All Commentary
Saturday, December 1, 1984

Education: State Coercion or Free Choice

Mr. Peterson is a free-lance writer in East Greenville, Pennsylvania, anxious to share some of the lessons he’s learned concerning the freedom philosophy.

A friend and I were discussing the pros and cons of the recently-defeated school prayer amendment when our conversation shifted to problems in the American educational system. I suggested that the root of the problems lay in the system’s public nature and that education should be strictly private.

This prospect visibly shocked my friend, so I suggested he sit down before he heard my next proposition. “Education in America,” I postulated, “should be not only a private, nonpublic function but also strictly voluntary.”

My friend sat down abruptly, mouth agape. “What!?” he cried out in protest. “You are crazy!”

As radical as this view seems to the average American, there are some compelling arguments in its favor which warrant consideration.

Those who oppose public, compulsory schooling are not against education. They agree that education is one of the most important ingredients in any successful family, corporate, or national order. All wise people down through history have recognized this fact.

Aristotle: “All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth.”

Martin Luther: “The prosperity of a country depends, not on the abundance of its revenues, nor on the strength of its fortifications, nor on the beauty of its public buildings; but it consists in the number of its cultivated citizens, in its men of education, enlightenment, and character.”

Abraham Lincoln: “Upon the subject of education . . . I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we, as a people, can be engaged in.”

John Kennedy: “Education is the keystone in the arch of freedom and progress.”

The importance of education, especially in today’s world of rapid technological advancement, is undeniable. Proponents of strictly private education are against not education as such but rather the forced education of everyone by government.

All of the educational debates, studies, and task forces notwithstanding, Americans have largely ignored the real needs of education. It has become a game of sorts. The “experts” have been more concerned with methods than with students’ minds, more enthusiastic about tools than about teaching, and more interested in social change than in student achievement.

A few people, such as Luther Burbank, realized early what was happening to American education. He remarked, “If we had paid no more attention to our plants than we have to our children, we would now be living in a jungle of weeds.”

The education of individuals is neither a toy to be played with nor a laboratory rat for scientific experimentation. It is a tool designed to achieve specific objectives. The most important things in education, therefore, are not necessarily the methods, although those are essential, but rather the objectives and those who establish them.

Different people have different educational objectives, depending on their philosophy of life. Joseph Stalin, for example, openly admitted that he viewed education as “a weapon, whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and to whom it is aimed.”

The content, teachers, and pupils are all correlative to the objectives and the objective-maker. All of these aspects of education work together to accomplish the objectives established from an educational philosophy.

Seeds of Socialism

For years now, the public school system has gone through the process of sowing the seeds of progressivism and socialism, during which time the basics were de-emphasized in favor of more “relevant” subjects. The nation is now reaping the fruit of those seeds: functional illiterates who cannot think for themselves, draw conclusions, or express themselves in a logical, coherent manner.

In the past the individual families, religious groups, and private schools dominated education, but today it is state and national governments that dominate the field. The willingness of those governments to assume the responsibility of educating young people has been in direct proportion to the unwillingness of parents and private enterprise to shoulder their educational duties.

Once in the driver’s seat, providing the financial backing for the system, the government began to change the goals and objectives of American education to conform to the interventionist goals of the socialist State. Dramatic changes were made in curricula. Methods were “improved,” ostensibly to help the individual while in reality serving the ends of collectivism. Attrition took its toll. Teachers and administrators who still believed in individual liberty and freedom of choice were replaced, when they retired or resigned, by those who shared the government view. The product of these changes is a generation of gullible non-thinkers, blind followers of the State.

Compulsory, statist education has reigned supreme in our nation for most of the twentieth century. It has forged full-steam ahead over the principles of freedom and individualism, leaving in its wake countless problems for society.

Compulsory Attendance

First, compulsory attendance policies have brought into the classroom young people who do not want to be there. It is assumed that all students need and desire the education provided. Some students, however, have neither the desire to learn nor the intention of allowing others to do so. They are in school to “have a good time.” As a result, they create increasingly more disruptive discipline problems.

Second, compulsory attendance has lowered the overall quality of education for everyone. The present system is supposedly trying to be fair and equal with every student. It cannot discriminate, therefore, by providing a different quality education for different students or by having high admission standards that disqualify certain students.

“Let the revolting distinction of rich and poor disappear,” François Babeuf declared in his Manifesto of the Equals. “Let there be no other difference between human beings than those of age and sex. Since all have the same needs and the same faculties, let there be one education for all, one food for all.”

In order to achieve this absolute equality within the system, all standards must be reduced to the lowest common denominator. Equality never raises standards; it always lowers them by restricting the high achievers. If admissions and work quality standards are so lowered, as has been the case in much of American public education, the result or product can only be low in quality.

Third, by reinforcing the idea that government is providing a “free” education for everyone, compulsory public schooling has decreased the value of education in the minds of the students and of society in general. That which one gains without effort is seldom appreciated. If quality, competitive education must be earned by the individual, he will value it much more highly than if a mediocre education is forced upon him without his desiring it. For proof of this fact, consider the attitude of the Japanese toward education. Education in Japan is a privilege, not a “right.” It is something that must be worked for. The result: higher quality graduates and, in the long run, a more productive and successful economy.

Fourth, compulsory education has led to the promotion of students solely on the basis of age or other purely social considerations. It does not matter what the student has accomplished, if he is a certain age he must be advanced with his own age group. Similarly, it discourages the promotion of exceptional students for the same reason: they must remain with their peers.

On this point, it is very enlightening to read the accounts of Jesse Stuart and to compare his philosophy of education with that of rood-ern, statist educators. In his book The Thread That Runs So True, Stuart recounts his early experiences as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse with students who were sincerely interested in learning. He taught them to advance from where they were (even if it meant a strapping teenager having to learn to read with first graders) to where they were achieving to their potential. None of this social promotion to remain with their peers. It was promotion based strictly on achievement.

Finally, the current system has invited trouble and conflict from opposing moral views. Public education, in order to avoid any semblance of catering to any particular moral, religious, or political creed or philosophy, ostensibly avoids teaching any moral standard at all. In the place of a specific morality, however, the system teaches amorality or situational ethics. In reality, it is substituting its own religion—statism—in the place of traditional religious values.

The Next Stage

H. G. Wells, one of the foremost proponents of a one-world, collectivist government, realized the importance of State control over education in order to bring about his Utopia. “Men’s thoughts and motives will be turned by education, example, and the circle of ideas about them . . .” he predicted in “The Next Stage of History.” The people who will run this centralized government will be those who control the educational systems of the nations of the world. Their goals and desires, rather than the interests of the individual, will be sought and achieved in this utopian society.

The State can force students to attend school, but it can never force them to learn. Only those who truly have a desire to learn will do so. Even then, they will only retain and apply a fraction of all that is presented to them. And in the public, compulsory system, the fraction retained is further reduced by the negative influence of students who have no desire to be in school.

And what if that which is learned is not true? Josh Billings must have had this in mind when he said, “It is better to know less than to know so much that ain’t so.”

Moral Guidance

As to moral virtue, that is distinctly what education is to provide. As early as the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, morality was considered to be the domain not only of religion but also of education. The Ordinance read in part, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

The Ordinance did not say that government was to operate schools; it said that government was to encourage the operation of schools. It did not say government was to avoid religion and moral instruction; it said government was to encourage it through education. And it certainly did not say government was to encourage one particular brand of religion, even statism; it said, “religion,” pure and simple.

John Ruskin wrote in 1853, “Education does not mean teaching people what they do not know. It means teaching them to behave as they do not behave. It is not teaching the shapes of letters and the tricks of numbers, and leaving them to turn their arithmetic to roguery and their literature to lust. It means, on the contrary, training them into the perfect exercise and kingly continence of their bodies and souls. It is a painful, continual, and difficult work to be done by kindness, by watching, by warning, by precept, and by praise, but above all—by example.”

What is the alternative to the public, compulsory educational system? It is the exact opposite: private, non-compulsory education.

Who would determine which schools survived, and who would insure quality education? The free market: consumer demand and consumer choice.

Wouldn’t such a system be awfully haphazard, inconsistent, and unstable? It would at first glance appear that way. But to anyone familiar with it, the entire free market system seems haphazard. There is, however, a method to the madness. The schools which best meet the needs and desires of the greatest number of consumers would survive, make a profit, and educate the students of the nation.

This system would operate in the same way as business in the free market. Those businesses which best meet the demands of the consumers, make profits and stay in business; those which do not, suffer losses and eventually fail. The consumers, by their expressions of choice, would determine and insure high quality.

A private, non-compulsory school system would be able to provide for the diverse religious needs and preferences of the people as well as for the diverse social, physical, and intellectual needs of their students. And they would do this without offending any single sect or denomi- nation-except, of course, the statists. Each group could have, if it so chose and if it had enough demand within its own constituency, its own school.

This is really not so extreme as it may at first sound. In fact, it is the very system upon which our country was founded.

Early Private Schools

The first schools in the New World were private and were usually operated by religious groups. Since most of the early settlements were composed of only one or two distinct religious groups, education tended to be sectarian and community-sup-ported. The “Old Deluder Satan Act,” which was passed in 1647, provided that every township in the Massachusetts Bay Colony having a population of fifty householders would appoint and support a teacher for their children. Although the entire population of each township so affected paid for the education, this was not “public” education in the sense in which it exists today.

There were no state colleges or universities in the early colonial period. All institutions of higher learning were private and, like the lower schools, were usually run by religious groups. The first college in the New World, for example, was Harvard. It was founded by the Puritans of Massachusetts in 1636. Similarly, the Anglicans started William and Mary; the Presbyterians, Princeton; the Episcopalians, Columbia; the Baptists, Brown; and the Dutch Reformed, Rutgers.

Although most students in the United States today attend schools in the public system, there is an ever-increasing number who are attending private schools. One out of ten students now attends such a school. And these schools are increasing in number at the rate of three or four every 24 hours.

This trend alarms statists and supporters of government education. They have begun fighting it with every weapon in their arsenal. They are determined, like most unions, to eliminate this undesirable competition and to retain their monopoly on education. The key to the success of statism and collectivism is the monopoly they hold on the education of young people.

Several weapons are being used to offset the surge of private schools, especially that of religious private schools. The employees of most of the religious-oriented schools have, until recently, been exempt from unemployment taxes. Operating as non-profit, educational arms of the various founding religious groups, they have also been (until recently) exempt from Social Security taxes.

The most recently-acquired and perhaps the most fearsome weapon now in the hands of the State is the argument of public policy. The U. S. Supreme Court ruled in 1983 (Bob Jones University v. United States) that in order to qualify for tax ex-eruption, educational institutions “must serve a public purpose and not be contrary to established public policy.”

A wide variety of religious groups expressed their concern about this ruling. The Mennonites, who are pacifists, predicted, “When it becomes the established public policy for this nation to have a war . . . . that could result in the Internal Revenue Service coming in and taking away our tax-exempt status.” Jews, who provide separate programs for men and women in their religious educational system, also fear that if stated public policy becomes strict equal rights regardless of sex, they might lose their tax ex-eruption.

Even one of the justices voting with the majority, Lewis Powell, expressed concern that the ruling could be interpreted to mean that “the primary function of a tax-exempt organization is to act on behalf of the government in carrying out governmentally approved policies.” Carried to its extreme, this ruling could effectively take away the freedoms of hundreds of private schools and insure the control of our children by a government educational monopoly.

Left to themselves and unhampered by government intervention, however, private schools will prosper or fail according to consumer choice. The best interests of the individual will be fulfilled, and the entire nation will profit.

Is it likely that we will ever see our nation adopt a policy of strictly private, non-compulsory education? Unfortunately, probably not. The idea is too radical to most people today.

The closest thing we can work for and hope to achieve is to keep government interference and regulation to a minimum, to maintain an atmosphere that is supportive of, rather than detrimental to, private, free-choice education for all who desire it. Only in this way will proponents of the freedom philosophy and all other views have the opportunity to share in the marketplace of ideas.