FACING THE HARDEST TRUTH
Till this moment, I never knew myself.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
There are many obstacles to overcome if there is to be any hope of saving tomorrow from the grip of today’s progressive pre-education camps. The most stubborn obstacle of all, however, is perhaps the one embedded in our own hearts, namely the all too human inclination to comfort ourselves with the thought that the soul-deforming corruptions of public education began in earnest only after our own school days, and hence that we ourselves escaped the harm we so easily recognize in others.
This ego-saving instinct drives the rationalizations of those who object to calls for the complete abandonment of public schooling on the grounds that if the schools just got back to the methods of the good old days, all would be well. In other words, such people are unwilling to see the problem as anything deeper than the superimposition of some bad textbooks, teaching methods, or 1960s radicalism on an essentially noble system, because to admit that the problem is more fundamental than that is to admit that one’s own education was harmful, which is to concede that one was indeed harmed—that you are less than you might have been.
Once, preparing a class of Korean undergraduates for a reading of Plato’s Apology, I asked them to think back over all their years of schooling, and to tell me what percentage of their teachers had not deserved their pay. At first, the students just smiled—Korea’s Confucian heritage demands unreflective respect for all teachers. Finally, one young woman bravely volunteered that perhaps thirty percent of her teachers had not deserved their pay—a much higher number than I had expected from a Korean student. This opened the floodgates. Almost all the students in the room subsequently condemned a significant portion of their educators—one as high as sixty percent—as unworthy of being paid given what they had actually provided for their students.
Next, I asked them whether their own education had been worth all the money that had been spent on it over the years. With only one exception, everyone said unequivocally that his or her own schooling had been worth every penny (or Korean won, in this case). When I noted that this question was, in a sense, just a variation on my previous question about the teachers, a few students grinned sheepishly, and then a few more, as they gradually got the point: They were perfectly willing to declare that much of their education had been ineffectual or counterproductive—but unwilling to accept the logical result of this, namely that their own development had been slowed or stunted. (I have since repeated the experiment in several other classes, each time with similar results.)
These were students still in school, which is why the contradiction in their answers was so apparent and pitiable. For those of us who have long since completed our formal education, this natural tendency to self-protection is greatly exacerbated. We may easily discern the harm being done to today’s young people, but draw the line at admitting that we too are damaged goods. To defend our pride, we must deny that our own education was compromised. The reason this denial presents such an enormous obstacle to change is that it implicitly detaches the current evils of public education from the institution itself. We hesitate to condemn the institution outright, because this would devalue the conditions and results of our own intellectual and moral development. We thereby protect and excuse our civilization’s most powerful means to permanent tyranny in order to protect our always fragile reputations with ourselves.
Were public schools in the advanced world better twenty, forty, or sixty years ago? Very likely. But it no more follows from this that public education is not such a bad idea than it follows from the fact that the welfare state of sixty years ago had not yet incorporated socialized medicine that socialism per se is not such a bad idea. Today’s extensions of progressive control over an ever-increasing range of our lives did not arise from nowhere; they were made possible by earlier, gradual insinuations of the concepts and moral perspectives of totalitarianism into the modern soul.
Likewise with education. Dewey did not get the thoroughly progressive, individual-crushing system he wanted all at once. But the slow insinuation of his theories into the educational establishments of the world, beginning more than a century ago, has allowed his intellectual heirs to achieve a level of socialist indoctrination and illiberal moral degradation that in many ways have surpassed Dewey’s most depraved hopes. The same, in turn, may be said of nineteenth century public school advocacy, all the way back to Fichte. So while it may have been easier in the past for people to come out of public school with some of their reasoning and character intact, it is invalid to conclude that this relative superiority indicates anything other than that an old cancer has worsened.
Public schools from the supposed good old days were the precondition for public schools of today. Once the premise was established that modern society’s interest in a broadly educated population could best be satisfied by direct government provision and oversight of schooling, it was a very short step to the conclusion that such schooling ought not to be left in the unpredictable, unsupervised hands of local communities, and then, inevitably, to the declaration that it ought to be compulsory. And from here, it was an even shorter step to the argument that everyone ought to be provided the same education, in the same way, in the name of equality and fairness. Thus, increasing centralization and standardization are natural (even if often unintended) consequences of the initial impulse to use the coercive power of government to provide something called “education” for all children. Such a metastasizing government beneficence is inherently susceptible to internal corruption by big thinkers, central planners, and bureaucratic mother hens. The result, all but inevitable given the initial premises, is what you see: an entire civilization undone, intellectually, spiritually, and morally, in the name of “making sure every child gets a good education,” or of “preparing our children for citizenship,” “for industrial democracy,” or “for today’s economy.”
Some, comparing their own pasts to mankind’s present impasse, might be tempted to object here that public schools in the old style were, after all, responsible for the most prosperous and powerful civilization in history. How sure can we be that the truth is not precisely the contrary, namely that public schools in the old style were responsible for the gradual undermining and destruction of the most prosperous and powerful civilization in history. The perceptual inversion made by apologists for the good old days results from imagining the relationship between public education and modernity as a still photograph, rather than observing its historical arc in progress. The mechanisms of liberty, free markets, and so-called ethical individualism were set in motion many generations before government schooling was generally available, let alone universal and compulsory. The generations that produced the ideas and art which gave modern civilization its mind and character, as well as the generations that produced the statesmen and warriors who brought its political promise to practical realization, were generations without public schooling in anything like today’s sense. The accumulated intellectual, spiritual, and economic momentum of liberalizing modernity was able to withstand the first frictions of progressive paternalism, allowing civilization and its economies to grow even while the totalitarian urge was beginning its slow lurch into civilized life. Nowhere was this progressive infection more destructive, and more brilliantly conceived, than in government schools, which can nip the natural impulse to learn and excel in the bud, and which were explicitly contrived from early on to produce competent but submissive workers for the benefit of the ruling class. The subsequent broadening of the schools’ agenda to include the aggressive undermining of traditional morality, the short-circuiting of maturation, and neo-Marxist revisionism regarding the world’s intellectual, artistic, and political history, bespeaks less a radical change in education policy than an inevitable devolution set in motion by the earlier stages of corruption.
The Jesuits said “give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man.” It is no accident that Fichte and his Prussian cohorts isolated childhood education as the key to revolutionizing German society, that John Dewey was focused on early childhood education as early as the 1880s, that Mao Tse-tung, a school teacher, made education reform central to China’s Marxist revolution, or that many 1960s leftist radicals, such as William Ayers, are primary education specialists today. Yes, public education continues to deteriorate. But that is the point: The deterioration is a continuation of something begun generations ago. None of us who have been through any version of public schooling should fool ourselves about what this means, including and especially for our own souls. This is no time for foolish pride; it is time for righteous anger, and the will to put a stop to generations of forced intellectual and moral decline.
Universal public education is modernity’s Achilles heel, or its tragic flaw, the fatal mistake of a prosperous, quickly changing world—a civilization in the throes of youthful enthusiasm—imagining that it can take over where freed human nature left off, and even outdo freedom and nature, by mass producing through government micromanagement the kind of people who make liberty and civil society possible. This latter description of public education’s foundations is the generous version, which I offer as a concession to those who object to my arguments by noting that many good men have advocated the state provision of education.
It is true that some very good men have favored this. It is also true that the best and most nobly motivated of these men—from Aristotle to Jefferson and Madison—were not publicly educated themselves, and never lived in a community in which state-controlled education was the norm, let alone compulsory. We cannot know, but may guess, how their views on the subject might be altered were they among us today, witnessing the practical reality of freedom reduced to government-monitored pleasure-seeking, thanks in large measure to the disintegrating effects of compulsory government schooling on humanity’s practical intelligence, moral character, and the habits of mind that make liberal education, and civilized society in general, possible. The blind spot of those men of exalted spirit was perhaps their noble-minded presumption that in a good and just society, good and just motives would prevail. From less hopeful, but equally great, men, such as Plato and Tocqueville, we learn three harsh truths that together comprise all the answer we need offer to the virtuous hopes of wishful thinkers regarding state-regulated schooling: (1) no society is so pure or so just as to be immune to the corruptive effects of human weakness, folly, or malice; (2) societal success and prosperity actually pave the way to corruption by weakening the resolve and vigilance of a populace grown over-confident in its strength and security; and, (3) the levers of monopolistic state authority are a natural magnet to those whose desire for power and wealth outstrips their interest in virtue and the common good.
In sum, state control of education—as of most things—is an invitation to ignoble men to insinuate themselves and their immoral motives into the system, seeking their own perceived advantage at the expense of fellow men who fall within range of their legislative influence. And since, in this case, it is the soul of the future—a population’s children—into which this corruption may be insinuated, it would seem that education, far from being an exception to the rule of limited government, ought to be an especially emphatic marker of the proper limits of legitimate state involvement in men’s affairs. The risk is too great. The proof of this is in the poison pudding of today’s public schools, not in one or two districts, provinces, or nations, but worldwide. Indeed, the universality of compulsory government schooling is itself evidence of the way corruption breeds further corruption.
Leave your ego to one side, for the sake of mankind’s future. If you were raised in the era of government-regulated compulsory schooling, your soul’s growth was stunted to a significant degree, at the very least through the emotional bruising engendered by your spirit’s resistance, and the years drained from your productive intellectual and practical life.
Be not proud. Be angry. And resolve to end this authoritarian siege before it ends us.