From the Mouths of Babes

Mr. Peterson of East Greenville, Pennsylvania, teaches economics and history in junior high school.

I sat at my desk in the classroom, mulling over a stack of bills written by the students in preparation for our Mock Congress. As I glanced at each one, checking for proper format, neatness, and appropriateness of the action proposed, a wave of discouragement swept over me.

Only two units earlier we had spent several days discussing the principles of the Declaration of Independence. I had tried to explain in simple terms the formal writing of Thomas Jefferson. I had placed special emphasis on the importance of the truths deemed “self-evident to all men.”

Even as the discussion proceeded, I had begun to detect that these self evident truths and inalienable rights were indeed foreign to many of the youngsters. The very idea that the main purpose of government was the defense of individuals’ lives, liberties, and properties seemed entirely new to many of them. This was confirmed when I rhetorically asked, “What is the purpose of government? Is it to provide jobs? Set prices? Build homes?” The overwhelming response was, “Yes, that is government’s job.”

The explanation that followed corrected their fallacious thinking—or so I thought. They even did well on the test, parroting back the freedom philosophy I had so expertly taught them.

Now, as I read the bills they had proposed for their Congress, I realized the truth—they had not really learned the philosophy of freedom. The big brother philosophy was firmly and unmistakably embedded in their young minds.

Two bills proposed severe international trade restrictions. Two others demanded long-term, low-interest loans for farmers and students. Another mandated involuntary auto seat restraints. Still another recommended a guaranteed annual income. One even suggested that the government enter the fruit-growing business.

It is true that one could simply dismiss such proposals as the unthinking work of junior high school students. But it is not that simple. From these bills I quickly realized that the students were learning well the philosophy of government so prevalent today. Their bills merely reflected proposals they hear discussed on television. Their bills, with a little spit and polish, refinement, and professional legal terminology, are the very issues being debated in the halls of Congress.

These students knew of nothing else to propose. Throughout their lives they have been hearing adults, especially the government “experts,” discussing the efficacy of government regulation and intervention. Practically every proposal offers some form of government control. And usually such proposals are designed to benefit some unfortunate individual or group, thus appealing to their desire to help others in need.

Many of the students had attended public school for several years, where they had received the government’s philosophy of control under the guise of preparing them for freedom. Those who had attended private school had either not been exposed to the freedom philosophy or had not truly come to accept it for themselves. None of them had read literature written by proponents of limited government.

As I sat at my desk, dejected and defeated, I thought back to my own early schooling. Even then several social studies teachers had espoused collectivist ideas. The literature was filled with them. But at home I saw in my parents hard work, rugged individualism, sound personal economy, and a fear of government interference. It was about that time that I began receiving The Freeman and “Notes From FEE.” I still recall my excitement when a book written by Leonard Read arrived in the mail and the elation I felt upon turning to the dedicatory page and reading, “To Frederic Bastiat . . . .” Hand-penned following these printed words were, “. . . and Dennis L. Peterson.” It was autographed by Mr. Read. At that time I knew of no greater honor. It encouraged me in learning more fully the freedom philosophy.

Slowly I have realized that the freedom philosophy is not something that can be taught in a few class periods. It cannot become a part of one’s life through a mere introduction in school. It must be constantly nurtured, strengthened, and sustained. It must be shown to work on a day-to-day basis. It must be reinforced in real life in the home, in the church, and in the very halls of government. In short, it is something that can be discouraged and destroyed or encouraged and strengthened by others, but it must be learned through self- discovery.

The way of freedom must be taught, not by deriding the socialistic fallacies, but by accentuating the righteousness of freedom. As Mr. Read so clearly stated in Accent on the Right, “When we accent what is right, we put ourselves in the realm of the positive; our message becomes attractive, for it is one of hope rather than despair. This approach also strips the wrongdoing of its plausibilities and without any declamation on our part—leaves it bare, naked, and exposed.”

A Lifetime Challenge

In reflecting on the lessons learned from my students, I now understand that teaching freedom to others is not the work of a semester, but rather the work of a lifetime. It will require many lessons, not one lecture; much reinforcement, not mere regurgitation.

A proponent of freedom should be a perpetual student. No one can be a teacher who is not at the same time a student himself. “Everybody is ignorant,” Will Rogers said, “only on different subjects.” Students will advance in their learning only to the degree their teacher is advancing in his own education. Samuel Smiles summed up this point in his book Thrift when he wrote, “Every man’s first duty is to improve, to educate, and elevate himself, helping forward his brethren at the same time by all reasonable methods.”

He should live his life in such a way that others will see the desirability of individual freedom. He should beware of developing a reputation as a ranting fanatic who is always negative in his attitude. Rather, he should be an exemplary proponent of the positive, emphasizing the benefits of freedom. He should illustrate how good freedom is, not how bad collectivism is.

Now I am asking myself what others are seeing in me. Will my young daughters learn the freedom philosophy from my life the way I learned it from my parents? If they do not, I have only myself to blame.

Further Reading