School is back and so is the grim reality that whatever the government touches, it wrecks. Government has done more than touch education, moreover; it has deeply embedded itself at all levels, leaving just enough in the way of freedom to allow families to breath but not thrive.
And the situation isn’t getting better. Without digital options that are flourishing (because the sector is relatively free!), as well as intense parental initiative, along with the remarkable capacity of the human person to learn despite all odds, education would have been completely doomed by now.
No educational reformer with power has been willing to consider the outlook of Murray N. Rothbard. His book Education, Free and Compulsory is this week’s ebook of the week in the Laissez Faire Club. Robert Murphy offers an extensive introduction and I write the editorial preference.
Education: Free and Compulsory first appeared in 1971, a time when “progressive” educational reforms were in full swing, wreaking havoc everywhere as a another stage in the never-ending secular decline of all education over the course of a century of relentless nationalization.
His essay, which traces back the origin of compulsory schooling, ends with a blistering criticism of the attempt to dumb down classrooms, aggregate the ability level of all students, and homogenize all curricula in the interest of making the poor students look better and the great students blend in with the masses. Rothbard’s forecast proved right.
Since those times, a reaction to those reforms set in with the back-to-basics movements and the new emphasis on achievement. But the drive toward coercive collectivism remained. Today’s current crop of politicians all seem to agree that “No Child Left Behind,” the Bush-era educational reform, has failed and has to go.
To be sure, people disagree on why it failed. Some believe it harmed classroom creativity. Others say it unnecessarily centralized control and pointlessly exploded spending. All the criticisms seem to be true. And yet that reform was the culmination of more than two decades of push by the “back-to-basics” and the “outcome-based” movements favored by “conservatives” to undo the damage done by the previous “liberal” educational reform, which in turn was pushed to undo the regimentation that came about from the previous reform.
In a free market, services are constantly improving and developing to meet changing tastes, technologies, and resource availabilities. State-provided services are merely reformed from the center in successive waves of political fashions. The educational-reform movement, as it has ebbed and flowed over a century, seems to take the path of shampoo instructions: wash, rinse, repeat.
And so today, there is no end to the debate over how to improve public education: longer days, longer school year, better teacher training, merit pay, smaller classes, better tracking, less tracking, more tutoring, better facilities, earlier education, blurring district lines (again), vouchers, charters, and so on, seemingly without end.
Why are the problems essentially unsolvable? The public school sector, Rothbard shows, is rooted in coercion: funding comes first, but coercive participation inevitably follows. The coercive means are forever afflicted with the same traits that can be observed in any state-funded and -administered system. It is politicized. It is expensive. Its results are difficult to evaluate. It is heavily bureaucratized.
The consumers have little or no say, unless they run for the school board. The main concern is the collective, not the individual, and the results are accessed according to politically determined criteria.
And yet Rothbard raises a serious question. Has it all really failed, and, if so, in what sense? What actually is the goal of public education? The salvation of the state, Rothbard shows, was and remains the main priority of the government-run school system.
Looking back at the driving motivation, the view is beautifully summed up in the quotation from Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen, early reformers writing in 1847. The goal of their plan, they wrote, was “national, rational, republican education; free for all at the expense of all; conducted under the guardianship of the State, and for the honor, the happiness, the virtue, the salvation of the State.”
Rothbard’s monograph helps us take that critical step of imagining a world of education in absence of coercion. Education is a service, one in heavy demand. That means it can be subject to the economic means of production and distribution, same as software, shoes, and spaghetti. And so it was until the late 19th century, when American education reformers adopted the views of European socialists.
Even today, private schooling somehow miraculously survives despite the massive tax state that extracts private wealth to benefit public schools, the relentless crowding-out effect of the public schooling system, and the near-total domination of education by the state. These private solutions have been consistently shown to cost half as much and produce much better results than the state system.
What would education today look like in absence of state coercion? Consider the provision of food. What forms of delivery are available? There are corner convenience stores, large grocery stores, farmers’ markets, home-delivery services, high- and low-priced restaurants, fast food, and the ability to grow your own at home.
So it would be for education as well, and we can see this even in the heavily interventionist system today. Where we see pockets of freedom — private schools, home schools, and even charter schools — we see a dramatic difference in results. The student flourishes because there is a relationship between producer and consumer, there is a commercial metric to keep the economics honest, and because the real goal is to educate rather than push the civic religion.
Slave-based schools work no better than slave-based economies. They will always be outperformed by volition-based institutions.
That state-worshiping aspect of public school has not entirely succeeded, as is rather obvious from looking at the decades-long decline in public respect for office holders and bureaucrats. But as with all state intervention, the highest cost is the one we do not see.
What Rothbard calls the “incalculably evil consequences” of public/compulsory schooling are still with us, the most notable of which is the suppression of true excellence. How many geniuses have failed to emerge? How much wisdom and knowledge have been lost? How many great minds have failed to be cultivated?
Public/compulsory education has pushed conformity and equality over excellence and genius. It has exalted conformism and equality above all else. Rothbard’s words on this subject should be emblazoned on the minds of everyone who is thinking about genuine reform toward freedom and authentic progress:
The common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity. Since abilities and interests are naturally diverse, a drive toward making people equal in all or most respects is necessarily a leveling downward. It is a drive against development of talent, genius, variety, and reasoning power. Since it negates the very principles of human life and human growth, the creed of equality and uniformity is a creed of death and destruction.