All Commentary
Monday, November 1, 1999

Market Education: The Unknown History

A Strong Case for Letting the Free Market Work in Education


The most pernicious of all the widely held modern beliefs is that education must be provided by the state. “Education is an entitlement!” say nearly all politicians and members of the vast education establishment. Few challenge that assertion. The inseparability of school and state is almost as much a given as the separation of church and state.

In this book Andrew Coulson takes dead aim at that belief. Coulson, senior research associate at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, is a computer software engineer who developed a strong interest in educational history and policy. Market Education: The Unknown History is the product of his research. It’s a strong case for letting the free market work in education.

Coulson’s historical overview of educational history is extremely beneficial. Government education is so widely assumed to be the only possibility that many will be surprised to learn there have been places and times when government kept out entirely. The author’s contrast between Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece is illustrative.

In Athens, Coulson writes, “with the exception of two years of military training, the state played no role in schooling.” That, of course, did not mean an uneducated populace. Just as Athenians managed to feed, clothe, and house themselves without any government action, so did they educate themselves. Parents paid monthly tuition for the education of their children at whichever of the numerous private schools they preferred. Schools could survive only by offering educational services parents found sufficiently valuable to pay for. Education was not an “entitlement,” and wasn’t “equal,” but Coulson states that even the poorest families were consumers in the education market.

Education was not static in Athens. “Each step in the evolution of Athenian society was matched by a corresponding change or expansion in the offerings of educators,” Coulson writes. No government planning agency existed to decide what subjects must be taught and who was permitted to teach them. The result of this laissez-faire approach was a civilization that far surpassed any other in the ancient world. Athens was the intellectual center of the Mediterranean, a wellspring of genius in science, mathematics, philosophy, literature, and more. All those brilliant thinkers working in a culture that esteemed learning—and not a government school to be found!

In contrast, Sparta established a government education monopoly to ensure the preservation of the collectivist/militarist philosophy of Lycurgus and later rulers. Children were regarded as property of the state, which used its education monopoly to breed obedient, warlike people ready to sacrifice themselves for the imagined glory of the state. Intellectual and artistic achievements of the Spartans? Virtually none, Coulson remarks, “apart from being a beacon to those advocating totalitarian systems of education.”

The author’s investigation into the history of education, both market-driven and state-dominated, proceeds on through Rome, the Middle Ages, the Islamic world (which initially followed the Athenian approach, with similarly magnificent results), and eventually to the last several centuries in England, France, Germany, and the United States. He uniformly finds that beneficial consequences have flowed from educational liberty and less desirable if not downright disastrous consequences from state control.

The largest part of the book is Coulson’s examination of the American educational experience, and a fascinating study it is. We learn of the struggle of black parents in Boston in the mid-1800s to escape from segregated public schools, only to lose in a court decision that would become a precedent for the Supreme Court’s infamous “separate but equal” doctrine. We learn of the early advocates of “public education,” such as James G. Carter, who argued that we should emulate Sparta’s educational model. We learn of the various failed educational fads that our education “experts” have embraced with terrible results for the human guinea pigs subjected to them. After reading Coulson’s lengthy exposition, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that abandoning the education marketplace in favor of government schooling is one of our greatest national blunders.

The last part of the book turns to the many proposals for education reform that are on the loose. Coulson is not very enthusiastic about any of the nostrums such as charter schools, vouchers, and private management. He does, however, praise the idea of privately funded scholarships to enable children to escape from the clutches of the public school system.

Sometimes Coulson drops his scholarly tone in favor of hyperbole, and sometimes he makes important assertions without apparent support. The lapses in the book, however, are microscopic compared to its powerful research and argumentation. If restoration of the free market in education is a matter of importance to you—and it should be—this is a book you don’t want to be without.