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Wednesday, July 1, 1998

Educational Decarceration

Public Education Is Based on the Prison Concept

Daniel Hager is a senior research associate with Patrick Henry Associates in East Lansing, Michigan.

When I was a teacher I reached a conclusion that put me at odds with the mystique that surrounds government schooling: the most beneficial times during the school year for many of my students were snow days.

These kids were sixth-graders. They had already spent more than half their impressionable young lives being regimented by the state through compulsory schooling. In many cases the experience had been bad from the beginning. School had become for them a series of negatives building on negatives. By sixth grade this reinforcement had turned them into academic cripples and colored their entire outlook on life.

A snow day was good because at least it did no additional harm.

What these students needed was to be able to drop out of school for a while, to do something good or useful, such as suitable compensable work. Unfortunately, the state’s narrowly circumscribed concept of child welfare forced them to remain in school. One lad who, despite normal intelligence, was a basket case when faced with schoolwork was already adept at driving a tractor on his parents’ small farm. But he would be compelled to continue his antiproductive routine for another four or five years until he could be legally released from schooling.

The problem with state-mandated “public education” is that it is based on the prison concept. By virtue of being born as creatures of the state, youths are forced into a condition of incarceration, with a mandatory sentence imposed on them at the age of five years that is not fully served until they are 16.

The Challenge

Change is pending, however. One factor that will break up the present system is technology. But attitudes must also change, and beliefs calcified by unquestioned assumptions will continue to provide support for the status quo. Therein lies the challenge to those who maintain that tax-supported schooling should be abolished.

Proponents of the system argue that students are not its only beneficiaries. The entire society benefits, they say, by receiving needed infusions of “educated” young people. The theory conflicts with the reality. America’s government schools are plagued by mediocrity and are turning out vast numbers of intellectually ill-prepared young people, many of them subliterate.

Students are urged to stay the course beyond the end of their sentence on the grounds that they need to “get an education” and graduate from high school. Formal schooling becomes a mystical rite that accords higher status to an ignorant person with a diploma than to a more knowledgeable person without one. This irrationality is fostered by the fallacious interchanging of the terms “education” and “schooling.” The former is a nebulously definable process of mental enhancement that need not terminate at any time of life, even in old age. Schooling is a particularized transaction intended to contribute to the educative process.

As in other transactions, the consumers of education, or their representatives, should be the payers. That relationship worked well in early America. Parents controlled schools by directly purchasing the services of teachers. Teachers were responsive to their customers, Children used Noah Webster’s “Blue-Backed Speller” to learn to read and simultaneously absorbed moral lessons drawn from Aesop and the Bible. French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville noted that American pioneers living in privation in isolated wilderness clearings were not only literate but literary. Typically in a log house “on a solitary shelf of badly squared boards . . . you find a Bible whose cover and edges are already worn by the piety of two generations, a book of prayers, and sometimes a song of Milton or a tragedy of Shakespeare.”[1]

The Anti-Family School

Pious parents were anathema to those seeking to create a society without the influences of the then-preponderant religion. State-run schooling was to be the means and the earliest Prussian systems the models, for they were successful in turning out young people malleable to those who dominated the state. Frances Wright, a member of the cadre that established the 1828 collectivist experiment at New Harmony, Indiana, and later the anti-Christian Working-Men’s Party, proposed schooling “Free for All at the Expense of All, Conducted under the Guardianship of the State,” with parents forced out of the equation.[2]

In 1837 Massachusetts became the first state to adopt a statewide regulatory educational board, developed under the leadership of Horace Mann. He was a Unitarian moralist whose vision of the good society was an application of New England rectitude stripped of Trinitarianism, both the traditional Protestant variety and the threatening Catholicism of increasingly numerous immigrants arriving with alien culture systems. Mann’s philosophy was a steppingstone toward Frances Wright’s ideal of a religion-less society. That ideal was further promoted by turn-of-the-century educational theorists led by John Dewey, whose goal was to transform public schools into indoctrination camps to prepare a tractable socialized citizenry to adapt to an ostensibly egalitarian state run by an intellectual elite.

Their disciples later reintroduced the previously discredited look-say method of reading instruction, which forces students to memorize instead of teaching them the analytical skills to decipher unfamiliar words. The latter method, phonics, can produce a 100-percent literacy rate, as attested by H.O.P.E. Academy, a private school in Lansing, Michigan, which serves mostly minority low-income and middle-income families and offers a money-back guarantee if students do not become proficient readers. (See my article, “Competition in Education: The Case of Reading,” in The Freeman, April 1997.) By contrast, the memorization approach yields high rates of failure and concomitant frustration and belligerence in youngsters in their formative years. Michael Brunner’s Retarding America: The Imprisonment of Potential (1993) documents the strong links between subliteracy and violent crime.

Look-say (or “whole language” or “whole-word instruction,” as it is now termed) serves the purposes of state schooling well. Students who are discharged without serious socialization problems tend to blend into society compliantly as intended, but the antisocial disrupters the system creates move on to exacerbate social decay and disorder, conditions that those who hold the reins of the state can seize on to further strengthen state power.

Cracks Developing

However, socialistic enterprises shielded from marketplace feedback eventually collapse, and government schooling is no exception. The accelerating trend to homeschooling is a sign of a major crack in its stability. Modems stand poised to deliver the coup de grâce.

The telecommunications revolution that is decentralizing myriad public and private institutions will have the same effect on education. Lewis Perelman, in School’s Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology, and the End of Education (1992), notes that the traditional “box of a classroom” is already obsolete, even though school districts around the nation continue to build monuments based on this outmoded model. In an extraordinarily wasteful exercise, they are also clamoring to install redundant computer technology to access remote learning resources that can be accessed by computers in students’ homes.

Distance-learning technology, including the developing arena of interactive communication, should lead to an explosive growth of homeschooling. Other organizational settings for learning will likely evolve, such as clustered multi-home schooling and neighborhood storefront schooling. Entrepreneurs will flood the marketplace with low-cost learning systems to tap the burgeoning demand. The poor, who are largely pillaged of future success by the present system, stand to benefit enormously. A recent commercial depicts an apparently poor lad who opens the universe to himself through his television connected to a network computer-priced at less than a conventional TV

As the momentum builds for dismantling government schooling, the cry will be raised that “education” cannot be accomplished without professionally certified teachers. However, effectiveness in teaching is largely the application of common sense. (One of the co-owners of H.O.P.E. Academy, an expert in common-sense pedagogy, is a nurse by profession.) Parenting is itself essentially teaching, and the superior performance of homeschooled youngsters confirms the ability of parents to substitute for state-certified teachers. As Rita Kramer revealed in Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers (1991), what passes for professional teacher training today has little to do with pedagogy and consists mainly of indoctrination into ideology. In higher education, some exceptional teachers never took courses on how to teach.

The primary obstacles to schooling’s decentralized, parent-controlled future are the present educational establishment, those who profit ideologically from its continuation, and the entrenched public preconception that kids are supposed to go to conventional schools and that property taxes to support such schools are simply an unavoidable part of life.

Arguments for the abolition of school taxes should spark favorable responses from the many who now have to pay them and receive nothing in return. In addition, parents will benefit from liberation from school taxes by keeping their own money just as entrepreneurs are forcing down the costs of learning.

As technology proliferates, it will drive increasingly deep wedges into the structure of tax-funded schooling and open the system’s rationale to widespread critical examination. From that process families can hope to wrest control of their children from the state, and children can hope to be sprung from their prisons.


  1. George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938), p. 243.
  2. Samuel Morison, Henry Steele Commager, and William Leuchtenburg, A Concise History of the American Republic, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 220.

  • Daniel Hager is a writer and consultant in Montgomery, Illinois.