I’m fond of telling my students that pretty much anything should be considered a “moral theology” question. (They don’t often believe me.)
Consider the news headlines about the ban on homemade lunches. My knee jerk reaction was to think “How unfair! Parents ought to be able to decide what their kids eat.” Except that then I have second, and I believe better and more rational thoughts, for it turns out that the “homemade” lunches mentioned in the article consist in cheetos, sodas, and other processed foods. Should we care about this or is this truly a problem for the parents alone? On one hand, these foods are cheaper and more enjoyable for kids, making this a win-win situation for many parents. On the other hand, associations (though not causations, as researchers are careful to note) routinely show up in studies – links between nutrition and child obesity (and with it, the rise in obesity-related diseases), and nutrition and one’s ability to do well in school.
So the principal decided to take it upon herself to ban them except in cases of medical necessity. Granted that parents who object could likely find studies that support the opposite claims (as is usually the case when it comes to scientific studies), it is the principal in this case who has the authority to ban the lunches from her school. She’s apparently not alone in her decision to do so, but though the article treats that fact with some interest it is not really of interest according to the principle of subsidiarity. I’m particularly thinking of the following: “The principle of subsidiarity protects people from abuses by higher-level social authority and calls on these same authorities to help individuals and intermediate groups to fulfil their duties.” (Section 187, Compendium).
These days, there is a rather common cry that the “government” is taking over our lives when cases like this surface, especially since schools tend to be state-sponsored in one way or another. Education is such a prime example of this. Those who are running for office often decry the state of education and then try to push broad, sweeping bills through to show that “we mean what we say.” The No-Child Left Behind Act comes to mind.
Meanwhile, we non-politicians tend to see only the distinctions between federal and state levels, but much less so at local levels. But if we’re taking the principle of subsidiarity seriously, the feds and the state should be supporting local schools in all the ways it can, but stay out of decisions that schools themselves ought to be making – including whether it is appropriate to “teach to the test,” and how to measure their student populations’ successes. Someone teaching special education on a reservation, which has undoubtedly unique aspects compared to, say, the wealthy school district in my area that everyone wants part in. Or, the impoverished “Teach to the test”, even in statewide measures, make no sense, but because education is big bucks, the state and the feds are involved far more than I think is warranted. We ought to trust each other more – especially the people on the ground.
Just as we ought to trust a principal to know her school and make a determination about lunches. She’s not being unfair or unjust; she’s giving students with very particular needs an out, but she’s also making a fairly-considered decision for her school.
I often say in class and theology discussions that I think the principle of subsidiarity is the most overlooked and misunderstood in CST…..I agree that applying it requires federal and state to support local schools, while allowing schools to determine, whenever possible, the needs of the individual school.
One question I had, however, was why the principal did not simply ban the “problem foods” as opposed to all home-made lunches (at least trying it first) seems to me to also be a matter of subsidiarity….banning unhealthy snacks/drinks while still allowing the parents to choose what healthy foods the child eats. But, I can also imagine this being difficult to enforce…
Interesting thoughts. My question might piggy-back on Meghan’s but when using the principle of subsidiarity, isn’t it the case that a higher level authority should take over over when the lowest-level authority is unable to perform the function in question? In this case, it seems to me that we haven’t established that parents cannot provide healthy lunches, but that they often do not. The NPR article you reference shows the principle at work in other ways elsewhere:
I obviously don’t know the situation in Chicago, but I would think that banning school lunches takes things a bit too far. It still seems to me like replacing the parent with the school, rather than the school encouraging the parents to perform their function better.
You are both exactly right to push on the question of where the parenting leaves off and the school’s obligations begin, and the parents are right to raise that question too. My own thought, though, is that when it comes to schools, they do have a right to make a determination about the food brought in under their roofs (or not). School-wide “no nuts” policies are a smaller example of this; I think policing individual lunch sacks would be far more problematic than saying, “We’re providing lunch.” Period.
Might a parallel example be that of uniforms? Schools have a right to dictate clothing worn to school – some opt for a bunch of rules about that (no shirts with gang slogans, no gang colors), and some opt out of making individual rules to just saying, “Uniforms will be worn.”
Where they don’t have rights is in what children wear or eat at home – but if we’re sending them off to an institution, I think that institution has a right to govern as it sees fit.
Beth – I realized after I posted that I forgot to respond to your higher level authority and lower level authority question. I’m thinking that’s not the question in this case (though the principal may well use it as a reason for doing it – and wrongly so in my estimation) but it’s about what the school wants for its students in relation to education. Given the several studies that suggest links between food and learning in some way, I think the principal has some reason to want to have a rule about food. If it were a higher level authority question, wouldn’t the principal be trying to take over all food eaten at home too?
It seems to me that any analysis of the suitability of invoking subsidiarity to justify a higher authority getting embroiled in decisions or management of a lower level organization (e.g., the family) must consider the following:
1) If the involvement was not invited, is it justified on the basis of correcting an abuse, or is it justified on the basis of “doing things better?”
2) Does the involvement of the higher authority risk robbing the lower level organization of its natural moral responsibility? In other words does the involvement inject a measure of moral hazard?
3) Is the involvement part of a pattern of pro-active involvement or is it based upon a need that surfaces from conflict at the lower level? In other words, what is wrong with leaving well enough alone?
4) Does the involvement address the root of the problem, or is it merely cosmetic in nature?
In the absence of serious questions of this nature, there is a danger of transforming subsidiarity into practical supersidiarity.
Let’s take the student nutrition issue as an example. Clearly, sending kids to school with nothing but a twinky or a bag of Cheetos borders on the abusive. When teachers, hall monitors or cafeteria workers notice a pattern of this type there is a reasonable basis for intervention. The students themselves can be alerted to this issue during classroom or cafeteria discussions guided by teachers or the principal and the students themselves can request help either for themselves or for a fellow student. In such a case, some form of intervention is readily justified.
Uniform dress or nutrition policies can be justified on the basis of necessity for the good order of school management. For example, if school lunches from home frequently include illicit drugs or student dress frequently includes gang symbols, some sort of draconian rules may be justified. If differences in dress or lunch frequently lead to fights or other major distractions, some level of uniform intervention may be necessary.
In the absence of such compelling reasons for intervention, its hard to see how one can justify broad based intervention, for example, if social peace is readily maintained without it and most children are being properly cared for by their parents.
FrLarryG – Thanks for making all these points. The principle of subsidiarity clearly has some practical reasoning components and all of what you suggest would aid in doing some serious practical reflection. Because you’re right – we wouldn’t want the school principal to overstep her bounds toward draconian laws and thereby disallow parents their subsidary role, as well.
The subsequent difficulty I saw with the way reaction to the principal happened in many web conversations is the tendency to want to make a blanket statement for or against the principal. My own post here didn’t really help in that tendency, unfortunately, because I was trying to do too much with too many things when it comes to subsidiarity. I am not in favor of broad interventions (as in the No Child Left Behind Act) and saw the principal’s concern here as being driven by local and practical concerns relating to her specific school. But that was easily overshadowed by the mistaken notion that I’m calling for “ALL homemade lunches to be banned” everywhere.
In any case, thanks for the contributions – it definitely makes the conversation and my own thinking better on this point.