Rachel Maddow urges students to master the art of argument in her first return to Stanford

I am loving Rachel Maddow even more after this speech at Standford.

Asked by students what kind of major she looks for in a successful job candidate, Rachel Maddow, the popular television host and best-selling author, did not hesitate in her answer. “I look for people who have done mathematics. Philosophy. Languages.

And really,” she concluded, “History is kind of the king.

Rachel Maddow urges students to master the art of argument in her first return to Stanford

Mandatory School Uniforms and Freedom of Expression

Mandatory School Uniforms and Freedom of Expression


On December 10, 2007 the Akron City School Board—following the precedent set by many school systems across the United States and the world—instituted a policy of mandatory school uniforms for all students in grades K–8. The measure was met with mixed reviews from parents. While many supported the measure, a small group of parents from a selective, arts-focussed, middle school (grades 4–8) objected to the policy. It was their contention that children attending this particular school should be exempt from the policy since their children were particularly creative, and the new policy constituted an unjust infringement of their child’s freedom of expression and on their parental rights. On the other hand, the school board and several educators argued that school uniforms would foster discipline, equality and increase overall academic performance.

The debate between the Akron school board and parents is one that has taken place in numerous school districts since then president Bill Clinton put school uniforms front and center in his (year?) state of the union address. Rarely in the course of these debates have the philosophical or moral implications of mandatory school uniforms been considered. Do school uniforms violate a child’s freedom of expression? Do parents have a right to dress their child as they deem appropriate? Can the imposition of school uniforms be justified even if they curtail the right children may have to freedom of expression? While many philosophers have written on children’s rights, few if any have directly addressed the issue of children’s expressive rights. In cases where children’s actual interests, desires, or preferences have been considered, the discussion has mainly focussed on older children and their rights in relation to custody decisions, inculturation, or civic education.[1]In this paper I examine the issue of freedom of expression and school uniforms and argue that while mandatory school uniforms may not violate a child’s freedom of expression, there are good reasons to think they are inappropriate on other grounds.

1. Legal Precedents

The apparent lack of interest in the issue of school uniforms may in part be due to the number of legal precedents that have ruled that children are not entitled to the same protections as adults. Before looking at some of these cases, a few preliminary remarks are in order. First, in presenting and critiquing these fairly prominent court cases I do not intend to offer an analysis of constitutional law or jurisprudence. These cases are meant to exemplify general social attitudes surrounding children and expression, and particularly those of schools and school boards. Secondly, unlike other seminal cases of children’s or parents rights, outside of a few cases dealing with older children (12+) the supreme court has not given the definitive legal opinion on the issue. The opinions that currently hold sway are those from the fifth and eighth circuit courts of appeal, along with a related U.S. Supreme Court case dealing with a violation of a dress code policy, but not with the constitutionality of the dress code itself.

1.1 Tinker v. Des Moines Community Independent School District

The first and only U.S. Supreme Court case to deal with the issue of dress and expression occurred in the 1969 case of two hight school students, John F. Tinker 15, and Christopher Eckhardt 16, and junior high student Mary Beth Tinker 13, John’s sister. The defendants in this case were part of a group of parents and students that had met in the Eckhardt home in December of 1965 and had decided to publicly express their disapproval of he war in Vietnam by wearing black armbands throughout the holiday season. Before the students could implement the protest, the principles of the Des Moines schools heard about the protest, and adopted a dress code policy that forbid any student from wearing an armband to class. If a students was asked to remove an armband and refused, he or she would be faced with immediate suspension. On December 16, 1965, the defendants wore the armbands to school and after refusing to remove them were suspended from each of their respective schools.

In making their decision, the court did not address the issue of school dress codes or school uniforms, though it did note that the case did not relate to these issues. Rather, the court noted that the case was one about expression, and was a case of ‘pure speech’ and did fall under the protection of the first amendment. As the court noted: “First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression unmistakable holding of this Court for almost 50 years.”[2] Though the court recognized the first amendment rights of the students, it was careful to note that the school district (or in this case the principles in the district) would have been justified in banning the armbands had they been able to show that this conduct would ‘materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school’[3]

While the Tinker is often cited in cases involving expression in the context of the public school, it has little to do with the relationship between expression and uniforms. While the court did mention that school may be justified in limiting expression, they did not determine whether dress codes or uniforms posed a significant infringement on expression. For an analysis of this issue, one needs to appeal to the district courts for legal insight.

1.2 Littlefield v. Forney Independent School District

Although not a Supreme Court case, the the Littlefield case provides one of the clearest and most direct argument for the constitutionality of school uniforms. The case involved the implementation of a mandatory school uniform policy in the Forney Independent School District in Forney, Texas. The uniform policy was adopted with the express purpose of improving the social atmosphere and performance of the district’s students. As cited by court unforms were to “promote decorum (and thereby the notion that school is a place of order and work), to promote respect for authority, to decrease socioeconomic tensions, to increase attendance, and to reduce drop out rates”[4] Faced with the uniform policy, parents took the their case to court claiming that the school district had violated their children’s first and First and Fourteenth Amendments rights to freedom of expression and equal protection.
One of the salient features of the Littlefield case is its application of the O’Brian[5] test to determine whether uniforms violated freedom of expression, or if they do violate freedom of expression, whether such a violation could be justified. The O’Brian test consists of four questions that help guide content-neutral restrictions on freedom of expression. As stated by the court:

Applying O’Brien to to the challenged governmental policy at issue, the Uniform Policy will survive constitutional scrutiny if (1)it is within the constitutional power of the government, (2)it furthers an important or substantial government interest, (3) the interest is unrelated to the suppression of student expression, and (4)the incidental restrictions on First Amendment activities are no more than is necessary to facilitate that interest.[6]

According to the Fifth Circuit court, the school district had met the O’Brien test on each and every point. The school board was empowered by state law to require uniforms. Since the purpose or intent of the uniform policy was to increase academic performance, improve discipline and self-esteem and lower drop-out rates, and these purposes are well within the purview of the schools, uniforms were justified. Further, since the interests the uniforms served were not intended to restrict the student’s free expression, there was no direct violation al la Tinker. Finally, the restriction on speech in this instance was limited to dress and therefore did not extend to other forms of expression.

1.3 Canady v. Bossier Parish School Board

In a case much like Littlefield, the Canady case the issue facing the court was one which directly addressed the relationship between expression and mandatory school uniforms. As in Littlefield, the Fifth Circuit ruled that school uniforms can be justifiably required by schools. Unlike Littlefield, the court recognized the significant connection between speech and one’s choice of clothing:
(1) The choice of clothing can be an instance of pure speech, as when a student wears a shirt of jacket with a written political message on it.
(2) Clothing may also represent one’s ethnic heritage, religious beliefs, and political and social views
(3) Clothing may be a means by which students indicate the social group to which they belong, the activities they participate in, or their attitudes toward society and the school environment [7]
While each of these considerations would seem to indicate the importance of dress as a means or mode of expression, the court still concluded that there was an overriding state interest in fostering a specific type of atmosphere within the school context. Because of the unique nature of the school setting, the court ruled in favor of the school district.

In addition to the idea that the school constituted a unique context in which speech could be regulated, the court also noted the apparently factual claims that the uniform policy had improved the test scores of the children in the district. According to the court, this claim had not been disputed by the plaintiffs, and thus leant further support to the state’s interest in maintaining its uniform policy. As I will discuss in section 3 the causal relationship between uniforms and student performance is tenuous at best.

2. Children and Expression

If we take the issue of school uniforms strictly from a legal perspective, the vast majority of cases support a school boards right to require school uniforms. As noted in Tinker, schools cannot abridge all speech, but it can restrict the form of its expression through choice of clothing. In Littlefield and Canady, the court held that although clothing could be construed as speech, the context in which speed speech take place can be considered. Speech is not absolute in the public school context, and therefore given the state’s interest in education, uniforms are acceptable. While there may be some merit to extending this authority to the schools, the rulings also reflect a carelessness in the courts’ thinking about children. As I will argue, these rulings ignore a number of morally salient features of both children and uniform policies.

2.1 Defining the Children in Question

While the rulings in these cases appear reasonable, they also ignore some of the salient moral features of the issue of mandatory school uniforms. To begin with, the courts ignored the age of the students in deciding whether the their speech could be limited. While there are a number of reasons to suppose that children, particularly very young children, do not have the capacity for pure speech acts through clothing, in the case of older children is less clear. For the purposes of this paper, I will restrict my argument to younger children, that is, children in the primary grades. It is my contention that the lack of certain capacities in children in this age range entails that limiting their expression is not a violation of their rights. I do believe that near the upper age range and into secondary school age children (or perhaps it would be better to describe them as young adults) there are good reasons to hold that restrictions on expression are morally problematic. So while my focus here is on the reasons why younger children are not capable of the type of expression that may warrant respect or protection, I believe it has broader applicability to the case of older children. By having a clear understanding of why certain children are not capable of what I term ‘substantive expression’, it makes it easier to see when older children do have valid rights claims against the imposition of things like mandatory school uniform policies.

2.2 Modes of Expression

The contention that children do not have a right to freedom of expression is not to say that children are incapable of expression, only that they are incapable of the type of expression we normally believe ought to be protected. Children, particularly those between the ages of 4–11, are capable of what I term mere expression. We engage in acts of mere expression when we choose which type or color of shirt we are going to wear. I might choose a bright colored shirt if I am feeling especially happy, while I might choose a darker colored shirt if I am feeling a bit blue. Sometimes my clothing choices may say something about my body image at that particular time. Other times, my choice may be completely arbitrary. This type of expression is not limited to color choice or clothing, but may also be reflected in things like facial expressions, posture, or general body language. In most instances, mere expression is non-cognitive in that I am not aware, nor am I attempting to say anything to anyone. Thus, mere expression is represented by actions or things that connote any number of acts that others may or may not be able to infer as an intentional act of will.

On the other hand, there are times when we intentionally express something. When I engage in an action in which I intend to communicate something to others I am engaging in substantive expression. Substantive expression is the type of expression in which a subject performs an intentional act which the subject desires others to recognize as an intentional act of expression. Substantive expression is by its very nature social in that the individual doing the expressing desires some public recognition or understanding of the expressive act. For example, in the Tinker case presented in the previous section, it is clear the the children (or perhaps more properly the young adults) were engaging in an act of substantive expression. The intention behind wearing the armbands was to raise awareness of the casualties of the Vietnam War. Thus, substantive expression is distinguished from mere expression by its intentional nature. Children by and large lack the ability to engage in this type of expression, particularly were the expression is both intentional and symbolic.

Setting aside for a moment the issue of whether children have the capacity for substantive expression, there is a genuine concern that any expression through clothing is suspect when we are dealing with young children. Since children rarely if ever have the means or opportunity to independently purchase or choose their clothing, it is difficult to see how they could truly express themselves. It is more likely to be the case that the clothing is a reflection of how the child’s parent or parents wish present their child to the world. But, even assuming that there are extremely liberal parents that allow their children choose what clothes they want to wear, as was mentioned above, it is doubtful that children have the capacity to choose clothing that is anything but an act of mere expression.

2.3 Development of Substantive Expression

While the school age children being considered here are not capable of substantive expression, they will in time develop this capacity. So while the imposition of school uniforms may not be a violation of a child’s freedom of expression, at a certain point children will have the capacity for using things like clothing as a meaningful act of expression. Although there is some debate as to how this transition occurs, recent theories of child psychological and moral development suggest that it is through interactions with others, particularly those that are further along in his or her moral and cognitive abilities.


According to L. S. Vygotsky, children exhibit two types of learning and thus two types of cognitive development. The first is termed the actual developmental level.[8] The actual developmental level of a child is defined by the types of things a child can do on his or her own without help from others. When examining the issue of children and expression, schools and the court seem to be focussing on this metric of development. Since children have not developed the capacity for independent substantive expression, we do no wrong in limiting the outlets they might have taken advantage of had they been capable. But to focus solely on the actual developmental level of children would be to miss another important measure, namely,what Vygotsky terms the ‘zone of proximal development’. The zone of proximal development is a measure of the potential development of a child as demonstrated by their ability to solve problems under adult guidance or along with more developed peers. As Vygotsky writes:

The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state. These functions could be termed the ‘buds’ or ‘flowers’ of development rather than the ‘fruits’ of development’.[9]

So while children may not possess those capacities for substantive expression, they will through learning and imitation develop them. Furthermore, many children may already have some of the capacities necessary for attaining the actual developmental level necessary for substantive expression, but may only require the guidance of adults for their full realization. So the fact that children will, ceteris paribus, eventually develop the capacities for substantive expression does not entail that we should simply wait for these capacities to develop, rather, we should be taking an active role in seeing that children are given the proper support or ‘scaffolding’ necessary to move to the next developmental level.

Recently, studies in Ireland have born out Vygotsky’s views on the zone of proximal development. In How Children Become Moral Selves,[10] Josephine Russell engaged in a study that was conducted on the nature and extent of the moral awareness of a group of Irish school children beginning when they were between seven and eight years old and ending when they were between 12 and 13 years old. The group’s moral development was gauged by the responses they gave during “Thinking Time” sessions. A Thinking Time session is essentially a form of class discussion on moral issues facilitated by the teacher. Through these discussions, Russell draws conclusions about children’s ability to reason from various moral frameworks (e.g., justice, care, fairness, etc.) as well as whether their moral development is consistent with many of the leading psychological theories on children’s moral development, particularly those of Piaget, Kohlberg, Gilligan and Vygotsky.

Throughout her study, Russell noted the major leaps her students made when regularly engaged in dialogue with others. With help, students were able to reason in ways they would not have been able to without the interaction with others. As Russell writes:

Vygotsky (1978) argued that children function at a higher intellectual level within collaborative structures. I found evidence for this with increasing exposure to philosophical enquiry. There was a greater ability to tease out an issue and arrive as some sort of conclusion.[11]

The development of substantive expression does not arise spontaneously, rather it develops over time. Thus, as children’s capacities increase, so should their rights. In fact, if In fact, if we take seriously a gradualist account of rights, coupled with an obligation on the part of parents and the state to create the values necessary for inclusion in the moral community (civic minimalism?) then we may have a role to play in a child’s developing the capacity to express themselves in a myriad of ways, including expression through clothing. As I shall argue in section 3, a gradualist account of children’s rights, combined with the fact of the gradual development of children’s capacities leads—along with empirical evidence that counts against the effectiveness of mandatory uniform policies—leads one to the conclusion that although uniforms may not violate children’s rights, they may do a disservice to children in other ways.

3. Children and Rights

Up to this point I have argued that school uniforms do not violate a child’s right to freedom of expression since children lack the capacities necessary for substantive expression. I have also noted that while children lack these capacities, that with time and training children will eventually develop the ability to express themselves in substantive ways. This movement from an actual lack of capacity, through the zone of proximal development, to the actual capacity does not happen in a vacuum. It requires that others, primarily adults, act as exemplars for the child.

This progressive nature of a child’s development has implications for not only for the issue at hand, but for the nature of rights in general. If rights protect the choices individuals make, and children lack the capacity to make the sorts of deliberate choices rights protect, then from a choice perspective our work here is done. A children’s right to freedom of expression will be protected at some distant time in the future. On the other hand, if right protect interests, then we may still hold that children have no interest right at stake, but we may also hold that the child’s future interest in expression places moral demands on those responsible for them. In the sections that follow I discuss an account of children’s rights that takes into account both choice and interest. This view is compatible with the Vygotskian view of development.

3.1 A Gradualist Account of Children’s Rights

Gradualist holds that the rights that we can ascribe to children are gradual in that they move from primarily interest protecting to primarily choice protecting. The gradualist account I will discuss here is the one proposed by Samantha Brennan in “Children’s Choices or Children’s Interests: Which do their Rights Protect?”[12]. According to Brennan, both the choice and interest accounts of rights fail to take seriously the moral status of children. In the case of choice accounts, the very fact that children—particularly very young children—cannot make choices, or at least cannot make the sort of competent choices that deserve protection, entails they do not have rights. The response to the choicist position is to hold that rights protect a child’s interests. Since a child can have interests even if they cannot make choices, then this account appears to preserve rights for children. But the protection of interests can only go so far, since eventually children will become capable at some point of choosing for themselves. What is salient about this point is that this ability will develop incrementally and over an extended period of time. Rather than looking for a distinct point at which interest protection gives way to choice protection, Brennan argues that we ought to view rights and the things they protect as existing on a continuum. As she states:

The picture I prefer is one in which children move gradually from having their rights primarily protect their interests to having their rights primarily protect their choices. This reflects the transition of the child from being a creature whose interests are of moral concern, and hence deserve the protection of rights, to being a creature who can choose for herself.[13]

This approach to rights is sensitive to the developmental nature of children, and as such reflects the reality of agent development.

One implication of this view of rights is that one of the obligations facing parent and others responsible for a child’s growth and development is that the interests that are protected include the child’s interest in becoming an agent capable of choice. The movement of children from beings that primarily have interests that are protected to those that have their choices protected requires the kind of Vygotskian guidance mentioned in section two. Children do not just magically attain the capacity for meaningful choice, they develop it over time with the assistance of those who already have it. What I will suggest here is that the capacity of choice, be it in clothing or anything else, develops in children by the exercise of a limited form of expression, that is, expression under the guidance of a caregiver.

3.2 Circumscribed Normative Automony

The capacity for substantive expression develops gradually as a child is allowed to express themselves in various ways. This limited form of expression can be thought of as a form of autonomy and is analogous to what Hugh LaFollette has termed “circumscribed normative autonomy”[14]. According to LaFollette, there are two types of autonomy, namely, descriptive autonomy and normative autonomy. Descriptive autonomy denotes the ability of an agent to make rational and informed choices based upon knowledge and experience. Normally, agents capable of making choices of this type are viewed as deserving of having those choices respected or at the very least protected. The respecting of such choices, or the recognition of choices as carrying moral force is defined as normative autonomy.[15]

According to LaFollette, normative autonomy deals with how parents and authorities should relate to children. The distinction between descriptive and normative autonomy has, according to LaFollette, often been blurred. The assumption has traditionally been that children are not descriptively autonomous and thus we should not grant them normative autonomy. Usually the granting of normative autonomy is fixed at some predetermined age such as 18 or 21. As Lafollette states:

We construed both descriptive and normative autonomy as all of nothing. We assumed that an individual either is or is not descriptively autononomous, and that if she is, then she should have complete normative autonomy, complete say over her self-regarding choices. We correspondingly assumed that if someone is not descriptively autonomous, then we should not give them any normative autonomy. This view puts excessive moral weight on questionable empirical claims and blurry conceptual distinctions. Thus, we confine children to practical purgatory where they have no socially recognized autonomy until, upon reaching the magical age of seventeen, eighteen, or twenty-one (depending on where they live), they suddenly become infused with it.[16]

LaFollette’s response to this all or nothing approach to autonomy is to extend to children what he calls “circumscribed normative autonomy”[17] Circumscribed normative autonomy is a means of recognizing that children, though not descriptively autonomous, can exhibit some autonomous traits. Furthermore, in order for a child to become autonomous, they must be trained in making autonomous choices. There is no magical moment when a child achieves descriptive autonomy, it is something that develops over time with guidance from adults. So, while children aren’t autonomous, we as adults have an obligation to help them achieve this descriptive ability.

It is easy to see how circumscribed normative autonomy can be extended to children and expression. Just as autonomy is something that develops as children are provided opportunities to make decisions under the guidance of adults, so to can expression be developed by extending to children circumscribed normative expression. By giving students some choice in the clothing that they wear, along with a an understanding of what counts as appropriate or inappropriate in a particular context, we further their development. One could argue that giving a child an understanding of social norms such as appropriate clothing indirectly provides them with the means of expressing their dissatisfaction with social norms when they intentionally violate those norms or rules.

3.3 Failure of School Uniforms

While the idea of circumscribed normative expression may be appealing, one objection that may be raised is whether substantive expression can be achieved without bringing uniforms into the picture. In other words, given the supposed benefits of uniforms coupled with the fact that their imposition is not violating the rights of young children, why not maintain uniform policies? Surely, the objection continues, we can teach children about when, where and how to express oneself through clothing in a number of social situations— weddings, funerals, banquets, etc.—so it would seem that in this one instance we could forgo the “teachable moment” in favor of the greater utility achieved through uniforms? It would seem that social utility considerations would take precedent in the absence of a legitimate rights claim.

This response to circumscribed expression would be compelling if in fact uniforms did accomplish the objectives claimed by their proponents. In School Uniforms: A Critical Review of the Literature[18] by David L. Brunsma examines three types of studies dealing with school uniforms. The first are studies of the attitudes of administrators, teachers, parents and students toward both mandatory and voluntary uniform policies. The second deal with small-scale studies, that is, studies of a single school or a group of schools that have implemented uniform policies. Third are the large-scale studies that examine uniforms policies through a national representative sampling of both schools that implemented uniforms and those that did not.

Given the popularity of uniform policies, along with the substantial support the courts have given, one would expect to find a substantial amount of empirical evidence that uniform policies have a positive impact on academic performance, school environment or both. What Brunsma’s survey (along with his own research) bring to light is the striking lack of a correlation between the implementation of a school uniform policy and the positive affects claimed by proponents of such policies. While there are many studies that reflected an increase in the perception that uniforms had a positive impact factors such as attendance, discipline, self-esteem and academic performance, these perceptions failed to map onto the measured outcomes.[19] Of course, our concern here is not with perception, but with actual effectiveness. If proponents of uniforms rely on the benefits of these policies to justify there existence, then they must be able to point to evidence supporting it effectiveness. Morally, we may not be infringing upon the rights of children, but as was previously argued, we may be missing an opportunity to aid them in the development of expression.

The small and large scale studies of uniforms actual effectiveness (versus their perceived effectiveness) has proven at best indeterminate. Most of the small-scale studies that found an improvement in academic achievement after the implementation of a uniform policy also found that other policies were more likely the reason for the improvement. As Brunsma notes about one of the small-scale studies he examined:

Mary Louise Murphy’s case study of an elementary school that implemented a uniform policy examined discipline referrals, academic achievement on standardized tests, and attitudes of students, parents, and staff. While student’s standardized test scores did increase after the policy was implemented, Murphy attributed this increase to the school’s academic program, which was in its second year, and test preparation practices. Behavioral referrals decreased after the school uniform policy was established, but Murphy speculates that the decline was more likely due to a newly implemented schoolwide problem-solving curriculum.[20]

Large scale studies of the effectiveness of school uniforms, while initially appearing promising, have also failed to support the claims of their proponents. In the first and—according to Brunsma—most popular study conducted in the Long Beach Unified School District, school uniforms were required for all elementary and middle school students. The outcomes of the study appeared to support the effectiveness of uniforms:

The now classic findings indicated that suspensions in elementary schools declined by 28% and in middle school by 36%. The percentage of school crimes reported in kindergarten through eighth-grade also decreased: assault and battery by 34%, assault with a deadly weapon by 50%, fighting by 51%, sex offenses by 74%, and vandalism by 18%.[21]

While these initial findings appeared promising, the researcher Sue Stanley, was reluctant to draw any conclusions regarding school uniforms. As with the small-scale studies, uniforms were not the only changes made to the system that could account for the dramatic changes in the school statistics. As Brunsma notes:

Proponents of school uniform policies used Stanley’s research to support their position, even though Stanley urged caution in interpreting the data, noting that ‘it is not clear that these results are entirely attributable to the uniform policy’. Because other changes were occurring in the schools at the same time that the mandatory uniform policy was implemented, it is unclear whether decreases in the number of suspensions and school crimes were due to the uniform policy, other changes, or simply chance.[22]

Finally, one of the most complete large-scale study of the effectiveness of school uniforms comes from Brunsma and Rockquemore. This study attempted to remedy some of the sampling errors of previous studies by doing a nationwide representative study of 10th graders who were required to wear school uniforms. The study tracked both the supposed social and academic benefits of mandatory school uniforms. The end result of this study was disappointing for school uniform proponents. As Brusnma states:

We found no significant differences in the levels of absenteeism, behavioral problems (e.g., fights and suspensions), or substance use on campus between the two groups. We also found no effects of uniform policies on academic preparedness or student and peer attitudes toward school. We found significant, albeit weak, negative effect of uniforms on academic achievement.[23]

4. Conclusion

I began this paper with a discussion of the school uniform movement, and the underlying assumption that uniforms were good for students. Assuming uniforms are beneficial to student, I then raised the question of the morality of uniforms. While they may be beneficial, that in and of itself would not be sufficient to justify imposing them upon students. Although the courts have supported the imposition of mandatory school uniforms on both pragmatic grounds—the benefit to children—and on the rights-based argument that children lack freedom of expression.

While we may agree that children (specifically young children) lack the ability to exercise substantive expression, I have argued that the lack of the right does not justify the imposition of uniforms. Since children will, ceteris paribus, eventually be capable of substantive expression, and since this capability requires that children be granted a certain amount of free expression in order to develop this capability, then perhaps we should impose something akin to a dress code without a strict uniform requirement. This conclusion carries more force when we consider that the evidence suggests that uniforms do not provide the benefits they claim. It is one thing to impose uniforms knowing that they 1) do not violate a child’s right to freedom of expression, and 2) have been proven to benefit their academic performance, and quite another to impose them because they make parents, teachers and administrators feel as if they are furthering educational goals. By discounting the empirical evidence, and ignoring the developmental opportunities that circumscribed normative autonomy would provide, they are doing children a disservice.

  1. See Hugh LaFollette’s “Circumscribed Autonomy: Children, Care, and Custody” in Having and Raising Children ed. J. Bartowiack and U. Narayan. (State College, PA: Penn State Press, 1998); David Archard, “Children, Multiculturalism, and Education”, also Joe Coleman “Answering Susan: Liberalism, Civic Education, and the Status of Younger Persons” in The Moral and Political Status of Children ed. David Archard and Colin M. Macleod (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).  ↩

  2. Ibid p.2.  ↩

  3. Ibid., p.4  ↩

  4. Ibid., para. 8  ↩

  5. 391 U.S. 367, 377 (1968)  ↩

  6. Littlefield v. Forney Independent School District 268 F.3d 275 (5th Cir. 2001) para. 29  ↩

  7. Ibid., para.10–12  ↩

  8. L. S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 85.  ↩

  9. L. S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 87.  ↩

  10. Josephine Russell, How Children Become Moral Selves: Building Character and Promoting Citizenship in Education (Eastbourne: Sussex University Press, 2007)  ↩

  11. Ibid., Russell, p.117  ↩

  12. The Moral and Political Status of Children ed. David Archard and Colin M. Macleod (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) pp.53–69  ↩

  13. Ibid., p.63.  ↩

  14. ”Circumscribed Autonomy: Children, Care, and Custody” in Having and Raising Children e.d., J. Bartowiack and U. Narayan (State College: Penn State Press, 1998)  ↩

  15. Ibid., 138  ↩

  16. Ibid., p.139  ↩

  17. Ibid.  ↩

  18. (Bloomington: Phi Delta Kappa International, 2002)  ↩

  19. (Ibid., pp.2–4.  ↩

  20. Ibid., p.5  ↩

  21. Ibid., p.6  ↩

  22. Ibid., p.6  ↩

  23. Ibid., p.7  ↩

Children, Rights, and Sexuality

[The following paper is a heavily abridged version of a chapter of a book I am currently working on and is not intended for citation or redistribution.]

1. Introduction

How should we address issues of sexuality with children? What information are children entitled to receive? These questions become particularly relevant when the issue of comprehensive sex education is debated. In the United States, the dominant approach to sex education has been to teach abstinence. Most federal funding for sex education programs has been tied to requirement that more controversial topics such as contraception and abortion not be included in sex education programs. In this paper I argue that children have a right—and society has an obligation—to provide children with comprehensive age-appropriate information about sexuality and sexual expression.

2. The Sexuality of Children

When discussing the sexuality of children there is a tendency to view them as either sexual innocents, or as pseudo-adults. Samantha Brennan and Jennifer Epps have referred to this dichotomy as the romantic child versus the knowing child.

The romantic child is characterized by his or her sexual innocence. The child’s lack of knowledge, experience, and interest in things sexual categorizes them as an object of concern that requires protection from the corrupting experiences of the adult world. When the predominate view of the child is one of innocence, the natural response is to shield the child from both less than ideal examples of sexuality, as well as from information about normal and healthy aspects sexuality. Exposing children to the mere idea of human beings as sexual is seen as instilling inappropriate thoughts and ideas in the child.

In contrast to the romantic child is the image of the knowing child. The knowing child can be described as a tragic figure, the innocent forced into adulthood by premature exposure to sexuality. While we may strive to prevent the creation of the knowing child, his or her knowledge changes the way we treat such children. The knowing child becomes a little adult—and unlike the romantic child—is treated as sexually autonomous. Innocence lost cannot be recaptured, and so the knowing child is viewed in one instance as a victim and in the other as an adult.

This distinction between the romantic and knowing child is often implicitly appealed to when discussing issues of children and consent, and represents an inaccurate representation of childhood sexuality.The danger of accepting this view of the knowing child is that it allows the abrogation of responsibility for the protection of these children. On the continuum between the protection of interests to the protection of choices, the knowing child falls closer to the latter. Since the child has unfortunately and possibly unwillingly lost his or her child status, then they now are seen by many as outside the purview of adult protection.

The romantic image of the child is by all psychological accounts a fiction. Far from being unaware, children are acutely aware of their sexuality, although they may not have the ability to articulate it. The fact that children are sexual necessitates parental involvement in guiding children from a fairly young age. Although it is clearly the case that children grow in their sexual awareness over time, this does preclude them from being sexually aware at a very young age.

The reality of children’s sexuality as neither that of the romantic innocent nor of the the knowing adult requires a correspondingly realistic and nuanced approach to the subject. As sexual beings children children require both protection as well as information. As moral beings it is also necessary to take seriously the rights implications of how those responsible for children should deal with the issue of sexual freedom. This issue is complicated given that children’s competence is normally not an all or nothing affair. As was discussed in the case of freedom of expression, children may gradually exhibit competencies over time and only with the assistance of adult decision makers.

Categorizing children as either romantic innocents or knowing children also misses an important aspect of children’s sexuality, namely, its place in the development of conception of the good life. While we often worry about children becoming sexually active at an inappropriate age, or worry about children having children, we often forget that sex and sexuality are part of an individual’s overall well-being. Development of sexual values is important aspect of this well-being.

Becoming a fully rounded person is often complicated when we add moral and religious views into the mix. The values a child may come to endorse as they mature may or may not coincide with those of his or her parents. It can be especially difficult for gay and lesbian adolescents who recognize very early on that their parents, family or community does not approve of their orientation. These situations prove extremely difficult to manage for a theory of children’s rights as the objection parents may have to homosexuality may be part of deeply held religious beliefs.

The recognition of children as sexual beings is important because of the obligation we have to protect children from harm. General well-being and rights claims aside, information is essential to protecting children from the very real harms that are possible from sexual ignorance. Recognizing children as developing sexual beings is not only essential to them leading an autonomous and a well-rounded life, but is also about preparing and providing children with the information to make responsible and safe decisions. It is with this understanding that I wish to focus on one controversial aspect of childhood sexuality—the debate over comprehensive sex education.

3. Comprehensive Sexual Education

The reality of children’s sexuality suggests that we have a correspondingly realistic assessment of what type of information children should receive. Assuming young children are not curious about matters of sexuality, or that children that have had some sort of sexual experience are competent to make decisions for themselves, are both equally specious views of their sexuality. Unfortunately, in the United States children are often not provided the information necessary to protect themselves from the harmful aspects of sexual activity, nor are they being prepared to make responsible choices in matters relating to their sexual life.

There is no one abstinence only curriculum. These programs vary widely depending on who teaches them, and where they are taught. While abstinence only programs can vary by state, county, school district, and individual instructor, in the United States federal funding is dependent on a program meeting eight essential criteria.
Of the eight requirements of an abstinence only programs, half require emphasizing the negative aspects of sex such as disease, physical harm, psychological harm, and the harm to one’s family. The other aspects place an emphasis on ways to avoid sexual advances, or on the safe course of action of sex within a monogamous, heterosexual marriage.

The focus of abstinence only programs is to instill the idea that sex is something to be avoided at all costs. The stated goal of teaching children and young adults that the standard of sexual activity is in the context of marriage is at best an ideal and at worst an outright distortion of the facts. >The majority of Americans—74% of them—have had sex before age 20.4 Further, contrary to public perception that premarital sex is much more common now than in the past, the study shows that even among women who were born in the 1940s, nearly nine in 10 had sex before marriage[1].

These numbers demonstrate that abstinence is not—and has not been—the norm for some time. Given the reality that most young people will not wait until marriage to engage in sexual activity, there is the danger that simply teaching what can go wrong will not help prepare young people to avoid that harm. Furthermore, even if they do delay sexual intercourse, it is highly probable that they will engage in other forms of sexual activity that is itself risky.

Abstinence only programs tend to focus on intercourse while excluding discussion of other forms of sexual activity. Even if there is reason to emphasize abstinence and the dangers of sex, abstinence only programs are doing a poor job of providing information about the dangers of other types of sexual activity—activities that can pose serious health risks. One fairly well-known example of this failure has occurred in the virginity pledge movement in the United States. Organizations such as True Love Waits encourage young people to promise to abstain from sex until marriage.

As with a large majority of abstinence only programs, the True Love Waits program does not discuss contraception or sexual activities outside of intercourse. The result of this omission was that young people that participated (took the pledge) had the same rates sexually transmitted infections as those who did not participate. According to Brückner and Bearman, there was no statistical difference between the rates of infection for pledgers and non-pledgers. Consequently, while pledgers delayed sexual intercourse for a longer period of time than non-pledges, they engaged in other risky sexual behavior resulting in the transmission of disease such as Gonorrhea, Human Papilloma Virus, Chlamydia and Trichomoniasis.[2]

The abstinence-only approach fails on several accounts to fulfill our obligations to children. First, such programs imply, if not directly teach, that sex is something to be generally feared. Secondly, it is based on the mistaken view of children as romantic innocents. Finally, the incomplete information about sex contained in abstinence only programs places young people at risk for sexually transmitted infections. These shortcomings point to a need for the type of information provided by comprehensive approaches to sex education.

Just like abstinence only programs, comprehensive programs admit of a number of variations. Generally, comprehensive sex education programs—also known as “abstinence plus” programs—encourage abstinence but also provide information on HIV and STD prevention and contraception. Comprehensive programs are designed to provide young people with age-appropriate information about a full-range of sexual practices, beliefs and values. These programs are generally sensitive to the cultural beliefs and values of the community, but they do not withhold information that is necessary for responsible decision-making.

Comprehensive programs are more forthright about the realities of teenage sexuality. While they do promote abstinence, they also acknowledge that many teenagers will engage in sexual activity. These programs teach about contraception and condom use, and discuss more sensitive topics such as abortion that abstinence-only programs do not.

Given the failure of abstinence only programs to protect young people and provide the information necessary to make responsible choice, one might expect to find greater support for comprehensive programs. Yet, many see such approaches as implicitly encouraging teens to engage in sex. The fear is that giving young people information about sex and contraception will result in greater sexual activity and all the negative consequences that may accompany it. While the idea that information may lead to engagement has some intuitive appeal, it turns out that the reality is quite different. In fact, the value of comprehensive sex education as a means of both delaying sexual activity, as well as resulting in more responsible behavior is well documented.

One of the most cited examples is that of Sweden’s comprehensive sex education program. Beginning in kindergarten, children in Sweden receive age appropriate, comprehensive information about sex and sexuality. Starting with lessons on basic anatomy and the joining of sperm and egg, children are taught to view sexuality as the natural part of the human experience. As children move into their teenage years they are given more information about contraception and the dangers of unprotected sex. They are also taught how to take control of their sex lives— instruction which stresses the virtues of being in a stable committed loving relationship, gender equality and waiting until one is ready to have sex.[3]

Given the substantial amount of exposure to sexual information that Swedish children receive, one might expect to find an increased amount of sexual activity among its young people. Yet, the result of providing children and young people with this information results in a far more responsible behavior. As Thomas Grose has reported:

The rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease in Sweden are among the world’s lowest. Sweden’s teenage birthrate is 7 per 1,000 births, compared with 49 in the United States. Among 15-to–19-year-olds, reported cases of gonorrhea in the United States are nearly 600 times as great on a per capita basis[4]

Similar outcomes have been reported in the Canada and the Netherlands which also employ comprehensive sex education along with access to contraception. In the 2006 the teen pregnancy rate in the Netherlands for women age 15–19 was 18.8 per 1000. By contrast, in the same year the teen pregnancy rate for the same age group in the United States was 71.5 per 1000. In each instance where the national focus is on comprehensive sex education, there are a correspondingly low levels of teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and abortions.[5]

The effectiveness of comprehensive programs demonstrates that from a purely practical standpoint they are a far better approach to sex education. They also have the added benefit of not only protecting young people from the dangers of sexual activity, but also provide the information necessary for making responsible choices. These aspects of comprehensive approaches make them a better fit with the moral obligations we have to children with respect to their sexual development.

4. Parents, Children, and Sexuality

Part of preparing a child for realizing a conception of the good life entails that they are able to express a preference for one life over another. An important aspect of that good life is the expression—or the freedom to express—one’s sexual identity. It also entails that they have the ability to participate in the construction of the type of community in which they live. In realizing their own sexual identity as they mature, children will eventually influence the nature or structure of the moral community. How sexuality is viewed, expressed, protected etc., will ultimately be determined by adult decision-makers. A healthy view of one’s sexuality will be needed to participate in that social conversation.

Although children are sexual beings, their sexuality develops over time. It is a parent’s responsibility to foster the healthy growth and development of the child. Parents and other caregivers have an obligation to protect a child’s interests, including the child’s interest in becoming an agent capable of making informed choices about his or her sexual life. Children do not just magically attain the capacity for meaningful choice, they develop it over time with the assistance of those who already have it. The capacity for choice, be it in clothing or sexual expression, develops in children by the exercise of a limited form of expression, that is, expression under the guidance of a caregiver.

Providing children with age-appropriate information, helping them foster healthy relationships with others, and teaching them to respect themselves and others, all helps to prepare them to be independent sexual beings. But, this preparation is not all or nothing. We do not provide children with a few sex education classes and then view them as capable of making responsible sexual decisions. Children still need guidance and even restrictions on activities. There are social, physical, and emotional consequences to sexual activity. The freedom or autonomy that we grant children in these matters is analogous to Hugh LaFollette’s “circumscribed normative autonomy”.

According to LaFollette, there are two types of autonomy, namely, descriptive autonomy and normative autonomy. Descriptive autonomy denotes the ability of an agent to make rational and informed choices based upon knowledge and experience. Normally, agents capable of making choices of this type are viewed as deserving of having those choices respected or at the very least protected. The respecting of such choices, or the recognition of choices as carrying moral force is defined as normative autonomy.

According to LaFollette, normative autonomy deals with how parents and authorities should relate to children. The distinction between descriptive and normative autonomy has, according to LaFollette, often been blurred. The assumption has traditionally been that children are not descriptively autonomous and thus we should not grant them normative autonomy. Usually, the granting of normative autonomy is fixed at some predetermined age.

LaFollette’s response to this all or nothing approach to autonomy is to extend to children what he calls “circumscribed normative autonomy” Circumscribed normative autonomy is a means of recognizing that children, though not descriptively autonomous, can exhibit some autonomous traits. In order for children to become autonomous, they must be trained in making autonomous choices. There is no magical moment when a child achieves descriptive autonomy, it is something that develops over time with guidance from adults. So, while children aren’t autonomous, we as adults have an obligation to help them achieve this descriptive ability.

It is easy to see how circumscribed normative autonomy can be extended to children and sexuality. Just as autonomy is something that develops as children are provided opportunities to make decisions under the guidance of adults, so too can decisions that relate to sexuality be developed by extending to children circumscribed normative autonomy in this area. Giving children some freedom of choice in matters that deal with sex and sexuality, along with an understanding of what counts as appropriate or inappropriate in a particular context and at a particular age, we further their development.

The idea of circumscribed normative autonomy supports the comprehensive approach to sex education. Providing children with guidance and information allows them to develop and progressively take on responsibility for their sexual lives. It also simultaneously protects children from the very real risks inherent in sexual activity. While some parents may be uncomfortable with the comprehensive approach, much like in case of religion, parents are entitled to influence a child’s sexual development or under what conditions their sexuality is expressed. But, respecting a child’s interest in becoming a fully autonomous sexual adult equipped to choose the life they will lead requires that parents do not unduly restrict a child’s access to information.

  1. Thomas K. Grose, “Straight Facts About the Birds and Bees” U.S. News and World Report (online) http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/070318/26sex_print.htm (Posted 3/18/07)  ↩

  2. Hannah Brückner and Peter Pearman. “After the promise: the STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges” in Journal of Adolescnet Health 36 (2005): 271.  ↩

  3. Thomas K. Grose, “Straight Facts About the Birds and Bees” U.S. News and World Report (online) http://www.usnews.com/usnews/news/articles/070318/26sex_print.htm (Posted 3/18/07)  ↩

  4. Ibid  ↩

  5. Advocates for Youth. “Adolescent Sexual Health in Europe and the United States: The Case of a Rights. Respect. Responsibility. Approach. http://www.advocatesforyouth.org (Accessed March 2012)  ↩

Churchgoing and Moral Commitments

I recently had an conversation with a colleague, and a student about religious belief. The focus of the conversation was on the Euthyphro and religious certainty. Religious certainty led to a discussion of the certainty some Christians seemed to have about their faith, which itself eventually led to a discussion of what it means to call oneself a Christian. As I noted at the time, it is not enough to follow the moral teachings of the bible to be a Christian. To be a Christian is to believe in a set of premises contained in the Nicene Creed: Jesus was the son of God; he was conceived by the Virgin Mary; was crucified; arose from the dead three days later etc.

I’ve previously written about my religious beliefs (or lack thereof). In that post, I focused on faith and belief in general. Although religion and faith go hand in hand, faith and church-going do not. There are other elements of religious experience that many find important. For example, many non or lackluster believers may continue to attend a church for the community experience. They may want to instill a sense of community or charity in their children, or they may simply admire the work the church does. At times I meet Catholics that give these or similar reasons for remaining in the Church. For many years I believed that I would probably fall into this category of church goer. Over time I found this position untenable. Too many of specifically Catholic teachings conflict with my own moral beliefs:

Issue Catholic Church Me
Abortion Morally wrong under all circumstances: “2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” Even if we grant the fetus is a person from conception there are still (as Judith Jarvis Thompson has persuasively argued) morally justified instances of abortion, not the least of which is the life of the mother. No person, and in this case no women should be required to sacrifice her life for another. It may be morally commendable if she does, but is should no be morally obligatory. Abortion, as former president Clinton once said, should be safe, legal, and rare.
Birth Control “2370 Periodic continence, that is, the methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality. These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. In contrast, ’every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil.’ In 1964 Pope Paul convened a commission on birth control. As Elaine May wrote in a op-ed piece in the Washington Post “In 1967, the commission’s report was leaked to the press, revealing that a significant majority of its members favored lifting the ban, including 60 of 64 theologians and nine of the 15 cardinals.” Outside of the Catholic Church, I know of no Protestant denomination that views contraception as “intrinsically evil”. What makes this position worse is the disproportionate effect it has on the health and well-being of women—particularly women in poverty and those in the third world. Overpopulation in places like India and China, along with AIDS ravaged parts of Africa makes the ban itself an evil. Contraception is not only about preventing pregnancy, but is also about preventing disease.
Divorce 2384 Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery. The Catholic Church is one of few sects of Christianity that makes marriage a sacrament and does not allow divorce. While divorce may in many instances be a regrettable event, in others it may be the only way to remove oneself from a physically or emotionally abusive relationship. It may also be caused by substance abuse, infidelity, or any number of issues. Given the numerous reasons a couple may choose to end a marriage, it seems ridiculous to hold that a divorced spouse that remarries is in a constant state of adultery. I don’t think the divorced people are in some perpetual state of sin, nor do I think divorce is an offense against nature or a plague on society.[1]
Euthansia 2277 Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable. Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgement into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded. Removing a feeding tube, or assisting a person whose palliative care is no longer effective is not immoral, but strikes me as an act of compassion. Of course, we need to consider the psychological state of the individual, and his or her ability to give meaningful consent. But, an absolute ban on such acts seems misguided.
Gay Marriage Opposes gay marriage:“2363 The spouses’ union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple’s spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family. The conjugal love of man and woman thus stands under the twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity.[my emphasis]” Marriages that take place are both civil and religious affairs (with priests/ministers acting as a representative of the state as well as a religious leader) I believe all state sanctioned “marriage” should be redefined as civil unions. Marriage (and it religious connotation) should be left to the churches, mosques and synagogues.[2]
Homosexuality “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity [Cf. Gen 19:1–29; Rom 1:24–27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tim 1:10], tradition has always declared that ”homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." Homosexuality is innate, and is not depraved or disordered. While one can choose to engage in sexual acts with either sex, sexual attraction is primarily genetic. But even if it is not genetic, it seems most arguments against homosexuality are based on aesthetic considerations and not moral ones.
Role of Women Only men may be ordained: 1577 “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination. The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.” If men and women were created equally, then they should be able to serve equally in the church. A “universal church” should have representation by both halves of that universal body. Additonally (and perhaps more importantly) I don’t want to attend a church that would instill in my daughter or my son (implicitly or explicitly) the idea that women are somehow second class members of the church.

Now, I know that I am not the only person to be troubled by the formal teachings of his or her church. Many people of good conscience struggle with these sorts of conflicts. They have a gay relative, or know someone who conceived a child under less than ideal circumstances. But I suspect these people remain a member of a church because of a more fundamental underlying faith commitment. They may remain Catholic because they are committed to Marian veneration, or the transubstantiation—things not found in Protestant churches. But once you remove the underlying faith-based commitments, the moral teachings take on a new level of importance.

What this all says to me is that if I should ever decide to return to a church, it will have to be one that shares my values. Fortunately, there are a variety of churches[3], and for that matter religions, that would allow me be part of a community while not sacrificing my fundamental moral commitments.

  1. 2385 Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society.  ↩

  2. Interestingly enough, before the 13th century there was no marriage gay or otherwise http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/may/09/marriage-myth/  ↩

  3. For example, the United Church of Christ’s open and affirming congregations have moral teachings in line with those I have outlined here.  ↩

Comparable Universities

According to the the administration at YSU, listed below are the universities in the region that we should compare ourselves to for purposes of contract negotiations. Until now I never realized just how much YSU had in common with places like John Carroll University. By the way, for those who may not be aware Youngstown State is a PUBLIC, OPEN-ENROLLMENT university with a student population of approximately 15,000.






Ashland University

Ashland, OH



College of Mount St. Joseph

Cincinnati, OH

Private (Catholic)


Capital University

Columbus, OH

Private (Lutheran)

1545 undergrad

Franciscan University of Steubenville

Steubenville, OH

Private (Catholic)


John Carroll University

Cleveland, OH

Private (Catholic)


Malone Un

Canton, OH

Private (Christian)


Mount Vernon Nazarene University

Mount Vernon, OH

Private (Christian)


University of Dayton

Dayton, OH

Private (Catholic)


University of Findlay

Findlay, OH



Xavier University

Cincinnati, OH



Magnet Schools, Innate Talent and Social Justice

[Once again the Akron Public Schools are facing a fiscal crisis and the response is to make drastic cuts while simultaneously maintaining specialized magnet schools. The result is that general or comprehensive schools will see cuts in the arts and language curriculum. In this paper I take issue with the whole idea of specialized schools, particularly those that justify providing some students with access to more resources based on ‘talent’. The following paper was published in Theory and Research in Education Vol.9 No. 1 (March 2011)]



“In the minds of many people it is a clear and simple fact, not to be questioned, that certain men and women have been born with innate talents that make them capable of high attainments.”1 


It has been a settled view in the philosophic literature that there are such things as innate talents or abilities are distributed arbitrarily by nature. This acceptance of talent as an innate has been generally accepted as an axiom for philosophic discussions about justice. Disparate thinkers such as Rawls and Nozick have attempted to address the influence these talents have on theories of distributive justice. In the case of the former, while there is nothing unjust about the arbitrary distribution of nature talents, this distribution can result in underved benefits within a particular social arrangement. In the case of the latter, since natural talents are not unjustly distributed, the affects of those talents on the distribution of goods is not morally problematic.2 

While the role of natural talents and abilities has implications for various theories of distributive justice, it also has serious implications for real-world distributions. One area where natural talents and abilities underpin our decisions regarding the allocation of scarce resources is in the area of public education. Beginning in the 1970s, many school districts reallocated their already scarce resources from local schools to specially created magnet schools.

Magnet schools are specialized forms of public schools that differ in their educational approaches or focus. These differences in approach are intended to entice parents to remove their children from their home school and place them in one that is normally geographically further from home. Magnet schools are an alternative to mandatory local schools which attempt to attract a racially diverse group of students. They are also viewed by many as a way of incorporating an element of choice (and possibly competition) into public school systems.3

Magnet schools generally have a specialized focus outside of standard educational objectives. They may have a curricular focus on such things as the visual and performing arts, math, science, technology, language, or music. They may also define themselves by the type of instructional method they employ. For example, some some schools may employ a Montessori method, an international baccalaureate approach, or the Paideia philosophy. In recent years, magnet schools have also been established as a way of accommodating  both gifted and special needs children by providing a specialized curriculum or lower teacher–student ratios.4 

Approximately one third of all magnet schools, what some have termed ‘selective magnet schools’, have some sort of entrance exam, portfolio, or audition requirement that students must pass in order to gain admission. Selective magnet schools are predicated on the idea that there are certain students that have natural talents and abilities that justify their inclusion in these programs. Such programs are seen as simple meritocracies that look beyond race, gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status, and focus and encourage the innate talent of certain individuals. It is the assumption that such innate talents exist that I take issue with in this paper. The assumption that selective magnet schools are simply rewarding talent ignores the overwhelming amount of research that shows that talent is not innate, but is a combination of opportunity, encouragement, and deliberate practice. Based on this research, I argue that selective and competitive magnet schools are fundamentally unfair to students generally and constitute an unjust use of public resources.

In arguing against selective magnet schools, section 1 examines the history of magnet schools and the rationale for their creation as a response to decades of segregated schooling. While magnet schools began as a remedy for racial inequality in education, they have of late become the cause of a different form of inequality.

Section 2 presents the recent research on the nature of talent and expertise. Numerous studies performed over the last 30 years have consistently shown that genius, talent, or ability has more to do with training and opportunity then it does with innate talent. 

Section 3 examines the justice implications of the research on talent and ability. While magnet schools were initially created to foster equality, the end result is a perpetuation of injustice and inequality. Racial segregation is supplanted by a socio-economic segregation.

Finally, section 4 considers the broader implication of accepting the idea of innate talent.

1. Magnet Schools

Before discussing the problems with magnet schools it is helpful to have a clear idea of what differentiates a magnet school from other types of public schools, the history of the magnet schools and the direction many of these schools have taken in school districts that have already complied with desegregation orders, or who use magnet schools for other purposes.


1.1 History of Magnet Schools

Magnet schools have taken on different forms since their inception in the mid to late 1970s, though their original purpose has remained constant, namely, the desegregation of public schoos. In order to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education Topeka, Kansas, school districts across the country took a number of different approaches to the desegregation order. Magnet schools were seen by many as a way of encouraging voluntary desegregation. As Kurt Stemhagen writes: 


Magnet schools were utilized for the somewhat related purposes of offering an attractive option to entice parents (often white) to keep their children in public schools and, as a means of, desegregating school districts without submitting to court-ordered busing plans (Blank, et al, 1996).  School districts seeking a voluntary demographic redistribution often patterned magnet school programs thematically after the highly selective public schools that pre-ceded this era (Blank, et al., 1983; Hunter 1994).5

The effectiveness of magnet schools as an approach to desegregation has been debated almost since their inception. Several studies have questioned whether these schools are truly effective at creating a more equitable school system. This concern will be addressed in greater detai
l in section 3.

1.2 Admissions

While the original purpose of magnet schools was to foster district-wide desegregation, demand for admission to magnet schools quickly outpaced the availability of spots. The response of many districts was to institute a lottery approach to admission often coupled with reserving a certain percentage of seats for minority applicants. Approximately two-thirds of magnet schools use a lottery based system.

In contrast to the lottery approach, one-third of magnet schools are what Stemhagen has termed “selective or competitive magnets”6 Selective and competitive schools require some form of entrance exam, audition or portfolio in order to be admitted or be placed on a list for admission. Some of the most highly regarded magnet schools fall into this category. For example, the The High School of Performing Arts now known as the Fiorello H. LaGuadia High School of Music & Arts and Performing Arts accepted 664 students out of an application pool of 9,000. In order to obtain a spot at the selective public school students were required to meet general academic requirements, as well as pass  an audition in one of the six areas: art, dance, drama, instrumental music, technical theatre and/or vocal music. Similarly, Bronx Science, another selective New York city high school requires both a strong elementary and middle school academic record as well as adequate performance on the Specialized High School Admissions Test. Additionally, the school finds that students that are admitted typically have these additional characteristics:

We have found that the following qualifications are common to students who are most often successful at Bronx Science: academically successful in the lower grades, involved in extra curricular activities, have a good attendance record, are serious about school-work and homework, are well behaved, and whose parents are actively involved in their child’s education.7

While selective magnet schools may have diversity or desegregation as their goal, there main focus seems to focus on giving their best students educational opportunities they could not obtain in their home school. The basis for this differential treatment are the talents and abilities these students demonstrate. In such instances, this differential treatment is justified on the grounds that though we may not be treating all students equally, equality doesn’t require that we waste resources on those that lack the talent or ability to take advantage of the opportunities offered to them. It is this   underlying assumption that appears to underpin selective magnet schools that I will take issue with in section 2.

2. Questionable Foundations

In Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin notes how the idea that some individuals are naturally endowed with certain talents dates back to the Greeks myth of the gods or the muses bestowing gifts on some individuals and not others. While we have given up other beliefs from the ancient world, a modified version of talent as a kind of natural gift has remained. As Colvin writes:

We’ve changed our views on a lot of important matters since then—how the planets move, where disease comes from—but we have not changed our views on what makes some people extraordinarily good at what they do. We still think what Homer thought: that the awesomely great, apparently super-human performers around us came into this world with a gift for doing exactly what they ended up doing—in the case of Demodocus, composing and singing. We use the same words that that the ancient Greeks used, simply translated. We still say, as Homer did, that great performers are inspired, meaning that their greatness was breathed into them by gods or muses.8

The problem with this view is two-fold: 1) research spanning the last 30 years indicates that this view is false, and 2) as I will discuss in section 3, this belief leads to specious justifications for the unequal distribution of resources and opportunity in selective magnet schools.


2.1 Innate Talent 

The classic example of innate talent is that of the young prodigy in music. The teenage musician that outshines all his or her peers in with seemingly effortless playing. While we acknowledge the work that must have accompanied the performance, in many respects it takes a back-seat to the raw talent that is obviously there. Probably the most famous musical example is that of Mozart. In “The Making of an Expert” K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely challenge the idea that the Mozarts of the world are actually born with some mysterious innate ability that mere mortals appear to lack. Taking the case of Mozart they note that his ability was anything but accidental: 

Nobody questions Mozart’s achievements were extraordinary compared with those of his contemporaries. What’s often forgotten, however, is that his development was equally exceptional for the time. His musical tutelage started before he was four years old, and his father, also a skilled composer, was a famous music teacher and had written one of the first books on violin instruction. Like other world-class performers, Mozart was not born an expert—he became one.9

It is not only in music that “talent” can be attributed to something other than an inborn trait. In study after study, genius, talent, expertise—whatever name we want to give it—consistently proves to be an elusive trait. In families that seem to produce more talented individuals, researchers have shown that the environment in which the child was raised accounts for his or her ability, and not the genetic poor from which they came. In Developing Talent in Young People, a group of researchers led by Benjamin Bloom  studied individuals that by all accounts would be considered exceptional in their respective fields. Included were concert pianists, accomplished sculptors, Olympic swimmers, world-class tennis players, mathematicians, and neurologists. Each individual chosen as part of the study was under 35 at the beginning of the study and had already achieved some level of success as measured by international competition, publication, award etc.  After questioning the subjects of the study, Bloom questioned both their parents and teachers. What he found was that the initial natural talent attributed to individuals across disciplines had very little if anything to do with their successes later in life. As Bloom writes: 

Our present findings point to the conclusion that exceptional levels of talent development requires certain types of environmental support, special experiences, excellent teaching, and appropriate motivational encouragement at each stage of development. No matter what the quality of the initial gifts, each of the individuals we studied went through many years of special development under the care of attentive parents and the tutelage and supervision of a remarkable series of teachers and coaches.10 

Similar findings appear in other studies of genius or exceptional talent. In Genius Explained, Michael J. A. Howe argues that individuals from Darwin to Einstein were not born exceptional, but developed those traits people would later attribute to genius. Numerou
s other studies have failed to find evidence for anything like natural talents or abilities as the basis for later success in a given occupation or field. This striking lack of correlation between success and natural talents has led researchers to look more closely at the environment of exceptional individuals—and it is here that they find a plausible explanation for why some individuals become accomplished and other do not.11

2.2 Explaining Exceptional Ability

If talent isn’t innate then how do we explain those with exceptional ability? It turns out the answer is fairly simple. Children that exhibit the most “talent” are those which have had the most training and practice. As Michael Howe notes:

Researchers have looked for, but failed to observe, differences in performance between ordinary children and ones thought to be innately talented. The findings point to a lack of differences between supposedly talented and supposedly untalented children at various indicators of progress, including the length of the training period necessary to reach high levels of competence and the gains achieved following a given amount of practising. The sheer amount of training and practise a person has undertaken turns out to be the best available predictor of his or her level of expertise.12

While training and practice are at the core of exceptional ability, the initial engagement in these activities does not occur spontaneously in children. A child’s engaging in a particular activity is dependent upon the encouragement and later the support of his or her parents. Without the initial push from someone else, the child is unlikely to have taken an interest in, or had the resources to continue in an activity. So while intense training is important, equally important is family support and dedicated teachers. What follow from this is that children with less exposure and fewer opportunities are less likely to achieve the same levels of expertise as other more fortunate children.13 

It is difficult to overstate the importance that opportunity and support play in the creation of supposedly gifted individuals. But, while opportunity, access to quality teachers, and family support are necessary for achieving expertise, the individual must also expend a substantial amount of effort in their chosen discipline. This effort consists of more than brute practice, but consists of something referred to as deliberate practice. Deliberate practice consists of a “high level of concentration and the structuring of specific training tasks to facilitate setting appropriate personal goals, monitoring informative feedback, and providing opportunities for repetition and error correction.”14 There are two salient features of deliberate practice. First, deliberate practice on the part of children requires discipline that is normally instilled by parents. Children aren’t born with the type of discipline required for deliberate practice, but develop it over time and with support from others. Secondly, deliberate practice requires support over an extended period of time. In order for a individual to develop an exceptional ability, somewhere between 7,500 and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are necessary.15 

There is an additional point about expertise which further reinforces the idea that what we take to be natural talent and abilities is really just the result of deliberate practice, namely, that talent is not linked to mental ability or I.Q. It also turns out that talent in one area, say music or mathematics, doesn’t translate into exceptional ability in another. Since the training needed to achieve superior ability in one area requires deliberate practice over several years, few people have the opportunity to focus on more than one area of specialization. As Ericsson has noted:  

In a recent review, Ericsson and Lehmann (1996) found that (1) measures of basic mental capacities are not valid predictors of attainment of expert performance in a domain, (2) the superior performance of experts is often very domain specific, and transfers outside their narrow area of expertise is surprisingly limited, and (3) systematic differences between experts and less proficient individuals nearly always reflect attributes acquired by the experts during lengthy training.16

2.3 Rejection of Innate Talent 

One of the consequences of holding to the traditional view of natural talent and ability is that we tend to overlook the role society plays in who gains access to the resources necessary for achieving high levels of success. We tend to think that differences in natural talents and abilities justifies differences in access to resources. So when a child exhibits a natural talent that other children lack, providing the resources necessary to developing that ability in the talented child is justified. This specious view of talent or ability as innate leads to distributions that are more a reflection of chance or fortunate circumstances rather than any innate talent. As Bloom writes: 

It was the child’s small successes and interest in the early learning in a talent field that teachers and parents noted. It was these small successes that resulted in the child’s increasing interest and greater commitment to the talent field, the parent’s increasing encouragement and support for the child, and the search for better teachers and better learning experiences in the talent field. These early minor achievements, rather than evidence of unusual gifts and qualities, were the basis for providing the child with further opportunities to develop in the talent field.17

This chain of events that begins by conflating interest with talent—eventually leading to further encouragement and commitment of resources—would not be problematic if it were not for the social justice issues that arise when public money goes to some children and not others.18

3. Fostering Social Inequality

There are serious moral consequences to the findings on natural talents and abilities. By ignoring how talent develops— and how it can be developed—we arbitrarily disadvantage certain children over others. The ingrained notion that talent is innate affects the way we structure the distribution of resources in society. As Howe writes:

The fact that the talent account is widely believed in has consequences that affects the lives of numerous young people. Within certain fields of expertise, such as music, unquestioning acceptance of the talent account is almost invariably accompanied by the belief that excellence is only attainable by those children who are innately talented. A frequent result of teachers and other influential adults having this combination of beliefs is that when scarce educational resources or opportunities are being allocated they are likely to be directed exclusively towards those young people who are thought to possess a special talent. Young children who are believed to lack innate talent are denied resources that are vital in order for a child to gain any chance of succeeding.19 

This phenomena is evident in the design of selective magnet schools.

3.1 Opportunity and Advantage

The most obvious consequence of ignoring the constructed nature of talent is that some children are given opportunities that others lack resulting in unequal life prospects. Selective magnet school in particular privilege one group of students over others based primarily on factors that are arbitrary from a moral point of view. If we follow the line of thinking in the previous section, we can see how initial starting points lead to increased opportunities which in turn lead to social advantages for some and disadvantages for others. Children that happen to have families with the resources to expose them to art, music, literature, science etc., are also going to be the children that demonstrate some initial “gift” in a particular area. The recognition of that supposed gift is then encouraged with additional resources that provide the deliberate practice necessary for its further development. The more developed the talent, the more recognition and hence more resources. 

It does not follow from this series of events that parents should not be allowed to expose their children to the arts, or that they cannot use their resources to provide music lessons. A certain amount of parental partiality may not only be justified, but may in fact be required. What is morally problematic is the partiality society shows toward some children over others, particularly partiality based upon natural talent. When magnet schools admit students based on talent, they inadvertently disadvantage children in both a relative and absolute sense.20 The distinction between relative and absolute disadvantage will be discussed below.

Relative Disadvantage

In “The Morality of School Choice”21 Adam Swift discusses the morality of school choice in Britain. Although his concern is with the effect private school choice has on British education as a whole, many of his arguments work equally well against the practices found in selective magnet schools. According to Swift, private schools have two negative affects, the first of which he refers to as a relative disadvantage.

A relative disadvantage occurs when a good for one individual necessarily comes at the expense of another. In the context of education, the advantages one child gets from additional educational resources will affect the opportunities of other children. As Swift notes: 

Education is, in part a positional good. As an instrumental means to jobs and the money that goes with them, what matters is  not how much education one has, or how good it is, but how much one has, or how good it is relative to the others with whom one is competing for jobs. This gives education something of a zero-sum aspect: the better educated you are, the worse for me (and vice-versa).22


Selective magnet schools provide the same relative advantage that Swift associates with a private school education. Students that are provided with greater resources, more competent instructors, and additional deliberate practice time are more likely to advance in their chosen discipline. A child that begins with a selective grade school magnet has a far better chance of being accepted at a selective high school. A student gaining the extra support in high school is more likely to be accepted at a better or more selective university, which translates into a greater chance at a job. Thus, the relative advantage that one student receives can translate into greater opportunities later in life. Of course, there is no guarantee that one child will ultimately do better than another, but those that lack the additional educational opportunities are clearly at a disadvantage relative to those that received them. By privileging some student over others based on talent, we inadvertently disadvantage student that may have the same potential but simply lack resources.

Absolute Disadvantage

While children can be relatively disadvantaged, there is also the added absolute disadvantage experienced by the students that are not admitted to a selective magnet schools. Ignoring the relative differences, selective magnet schools have the additional affect of changing the very nature of the school environment for the students that remain in their home school. 

The absolute disadvantage stems from the types of parents, and consequently the types of students that take advantage of magnet schools. Regardless of whether the magnet school is selective or based on the lottery approach, the parents that tend to take advantage (or attempt to take advantage) of these programs tend to hail from a more highly educated and higher socio-economic class.23 As Swift notes: 

Allowing affluent and influential parents to opt out is one way to depress standards, as is creaming off those children of the relatively advantaged, who are more likely to have been socialized into aspirations, skill and attitudes conducive to educational success. . . All in all, peer group effects—the fact that children’s educational experiences and achievements depend, in part, on who they go to school with—mean that the this kind of filtering process has a negative impact on the education of those in the state [in this case the home school] system, where the quality of that education is understood absolutely and not comparatively.24

One final way in which selective magnets schools contribute to an absolute disadvantage is by siphoning off resources that would or could have gone to other schools in the system. The specialized programs associated with magnet schools require additional financial and staff resources. For example, rather than having art once a week, such schools may require a full-time art department. The same might hold true for music, computer programming, dance, etc. On average magnet schools receive 10% more funding from their school district along with additional staff positions. In addition to this, many magnet schools are able to take advantage of Federal programs that provide additional financial support—resource not available to non-magnet schools.25

System-Wide Benefits of Magnet Schools?

It should be noted that there is another way of viewing the apparent negative impact of magnet schools, such that a justification could be given for their continued existence. The argument is based on the idea that one of the advantages of having magnet schools within the public school system is that they provide various system-wide benefits. First, magnet schools may keep the very parents that can best financially support and advocate for the public system, within that system. While individual schools and students may not benefit directly, the system as a whole benefits from greater overall support. Secondly, the maintenance of a two-tiered system has the added benefit of eliciting competition between magnet and non-magnet schools. This competition results in the increased performance of non-magnet schools.

In addressing the first point, it is necessary to keep in mind  the type of magnet school that I find morally problematic. Such schools exist within the context of traditional public school systems in which the school a student attends is determined by his or her home address. Also, in traditional systems, the money does not follow the student as it does in voucher or choice systems. In other words, st
udents are restricted to the school within a certain radius of their home, and thus the money the school receives is guaranteed since the parents do not have access to any other school. Finally,  in traditional systems, only a  small percentage of students can take advantage of magnet schools, especially selective magnet schools, since both available seats—and the already mentioned parental resources for specialized training—are not available to all students.

Assuming this standard arrangement, the view that magnet schools may be beneficial to the system as a whole is questionable. While the non-existence of magnet schools might compel some wealthier parents to remove their children from the system, this would not remove their money from the system. Opting out of the public system would simply mean that the school system would receive money without having an extra student to educate. In such a case there is a net financial benefit to the public school system when parents voluntarily opt out of the system, while still having to pay into the system. 

While there may not be an immediate financial hardship caused by some parents opting out of the public system, there still remains the issue as to whether these parents will be less inclined to support further tax levies, and take less interest in the system as a whole. Although this is a possible response, it is questionable whether this would be the standard response. While parents my be dissatisfied with the public school options available to their children, they may wish to continue to support the public system for other reasons. Since the health of a school system often affects property values and the economic strength of a community, parents have self-interested reason for being concerned about the overall health of the system—even if they no longer make use of it.

Similarly, the argument that magnet schools indirectly improve other non-magnet schools in a district presupposes 1) that parents have a choice amongst the various public schools within a district, 2) that the magnet schools are not selective, thus giving disadvantaged students the same odds of acceptance as the children of more affluent parents, and 3) that the money a school receives follows the child. Competition presupposes that schools run the risk of losing funding if they cannot make their programs attractive to parents and students. While this may be true in choice systems, the same does not hold true in systems with selective magnet schools and no choice.  Furthermore, even in systems where parents can choose to send their child to any school in the district, admissions to selective magnet schools may still deny some advantages over others.

It appears the objections that magnet schools may actually benefit public school systems as a whole do not appear persuasive given the way the majority of school systems are structured. Of course, this suggests that the structure itself may require substantial revising, a discussion that is too extensive to adequately examine here. Still, even in a school system that allows for choice, my objections to selective magnet schools make such institutions morally problematic since the entrance exams, auditions, portfolios etc., would still disadvantage some children over others based on what I have argued is a fallacious notion of innate talent. So, while these arguments do draw into question some aspects of current public school funding practices they do not address the underlying assumptions that are unjustly privileging some children over others.

3.2 Diversity

An additional consequence of the establishment of selective magnet schools is that they end up working against the original purposes of desegregation  and diversity. While many selective magnets do put in place mechanisms to ensure racial diversity, a different type of segregation occurs, namely, socio-economic segregation. This segregation can be traced back to the reliance on natural talents and abilities as the main criteria for admission. As I argued in section 2, natural talents have been shown to be an indication of early family support, opportunity and practice or effort (itself a function of instilled values). The child that is given the resources to achieve his or her potential will necessarily show more promise and be viewed as gifted or talented. But, the development of ability requires resources that many parents lack. In order to gain admission to a selective magnet school, a child must display a significant amount of ability. To acquire a significant amount of ability a child must be provided with dedicated teachers or coaches. Acquiring a good teacher or coach requires financial resources that many parents cannot afford. Those that can afford to give their child the training necessary will most likely come from higher socio-ecnomomic class. 

In fact, this is exactly what studies of magnet schools show. Whether we are examining magnet schools that rely on a lottery system or those with selective admissions, the children that apply tend to come from more educated, more affluent households. A parent’s decision whether to attempt to gain access to a magnet program is a function of the level of the parent’s educational and economic attainment. For example, in “Public School Choice in San Antonio: Who Chooses and with What Effects?” Martinez, Godwin and Kemerer found that the parents that tend take advantage of alternative schools tend to be more educated. As they write: 

One of the criticisms of choice programs is that better-educated, more affluent families are more likely to participate. Our data support this expectation. Both sets of choosing parents—those whose children were enrolled and those whose children were not admitted—are more than twice as likely as nonchoosing parents to have attended college. In addition, enrollees are more than twice as likely as either nonadmits or nonchoosers to have annual incomes above $35,000.26

Similar studies that looked at Milwaukee’s choice programs, and a proposed program in Detroit, also concluded that the children whose parents would or did take advantage of school choice were more educated and had higher incomes then those who did not or would not take advantage of such programs.27

The majority of studies reveal a trend toward socio-economic stratification in selective magnet schools. In time selective magnet schools will result in a pattern of self-selection. The children of parents with higher educational achievement are provided the resources necessary to be admitted to a selective magnet school. These children will more likely exhibit greater overall achievement than their counterparts that remain in their home school. As these children age and have their own children, they too will be more likely provide the resources necessary for their children to attend the more selective schools, and so on and so forth. In the end, the selective magnet schools reinforce socio-economic stratification. What is worse, rather than being a product of parental choice—as is the case with parent who send their children to private schools—this stratification is publicly funded on the federal, state and local levels.

Benefits of Stratification?

While the stratification caused by selective magnet school may work against diversity within a public school system, one could argue that the same stratification works to maintain diversity amongst school systems. As was noted, selective magnet schools are more likely to be taken advantage of by children of m
ore affluent parents. As I have argued, these parents are more likely to use their resources to ensure that their children develop the skills to gain access to these more elite schools within a given district. If such schools were no longer available to their children, then (the argument goes) these parents may choose to move to a system that better meets their educational desires. This could have the effect of not only decreasing diversity within a school system, but it would physically remove these more affluent parents from one city to another causing a stratification between entire school districts. Wealthier parents would cluster around better schools and school systems, leaving behind those who cannot afford to relocate.

To some extent, this is already the case in public education. Since school systems are funded primarily by property taxes, the more affluent the area the more money schools receive. Many parents already choose neighborhoods based on the quality of the schools. Although money doesn’t guarantee that one system will be better than another, it is likely that parents will seek out systems that are better funded and in better neighborhoods. So socio-economic stratification already occurs amongst various schools systems. Nevertheless, the existence of selective magnet schools may keep more affluent parents within a given district. With the knowledge that they have access to selective magnet schools, these parents may not feel the need to relocate to other school districts.

While diversity amongst school districts may be important, I do not believe it should trump the inherent injustice of selective magnet schools. What this argument essentially holds is that public school systems should create a pseudo-private system to cater to more affluent parents and their supposedly more talented or gifted children. The net effect would not be to diversify anything, since the diversity between school districts would be cosmetic at best. The children within a system would not benefit from the interaction with children of higher socio-economic classes, nor would keeping the more affluent in the system result in improvement to non-magnet schools in the district. At best the existence of the selective magnet schools would create a two-tier system that maintains the status quo for the majority of students within the district.

Furthermore, this argument purports to offer a pragmatic approach to maintaining diversity without addressing the underlying problems inherent in many of our public school systems. Rather than viewing each child as having the potential for achieving success, on this account the system should simply continue to allocate scarce educational resources on the specious distinction between the talented and untalented students. This solution perpetuates the very inequality I have argued against throughout this paper. Rather than looking to the sorts of educational reform that has been shown to work in some of the most impoverished inner city neighborhoods, this argument embraces a form of educational triage determined by the economic distributions and market forces.28 Children are not responsible for the socio-economic class to which they are born, nor should we allow such arbitrary starting points to determine the type of educational opportunities children receive. So while there is good reason to believe that major reform is needed to solve the problems inherent in many public school systems, selective magnet schools do not offer the correct solution.

4. Conclusion

The fundamental assumption behind the special treatment of some children over others is based upon a faulty notion of talent that results in an unfair distribution of educational resources. This unfair distribution results in inequitable access to various types of resources and opportunities for those children not fortunate enough to be enrolled in magnet schools. These deficiencies early in life further impede the overall life prospects of the non-privileged children in both relative and absolute terms. Rather than redistributing resources to magnet schools, school districts should focus on providing the same opportunities for children in all the schools within a district. As many magnet schools demonstrate, with the proper support, children can exceed the expectations we currently have for them in non-magnet school environments.

Finally, there is a more general consequence to ignoring the way talent develops in children (and individuals generally). Once we disabuse ourselves of  the notion that talent is innate, we open up a vast resource of creative potential. It is no longer the case that only a select group of young people are capable of exceptional ability, but every child has the potential for achievement. The arbitrary distinctions that have been drawn between the supposedly talented and non-talented ends up costing society in the lost productivity, and the possible future accomplishments of a far greater number of children in math, science, music, and the arts.


1 Michael J. Howe, Genius Explained (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999) p.189

2 In the case of John Rawls, see A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), and also Robert Nozick’s  Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

3 Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring, School Choice in Urban America: Magnet Schools and the Pursuit of Equity (New York: Teachers College Press, 1999)

4 Guide to U.S. Department of Education Programs: 2008 (Office of Communications and Outreach, Washington, D. C.) p .236

5 Kurt Stemhagen, “Clarifying Differing Aims, Eliminating Conceptual Muddle, and Acknowledging Political Bias” Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium (MERC), Virginia Commonwealth University 2007 p. 2.

6 Stemhagen p.5

7 The Bronx High School of Science website: http://www.bxscience.edu/admissions.jsp?rn=9701203

8 Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everyone Else (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 2008) p.4–5.

9 K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, “The Making of an Expert” in Harvard Business Review:Managing for the Long Term July-August 2007 p. 7.

10 Benjamin S. Bloom ed. Developing Talent in Young People (New York: Ballantine Books 1985) p.543

11 The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance ed. K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich and Robert R. Hoffman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

12 Michael J. Howe, Genius Explained (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999) pp.195

13 K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, “The Making of an Expert” in Harvard Business Review:Managing for the Long Term July-August 2007 pp. 1-7.

14 Ch.39 “Development and Adaptation of Expertise: The Role of Self-Regulatory Processes and Beliefs” Barry J. Zimmerman pp. 705 in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance ed. K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich and Robert R. Hoffman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)p.705.

15 Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little Brown and Company 2008)p.40   holds that the number is about 10,000 hours; K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, “The Making of an Expert” in Harvard Business Review:Managing for the Long Term July-August 2007 pp. 1-7 hold the number to be closer to 7,500. Either way the time required still amount to several years of practice, requiring several years of support and encouragement.

16 K. Anders Ericsson Ch.1 “An Introduction to Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance Its Development, Organization, and Content, in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance ed. K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich and Robert R. Hoffman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)p. 10.

17 Benjamin S. Bloom ed. Developing Talent in Young People (New York: Ballantine Books 1985) p. 544.

18 For a more detailed account of how different approaches to parenting have a substantial impact the way in which children learn to navigate and (for some) take advantage our social institutions and opporunities see Annette Laureau, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (Berkeley: University of California Press 2003). Particularly intersting is the contrast between the middle-class child studied in Ch.3 and the working-class child studied in Ch. 4 along with the author’s conclusions found in Ch.12.

19 Michael J. Howe, Genius Explained (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1999) p. 191.

20 Harry Brighouse, and Adam Swift, ‘Legitimate Parental Partiality’ Philosophy and Public Affairs 37(1) Winter 2009

21 Adam Swift, “The Morality of School Choice” Theory and Research in Education Vol. 2(1) (2004)pp.  7-21.

22 Ibid.  p. 11.

23 Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring, School Choice in Urban America: Magnet Schools and the Pursuit of Equity (New York: Teachers College Press, 1999) p. 28.

24 Swift, p. 11.

25 Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring, pp. 7-8.

26 “Public School Choice in San Antonio: Who Chooses and with What Effects?” in Who Chooses? Who Loses? Culture, Institutions, and the Unequal Effects of School Choice eds. Bruce Fuller and Richard Elmore with Gary Orfield. (Teachers College Press: New York, 1999) pp. 57-58.

27 Again see Who Chooses? Who Loses? Culture, Institutions, and the Unequal Effects fo School Choice eds. Bruce Fuller and Richard Elmore with Gary Orfield. (Teachers College Press: New York, 1999) especially Lee, Croninger and Smith “Equity and Choice in Detroit”pp.70–94; Witte, “Who Benefits from the Milwaukee Choice Program?”pp. 118–137.

28 The programs I have in mind are those such as the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Harlem Children’s Academy in New York. In the case of both schools 

Scrivener for iPad

Scrivener for iOS: An Update (There’s a Long Road Ahead Yet)

By KB, posted 03 May 2012

Given that we’re receiving emails, tweets and forum postings daily asking when the iPad and iPhone versions of Scrivener will be released, I thought it only polite to give everyone a quick update on where things stand. (For those of you who prefer brevity, the content of this post can be summarised thus: Not for a good while yet, sorry!)

First, let me say that we all really appreciate the enthusiasm that so many users are showing for an iOS version. And thank you, also, to everyone who has taken the time to share their thoughts in our “Scrivener for iPad/iPhone – What Do You Want?” forums.

Not being renowned as the most patient person in the world myself, I can certainly understand everyone’s impatience to get the iOS version in their hands. The problem – which I hope will come as no surprise – is that good software takes time. There’s just no way of getting around that, unfortunately; not without bending the laws of physics, at least (although if anyone has a Primer-style box, let me know). Just because iOS is very much a stripped-down operating system compared to OS X and cannot do nearly as much, it does not mean that it is easier or faster to come up with a good design, write good code and test everything thoroughly. (We’ve had some suggest that we throw money at it, get outside investment and suchlike, but it’s not a money issue at all: if we’re going to do it right, then it deserves thought, care, attention and nurturing rather than just hacking something together that we think will meet basic requirements and sell. Part of our ethos is that the people working on the software are also users, and passionate about it – we develop software that we want to use ourselves. We’re just not interested in making software we don’t love. If some users decide to go elsewhere because our crazy ideals – that’s no way to run a business! – drive them mad and they just can’t wait, we understand that, appreciate it, but such factors cannot have any influence on our design and development process, and we hope we’ll win them back with an end product that is worth waiting for.)

To put this in perspective, let me give you some idea of the gestation of Scrivener on the Mac. I first had the idea around 2001, but I didn’t start development on it until 2004, beginning with a design document and odds and ends of code, and this design and proof-of-concept stage took about six months or more before serious development could begin. The first version that was stable and complete enough to be tested by real users appeared at the end of 2005. It was then rewritten and redesigned and didn’t go on sale until the start of 2007 – and Scrivener 1.0 was a long way from what Scrivener is today (on both platforms), because development has continued constantly for the past five years.

Now, with the iOS version, in many ways we’re right back at the beginning again. Not entirely, of course – because OS X and iOS share many fundamental libraries, we are able to reuse some small parts of the existing code base, although none of the interface code is portable. We have had to look at the touch interface and ask ourselves: how can we bring the core features of Scrivener to a completely different interface? What will it look like, and how will you interact with it? In so doing, we’ve been going back to the reasons I built Scrivener in the first place – because to be Scrivener, it has to achieve the fundamentals of what Scrivener set out to do, but it has to do it in a way that makes sense for an entirely different interface. And then we have – or, rather, Jen has – had to start building the necessary interface components, one by one, step by step.

To explain: Cocoa software – which covers OS X and iOS – follows what is known as the model-view-controller paradigm. What this means is that, unlike those old BASIC programs we used to type in at school, you don’t just write one long list of computer instructions. Instead, it’s more like manufacturing a car: you make the wheels, which in turn will involve moulding the tyres, forging the hubcaps and so on and putting them together; you build the engine entirely separately, breaking that down into all its constituent components first too; there is the shell, the chassis, the steering wheel, the seats – all will be made independently and eventually put together. Hopefully some of the components can be sourced pre-built by someone else, but ultimately, you are going to have to build a lot of them yourself before you can combine all of those parts into anything remotely resembling an automobile. The model-view-controller paradigm is much the same. You build all the parts of the program separately (technically, this is what is known as “object-oriented programming”) and then you stitch them together. So, you build the views (the corkboard, the binder, the editor and so on, but also using views that are provided by Apple where possible, or customising them), and you build the models (the data – some code representing a single binder item, for instance, and dealing with writing it to XML, or some code representing a collection, or a keyword), and then you stitch it all together (the “controller” layer is code that does the stitching, basically).

Whenever I add something new to Scrivener, then, I go off, design it, code it in a test app, test it out, and then incorporate it into Scrivener only when it’s ready. By the time a new component makes its way into Scrivener, it is already fully-formed and stable (or at least, that is the idea). Likewise, with the iOS app, it doesn’t start life as a single program that will then evolve – that comes later. It starts life as lots of small demo apps that test out all the different views that have to be built, or test out data manipulation. None of these apps do anything meaningful in themselves except allow us to build and test individual components – by the time these individual components become part of the whole, the idea is that most of their bugs are squashed (ha). There will be any number of these test programs along the way. Most recently, for instance, because iOS doesn’t have a view that works like the binder, we have had to figure out how something like that would work best on a touch interface and build it; likewise, there is no corkboard on iOS unless you build it yourself; and so on.

So, this is where we are. Since December, we have spent a lot of time hashing out a design for the iPhone and iPad. And we’ve come up with something that we’re all excited about – something that brings across the core features of Scrivener but without trying to reproduce the desktop version on a touch interface. At the same time, Jen has been working furiously on various key components (such as the corkboard and binder), and putting together code that can read a .scriv project. We’re still a good way from combining all of that into an early working version, though, and perhaps the largest hurdle – getting syncing right – is still ahead of us.

Still, here are the basics that we are hoping to bring to the iOS version:

  1. A working binder.
  2. A working corkboard.
  3. An editor that allows for basic rich text editing (bold, italics, underline, footnotes of some sort and so on).
  4. Access to labels, status, synopses, notes and project notes.
  5. Seamless syncing without the necessity of closing the project on your Mac or Windows machine.


We know that we won’t please everyone – it’s impossible to bring the full desktop version to iOS, and everyone uses Scrivener differently – but these are the basics that most users have been keen to know will be in there. Beyond that, we cannot say anything more at this stage – sorry!

I said from the start that we wouldn’t be able to give a release date for a long time, and that still stands, I’m afraid. All we can say is that we are hoping to get it finished before the end of 2012 – but with no promises, given the amount tha
t is left to do. It will be released when it is ready, and that certainly won’t be tomorrow or next week or even next month. We know you want something good, and that is what we are hoping to deliver – trust us, we’re not slacking off, but are working hard to bring Scrivener to iOS in as much of its glory as possible. (I hear occasional rumblings that we “should” have started all of this a couple of years ago, and while I can understand such frustration, especially from users who know little about how small shareware companies such as ours really are, trust us, we couldn’t, in good conscience, have started it any earlier. Remember we are a tiny company, selling what is really quite a niche product, and growing only at a glacial rate. Two years ago I would have had to step away from the Mac version to develop this, and leave our Mac version to rot for a while. Sadly, I’ve seen this happen to a number of other programs. I love my Mac, though, and Scrivener on it, and could never have done this. Now we have Jen, who is doing an amazing job, and we are in a much better position to deliver what our users want.)

Finally, a note on beta-testing. We’ve had lots of people – hundreds! – say they would love to beta-test. Thanks for everyone’s enthusiasm. At the moment, though, for various reasons, our beta-testing list is invite-only. There’s nothing cliquey or secretive about it – I simply look out for existing users on the forums or on Facebook or wherever, who seem to know their way around Scrivener and who are also good at reporting bugs or problems. Beta-testers have to be prepared to lose work, put up with persistent crashes and suchlike, so, at least for the first phase of testing, it’s always best to have a group of people who aren’t going to shout at you when things go wrong. Besides, we’re a loooong way from beta-testing yet – we’re not even at the alpha-testing phase. So if you really want to be a beta-tester, the best thing to do is to be active and helpful on the user forums, and then in three or four months drop me a line and say, “Hey, look, I’m such-and-such on the forums, you know me, I’m a great guy/gal, you just know you want to make me a beta-tester.”

Right, back to my iPad – Jen delivered an exciting component for testing today…

This entry was written by KB, posted on 03 May 2012 at 16:10, filed under Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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Can’t wait for my favorite long-form writing program to hit the iPad.

Guest Speaker: Dr. Michael Shermer

Wikipedia: “American science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and Editor in Chief of its magazine Skeptic,[1] which is largely devoted to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims. The Skeptics Society currently has over 55,000 members.[2] Shermer also engages in debates on topics pertaining to pseudoscience and religion in which he promulgates the need for scientific skepticism.”

Dr. Shermer recently spoke at YSU as part of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Dr. Thomas and Albert Shipka Speakers Series. His talk dealt with his new book: 

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths  


2011-12 Shipka Speaker: Dr. Michael Shermer from YSU Phil and Rel Studies on Vimeo.