THE COMMON SENSE CASE
All men who have turned out worth anything have had the chief hand in their own education.[i]
Sir Walter Scott
i. A Shot Across the Bow
Here, stated as directly as possible, is my thesis: If the institution of government-controlled education is allowed to survive, all efforts to resuscitate the inert bulk of modern civilization will fail. It is time to unravel the most ill-conceived and destructive entitlement program of all. Cancer cells do not divide into healthy cells; likewise, a corrupt, power-intoxicated political class will not willingly raise a freedom-loving, self-reliant populace. Ruling establishments must no longer be permitted to predetermine their nations’ fates by mass-producing populations that serve their interests.
For a long time, many people have known that what we casually call “public education” must be held partly responsible for the undoing of modernity and the shriveling of its natural political fruit, individual liberty. But for years, excepting a tiny, brave contingent of parents, educators, and social critics—cranks and extremists, as commonly designated—most of these people have assumed that the problems of government schooling, however grave, must be resolved through curriculum reform, bureaucratic changes, or school board activism. Such methods, though often undertaken with the noblest of intentions, have always failed, in spite of the few heartening but minor victories that may have been won on the way to ultimate defeat. This trajectory of failure is inevitable, as treating the superficial symptoms of a fatal disease will always be, whatever temporary relief such treatment may bring to the sufferer.
It is time for all those who have struggled in frustration to change “the system”—and this includes the honorable minority of principled public school teachers who continue to stand and fight quixotically against the progressive avalanche—to unite in the names of freedom and virtue and take the bolder step of acknowledging that compulsory schooling as such is rigged to fail, or rather to succeed in achieving harmful aims. Accept that, implausible as it may sound to most people at this stage, if you really want to raise a generation of rational, self-respecting adults prepared to shrug off the yoke to which modern man has submitted in exchange for his fair share of the state’s ill-gotten booty, you must emancipate the next generation of young adults from progressivism’s universal indoctrination program.
“Well,” says the sober type at this point with a condescending grin, “that’s all very nice, but of course it’s impossible; more reasonable to work to change the schools from within.” That kind of sobriety used to go by other names, before principled thought and responsible citizenship gave way to petty self-interest and Realpolitik. People will flock to the cinema to watch a bland action movie about an Everyman taking on gangs of imaginary bad guys to rescue a kidnapped child. Meanwhile, real life bad guys are effectively kidnapping tens of millions of children, turning ransom into a bureaucratized government program, and the children’s parents are saying “What time do you want me to drop him off?” and “It’s good to know somebody’s looking after him while I’m busy.” Perhaps, as Allan Bloom remarked in comparing rock music to gladiatorial combat, witch-burning, harems, and cannibalism, “a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.”[ii] How does one begin to question the ubiquitous, to cast doubt upon the quotidian? To do so is to make oneself ridiculous in the eyes of most men, and no one enjoys looking ridiculous. Maybe it’s best to go along, then, and to confine one’s criticisms to the realm of the “possible” and “reasonable.”
We might at least take a moment, however, to ask ourselves what we are prepared to tolerate in order to avoid ridicule. To begin with a few basic, relatively uncontroversial premises (all of which will be explained fully as we proceed):
(1) Modern compulsory schooling, in all its variants, discourages advanced intellectual development. By “discourages,” I am not referring to so-called failed schools, lazy teachers, or bad textbooks, but rather to the specific and intentional goals of compulsory schooling as conceived and designed.
(2) Public schools, regardless of the personal beliefs of particular teachers or administrators, promote submissive collectivism, undermine self-reliance and self-respect, and instill conformity and an emotional dependency upon group authority. This moral indoctrination may, for convenience, be referred to as the Dewey model of education, and it has been pursued and expanded by education decision makers and their minions (the teachers) for generations, throughout the advanced world.
(3) Levels of meaningful academic achievement are dropping with each generation. High school graduates in the advanced world today are notoriously deficient in general knowledge, literacy, and basic reasoning skills compared to their predecessors. More importantly, in the main they lack ordinary common sense, as well as a sense of common heritage based on shared experiences of something beyond the latest popular songs. In other words, their education has taught them no essential connection to a world before their birth, thus converting the natural distance between generations into an impenetrable dividing wall.
(4) Whereas the studies commonly known as the humanities should teach the various shadings and mysteries of human nature, greatness, and folly, as well as ideals and nuanced possibilities against which to understand and measure ourselves, modern schooling teaches the essential inferiority of the past, the moral equivalency of aspirations, and above all a self-satisfied devotion to the flavor of the month that undermines the development of deeper human understanding and intellectual independence—exactly the weaknesses that education is supposed to help us overcome.
In short, modern schooling, for all its rhetoric of fairness and a loving environment, is calibrated to produce through social artifice the kind of men that we find in the most pessimistic speculations about the pre-societal state of nature: ruled by fear, lust, and vanity, unable to form a unified conception of last week, and with no coherent hopes beyond tomorrow. (To be fair, public school does seek to modernize its brutish man with one significant enhancement over his primordial ancestor: economic utility.) The products of such a de-civilizing process are ideally suited, both morally and intellectually, to accept the protective embrace of paternalistic authority—even, eventually, to cry out for it. This condition of the soul represents today’s mainstream, which reveals the chief difficulty for anyone who dares to challenge the premises of public education.
We are living amidst Tocqueville’s soft despotism in full flower, slavery with silken chains and satin sheets. Populations systematically raised to crave comfort over freedom, gratification over self-determination, will instinctively object to any change that would force them into a more independent life; and the well-honed instrument is essentially resistant to perceiving any goal for itself beyond utility. The factory where modern man is fitted for his silken chains and trained to submit to his function is called public school. Late modernity’s political calamity is therefore at its core an educational problem, and yet at the center of that educational problem stands the single most sacred of all the sacred cows of our secular political age.
In light of this, the reasonable first step toward a new, liberated perspective on our decline and its causes is to reassess the idea of government schooling from its roots. We may enter upon this investigation by following the guidance of our modern forebears, and asking the “state of nature” questions: Why was government schooling deemed necessary and good in the first place? What would lead a society that lacked this form of education to seek it out? To phrase this another way, given our current politico-educational morass: Could a system of universal public education ever serve the best interests of a civil society in the long run? I believe we have enough evidence to answer, unequivocally, no.
Let us begin with an unavoidable practical reality. Any true public education system is, by definition, controlled by the administrative arm of the state, which means it is managed by the ever-growing team of bureaucrats, theorists, and other unelected experts appointed, directly or indirectly, by the ruling officials at each appropriate level of government. The problem, as with any bureaucratized system, is that over time, the entrenched routines and protocols developed and practiced by these controllers take on a life and momentum of their own. Reform-minded newcomers, at any level of the system, become increasingly impotent to make substantial changes, both because fundamental changes are resisted by the complexity of the machine itself, and because real reformers, should they be allowed to sneak into the system at all, are always vastly outnumbered as long as most hiring and appointing privileges remain in the hands of the entrenched leadership.
It follows that a corrupted educational establishment will tend toward further corruption. One might hope for a new direction if one could believe that the system were off course due to accident and incompetence, and hence were only in need of a critical mass of new, focused leadership to take the reins and lead the carriage back on to a reasonable path. This is far from the case, however. As we shall see, today’s worldwide compulsory school religion was carefully and purposefully developed, and is forcefully and protectively micromanaged, by people with dubious political agendas. The developers, past and present, are not a bumbling band awaiting rational leadership. At the highest levels, they are an amoral band contriving the means to the emasculation, de-rationalization, and herd-animalization of mankind, as a way of aggrandizing, empowering, and protecting themselves—though always, of course, in the name of social progress. (The educational leadership will likely include some well-meaning types working in cahoots with the calculating subversives and profiteers, but insofar as these earnest people have accepted the public school propaganda at face value, they are no less destructive than the subversives and profiteers. In a sense they heighten the danger, by lending legitimacy to tyranny.)
Might it have been otherwise? Or, more practically, might even the impending final collapse of civilization create an opportunity for the development of new, uncorrupted public systems, ones which serve the legitimate purposes of universal education in a free society, rather than undermining liberty at every turn? And then, once such good systems have been held in place for a sufficient period, might not their virtues harden into position and become relatively immovable, by means of the same bureaucratizing mechanism which now serves to perpetuate a corrupt establishment?
I concede that this possibility is not inconceivable. What is inconceivable, however, is that the large number of men and women who would have to be entrusted with the power to design, and later to administer and develop, any such system would be uniformly noble and virtuous in their intentions. One of the surest lessons of history is that power corrupts, and that absolute power is the inevitable final destination of authority once corrupted, unless this logical impetus is stopped by force. This understanding was, of course, the heart of modernity’s argument for limited representative government with a balance of separated powers, a fact which indicates the primary political danger of public schooling: The power to commandeer the unformed minds of an entire population during their most malleable years trumps all structural limits and separations within government. Compulsory education gives those with administrative authority over its content and methods the power to determine the mental and moral habits of the generation that will soon be in the position of choosing, or acquiescing to, the future direction of the society. In this way, an unrepresentative educational bureaucracy gradually becomes a new, unacknowledged, separate branch of government, or rather a supra-governmental institution, in that it has the coercive power to determine to a large degree what kind of citizens will occupy the officially acknowledged branches of government in the future.
Furthermore, the adage “power corrupts” implies an initial uncorrupted condition, which may reasonably be presumed in a man; not necessarily so in a committee. Give a good man too much power, and the opportunities for abuse may get the better of him until, given time, the temptations breed habits, and the habits in turn breed new temptations. Give too much power to a department or ministry, on the other hand, and you cannot even count on an initial good conscience to fight those temptations. The help wanted ad for the Regional Office of Excessive Authority is hardly likely to attract the most honorable applicant pool. If, out of the blue, someone offered you exclusive and legally enforceable decision-making power over how all the children in your neighborhood would be raised—what they would and would not learn, what social attitudes would and would not be fostered in them, how most of their time and energy would be spent, and how they would be ranked and vetted to determine their future prospects—I presume you would have the decency to decline the offer. The people who would not have that decency are the ones currently raising the world’s children. And unlike my hypothetical example, these people were not offered this authority out of the blue; they climbed, trained, and competed for it over many years. This does not mean they all had sinister motives. Most of them probably saw it as a natural career path for an ambitious “education worker.” They phoned home excitedly when they got the promotion. They solemnly declared their intention to live up to the obligations of the sacred trust they had been granted. They are fond of telling people how important it is to make the right decisions “for the children.” Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil” comes to mind.
A common classroom activity is to ask students to speak or write about what they would do if they were “king for a day.” I hate that activity, as it fosters the notion that absolute power is desirable; and to my recollection, I have yet to hear of a single child—or adult—giving the proper answer: “I would abolish the monarchy.” Modern civilization desperately needs George Washingtons. It promotes Adolf Eichmanns.
It is widely observed, by people of both the so-called left and right, that for more than a century, barring corrections imposed by practical necessity, the overall trajectory of the advanced democratic world has been a more or less steady arc in the direction of greater socialization of economies, expanding entitlement programs, and increased government oversight and regulation of areas of life (and death) previously left to develop of their own accord; and also of the loosening of past moral restraints, the fading of modesty and moderation, and what we might call the casual serialization of sexual attachments; and, in addition, of the diminishing popular influence of the signposts of civilization’s continuity (historical figures and events, classic literature, art, and music, etc.) in favor of an unprecedented global hegemony of the blunt, simple, and transitory in information and entertainment. The left generally sees these changes as evidence of our inexorable march forward, i.e., progress. The right generally sees them as evidence of the superior organization of leftist political factions. I see them as inevitable results of the one important structural similarity among the advanced and developing nations which has remained constant through all internal and external political changes: universal mass schooling.
Within little more than a century, a civilization whose vanguard was blazing a trail of unmatched material innovation and political liberty has been turned inside out, from a prosperous semi-free world to bankrupt democratic tyrannies that combine the totalitarian impulses of Lenin with the bureaucratic absurdism of Kafka. I know this description of the state of things will draw a chuckle from that sober type we met earlier. The extent to which my account seems exaggerated is the measure of the severity of the crisis. We can no longer see ourselves, in part because our education, formal and informal, has made us all emotional progressives. We instinctively resist viewing our situation in the light of past ages, for we are just certain that somehow our time is different, and that the weaknesses and brutalities of the past are inherently inapplicable to us. I feel the same reticence. However, I am also compelled to stand on the side of reason in this matter, and against my habituated emotional reflexes. We are human beings; so are our leaders. We are therefore susceptible to blindness and self-delusion, and they are prone to abuse of power and deception, just as may be found throughout all previous eras, and among all peoples. Our self-delusions may be more sophisticated, and our tyrants subtler, but in essence I stand by my belief that we are still human beings, identical in kind—in strength and in weakness—to our forebears. Compulsory schooling is merely the modern world’s typically systematized and sentimentalized way of acting on one of the primordial moral weaknesses of men: the desire to control and diminish one’s neighbor for one’s own benefit.
Still, one might maintain that, modern abuses notwithstanding, a society could not hope to survive, and to perpetuate its institutions and ideals, without recourse to a unifying educational establishment. The belief that government must mandate and regulate education to promote the kind of citizenship needed to sustain a healthy society has a long and intermittently noble history. The main problem with it, following from what I have just described, is this: Every corruption and degradation of a state’s political and administrative establishment tends toward a further corruption and degradation of that state’s educational system. And by the same reasoning that has led some to hope that government-controlled education might preserve a good society, one can easily see how such a monopolistic system in the hands of misguided or subversive leaders could quickly disseminate and perpetuate a perverse ideology—a hypothesis that hardly requires elaborate theoretical justification anymore.
Allow me to emphasize this last point, as I believe it holds within it the most straightforward case for the abolition of all public education models, in favor of the theoretically infinite (but practically self-limiting) models possible in a private educational world, by which I simply mean one in which all education of children is chosen and planned at the family level, whether directly (as in so-called homeschooling), indirectly (as through church-based or other privately-managed schools), or through some combination of these.
One of the common modern arguments for government-controlled education is that without some kind of standardization and oversight, parents and their children would be at the mercy of educational charlatans, incompetents, or people with socially dangerous motives. This is all literally true, on its face; but its rhetorical force depends on accepting two typical authoritarian—or, to put it the other way around, slavish—assumptions: (1) that private citizens, left to their own devices, would be rudderless in making life’s important decisions, and (2) that freedom, in markets or anything else, is by definition the special breeding ground for charlatans, incompetents, and subversives—in other words, that only the government can be trusted. If there is a competition for Big Lie of the Millennium, I nominate that one.
Furthermore, consider that corruption, incompetence, and subversion reach only as far as their mandate. A bad homeschooling parent fails his child. A bad private school fails many children. A bad public school system fails an entire community. And whereas an unskilled or overburdened parent has the option of seeking help in educating his child, and parents unhappy with a failing private school may take their money elsewhere, a failing compulsory public system gives parents little recourse; corruption at the top of the pyramid quickly insinuates itself throughout the system. A few neo-Marxist theorists and activists, for example, feeding on the naïveté or corruptibility of a few administrators and legislators, can quickly spread their dye through the whole pool, and this dye, so universalized, becomes the color of the community for generations. Needless to say, that description summarizes the past—and, in my view, final—hundred years of what we in the West have come to call modern civilization. If anything breeds educational charlatans, incompetents, and subversives by its very nature, it is not freedom of choice, but rather the power to compel universal standards and methods.
Why do adults, even those who pride themselves on being fervent defenders of freedom, continue to support this, at least tacitly through their unwillingness to face the issue squarely? Why do parents throughout the civilized world, who presumably still love their children, willingly (or reluctantly, for that matter) send those children—their own future—to state indoctrination camps? “From my cold, dead hands,” American patriots defiantly say of their guns. Are not their children worthy of at least so strong a grip?
[i] Sir Walter Scott, letter to J.G. Lockhart, c. June 16, 1830, in Letters of Sir Walter Scott, edited by H.J.C. Grierson, vol. 11 (London: Constable, 1936), 365.
[ii] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 75.