An earlier version of this article was published in educational Horizons 



Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University


I once came across a flyer attributed to an umbrella organization for Islamic groups in the United States. Intended for distribution to public school administrators, the flyer asserts that urgent problems face Muslim public school students. It then outlines what school administrators must do to alleviate these difficulties. Here is an extract:

“In view of the teachings of Islam, Muslim students in your school should not be required to: 
(1) sit next to the opposite sex in the classroom, 
2) participate in physical education, swimming or dancing classes. Alternate meaningful educational activities should be arranged for them. We urge you to organize physical education and swimming classes separately for boys and girls according with the following guidelines: 
  • Separate classes for boys and girls in a fully covered area (no glass doors or windows without curtains). 
  • Only male/female instructors for the respective group. 
  • Swimming suits that cover all the private parts of the body down to the knee. 
  • Showers that are separate and covered for each student.
(3) participate in plays, proms, social parties, picnics, dating, etc. which require free mixing of the two sexes, 
I hope your school system will do its utmost to honor and respect the religious requirements of your Muslim students….

Imagine you are the principal who receives this. What are your options? And it isn’t only Muslim activists who demand special accomodations from our public schools. Everyone wants their piece of that pie. Special interest groups demand that their particular cultural icons be included in history books. Conservative Christians call for the biology curricula to pay obeisance to creationism. Outraged minority parents urge that schools remove classic novels like Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum; and, of course, put their author hero’s works in their place. And in order to meet contradictory parental expectations, school authorities often feel they cannot assign punishments that really matter to kids. 

Put simply, there are an astounding range of contradictory parental expectations which public educators are expected to satisfy. Plus there are general tax payer expectations. These are often contradictory to what school parents want. And the chances of school administrators fulfilling all of these contradictory demands are zero. 

Of course human beings have always harbored unfulfillable expectations. So why does this particular foolishness matter? In his classic, “Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin explains how uncontrolled access to common resources brings ruin. Here is how it works. Imagine an unregulated common pasture where everyone is permitted to graze their animals without limit. Soon the commons would be destroyed by overgrazing. So to preserve this commons, all participants must agree not to overuse it. In other words, all must adopt an ethic of restraint. If even one of the common’s users insists on adding more animals than the commons can support, the public pasture will ultimately be destroyed.

The nation’s public schools are similar to the public commons in the sense that all have access to them. And when individuals demand more than there fair share of these school’s assets, such as time or space in the curriculum, and “overgraze” our schools by placing excessive particularistic demands on them, they are eventually doomed to the same fate as the overgrazed public pasture. By attempting to be all things to all people, they satisfy no one and sacrifice their effectiveness.

Wise school board members intuit this threat, yet typically they still try to accommodate parental expectations even as they escalate. And in this down the rabbit hole with Alice world, even those users who recognize there are limits often act as if there aren’t. Why is that? Because they recognize that if they moderate their demands while others remain immoderate, they inevitably lose. People who sense the limits of the public school setting and constrain their particularist demands are often ignored, while the most stridently selfish usually gain at least a measure of accommodation. 

What is the bottom line on all this? In order to preserve or restore quality public schooling, everyone has to limit their demands and adopt an ethic of restraint. But this practical necessity often fails to materialize. Then school administrators are left with two choices. They can (1) continue to pretend there are no practical constraints on the school’s ability to accommodate conflicting demands and, thus, ultimately destroy the school’s effectiveness; or (2) start saying “NO!”