Thank goodness my education was neglected. I was never sent to school…it would have rubbed off some of the originality (if I had not died of shyness or been killed with over pressure).[i]

Beatrix Potter


Of all the arguments public school advocates have used to hoodwink generations of parents into condemning their own children to years of state-controlled subservience training, one of the most successful is that without public schools, children cannot be properly “socialized,” and will therefore be ill-prepared for life in the real world. Not only is this argument absurd on its face, but that face is in fact the mask concealing the ugliest intentions of compulsory schooling.

One benign-sounding premise of the argument for public schools as necessary tools of socialization is that learning to get along, or fit in, with the majority of children one’s own age is a vital life skill. Is it?

Childhood, contrary to the worst tendencies of democratic thought, is not an end in itself. Common sense teaches us that a child is an immature specimen, a partial view of humanity. A researcher from another planet who examined only children would never understand the human race, for he would not have seen a fully actualized instantiation of the species. A child is an entity in flux, a potential being with a natural goal, but a goal which may be actualized in various ways, to widely varying degrees of success, depending on the conditions of its growth. Children are potential adults. Their proper development requires, therefore, that they gradually learn how to be adults. That is, they need to be encouraged to develop the character and intellect suitable to adult life, in order to fulfill their natural potential, by which I mean human nature itself. To thwart this development is to stunt the fulfillment of nature. To thwart it deliberately is a moral crime.

Everything in a child’s upbringing ought to be focused on the aim of achieving the most successful adulthood. Not the most useful, the most comfortable, or the safest, but the most fully human. This means finding ways to ignite interests and enthusiasms that will lead him to develop the faculty that defines his chances as an adult, namely reason, and the states of character that will prepare him to face adulthood’s vicissitudes and temptations without succumbing to indignity and unnaturalness, namely his moral virtues. This does not entail “taking the fun out of being a child.” Nor does it mean expecting children to “think like grown-ups.” What it means, rather, is that the fun of being a human child should come precisely, or primarily, from applying one’s childlike thoughts and sentiments to the task of learning how to be a grown-up.

This is not the recommendation of a bureaucratic study group; it is a self-evident imperative of nature, understood by everyone until very recent times. It explains the hero worship children commonly feel toward older siblings, and their desire to emulate their parents. “Potential,” as we have known since Aristotle, is simply nature’s desire for development expressed in metaphysical terms. Children naturally pursue knowledge of their surroundings, and admire that which they perceive as a more complete version of themselves. They hope to achieve a fuller existence by modeling their behavior on that of others who appear exemplary of the more mature state that they have not yet attained. Contrary to today’s pop psychology and the progressive kindergarten ethic that has dominated education theory since Dewey, this constant effort to find and emulate exemplars of maturity is not a burdensome chore for children, or a cruel deprivation of the pleasures of childhood. The most powerful natural desire of a child is the desire to grow up, and the satisfaction of desire always brings immediate pleasure. This, however, is both the key to educating children and the secret to undermining true education. Desire and pleasure will motivate children; this is inevitable. The question is whether the dominant desires will be those conducive to the fulfillment of our nature as rational, independent beings—the inheritance of millennia—or other desires which curtail that proper development, trapping children in an avalanche of confused feelings and self-doubt that permanently block the road to mature adulthood. This is where the environment in which learning takes place becomes all-important.

Two general conditions are paramount in establishing the environment for the child’s proper development: regular opportunities for patient, independent examination of naturally interesting things, and plentiful interaction with reasonable examples of adulthood.

The first condition enlivens the child’s capacity for reasoning about causes by appealing to his natural curiosity. The hours of fascination that children can derive from examining insects in a field are a common example of this. I have taught boys who were difficult to manage in a classroom, either due to “laziness” or “daydreaming,” but who lit up with the focused passion of a great scientist when talking about bugs. Dragging them away from this passion and back to the detached, unreal world of the classroom is a perfect example of how to kill intellectual growth at its roots, by smothering a sincere desire for knowledge. The forcible removal of the child’s mind from its fruitful realm of curiosity stifles the motivation to reason, to categorize, to seek causes. And this stifling process is what modern education is all about. The ten-year-old budding entomologist is responding to an impulse that might truly be called philosophical; “there are gods even here,” said Aristotle, to explain his own incessant dallying over the minutiae of animal life. The public school classroom provides the broom that sweeps those gods away, and with them the healthy mind’s urge to understand. “Learning can be fun” is the kind of empty, manifestly ineffectual abstraction that serves to kill the genuine yearning of the soul that cries out, “Learning is life.”

The second vital condition for learning, interaction with exemplary adults, is important as a means of showing the child what he is aiming at. Contrary to the mantra of progressives, who aggrandize the innocence of childhood because they wish to trap the masses in that state of trusting dependency in which they may be more easily manipulated, children naturally gravitate toward imitating the grown-up behavior they see around them. (The traditional children’s tea party is a simple example.) If they see dedication, sobriety, and rational self-reliance, they are likely to emulate these. If they see the opposite of these things, they emulate what they see, and become the critical mass of progressivism’s advance—lacking confidence in their ability to care for themselves, lacking seriousness in assessing their situation and making plans, and lacking the basic respect for others’ property and person that makes civil society possible.

Consider, now, how public schools address these two necessary conditions of human moral and intellectual growth. The primary fact of life in a public school is that the child will be restrained within a large group of children his own age for most of the day. This severely reduces childhood’s precious opportunity for independent investigation, which is actively discouraged as selfishness or idleness. In addition to the physical reality of being forever confined to the company of others, the child faces the endless insistence, direct and implied, that he must accommodate himself to those others, get along with them, think about what they are thinking about, act only in reaction to their instigations, and, most of all, avoid getting on the wrong side of the majority of them. (I have just summarized John Dewey’s philosophy of education without the neo-Romantic flourishes about democracy and socialism.) Children who have not yet developed courage, self-reliance, and any practical means of protecting themselves are easily susceptible to fear of not fitting in, or of being disliked. Fear, then, takes the place of curiosity or wonder as the primary drive, which in turn makes fear-avoidance, rather than discovery, the most compelling need. This breeds a new set of desires to displace the natural search for understanding. The desires to be liked, to be accepted, to be protected, or to escape, fill the void left in the child’s heart after the school’s moral restraints forcibly curtail the intellectual adventurousness of the wandering bug-collector, stargazer, or bookworm.

Nature’s window of opportunity for learning how to concentrate one’s thoughts fruitfully and channel one’s feelings productively is relatively short. If this opportunity is missed or ill-used, the resulting adult life will be less than it ought to have been. And the damage done through such missed opportunities cannot simply be repaired later. Humans are creatures of habit, both mental and emotional. Adults can change their opinions, or develop new tastes; new ways of thinking or states of character, however, are a far more difficult matter. And even to the extent that such remedial effort is possible, there is no way to measure or undo the damage of lost time, years that might have been spent in so many fruitful ways, and years of painfully restoring oneself to the natural condition that was subverted in school.

The conservative version of the “socialization” argument is the rationalization that the evils of public education are necessary as preparation for the harsher reality of life in a society populated by the products of this system. This is the argument that children must “learn how to survive in the real world.” But the real world is precisely what public school is designed to prevent children from experiencing. Prefabricated areas of study, artificially imposed regimentation of one’s time and mental space, and the almost complete deprivation of privacy and the ability to pursue idiosyncratic curiosities exclusively for a while—these daily oppressions of public school existence do not prepare children for any real world you would want them to inherit. Rather, they are preparation for practical enslavement in a progressive authoritarian conception of society as a vast assembly line of interchangeable “worker units”—which, once again, is precisely what modern compulsory education was created to produce, as its major early promoters at least had the decency to admit.

To elaborate on this point: There is a strain of “hardnosed” conservative who is inclined to insist that the deprivations of public school life, in which choice and effort are circumscribed within artificial confines that reduce the child’s environment to something akin to a cockfight ring, prefigure the analogous realities and/or injustices of the working world, and therefore serve a useful purpose. This neglects the true causal relationship between public schools as designed and that working world for which schools were always intended as indoctrination. There is a kind of life of utility within a social machine coercively managed by and for a progressive elite to which few people would submit themselves willingly, unless they had been trained to submit. Why put a child through such submissiveness training?

The same goes for the related fantasy that surviving public school’s social pressures will build character. Parents who tell themselves this are attempting to live vicariously through their children, while forcing their children to take all the risk. You may tell yourself all day long that your child is strong enough to withstand the moral pressures of school life. You are probably wrong. Children do not have a set character with which to face challenges to their will and their moral habits. They can only take so much. The ability to stand firm on principle against the fear of rejection, mockery, and belittlement is a trait of mature adult virtue. Even among adults, such strength of character is rare these days, as anyone can see by observing modern electoral politics. It is too much to expect a mere child to exhibit such strength against the level of threatening social conformism imposed continually in a public school classroom. If a child survives with his soul relatively intact, it will not be without severe damage to his faith in life, his sense of hope, and his belief in mankind. He will suffer years of humiliation and degradation as an outcast or social misfit—in fact, he must do so, if he is to have a chance of coming out with his spirit alive.

This is not because the other children in the school are any less naturally moral or rational than he is. It is because they are all children—and this usually includes, for all intents and purposes, the teachers. The real beauty of childhood innocence is not found in the popular progressive kitsch about “sharing” or “playing together,” but rather in the way this innocence reveals the pre-indoctrinated common sense understanding of human nature that compulsory schooling aims to destroy: the constant, eager quest for comprehension and competence, which is to say for intellectual and practical independence. As children are not yet rational, however, they are all looking for direction, and in need of mature examples and the private time to begin reasoning. Deprived of these necessities for so much of their young lives by compulsory schooling, they all end up in the same boat—a lifeboat adrift in a violent sea of confusion and boredom, fear of others, fear of being alone, with no land, no rational grounding in sight, and with their animal instinct for survival tempered by the fear-driven sense that survival requires blind acquiescence. If this sounds like the real world, that is only because the world is now populated almost entirely by the products of compulsory schooling.

“Preparing” your child for such a world is a euphemism for inuring him to life as a serf in a progressive fiefdom. If mankind is to have a human future, that future will ultimately belong not to the damaged survivors of public school, but to the “unprepared” and “maladjusted,” namely the bug-collectors, stargazers, and bookworms whose intellects and character were permitted to develop naturally, with curiosity, not fear, as their impetus, and self-sufficient adulthood, not socialization, as their goal. This means we must begin the process of liberating children’s souls now, so that in the future there will once again be men and women prepared to do what will need to be done.

The problem is that “liberating children’s souls,” while perhaps rhetorically pleasing, is not a prescription for a specific course of action. Knowing that radical change is needed is not enough; every self-described reformer advocates change. Change in the abstract is not a solution; as often as not, such abstraction becomes the music of a progressive pied piper. The question is what kind of change is needed. Before we can even begin seeking clear answers to such a question, we must determine exactly what needs to be changed. That is to say, government-controlled education is the broader problem, but until we understand precisely what harm public schools are doing to the human mind, we run the risk of proposing a cure almost as bad as the disease, albeit without the added fever of being compulsory.

Let us not strike out on a path of “hope and change,” then, without first carrying on a little further toward an understanding of what is not to be done. For public education has long been a house divided, not so much against itself as against its victims. That is to say, social control and population management are the purposes of the enterprise, but there are alternative perspectives regarding which kind of control is most desirable, roughly corresponding to the so-called left and right factions of the mainstream political establishment. These competing perspectives are typified by different buzzwords, methods, and overt goals, but they are united in their declared devotion to, and implicit disdain for, the potential and worth of the individual human being.

We must therefore avoid the temptation to take sides in the establishment’s internal debate, incautiously reasoning that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” without seriously considering the implications of both the left’s compassion-and-cooperation approach and the right’s measurable achievement approach. Let us now consider the dangers of such reasoning by placing the supposed rival perspectives under the microscope.

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[i] Private letter from 1929, quoted in Linda Lear, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008), 42.

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