All Commentary
Thursday, September 1, 1983

The Dilemmas of Public Education

Dr. Carson has written and taught extensively, specializing in American intellectual history. He is the author of several books, his most recent being Organized Against Whom? The Labor Union in America. He is working at present on A Basic History of the United States to be published by Western Goals, Inc.

A great many issues have reached the level of public debate today concerning public education. They range from questions that plumb the philosophic depths to everyday problems of student discipline. They range, that is, from questions as to the origin of life and of plant and animal species on this planet to the question of whether teachers should be permitted to use corporal punishment in the classroom. There are those who believe that only the doctrine or theory of evolution should be taught in public schools. On the other hand, there are many equally convinced that an account of Divine Creation should be given at least equal time. Then, there is the question of whether or not prayer should be permitted (or perhaps encouraged or required) in the public schools.

Indeed, there is a great variety of controverted and complex issues about such matters as sex education, the content of the curriculum, athletics, public policy about private schools, the right of parents to teach their children, homosexual teachers, the teaching of contemporary literature in which obscenities and profanities abound, the use of the schools as instruments of social reform, frills versus basics in education, the unionization of teachers, the compulsory bussing of children to achieve racial integration, the quality and character of textbooks, and so on and on.

It is not my intention here to take sides on these issues. Rather, it is my purpose, in the first place, to call attention to the fact that the issues exist, that they involve vexing questions, and that when they are pushed on one side or the other they tend to become dilemmas. In the second place—and this is my main point—they are dilemmas because they are being approached in the framework of public policy. They are dilemmas of public education, i.e., of government supported and controlled education. The contentions arise from efforts to use government for differing ends, indeed, diametrically opposed ends, quite often. This may not be unusual in itself, but the differing positions on education are being pressed at a level at which no generally satisfactory resolution is possible. They are dilemmas.

A dilemma is a “situation requiring a choice between equally undesirable alternatives.” Granted, at the level at which the debates have been conducted the issues do not appear to pose a question of choice between equally undesirable, or even unequally undersirable, alternatives. It appears that those who have taken sides would be quite pleased if their position could be made to prevail. Take the issue of prayer in the public schools. Presumably, those who favor them would be quite satisfied if the schools would have prayers, and those who oppose would be equally satisfied to have prayer prohibited.

That, however, is largely an illusion. Undoubtedly, there are many who would like to see prayer instated in the schools or classrooms. Beyond that, a considerable portion of these would like to see an attitude of piety toward God, toward human relations, and toward their studies prevail more generally among teachers and students in the schools. Nor is there any good reason to doubt that there are others who would like to see prayer excluded from schools. Beyond that, there may be those who would like to see all pious, religious, or believing attitudes excluded from education, that the whole undertaking be carried on in a secular and skeptical framework.

No American Consensus

But I doubt very much that there is an American consensus for a political solution to this question. More important, those whose careers depend upon knowing such things, i.e., politicians, clearly do not believe that there is a consensus for political action on the prayer issue. The best evidence for this is that constitutional amendments on this issue have been hanging fire for 20 years now. None has ever mustered the two-thirds majorities necessary to get an amendment out of Congress and before state legislatures or conventions. So far as we may judge there is no consensus behind a constitutional amendment that would permit or authorize prayer in the public schools. But even if an amendment were adopted, it is not at all clear that the issue would be resolved.

The truth seems to be that there is no acceptable political solution available. There is the dilemma. A political solution involves the use of force. Probably, most of those on either side of the prayer issue would be exceedingly reluctant to employ force to achieve the full measure of what they wish to see established. That is, most of those who want prayer in the schools would not wish to see teachers forced to lead prayers or preside over them.

Indeed, it is not at all clear how anyone could be forced to pray or what desirable end could be achieved by it. Such use of force would be contrary both to the nature of prayer and of education. On the other hand, surely those who oppose prayer in the schools do not envision sending SWAT teams or the National Guard to prevent small children from giving thanks by repeating: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for our food.” In short, it may well be equally undesirable to many Americans either that there should or should not be prayer in the public schools or that force should be directly applied to achieve either end. That is a true dilemma.

(Since some may suppose that the courts have settled the prayer issue by their rulings, some observations on that may be helpful. The Supreme Court has nullified state laws specifying prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Such laws were held to be in conflict with the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Other courts have made rulings on a variety of religion-related practices in the schools. Thus far, however, United States Marshals have not been sent forth to interdict prayer in any particular school, and public prayers are still made in a goodly number of schools.)

Force Is the Issue

The dilemma, I am saying, is not in the issues; it arises from the prospect of the use of force. Ultimately, the dilemmas of public education arise from compulsory attendance and the financing of schools with tax money. It is these things that make the questions public issues. It is these things, too, that make any solution difficult, if not impossible, short of tyrannical measures. This is true not only for the prayer issue but for most of those that have come to the fore in recent years.

Even so, it may be of some help to see how the issues have come to the forefront. More specifically, I want to explore a little the setting in which the issues have arisen. It is not surprising, of course, that people should differ among themselves about what should be done or how to go about’ doing it. Each of us differs in some or in many respects from others. We differ in background, experience, temperamental make-up, tastes, preferences, abilities, goals, and intelligence, to name a few ways. From these individual differences arise differences of opinion. Nor is it difficult to surmise why we might differ with one another quite often about so sensitive and crucial a matter as the education of our children.

Fortunately, most of us do not usually set such store by each of our opinions that we are inclined to make a federal case, as the saying goes, about every difference. But on some matters within their hierarchy of values, many people feel strongly about their beliefs and principles. Some of these fall for many people in the arena of education; in some senses, all of them do.

Diverse Origins

Some of these differences might well assume some importance in any country, but the diversity of the population in the United States has increased both their number and importance. From the earliest English, French, and Spanish settlements, America was a land of immigrants. The diversity of the population has increased rather than diminished over the years. From the 18th through better than three quarters of the 20th century, peoples from virtually every land have come or been brought here, sometimes in small numbers and at others by the thousands and tens of thousands. At various times, they have come from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Bohemia, Russia, China, Japan, Transylvania, Serbia, Turkey, Iran, the Gold Coast of Africa, Mexico, Cuba, and so on and on. Virtually every culture, race, nationality, language, and ethnic grouping in the world is represented among those who have settled in America.

Of religious sects, denominations, and churches virtually every spectrum of belief is or has been present in America. There are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, Buddhists, Moslems, and Shintoists. There is a wondrous variety of Protestant sects and denominations: Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Disciples, Congregationalists, Nazarenes, Evangelicals, Quakers, Unitarians, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many, many more. But no brief listing can begin to capture the diversity of religious belief or unbelief in America, for in addition to those who profess some religious belief, or belong to organizations which do, there are atheists, agnostics, skeptics, freethinkers, Communists, communitarians, and a variety of groupings holding religious-like beliefs. All of these beliefs have greater or lesser import on beliefs and preferences about education.

While it would not be possible to exaggerate the differences among groups and individuals which have some bearing on what may be wanted by way of education, it may be possible to overstate the case for most communities. When we look at the United States as a whole, what we may see is a great hodgepodge of peoples, groups, and organizations representing almost every spectrum of diversity.

By contrast, communities are often much more nearly homogenous than any description of the nation would suggest. For example, in many parts of the rural and small town South, there may be churches of several denominations, but the religious motif is apt to be Southern Baptist. In parts of New England, it may be Congregationalist; in Western Pennsylvania, Presbyterian; in Utah, Mormon; and so on. Even in cities where there may be the most diverse religious, ethnic, and racial differences, there are often fairly homogenous groupings of people in particular sections.

But whether a community was diverse or homogenous in its makeup, people tended to associate in their own particular churches, clubs, organizations, and what have you, to preserve their own ways within enclaves, as they chose, or to slough off many of their differences and fit into a more general American pattern. A great degree of harmony amidst wide diversities was generally possible in America by those who were different keeping their distance from one another, minimizing the extent of their involvements, or going along with the prevailing customs. E pluribus unum expresses a truth only if that in which Americans were one be limited and restricted to a small number of common interests.

Schools Provided by Communities and by Churches

For most of American history, schooling tended to mirror and reflect the diversity of America. Schools tended to be provided, when they were provided, by communities and churches. Historically, schooling in Western Civilization was allied with if not tied to religion. In the Middle Ages, Catholic churches generally provided such formal schooling as existed. Cathedrals had their own schools as a rule. Generally speaking, too, after the Protestant Reformation where there was an established church it had the oversight of all formal education, whether or not it provided the schooling. During the colonial period in America, the only experiments of any extent in compulsorily provided education were in New England. Otherwise, people were left free to provide such education in whatever form they would for their children.

Nor was there any great change in most regions after the American Revolution for the better part of a hundred years. Lands were sometimes set aside for schooling when the public domain was broken up for selling. But the initiative for providing schools was generally left to communities, towns, and churches, or whoever had an interest in it. Churches did sometimes support schools. Towns and communities often did so as well. The cost of schools was often defrayed by tuition paid by parents, and it was sometimes supplemented by charitable contribution. Sunday schools were widely organized by churches in the 19th century, initially as a means to teach children the fundamentals of reading and writing. In any case, the providing of a school for a frontier and rural community was not usually especially expensive. The men of the community could get together and raise a building. A schoolmaster could be paid in much the same way as a minister for the church, if he were not one and the same person.

Local Control

But however the school was provided, it was generally done by some local community. The community controlled the school, so far as it was controlled, and those who were sufficiently pleased by what was offered could send their children to it as circumstances permitted. The diversity of the population of America was undoubtedly reflected in the schools from community to community and region to region, so far as there was any will to make it so, and people pretty much had such schools as they could or would.

Even after governments began to become involved and some tax support began generally to be provided, there was no great change for a good many years. The movement toward tax supported schooling and compulsory attendance was largely made between the Civil War and World War I. Schools were generally still locally owned and controlled, however, and many high schools were still private or semi-private. (Some churches, notably the Roman Catholic and Lutheran, maintained schools for their communicants, where they were sufficiently concentrated for that.) Local boards made the basic decisions about education, levied charges, hired teachers, and, presumably, reflected community values. Even so, schooling became public education as compulsory attendance laws were passed, and tax support became widespread. The stage was being set for the dilemmas which we now face. Local boards made the transition much easier, but they may have only served to delay the surfacing of the dilemmas.

At any rate, the schools have been transformed in the 20th century. They have been very nearly nationalized and secularized as well as made more or less uniform. They have been transformed into instruments of or for social reform on a national scale. Control over the schools has been wrested from local communities and is now in the hands of state and national bureaucracies, legislatures, and the federal judiciary. Local boards may still make intermediate decisions, but they do so within a framework of guidelines and prescriptions that make them mostly errand boys. It is this transformation that has brought the dilemmas of public education to the surface, given rise to strident demands, and provides the setting for the urgency of some accommodation or resolution.

The transformation has been effected mostly since World War II, but it was prepared and advanced for several decades before that.

Overcoming the Differences

It is tempting to speculate as to how anyone could conceive a national and uniform system of education that could encompass and accommodate the diversities of Americans, but it would be irrelevant to do so. No one ever has, and I dare say no one could. What was conceived, rather, was a system which its proponents hoped would act as a solvent upon the differences, obliterate them, if you will.

As I was preparing this article, I received a little leaflet entitled “The Internationalization of Accounting Curriculum.” It contained this revealing sentence: “Education, in its essence, and by definition should result in the diminution of provincialism.” On the contrary, I would say that education might either heighten or diminish provincialism, depending on its content and emphasis and the receptiveness or resistance of the ones being educated. But no matter. Most likely, the person who wrote the sentence couldn’t distinguish clearly between an essence and an apple, and he certainly did not bother to define education. What matters is that he was writing out of a vision of education that has become deeply ingrained over the past seventy- five years.

It is a vision of using the schools to transform man and society. The idea was advanced most vigorously and directly by the proponents of what was called Progressive Education, but it came to permeate the whole field of pedagogy, which has marched under the flag of “Education” for most of this century. John Dewey was the leader of Progressive Education, and its center was Teacher’s College of Columbia University. Progressive educationists usually described the transformation they aimed at as making America democratic, or more democratic. By that description, however, they meant mainly equality. That is not to deny that they may have favored democratic methods, sometimes anyway, but rather to assert that their animating ideal was equality.

The thrust of this idea of equality was to remove all differences, to bring the high low and the low high, or, as George S. Counts, a Progressive, said, “the school should be regarded . . . as an agency for the abolition of all artificial social distinctions, . . .” (Quoted in John H. Snow and Paul W. Shafer, The Turning of the Tides [New York: Long House, 1956], p. 30.) To Progressives, all distinctions were arbitrary, of course. As John Dewey pointed out, “Democratic abolition of fixed differences between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ still has to make its way in philosophy.” (John Dewey, Problems of Men [New York: Philosophical Library, 1946], p. 15.)

Professional Educators

In short, the Progressives did not conceive a philosophy of education which would embrace the diversity of America. Instead, they advanced a plan to use the schools as an instrument for removing, obliterating, or crushing the differences. Progressive Education eventually blended with or became the dominant influence in professional education, i.e., the teaching of teachers in pedagogy. There have been three main stages thus far in the movement to nationalize and make uniform the public school (indeed, so far as they could, all schools) in America.

The first was to give a dominant role in schooling to the faculties of education departments, schools, and colleges. This was done by requiring state certification of teachers, requiring education courses for certification, and by founding numerous normal schools, teacher’s colleges, and education departments.

The second stage was to bring all public schools under the control of state departments of education. Certification was a major means to do this, but it would have been of little account without state leverage. This was achieved in most states by financing and the laying down of guidelines in order for schools to receive state money.

The third stage is the effort to nationalize education more directly. Federal aid to education was the opening wedge. There is, of course, now a cabinet level United States Department of Education, and the federal courts now wield great power over the schools.

In large—and to summarize thus far—there is a vast educationist establishment in America. It includes not only the federal, state, city, and county bureaucracies with their hierarchy of officials, but also thousands of educationists in colleges and universities, and hundreds of thousands of teachers in the public schools. This establishment exercises decisive influence over the public schools, and much influence and some controls over private schools. The establishment may not be a monolith, but it is certainly monolithic in tendency. If anything, it has become much more cohesive in recent decades by the widespread organization of teachers in national labor unions. The common thread which holds it together at the ideo logical level is educationism.

The thrust of this establishment has been to secularize, nationalize, and make uniform the schools and schooling. This establishment has wrested the control over the schools from local communities and vested it in bureaucracies at ever greater remove from them. The ultimate power over the schools now rests in the Supreme Court of the United States, which is about as remote from popular control as it is possible to get.

Differences Aggravated

This, then, is the setting of the dilemmas of public education. The educationist establishment has not succeeded, not yet anyway, in wiping out the diversity in America. They are succeeding, rather, in exposing the dilemmas of public education. The differences and diversities have been exacerbated rather than obliterated, and lowest common denominator schooling has given rise to a rising tide of resentment to it. Some of these resent ments are represented in contemporary debates on public issues. The educationist establishment would be in deep trouble if it had to answer only for the declining achievements of the pupils it serves, the disorders in the schools, and the low caliber of so much of the teaching. But the nationalization and secularization of education (or schooling) has brought dilemmas to the fore for which there are no solutions in public education. There is a way out of this morass. There is a way to restore schooling to local patrons, the control over education to parents, and freedom to ]earning. There is probably more than one way to go about attempting to do these things. President Reagan has stated his opinion that the control over education ought to be returned to local communities. He has also proposed that deductions for tuition to private schools be permitted on income tax schedules. Proposals for a voucher system to enable people to choose their schools and pay with tax money have gained some followers over the years. Whatever the merits of these and like proposals, they do not go to the heart of the problem, by my analysis.

The heart of the problem is compulsory attendance and tax-sup-ported schooling. It is these things on which an educationist establishment has been built; they provide the levers for the control over schooling. So long as attendance is compulsory and schooling is tax-supported, the dilemmas will remain; the diversity of America and the differences among people will take care of that.

There is a way, however, to free education from the trammels of government control. It is the free market. It is to leave schooling to the market and education to those who are willing to seek it. It is the way to provide both for the inevitable differences between individuals and the diversity of the population in America. I am aware, of course, that many people favor what they call public education, although it is becoming equally clear that a considerable portion of Americans are less than enthusiastic about the current product.

It is hardly surprising that public schools should be widely, even generally, accepted as desirable. Anything established as long as a hundred years is likely to be widely accepted. If public baths had been established in towns and communities as long as schools, they would no doubt have gained widespread acceptance. How would people bathe themselves, after all, if there were not public baths? Surely, the poor would have to go dirty!

Church and State

But perhaps I should choose an example closer to home, since most Americans have little familiarity with public baths. This example comes at least from our common historical background. As recently as the early 17th century, most Europeans apparently believed that an established church was essential to the unity and well-being of a country. (Indeed, the relics of established churches still survive in such countries as England and Sweden.) Moreover, many believed that the government should assist in compelling attendance at churches and that the church should be tax-supported. Many people found it difficult to imagine how religion could survive without fullfledged support of the state.

There were still a goodly number of people who believed at the time of the writing of the United States Constitution that some sort of state support for churches was desirable, and several states still had an established, or government favored, church. There were others who believed even more confidently that religion should be freed from the toils of government, that people should be free to speak and act in accord with their own consciences, that it was folly to use force in such delicate and profound matters. They carried the field eventually.

Actually, there was no possibility of having an established church in the United States without arousing animosities that would wreck the union. Anglicans in South Carolina would hardly accept the Congregational church of New England. Quakers and Baptists would accept neither, and the great variety of denominations and churches in America made the establishment of any church a potentially divisive and explosive issue of the first order.

The happy decision reached by the Founders was to forbid Congress to establish any church or interfere with any that might exist in the states. The result was so generally satisfactory that even those few states which had some sort of government support or preference for a particular denomination removed it. Nor did religion perceptibly decline and wither away in the United States without government support. On the contrary, religion flourished, churches abounded, and denominations proliferated. Religion, left to the market, so to speak, and to private giving and support satisfied both the desire for variety, which flows from individual differences, and the longing to share faith and beliefs with others. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a single American today who would favor a govern mentally supported national church.

The case for freedom of education is hardly less substantial than that for freedom of religion. Indeed, for many today, they cannot have full freedom of religion without also having freedom of education. For many thoughtful persons, God substantiates all knowledge, and if He is not acknowledged, the foundation stone is missing from learning. Given the diversity of America, a national school establishment is no more appropriate than would be a nationally established church.

In one respect, at least, an established school is much more grotesquely unjust and intolerant than an established church. When compulsory attendance at church was required, adults as well as children were required to attend. By contrast, we visit the compulsion only upon children, those among us who are the weakest, least able to resist, least able to fend for themselves, and who have no voice in political decisions. This system of compulsion permeates education, stifles curiosity, and turns what could be a wondrous adventure of the mind for those who have the aptitude and desire into almost insufferable boredom.

Compulsion has turned schooling into a “bad” rather than a good. The dilemmas of public education and the insuperable problems in so many contemporary schools are a direct consequence of the compulsion. I do not know what forms schooling might take if it were left to the market and voluntary giving, nor what great variety of ways people might find to become educated. I am certain that if people valued these things and were free to provide for themselves, they would do so. And, for me at least, it would be exciting to see what kind of changes would be made when those who would provide schooling and help to educate should turn their attention to serving customers rather than compelling attention. Only those who want to learn ever learn much worth knowing in any case. Rather than having dilemmas and national problems of education, we might have in their stead opportunities for teachers and learners unbounded by state compulsion.

  • 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.