Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Evil of State Education

This was published in the Spring 1996 issue of THE RESISTER, Volume 2, Number 4.

The Evil of State Education

L. S. Spooner

Men had better be without education than be educated by their rulers.

--Thomas Hodgskin

One of the most insidious frauds government has perpetrated against the American people is its school system. That system has enabled the government to usurp the freedom and responsibility of parents, to indoctrinate children into good taxpaying sheep, to transform education into mind-numbing, passivity-inducing routine, and to turn schools into laboratories for social engineers.

We constantly hear how the schools are turning out young adults who can't read, know no history or geography, and can barely balance a checkbook. Those stories are true. But believe it or not, that's not the worst indictment of the government's school system. Much worse is what it does to the character of parents and children.

Much can be learned about the nature of government schools by investigating why they were established in the first place. They were not established to make up for any deficiency in people's ability to learn to read, write, do arithmetic, and acquire knowledge of other subjects. Before about 1840, when the government-school movement began, America was a highly literate society. Publishing boomed in the young Republic. Hundreds of newspapers flourished. Books and pamphlets sold in the millions among a population of around 20 million. (In 1818 Noah Webster's spelling book sold what would be the equivalent of 65 million copies today.) European visitors such as Alexis de Tocqueville marveled.

Education was so easy to come by that the Southern states outlawed it to slaves. (You don't need to outlaw something you don't expect to happen.) Senator Edward M. Kennedy's office issued a paper not long ago stating that the literacy rate in Massachusetts has never been as high as it was before compulsory schooling was instituted. Before 1850, when Massachusetts became the first state in the United States to force children to go to school, literacy was at 98 percent. When Kennedy's office released the paper, it was 91 percent.

Clearly, the government schools were set up for a purpose entirely separate from true education. Rather, they were a manifestation of what later came to be called the "Progressive" mindset, the belief that people's lives increasingly needed to be subject to control by experts. The original aim of the public schools was the creation of a homogeneous national, Protestant culture--the Americanization and Protestantization of the disparate groups that made up the United States. At the individual level the aim was the creation of the Good Citizen, someone who trusted and deferred to government in all areas it claimed as its own.

Throughout history rulers and court intellectuals have aspired to use the educational system to shape their nations by creating a new kind of human being. The model was set out by Plato in The Republic and was constructed most faithfully in Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany. But one need not look only to extreme cases to find such uses of the educational system. The United States differed only by degree. One can readily see how irresistible a vehicle the schools are to a social engineer. They represent a unique opportunity to mold future citizens early in life, to instill in them the proper reverence for the ruling culture, and to prepare them to be obedient and obeisant taxpayers. Is it just an accident that the theme of every history class is that without the benevolent state, we would be overrun by robber barons, monopolists, businessmen bent on poisoning us, and other private-sector villains?

The keys to using the educational system for social engineering are compulsory attendance and tax financing. Were families free or financially able to send their children to nonstate schools or to avoid formal schooling altogether the state's effort would be thwarted. The state's ostensibly benevolent goal of universal education has actually been an insidious effort to capture all children in its net.

The deep insidiousness can be seen in the phrase "the right to an education." What could that mean? In truth, there can be no such right if it means that others are compelled to provide the services or the money. There can be no right to the labor or property of others. In contrast, there is a legitimate right to educate oneself, if that means using one's own resources and energy (or those willingly donated) to acquire knowledge and understanding. The right to an education, in practice, means the power of authorities to define what "education" means and to impose that definition on others. As the New Hampshire Supreme Court candidly said in 1902, "free schooling . . . is not so much a right granted to pupils as a duty imposed upon them for the public good. . . . While most people regard the public schools as the means of great advantage to the pupils, the fact is too often overlooked that they are governmental means of protecting the state from the consequences of an ignorant and incompetent citizenship." That is the nub of the case against compulsory education. By its nature, it extends to government the power to determine what education and school are. When the state has that power, it has everything.

Despite the widespread belief that government schools are a home-grown American institution, they actually come from authoritarian societies, such as 19th-century Prussia. The German philosopher Johann Fichte, a key contributor to the formation of the German school system, said that the schools "must fashion the person, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will." That sentiment is typical of the architects of government schools in all countries. American education intellectuals modeled their system on Fichte's. As former teacher and radical school critic John Taylor Gatto has written, "A small number of very passionate American ideological leaders visited Prussia in the first half of the 19th century; fell in love with the order, obedience, and efficiency of its education system; and campaigned relentlessly thereafter to bring the Prussian vision to these shores."

Those intellectuals knew that to create the New Citizen, they would have to remove children from their parents' influence as far as possible. As Horace Mann, the acknowledged father of the American public school, put it, "We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause." He made clear his objective of molding children into proper beings when he said, "Children are wax."

Government schools from the beginning have been the enemies of liberty, family, and laissez faire capitalism -- the spontaneous order of liberal market society. In such an order, individuals choose their own ends and engage in peaceful means, competitive and cooperative, to achieve them. They also raise their children according to their own values and by their own judgment. In contrast, government schools interfere with that free development and try to mold youth into loyal, compliant servants of the state. As educator Maria Montessori noted, the schools' ends require a rigidity and authoritarianism that is inconsistent with the needs of growing rational beings seeking knowledge about the world. Thus, the schools are a source of immense frustration, boredom, humiliation, and even violence for many children. It should surprise no one that those schools produce children who are passive, listless, aimless, and even worse: violent toward themselves and others. (The ultimate logic of the schools is that children who don't want to sit still should be drugged to treat their "attention deficit.")

The effect on the family is less obvious but no less harmful. When government runs education all the big decisions about children's education are made by someone other than their parents. The system literally makes parents irresponsible with respect to their children's education. Why did parents tolerate that in the beginning? Why do they tolerate it now? Was the lure of "free" education so strong that the American people were willing to sell out their children for it?

The only real alternative to that system is the complete privatization of education. The government schools must be shut down at once. That would require, at least, the abolition of school taxes, the elimination of compulsory attendance laws, and the discharge of all government school personnel. Anyone should be free to start any kind of school, and parents should be free to seek education for their children according to their best judgment. There should be no government requirements with respect to curriculum, testing, or teacher qualifications.

Education can be obtained in unlimited ways, formal schooling being but one, perhaps the least effective, method. A totally privatized system would come to recognize that each child is unique and that free entrepreneurship is the best way to discover how to satisfy the demand for education. Privatization would shift the locus of education from the state to the family, where it rightly belongs. Education is not intrinsically expensive. Low-income people would, as they have done historically, finance their children's education through savings, scholarships, and charitable donations. As the burden of taxation becomes lighter, they will have an easier time acquiring the necessary resources.

Privatization would encourage social harmony. Today, government schools are a source of civil divisiveness as groups attempt to use the system to impose their values on others. In the past, the Protestants who controlled the schools excluded secular subjects such as evolution from the government schools. Today, the schools are controlled by secular relativists who use the Constitution to keep religious beliefs and practices out. Moral issues, most notably relating to sexual conduct, have provoked fiery conflict between education bureaucrats seeking to establish their notion of tolerance and modernity, and parents who believe their right to raise their children in their own way is being stolen.

Which side one takes in those disputes is not the issue here. What matters is that the government's education system offers no way out of such stressful confrontations. That someone's values will be shoved down the throats of others is a systemic defect of government-run schools. Someone's values must shape the curriculum. Here's our choice: either values will be imposed by force through a government school system, or parents will be free to choose how to educate their children. There is no middle way.

The Founding Fathers, cognizant as they were of the bloody history of religious rivalry, bequeathed to us the separation of church and state, unlocking one of the secrets to social harmony and prosperity. For all the reasons we cherish the separation of church and state, we must now have a separation of school and state.

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