All Commentary
Thursday, June 1, 1972

The Educational Dilemma

Dr. Dozer is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Formal systems and institutions of education always represent a gift from the present generation to the next generation.

The school at all levels is a highly complicated social phenomenon. It depends, first of all, upon a controlling or governing body —a body of taxpayers in the case of public schools, a body of parents and financial donors in the case of private schools. This supporting body forms the principal in the entire educational complex; it is the base upon which the system rests.

To carry on the actual administration of the school, this supporting body selects a committee which is called by various names ranging from a board of education to boards of trustees or regents. Representing the original constituent body this board employs the administrators of the school, namely the principal, headmaster, chancellor, president, deans and instructors, who together constitute the implementing agent of the system and who supply the technical expertise needed to operate it.

The beneficiaries of this system are intended to be the pupils or students, who are thus enabled to be brought into contact with persons who are expected to transmit the skills, amenities, and values of the past to present and future generations and to stimulate in them enlarged visions for the future.

This basic structure prevails at all levels of the educational process, from the kindergarten through the university, and is grounded upon certain well-defined legal obligations and relationships which are the product of centuries of educational experimentation. Within this structure have appeared many delicate nuances of administration and elements of conflict within recent decades. Perhaps the most serious of these has been the penetration of political pressures and the resulting clash of political forces within the academic community.

It is now widely acknowledged that the great majority of our colleges and universities have lost the trust of the public. The wave of public indignation which was directed against them after the Berkeley riots in 1964 has been followed by a wave of even more ominous public revulsion. These institutions are experiencing the most serious crisis of confidence that they have faced in many decades. They are no longer respected as the quality institutions which they once were under such educator-statesmen as Charles W. Eliot and A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard University, David Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins, Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia, Robert Gordon Sproul of the University of California, and James R. Angell of Yale University.

Why the Degeneration?

Why has this degeneration occurred, and what should be done about it?

One of the major casualties of the social and economic upheaval of our times is the principle of authority, or more precisely the principle of management. In industry the claims of owners and boards of directors to the exercise of management responsibilities are being repeatedly challenged. In institutions of higher learning in the United States the growing pressure for unionization of teaching faculties and staffs and for involvement of students in the councils of administration raise questions as to the locus of power and the right to exercise it.

It is a well-known doctrine of law that the principal in a legal transaction controls the actions of his agent within the context of their agreement and that, if the agent exceeds his authority, his unauthorized action must be regarded as ultra vires or of no legal effect.

A major reason for the present plight of institutions of higher learning is that in the area of education the essential relationship of the agent to his principal has been ignored. In many cases the supporting body, as we have called it above, has neither exercised nor defended its responsibility for determining the scope of the education which it is financing but has, on the contrary, allowed its agent to assume by default free-wheeling authority, with often anarchic results. Similarly the agents of the supporting body, who are expected to act as executing officials for the supporting body and to be accountable to it, have been faithless servants. Especially in the colleges and universities which are supported by taxpayers they have yielded to the political force exerted by pressure groups of race and social class and by militant student activists. Higher education has accordingly been allowed to become a thing of whims and fads bending before the changing winds of the moment.

Taxpayer Revolt

It is asking too much of human nature to expect that the principal, namely, the taxpayer, will indefinitely support an institution which, while professing to contribute to his enlightenment, in fact dedicates itself to the destruction of the society which the principal himself has formed. As a horde of militant students were thronging across the campus of one of the California universities and occupying the student center, a local businessman raised his voice in protest to the chancellor of the university. The chancellor defended his do-nothing policy saying: “We have been teaching these students for fifteen years to think for themselves, and now they are doing it!”

A lamentable misconception has been allowed to develop in higher education as to who is principal and who is agent, who calls the tune and who should dance to it, who pays the bills and who should furnish the services paid for.

Dr. Stephen J. Tonsor has stated the obvious but forgotten truism: “The university does not belong to the students; it does not belong to the faculty; it does not belong to any special pressure group in the society that happens to feel the call to revolution or a prophetic mission. The university belongs to the whole of the society or the corporate reality which brought it into existence and which sustains it.”¹

The relationship of taxpayers to educators in a publicly supported educational structure is that of employer to employee. The same relationship exists between boards of trustees of private institutions and the designated officials of those institutions.

In the complex of relationships at various levels in the educational structure it is possible to identify a producer-consumer relationship in the classroom between teacher and student. The student can either accept or reject the product, but, as the object ultimately acted upon by both the supporting body and the executing body, he is not entitled to define the nature of the product. In other words education in the classroom cannot be successfully organized around the democratic principle.

If it is organized on the basis of this principle on the assumption of the existence of an exclusive producer-consumer relationship between teacher and taught, the corollary principle that the consumer is always right must be accepted. This is to require the teacher to become a classroom demagogue, an ingratiating salesman, and to elevate the student into the position of principal. Under these conditions education becomes a hopeless exercise and eminent professors who express unpopular views can be destroyed by immature classroom critics.

Conflict of Responsibility

In the triangle of conflict which has been accordingly created between administrators, faculty, and students, administrators, unless checked by firm directives from the supporting body, will invariably offer up the faculty as sacrifice to student demands. Commonly, administrators utilize student activism as a lever for suppressing faculty dissent.

These problems have been grievously aggravated by the superimposition of the money and power of the government in Washington upon the great majority of our institutions of higher learning, both public and private, during the past quarter century. Bold indeed — and almost unique — has been the educator who could resist these advances. Increasingly the central government itself has assumed the role of principal in the educational process, dictating standards, imposing conditions, and supplying lavish funds, amounting to as much as $23 billion in the higher-education bill for 1972. The old supporting local bodies have therefore largely abdicated their responsibility.

To the extent that local supporting bodies, whether public or private, still retain any directing authority over education, they must be recognized as principal in the operation, entitled to exert full control over the scope, purposes, and actions of the colleges and universities with whose responsibility they are entrusted. And, in accordance with the legal rights of management and the legally recognized doctrine of the relationship between principal and agent, whenever government, whether state or national, is acknowledged to be the supporting body it must be accorded the full powers of principal in the educational operation. In other words, final power cannot be assumed, either willfully or by tacit consent of the principal, by the agent, that is by presidents and deans and least of all by students. However distasteful this rule of conduct is, it must be respected unless the supporting body in each case decides to stand the educational system on its head.

The Fallacy in Public Education

But events in the area of higher education in the last decade have newly exposed the essential fallacy in the concept of public education. Government at all levels, being necessarily primarily political in character and having police power at its disposal, has interests which are antithetical to education in the fullest sense. All that it is interested in doing and all that it is capable of doing in the area of education is to train citizens, not educate them, in the skills of responsible citizenship. This is a very limited function, and it may be seriously doubted whether the state should involve itself even in this operation, since, by assuming this minimal training responsibility, it will inevitably undertake to impose its political will and rigidified formulas upon the citizenry.

Libertarian principles rightly condemn government control over education at all levels. Herbert Spencer pinpointed the fallacy in his Social Statics, published in London in 1851: “What is meant by saying that a government ought to educate the people?… What is the education for?” And from these questions he concluded, “Clearly to fit the people for social life — to make them good citizens. And who is to say what are good citizens? The government: there is no other judge.” He asked further, “And who is to say how these good citizens may be made?” Again, his answer was, “The government: there is no other judge.” Spencer’s conclusion is as irresistible as it is ominous.

Jefferson’s Views

The political uses of institutions of higher learning to accomplish certain predetermined national purposes were fully appreciated by Thomas Jefferson and have been emulated by his successors in government. At a special meeting on March 4, 1825 of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, which Jefferson had founded and of which he was then serving as rector, the Board, with Jefferson present, adopted the following resolution:

Whereas, it is the duty of this Board to the government under which it lives, and especially to that of which this University is the immediate creation, to pay especial attention to the principles of government which shall be inculcated therein, and to provide that none shall be inculcated which are incompatible with those on which the Constitutions of this State, and of the United States were genuinely based,…

Resolved, that it is the opinion of this Board that as to the general principles of liberty and the rights of man, in nature and in society, the doctrines of Locke, in his “Essay concerning the true original extent and end of civil government,” and of Sidney in his “Discourses on government,” may be considered as those generally approved by our fellow citizens of this, and the United States, and that on the distinctive principles of the government of our State, and of that of the United States, the best guides are to be found in 1. The Declaration of Independence, as the fundamental act of union of these States. 2. The book known by the title of “The Federalist”, being an authority to which appeal is habitually made by all, and rarely declined or denied by any as evidence of the general opinion of those who framed, and of those who accepted the Constitution of the United States, on questions as to its genuine meaning. 3. The Resolutions of the General Assembly of Virginia in 1799 on the subject of the alien and sedition laws, which appeared to accord with the predominant sense of the people of the United States. 4. The valedictory address of President Washington, as conveying political lessons of peculiar value. And that in the branch of the school of law, which is to treat on the subject of civil polity, these shall be usedas the text and documents of the school.²

As thus envisaged by Jefferson public education could be converted into a powerful apparatus to serve “good” national ends, which were thus defined in the resolution of March 1825. But is there a consensus at any one time that the current government of state or nation ought to be the principal educator? When we acknowledge it as such, we assume that government now is and will forever remain the kind of govern-men which, in the judgment of a majority of citizens, it ought to be. This situation, if it exists at a single moment, may change in the next, but the powers of that government in the area of education will not automatically diminish.

The principles of a free society therefore demand that political governments at both the state and national levels shall retreat from their positions of control over institutions of higher learning. This retreat is rendered especially imperative by the admission of youths between 18 and 21 years to the franchise, which can only have the effect of intensifying the political tug-of-war in the classroom which was the major cause of the academic crisis of the 1960′s. Only the divorce of government from academic responsibility will prevent institutions of higher learning from becoming completely politicized and their inmates reduced to cogs in a totalitarianized political machine.

Education is, largely, the business of stimulating rigorous intellectual discipline. But it must limit itself to intellectual discipline and should not impose the discipline of any political party, of any religious group, or even of any national state unless it is plainly advertised as such and is therefore known to be serving necessarily as a part of the indoctrinating apparatus of that party, group, or state.