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Monday, July 3, 2023

Carl Sagan Warned Us about Government Schools Decades Ago

Despite the extravagant spending, US schools are failing children. Carl Sagan saw it. John Taylor Gatto saw it. And we all see it today.

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My wife and I recently met with the principal of the school our daughter attends to discuss her education future.

My daughter, who turns 12 in a few days, wants to go to a different school in the fall, largely because many of her friends—who are a year ahead of her—are graduating to new schools. (And also because her teacher, whom she adored, took a job in a different district.)

When we stepped into the principal’s office, she offered us chairs. She was warm, knowledgeable, and helpful, and I got the feeling she knows my daughter and wants what is best for her. I suspect my daughter will return to the school for one more year, but it’s a conversation we’ll have together.

I believe that whatever school we choose, my daughter will have a relatively good experience. And I’m deeply grateful for that. I’m all too aware of how badly our schools have failed American children in recent years, and I’m hardly the only person to make this observation.

Decades ago, the esteemed American astronomer Carl Sagan talked about how US schools were ruining the minds of our children.

“My experience is, you go talk to kindergarten kids or first-grade kids, you find a class full of science enthusiasts. And they ask deep questions. ‘What is a dream, why do we have toes, why is the moon round, what is the birthday of the world, why is grass green?’ These are profound, important questions. They just bubble right out of them. You go talk to 12th grade students and there’s none of that. They’ve become leaden and incurious. Something terrible has happened between kindergarten and 12th grade and it’s not just puberty.”

Sagan doesn’t offer a reason as to why US schools have been failing for so long, but I think the simple answer is that it stems from those in charge of the school systems: the government.

‘Good Schools Don’t Need More Money’

I recently was sitting around a fire with a progressive friend while we were enjoying our vacation in the north woods of Wisconsin. We agree on almost nothing, politically. I understand why, but I don’t think he does. So I asked him a simple question.

“What is the purpose of government?” I asked.

He seemed perplexed for a moment, then answered. “To provide for the people.”

There is no worse answer, of course. It’s an answer that runs counter to the ideas of the American system. Thomas Paine spoke for many when he observed that government, even in its best state, “is a necessary evil.”

Government is unfit and incapable of providing for people, as history has shown time and again. It creates nothing. It only spends, and every dollar it spends is taken from others (and almost never from their free will).

“The entire question of government spending is perhaps best perceived when one realizes that the government is not a source of wealth,” the great economist Frédéric Bastiat long ago observed. “The people themselves are the only true source of wealth. Hence the government can only give to the people what it has already taken from the people.”

I bring up the anecdote with my friend for a simple reason. Many Americans think the answer to fixing our schools means simply taking more money and giving it to schools. This is precisely what we did in the decades since Sagan observed that schools were failing our kids.

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It’s time to admit that the model we’re using is fundamentally flawed.

John Taylor Gatto, the celebrated American author and school teacher, offered the proper solution decades ago.

“Good schools don’t need more money or a longer year; they need real free-market choices, variety that speaks to every need and runs risks. We don’t need a national curriculum or national testing either. Both initiatives arise from ignorance of how people learn or deliberate indifference to it.”

It was precisely this failing system that drove Gatto, one of the best teachers of his generation and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, out of the American public school system.

“I can’t teach this way any longer,” Gatto bluntly stated. “If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living, let me know.”

Despite the extravagant spending, our schools are failing our kids. Carl Sagan saw it. John Taylor Gatto saw it. And we all see it today.

Our schools must be freed from the hands of the government, and returned to the hands of the people.

This article first appeared on the author’s Substack.


  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of FEE.org at the Foundation for Economic Education.