Facing the Hardest Truth on Public Education
There are several major obstacles to overcome if there is to be any hope of saving civilization from the grip of the authoritarian pre-education camps we call "public schools." The most stubborn obstacle of all, however, is perhaps the one embedded in our own hearts, namely the all too human instinct to comfort ourselves with the thought that the soul-deforming corruptions of public education began in earnest only after our own school days, and hence that we ourselves escaped the harm we so easily recognize in others.
This instinct forms the rationale for the many objections I get to my calls for the complete abolition of public schooling, from people who claim that if the schools just got back to the methods of the good old days, all would be well. In other words, these people are unwilling to see the problem as anything deeper than the superimposition of some bad textbooks or teaching methods on an essentially noble system, because to admit that the problem is more fundamental than this is to admit that one's own education was harmful, which is to concede that one was indeed harmed -- that you are less than you might have been.
A few days ago, preparing a class of Korean undergraduates for a reading of Plato's Apology, I asked them to think back over all their years of schooling, and to tell me what percentage of their teachers did not deserve their pay. At first, the students just smiled -- Korea's Confucian heritage demands unreflective respect for all teachers. Finally, one young woman bravely volunteered that perhaps thirty percent of her teachers had not deserved their pay -- a much higher number than I had expected from a Korean student. This opened the floodgates: almost all the students in the room subsequently condemned a significant portion of their educators -- one as high as sixty percent -- as unworthy of being paid given what they had actually provided for their students.
Next, I asked them whether their own education had been worth all the money that had been spent on it over the years. With only one exception, everyone said unequivocally that his or her own schooling had been worth every penny (or won, in this case). When I noted that this question was, in a sense, just a variation on my previous question about the teachers, a few students grinned sheepishly, and then a few more, as they gradually got the point: they were perfectly willing to declare that much of their education had been ineffectual or counterproductive -- but unwilling to accept the logical result of this, namely that their own development had been slowed or stunted.
These were students currently in school, which is why the contradiction in their answers was so apparent, and pitiable. For those of us who have long since finished our formal education, this natural tendency to self-protection is greatly exacerbated. We easily see the damage done to today's young people, but draw the line at admitting that we too are damaged goods. To defend our egos, we must deny that our own education was compromised. And this is the major obstacle of which I spoke, for this denial implicitly detaches the current evils of public education from the institution itself. We hesitate to condemn the institution outright, because this would mean questioning the conditions and success of our own intellectual and moral development. We thereby vindicate the most powerful means to permanent tyranny, in order to protect our tender pride.
Were public schools better twenty, forty, or sixty years ago? Of course they were. But it no more follows from this that public education is not such a bad idea than it follows from the fact that the welfare state of sixty years ago had not yet incorporated socialized medicine that socialism is not such a bad idea. Today's extensions of progressive control over an ever-increasing range of our lives did not arise from nowhere; they were made possible by earlier, gradual insinuations of the concepts and moral perspectives of tyranny into the modern West's soul.
Likewise with education. John Dewey did not get the progressive, individualism-crushing system he wanted all at once. But the slow encroachment of his theories into the educational establishments of the world, beginning more than a century ago, has allowed his intellectual heirs to achieve a level of socialist indoctrination and anti-West moral degradation that, in many ways, have surpassed Dewey's most depraved hopes. So while it may have been easier in the distant past for people to come out of public school with some of their reasoning and moral character intact, it is invalid to conclude that this relative superiority indicates anything other than that an old cancer has worsened.
Public schools from the supposed good old days were the precondition for public schools of today. Once the premise was established that modern society's interest in a broadly educated population could best be satisfied by direct government provision and oversight of schooling, it was a very short step to the conclusion that such schooling ought to be compulsory. And from here, it was an even shorter step to the argument that everyone ought to be provided the same education, in the same way, in the name of universality and fairness. Thus, increasing centralization and standardization are natural (even if unintended) developments of the initial impulse to use the coercive power of government to provide something called "education" for all children. Such a metastasizing government beneficence is all too susceptible to internal corruption by "big thinkers," central planners, and bureaucratic mother hens. The result, all but inevitable given the initial premises, is what you see: an entire civilization undone, intellectually, spiritually and morally, in the name of "making sure every child gets a good education," or "preparing our children for today's economy."
Some, comparing their own pasts to mankind's present impasse, are tempted to object here that public schools in the old style were, after all, responsible for the most prosperous and powerful society in history. On the contrary: Public schools in the old style were responsible for the gradual undermining and destruction of the most prosperous and powerful society in history.
The perceptual inversion made by apologists for the good old days results from imagining the relationship between public education and modernity as a still photograph, rather than observing the historical trajectory of the relationship in motion. The mechanisms of liberty, free markets, individualism and self-reliance were set in motion centuries before public education was generally available, let alone universal and compulsory. The generations that produced the ideas and art which gave modern liberty its mind and character, as well as the generations that produced the statesmen and warriors who brought modernity's promise to practical realization, were generations without public education. The accumulated spiritual and economic momentum of liberty was able to withstand the first frictions of progressive authoritarianism, allowing civilization and its economies to grow even while the tyrannical urge was beginning its ugly lurch into modern life. But nowhere was this progressive infection more destructive, and more brilliantly conceived, than in government schools, which can nip in the bud the natural impulse to learn and excel, and which were explicitly intended from early on to produce competent but submissive workers for the benefit of the ruling class. The subsequent broadening of the progressive schools' agenda to include the deliberate undermining of the family, the short-circuiting of Eros in favor of permanent puberty, and socialist revisionism regarding the Western intellectual and historical heritage, was not a radical shift in education policy, but a "natural" devolution made possible by the success of earlier stages of corruption. (This descent also defines the devolution of the teaching profession itself.)
The Jesuits said "give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man." Lenin boasted that he needed only the first four years to mould a child to the unshakable form that communism required. It is no accident that John Dewey was primarily focused on early childhood education as early as the 1880s. Or that Bill Ayers is today. Yes, public education continues to deteriorate. But that is the point: the deterioration is a continuation of something begun generations ago. None of us who have been through any version of public schooling should fool ourselves about what this means, including and especially for our own souls. This is no time for foolish pride; it is time for righteous anger, and the will to put a stop to more than a century of forced intellectual and moral decline.
Universal public education is modernity's monster, the fatal mistake of a prosperous civilization imagining that it can take over where freed human nature left off, and even outdo freedom and nature, by mass producing, through government micromanagement, the kind of men who make liberty and civil society possible. This description of public education's foundations is the generous version, which I offer only as a concession to those who object to my arguments against this monster by noting that even some good men have favored state control of childhood education.
It is true: some good men have favored this. It is also true that the best and most nobly motivated of these men -- from Aristotle to James Madison -- were not publicly educated themselves, and never lived in a community in which state-controlled education was the norm. We cannot know, but may guess, how their views on the subject might be different were they among us today, witnessing the practical reality of a civilization in ruins, thanks in large measure to the multi-generational effects of compulsory government-regulated schooling on a society's practical intelligence, moral character, and the habits of mind that make liberal education in the proper sense possible.
The blind spot of these men of exalted spirit, such as Aristotle and Madison, is their noble-minded presumption that in a good and just society, good and just motives will prevail. From less hopeful, but equally great, men, such as Plato and Tocqueville, we learn three harsh truths that in combination are all the answer we need offer to the virtuous hopes of Aristotle, Madison, or today's wishful thinkers regarding state-regulated schooling: (1) no society is so pure or so just as to be immune to the corruptive effects of human weakness or malice; (2) societal success and prosperity actually pave the way for corruption by weakening the resolve and vigilance of a populace grown over-confident in its strength and security; and, (3) the levers of monopolistic state authority are a natural magnet to those whose desire for power and wealth outstrips their desire for virtue and the common good.
In sum, state control of education -- as of most things -- is an invitation to ignoble men to insinuate themselves and their immoral motives into the system, seeking their own perceived advantage at the expense of fellow men who fall under the jurisdiction of their legislative influence. And since, in this case, it is the soul of the future -- the children -- into which evil may be insinuated, it would seem that education, far from being an exception to the rule of limited government, ought to be an especially emphatic marker of the proper limits of legitimate government involvement in men's affairs.
The risk is too great. The proof of this is in the poison pudding of today's public schools, not merely in one or two nations, but worldwide. Indeed, the universality of compulsory government schooling, considered a radical outrage when Marx proposed it just a century and a half ago, is itself evidence of the way corruption breeds further corruption.
Leave your ego to one side, for the sake of mankind's future. If you were publicly educated, your soul's growth was stunted to a significant degree, at the very least through the emotional bruising engendered by your spiritual resistance.
Be not proud. Be angry. And resolve to end this authoritarian abomination, before it ends us.