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Thursday, May 20, 2010

R. C. Hoiles and Public Schooling

In a letter dated May 23, 1946, the libertarian publisher R. C. Hoiles wrote to Leonard E. Read, who would establish the Foundation for Economic Education later that same year. Hoiles advised Read on what he believed was the underlying cause of America’s alarming shift from individual liberty toward socialism:

I am inclined to think that the grass roots of our trouble is our tax-supported school system. It is teaching by example that might makes right; that the end justifies the means; that there is no law superior to the will of the majority. How can we expect the youth of the land, when the public generally believes in tax-supported schools, to believe in freedom, the American way, or a definite limited government?

In place of a tax-funded and compulsory school monopoly, Hoiles argued passionately for a voluntary, private system. It was an argument he sustained throughout his long, remarkable life.

Raymond Cyrus Hoiles (1878–1970) epitomizes the American dream. Born into comfortable but modest circumstances, he rose through hard work and merit. At his death at the age of 91, his corporation, Freedom Newspapers, Inc., owned 16 daily newspapers, including the influential Orange County Register (originally the Santa Ana Register), with a collective circulation of over half a million. The California Press Association honored him posthumously as a “Great Crusader for Individual Freedom” who was respected for “his conservatism.”

Hoiles is often mischaracterized as conservative. At a quick glance the confusion is understandable. For one thing, Orange County, California, became a center of conservatism in the decades following World War II. As the county’s foremost newspaper, the Register often ran conservative columnists and letters to the editor. But it was Hoiles’s libertarian voice that dominated through editorials.

Hoiles insisted the editorial page was “a daily school room made available to its subscribers.” In that schoolroom Hoiles taught what he called “voluntaryism.” A November 1953 editorial, “Articles of Faith,” distilled its essence: “[A] government is a good government that only does what each and every individual has the moral and ethical and just right to do.” If it was not right for an individual to take money by force, then it was not right for a government to do so in the name of “taxation.” Another of the “Articles” stated, “I have faith that our government would better protect every person’s inalienable rights if it was supported on a voluntary basis rather than by taxes.”

Perhaps no single issue better captures the libertarian spirit of Hoiles than his feisty stand on education. The “Articles” declared, “I have faith that we will be better educated by voluntary, competitive schools than by government schools.” This statement must have startled conservatives who viewed the public schools as a success story. Indeed, a then-favored conservative strategy was to enter school board races. By contrast, Hoiles insisted he had no more right to vote for a school official than he did to vote for a trustee within a government-owned brothel. (Perhaps for shock value, Hoiles repeatedly compared public schooling to prostitution; he once declared, “A house of prostitution is voluntary, grade school is not.”)

Opposition to tax-supported schools became a dominant theme in Hoiles’s writing; his last editorial in the Register dealt with “something-for-nothing schools that have had a great influence in conditioning pupils to believe in something for nothing.” On occasion, Hoiles even found it necessary to defend the considerable amount of space school issues occupied in his paper. On October 15, 1945, he wrote, “The amount of space the Register is devoting to the junior college bond issue might cause some to think we are overestimating the importance of the issue. There is nothing more important than the principles back of the issue.”

An Integrated System of Beliefs

The “principles back of the issue” involved an integrated system of beliefs about government, society, morality, and human nature.

Hoiles rooted his theory of government in the Declaration of Independence—a document he quoted frequently—namely, that government derives its just power from the consent of the people and ultimately from the consent of the individual himself, who possesses inalienable rights.

“Articles of Faith” expressed this theory of society: “[G]aining understanding of nature’s laws is the best way to be useful to one’s self and to his fellow man.” One of nature’s fundamental laws was “the superiority of voluntary, competitive human endeavor over compulsory activity.” Freedom of association, including a free market, fueled the goodwill that civil society depended on; forced association destroyed it.

Hoiles based his morality largely on the Ten Commandments and insisted on “a single standard”: Everyone without exception should act according to the same moral code. What was wrong for a private individual was equally wrong for a government official. In a later policy statement, Hoiles offered the essence of this universal code: the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and the Declaration of Independence.

His theory of human nature stressed the perfectibility of man through effort and the exercise of moral character. He believed this perfectibility resided in each human being, which seemed to make him somewhat blind to differences of race, gender, and social status. Former employees often commented on how he would engage a janitor in intellectual discussion as quickly as he would a writer.

Hoiles’s evolution on education began in a “little red schoolhouse” across from his family’s large farmhouse in Alliance, Ohio, where, he later explained, he learned “that the State, or a majority of citizens, had the right to use taxation to support the public school system.” His school texts exposed the political “error” of the divine right of kings but “they never explained the error in the divine right of the majority. It simply substituted the divine right of the majority for the divine right of kings.” Nor did his school books explain “the basic principle that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the individual; that the government had no right to do anything that each and every individual did not have the right to do. Instead, they had to teach that the government or the local school district, if the majority so willed, had a right to force a Catholic parent, or a childless person, or an old maid, or an old bachelor to help pay for government schools. . . .”

At the same time as they legitimized taxation, however, Hoiles’s teachers spoke of the Ten Commandments, including “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not covet.” He observed wryly, “[T]he government school I attended made no attempt to be consistent and teach me to recognize contradictions.” The contradictions did not surprise Hoiles, who explained, “They cannot teach the single standard of rightness because they are practicing a double standard.” They could not teach moral values “any more than a robber can teach honesty.”

Hoiles’s higher education must have also imbued him with skepticism about government education. The knowledge he valued most had been self-taught and came from experience. While studying electrical engineering at the Methodist Mt. Union College (Alliance), Hoiles worked part time at his brother Frank’s daily paper, the Alliance Review, and discovered what became a lifelong passion for the newspaper business. Hoiles must have wondered if his college education had been wasted. Later in life he complained of the common perception that “going through the public schools and colleges is education.”

In 1932 Hoiles temporarily left the newspaper business and began to read insatiably. Even though he had shown little interest in philosophy to date, he acquired the background to sprinkle future writing with quotations from an amazing range of authors: from Frédéric Bastiat to Ayn Rand, from John Locke to Spinoza.

The most influential was Bastiat. In a 1955 editorial Hoiles wrote, “He was the first man who awakened me to the errors, taught in government schools and more Protestant colleges, that the state doing things that were immoral if done by an individual made these acts become moral. In other words, he was the first man that pointed out that there was only one standard of right and wrong.”

In 1935, at 56, Hoiles arrived in Orange County, where he had purchased an established newspaper. With him, Hoiles brought not only his family but also an evolved philosophy of freedom, which he aggressively applied, especially to public education.

A September 3, 1946, editorial in the Register titled “Most Sacred of All Popular Idols, Government Education,” typifies both Hoiles’s style and content in approaching the issue. The editorial is clearly answering critics who argued that public education is a necessary good because it leads to a literate population.

Hoiles opened by quoting an anonymous “lover of freedom” (Leonard Read) who defined the proper role of government as a “restraining force rather than a force to compel people to do good.” Considering government education from this angle, the “lover of freedom” concluded “it has all the characteristics of other forms of socialism.”

Some people, Hoiles continued, may see little difference between the earliest “red schoolhouses” that were voluntarily supported and the subsequent tax-funded ones. “True,” he stated, “the socialism incident to the ‘little red school’ was only a slight departure from the procedure of a few neighbors pooling their resources, voluntarily, to employ a teacher to instruct their children. But once the socialistic principle is admitted, once the idea is sanctioned of using government’s powers of coercion to take the fruits of the individual’s labor for the ‘collective good,’ there is no logical stopping point.”

Hoiles went on to quote Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine: “There can be no greater stretch of arbitrary power than is required to seize children from their parents, teach them whatever the authorities decree they shall be taught, and expropriate from the parents the funds to pay for the procedure.” Thus, continuing the quote, “[n]eighborly, small-scale socialism in education has expanded and developed until today we are faced with the disaster of national socialism in education.”

The “disaster” was partly economic. Hoiles cited statistics showing how the costs of educating one individual had increased more than ten times from 1880 to 1940, with no corresponding increase in quality. Indeed, quality had declined—partly due to increased bureaucratization, partly to the severing of connection between a teacher’s wages and his or her need to satisfy customers (the parents and children). Modern teachers needed only to satisfy the government, their new source of income.

“Government educators are becoming less and less servants of those from whom revenues are extracted or from whom their pupil raw material is conscripted,” Hoiles wrote. “More and more they are becoming vested interests, concerned with their own employment and tenure. More and more they are allying themselves as a pressure group with other bureaucratic interests. More and more they are using their strategic position to turn the minds of the young towards statism and interventionism.”

Attacking on yet another front, Hoiles explained the terrible impact that government teachers have on the character development of children. “I take the stand against tax-supported education because I believe . . . that the advantage of being able to read and write is far outweighed by the destruction of individual initiative, enterprise and responsibility brought about by government education’s poison of statist psychology. Practically every youth in the land is a socialist at heart. How can he help but be unless he comes from a family that is steeped in the belief in true liberty and the dignity of man and recognizes that multiplying a robbery does not make it right?”

It is not possible to understand the passion with which Hoiles and other advocates of individual freedom addressed public education without establishing the context. In the early twentieth century, education in America underwent a political revolution, becoming the lynchpin of the Progressive Era—a period of social reform, from the 1880s to the 1920s. A central tenet was that government needed to play a larger role in solving social problems and in promoting the “social good.” “Popular,” or public, education was viewed as a prerequisite and the key to reconstructing society by molding generations to come. In his watershed book, Democracy and Education (1916), John Dewey advocated using popular education as a conscious tool to remove social evil and promote social good. Slowly, the classical curricula that aimed at rigorous education—such as familiarity with Latin, a stress on history—were replaced by programs aimed at creating “good citizens.”

Hoiles was outraged by his children’s curriculum.  In a 1961 editorial he reminisced about an incident involving his daughter Jane. After reviewing one of her school textbooks, he appeared before the directors of the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce to protest against school books that “set forth the principles of Karl Marx.” Hoiles’s purpose was not to ban or censor but to assert a parent’s right to guide his children’s education. Nevertheless, the book was pulled.  Why, then, did Hoiles’s children attend public school? He told a Newsweek reporter, “There was no place else to send them.”

A particularly provocative strategy of his was spelled out in the May 23 letter to Read. Hoiles explained, “I have repeatedly offered a member of the Board of Education in Santa Ana, who is a preacher, $100 if he would publicly attempt to harmonize tax-supported schools with quotations from Jesus. He will not undertake it. I also made the offer to the superintendent of schools. He will not undertake it.” Hoiles wondered if he should up the ante to $500 and construct the discussion as a debate, perhaps with Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, or Read himself. Hoiles considered the offer a fail-proof maneuver. If the preacher accepted, the flaws in his argument would be exposed. If he refused, then the refusal would “cause the people of the community to wonder . . . whether tax-supported schools are doing what they think they are doing.”

R. C. Hoiles died on October 30, 1970, at 91. Within his lifetime he made no lasting impact on public schooling. But times change. Current discontent with government education is so deep and widespread that homeschooling has become a phenomenon and others grasp at any route out. I can only imagine Hoiles’s response to a revival of his moral crusade against public schooling.

  • Wendy McElroy is the author of over a dozen books on individualist feminism and libertarian history. Her upcoming book, "The Satoshi Revolution," applies the concepts of classical liberalism to cryptocurrency. She has been published by such diverse venues as Penn State to Penthouse, FEE to Marie Claire.