The End of Schooling

The Reverend Doctor John K. Williams has been a teacher and currently does free-lance writing and lecturing in Australia.

Few people in western democracies are happy with their state-school systems.

Teachers are unhappy, believing that they are not appreciated by the community and are puppets controlled by failed teachers who have engineered an escape into the protected, bureaucratic worlds of administration, curriculum development, and educational research. Parents are unhappy, lamenting their children’s lack of basic skills and tired of helping their offspring prepare countless “projects” about dinosaurs or the environment. Employers are unhappy, having failed to exorcise a strange desire for secretaries who can spell and office- workers who, communing with their calculators to determine the product of 30 and 20, sense that an answer of 1.5 might suggest that the wrong button has been pressed. Academics are unhappy, asserting that first-year college students are barely able to produce coherent essays.

Educationalists are not slow to proffer excuses for such a state of affairs. Schools, it is pointed out, are expected to solve nearly all social ills, ranging from venereal disease to disrespect for the environment. Little school time remains for such trivia as reading, writing, or arithmetic.

Maybe. Nonetheless, the average Australian parent and taxpayer had cause for concern when a massive research program carried out by the Australian Council for Educational Research discovered, among other disturbing facts, that 27% of 13,000 children tested could not, after at least six years of schooling, divide 56 by 7 and that 20% could not comprehend the simplest of newspaper stories. The Swedish people have witnessed the steady erosion of the Swedish University Entrance Certificate, which once almost guaranteed admission to any European university, to the point where it rarely satisfies the entrance requirements of such a university. A recent volume edited by Gerald Berbaum (Schooling in Decline; Macmillan, 1979) testifies to “widespread disillusionment about the effectiveness” of state-controlled, compulsory schooling in the U.K.

The U.S.A. tells a similar tale. There, such tests as the Iowa Tests for Basic Skills and the Scholastic Aptitude Test reveal that good student performance in the 1930s deteriorated sharply in the late 1940s, improved slightly in the decade 1953-1963, declined rapidly from 1964 until 1978, and showed a modest improvement in 1979-1980.

The massive overall decline is not confined to particular States, regions, or population groups; is not caused by an increasing number of students taking the tests (the “spread” of scores does not widen); and cannot be attributed to statistical random chance. An increased “drop out” rate cannot be postulated as the reason for the decline: the most able of students are registering declining scores; they also have declined at late elementary and junior high school grades where attendance is compulsory.

Unfortunately, debates on schooling tend to focus upon incidentals. “Progressive” methods of teaching are attacked or defended. Teachers are sometimes condemned for laziness and ineptitude, sometimes hailed as heroic souls attempting an impossible task devised by people who have, since their own school-days, never been thrust into a classroom. Both a shortage and a glut of educational technology have been blamed by those troubled about schooling.

What is rarely discussed is the institution of compulsory, state-controlled schooling as such. It is widely agreed that this institution is the backbone of a civilized, democratic society. Yet a perusal of its history is disturbing.

Espoused by Martin Luther

Effectively, the case for such schooling was launched in the sixteenth century by Martin Luther. “I maintain,” he wrote, “that the civil authorities are under obligation to compel the people to send their children to school . . . . If the government can compel such citizens as are fit for military service to bear spear and rifle, to mount ramparts, and perform other material duties in time of war, how much more has it the right to compel the people to send their children to school, because in this case we are warring with the devil, whose object it is secretly to exhaust our cities and principalities of their strong men.”

Luther’s argument is simple. He knows the truth: Satan is waging war against humanity. He knows that weapons are necessary for victory against Satan: an ability to read the Bible and an acceptance of Luther’s theological views. Men and women holding views contrary to those of Luther and instructing, or supporting schools which instruct, their children in these views are corrupting their children and subverting a godly State. Since error has no “rights” those in possession of “the truth” must correct such parents and compel them to send their children to schools where they will be instructed in the tenets of the “true faith” and enabled to read their Bi bles.

Melanchthon, a disciple of Luther, drew up in 1528 an edict demanding that every town in Germany establish at public expense a school where conscripts in the war against Satan could be prepared for battle. In Geneva another Protestant reformer, John Calvin, was similarly making a case for schools where all children were to be instructed in the “true faith” and “in the languages and worldly sciences” which served as a necessary preliminary for such instruction. Like Luther, Calvin was supremely confident that his possession of”the truth” gave him warrant to override the wishes and desires of parents who did not share his beliefs.

State Schools in Prussia

The first national system of compulsory state-controlled education emerged in Prussia. Kings Frederick William I, Frederick the Great, and Frederick William III succeeded, by the nineteenth century, in discouraging non-state schools, establishing an elaborate system of state-controlled schools, and placing the supervision of such schools under the direction of the Minister of the Interior. In 1810 State certification of teachers was instituted and in 1812 children were prohibited from leaving school until they had passed a State-set and State-administered examination. A complex bureaucracy checking on schools and presiding over this examination of necessity emerged.

Once again the “rightness” of such educational conscription seemed self-evident. Rulers knew what was in the best interests of the ruled, hence recalcitrant parents whose vision of the “good life” for themselves and their children was not in accord with their “real” well-being could coercively be corrected by the State.

A rationale for this had been provided by the eighteenth-century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. Calvin and Luther claimed to know “the truth” because God had revealed it. Rousseau did not claim such privileged access to the deity, but he postulated a reality which, in its wisdom and beneficence, exceeded the knowledge and goodness of any individual person or group of people. Over and above the many “wills” of individuals, valuing and seeking different goals, there ex isted a “general will.” An intellectual elite was able to determine the edicts of that “general will” and, by virtue of that knowledge, coercively implement those edicts.

Rousseau’s “General Will”

Although frequently depicted in texts dealing with the philosophy of education as an advocate of child-centered learning, Rousseau’s educational philosophy in truth depends upon the existence and authority of this “general will.” In Emile Rousseau does, it is true, depict the ideal educational system in terms of a child who, freed from the constraints of an adult’s will, explores nature and its necessities (which, being “natural” constraints will not be resented) and thereby learns all he needs without being directed by any person.

Yet this is but part of the story. Emile has a tutor. His task it is to create situations in which nature will “teach” his charge precisely what he, the tutor, wishes it to teach. With a complacency bordering upon cynicism, Rousseau notes that “[there] is no subjection more perfect than that which retains the appearance of liberty” and that “[no] doubt [the pupil] ought not to do anything but what he wants to do, but he ought not want to do anything but what you want him to do; he ought not to take a single step that you have not foreseen.” By systematically “hiding his hand” the tutor avoids any clash between his own will and that of the child. The pupil thus equates his will and the tutor’s will. He is thereby conditioned to equate his own will with the “general will.”

The nineteenth-century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel went further. The State, through which the “general will” found expression, was the earthly manifestation of the “Absolute” or “God.” Liberty was found by individuals who recognized the State “as their own substantive mind” and took the objectives of the State as “their own end and aim.”

Freedom in the U.S.

Compared with this exalted notion of the State, the view of government set forth in the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution seemed pedestrian and simplistic. The authors of these documents perceived liberty in terms of the rights of individuals and groups to formulate, and strive to realize, any non-coercive vision of the “good life.” The important but limited role of government was to enjoy a monopoly of coercive power and to use that power against individuals or groups who sought to impose their vision of the “good life” coercively upon others. Freedom was equated with the liberty of individuals, not the rule of the majority.

Given such an understanding of government, schooling was purely private. The early colonists, usually refugees from religious persecution, naturally established schools which would impart their faith to their children. In addition to such schools parents, tutors, and non-denominational private schools saw to the education of children. It would seem that they were, in terms of basic literacy, remarkably effective: those who, in the early and mid nineteenth century sought to establish a state-controlled system of schooling did not, in their voluminous writings, refer to any widespread illiteracy which had to be combatted.

Similarly, those advocating state-controlled schooling in the U.K. did not defend their cause by reference to widespread illiteracy among the poorest. Indeed Professor E. G. West has pointed out that in early nineteenth-century England a frightened government imposed steep taxes upon paper to discourage the poor from exercising their capacity to read by communing with such volumes as Tom Paine’s Rights of Man. “Here . . . we have,” writes West, “the paradox of a public managing to educate itself into literacy competence from personal motives and private resources, despite the obstacle of an institution called government which eventually begins to claim most of the credit of the educational success” (Education and the State: A Study in Political Economy; London, 1970). Precisely the same situation held in Australia where the case mounted for state- controlled schooling in no way depended upon any alleged illiteracy cursing the poorest (and again it is worth noting that radical political groups produced a multitude of pamphlets directed to the poorest—presumably poor but literate).

Social Benefits of Schooling: The Views of Horace Mann

The key to the case for state-controlled schooling which so excited intellectuals was the belief—not unlike the belief of Luther and Calvin-that they, an elite, were in the possession of a “truth” which obligated them to direct, guide, and if necessary correct the views of the masses. By linking Rousseau’s notion of the “general will” to “majority rule” nineteenth-century U.S. intellectuals believed that they had discovered in the “will of the majority” (as, of course, interpreted by themselves) a reality marked by a wisdom and a goodness not to be found elsewhere. Schooling controlled by that “will” would result in nothing but good for the community.

Horace Mann, one of the foremost advocates of state-controlled schooling in the U.S.A., was not perturbed that the growth of the state-controlled system of schooling in Prussia he so admired had been paralleled by a growth in militarism and despotism. He was confident that the “quiet, noiseless development of mind” nurtured by that system would, in time, lead to “the people [asserting] their right to a participation in their own government.” Indeed the benefits Mann asserted would flow from state-controlled schooling to the community exceeded the blessings Luther and Calvin expected would be enjoyed by their godly commonwealths. “[N]ine- tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete; the long catalogue of human ills would be abridged; men would walk more safely by day; every pillow would be inviolable by night; property, life, and character held by a stronger tenure; all rational hopes respecting the future brightened.”

That such a system of schooling would be expensive did not deter its advocates. Asked John Quincy Adams, “Shall monarchies steal a march on republics in the patronage of that education on which a republic is based?” He answered his own question: “On this great and glorious cause let us expend freely, yes, more freely than on any other.”

Adams’ advice that a nation should “expend freely” upon a state-controlled system of schooling has been heeded, and not only in the U.S.A. Most developed nations are pouring ever- increasing sums of money into their schools. Yet, as already noted, it would seem that the community is receiving less and less for its investment. Whilst some people still perceive, with Mann, the school as the remedy for all social ills, the expectations of the majority are more modest. They expect the school to train their children in basic skills, educate their children in the habits of critical and creative thought, socialize their children, and mind their children.

Planned Conditioning, Lack of Education

Schools do succeed in “minding” children, keeping them “off the streets” where they might “roam” (whereas adults “walk”) or “loiter” (whereas adults “stand”). They succeed in “socializing” children, although the current wisdom would have it that such must not involve conditioning children in patterns of behavior specified by an adult. (Whether this lack of planned “conditioning” simply leads to random “conditioning” by the mob, and explains why teachers in some U.S. and U.K. schools are demanding guards and “danger money,” is an interesting speculation.)

Blandly to assert that state-controlled schooling neither trains nor educates overstates the case: doubtlessly those of us who can read must acknowledge the truth of the bumper sticker asserting “If you can read this, thank an elementary teacher” and number among our benefactors such teachers. (Fortunately, those who cannot read are unable to decode the bumper sticker and conclude that they should blame an elementary teacher!) Yet the fact is that too many children are showing fewer and fewer skills after investing more and more of their years in schools consuming larger and larger sums of taxpayers’ money. A massive empire has been spawned, ruled by a priesthood of administrators, research workers, curriculum developers, “resource personnel,” and bureaucrats. They, not children, have proved the beneficiaries of compulsory, state-controlled education.

Those concerned with the quality of schooling are forced, inexorably, to question state- controlled schooling. So are those who take pluralism seriously. If liberty is understood in terms of the rights of individuals to formulate, and strive to realize, their own non-coercive visions of the “good life,” then state-controlled education is anathema.

What skills must be taught? Who is to say, for example, that reading, writing, and arithmetic are more valuable than carpentry? Could one not imagine a religious group which regarded reading, writing, and arithmetic as signs of an evil, worldly wisdom? Does the majority have the “right” coercively to correct this value judgment? If so, is it conceded that such a group, were it to constitute the majority of the populace, would have the “right” to make the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic a crime?

Again, even assuming total agreement as to the value of literacy, who is to specify what books are read? Is Little Black Sambo a banned book or compulsory reading? Are primary readers to depict “normal” families or lesbian couples who have adopted or conceived by artificial in semination a child? A neutral teacher antiseptically presenting all conceivable human life styles embodies a hidden, and therefore all-embracing, curriculum: the notion that value judgments are merely the idiosyncratic expressions of individual tastes, a viewpoint which, although popular, is simply unacceptable to most religious believers and many humanists.

Return to the Market Place

Those concerned with the quality of schooling, and those concerned with individual liberty, are led by different routes to one conclusion. Schooling must be returned to the market place. Consumers, at long last, would be free to register dissatisfaction with incompetent schools and teachers by the withdrawal of paying custom and, conversely, would again learn to value competent teachers and schools. Diversity in schooling would be encouraged—a diversity which can be dismissed as “divisive” only by people holding to an ideal of cultural homogenization which is sadly anachronistic in a pluralistic society. Schools freely chosen and privately funded would become “mediating structures” which, like churches, unions, corporations, and associations, foster a sense of identity and belonging; a reality which in a pluralistic and highly mobile society, is no longer fostered by “society as a whole.”

Restoring Personal Choice

The market would encourage teachers to improve their professional skills, would indicate ap proaches to teaching which “work,” and would stimulate creative people outside the present educational system to devise and market learning materials which, because of their effectiveness, would be purchased by schools and teachers. Specialized schools developing particular skills could be created by gifted teachers, students spending only part of their educational day and educational dollar at such schools. The poorest, assisted by voluntary associations to pay school fees, would have returned to them some control over their own decisions for their children and thereby recover some of the self-esteem which a well-intentioned State and its minions under mined when decisions once made by individuals and families were made for them by the “experts.”

Most importantly, the dream of Martin Luther and John Calvin that they, an elite, could use the school system to impose their vision of the “good life” upon others would be ended. That dream evolved into a nightmare which flourished in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, still curses the U.S.S.R. and other Marxian countries, and threatens to envelop nations which once knew what liberty meant but are sleepwalking their way back into captivity by an allegedly all-powerful, all- knowing, and all-present State.

Those who still cherish liberty face the mammoth task of wresting control of schooling from the State and returning it, not to some abstraction called “the people,” but to flesh and blood men and women whose visions of the good life vary and whose hopes for their children differ. Fortunately such people should be joined in this task by all who care about the quality of schooling available to their children and their children’s children.