moral truths.”

    How do you know this? Do you know Ackerman and find him regularly resentful of others? Can you point to a passage in his SJLS that expresses resentment for other parents, who will, of course, have different knowledge than himself or who teach different moral truths than he might?

    My reading of Ackerman is that he suggests the “cultivation of the child’s independent moral judgment” is necessary not so that she will necessarily deviate from the values taught in early childhood. Gobs of psychological studies seem to indicate that early childhood attachments are very, very rarely overcome. Rather, the point of Ackerman’s liberal education is to allow youth to learn to adapt and “reshape” values “so as to recognize the validity of the moral insights of other groups in a liberal society.”

    Nate: You “don’t think that Mormonism teaches that the production of a fully autonomous individual capable of defining the good for themselves is the only acceptable goal of parenting. Ackerman does. Indeed, in his book he argues strenuously that the state should seek to systematically undermine parents who attempt to teach their children otherwise.”

    This is the only goal of Ackerman’s liberal education? Again, he states another goal might be to “recognize the validity of the moral insights of other groups [other than his own] in a liberal society.” And that this may produce not only more complete individuals, but a more just state.

    I’m not convinced Ackerman strenuously argues that the state should seek to undermine parents who accept only the goal of producing fully autonomous individuals. Granted, he is conflicted, but he says the state should tread with the utmost caution and that “the potential for authoritarian abuse is obvious: bureaucrats seizing children from “deviants” on the pretext that they are failing to fulfill their responsibilities as primary educators.”

    Adam: “I think he had more in mind something like, ‘Not only don’t you have to go to church, but I’m not going to share my reasons for going with you because it might influence you. Instead, I’ll give you a book in which an atheistic religion-baiter and a fundy bible-thumper degate the issue. Really, come to think of it, you’ve been going to church for a while now and perhaps you ought to try a different lifestyle for a while, see which you prefer.”

    I missed such a dialogue or anything akin in SJLS. Where can I find it?

  25. Nate Oman on July 31, 2004 at 12:25 am

    Jeremobi: I suppose that I am simply a less sympathetic reader than you are of SJLS. Indeed, reading SJLS was illuminating for me precisely because of how uncompelling I found it, in contrast to the contractarianism of TJ, which I found much more compelling. It has served to convince me that contractarian or rights based arguments are likely the best defenses of liberalism.

    Ackerman argues that the only justification that parents have for the early inculcation of a particular world view in their children is to provide what he calls “cultural coherence,” the minimum level of inculcation of a particular world view necessary to make basic social interaction possible. Furthermore, cultural coherence is only valued because the social interaction that it makes possible allows children to create their own visions of the good.

    Once the goal of cultural coherence is reached, however, he argues that further attempts to get one’s children to follow a certain path are illegitimate and should be counteracted via compulsory state education. As you note, he is conflicted here and sounds some laudable cautionary sentiments. However, he does seem to suggest that teleological or perfectionist goals for child rearing are illegitimate (except of course perfectionist liberal goals). Furthermore, one can affirm the value of “recognizing the validity of the moral insights of other groups [other than one’s own] in a liberal society” without subscribing to the kind of perfectionist view of autonomy espoused by Ackerman.

    It is entirely possible to offer a less stark reading of Ackerman if one takes a less expansive view of what constitutes the exercise of parental power, since Ackerman believes that it is only the exercise of power that needs to be justified in liberal terms. The problem is that Ackerman nowhere discusses what it is that he means by this concept. Indeed, despite the fact that power is the central concept that gets his theory going, he nowhere provides a thorough discussion of what it is that he is talking about. Over and over again his arguments hinge on an atheoretical, I-know-it-when-I-see-it use of the concept. For example, I have no way of understanding where the border between indoctrination and persuasion lies in Ackerman’s theory. There are passages where this fuzziness creates the suspicion of employing a double standard: perfectionist liberal teaching of children is persuasion and argument, whereas parents with other perfectionist agendas are indoctrinating. Admittedly, this is an uncharitable reading, but I think that something like this view comes out in the passage where he responds to Friedman’s voucher proposal. (Apologies: my copy of SJLS is at work.)

    Admittedly, Ackerman does not object to children following the ways of their parents and even believes that this will often happen. However, he seems to argue that this is not an outcome that parents may legitimately use their parental power (whatever its contours may be) to bring about. Depending on how Ackerman defines power, I am likely to agree with him. On the other hand, after reading SJLS, I can’t help but feel extremely uneasy with the extent to which Ackerman sees social relationships as involving power that must be justified in liberal terms. One gets the nagging feeling that he conceptualizes something like the graduate school seminar as the only non-coercive and legitimate way of arriving at beliefs. (Certainly, his later work on deliberative democracy suggests that he views the graduate seminar as something like an ideal for belief formation.) I am simply not willing to concede, however, that every deviation from this ideal constitutes an increasing assertion of power that can be justified solely in terms of the very restrictive rules of liberal discourse that Ackerman offers.

  26. Nate Oman on July 31, 2004 at 12:25 am

    Jeremobi: I suppose that I am simply a less sympathetic reader than you are of SJLS. Indeed, reading SJLS was illuminating for me precisely because of how uncompelling I found it, in contrast to the contractarianism of TJ, which I found much more compelling. It has served to convince me that contractarian or rights based arguments are likely the best defenses of liberalism.

    Ackerman argues that the only justification that parents have for the early inculcation of a particular world view in their children is to provide what he calls “cultural coherence,” the minimum level of inculcation of a particular world view necessary to make basic social interaction possible. Furthermore, cultural coherence is only valued because the social interaction that it makes possible allows children to create their own visions of the good.

    Once the goal of cultural coherence is reached, however, he argues that further attempts to get one’s children to follow a certain path are illegitimate and should be counteracted via compulsory state education. As you note, he is conflicted here and sounds some laudable cautionary sentiments. However, he does seem to suggest that teleological or perfectionist goals for child rearing are illegitimate (except of course perfectionist liberal goals). Furthermore, one can affirm the value of “recognizing the validity of the moral insights of other groups [other than one’s own] in a liberal society” without subscribing to the kind of perfectionist view of autonomy espoused by Ackerman.

    It is entirely possible to offer a less stark reading of Ackerman if one takes a less expansive view of what constitutes the exercise of parental power, since Ackerman believes that it is only the exercise of power that needs to be justified in liberal terms. The problem is that Ackerman nowhere discusses what it is that he means by this concept. Indeed, despite the fact that power is the central concept that gets his theory going, he nowhere provides a thorough discussion of what it is that he is talking about. Over and over again his arguments hinge on an atheoretical, I-know-it-when-I-see-it use of the concept. For example, I have no way of understanding where the border between indoctrination and persuasion lies in Ackerman’s theory. There are passages where this fuzziness creates the suspicion of employing a double standard: perfectionist liberal teaching of children is persuasion and argument, whereas parents with other perfectionist agendas are indoctrinating. Admittedly, this is an uncharitable reading, but I think that something like this view comes out in the passage where he responds to Friedman’s voucher proposal. (Apologies: my copy of SJLS is at work.)

    Admittedly, Ackerman does not object to children following the ways of their parents and even believes that this will often happen. However, he seems to argue that this is not an outcome that parents may legitimately use their parental power (whatever its contours may be) to bring about. Depending on how Ackerman defines power, I am likely to agree with him. On the other hand, after reading SJLS, I can’t help but feel extremely uneasy with the extent to which Ackerman sees social relationships as involving power that must be justified in liberal terms. One gets the nagging feeling that he conceptualizes something like the graduate school seminar as the only non-coercive and legitimate way of arriving at beliefs. (Certainly, his later work on deliberative democracy suggests that he views the graduate seminar as something like an ideal for belief formation.) I am simply not willing to concede, however, that every deviation from this ideal constitutes an increasing assertion of power that can be justified solely in terms of the very restrictive rules of liberal discourse that Ackerman offers.

  27. jeremobi on July 31, 2004 at 3:12 am

    Thanks for your comments, Nate. I don’t have time to fully respond, but I agree, Ackerman is fuzzy and your points are valid.

    I’ve watched him in action at conferences and let me assure you he’s no more precise in person. Nice enough, however, and not apparently as ‘resentful’ as a few others in this thread seem to find him.

    Don’t get me started on his deliberative democracy work with Jim Fishkin or his ‘constitutional moments’. I was a facilitator (but not a believer) for one of Fishkin’s deliberative polls in Australia (republic question). Think Deliberation Day might replace President’s Day anytime soon? Nah.

  28. Ethesis (Stephen M) on July 31, 2004 at 11:24 am

    Once the goal of cultural coherence is reached, however, he argues that further attempts to get one’s children to follow a certain path are illegitimate and should be counteracted via compulsory state education. As you note, he is conflicted here and sounds some laudable cautionary sentiments. However, he does seem to suggest that teleological or perfectionist goals for child rearing are illegitimate (except of course perfectionist liberal goals).

    Nicely said.

    After all, children are quite capable of reshaping society and values without any errors if just allowed to express the perfection of liberal thought from a tabla rasa inflicted only with the minimum for coherence in society.

    Aren’t they?

    We see it in the inner city all the time. Parents teach their children the bare minimum for coherence, the state takes up the rest and inner cities are a bastion of freedom, light and social society.

    It’s why Harlem is so much safer now than it was sixty years ago and is undergoing such a vibrant return to its earlier rebirth.

    Isn’t it?

    Perhaps the sarcasm there is a little thick, but we do have massive places where parents have taught their children little and left them to learn the rest on their own with only the help of secular education.

  29. Nate Oman on July 31, 2004 at 12:28 pm

    I have never met Ackerman, but I know a number of people who were his students, and they seem to agree that he is a pleasant person. I have nothing against him personally. It seems sane and reasonable (although along with the rest of the left-leanding contitutional law professoriate, Bush v. Gore seems to have driven him slighly crazy on some issues.)

    His notion of constitutional moments is out to lunch in my opinion, but I tend to have a fairly low opinion of virtually all constitutional theorizing. (I learned con law from Laurence Tribe, a militantly atheoretical doctrinalist.) Some of the historical stuff he’s done is quite interesting, though. He just published a great article in the Va. L. Rev. slamming Thomas Jefferson’s role in handling the election of 1800.

  30. Jack on July 31, 2004 at 1:51 pm

    Diogenes: I agree that youth can see right through the wool and, therefore, parents should be careful not to sugar-coat the obvious banalities of life.

    I wonder though, at your comment about respecting your daughter’s agency. If she had an aversion to school would you allow her to stay home? Perhaps in an extreme circumstance you would have no choice but to allow her that freedom. But, would you not first do all that you could to encourage her to go? To see what’s good about going? To see how her life would be improved etc.?

    Perhaps a closer reading of your comment, on my part, would reveal an implicit suggestion of encouraging youth to power through the mundane, or at least, find something fun in it. If so, my apologies.

    It just seems to me that we impose a double standard on our youth when we allow more “agency” for church related activities than for other meaningful pursuits such as career, education, health etc. I’m probably putting words in your mouth. If so, again, my apologies.

  31. Chris Grant on July 31, 2004 at 2:30 pm

    Diogenes wrote:

    “Skepticism [is one of the two] fundamental moorings of our belief.”

    How do you know that? ;-)