A member of the Indiana State Board of Education recently stated his belief that “education policy is economic policy.”
When the central administration claims to replace completely the free cooperation of those primarily interested, it deceives itself or wants to deceive you.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
“Without world-class schools,” writes Gordon Hendry in the Indianapolis Star, “we can’t attract top talent and jobs to Indiana.” Hendry’s observation represents the predominant worldview among policymakers today. It may also suggest why education reform continues to cost more and achieve less.
It is largely undisputed that government education systems across America are failing. International comparisons suggest American students are falling behind students in other countries. National assessments suggest that socioeconomic as well as racial gaps in performance persist. Employers find that young people are unprepared to enter the workforce without additional training. Colleges find that students are increasingly ill-equipped for higher education and in need of remedial coursework. Classroom teachers are buried under bureaucratic red tape and media scrutiny and find it hard to sustain their passion for education. Parents and students are unhappy for a variety of reasons, and in greater numbers they’re seeking schools that are peaceful, orderly, welcoming, and effective.
We live with a collective sigh of despair, punctuated by angry controversy over various proposals for reform ranging from school choice to the Common Core standards movement. Yet for all the tax dollars, political capital, and ink spilled on issues of education reform and school improvement, we have failed to ask a fundamental question: Who is education for?
Who is education for: the individual or the State?
Without clarity on this question, all reform efforts may prove to be mere fiddling while our republic burns.
If we want to sustain the freedom of self-government embodied in the American federal system, we must once again become a people capable of exercising and defending that freedom. The role of education is too important in the formation of a free people not to clarify the limits of State action on education at all levels. To do so, we must inquire into numerous questions that elevate our attention from today’s policy battles and rekindle a broader, constitutional dialogue about who we are and whom we aspire to be.
The founding generation recognized the constitutional importance of education in shaping a people capable of self-government, but largely left the means and content of education up to local communities and states. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787—which laid the groundwork for government support of education and expressed the core interest that government has in education—did not address the importance of learning in economic terms but enjoined that “religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
Nineteenth-century Whigs, led by reformers such as Horace Mann, took a more controlling interest in education, specifically as compulsory schooling could serve to inculcate white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant mores and values among newer immigrants to American shores. By the end of the nineteenth century, the belief that public schools must continue to protect a moral and cultural center based on WASP values had led most states to pass a “Blaine Amendment” seeking to prohibit use of state educational funds for parochial, especially Catholic, schools.
Progressive reformers of the early twentieth century likewise assumed roles as their brothers’ keepers. Education and economic policy converged as they adapted American schools to an industrializing economy. Applying the new tools of “scientific” management to effect social control reflected the growing belief that centralized social engineering was necessary for a good society. As John Dewey put it, “Organized social planning, put into effect for the creation of an order in which industry and finance are socially directed in behalf of institutions that provide the material basis for the cultural liberation and growth of individuals, is now the sole method of social action by which liberalism can realize its professed aims.”
A society of free men and women cannot be one in which an administrative State supervises the details of our lives from cradle to grave. Despite protesting voices—such as those appearing in The Freeman since its inception—our public schools continue to be honed as tools of soft despotism.
Today, education reformers increasingly view our children as fodder for the engines of economic productivity. Leaders of global corporations, education “experts,” and political leaders, having lost sight of the true ends of education, promote uniformity of curricula across the nation, validated by high-stakes testing. The time has long passed for us to recognize that these would-be emperors of the mind—chasing a utopia in which all children can be college- or career-ready by age 18—wear no clothes.
Economic policy is not educational policy. American education has suffered from being made the maidservant of economic growth. Education policy cannot suffice for good economic policy, which should instead be focused on issues such as providing for sound and stable money, constraining government spending and public debt, ending crony capitalism, and repudiating the kind of regulatory and confiscatory despotism that crushes real entrepreneurship and job creation.Can education promote a prospering economy? Yes, but only when it recognizes the limits of State action on personal moral development and allows schooling to pursue its true end: to help the child grow into a man or woman capable of directing his or her own life with responsibility.
Is education policy economic policy? Only if we believe the laborer or taxpayer is the father of the man. In Towards a Philosophy of Education, nineteenth-century English pedagogue Charlotte Mason observed that
we are slow to learn because we have set up a little tin god of efficiency in that niche within our private pantheon which should be occupied by personality. We trouble ourselves about the uses of the young person to society. As for his own use, what he should be in and for himself, why, what matter? Because, say we, if we fit him to earn his living we fit him also to be of service to the world and what better can we do for him personally? We forget that it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God shall man live, —whether it be spoken in the way of some truth of religion, poem, picture, scientific discovery, or literary expression; by these things men live and in all such is the life of the spirit.
We are not without guides in reexamining our belief that the end of education is mere economic prosperity. The great classical liberal author William von Humboldt, who helped develop education policy for the Prussian state, understood firsthand the dangers of seeing the child as merely an asset of the State. He clearly perceived the constitutional importance of education and the delicacy of the task of the State’s involvement in administering schooling. “The fruitful relationship between man and citizen would wholly cease if the man were sacrificed to the citizen,” cautioned Humboldt in The Limits of State Action. He continued:
For although the consequences of disharmony would be avoided, still the very object would be sacrificed which the association of human beings in a community was designed to secure. From which I conclude that the freest development of human nature, directed as little as possible to citizenship, should always be regarded as of paramount importance. He who has been thus freely developed should then attach himself to the State; and the State should test itself by his measure. Only through such a struggle could I confidently hope for a real improvement of the national constitution, and banish all fear of the harmful influence of civil institutions on human nature.
The person, in other words, precedes the nation and the State. To get this backwards and make the State the tutor of the man is to forget the ends of both liberty and learning.
Out in the byways, Americans are exploring a variety of new ways to educate their children, from homeschooling to educational cooperatives, from new private schools to charter schools. Our educational leaders, on the other hand, carry on a conversation that is increasingly a stumbling block to the future of liberty. Treating education policy as economic policy has mired us in polarizing political contests. On the one side are those mired in the legacies of Progressive pedagogy and union politics; on the other side are those who see education primarily as a pipeline of employees and taxpayers. It may be worse when the two sides find some common ground or economic interest, such as that alliance that effected the bipartisan blitzkrieg of the Common Core State Standards.
For the rest of us, for those who retain some inkling of what it means to be free or those who remember the love of learning that inspired them to want to teach, we must recognize that this may be a Baptists-and-bootleggers moment. To go forward, we must find common ground. Where better to begin than on the presumption that learning is for liberty, and that children who learn to love knowledge more than posting high test scores and who find their schools to be sites of community and connection rather than battlefields will more readily exercise their liberty in ways that respect our constitutional order, promote human flourishing, and generate widespread prosperity?