All Commentary
Monday, February 1, 1993

Education for One’s Own Sake

The myth of government education in our country is an article of general faith.

In previous chapters I have tried to demonstrate that government is organized police force and that its function is to keep the peace; that education is a peaceful, creative, productive pursuit of the type disastrously affected by government intervention. Now, were government to step aside in education as it has stepped aside in religion—that is, if compulsory attendance, state-dictated curricula, and forcible collection of the wherewithal to pay the school bill were omitted—education would be left to the free market.

Were this break with tradition to take place, what would happen?

Strange as it may first appear, no one can know! Some will say that this admission is a retreat from my argument that education would be improved if left to the free, competitive market. On the contrary, it is in support of the free market as the sold, effective means of improving education.

If you are compelled to do as someone else dictates, if unnatural obstacles are placed in your way, if you are relieved of responsibilities, I can at least predict that you will not function to your fullest in a creative sense. But no one can even roughly predict what wondrous things you will create if released from restraints and dictation, that is, if freed from obstacles. Indeed, you cannot make such predictions about yourself. What new idea will you have tomorrow? What invention? What will you do if a new necessity, an unexpected, responsibility, presents itself? We know that creativity will be increased, nothing more . . .


Religious Freedom

In the United States, we have rejected the use of police force for the purpose of determining one’s religion. Are high moral standards and improving attitudes toward one’s life and the lives of others—prime objects of religion—of less value than knowing how to read or to write or to add two and two? Indeed, are not both education and religion intimately personal matters, one as much as the other? Is the education of another any more of my or your business than the religion of another?

In many countries—certainly in the U.S.A.—the idea of (1) being compelled by the government to attend church, or (2) having the government dictate clergymen’s subject matter, or (3) having the expenses of religious institutions forcibly collected by the tax man, would be an affront to the citizens’ intelligence. Why do people believe in applying police force to education and letting religion rest on self-determination? Logically, there appears to be no basis for the distinction. Tradition, custom—living with a mistake so long that reason is rarely brought to bear—may be the explanation.

Being a disbeliever in the management by the police force of any creative activity, I have on countless occasions asked individuals in various occupational levels if they would let their children go uneducated were all governmental compulsions removed. The answers given me have always been in the same vein. If you will try this yourself, you will be impressed with how alike the answers are: “Do you think I am a fool? I would no more let my children go without an education than I would let them go without shoes and stockings. But some forms of compulsion are necessary, for there are many persons who do not have the same concern for their children as I have.”

And there you have it! Police force is never needed to manage my education, only necessary for the other fellow! The other fellow’s weakness—the possibility of his having no interest in himself or in his offspring—is far more imaginary than real. It is, for the most part, a fiction of the compulsory, collectivistic myth. Should you doubt this, try to find that rare exception, “the other fellow.” If every parent in this country were to consider authoritarianism in education as applying only to himself and could divorce from his thinking the “incompetency of others,” there would be no police force applied to American education. Let any reader of this thesis, regardless of wealth status, honestly try this exercise and arrive at any other conclusion!


A Parental Responsibility

A child, from the time of birth until adulthood, is but the extension of the parent’s responsibility. The child can no more be “turned out to pasture” for his education than for his morals or his manners or his sustenance. The primary parental responsibility for the child’s education cannot properly be shifted to anyone else; responsible parenthood requires that some things remain for one’s own attentions, no matter how enticingly and powerfully specialization and division of labor may beckon one. And, the education of one’s children is a cardinal case in point.

This does not mean that parents should not have help—a lot of specialized assistance—with their educational responsibility. It does mean that the parent cannot be relieved of the educational responsibility without injury to himself—that is, without injury to his own person and thus to the child who is but the extension of his personal responsibility.


Police Force Interjected

How does the application of police force to education bear on this question? It tends to relieve parents of educational responsibilities, including the study that might have involved themselves. Compulsion—police force as boss—says, in effect, to the parent: “Forget about the education of your child.

We, acting as government, will compel the child to go to school regardless of how you think on the matter. Do not fret unduly about what the child will study. We, the agents of compulsion, have that all arranged. And don’t worry about the financing of education. We, the personnel of authority, will take the fruits of the labor of parents and childless alike to pay the expenses.

You, the parent, are relieved of any choice as to these matters; “just leave it to the police force.”

Second, these police force decides falsely earmark the educational period. They say, ever so compellingly, that the period of education is the period to which the compulsion applies. The ceremonies of “graduation”—diplomas and licenses—if not derivatives of this system, are consistent with it. Government education is resulting in young folks coming out of school thinking of themselves as educated and concluding that the beginning of earning is the end of learning. If any devotee of government education will concede that learning ought to continue throughout all of life, he should, to be consistent, insist on compulsion for adults as well as children—for the octogenarian as well as for the teenager. The system that is supposed to give all an equal start in life tends to put an end to learning just at the time when the spirit of inquiry should begin its most meaningful growth.


A Faith in Freedom

It was stated above that no one could know what would happen were there to be no more policed-force-as-boss in education. That assertion is correct concerning specifics and details, but there are generalizations which can be confidently predicted. For instance, one knows that creative energies would be released; that latent potential energies would turn to flowing, moving, power-giving, kinetic energies and activities. Creative thought on education would manifest itself in millions of individuals. Such genius as we potentially and compositely possess would assert itself and take the place of deadening restraints. Any person who understands the free market knows, without any qualification whatsoever, that there would be more education and better education. And a person with a faith in free men is confident that the cost per unit of learning accomplished would be far less. For one thing, there wouldn’t be any police boss to pay for. Nor would there be the financial irresponsibility that characterizes those who spend other people’s money. The free market is truly free.

Not only is this faith in uninhibited, creative human energy rationally justified, but also there is evidence aplenty to confirm it. In other words, this faith is supported both theoretically and pragmatically. Except in the minds of those who are temperamentally slaves—those who seek a shepherd and a sheep dog, those who are ideologically attuned to authoritarianism—there does not exist a single creative activity now being conducted by man in voluntary action that could be improved by subjecting it to the police-force-as-boss.

But put any one of the activities, now voluntarily conducted, under government control, leave it there for a short period, and general opinion would soon hold that the activity could not be conducted voluntarily . . .

It is a separation from reality, a blindness to the enormous evidence in support of freedom—like being unaware of our autonomic nervous system and its importance—that accounts for much of our loss of faith in the productivity of an educational system relieved of restraints and compulsions. The restraints, be it remembered, are in the form of taxes—the taking away of the wherewithal to finance one’s own educational plan. The compulsions are in the form of forced attendance and dictated curricula . . .

The myth of government education, in our country today, is an article of general faith. To question the myth is to tamper with the faith, a business that few will read about or listen to or calmly tolerate. In short, for those who would make the case for educational freedom as they would for freedom in religion, let them be warned that this is a first-rate obstacle course. But heart can be taken in the fact that the art of becoming is composed of acts of overcoming. And becoming is life’s prime purpose; becoming is, in fact, enlightenment—self-education, its own reward.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Mr. Read’s book, Anything That’s Peaceful, originally published in 1964 by the Foundation for Economic Education. Anything That’s Peaceful has been reprinted by FEE and is available in paperback for $5.95.

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”