REPLIES TO OBJECTIONS
Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.
We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.[i]
Having now examined the question of compulsory schooling from practical, historical, and theoretical angles, we may benefit from a final survey of some of the standard objections to my basic conclusion. For while the typical defenses of public school have been addressed at various points along the way in this discussion, the stakes involved here are too high, and the effects of our universal progressive indoctrination too stubborn, to take anything for granted. Therefore, in the spirit of St. Thomas Aquinas, who elevated the dry patterns of scholarly thoroughness into the beauty of a kind of intellectual music, let us conclude our long argument with brief replies to some of the objections most commonly presented to those who seek to make the case against state-controlled education.
Objection 1. “In a world without public schools, only the wealthy would receive an education.”
First of all, this objection is, logically, only an argument for schools to be provided at public expense for the (voluntary) benefit of poor families. It cannot legitimately be extended to support the institution of universal compulsory schooling. Nevertheless, it has in fact been forced into such illegitimate double duty since the very early days of modern public school advocacy. This indicates that much of the early argument for public schools as a developmental safety net for the poor was in fact a political wedge to hold open the door for the advocates’ true goal, the gradual implementation of full-scale compulsory schooling in communities where this intention could not have been imposed immediately without large-scale popular resistance. (Remember Victor Cousin’s observation that French Catholic parishes were already providing for the education of the poor, but that this was the perfect chance for the state to leap in with mandates to entrench in law what was already being done voluntarily, as a step toward genuine Prussian-style schooling.)
Furthermore, the claim that without state-supported schools only the wealthy would be educated is unsound on its face, as it reveals a hidden premise in the case for universal state education, namely that “education” means, and can only mean, schooling, and schooling of a very particular sort. A resident of New York State may be forgiven for imagining that eighteen thousand dollars a year is not quite enough to provide a decent education for a child, but in fact we know that Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Jane Austen, Alexander Pope, and Ben Franklin—at least the equals in achievement, I dare say, of any recent New York public school graduate—acquired almost all of their childhood learning virtually for free, and not through any grand acts of charity, but through reading. Illiteracy is the only real bar to unlimited spiritual cultivation, historical awareness, and the growth of practical knowledge and skill.
Frederick Douglass, as a child slave, was taught to read the alphabet by his owner’s wife, Sophia Auld. Hugh Auld put a stop to this, warning his wife against such carelessness in terms that taught Douglass a most valuable lesson, one that has lost none of its relevance:
“If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”[ii]
In other words, teaching a slave to read is handing him the key to the door marked “Humanity,” a door which, in the modern conception of slavery, had to be kept permanently locked. Consider, in this light, the objections of the two greatest theorists of modern public schooling to the early teaching of literacy—or the various practical and theoretical means we have devised to discourage the development of advanced reading skills today. Though subtler and more nuanced, our neo-Fichtean or Deweyan machinations are no different in principle from Hugh Auld’s blunt declaration.
The general dissemination of knowledge and, more importantly, the general impetus to seek it, are not the effects of government coercion, which merely guarantees the universal limitation of the extent and nature of what will be learned, or rather presented. The conditions which tilt a society in the direction of generalized learning, as opposed to universal indoctrination, are (a) a political structure rooted in principles of natural equality, which means the weakening of inflexible social hierarchies that confine the majority of men to narrow and unsurpassable horizons of subservience and stasis; (b) levels of general prosperity that make some measure of leisure, intellectual endeavor, and also charitable activity, possible for the majority; and (c) a heritage or ethos rooted in certain foundational books, particularly in a moral or religious context, which create a strong familial and societal interest in the teaching of literacy and history. Modernity was in the process of satisfying these conditions, and hence in the freer nations was tending toward general literacy, before the spread of public schools. In short, education for the common man is a natural by-product of liberty and prosperity, not of coercive paternalism. The latter, on the contrary, tends to bring to its “masses” or “folk” not universal education, but a lowest common denominator model of child-rearing designed to restrain everyone at uniform and mediocre levels of intellectual development, combined with an indoctrination to obedience and submission.
Objection 2. “Private education creates unequal opportunity, and is therefore unjust.”
This argument, the same one used to rationalize socialized medicine, the graduated income tax, “redistributive justice,” and the rest of the socialist agenda, has been central to compulsory school advocacy from the beginning. And while some might regard healthcare and wealth distribution—the realms of life and property—as the more pernicious instantiations of the argument, I believe nothing captures the absurd heart of progressivism more profoundly than the desire to retard human intellectual and moral development in the name of justice. Progressive elitists, not satisfied with merely determining the uniform standards of education and methods of social ranking for all children, while directly undertaking the moral indoctrination of most children, often call for the complete outlawing of private schooling, apparently without any qualms about the brazen tyranny entailed by the wish to prevent citizens from investing their hard-earned wealth—not to mention the time and effort expended attaining that wealth—on their own children’s well-being.
Michelle Rhee, darling of America’s educational despotism movement, whose “tough talk” posturing sometimes even fools conservatives, fondly recalls being told by billionaire investor Warren Buffet that in the name of fairness, private schools ought to be banned outright, and all children forcibly distributed to government schools by lottery.[iii]
“Think about what this would mean,” Rhee gushes. “CEOs’ children, diplomats’ children, many would be going to schools in Anacostia and east of the river [in the District of Columbia], where most of our schools are. I guarantee we would never see a faster moving of resources from one end of the city to the other. I also guarantee we would soon have a system of high-quality schools.”
Rhee’s effusion over Buffet’s hypothesis is a brilliant illustration of how progressives think, and of what they think of their lowly subjects. “Think about what this would mean,” she says—and then proceeds to think about what it would mean for her dreams of social reform. But let us now follow her injunction from a non-authoritarian outlook, shall we? Think about what Buffet’s proposal would mean to the victims of such reform.
First of all, it would mean that private- or home-educating parents, who under compulsory school laws are already pressured to educate their children according to government standards of subject matter and achievement, would lose even the freedom to control how they go about meeting those requirements. Second, it would entail the criminalization of parents who reject or resist the state’s manner of child-rearing. Third, the sheer randomness of the policy—children assigned to schools by “lottery”—would end even the façade of liberty by declaring that not only does the government have the authority to wrest children from their parents’ care and place them under the guardianship of the state, but now even the assignment of children to particular state guardians will be determined by chance, thus highlighting the degree to which the masses live entirely at the whim of the ruling class.
Finally, the whole idea is grounded in the doctrinaire socialist presupposition that private property ownership, with its inevitable unequal distribution, is inherently unfair, and therefore that the state must take steps to mitigate its effects. Rhee’s and Buffet’s daydream is, at bottom, a classic example of “redistributive justice.” Just allow the state to reallocate resources more evenly throughout the community, they muse, and then sit back and admire the social reformation. “I guarantee we would soon have a system of high quality schools,” Rhee beams. Similar guarantees have accompanied the socialization of other parts of modern society as well. The fact that the properly educational elements of public school were more effectively and efficiently delivered generations ago, when the schools had far less money and lacked many of today’s coercive equalization schemes is, of course, lost on the messianic reformer. Rhee, like all others of a totalitarian bent, imagines she can guarantee this high quality because in her heart of hearts she believes that only three conditions prevent schools from being uniformly perfect now: access to unlimited material resources, increased centralization of decision-making authority, and the placement of those resources and that authority into her hands.
This objection to private education on grounds of inequality, and the paternalists’ typically megalomaniacal solutions, are also, amusingly, a tacit acknowledgment that private education is in principle superior to public, such that the only way to remove this “unfair” advantage is to deny parents the right to choose it at all. The state coercively determines artificial standards and markers of learning, and then when citizens, through their own initiative and at their own expense, find private ways to exceed those artificial standards, the statist cries “Unfair!” The attempt to focus the objection on unequal financial advantages and expensive private schools is a ruse, as is easily shown by considering the progressive attitude toward homeschoolers or others who find inexpensive ways to educate their children far beyond the standards achieved by public schools. The rhetorical focus on money is merely an effort to score class warfare points against freedom. The real enemy, in the eyes of compulsory school advocates, is, and always has been, private success per se. Remember Dewey’s simple equation of private learning, or non-socialized knowledge, with selfishness. When even mental activity is to be collectivized and redistributed in equal portions, at the expense of the highest levels of achievement for those who are capable of it, we can be sure we have entered the realm of progressive double-speak, wherein tyranny is justice, oppression is opportunity, and the coercive stifling of some men by others is equality.
By way of explicating this point further, please allow me a brief digression. South Korea, where I have lived for several years, developed from impoverished dictatorship to economic powerhouse and democracy in barely a generation. One of the side effects of this rapid rise is that some areas of the economy have developed ahead of the government’s regulatory machinery. There is still some sense of unleashed entrepreneurial spirit here, with relatively few people expecting to remain with one employer throughout their working lives, and a large proportion expecting to open their own small businesses at some point in life.
One of the most immediately striking features of Korea’s hit-the-ground-running economy is its effect on education. Korea has a fully developed compulsory public school system, and one which, by the academic standards of the international schooling establishment of our time, seems to be achieving measurably better results in core subjects than is common in the West, within a shorter teaching day.[iv]
The most interesting part of Korea’s education establishment, however—and the dirty little secret of her public school success—is what comes after school: Private academies, or hagwons in Korean, specializing in almost every academic subject, are the main afterschool activity for most children. English language academies, ubiquitous in every city, town and village throughout the country, are the most famous examples. (English is a core academic subject in Korean schools.) But there are also thousands of schools—leaving aside the uncountable number of independent private tutors—specializing in math, science, art, music, and so on, offering classes for every age and skill level. Because the hagwons are specialized, for-profit businesses, and offered explicitly for parents who want their children to excel, there is little of the lowest common denominator undertow that inevitably drags down academic standards in a public school system, even one focused more seriously on traditional “three Rs” learning, as is still the case in Korea. Children are generally placed in hagwon classes according to their actual level of knowledge, rather than strictly by age cohort, and the goal, unlike that in government schools, is not primarily to keep up with the state-standardized levels, but rather to exceed them.
And, broadly speaking, it works. I began my teaching life in Korea at a well-established, professionally-run, and family-owned English academy. Among my students were high-achieving elementary school children whose public school English classes involved repeating stock phrases such as “Nice to meet you” and “How’s the weather?”—that was the standard for eleven-year-olds in the public system—while they were writing essays about Thomas Edison or Machu Picchu for me. Needless to say, these students were the stars of their elementary school English classes, thanks largely to their hagwon, where they were taught material that challenged them, in classes small enough to allow personal attention, and with testing used only as a guideline for parents, rather than as the means to permanent public ranking.
Korea’s private academies are far from satisfactory, however, as they are mostly limited to the role of supplement, rather than genuine alternative, to the public system. In other words, their purpose and main selling point is inherently corrupt, because the curriculum at a hagwon is invariably designed with one eye on the spiritually degrading requirements of the standardized government-corporate vetting process. (If they eschewed that focus, they would be out of business in a minute, since Koreans have completely bought into a modernized progressive bastardization of their traditional social hierarchy, according to which personal worth means standardized, quantifiable success.) Nevertheless, the relatively recent and very fluid development of Korea’s public vs. private education battle provides an instructive portrait of the principles at stake in all such battles, everywhere.
In 1980, South Korea’s last dictator, Chun Doo-hwan, banned private education outright, a restriction that stood (in theory) until the law was ruled unconstitutional in the 1990s. Chun’s reasoning was a clear statement of the perennial arguments against private (i.e., parent-controlled) education, namely that it gives an unfair advantage in life to “the wealthy,” and that it saddles poor parents with an unnecessary financial burden.
The first of these arguments (the “unfair advantage”) is the usual mantra of authoritarians everywhere who seek to control the population by suppressing the human urge to excel. People want good things for their children; they put in extra hours of work, undergo hardships, and forgo other interests in order to attain the things which they believe will give their children a better life. To you and me, these people are showing character and responsibility, and exemplify the natural, moral propensity to pursue happiness. To an authoritarian, such people and their efforts are to be despised—not strictly because they work hard and sacrifice, but because they succeed. Private success, which threatens to crack the authoritarians’ eternal veneer of justification—“you could never make it in this world without the government’s help”—is the mortal enemy of the statists. Success that does not require state intervention on the citizen’s behalf is an embarrassment to them, as it exposes their true aims, which have little or nothing to do with improving the conditions of life for the general population.
Beyond the urge to control, and the twin canards of affordability and equal access, statists typically fall back on the notion that a public system can guarantee “standards,” while truly private education would leave parents at the mercy of incompetent or unethical businessmen. It is tempting simply to reply, “Better an incompetent or unethical businessman than an incompetent or unethical government.” And, though stated flippantly, this really is the ultimate answer to the outcry for government regulation and control of private education. Once again, however, the Korean example sheds light on the issue.
Korea’s private academies vary greatly in structure and competence. Some are fly-by-night schemes that offer little of educational value, while others are massive “cram schools” dedicated entirely to preparing generic hordes of high schoolers for Korea’s disturbingly life-defining SAT; many, however, particularly at the elementary school level, emphasize personalized teaching in small classes, with a carefully selected curriculum. And with Korean parents feverishly dedicated to their children’s advancement and future success, in a nation where success is determined almost entirely by standardized testing of various sorts, this market tends to sort itself out in favor of the private schools that show measurable results, as one would expect a market to do.
That last point holds the key, however, and points to the true core of the issue: Korean parents are “feverishly dedicated to their children’s advancement and future success.” Unlike most Western parents, Koreans have not been lulled into quietly bowing before certified teachers and government school boards as the only authorities when it comes to academic matters. They, like almost everyone in today’s world, have foolishly allowed government bureaucrats and corporate interests to design the basic goals and the presiding vetting process determining their children’s futures. But as to the means to fulfilling the requirements of that artificial hierarchy, they have thus far refused to accept the state’s offerings at face value. Parents here are infamous for hounding teachers with questions, suggestions, and complaints. The reason they have such a vibrant market for private education—in spite of an outright ban on such schools being in effect until just over twenty years ago—is that Korean parents simply refused to obey the law. They defiantly sought private lessons illegally, until, through court challenges in the early years of their newly-achieved republican political structure, they won back the freedom to use their own hard-earned money for their children’s betterment.
The argument of leftists that in a private system people would be at the mercy of business interests is derived from a typical presumption of passivity or stupidity on the part of parents, and is refuted by the Korean model. Regarding the private academies, where the parents have a choice, if they are unhappy with what they are getting for their money, they say so, and they take their money and their children elsewhere.
This Wild West atmosphere can be frustrating for conscientious private teachers who feel they are being continually raked over the coals by over-anxious, sometimes unreasonable parents. There is nonetheless something refreshing about parents so deeply concerned about their children’s education that they are prepared, on a moment’s notice, and at tremendous expense, to do something about it. And remember, this is not the attitude of a brave minority, as in the West; this is the status quo. On the one hand, in this education-mad nation, the public school system is spoken of by most Koreans with the same measure of misplaced pride that Canadians exude over their socialized medical system. It is such a dominant factor in their everyday lives that they almost invariably become habituated to regarding it as essential to their national identity. On the other hand, something else that is almost universally accepted here is that the lowest common denominator nature of public schooling itself is unacceptable, and that paying thousands of dollars a year to supplement your children’s schooling with private lessons, in addition to funding the public system through taxes, is one of the basic responsibilities of parenthood.
Today, all of this is changing—drifting westward (forward?), shall we say. The main opponents of Korea’s private academy system are, predictably, government and the public school teachers. The enormous success of the academies is a constant humiliation to the public schools, an open societal declaration that they are woefully inadequate and that parents will not accept what the state is offering as the final word on their children’s prospects. Governments and their workers do not like to be humiliated. Their response has been to try to undermine the academies at every turn. There is a constant defamation campaign against the academy teachers, accusing them of being unqualified, and not “real teachers,” because they are not certified by the state. (In other words, the accusation is that the private teachers lack the same qualification that all teachers lacked throughout classical Greece and Rome, the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, not to mention throughout most of Korea’s five thousand year history.) Public school teachers are mortified by parents who speak to them of a child’s private academy teacher as if she were the child’s “real” teacher, as in, “My son’s math teacher said….” The obvious fact that this “unqualified” private teacher is a major reason the child has risen to the top of his public school class in a particular subject is irrelevant; her lack of state certification disqualifies her as a real teacher, regardless of how much more effective she is at teaching.
Then there is the dogma that as businesses, the academies’ only concern is making money, rather than education. (Analogous argument: Apple computers are fake, because Steve Jobs was in it for the money.) The fact that the academies work—that students who attend them generally learn at an accelerated rate, and regularly outperform their non-hagwon-educated public school classmates according to the public school’s own standards—would, in a rational world, lead to a reconsideration of the merits and methods of the public system. In the world of the administrative state, however, where reason is regarded as The Enemy, the response to private success in areas where the government has a stake is to deny it, to obscure it, and if possible to crush it.
Compare the case of (modern) Greece, where a similar war is being waged against private afterschool academies, the frondistiria. Here is a recent account of the Greek “problem”:
Parents experience all the problems and difficulties faced by their children and they have to spend a significant part of their family time studying with their children and take them back and forth to private lessons and frondistiria [—when they should be spending family time doing what, exactly?]. The findings of various studies carried out by research firms show parents in Greece in 2008 spent a whopping 6 billion Euros in tuition to send their children to after-school lessons. This is for sure a plague that has to stop.[v]
Why is the private interest of private citizens in using their own money to supplement their children’s learning “a plague” that requires curing? Parents sharing “all the problems and difficulties of their children” is now regarded as a dangerous outbreak, and the proposed solutions to this horrible social disease (which used to be called parenthood) include, predictably: a longer public school teaching day; a younger age for public school entry; more money and high tech classrooms; “no more boring lessons”; and, most importantly, the reduction of parents’ involvement in their children’s learning. The overriding concern is that extra teaching provided for pay, and under the guidance of parents rather than government, be eliminated in favor of the exclusive mental control of the public school. The author’s account of the workings of the “New School,” in which knowledge is “produced” rather than “consumed,” is summarized in a Deweyesque flourish:
What is more, students will be interactive individuals in environments where intelligence is collective; their knowledge will not be kept in the brain. Nevertheless, the support and participation of educators who will present a refreshing face as professionals, and parents who will show trust in the reform and the new, totally different way of obtaining knowledge from the one they remember and received themselves when young, will vindicate the expectations of a dynamic, rationally composed idea that in the new school “the student comes first.”[vi]
Who came first in the old school, one wonders? What were the public school teachers before they suddenly became refreshingly professional in the New School? And why should the parents be obliged to “vindicate” the public school reforms with their “trust”? In any case, it is reassuring that there will be a collective pot of intelligence in the New School, since it seems highly likely that under Greece’s new “rationally composed idea,” “knowledge will not be kept in the brain.”
In a similar attempt to root out parental control, though one lacking the progressive lyricism of the Greek reforms, Korean public schools have recently instituted their own government-subsidized afterschool programs to compete against the hagwons. As these are merely extensions of the public school mentality, however, they inevitably tend toward the inherent problem of the public system, namely low standards, rather than the promotion of excellence. And as they utilize non-certified teachers, they have in effect reinforced a two-tier education system within the public schools themselves, with the certified teachers being the first-class citizens, and the afterschool teachers being explicitly second-class, and reminded of it in every way possible.
Because the private system grew up alongside the public faster than government could gain control over it, eliminating it has been a long, difficult struggle. Korean parents are simply not yet willing to accept a lower quality of education than that to which they have become accustomed. But it will likely happen, eventually. The lawmakers’ and government teachers’ class warfare campaign against the private academies will finally succeed, thousands of small business owners and their hundreds of thousands of employees will lose their livelihoods, and Korea’s advantage in global standardized comparisons at the primary and secondary levels will dissipate. Whether it takes ten years or twenty, Koreans will finally decide, like their Western counterparts, that “free education” is enough, that the state-sanctioned professionals know what is best for their children, and that, if it sometimes seems that the system is designed to produce an ever-lower standard of mediocrity—both intellectual and moral—well, what is one to do?
Objection 3. “In a completely private education world, there would be no way to set or enforce standards of quality or achievement.”
Enforcing standards of quality in the sense intended within a system of compulsory schooling—assuming it could mean anything in practice other than the forced retardation factory described in Part One—would require knowing the following, at a minimum: what every human being ought to learn, and when; what is not useful to human development, and may therefore be excluded from child-rearing; what knowledge or skills will be needed or useful in the future, and hence precisely what the society’s future will be; how each individual child best acquires knowledge, under what specific conditions, and at what precise pace; which methods of fostering learning are most effective for each type of child, detailed according to the individual child’s specific personal experiences, innate strengths and weaknesses, current level and source of motivation, and personal response to the particular teachers with whom he is confronted at any given time; and the most effective means of training each and every teacher, according to his or her own peculiar background, strengths and weaknesses, to utilize precisely the correct methods at exactly the right time to facilitate the highest possible level of learning for each unique child according to the teacher’s (consistently accurate) judgment of that child’s needs of the moment. There are indeed people who believe, or who want you to believe, that they actually know all of these things, and who therefore declare their fitness to enforce “standards” for the moral and intellectual development of every child in your community. It is debatable whether such people should be allowed to vote or drive a car. That they should actually be given the coercive authority to determine how every child in a community must be raised is ridiculous.
What state standardization really means in practice is utilitarian uniformity and streamlining of goals, a simplified social ranking and placement system for the administrative ease and economic predictability of the political and corporate elite. This results in school increasingly operating as a world unto itself, a set of rules and expectations answering to no real need or natural impulse, and a vetting process designed to reward successful climbers of imaginary ladders—to reward them, ultimately, with Advanced Worker Unit status to fill the void where their individuated souls and highest aspirations might have been.
Objection 4. “The profit motive degrades the noble task of education.”
This is the mantra typically preached by teachers’ unions, the same one shouted by all government unions.[vii] Apparently, the kind of profit sought by schools run as businesses is unworthy of education, whereas the kind of profit sought by teachers who work for pay and organize government unions to help them gain higher salaries and more benefits is honorable. If I find a public school teacher who teaches without pay—“for the children” as they say—and supports himself with a second job in the evenings or on weekends, then I will listen keenly to what he has to say about the evils of profit in education.
There is, in fact, a legitimate educational danger within for-profit education models—and these include all exchanges of money for teaching, whether in the private or public sphere. The danger concerns the relationship between teachers and parents; its highest expression is Socrates’ choice not to accept payment for teaching at all. His reason, put simply, is that he did not wish to be beholden to the fathers to teach their sons what they, the fathers, wanted their sons to hear, or what the fathers regarded as “useful,” but wished rather to be free to teach the truth. This is one of the most straightforward points of conflict in the ancient battle between the philosophers and the sophists. The sophists, as the Greek philosophers depicted them, were professional teachers who traveled from city to city charging a fee to teach young men how to succeed in political affairs, without regard for the true and the good. That is, they made their living by promising fathers to prepare their sons for lives of practical power and influence, whereas Socrates sought precisely to moderate the desire for political success in favor of the “impractical” philosophic life, a goal which set him at odds with the boys’ fathers.
Those who would echo such lofty Socratic reasoning to defend public education do so at their peril. Think again: Socrates complains that if the fathers pay the teachers, the fathers call the tune. So what happens if the state pays the teachers? Education is reduced again to the quest for mere political usefulness, rather than truth, but now with the far greater degradation that today’s sophists are not even teaching the children to forsake truth in favor of their own political success, but rather to forsake it in the name of someone else’s political success. They are teaching children, over the heads of their parents, how to make themselves useful cogs in the machinery of the progressive elite. This heightens the significance of Aristotle’s observation that when a state is unwilling or unfit to attend to the proper care of children, education ought to be left in the hands of the parents, who at least have the children’s best interests at heart. In short, where the issue is vested interests versus the quest for truth, much better the vested interests of a loving parent than those of a self-serving ruling bureaucracy attended to by its profit-seeking certified servants, the teachers.
So much, then, for the noble dream of non-profit education. This dream is realizable in principle, of course, but most decidedly not in a government school system. It is realized in practice every time a parent, grandparent, family friend, or other responsible adult seeks to help a child learn without expecting anything in return, beyond the satisfaction of watching the child grow more aware, more confident, more thoughtful, and happier. One intended result of public education is precisely to render this dream fundamentally impossible, by discrediting and debunking all teaching that is not provided by state-employed teachers.
Objection 5. “Mothers who have careers would be forced to give them up in order to teach children at home, setting the cause of women’s rights back fifty years.”
I actually heard a version of this argument used by TV journalist Katty Kay against former U.S. Congressman Ron Paul, who was being interviewed about his book advocating homeschooling.[viii] Paul’s answer was a great demonstration of the power and purpose of political correctness. In short, he stridently ducked the question, citing an irrelevant anecdote about a woman living in a shelter while working two jobs, but then proclaiming that if he and his wife had to raise their own children all over again, they would probably choose public school again, “even if the conditions would have been bad in our public school system when we were raising our kids.” In other words, he had been reduced by a talking head’s silly question to conceding the core of the position he had supposedly come to defend.
First of all, there is no reason to presume that mothers alone would or should be responsible for educating children in the case of homeschooling. The suggestion that the moral and intellectual development of one’s child is a mere household chore, equivalent to dusting the living room, and hence stereotypically “women’s work,” is only the first of several inanities inherent in this objection. Aristotle and Plato, certainly male chauvinists in good standing, presumed the opposite, namely that the education of children was primarily a father’s duty. In any case, the idea that educating a child—one’s own child—is a thankless task which must be intrinsically less fulfilling to a woman than her career, is a sad statement on how far several generations of progressive indoctrination have carried modernity away from any serious thoughts of family, child-rearing, or the preciousness of the individual human soul. Women (and men, of course) routinely accept the shrinkage of their children’s prospects and perspectives by way of public school’s generic, utilitarian “standards,” in exchange for the freedom (meaning license) to pursue “their own goals.” In so doing, they lend credence to the harshest criticism of the modern parental attitude toward public school, namely that parents are ultimately indifferent to the educational needs of their children, selfishly seeking a glorified babysitting service to take the kids off their hands for the day.
Furthermore, the proper answer to the Katty Kays of the world with regard to the feminist “self-fulfillment versus staying home with the children” canard is quite simple: If you don’t want the responsibilities and limitations of raising a child properly, then don’t make babies. No one is obliged to do so, and if your heart’s priorities occupy a world detached from the freely chosen demands of parenthood, then it is just as well if you never do. If you are not willing to accept the burden of mowing the lawn and digging the weeds, then you should not purchase a home with a large yard. If you prefer to have more leisure time than a hard-driving business career allows, then you ought to choose a less time-consuming (and perhaps less financially rewarding) kind of work. Likewise with the choice to do your best by your child versus the wish to fulfill other aspirations at the child’s expense.
Is this a harsh and unfair ultimatum? Not at all; I am merely deferring to a most basic tenet of logical thinking, the one about having your cake and eating it too. In this case, what is being eaten is the rightful future and intellectual potential of the world’s children; meanwhile, anyone impolite enough to point this out is accused of denying women their delusional right to “have it all.” A thing does not become possible simply because political correctness demands that it be so. “Having it all” is a modern euphemism for reducing children to secondary consideration at best, by leaving their spiritual development in the hands of the state, thereby forsaking the defining responsibility of parenthood. This is not a proposal to confine women to the home; nor do I belong to the camp of those who hold that women (or men, for that matter) who choose not to raise a family are somehow fundamentally flawed or unnatural. I am merely saying that adults who wish to pursue dreams that would preclude the proper and uncompromised care of children ought not to have children. It does not follow from this that those who do choose to have children are signing away their hopes of pursuing any interests or goals apart from those related to family life as such. There is, however, a great difference between finding a way to develop one’s talents or ideas in tandem with fulfilling the enormous responsibilities of parenthood, and simply lowering one’s parental expectations in the name of making time for other priorities. The first is a measured and honest attempt to develop one’s potencies without abandoning freely chosen duties; the second is child abuse practiced in the name of self-fulfillment.
Objection 6. Ending government schooling would lead to criminal or wayward youth on a mass scale, causing social chaos.
Aside from the underlying implication that a lack of government child-rearing means a lack of any child-rearing whatsoever, this objection may be met this way: Did the lack of government schooling lead to mass chaos in previous eras of civilization? The idea that all hell would break loose without compulsory schools seems to imply that “all hell” was indeed the condition of human society prior to the institution of compulsory schools. Was it? Fear-mongering about wayward youth run amok was a tactic often employed during the nineteenth century by compulsory school activists. The idea of a factory-based society in which some young people might slip through the cracks in normal community life and wind up engaging in criminal behavior was undoubtedly a real worry for people facing the unpredictable future of a rapidly changing economy, with family farms and small towns giving way to large industrialized cities, and young men leaving the farms behind to seek their fortune in those cities. The new always brings awkward periods of adjustment, and fears of imaginary effects that might result from causes men have not hitherto experienced. The general sense of “losing control” of existing social norms is a legitimate concern that may be exploited by those who seek power, and who may present themselves as benevolent agents of control, security, and stability in a changing world. The fact that compulsory schooling itself has been the chief agent in the worldwide evaporation of previous “social norms” gives the lie to this fantasy of government as stabilizing force. Government schools, both in founding theory and in fact, are not guarantors of societal stability and security. They are guarantors of ruling class stability and security, by way of state socialization, a process calibrated to undermine citizens’ independent spirit and will to self-determination.
Furthermore, there is a deeply authoritarian premise underlying the notion that compulsory schooling is needed to prevent the social problem of criminal youth. In the 1930s, New York Times sportswriter John Kiernan described the National Hockey League’s long season, which resulted in only a quarter of the teams being eliminated from the playoffs, as being “the equivalent of burning down a house to get the flies out of the dining-room.”[ix] The same analogy applies to effectively forcing an entire population’s youth into reform (pre-form?) schools in order to prevent a small minority of potentially dangerous deviants from turning bad.
As a matter of historical fact, before compulsory school laws, civil societies were not disintegrating into anarchy, and the majority of young men were not engaging in criminal behavior. We can never know for certain how modern societies might have developed to the present day without compulsory schools. What we do know for certain, however, is what harm can result from late modernity’s solution to the bogeyman of civil disorder, in which virtually all young men are systematically prevented from engaging in productive activity, disabused of any notions of privacy or private property, and, most importantly, detached from the centripetal moral force of the family.
That there were some poorly raised children and criminal youth in the nineteenth century industrial city is unquestionable. Looked at from our perspective, however, after a century and a half of “progress” in child-rearing, problems that at one time must have seemed serious have faded into relative insignificance. For today the West (followed gradually by the more westernized nations of the East) has elevated waywardness and indiscipline into a “youth culture” which not only tolerates, but is in effect defined by, the normalization of substance abuse; the encouragement and celebration of casual promiscuity, including mainstream degradations of girls and young women that might have been thought evidence of criminal insanity a century ago, but are now fêted as self-expression and art; the mass moron-ization of taste in literature, music, dance, and the visual arts; and the evaporation of that complex network of moral principles and exemplars that ought to function as the conscience of a people. This social disintegration is at least in part a result of the progressive way of “keeping children off the streets,” i.e., of universal public schooling, and it has, through the valences of democratic progressivism, gradually displaced all other forms of “culture.” We live in the age of nihilistic infantilism. Our childhood mass indoctrination settles into its adult form as general listlessness and disengagement; unthinking acquiescence to encroaching tyranny; marriage undertaken ever later and ever more transiently, with child-bearing and child-rearing treated as almost unrelated activities; and a heavy reliance on an endless stream of vulgar, childish and kitschy entertainment as the only means of staving off thoughts of that abyss which now occupies the space where adults once found the meaning and purpose of their lives.
The effect of this state-indoctrinated infantilism, however, is that now there actually is a legitimate question about what might happen if the public school entitlement were literally cancelled tomorrow. One thing we have learned from recent history is the near-impossibility of undoing an entrenched entitlement program. Greece bankrupted herself, and her government was finally forced to concede that the entitlement state could no longer be sustained in its current form. The Greek majority responded to their national degradation by rising up to elect a new government that promised to rescind the so-called austerity measures aimed at saving their country from further disgrace. In other words, faced with the collapse of their nation’s economy, and the humiliation of begging the Europeans to save them from their self-destructive behavior—Hellas pleading for mercy from the barbarians—today’s Greeks simply stamped their feet and screamed, “I want! I want! I want!”
The same reaction, on a global scale, would likely result from any immediate attempt to free the human race from universal compulsory schooling. Parents, teachers, and (given our modern deference to the childish) schoolchildren would join hands and march through the streets chanting “I want my free education!” and “Education is a human right!” In other words, the overturning of forced schooling laws would, in the short run, probably lead to chaos; but this disaster would be entirely the product of generations of coerced government child-rearing. As it happens, no such immediate liberation from government schooling could ever be undertaken in today’s world. Any general return to parent-controlled child-rearing will be slow and gradual, and occur at the level of public opinion and private action long before any honorable statesman of a distant future will have the nerve to pursue serious legislative reform.
In the meantime, this fear-mongering about social chaos in a world without government child-rearing may be answered more simply this way: Could the evils that would allegedly be unleashed by educational freedom be any worse than the totalitarian atrocities of the past century, all of which were perpetrated by regimes that made state-controlled schooling essential to their rule, and that justified their “New Education” as a means of establishing order and preventing social chaos?[x]
Objection 7. The modern economy is too complex and technological to expect people to learn the necessary job skills without some kind of central planning.
This concern gives away the game on the real essence of compulsory schooling. We now simply take for granted that the primary function of education is to prepare a child to take his eventual place in the economic hierarchy; in other words, that the purpose of schooling, which will occupy the bulk of a human being’s life and energy until adulthood, is to prepare the child for subservience—to teach him his duties to his superiors, as Cousin describes it, or to discern “the place in which he can be of most service,” as Dewey says—rather than to make him a happy and self-determining adult. Of course most people need to learn practical skills, some of which may help them gain remunerable employment. But this practical need is obviously matched by employers’ needs for young people with the specific skills suitable for various jobs, and parents’ interests in preparing their children for practical self-sufficiency. The solution is self-evident: Let employers teach willing young people any skills they do not already possess, and which the employers require, either directly (through apprenticeships or on-the-job training) or through the establishment of private schools emphasizing specialization in the required knowhow. That compulsory, tax-funded schools ought to serve as worker training facilities is surely an unacceptable situation in a society that has any pretenses of favoring freedom, as it explicitly makes corporate and/or bureaucratic interests the raison d’être of a coerced schooling process, thereby divesting parents of their responsibility and control over their own children in the name of mere economic efficiency. The deepest purpose of public school’s standardized universal vetting process, collective submissiveness training, and arbitrary rules, has always been precisely to prepare children for socio-economic usefulness, to maintain “the proper social order,” and to detach future workers from the sense of dignity and self-respect that might render them less willing to devote most of their waking lives to dull and demeaning tasks. Consider the following apologia for government schooling, offered by leading American education theorist William Torrey Harris in 1906, another quote made infamous by Gatto:
Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.”[xi]
In principle, the questions anyone who would defend public education in these terms must ask himself are these: Do I want to live in a society in which the interests or wishes of crony capitalists and government economic planners trump all other considerations in the raising of children? Do I want to live in a society in which such a hierarchy of interests is imposed coercively upon every human being? And do I want to live in a society in which the majority of adults have been successfully indoctrinated to accept their “proper place” in a micromanaged social order as their essential purpose in life?
“But someone has to do the less personally fulfilling jobs,” one might object. That may be true, but it is hardly moral justification for forcing all children through a spiritual assembly line designed to find, hone, and polish society’s useful drudgers. Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine was suddenly abandoned by his wife of just one or two years. Groping for an explanation, he considered the possibility that she regarded him as unable or unwilling to provide for her, to which thought he objected aloud, “I’d flip burgers for her!” For her—not for the ruling class, or out of a servile duty to an abstraction called a smooth-running economy. There is all the difference in the world between a man doing work that is essentially undesirable for the sake of love, and one doing such work because he has been trained to sacrifice his interests to those of his “betters.” Recall Aristotle’s observation about the proper motives of education—“if he does or learns anything for his own sake or for the sake of his friends or with a view to excellence, the action will not appear illiberal; but if done for the sake of others, the very same action will be thought menial and servile.” Think of the Allied women who worked in munitions factories during World War II for another example of the difference between the motive of personal interest and that of trained subservience.[xii]
To demonstrate this difference with all the clarity in the world, let us return to William T. Harris, the first U.S. Commissioner of Education—true believer in German idealism, Fichte’s theory of education, and Hegel’s historical dialectic, and staunch advocate of compulsory schooling—for his explanation of the great moral advantage of large urban schools over small rural schools:
There must be regularity and punctuality, silence and conformity to order, in coming and going. The whole school seems to move like a machine. In the ungraded [rural] school a delightful individuality prevails, the pupil helping himself to knowledge by the use of the book, and coming and going pretty much as he pleases, with no subordination to rigid discipline, except perhaps when standing in class for recitation.
Regularity, punctuality, silence, and conformity to order, military drill, seem at first to be so much waste of energy, necessary, it is true, for the large school, but to be subtracted from the amount of force available for study and thought. But the moment the question of moral training comes to be investigated, the superiority of the education given in the large school is manifest. The pupil is taught to be regular and punctual in his attendance on school and in all his movements, not for the sake of the school alone, but for all his relations to his fellow-men. Social combination is made possible by these semi-mechanical virtues. The pupil learns to hold back his animal impulse to chatter or whisper to his fellows and to interrupt their serious absorption in recitation or study, and by so much self-restraint he begins to form a good habit for life. He learns to respect the serious business of others. By whispering he can waste his own time and also that of others. In moving to and fro by a sort of military concert and precision he acquires the impulse to behave in an orderly manner, to stay in his own place and not get in the way of others.[xiii] (Emphasis added.)
So one of compulsory schooling’s most historically important advocates concedes that the arbitrary mass movement, uniformity, rigidity, and stifling of meaningful human communication in the large public school reduces the amount of “energy” available for study and thought. This intellectual reduction, however, serves a moral function, namely to stamp out the time-wasting “whispering” between people that distracts them from their silent work, and thereby to produce a “social combination,” based on “semi-mechanical virtues,” which functions not as a human society, but as an efficient machine in which each mechanical human-part “stays in his own place” for the sake of the smooth operation of the machine. (The great leap forward of Dewey’s progressive schooling model was merely to achieve this same effect with less of the externally imposed “rigidity,” by training the children to love the machine.)
Businesses that require employees with job-specific skills or knowledge should bear the responsibility for training those whom they would hire. And if there are jobs that insufficient numbers of freely educated people would willingly do under the conditions offered without having been coercively indoctrinated to view their resistance to servility as selfish, then, in a non-authoritarian world, it would be the responsibility of employers—mere private citizens seeking to exchange value for value, like everyone else—to make the conditions more desirable. Would this submission to the principle of voluntarism, i.e., the lack of universal state-imposed worker training facilities, make national economies less productive and efficient? There is no way to know for sure, but I would guess that in the long run, economies might benefit from a more broadly distributed sense of practical freedom in pursuing personal goals, which would, in turn, entail a broadening of the entrepreneurial spirit, the likely result of allowing all children to be raised in an atmosphere in which their own well-being and happiness were the primary motives of their education. But if, on the other hand, the unleashed ethical pursuit of happiness (that is, of human nature) turns out to have implications or effects that might diminish collective economic productivity in favor of other societal priorities…well, then so be it. If you dislike this last point, and find my attitude of “examined life over material gratification” irksome, then you are welcome to live your own life according to another principle—as long as you do not seek to use the levers of government coercion to rig society as a treadmill of soulless material productivity at the expense of other people’s spiritual development.
Objection 8. Many parents lack the knowledge or skill to teach their own children.
That is why, as long as there have been civilized societies, there have been schools or independent teachers of one sort or another, and presumably always will be. To return to my example of Korean education, I have often wondered how Korean society would change if the public schools were eliminated outright tomorrow, leaving non-home-based education entirely in the hands of the private academies or tutors, thereby leaving children to learn academic subjects in a manner more typical of the world before universal compulsory schooling.
They would study at their own paces, regardless of age.
They would all receive personal attention and individualized guidance and assessment, rather than generic ranking based on meaningless age group comparisons.
Their schools would be free to focus on teaching them core knowledge without reference to standardized testing, meaning without the artificial ceiling of generic thresholds and markers of success, which would in turn allow schools to take chances on new goals, methods, or teaching materials, and to compete freely for students without the arbitrary limitation of always having to defer to government-mandated outcomes.
Their parents would be in complete control of the education process, and free to reassess their children’s intellectual progress and seek out new teachers or methods at will, on a moment’s notice.
Most importantly, those among them who were capable of writing essays in a second language at eleven years old could continue to progress along a similar path, unhampered by the retarding standards and narrowed avenues of the state’s uniform vetting process, thereby achieving levels of real intellectual advancement that are impossible even to imagine for those teaching and learning under current restraints.
In short, the combination of educational freedom, personalized teaching, competition among educational models and schools, and parental control, would likely lead a society to a condition comparable to the early modernity outlined in my chapter on “Compulsory Mass Retardation”—the age of fifteen-year-old university scholars, twenty-four-year-old major philosophers and master poets, and thirty-year-old statesmen of sobriety, intellectual depth, and vision. And with the added advantages of broader general prosperity and more thoroughly developed systems of republican politics, there is no telling how many more Humes, Popes, Keatses, and Jeffersons might find their way to full bloom, thus enriching communities to degrees that make Dewey’s garden of individuality look like the kindergarten show-and-tell class that it has turned out to be.
Objection 9. Many people who wish to educate their children at a private school cannot afford it.
Let us leave aside for a moment everything history and reasoning have taught us about the potential of learning in non-school settings, at almost no expense, requiring only an older family member or guardian willing to foster an enthusiasm for reading and learning. The reason I have granted this objection its own space, separate from Objection 1, above, is that this particular notion—that private school is unaffordable for the majority—deserves attention beyond the more straightforward replies already offered, as it illuminates, in the saddest of ways, the principle of self-fulfilling doomsday prophecies on which progressivism thrives. The perception that children willing to learn would not be taught, or that poor parents wishing to have their children educated by others would have no recourse, has come to seem more real, and probably even to be more real, through the social distortions of compulsory public school itself.
Apart from all the directly harmful effects of the age of entitlement, perhaps its ugliest indirect (though not unintended) by-product is its erosion of the basic societal institutions that would previously have performed the role now presumptively ceded to government. In short, creating coercive state entitlements under the socialist rhetoric of overcoming capitalist greed and selfishness has greatly exacerbated private greed and selfishness. Government healthcare and social security have produced generations that no longer feel responsible for the care of their own elderly family members. Likewise, welfare programs kill private charity and community projects of the sort that foster good will and a concern for the common good among citizens. This is the likely but rarely acknowledged reason why the “greedy Americans” are continuously at the top in international rankings of the most charitable people.[xiv] Their economy, and more importantly their national ethos, is the least socialized, so they feel least reliant upon government to ameliorate others’ hardships, i.e., least dismissive of the call to individual virtue. Amusingly, but not surprisingly, this psychological effect is even noticeable within the United States herself, along party lines. The caring collectivist Democrats are far less charitable than the capitalist pig Republicans.[xv] Were the Democrat-leaning states as generous as the Republican-leaning states, no country would even be close to the U.S. in international rankings of private charity. Liberality, magnanimity, and plain old fellow-feeling are inevitable victims of a public ethos built on coerced redistribution, where individuals gradually become more concerned with getting their fair share of the collective loot than with considering how they might share their own good fortune, and where everyone senses that someone else is taking care of the less fortunate, where “someone else” means “anyone but me” psychologically, and “the government” in reality. The politicization of benevolence entails the de-moralization of individuals and, most obnoxiously, the conversion of giving and helping into politicized statements, or worse yet, political duties. The authoritarian impulse and smug self-righteousness are displacing individual virtue, the good, in the economy of human motivations.
We may see the same virtue- and community-killing effect resulting from the institution of school as an entitlement program, and for all the same reasons. Fichte himself, a university instructor in an age when professors were paid directly through tuition, is said to have been very generous in allowing promising students without means to listen to his lectures for free.[xvi] And why not? He wanted to teach, and young people wanted to hear his teaching—a natural match. Likewise with anyone else who cares about the dissemination of knowledge or ideas, at any level, and who finds people eager to learn, but lacking funds. Church-based schools, small private schools, home-based mini-private schools—all of these represent sensible options, typical of the pre-compulsory school era, that would unquestionably flourish over (very little) time in a freed education market, meaning one in which the state does not seek a monopoly on “affordable” (read absurdly expensive) education.[xvii]
To elaborate on this last point, let us return to the second half of Korean dictator Chun Doo-hwan’s rationalization for banning private education—relieving the financial burden on families. This is the other side of the self-fulfilling prophecy element of authoritarianism. Make getting a desired good unnecessarily difficult by way of dictates, regulations, and monopolistic restrictions, and the cost of acquiring it will rise; soon only the wealthy will be able to afford it. New York’s public school system annually spends $18,000 per student.[xviii] Needless to say, if parents had to pay that amount out of their pockets, the non-wealthy would be unable to do so. It does not follow, however, that if private alternatives were more readily available, and less regulated, only the wealthy would be able to afford a good education. On the contrary, almost anything would have to be more affordable than New York’s notoriously clunky public system, and, before long, almost anything would be more affordable.
By way of analogy, had governments commandeered and tightly regulated the method of manufacturing and distributing personal computers back in 1980, when they were new, rare, and costly, they would still be rare and costly today. Instead, there are relatively few households in the developed world today that cannot afford to own a computer or three—and much better computers than the wealthiest man on the planet could have had on his desk in 1980. For the progressive, however, that fact is not a satisfying case for freedom, as long as today’s wealthy can still buy a state of the art model that the rest of us cannot afford. Better to force everyone to settle for 1980-level computers than to have everyone using far superior machines, but superior to unequal degrees.
Likewise with the progressive argument against private schools.
Objection 10. Public schools teach more than mere academic or intellectual knowledge; they provide an ordered and carefully managed environment for socialization, which prepares children for life in society.
Absolutely correct, and the ultimate argument I offer against allowing the state to control education. In fact, allow me to take this opportunity to emphasize once again that if the goal is, as it must be, to begin restoring the thoughts and sentiments that support liberty, then merely rescuing children from the progressives’ physical buildings is not enough. Increased popular resistance to public schools will lead to increased state encroachments into the manner and method of home and private school education, particularly with regard to its moral content. Modern compulsory schooling was born of the essential progressive impulse, namely the drive to control and subjugate others. Preemptively limiting men’s range of thought and choice has proved to be the most effective method of control and subjugation. And while, as we have seen, even strictly intellectual content may be used or abused to impede growth, the true heart of modern schooling is its inversion of natural moral development through the blunt force trauma of progressive prodding, pleasure, and propaganda, a.k.a. “socialization.”
Knowing this, one would have to be extraordinarily naïve to imagine that statists will simply allow increasing numbers of children to be raised entirely without the state’s moral influence, which influence Fichte himself, two centuries ago, cited as the chief motive for the institution of government-controlled education. To restate a point made frequently throughout this analysis, one effect of all government schooling is to undermine the moral significance of the private family in the lives of children, who are to be reared not as individual souls seeking knowledge and happiness, but as the collective’s submissive workers and (in democratic nations) its reliably manipulable mass of progressive voters. Given that this urge to destroy nature’s shield against the state’s complete absorption of the individual is the practical foundation of compulsory schooling, one should expect that any large-scale withdrawal from public schools will be met with direct mandates affecting the moral content of home education, i.e., the regulation of, and, where required, disciplinary action against, parents who wish to raise non-progressive children. This, after all, is the sensibility Dewey so admired among his Soviet colleagues, who defined Marxist-noncompliant parenting as a disease to be diagnosed and cured. Likewise today with Dewey’s American public school heirs who, for example, seek the forced normalization of so-called transgenderism.[xix] The moment denying access to girls’ restrooms to any man who has chosen to “identify as” a woman today becomes firmly etched in the progressive tablet of forbidden attitudes, sexual nihilism becomes an officially protected social good that may no longer be questioned without drawing ostracism and investigation. From that moment on, one has every reason to fear edicts forcing homeschooling parents to teach this new “equal right” of gender self-identity to their children, regardless of their own personal beliefs on the matter.[xx]
In sum, if enough families refuse to deliver their children to re-education camps, then the re-education camps will gradually be delivered to them—property rights, freedom of thought and association, and common sense be damned. If you still care about your children, your dignity, and the future of your civilization, you had better look this fact squarely in the eye, and take full and honest stock of all its implications.
Objection 11. If education and civilization are in as bad a condition as you say, then how do you explain the modern world’s unprecedented luxury, increased life expectancy, and technological progress?
This question may be answered in three ways: psychologically, historically, and philosophically.
The psychological answer: The question exemplifies a common, and generally positive, human trait, namely looking at the bright side. However, we must be careful in this case not to mistake the bright side of life for an effect of the dim side. It does not follow from the fact that we have many good things that the underlying conditions of life are essentially good, or that we are in no danger. No one tries to slip on a banana peel; the moment before stepping on that peel, the walker is feeling fine, assuming nothing will interrupt his stride, and brimming with confidence in the path he has chosen. The certainty and comfort of his gait do nothing to diminish the reality of the banana peel, or the risk of injury should he continue walking toward it.
Consider a few simple, concrete examples of paths that seem awfully straight and smooth, as long as one avoids looking down to notice the banana peels:
Our technology is miraculous, cheap, and readily available, affording almost everyone access to endless sources of information and entertainment at the press of a button; and we have become a civilization of gluttonous passivity, with poor attention spans, weak memories, and little taste for the demanding, slow-developing, or profound.
The internet has wonderfully transformed the worlds of commerce and long-distance communication, punctured corporate oligopolies in news dissemination, and made the collected wisdom and literary art of civilization universally accessible from the comfort of our own homes; it has also opened the door to the creation of a global surveillance state the likes of which Orwell could not have imagined, effectively ending privacy and freedom of association in all but name.
The developed world has attained a level of economic prosperity that can grant manual laborers a measure of the authentic leisure and security that was possible only for the priestly caste in ancient Egypt—the leisure that, according to Aristotle, allowed the theoretical life to blossom first among that caste; and late modern man is becoming sated with his luxury, habituated to physical comfort and gain, and desirous only of more material gratification, achieved at ever-reduced costs to himself in effort, emotional engagement, and incurred responsibility.
We do not have the historical perspective at this time to decide whether our era will ultimately be remembered for the great boons of its rapid industrial-technological development, or for the horrendous abuses of natural freedom and man-made opportunity to which we have subjected one another through the agencies of this development. Centuries of philosophy, science, and statesmanship have realized some of the enormous practical and material potential of the emancipated human mind; and the very products of this emancipation have been exploited by sophists and tyrants to justify new manifestations of despotism which the pre-industrial world could never have imagined. At the heart of these manifestations of despotism is the concept of universal education as essentially a state function, and hence of human beings as essentially instruments of governmental ends, the very opposite of the political perspective that made our modern prosperity possible.
The historical answer: We seem to have a natural weakness for viewing ourselves in freeze-frame, rather than as parts of the continuum in which we are participants. This is perhaps an inevitable temptation for a species that grows in knowledge from particulars to universals—we see ourselves first, and must slowly learn to understand our place within the whole, including our moment’s place within the whole of known time. This is why the progressive model of education, which aims to isolate the mind in its narrow present, and to focus our light only forward, is so dangerous. We critical theorists, historicists, and deconstructionists of systemic oppression are losing ourselves in our collective self-absorption and self-congratulation. That freeze-frame view of ourselves obscures the relation between present conditions and past developments, resulting in a tendency to attribute all desirable present effects to present causes.
Consider an analogy: A young man, thanks to hard work and family connections, gets a good job in a great company. He marries and starts a family. He earns a series of promotions that put him in a most comfortable income bracket. One day he goes to a casino with a few friends and catches a gambling fever. He becomes increasingly obsessed with various forms of gambling, incurs increasingly dangerous debts, and becomes neglectful of his wife and children, his health, and his general well-being. Finally a friend challenges him about his behavior: “Look at yourself! You’ve stopped coaching your son’s football team. You were teaching your daughter how to play the piano last year, but you’ve given that up because it interferes with your poker nights. You’re getting fat, you’re up to your eyeballs in debt, you’re a nervous wreck, and you can barely drag yourself to work each day. It’s obvious your life is unraveling, but you just can’t see it because you’re so caught up in your gambling addiction. If you don’t make some radical decisions immediately and turn your situation around, you could lose everything.”
Indignant, and defensive of his self-destructive addiction, the man answers: “What are you talking about? I gamble because it’s fun. I have the money to take a few risks, so where’s the harm? True, my bank account is a little depleted at the moment, but it’s probably still better than yours. I still have my job, my wife, and two healthy kids. I know my luck is bound to turn around soon, and I’ll start rebuilding some of the lost funds. When that happens, I plan to send my daughter to a great piano teacher, so she won’t miss my lessons a bit. My wife is great with the kids, so there’s nothing to worry about there. As for my health, I’m still young, I feel okay, and my blood pressure medication is taking care of the rest. Anyway, you only live once!”
The man’s friend is looking at the trajectory of his life, encompassing both its past successes and its present deterioration. The man himself is gathering up the remaining morsels of his past achievement as evidence that nothing fundamental has been lost. They are looking at the same current conditions, but the friend is seeing the present within a moving continuum, whereas the deteriorating man is clinging to a convenient illusion of stasis. In effect, he is perceiving the past as the present.
The question—“If education and civilization are in as bad a condition as you say, then how do you explain the modern world’s unprecedented luxury, increased life expectancy, and technological progress?”—indicates that one is perceiving the residue of modernity’s past successes and achievements as a static present. One might as well attribute Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony to Hitler and Stalin, or Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy to Theoderic the Great’s jailers. The tyrant’s attempt to stifle challenging new thoughts cannot always be as airtight as comprehensive social control would require. That deficiency of tyranny should not be mistaken for the encouragement of ideas. Compulsory school—particularly in democratic societies with lingering echoes of the classical liberal tradition—cannot always produce as complete an indoctrination to obedience and servitude as its overseers would like. That failure should not be confused with the promotion of individual initiative and well-being. The deepening gloom of progressive tyranny should not be obscured by those stubborn rays of past liberty that continue to brighten our day-to-day lives.
The philosophical answer: Let us return for a moment to Hugh Auld’s objection to his wife’s teaching the alphabet to their child slave, Frederick Douglass. Specifically, let us focus more closely on the details of Auld’s argument: “He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” I contend that the two seemingly distinct points Auld makes here are not separate arguments, but rather complementary elements of one overall belief. The literate slave would become unmanageable and of no value to his master. Why? Because his new knowledge would make him discontented and unhappy with his lot in life. That is to say, Auld’s objection to teaching a slave to read was grounded in his understanding that a discontented and unhappy slave is a less useful and controllable slave.
The notion of a contented slave may run counter to today’s politically correct presuppositions, because our understanding of slavery has become inseparable from right-thinking sensitivities about racism. That is, slavery is now spoken of merely as the extreme manifestation of racial prejudice. Hence, the idea of a contented slave seems as incoherent and untenable as that of a contented lynching victim. This conceptual fuzziness is perhaps an inevitable outcome for an age that has, for reasons of unenlightened self-interest, obscured the lessons of our modern forebears concerning the ultimate meaning of property—namely self-ownership—while at the same time embracing paternalistic governance, with its intrinsic presumption of natural inequality, as its political status quo. Such an age, having forfeited the two key points of justice relevant to the issue of slavery—the roots of property and the belief in natural equality—has no consistent principled grounds for objecting to slavery; thus it is only by reducing slavery to an alternative word for racism that we can maintain our repugnance to it without having to explain ourselves in terms that have become inconvenient from our progressive point of view.
As a result of this conceptual shift, however, an important lesson in the art of slave ownership has been lost—the one highlighted by Douglass, who experienced it firsthand—thus depriving us of an essential insight into our modern smorgasbord of luxury and progress. The key to keeping a slave working and producing, rather than doubting and rebelling, is to foster in him the feeling that his life could not be otherwise, and hence that his permissible moments of ease, and even pleasure, are sufficient recompense for his hardships. In short, one must try to keep the slave content and “happy,” by never allowing him to perceive the difference between pleasure and freedom, between satiety and self-determination; for a slave who once perceived this difference would likely begin to crave the latter at the expense of the former, as Douglass began to do upon hearing his master’s argument:
These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.[xxi]
The most effective oppression is that which is perceived by its victim as a law of nature; the surest means of sustaining this illusory perception, as Fichte taught us, is pleasure. The contented slave, never fully cognizant of the unnaturalness of the conditions under which he labors, and therefore essentially willing to remain on the plantation, is the proper goal of the forward-looking slave owner.
On April 16, 2014, the ferry, Sewol, capsized off the coast of South Korea. Four hundred and seventy-six passengers and crew were aboard, including three hundred and twenty-five high school students on a school trip. Although the accident occurred during daylight hours, not far from land, and although the ship listed and creaked off-balance for a considerable time before capsizing, there were only one hundred and seventy-two survivors. These included the captain and most of his crew—but only seventy-five of the students. In the immediate aftermath of the event, there was naturally outrage over the murderous cowardice of the captain and his crewmen who abandoned ship without attempting to rescue their trapped passengers.[xxii] There was also, however, another strain of concern among Koreans in the early days after the disaster, a concern that in the end was perhaps more profound in its implications than the questions regarding the captain and crew: Why did most of the students, primarily healthy, intelligent sixteen-year-olds, simply obey the crew’s instructions to remain below in their cabins beyond the point when it should have been obvious that doing so endangered their lives?
Embedded in this painful, soul-searching question was a half-conscious understanding that the answer would somehow be related to the nexus between Korea’s social structure and the education model through which it is perpetuated.
Korea’s public schools have achieved a relatively amicable marriage of the two perspectives on the political utility of compulsory schooling that tend to pose as irreconcilable rivals in the West: the rigidly standardized, quantified vetting system, and the Deweyan alternative universe of mass socialization. Korea is living proof that these two approaches are not really the diametrical opposites their proponents would like you to believe they are, but merely two sides of the same collectivist-utilitarian coin. Children are raised to feel implicitly that the school is the world, from which it follows that the school’s goals are the meaning of life. In practice, this means (a) striving to achieve one’s proper rank within a vetting process narrowly focused on a uniform and demeaning conception of human worth: promotion to the “best” middle school, the “best” high school, the “best” university, the “best” company or government office, such that being slotted into one’s proper role in the economy becomes the essence of education, and falling short of any of the “bests” along the way—the fate of the majority, of course—entails permanently diminished human worth; and (b) learning through immersion in this factory process that accepting its outcome, and one’s place within it, is one’s primary moral duty, and the ultimate meaning of being socialized.[xxiii]
One recent December, the “English Club” from a local high school, about twenty-five teenagers, requested permission to visit my undergraduate presentation skills class. As that day’s class was going to be devoted to a few of my students’ final presentations of the semester, I told our visitors to feel free to join in the question period following each presentation. The theme of our final presentations was “Happiness.” One presenter argued for the importance of not allowing social perceptions of your goals or decisions to overwhelm your search for the best life, and specifically recommended that people who feel they are succumbing to the influence of such perceptions force themselves to “take a break” from their current efforts and anxieties, in order to refocus on their true long-term interests. After the presentation, a very bright high school student asked, most earnestly, “How can I follow that advice? I’m a student; I can’t take a rest from studying.” His meaning was clear to all present: For a Korean student, there is no escape from the treadmill, no other way to live.
By very peculiar chance, I happened to have two students in my class who had dropped out of high school—products who had rebelled against the assembly line, almost unheard of in Korea—and only years later, having lived outside the system for a while, found their way into university. One of them, a man of twenty-six, tried to persuade the high school student that in reality he could gain some control over his destiny if he wanted to, but the teenager was not buying it. Confronted with real live adults who had actually chosen alternative paths in life in defiance of the standardizing machinery, this manifestly intelligent and thoughtful young man simply could not accept the truth before his eyes. He had to do what was demanded of him by his teachers, he had to accept the rules of his country’s vetting process, and he had to accept the fate this process doled out to him.
This young man will eventually become a university senior who giggles with a combination of confusion and embarrassment when you ask him if he hopes to marry soon, as though such a thing were unthinkable for someone of his tender age. He will then spend fifty to sixty hours a week at the bland office job that has been the central purpose of his life since kindergarten. He will watch mind-numbing, sub-adolescent comedy programs on Sunday nights—not because he thinks they are funny, but because everyone watches them, and also as a means of burying his anxiety about Monday, with its routine of kowtowing to his superiors in the hopes of ingratiating his way to the promotion he needs if he is to save money for his marriage, at thirty-two, to a woman he will openly tell you he doesn’t love as much as he remembers loving the girls he dated in university, but whom his parents have urged him to marry because he must produce grandchildren within the next two years. He may live for years apart from his wife—from whom he is increasingly likely to become estranged, and then divorced—in order to earn more money to provide for his children’s successful progress through the same factory school system, and to provide the endless high-tech toys and time-killing gadgets which serve the same purpose in the public school student’s life that those idiotic comedy programs serve in his, namely as moral tranquilizers.
We know that as the Sewol listed and slowly capsized, most of the sixteen-year-old “children” sat obediently in their cabins. They nervously played smartphone games, sent cute messages to friends and family, and took pictures of one another in lifejackets. The grown-ups told them to stay where they were, so they stayed. The experts said they were correcting the problem, so they believed it. Their superiors ordered them not to try to save themselves, so they did not try—until it was too late.
Those superiors, the captain and many of his crew, were officially responsible for the security of their passengers. They were bound by moral and legal duty to protect the interests of their charges at all costs. But they did not help the passengers to escape. Nor did they encourage the people whose lives they had put in jeopardy to act independently and save themselves. They told the students to stay in their cabins, and then, when it was apparent that the ferry could not be righted, they abandoned ship, leaving their obedient dependents trapped, buried at sea.
In the early days after the disaster, Korea was shaken by sadness and horror out of our age’s universal moral numbness, and into that realm of heightened emotion and supervening sensitivity that can sometimes lead to sudden accesses of self-discovery. For an all too brief moment, Koreans rediscovered the poetry in life. They almost instinctively hit upon the metaphor in this tragedy, the figurative sense that illuminates the literal world with a light that prefigures real understanding: That ship was their nation; its fate, theirs.
Then the moment passed. The Sewol disaster became a real-life Orwellian Two Minutes Hate, with the captain and owner of the ferry serving as a pair of Goldsteins. It also became a platform for political grandstanding, with opposition parties and their supporters trying to pin the accident, and even the criminality, on the governing Saenuri Party. The moment of self-discovery was lost—indeed, the fury of the invective that displaced any serious soul-searching in the public discussion was suggestive of a psychological defense mechanism, or a convenient distraction. The light of truth, in this case, was too painful to examine further, so the Koreans allowed it to flicker out.
Now, predictably, the worst has happened: The tragedy has been incorporated into the paradigm of the status quo. A year after the disaster, I attended a pops concert at which the final item on the program was a piece of pop-tearful schmaltz dedicated to the Sewol victims, accompanied on a screen behind the orchestra by a slickly sentimental barrage of stream of consciousness animation celebrating the dear memory, not so much of the dead, but of the nation’s collective sadness. The music, and even more so the animated images of crying teenagers, empty school uniforms, and heart-shaped tears, reveled in mock melancholy and ersatz wistfulness over the lost students, inviting the audience to congratulate itself for feeling so deeply, for regretting so earnestly. The music ended, the audience applauded, and then they turned on their smartphones, checked their chat messages, and carried on with their Saturday night plans. Korean life looks fine, with the Sewol story now just another part of the nation’s comforting, sentimental self-portrait.
And here we rediscover our own poetic imaginations, and our own analogy. For as the tragedy that briefly revealed Truth has become just another layer of Korea’s self-satisfied cocoon, so has Korea become the world. We are all wont to look at our advanced amusements, treasures, and gratifications, and say, “Well, a society that can provide me with all this must be doing alright.” And so we take pictures of ourselves as a cold, merciless sea progressively engulfs us. Meanwhile, the captain and crew up above reassure themselves that they are safe.
How happy we look, how innocent, and how trusting.
[i] Frédéric Bastiat, The Law, translated by Dean Russell (Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1964), 32-33.
[ii] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (London: H.G. Collins, 1851), 35.
[iii] Michelle Rhee, “Ending Poverty through Education,” at Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity (February 8, 2010), now available online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-laracy/ending-poverty-through-ed_b_454034.html.
[iv] Cf. James Marshall Crotty, “Why Asian Nations Dominate Global Education Rankings,” Forbes, May 21, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesmarshallcrotty/2014/05/21/why-asian-nations-dominate-global-education-rankings/. It should be noted, however, that the international rankings cited in this article were produced by Pearson, one of the giants of corporate cronyism in education, and a major purveyor and beneficiary of standardized schooling worldwide.
[v] Stavroula Romoudi, “The Educational Law in Greece,” at afv.gr (accessed on February 25, 2015), http://www.afv.gr/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=186:the-educational-law-in-greece&catid=120&Itemid=400.
[vii] I once worked part-time for Canada Post. The postal workers’ union, affiliated at the leadership level with the international socialist movement, was forever decrying the corruptive effects of the profit motive upon the sacred mission of mail sorting. Needless to say, the inefficiency of the public mail sorters, in conjunction with their absurd demands for remuneration beyond anything commensurate with their work, has effectively nailed Canada Post’s coffin shut.
[ix] Quoted in Ken Dryden, The Game (Toronto: Wiley, 1983), 8.
[x] And of course socialist revolutionaries in the democratic world have advocated public education on the same grounds, and with the same dishonest motives. Cf. my three-part interview with FBI informant Larry Grathwohl at American Thinker: “Total Destruction of the U.S.” (Feb. 19, 2013), http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2013/02/total_destruction_of_the_us_an_interview_with_larry_grathwohl_part_1.html; “American Education: Rotting the Country from the Inside” (Feb. 20, 2013), http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2013/02/american_education_rotting_the_country_from_the_inside.html; and “The Endgame for the Destruction of the United States” (Feb. 21, 2013), http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2013/02/the_endgame_for_the_destruction_of_the_united_states.html.
[xi] Gatto, UHAE, 132.
[xii] See Pastor Richard Brown, “Female Munitions Workers in WWII” (November 8, 2010), http://www.clubrunner.ca/Data/7080/132/HTML/108963/FemaleMunitionsWorkers.pdf, for a typical example of the motives and experiences of those women.
[xiii] William T. Harris, Elementary Education, in Nicholas Murray Butler, ed., Monographs on Education in the United States 3 (Albany, N.Y.: J.B. Lyon Company, 1904), 15-16.
[xiv] Cf. Adam Taylor, “Chart: The World’s Most Generous Countries,” at The Washington Post (November 19, 2014), available online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/11/19/chart-the-worlds-most-generous-countries/.
[xv] Cf. Christopher Zara, “Charitable Giving By State: Are Republicans More Generous Than Democrats, Or Just More Religious?” in International Business Times (October 6, 2014), available online at http://www.ibtimes.com/charitable-giving-state-are-republicans-more-generous-democrats-or-just-more-religious-1700059.
[xvi] Addresses to the German Nation, Introduction by G.H. Turnbull, xvi.
[xvii] See James Tooley, “Private Schools for the Poor,” at EducationNext (Fall 2005 / Vol. 5, No. 4), for an inspiring account of how small private schools are thriving in some of the poorest slums on Earth, and outperforming their public counterparts in academic results. Available online at http://educationnext.org/privateschoolsforthepoor/. (I do not endorse all of Tooley’s theories, and dislike his desire to marry his small schools project to international organizations such as the World Bank and international education conglomerates such as Pearson. That said, his research should come as a revelation to private school skeptics, and is already, happily, sending chills up the spines of state schooling defenders in Britain. See, for example, “Professor James Tooley: A champion of low-cost schools or a dangerous man?” The Guardian [November 12, 2013], http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/nov/12/professor-james-tooley-low-cost-schools.)
[xviii] Lam Thuy Vo, “How Much Does the Government Spend to Send a Kid to Public School?” at NPR’s Planet Money (June 21, 2012), http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2012/06/21/155515613/how-much-does-the-government-spend-to-send-a-kid-to-school.
[xix] See my “Escape from Obama’s transgender school bathrooms,” at American Thinker (May 13, 2016), http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2016/05/escape_from_obamas_transgender_school_bathrooms.html.
[xx] Cf. Susan Berry, “Homeschoolers Prepare to Defend Parental Rights After Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Ruling,” at Breitbart (July 3, 2015), http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2015/07/03/homeschoolers-prepare-to-defend-parental-rights-following-supreme-court-same-sex-marriage-ruling/.
[xxi] Douglass, 35.
[xxii] See my “Captains Uncourageous,” at American Thinker (April 21, 2014), http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2014/04/captains_uncourageous.html.
[xxiii] People often attribute Korea’s sickeningly high suicide rate to its hard-driving school and work culture. I suspect this represents a half-truth at best. Korea’s social vetting process, aimed at economic utility and moral submissiveness, is in principle no different from that of all other developed countries in the modern world. The high-pressure work ethic and its concomitant suicide rate are, I believe, the result of superimposing the goals of paternalistic utilitarianism upon a society deeply rooted in family honor. In short, Koreans, unlike their Western counterparts, have not yet learned to accept their social placement and interchangeability passively. In this respect, the socialization aspect of their schooling has failed. When they stop driving so hard to achieve the top rank at school, you will know they have given up their dignity at last—as the smooth operation of the progressive machine requires them to do, and as most people in the West have already done.