All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1981

Missing Chapters from American History

You can force people to attend school, but you cannot force them to learn in any meaningful sense.

It has fallen to my lot over the past two decades to examine and write reviews of a goodly number of textbooks. Most of those reviewed have been intended for use in the high schools, though some have been designed for use in colleges as well. I have reviewed scores of books on American history, an armful on world history (or European Civilization, as the case might be), several dozen on such varied subjects as American government, civics, problems of democracy, citizenship, and such like, a few on economics, a handful on geography, and several that hardly fit any known category.

Having toiled in this particular vineyard off and on over the years, perhaps, I have qualified myself for drawing some conclusions, particularly about history textbooks. The conclusion I wish to emphasize here, of course, is that there are some chapters missing from history textbooks. But I also want to make clear that their absence is not simply incidental, and that their inclusion could have been of considerable moment. They are at the heart of the American experience, and the lessons which could be learned from them could have changed—and still might change—the direction of our development. The reason for this can be made clearer, however, by calling attention to some other conclusions I have drawn before discussing the missing chapters.

My most general conclusion is that the quality of these books has declined over the years. The quality did not begin to decline when I started reviewing them—at least, I hope it didn’t—but it has gone down precipitately in recent years. I am not referring, of course, to what might be called the physical attributes, such as binding, paper, print, or any of the aspects of reproduction. So far as I can judge of such things, that has generally improved.

Declining Quality Evident in Contents

What has declined in quality has been the contents. History used to be mainly narrative, supported by explanation and some analysis. Such narrative as remains in many books is now segregated from the rest of the contents by being set in boxes located here and there throughout the book. Analysis is often supplemented or supplanted by “attitudinizing”—as, “What is your opinion of thus and so?” Oversimplifications usually abound, but they are overshadowed by exaggerations which became more commonplace as graduates of the student revolution in the 1960s began writing textbooks.

But the written material in many books has to be squeezed between the overabundant pictures, drawings, charts, graphs, and maps so that if there were a story line to follow only the most tenacious could do so.The necessity for the opportunity to read is being progressively removed from the books. As illiteracy has spread upward through the grades, the necessity for and the opportunity to read is being progressively removed from the books. Some of the books ape television with its constant shifting from one scene to another, one topic to another, and one idea to another. The assumption informing some of them seems to be that children have an attention span of ten seconds at most, and my suspicion is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even so, the decline in the quality of textbooks is more of an effect than a cause, an effect of the general deterioration of education in the United States. Given the premises and the political control of education that prevails, the quality of textbooks must decline. Moreover, given the disorder and indiscipline which is commonplace in many high school classrooms, it would affect matters only marginally if all textbooks had the uniformly high quality of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Most schools are far too crowded with those who cannot or will not learn for textbooks to make any critical difference. Laying the responsibility on the textbooks alone would be like placing the blame for sinking in quicksand on the quality of shoes you happen to be wearing.

While there may be a thousand—or ten thousand—particular explanations for the deterioration of education in the United States, there is one basic reason which underlies most, if not all, of them. Virtually every public problem associated with education today is traceable to forced schooling and the extensive and increasing use of force in support of schooling.

For example, why has the quality of textbooks declined? Because as force became a dominant factor, the emphasis shifted from quality to quantity. Because schooling tended to replace education since education is always qualitative while schooling is quantitative. Because you can force people to attend school, but you cannot force them to learn in any meaningful sense.Because you can force people to attend school, but you cannot force them to learn in any meaningful sense. Because the quality of education and equality of schooling are incompatible with one another. Because textbooks are provided free of charge, and their selection is largely dictated by political considerations. Because if forced schooling is even to appear to. succeed, what is taught, and the books used to teach it must be geared toward the lowest common denominator of students. Because each step downward in the desperate effort to reach this lowest common denominator has ramifying effects which extend upward to affect the following years of schooling, the quality of teachers, the quality of administrators, and so on. Because ultimately, even the writers of textbooks will be deficient in that level of understanding which is necessary to produce quality textbooks, even if there were any significant market for them.

It would be possible to trace out many of the other effects of forced schooling in a similar fashion, but there is not space to do so here. Perhaps, it is unnecessary to do so, however instructive the attempt might be. Perhaps, the reason can be sufficiently summed up this way. The state, i. e., the government, is incompetent to serve as a schoolmaster. Allow me to cast my net wider, however, so as to make the point more expeditiously. The government is incompetent as a provider of economic goods and services. This incompetence has been exposed in theory, demonstrated in practice, been tried on vast scales and found unworkable, and can be illustrated with mountains of evidence. The incompetence of government as a provider of goods and services is directly attributable to its use of force. Force is inefficient in the production of goods and counterproductive in the distribution of goods. Hence, the incompetence of the state as a provider of goods and services.

A Marketable Item

Education is an economic good, or service if you will. The fact that it has so often been treated as if it were not has misled many of us. Forced schooling makes it appear that it is an economic “bad,” and the compulsion tends to make it into that. Charitable and tax support of education tends to set it apart from a whole host of other goods. To the extent that it is free, it takes on the illusory character of being noneconomic in character, useful, perhaps, just as is air, but noneconomic.

But, so far as education supplies some human want, so long as the supply of it is limited, so far as there are costs entailed in its attainment, so far as the allocation of scarce resources—whether they be time, teachers, books, classrooms, or what have you—are involved, it is an economic good. Moreover, education is an economic good which is, can be, and has been provided in the market. It can be broken down into its parts and distributed according to demand. It is possible to buy as little or as much of it as is wanted by the individual, and its distribution does not necessarily entail any imposition upon others. The government is both incompetent and unnecessaryIn short, it meets all those characteristics of an economic good which can be provided in the market.

It follows, then, if the above be accepted, that government is both incompetent and unnecessary to the provision of education. But the incompetence of government as a schoolmaster has dimensions which do not apply to many other goods. If the government should undertake to monopolize the production and distribution of milk, for example, it probably would register its lack of competence in raising the price of it and show its authority by reducing the number of outlets. Its distributors might adopt the hauteur of postal clerks. Even so, it is doubtful that government provision of milk would carry in its wake the host of ills that attend government provision of schools.

It would probably still be permissible to pray over government-produced milk without violating the establishment clause of the Constitution. If the government should undertake to provide sex education for the cows it would probably arouse no deep human concern. Even the quality of milk would not necessarily be lowered, though it might be unpalatable to the taste because of chemicals introduced into it. I guess the fluoridation of milk would be controversial. But, by and large, the government might provide goods for the body with only a limited impact on us. But when the government undertakes to provide goods for the mind and spirit it necessarily intrudes into every nook and cranny of life.

The missing chapters from American history not only point toward these conclusions but also offer evidence for more fruitful approaches than some of those we have taken in more recent years.

Religious Freedom

The first missing chapter that comes to my mind is one on the development of religious freedom in America. It is also the one most relevant to education. Most textbooks mention religious freedom, of course. They may touch upon it in some fashion in their discussion of the settlement of the colonies. It may be well to mention, in this connection, that most high school textbooks give short shrift to the colonial period. There is even an educationist theory, apparently widely accepted, that colonial history should be dealt with extensively in the early grades and treated in a cursory fashion in high school. In consequence, they do not allot anything near the space necessary for adequate treatment of religion. Again, religious freedom may get a sentence, or even a paragraph, in the discussion of the First Amendment. That is about it. (Some government texts cover the constitutional aspects of the question a little more adequately.)

Establishment Clarified

There are several points that should emerge from any kind of adequate ‘treatment of the development of religious freedom in America. The first one would be a clear presentation of the concept of an established church. This could probably best be done by reference to the Church of England at the time of the establishment of the colonies. Such characteristics of an established church as compulsory church attendance, tax support of religion, and liturgical and doctrinal orthodoxy could be listed. There is considerable evidence that even justices of the United States Supreme Court do not understand what an established religion is, so the subject must not have been well taught for quite some time.

The second point is crucial if the subject is to have an application to government intervention in other realms. It is to make a careful explanation of why religion was once generally established in most countries. Children are inclined to think that any practices other than those with which they are familiar are odd. Thus, in order for them to understand an established church and its reason for being, it needs to be presented in terms they can grasp. In any case, it needs to be made clear that many people in earlier times believed that religion is the most important thing in life. (Some still do.) It was the greatest and highest good. That being the case, they sought to use the strongest means at their disposal, i. e., government, to see to it that people received its benefits. Religious freedom did not animate most of the settlements in America.Moreover, it was widely believed that religion was the cement of society, that all authority flowed from it, and that a people would lack unity who did not have a common religion. People have ever found it difficult to be tolerant about that in which they strongly believe, and they still do.

The third point to make is that religious freedom did not animate most of the settlements in America. Some people came in order to be free to practice their particular religions, but they were rarely tolerant of those of different faiths. (The Quakers and Baptists were honorable exceptions to this rule.) Thus, church establishments were widespread in the colonies.

A fourth point is that the belief in religious tolerance began to gain hold and spread during the colonial period. Its development paralleled that of a rising interest in individual liberty in other fields. By the time of the American Revolution, it was sufficiently widespread that several churches were disestablished, and eventually, all were. Disestablishment both freed the churches from any government control or support and the people from interference with their religious beliefs.

The Case Against Intervention

The final point has to do with the case for religious freedom, which is, at the same time, the case against government control, support, or interference with religious belief. Thomas Jefferson’s argument for freedom of religion points the way. He viewed government-established religion as an attempt to control the mind, an attempt both presumptuous and futile. Men will believe what they will regardless of the efforts of government. “It is error alone which needs the support of government,” Jefferson said. “Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion; whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature.”[1]

Jefferson made it clear, too, that similar errors were involved in the use of force in other areas, and no more to be sought than in religion. He said, “Were the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now. Thus in France, the emetic was once forbidden, and the potato as an article of food. The government is just as infallible, too, when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the Inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere; the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error.”[2]

Jefferson had these stinging remarks to make on a bill that would have placed control over a system of education in the hands of state officials.The way to have good government is not to trust it all but to divide it among the many. “If it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council, the commissioners of the literary fund, or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience. Try the principle one step further and amend the bill so as to commit to the governor and council the management of all our farms, our mills, and merchants’ stores. No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one but to divide it among the many, distributing to everyone exactly the functions he is competent to.”[3]

Economic Freedom

Thomas Jefferson could argue against state control of education by showing the analogy with state control of farms and mills secure in the knowledge that the reader would share his convictions about how ridiculous the latter would be. We are not so favorably situated, for in our day governments, Federal, state, and local, have seen fit to engage or intervene in a mass of enterprises that were once wholly private. This development can be attributed, at least in part, to another missing chapter in American history.

This missing chapter is one on economic freedom. It would probably fit in a textbook best at some place in the early nineteenth century. But such a chapter would need to begin well back in the eighteenth century and probably should go forward in time past the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. This was truly one of the great eras in history for the development of ideas, the drawing of constitutions, and the adoption of practices in keeping with economic freedom. During this era the residue of Medieval practices were cast off, the bulk of mercantilistic restrictions removed, property became fully owned and disposable by individuals, indentured servitude and slavery abolished, a large portion of a continent opened up as a common market, and all sorts of protections drawn around the contractual powers of the individual.

Not only do most textbooks fail to highlight these changes but they also fail to attribute the remarkable consequences to them. Most American history books have one or more chapters on agricultural and industrial development, of course. Nor do they ignore the fact that at the beginning of the nineteenth century the United States was, in comparison with much of Europe, an economically backward nation. Whereas, before the end of the century this country had emerged as one of the leading industrial and commercial nations in the world. These developments are usually covered in sufficient detail, even when there is considerable niggling about rural and urban poverty and hardship.

But it has long been the fashion to ascribe these economic developments to almost everything but economic freedom: to innovations in technology, to the development of banking, to foreign investment, to American isolation from European wars, and so on. Perhaps the most common explanation for American prosperity is what may be called “the abundant natural resources theory.” This is the theory that America was especially blessed with natural resources which go far to account for the eventual prosperity. This explanation is both the most common and the least satisfactory of those usually given.

A Resource Gains Value as Use for It Is Found

The most basic objection to this theory is that what is found in nature ordinarily becomes a resource only when some use is found for it and made of it. A stream may be an obstacle or a resource, for example, depending on whether you wish to cross it or float a boat down it. A forest may be an obstacle or resource depending upon whether you wish to plow the land or make lumber. Iron ore only becomes a resource when it has been mined, smelted, had impurities removed, and is turned into objects of use. So it is with almost everything found in nature.

It should be noted, too, that the early English settlers on this continent had little reason to congratulate themselves on their prospects for prosperity because of any obvious resource advantages. The Indians along the Eastern coast were hardly prosperous generally. Indeed, they were probably among the least prosperous in all the Americas, were less numerous than in many other places, and were among the most backward in development. They did cultivate a few crops, such as corn and tobacco, but by and large, they were at the hunting and fishing stage of economic development.

But be that as it may, and whatever other explanations may be adduced for American economic development and prosperity, there is one that is central. It is economic freedom. It is the devising of a system within which the energies of a people could be released and constructively employed. Freedom provided the opportunity.It is the constructive employment of the energies of people which turns obstacles into resources, which makes of peace the occasion for productivity, which invents devices and applies technology, and which turned wilderness and barren plains into farms and locales for factories and built commercial centers.

Of course, there was more behind all this than freedom, but freedom provided the opportunity. Something so central to American development deserves a chapter in history textbooks. And if such chapters had been there, it would have been less likely that we would today be in the slough of despond caused by the growth of the interventionist state. We would have been informed of the advantages of freedom and the dangers of intervention.

Voluntary Cooperation

There is a third missing chapter without which the two discussed above would be incomplete. It is a chapter on the voluntary way of social cooperation. I have never seen a book designed to be used as an American history textbook which had such a chapter. Indeed, I cannot recall seeing one which had a paragraph on the subject, per se, and I am not sure I have ever seen a sentence in one. Of course, some voluntary associations—e.g., the American Red Cross—may be mentioned in textbooks, and there are sometimes references to charitable undertakings of a private nature. But the phenomenon of the voluntary approach to social cooperation is rarely, if ever, covered.

Yet freedom evinced itself in two ways in America. It evinced itself in the development of individual rights and responsibilities. And, it evinced itself in voluntary approaches to social cooperation. Nineteenth-century America has often been described as individualistic. So far as it goes, the description is accurate enough for one aspect of the country’s ethos. But nineteenth- century America was also much given to social cooperation, individually chosen, and voluntary cooperation.

Europeans who visited America and wrote of it in the nineteenth century often remarked the great variety of voluntary undertakings. An Englishman who did so in the 1830s declared that “the Americans are society mad.” He listed a score or so of the most prominent of these, such as, American Education Society, American Bible Society, and so on, but found it necessary to add that there “are many others.”[4] Indeed, he had hardly scratched the surface, for voluntary associations ranged from those made for some temporary task to those which led to permanent organizations. Thus, people gathered in rural America for house raisings, quilting bees, corn huskings, and so on. Of a more permanent nature, they formed fraternal organizations, associations of veterans of wars, sporting clubs, professional groups, charitable organizations, and what have you.

But that way of describing it makes voluntary association appear peripheral rather than central to American life. Churches became voluntary associations after they were disestablished. Most schools and colleges were voluntarily organized and run until well past the middle of the nineteenth century. Much work came to be performed in the framework of voluntary association of social cooperation.Above all, much work came to be performed in the framework of voluntary association for social cooperation. All sorts of arrangements were revived or devised for cooperation in the production and distribution of goods.

One of the great triumphs of voluntarism unfolds in the story of the churches and religion after disestablishment. There were undoubtedly those who feared for what would come to pass when religion was no longer upheld by the arm of the state. After all, who would see to it that people went to church? How would ministers be paid if not for some sort of tax receipts? Who would build and maintain church buildings? Who indeed? As it turned out, many people supported religious undertakings with greater zeal after than before disestablishment.

Church Growth the Voluntary Way

Voluntary religion flourished in nineteenth-century America, and has ever since. When William Byrd of Virginia made an excursion to the back country of Virginia and North Carolina in the early eighteenth century, he reported that there were many communities with no sign of a church. An Anglican clergyman accompanied him on the trip, and he baptized many adults who, presumably, had not been in the vicinity of a minister of their faith since their birth. That changed after the Church of England was disestablished. New denominations were born; revivals swept whole areas, and religion took on a peculiarly American vitality. Even a friend of established churches had this to say: “I believe that in no other country is there more zeal shown by its various ministers, zeal even to the sacrifice of life; that no country sends out more zealous missionaries; that no country has more societies for the diffusion of the gospel; and that in no other country in the world are larger sums subscribed for the furtherance of those praiseworthy objects as in the eastern states of America.”[5]

The churches are still with us today. They are still free. They are still voluntary undertakings. There are many fine church buildings, beautifully furnished, surrounded by well-kept lawns, and attended by a great host of seekers and faithful alike. But the significance of all this for many other aspects of our lives has been largely lost from view. In the place of established churches, we have erected a large number of other government establishments which provide us with many things we judge to be good and which we fear we would be denied did not government provide or support them. There is a corrective for this, I submit, in some of the missing chapters from American history.

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.