Dr. Roche is Director of Seminars for the Foundation for Economic Education. He has taught history and philosophy in college and maintains a special interest in American education.
In this examination of education in America, we find substantial gaps between the ideal we envision and the reality we face. Closing those gaps by constructing a comprehensive educational "system" seems unrealistic, not only because it is difficult to focus any system upon the individual, but also because society rejects any such attempt. We must remember, however, that the process of education is epitomized by ceaseless questioning, even when the answers seem difficult or distant. In the best sense of education, each of us must ask, and finally answer, his own questions. Ethical considerations, in the final analysis, are matters of individual conscience. Unless each of us is free to ask and answer the proper questions, matters of ethical import can hardly be considered, much less decided.
Furthermore, none of us can accurately gauge the mind of another. Those with least apparent promise often come forth with astounding creativity. Education must offer challenge and variety to awaken the individual conscience and draw forth unique qualities and capacities. Looking for the best in others and allowing their free development, letting people be themselves, affords each the opportunity to achieve his own potential. Such a view of education implies no "system," no "establishment," in the usual sense.
The central fact of our present educational structure is its failure to allow for individuality. Increasingly institutionalized education emphasizes the collectivity over the individual, denies the significance of religious sanction in the lives of men, insists upon relativity as the highest standard of morality. The result has been a lowering of standards and an erosion of the dignity and worth of the individual—the very antithesis of genuine education.
The Aim of Education
The task of the educator is primarily that of liberation. The individual needs to be freed from his limitations in order to develop his potentialities and become a better man than he would otherwise have been. This is the most radical presumption of all. If we assume that the individual can develop his unique potentialities only in freedom, implicit in that assumption is that different people have different capacities and varying rates of progress. Thus, genuine education implies discrimination and difference as distinguished from the dead level of equality.
Once this individual quality of education is understood, it becomes apparent that "social utility" is not an appropriate measure of the student’s achievement. Respect for the individual requires that his education be measured in terms of his growth, his becoming. The object and the measure of genuine education remains the individual. Development of individual personality, not social conformity, should be education’s concern. Education is the process by which the individual gains possession of his soul and becomes a human being fully responsive to his capacities.
In a practical sense, genuine education trains students to think for themselves. Mere indoctrination will not suffice:
Cannot we let people be themselves, and enjoy life in their own way? You are trying to make that man another you. One’s enough.¹
If education is to provide the opportunity for the full development of personality and independent thought, it must also provide a frame of reference giving meaning to that independence. Reverence for truth is quite as important as development of personal uniqueness. Thoreau’s remark that "in the long run men hit only what they aim at," should serve to remind us that education must also give status and direction to man’s moral existence, convincing the individual that man is more than merely animal and therefore possesses correspondingly higher obligations and aspirations.
We may now define in a more precise manner the aim of education. It is to guide man in the evolving dynamism through which he shapes himself as a human person—armed with knowledge, strength of judgment, and moral virtues—while at the same time conveying to him the spiritual heritage of the nation and the civilization in which he is involved, and preserving in this way the century-old achievements of generations.2
Who Is the Educator?
Emerson once criticized the utopian quality of his own work, saying, "I found when I had finished my new lecture that it was a very good house, only the architect had unfortunately omitted the stairs." Such a demanding view of education as outlined in these pages runs the risk of being a "house without stairs." Especially in view of the present institutional structure, what educator can perform such a demanding task?
Fortunately, we need not wait for institutional reform if we wish substantially to improve the education of our young. Not all education occurs in the school. Education, like charity, begins at home. If the task of reforming a giant educational structure serving millions of children seems too large, could each of us at least assume responsibility for the proper mental and moral development of a single child? The individual need not feel impotent when he has before him a task on a scale which he can comprehend as an individual, especially when that task is the development of human personality, surely the single most important undertaking in the world. There is one catch: If the effort is to have the chance to succeed, the individual educator of the individual child must want to meet the challenge.
… people, I am certain, greatly underestimate the power of men to achieve their real choices. But the choices must be real and primary, not secondary ones. Men will often say that they want such and such a thing, and true, they do want such and such a thing, but it turns out that they want something else more. It is what they want most that they will be most active, ingenious, imaginative, and tireless in seeking. When a person decides that he really wants something, he finds he can surpass himself; he can change circumstances and attain to a goal that in his duller hours seemed unattainable. As an old teacher of mine used to say, "When you have done your utmost, something will be given to you." But first must come the honest desire.3
Unfortunately, many parents have been unwilling to assume primary responsibility for their offspring. It is true that the modern school has tended to assume functions for which it was ill-suited, thus becoming a poor substitute for the parent, but the primary blame must rest with the negligence of many parents.
The selfishness of more and more of our contemporary parents also manifests itself in neglect of children. Parents all too often pity themselves, run away from their plain duty, their chief job, their greatest avenue to the respect of God and of honest men. They place their own welfare, even their amusements ahead of the well-being of their sons and daughters. They may, and usually do, see that the boys and girls are clothed, fed, washed, have their teeth attended to; but to make pals of them, to live with them, to laugh and cry and work and play with them, lovingly but firmly to discipline them, this takes too much time and effort altogether. The American parent tends increasingly to pamper himself or herself. In consequence little is taught to the children by precept and less by example. Then the parents dump their progeny at the feet of the schoolmaster and schoolmistress and say, "Here, we have no time to bring these youngsters up, nor have we any stomach for the job. You take them over, as totally as possible, and do what we will not do for our own. Train them in character; that is what you get paid for."4
Before we can impart self-discipline to our children, we must first possess that quality ourselves. We cannot solve the problem of raising children by pretending to make the schools responsible; nor can we solve the problem of exercising authority by transferring that authority to the children themselves.
Let us have a little severe hard work, good, clean, well-written exercises, well-pronounced words, well set-down sums: and as far as headwork goes, no more…. Let us have a bit of solid, hard, tidy work….
And one must do this to children, not only to love them, but to make them free and proud: If a boy slouches out of a door, throw a book at him, like lightning; don’t stand for the degenerate, nervous, twisting, wistful, pathetic centreless children we are cursed with: or the fat and self – satisfied, sheep – in – the – pasture children who are becoming more common: or the impudent, I’m-as-good as-anybody smirking children who are far too numerous.5
How many parents would face up to such a responsibility in their own home? How many would tolerate, much less encourage, a school operated on such "old-fashioned" principles? The process of character building is a demanding, day-by-day job. The job implies great expectations in the child, plus the parent’s willingness to give the sustained time and effort to insist that the expectation is fulfilled.
Not only must the parent be prepared to give of himself to accomplish the task, but he must be prepared to set the proper example. Does this demand a great deal of each of us? Yes, indeed! And no amount of tax collection and PTA activity can serve as a substitute. Any area of life where we achieve success demands time, energy, patience—expenditure of self. Surely the building of a family and the raising of children can be no exception. It is not enough to know what is right; we must also live that knowledge. "If one’s wisdom exceeds one’s deeds, the wisdom will not endure." This is a highly individual task, one which cannot be successfully collectivized.
Does such parental responsibility rule out the importance of the teacher? Indeed not. The dedicated teacher, who has mastered himself and who would spend his life in helping the young to master their lives, is engaged in one of the highest callings. Without such men and women, the school as an extension of parental responsibility would be impossible. In fact, it has been the devotion to duty of many teachers and administrators which has enabled our educational system to keep operating successfully, despite bureaucratic rigidity and parental flight from responsibility. Still, the good teacher is fighting a losing fight unless the home enforces the discipline and standards necessary to support the learning experience of the classroom. Ultimately, failures in education rest with the individual parents who are willing to accept less than the best, and unwilling to fulfill their own responsibilities. Our children finally receive an education which is an accurate reflection of the principles accepted by adult society.
Public Funding of Education
The Bundy Report on urban education, financed by the Ford Foundation, has described the current educational bureaucracy as "a system already grown rigid in its negative powers," and has warned that power and responsibility must go hand in hand. This was to have been achieved by the now famous "decentralization." In practical terms, the results of decentralization in New York City Public Schools have been a resounding failure. The entire nation has watched public education in Ocean Hill-Brownsville literally come to a halt. But this is not the failure of a genuine attempt at decentralization. The people have insisted that schools be publicly funded, and yet pretended that somehow this would not affect the decision-making process in neighborhood schools. Power and responsibility have not been allowed to flow together. The individual parents in Ocean Hill-Brownsville should have a say in the education of their children; they also should pay for that education. So long as they lack that responsibility, it is not surprising that they act irresponsibly.
Across this nation, those parents who would exercise responsible choice in the education of their children are penalized for their responsible behavior. Parents who would place their children in a private school more responsive to their values and attitudes are advised by the tax collector, "First support the state’s educational philosophy; then, if you have any surplus resources, you may pursue your educational philosophy."
Education in America has become a reflection of the insistence that education be a function of government, cost free to participating students, fully financed at taxpayer expense. What originated as local schooling, supported by taxation in the immediate community (and therefore somewhat responsive to local and parental wishes) has inexorably moved toward bureaucratic bigness—the fate of all publicly funded projects. On the local level, the parent finds the system less and less responsive to his concerns. Meanwhile, power has tended to gravitate from the little red schoolhouse to the State House and from the State House to Washington. Control of the purse strings has brought control of education.
The remaining private educational institutions on all levels face exorbitant costs as they try to compete for scarce educational resources. How are they to attract students and faculty in view of the expensive plants, research facilities, salary scales, and subsidized tuition offered by "public" institutions? Many have succumbed to the lure of state and Federal aid, losing self-control in the process.
Proposals for Relief
There have been various proposals for relief of this bureaucratic congestion, among them the idea of "decentralization." But recent events should make it clear that no genuine decentralization can occur under public funding. The effect of socialized finance in any project, education included, is toward more centralized control, not less.
Another proposal is to allow the individual tax credit for income spent or given for educational purposes. This, too, might serve as a holding action, though it still fails to deal with the underlying moral issue. Why should the money of one citizen be taken by force to finance the education of other peoples’ children, any more than to finance the building of other peoples’ homes, the gasoline for other peoples’ cars, the payment of other peoples’ medical expenses? I have yet to hear a compelling moral argument justifying coercion for such a purpose.
So long as we are willing to allow an immoral premise to dominate our educational endeavors, we must be willing to live with ugly results. The only lasting solution is to remove education from the hands of government, restoring responsibility to the student and the parent.
The response at that point tends to be, "Why, if there were no public education, parents wouldn’t send their children to school!" I have yet to meet the person who will not send his children to school. It is always those other people who would supposedly be remiss in their duty. A parallel case may be discovered in the arguments of the last century concerning organized religion. The original argument for a state-supported church was that religion would fail if people were given their choice whether or not to support organized religion. The identical argument is advanced today in regard to education, despite the fact that religion thrives after more than a century of separation of church from state. Is there any compelling reason why voluntary support of education should not be given a similar opportunity?
Ultimate Solution Lies in Freedom and Responsibility
Educational reform must begin with parents as individuals, with the recognition that better upbringing for their children lies in their hands, not in the hands of the state. If and when enough parents begin living their lives self-responsibly and apply such principles to their children who are an extension of self, a new educational day will have dawned. The answer, then, is not to "throw the rascals out," substituting good men for bad in the political control of collectivized education. Instead, let each act in his own small orbit, with his own children, with those whom he influences directly. If one’s example and understanding are of high enough quality, the educational picture will begin to change no matter what course politicalized education might take.
Those who effect great revolutions are always small in number. Such people need not wait to become a majority. No one else can do the job except those who under-stand what needs to be done. The disruptive influence of political centralization in education will continue until it has been overshadowed and rendered meaningless by a moral force of sufficient intensity, a force generated by individuals who understand what is at stake and who serve notice by their own example that a better way exists to educate our young.
This article concludes the series on Education in America.
¹ Emerson: A Modern Anthology, ed. by Alfred Kazin and Daniel Aaron, p. 363.
2 Jacques Maritain, Education at the Crossroads, p. 10.
3 Richard Weaver, Life without Prejudice, p. 119.
4 Bernard Iddings Bell, Crisis in Education, pp. 98-99.
5 G. H. Bantock, Freedom and Authority in Education, pp. 175, 177.