All Commentary
Saturday, November 1, 2008

Government Education Is Broken?

Compulsory Schooling Produces Standardized Citizens

Alan Schaeffer is the president of the Alliance for the Separation of School and State. The late Marshall Fritz was the Alliance’s founder and board chairman.

New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert is rightfully worried about American education. He’s bothered that no one else seems worried. In his article “Clueless in America” (April 22), Herbert notes a lack of concern in coverage of the presidential campaign. He says, “[Education] is much too serious a topic to compete with such fun stuff as Hillary tossing back a shot of whiskey, or Barack rolling a gutter ball.” He’s disturbed that “no one seems to have the will to engage any of the most serious challenges facing the U.S.”

Mr. Herbert’s rant hits hard on the facts of educational failure: “An American kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. That’s more than a million every year, a sign of big trouble for these largely clueless youngsters.”

More: “A recent survey of teenagers found that a quarter could not identify Adolf Hitler, a third did not know that the Bill of Rights guaranteed freedom of speech and religion, and fewer than half knew that the Civil War took place between 1850 and 1900.” And so on.

He quotes Microsoft’s Bill Gates saying, “By obsolete, I don’t just mean that they [the high schools] are broken, flawed or underfunded, though a case could be made for every one of those points. By obsolete, I mean our high schools—even when they’re working as designed—cannot teach all our students what they need to know today.”

Finally, Herbert cites the Educational Testing Service’s report, “America’s Perfect Storm,” which warns of a triad of “powerful forces” threatening our children’s future: wide disparity of literacy and math skills, “seismic changes” in the economy, and sweeping demographic changes. He concludes that “we” are not equipping our children to meet these challenges and seems to imply that beating other countries on standardized tests will save us from this Malthusian triad.

Somehow, reading Herbert’s article reminded me (Alan) of a story my father used to tell about the old trains on the New Haven line, on which he commuted into New York City each day. Occasionally, these rolling sardine cans would break down or lose power. All of a sudden, some red-faced passenger—an executive about to have a blood-pressure incident—would explode, “Somebody do something!!!”

Inappropriate Reaction

Like the pressured executive on the train, Herbert is right to be alarmed. But like the executive, his reaction is inappropriate for the crisis at hand. In fairness, it’s not all Herbert’s fault. He doesn’t know how the machine actually works. His frustration stems from placing his faith in (and addressing his demands to) the wrong entity.

Herbert is working from two fallacies: that the government school system is a failure and that the government can fix it. You could almost miss the fallacies behind his powerful litany of failures. Everyone, especially the present audience, will nod his head to this litany and think of even more failures to add to the list.

The problem is, it just ain’t so! It’s a fallacy to think government schools have failed. In fact, the problems Herbert lists are not a result of the school system’s failure, but of its success. To understand this point, we must stop and consider the true purpose of government schooling.

The following passage from John Taylor Gatto just scratches the surface. I hope you will read the rest of this article, “Against School” (Harper’s, September 2003):

The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:

  1. To make good people.
  2. To make good citizens.
  3. To make each person his or her personal best.

These goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or another as a decent definition of public education’s mission, however short schools actually fall in achieving them. But we are dead wrong. Compounding our error is the fact that the national literature holds numerous and surprisingly consistent statements of compulsory schooling’s true purpose.

Gatto then quotes H. L. Mencken, who wrote in The American Mercury (April 1924) that “the aim of public education is not to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. . . . Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim . . . is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States . . . and that is its aim everywhere else.”

Producing Standardized Citizens

What we observe as the failures of our system of compulsory schooling are actually the inevitable fruits of its true purpose: standardized citizenry. If we are to truly understand what has given rise to Bob Herbert’s litany (which is actually modest compared with the full story), we must acknowledge that the government school system actually works too well. The lack of “will to engage” that Herbert laments is a product of this system, a system designed to “put down dissent and originality.”

The second fallacy is almost as easily missed. Speaking of presidential candidates in terms of whiskey or bowling is merely a rhetorical device. But although drinking and bowling may be within the right and power of those aspiring to the highest office in the land, fixing education is not.

It’s quite simple: the federal government’s powers are strictly outlined in the Constitution. All other powers “not enumerated” are forbidden. Education is not enumerated. Ergo, it’s not the feds’ job.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby in his column of October 17, 2007, puts it succinctly: “[W]e should be concerned. Not just because the quality of government schooling is so often poor or its costs so high. . . .

“In a society founded on political and economic liberty, government schools have no place. Free men and women do not entrust to the state the molding of their children’s minds and character.”

Once exposed, the two fallacies point to one historically stubborn dynamic: Government involvement in schooling is the real “perfect storm.” Therefore, to hope that candidates will talk about fixing education—or to think that the federal government should have any say in how we as free people educate our children—is to give the fox the keys to the hen house for another four-year term.

Instead, let’s be practical. As parents, let’s do everything in our power to take back our children for their protection and prosperity, and for freedom itself. That will make us an example of freedom to our own children and to others. It will open children’s lives to the creative thinking and wisdom that will enable them to rise above the challenges they will face. Gatto again: “Children need to know that the ultimate form of private property is full possession of one’s own mind and volition.” Withholding consent will also further indict the system.

Let’s possess freedom and not wait for the ruling powers to hand it to us. Meanwhile, candidates and presidents may talk about education. Let them. But let’s not give them our children.