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What Education Needs

Sheldon Richman

As an antidote to the blather masquerading on MSNBC this week as serious discussion of education, I prescribe the wisdom of Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), the English classical-liberal political philosopher, scientist, and religious Dissenter. In An Essay on the First Principles of Government, and on the Nature of Political, Civil, and Religious Liberty (1768), Priestley argued for a free and spontaneous education environment. For him education must be left to free individuals precisely because no one can know in advance — or once and for all — what forms of pedagogy are best. (The chapter is titled “In what manner an authoritative code of education would affect political and civil liberty.”)

In the manner of F. A. Hayek, Priestley’s writing on education emphasized the trial-and-error nature of discovery — the need for competitive experimentation from many quarters, indeed, for “unbounded liberty, and even caprice.” What a great phrase!

Here’s what he says:

“[O]f all arts [including education], those stand the fairest chance of being brought to perfection, in which there is opportunity of making the most experiments and trials, and in which there are the greatest number and variety of persons employed in making them.… The reason is, that the operations of the human mind are slow; a number of false hypotheses and conclusions always precede the right one; and in every art, manual or liberal, a number of awkward attempts are made, before we are able to execute any thing which will bear to be shown as a master-piece in its kind; so that to establish the methods and processes of any art, before it have arrived to a state of perfection (of which no man can be a judge) is to fix it in its infancy, to perpetuate every thing that is inconvenient and awkward in it, and to cut off its future growth and improvement. And to establish the methods and processes of any art when it has arrived to perfection is superfluous. It will then recommend and establish itself.

“Now I appeal to any person whether any plan of education, which has yet been put in execution in this kingdom, be so perfect as that the establishing of it by authority would not obstruct the great ends of education; or even whether the united genius of man could, at present, form so perfect a plan. Every man who is experienced in the business of education well knows, that the art is in its infancy; but advancing, it is hoped, apace to a state of manhood. In this condition, it requires the aid of every circumstance favourable to its natural growth, and dreads nothing so much as being confined and cramped by the unseasonable hand of power. To put it (in its present imperfect state) into the hands of the civil magistrate, in order to fix the mode of it, would be like fixing the dress of a child, and forbidding its cloaths ever to be made wider or larger.”

Uncertain Future

Priestley is making what should be an elementary point. No matter how far advanced the methods of education are (and who would say they are advanced at all?), no one knows what might be discovered tomorrow or who might discover it. To the extent a coercive bureaucracy controls education we cut ourselves off from tomorrow’s discoveries, since we have no idea who may come up with them or how. Bureaucracies are protectionist and ultimately conservative in the sense that they are not eager to encourage boat-rockers. We find the opposite conditions in a freed market in which anyone may to take a shot at launching a new idea on a large scale or small — and consumers (parents in this case) are free to try it or ignore it.

In a word, what government deprives education of is entrepreneurship, and by implication, competition.

“I may add, in this place,” Priestley wrote, “that, if we argue from the analogy of education to other arts which are most similar to it, we can never expect to see human nature, about which it is employed, brought to perfection, but in consequence of indulging unbounded liberty, and even caprice in conducting it” (emphasis added). He went on:

“From new, and seemingly irregular methods of education, perhaps something extraordinary and uncommonly great may spring. At least there would be a fair chance for such productions; and if something odd and excentric should, now and then, arise from this unbounded liberty of education, the various business of human life may afford proper spheres for such excentric geniuses.

“Education, taken in its most extensive sense, is properly that which makes the man. One method of education, therefore, would only produce one kind of men; but the great excellence of human nature consists in the variety of which it is capable. Instead, then, of endeavouring, by uniform and fixed systems of education, to keep mankind always the same, let us give free scope to every thing which may bid fair for introducing more variety among us.

As if it weren’t already clear, Priestley was no friend of government regulation of education:

“I wish it could not be said, that the business of education is already under too many legal restraints. Let these be removed, and a few more fair experiments made of the different methods of conducting it, before the legislature think proper to interfere any more with it; and by that time, it is hoped, they will see no reason to interfere at all. The business would be conducted to much better purpose, even in favour of their own views, if those views were just and honourable, than it would be under any arbitrary regulations whatever.”

In other words: Laissez faire!

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