All Commentary
Thursday, November 1, 1973

Let Education Go Commercial

Dr. Johnson is Professor of Biology at Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is the author of The Declaration of Educational Independence.

“Not too many of us realize how bad American schools are from the point of view of humanity, respect, trust, or dignity,” stated Charles E. Brown, once the Superintendent of the Newton, Massachusetts schools. “The values they transmit are the values of docility, passivity, conformity, and lack of trust,” adds Charles E. Silberman, author of Crisis in the Classroom. This damning view of the role of schools in society is echoed by many thousands of concerned Americans who also recognize the many tragic circumstances that exist in schools. Some of them are attempting to offer solutions to the myriad problems. Unfortunately, one rarely if ever hears the suggestion that the answer to the educational dilemma or “crisis” might well be found if the schools were to be dissolved and replaced by educational businesses, that is, businesses that operate like other enterprises in a competitive and open manner with the intention of satisfying customers. Most people, even staunch capitalists, consider education to be some special endeavor not to be perverted by the business world and thus pooh-pooh any suggestion of educational enterprises.

“It is time for our schools to get themselves, or us to get them, out of the jail business,” wrote John Holt in The Underachieving School. The fact that schools are operated as “jails,” which do not function to please customers but to satisfy those in charge, is very likely the explanation of the vast number of problems that permeate all levels of education, both private and public.

But how will the elimination of schools and their replacement with businesses of education solve all those problems that one is always hearing about? What of the inevitable question of discipline, of truancy, of cheating, of grades and degrees? How would such problems as teacher and student boredom and apathy be alleviated? And then there’s the dropout problem.

What could happen in educational businesses to remove the always present conflict between teachers and students which results in little or no learning? How could one eliminate the unnatural competition among students (who compete for grades and pleasing the teachers, and rarely for knowledge), the rigid and outdated curriculum, the physical mistreatment of students by teachers and administrators (where corporal punishment is permitted), or the whole concept and practice of having to fulfill specific requirements in order to even enter certain schools?

What of the question of incompetent teachers, or the matter of the physical damage to schools carried out by frustrated and angered students (millions of dollars are spent each year by school systems in major American cities to pay for the replacement of broken school windows)? Or what of the need to eliminate a negative approach to learning which now exists in schools and the introduction of techniques allowing for individualized instruction? And then there is the vastly important matter of economics, of the financing of education, which has provoked much concern and heated debate in numerous communities across the nation. (According to a recently published Copley News Service release, “the yearly bill for education in America is now running at around $85 billion. Allowing for inflation, that is double what it was a decade ago.”)

Could educational businesses solve these and many other concerns which have caused such a flood of outrage from students, teachers, (particularly new young teachers who really want to teach, but find most of their time occupied with paper work and disciplining students), parents, politicians, and many other thoughtful individuals? Let us examine this question and see.


The chronic, all-pervading, and seemingly insoluble problem that besets mainly primary and secondary schools is that of discipline—how to keep order in the classrooms, hallways, cafeteria, and the like. One might even say that the matter of discipline is the bane of all administrators and teachers, as well as students. But then how could it be otherwise, considering the way in which schools operate?

Just suppose that we adults were required, by law, to attend an institution five or six hours a day and to perform certain tasks or learn specific information for which we might have little or no interest. Suppose that we had to follow unquestioningly the commands of those in charge, and knew that if we should decide to complain too vigorously about anything that we would probably be punished physically or penalized scholastically — that our very future might be placed in jeopardy if we should speak out too often.

And how would we like it if in this institution we had to keep silent most of the time, move from one place to another only when bells rang, and receive written permission to go almost anywhere in the building if this varied the slightest from our regular schedule? And how would we feel if we knew that almost all of our actions were being watched, not only in the classroom, but by hall monitors (guards), and that if we tried to escape from this institution we could be picked up by the police and returned, or if we refused to go back or continued to escape, we could be sent to prison (another type of prison, that is)?

Not only would we adults, realizing that our very rights were at stake, create a constant discipline problem under these circumstances; we probably would be enraged enough to engage in a full-fledged revolution. Well, students have to put up with precisely these conditions in schools, and it is amazing that they have not done more than just attempt to assert their rights occasionally and thereby create discipline problems.

Now what would happen to discipline if schools were abandoned and we instead turned to businesses of education? The problem of maintaining order and obedience would, for all intents and purposes, vanish. Since a business cannot force customers to use its services and cannot require its clientele to buy specific items, it cannot usurp the basic right of each individual: the right of free choice. Educational enterprises would only be able to offer certain courses of instruction and hope that the prospective customers, mainly young people, would find these of sufficient value to voluntarily purchase them. Students would only sign up for those classes that they really desired, and could drop out of any they found not to be of value.

In such circumstances, classes would contain mainly students who desire instruction in a particular subject — who, out of interest (which is the only valid motivation for learning), really want to learn what is being taught. In such a class, the likelihood that anyone would cause disruption is slim; if someone did, it probably would be the other customers, the students, who would demand that the culprit pipe down or leave. The interested students would not wish to lose even a bit of the instruction for which they, or their parents, had paid and which they desired to learn.


Boredom is the inevitable cardinal element present in any environment where individual interest and choice are either limited or absent, and where everyone is trying to force someone else to do something that he doesn’t want to do — where everything is done by permission (“Teacher, may I…”) and not by right, and where much of the time is spent doing busy-or make-work just to fill the number of minutes in a class period.

But businesses cannot afford to bore their customers; if they do, they go out of business. Boredom would become a thing of the past in education if students were free to choose only those subjects which they wished to study, when they wished to study them, and were free to drop out of a class if they found it to be of no value or of no interest at that particular time. It is the trapping of students in classrooms that results in boredom, unrest, frustration and anger (that leads to drug-taking and the destruction of property). Educational businesses, wishing to please both customers and employees (teachers), would have no desire to create circumstances that would be damaging to all parties concerned — no desire to bore anyone.

Grades and Degrees

One hears a great deal about these outmoded tools of the educational institution, and some schools have even tried to eliminate them, without success. No matter what variation on a theme is utilized — whether it be written teacher evaluations, or pass and fail grades or the full scale of number or letter grades, or whether the institution grants diplomas, certificates, degrees or just overall evaluations of students — it is the educational institutions and teachers that are evaluating the customers, and not vice versa. Therein lies the problem, and the reason why schools can operate as prisons.

How many students would continue to attend schools as they are now operated (unless forced to do so by either their parents or by compulsory education laws) if grades and degrees were eliminated? How many parents would continue to put up with the tragic circumstances which they know their children are exposed to in schools if they did not think that it was an absolute necessity for their offspring to have a diploma or degree in order to survive at a decent level in society? But the grades and degrees that hold the entire operation of the schools intact would be absent from educational businesses.

A business cannot certificate an individual to a particular place in society. It cannot act as a screening agency, allowing some to progress and others to stand still, fall back, or fail. A true business only has the right to sell goods or services for which there is a demand, and to prosper or fail according to how well it is able to satisfy its customers.

Businesses of education would not offer to sell degrees, diplomas, or certificates, but only instruction, and any evaluation of the customer (student) that might transpire would be at the request of the customer, without fear of punishment or failure. After all, businesses must please customers, not intimidate them. True businesses of education would be ones in which the customers evaluated the teachers and the overall operation of the institution, to determine if customers are getting their money’s worth for the service, instruction, they are purchasing — not the other way around, as is now the case. And when individuals went job-hunting, it would be the employers, who would, at that time, evaluate prospective employees rather than accept a scholastic certification as to what an individual knows.

Other Problems

But what about all of the other problems that beset the realm of education? Would they also disappear if schools were displaced by businesses of education?

Cheating certainly would. If a student is not working for a grade or a degree, or does not have to please the teacher, but is only striving for knowledge of interest to him, what possible reason would he have for cheating? And what possible type of competition could exist in such a setting except that of a healthy and natural competition; a competition among students for knowledge, for understanding, for truth.

The conflict that now exists between student and teacher (as always exists between prisoner and guard) would also disappear, for in a business situation the teacher would attempt to please the customer by offering valuable instruction, and the student would cooperate with the instructor in order to learn. Instead of being in conflict, they would be working together to achieve mutually desirable goals, as is always the case in a free enterprise setting.

Certainly, the outdated and rigid curriculums that now are forced upon students by schools, via state and local boards of education, would have to be set aside if schools were replaced by educational businesses. After all, customers will only purchase that which they desire. In a business environment, course offerings would be constantly changing and would be continually updated. And there would be no holding back on the use of technological advances to offer individualized instruction whenever this seemed appropriate to the course. Innovation is the hallmark of a free market, and stagnation a main feature of an authoritarian, bureaucratic system.

And what of all those entrance requirements? Does one find special requirements for shopping at the supermarket, department store or laundry? Of course not. These businesses are out to attract customers, not to limit their buying the goods and services that are for sale. Educational businesses would surely operate in like manner.

Also, anyone, regardless of age, could purchase instruction in a course and not have to worry about first having gotten a grade school, high school, or college education in order to be qualified for entrance. Thus, real equality of opportunity in education would finally come into existence.

Eliminated would be the dropout problem that now plagues so many school systems. A free enterprise approach calls for dropping in, not out. It also calls for the treating of customers with respect and courtesy. It would be difficult indeed to imagine a businessman inflicting corporal punishment on his customers; it simply would not occur. “We aim to please” is, and must be, the businessman’s motto.

As for incompetent teachers, they would soon be weeded out of the business of education; as their lack of ability became known, few if any customers would voluntarily sign up for their classes. Only the best would survive in educational businesses, the same as in any business setting.


Finally, what about the matter of money? What of the economics of the educational world? Schools, which operate like giant bureaucracies with their administrators increasing like rabbits — with assistant superintendents, principals, assistant principals, coordinators of this or that, along with scores of secretaries and clerks, all at handsome salaries — and whose customers must attend under force of the law, have little or no interest in economy. The only concern is to determine how much more the school board dare ask of taxpayers for next year’s budget.

But businesses of education could not operate in this manner. They would have to obtain their funds from individual willing customers, just as other businesses do. And because it has been demonstrated that the rate of learning increases tremendously when interest is the driving factor, rather than coercion, only a fraction (probably less than half) of the time now devoted to studies in schools would be needed to learn an equivalent amount in a business situation — thus, a tremendous saving in energy and money. Also, competition is extensive in a business environment, and costs are inevitably lowered as a result of open competition, thereby allowing even the poorest families to afford the costs involved in giving their children an education in basic subjects.

With educational businesses, customers would only be purchasing just what they want — what they are interested in — rather than being forced to sit in classrooms throughout the day. Thus, many of the current costs of education would disappear. Only in a free market setting does one find economic efficiency.

There are those who would argue that all of the problems which are associated with education cannot really be resolved because of the nature of the circumstances; because, they claim, the child is simply not able to make sound judgments and therefore cannot be allowed freedom of choice in matters mental. But anyone who has carefully observed the child will have discovered that a youth of 5 or 6 years of age has a keen sense of judgment — he knows when his teacher is helpful or not, when he is learning or not, and he most definitely is aware of what he is interested in knowing at that particular time.

Judgment is not only his capability, but his right, and if this be denied the child, by placing him in an authoritarian school where he is obliged not to judge and choose, but obey, he must experience serious harm. As Maria Montessori points out: “It is easy to substitute our will for that of the child by means of suggestion or coercion; but when we have done this we have robbed him of his greatest right, the right to construct his own personality. If the child is constantly acting at the command of the teacher, or at her suggestion, his own psychic activity may fade away and disappear under the stronger will of another; the personality may become broken and depressed; and abnormal developments will begin to appear.” (Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work by E. M. Standing)

Perhaps the most succinct and revealing indictment of schools was expressed by Charles E. Silberman in his extensively researched book, Crisis in the Classroom:

It is not possible to spend any prolonged period visiting public school classrooms without being appalled by the mutilation visible everywhere — mutilation of spontaneity, of joy in learning, of pleasure in creating, of sense of self. The public schools — those “killers of the dream,” to appropriate a phrase of Lillian Smith’s — are the kind of institution one cannot really dislike until one gets to know them well. Because adults take the schools so much for granted, they fail to appreciate what grim, joyless places most American schools are, how oppressive and petty are the rules by which they are governed, how intellectually sterile and esthetically barren the atmosphere, what an appalling lack of civility obtains on the part of teachers and principals, what contempt they unconsciously display for children as children.

Must we continue this mutilation, or could we perhaps find a solution to this dilemma by trying something new? No matter how much money is pumped into the educational system, or how many new programs are devised and tried out by the students, the problems that are centuries old continue to exist. Would it be taking too much of a chance to try a new approach, one which involves freedom and mutual respect rather than force and the obliteration of rights?

Why not let education go commercial? Why not try the free enterprise approach which has made this nation the greatest in the world? If the business environment could sustain our rights as free citizens and give us a bounty of goods and services undreamed of by most people of the world, just imagine what this same environment could do for the child and the development of his mind. We might yet achieve that much sought, but always elusive goal —the American Dream — if we would only displace the scholastic prisons, the schools (those “killers of the dream”); if we would only free the children. 

  • Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Biology and Professor of Chordate Embryology at Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia.