All Commentary
Saturday, December 1, 2001

Education in a Free Society edited by Tibor Machan

Is Human Individuality Compatible with Coercive Public Education?

Hoover Institution Press · 2000 · 149 pages · $16.95 paperback

Reviewed by Karen Y. Palasek

Editor Tibor Machan states in his introduction to this collection of four essays that “The primary concern in this book is whether human individuality is compatible with coercive public education.” Each of the four perspectives offered takes a unique approach.

The late E. G. West’s contribution, “Public Education and Imperfect Democracy,” takes an economist’s-eye view of the topic. It is a well-thought-out discussion of voucher plans in particular, focusing finally on the policy possibilities for an evolution toward a free-market alternative to public schools, including the near-complete withdrawal of government from education. Professor West’s conclusions are that market diversity and parental authority, as evidenced in the Milwaukee experiment, are sufficient indicators of the success that a fully market-oriented educational system can provide.

Psychologist Carol B. Low’s essay on “Schools and Education: Which Children Are Entitled to Learn?” focuses on the goals of public education in contrast to the quite different goals of traditional private education. Low, looking at the group makeup of girls versus boys, the treatment of gender differences as “disorders,” and the methods in which public schools deal with these issues, argues those schools’ primary aim is equalization, homogenization, and socialization among all members. As Low remarks, “Our children are unable to discover who they are and what they are and where they are going in life because there is a system in place with the power to tell them.” In contrast to the public-education model of a good student, Low presents the expectations of a traditional private education: the ability to think and to understand, the expansion of individual knowledge, and the presumption that one strives to rise to his or her highest potential. What should education in a free society be like? Education that knows our children as more than public-school students. The final somber note of the essay reflects on the sad and pernicious system of social conditioning that crushes individuality instead.

Philosopher J. Roger Lee writes an exposition entitled “Limits on Universal Education.” Only when we come to the very end do we comprehend the method in Lee’s approach. He presumes a universal education, but wants to enlighten us as to what moral, religious, or political ideas it may legitimately include. He summarizes, “Given that we may include these topics in the domain of whatever universal education we provide children, should we do so? The answer is yes—but not much.”

Lee could improve the appeal of his essay immeasurably if readers could grasp its direction at the outset. It reads like a long, meandering stroll, and some will need to be convinced of the value of making the journey in the first place.

Sheldon Richman’s essay is the final contribution to the book. I would have preferred that it be the opening essay, as it would have helped lend a framework to the collection as a whole. “Individuality, Education, and Entrepreneurship,” would be best, however, as a stand-alone work, perhaps a book in itself.

There is an urgency in the quest for alternatives to government’s role in education, says Richman, because children “languish” in a system that is not responsive to individual differences. Private education can both afford to use trial and error to weed out unsuccessful methods, and has a strong incentive to do so.

Government-directed education distributes rewards regardless of success in meeting client demands, while private education is an entrepreneurial activity—rewarded only if it serves clients’ wishes.

Schooling is seen as “a service offered to competent buyers (parents) in the marketplace, . . .” and not “the missionary or therapeutic work of an enlightened elite mercifully bestowed on the benighted and unappreciative masses.” Richman’s essay argues that only the complete divorce of government from all aspects of education, including vouchers and charter schools, is likely to effect significant change. Parental rather than governmental oversight acknowledges the rights of parents, encourages them to make competent assessments of their children’s needs and progress, discourages continued parental ignorance, complacency, and irresponsibility, and restores liberty, with the accompanying risks and rewards, to citizens and families in our society.

As a volume, Education in a Free Society strays from its mission. There is more discussion of reform than of freedom in three of the four essays, and more dissimilarity than cohesiveness. If there is any theme which emerges from every essay, it is the conviction that governmental schools are doing very badly by children in our society, a society that claims individuality, freedom, and personal enterprise as its ideals, but fails to apply them to its youngest citizens.

Karen Palasek is a professional economist and home-schooling mother.