Picture this. You’re driving down the highway with your nine-year-old son. You’re in the middle lane. On your right, one behind the other, are two buses. The bus in front is painted white. The bus behind is painted yellow. The bus in front has its windows painted over. The bus behind does not.
Your son asks you a question. “What are those two buses, Daddy?” You tell him that they are two very different kinds of buses. “How are they different?” he asks. You explain that on the first bus are prisoners who are being taken to jail. On the second bus are students who are being taken to school. “But how is that different?” your son asks. That’s what I’m asking, too.
You tell your son that the men on the first bus are required to get on that bus. Then your son asks you if the students on the yellow bus have a choice in the matter. You think about it. Neither group has any choice in the matter. Somebody tells the members of both groups that they must get on that bus and stay on that bus until the bus comes to its destination.
Your son says he doesn’t understand. So, you try to make it clear to him. You tell hm that the people on the white bus have committed crimes. They are bad people. They are being taken to jail. The people on the yellow bus are good people. They are being taken to school. Your son asks: “Why do they make the good people go on the bus?” That’s what I’m asking, too.
Remember, you’re talking to a nine-year-old. Nine-year-olds are not very sophisticated. They need clear answers. So, you had better be prepared to provide clear answers.
You tell your son that the good people on the yellow bus are being taken to school for their own good. Your son asks if the people on the white bus are being taken to jail, but not for their own good. No, you tell him. They are being taken to jail for their own good, too. Your son asks, “Then what’s the difference?”
The difference is, you explain to your son, that the people on the white bus are very bad and society intends to make them better. Your son asks: “Is society taking the people on the yellow bus to school in order to make them worse?” No, you tell him. Society is taking them to school in order to make them better people, too. “Then what’s the difference?”
The difference is, you explain to your son, the people on the white bus are dangerous people. In order to make society safer, society puts them in jail. The people on the yellow bus are not dangerous. “Then why are they forced to go to a place where they don’t want to go?” your son asks. “Because it’s good for them,” you answer. “But isn’t that why the people on the white bus are being taken to jail?” he asks.
You are getting frustrated. You tell your son that they’re required to get on the bus because when they are young they don’t know that it is a good thing for them to go to school. They don’t want to go to school. But they’re supposed to go to school. Your son replies that this sounds just like the people in the white bus. But they’re supposed to go to jail, you tell him. It’s for their own good. They’re going to be better people if they go to jail.
Isn’t that right? Isn’t the whole idea of sending people to jail to rehabilitate them? Aren’t they supposed to become better people in jail? I mean, if they aren’t going to become better people, why not just sell them into slavery and use the money to pay restitution to their victims? Why build jails? Why paint buses white?
You tell your son that the bad people have to go to jail in order to keep them off the streets. The problem is, this is one of the reasons why society requires students to go to school. People want to keep the kids off the streets. They want to make certain that somebody in authority is in a position to tell the children what to do. They don’t trust the children to make their own decisions. They also don’t trust the criminals to make their own decisions.
This is more complicated than you thought. But you keep trying. You explain to your son that bad people must be kept from doing more bad things. Your son asks: “What are the bad things that kids do?” The light comes on. You tell your son that the children are dangerous to themselves, but the prisoners are dangerous to everybody else. The children may hurt themselves, but the prisoners may hurt other people. But your son wants to know why it is that the children must be taken to a school in order to keep them from hurting themselves, when they can stay home and not hurt themselves.
You tell your son that it’s because people are not able to stay home with their children. Your son wants to know why not. You explain that both parents have to work to make enough money to live a good life. This means that somebody has to take care of their children. Your son wants to know why parents don’t hire somebody to come into their home and take care of the children. Why don’t they hire a teacher to take care of them? You explain that it is cheaper to hire one teacher to look after lots of students. Your son wants to know why it’s cheaper to send children to school when it costs money to build schools, buy buses, hire drivers, and pay for gasoline.
This is a smart kid.
You explain that the people who have children force people who do not have children to pay for the schools. Your son asks if this is the same thing is stealing. “Isn’t that what the people on the white bus did?” No, you explain, it’s not stealing. Your son asks, “How is it different?” Now you have a problem. You have to explain the difference between taking money from someone to benefit yourself as a private citizen, which is what a criminal does, and taking money from someone to benefit yourself as a voter. This is not so easy to explain.
You explain to your son that when you vote to take money away from someone so that you can educate your child, this is different from sticking a gun into somebody’s stomach and telling him that he has to turn over his money to you. Your son that asks if it would be all right to stick a gun in somebody’s stomach if you intended to use the money to educate your child. No, you explain, it’s not the same. When you tell someone that he has to educate your child in a school run by the government it’s legal. When you tell somebody that he has to educate your child in a private school, where parents pay directly to hire teachers, it’s illegal.
Your son then asks you if it’s all right to take money from other people just so long as you hand over to the government the money to do the things that you want the government to do. You explain that this is correct. “But what if other people don’t think that the government ought to be doing these things?” You explain that people don’t have the right to tell the government not to do these things unless they can get more than half of the voters to tell the government to stop doing them. Your son sees the logic of this. He asks you: “Are the people in the white bus being taken to jail because there were not enough of them to win the election?” You know this can’t be right, but it’s hard to say why it’s wrong.
Here is where you are so far. Society makes the prisoners go to jail. It sees these prisoners as dangerous. It wants to teach them to obey. Society makes children go to school. It sees these children as dangerous to themselves. It wants to teach them to obey. If it can teach both groups how to obey, society expects the world to improve. Society therefore uses tax money to pay for the operation of jails and schools. This includes paying for buses. But there is a difference. Prison buses are white. School buses are yellow.
There must be more to it than this.
So, you keep trying. Schools are run by the government to teach children how to make a living. Jails are run by the government to teach people how to stop stealing. Here is a major difference. “Do they teach prisoners how to make a good living?” your son asks. No, you tell him. The prison teaches them to obey. He asks: “Then why will they stop stealing when they get out of prison, if they don’t know how to make a good living.” Because, you explain, they will be afraid to do bad things any more. Your son asks if people in prison learn how to do bad things in prison. You admit that they do. “So,” he asks, “we send people to prison and school so that they will learn how to make a good living? Only the difference is, the government pays for a place where bad people teach other bad people how to steal without getting caught, but in school, the government pays good people to teach children how to be good citizens and vote. So, the bad people learn how to steal from the good people without voting, and the good people learn how to steal from each other by voting. Is that how it works?”
That’s how it works. Both systems use buses to take the students to school. But the colors are different.
In prison, prisoners sell illegal drugs. Students do the same in school. In prison, the food is terrible. It’s not very good in school — possibly prepared by the same food service company. In prison, there are constant inspections. Guards keep taking roll to make sure everyone is present and accounted for. Teachers do the same in school. In prison, you aren’t allowed to leave without permission. The same is true in school. In prison, bullies run the show. In school, they do, too. But there is a difference. Prison buses are white. School buses are yellow.
This is too extreme. The systems are different. Criminals are convicted in a court of law before they are sent to jail. Students, in contrast, are innocent. Some prisoners can get parole. The average term in prison for murder is under ten years. Students are put into the school system for twelve years. There is no parole.
Be thankful you are not in one of those buses. Either color.
May 28, 2004