The Case Against Public Education

If public education is allowed to survive, all efforts to resuscitate the inert husk of modern civilization will fail.  It is time to unravel the most wasteful and destructive entitlement program of all.  Cancer cells do not divide into healthy cells.  A corrupted, power-intoxicated political class will not willingly raise a freedom-loving, self-reliant populace.  Governments must no longer be allowed to pre-determine their nations' fates, by mass producing the populace that serves their interests.

For years, reasonable and serious people have known that the educational establishment is at the root of the undoing of modernity and its natural political fruit, individual liberty.  And for years, excepting a tiny, brave minority of parents and educators, most citizens have assumed that the problems of the education system, however grave, are to be resolved through legislative reforms, 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 general 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 that includes the brave minority of public school teachers who have chosen to stand quixotically against the progressive avalanche -- to band together with other advocates of freedom and virtue in taking a bolder step: acknowledge that the system itself is rigged to fail, or, at its worst, to "succeed" on evil terms.  Acknowledge that, implausible as it may sound to most people at this early stage, if you really want to raise a generation of rational, decent adults prepared to shrug off the chains that today's majority has accepted in exchange for its "fair share" of the state's ill-gotten booty, you must emancipate the next generation of young adults from progressivism's universal indoctrination program.

In a recent article, I examined the particular evils of current public education systems, modeled as they invariably are on some version of post-Marxist, Dewey-inspired progressivism, according to which the primary function of education is to strip young citizens of their virtue, individualism, and self-reliance, and to replace these prerequisites of a free, civil society with nihilism (an emptiness that the state can fill with its neo-religious agendas), collectivism (which breeds hatred of those who do not accept the state's agendas), and class envy (which provides the state with a perpetual scapegoat for all its inevitable failures to create the prosperity it promises).  I also measured the success of this progressive educational model by its victims' unwillingness to react en masse against it, and asked why people who are proud to say "from my cold, dead hands" regarding their firearms do not see their own children as worthy of so strong a grip.

Let it be assumed, then, that the acute evils of progressive education have been sufficiently outlined, and the case made for urgent action.  The nature of such action now becomes the issue at hand.    

In light of the disaster that is modern public education, the next question should be, "Is a system of near-universal public education of any kind in the best interests of an aspiring free society?"  I believe we now have enough evidence to answer, unequivocally, "No."

Let us begin with a practical reality which must no longer be avoided.  Any public education system is, by definition, ultimately controlled by the administrating government, which means it is managed by the ever-growing team of bureaucrats, "theorists," and other unelected administrators appointed, directly or indirectly, by the elected 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 the "experts" take on a life and force 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 are always vastly outnumbered as long as most hiring and appointing privileges remain in the hands of the entrenched hierarchy. 

Thus, a corrupted education system will tend towards further corruption.  One might hope for a new direction if one could believe that the system were unraveling by 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.  We all know, however, that this is far from the case: today's public education systems were carefully and purposefully designed, and are forcefully and protectively micromanaged, by people with a progressive political agenda.  The designers are not a bumbling band awaiting rational leadership.  They are a sinister band contriving the means to the emasculation, de-rationalization, and herd-animalization of mankind, as a means of empowering and enriching themselves, though always, of course, in the name of societal "progress."

Might it have been otherwise?  Might even the unavoidable collapse of today's civilization create an opportunity for the development of a new, uncorrupted public system, one which serves the proper purposes of universal education in a free society, rather than undermining liberty at every turn?  And then, once such a good system has been held in place for a sufficient period, might not its virtues harden into position and become relatively immovable, by means of the same bureaucratizing mechanism which now serves to perpetuate a corrupt system?

I concede that this possibility is not inconceivable.  What is inconceivable, however, is that the men and women entrusted with the power to design, and later to administer and "revise," such a system would be uniformly noble and virtuous in their intentions.  If modern "conservatism" means anything, it means accepting as a truism that power corrupts, and that absolute power is the inevitable final destination of authority once-corrupted, unless this logical regression is stopped by countervailing forces.  This understanding was, of course, the heart of modernity's argument for limited government with a balance of powers. 

Two constants of human experience, error and evil, conspire to threaten every noble effort.  One could make the case that America's experiment with public education in the nineteenth century was, at least in part, just such a noble effort.  We can see the ultimate result: plummeting standards in general knowledge, civic awareness, genuine literacy, and moral reasoning; and a society that has been turned inside out, within a mere century, from free and prosperous republic to bankrupt, nascent tyranny.

Still, one might, with what seems the weight of history on one's side, argue that a society could not hope to survive, and to perpetuate its institutions and ideals, without recourse to a unifying education system.

The argument that government must have a public education system to promote the kind of citizenship needed to sustain the good state has a long and intermittently honorable history.  The main problem with it, following from what I have described above, is this: every corruption and degradation of a state's political establishment guarantees a corrupted and degraded education system.  And by the same reasoning that leads 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, dishonorable or subversive leaders could quickly disseminate and perpetuate a perverse ideology.  (This hypothesis, needless to say, hardly requires theoretical justification anymore.)

Allow me to emphasize this last point, as I believe it may hold within it the strongest positive case for the abolition of any public educational model, in favor of the theoretically infinite (but practically self-limiting) models possible in a "private" educational world, by which I mean one in which most or all education of children is chosen and planned at the family level, whether directly (as in homeschooling), indirectly (as through church-based or other privately-managed schools), or through some combination of these.

The most basic argument 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 subversive motives.  This is literally true, on its face; but its rhetorical force depends on accepting two typical authoritarian 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 a breeding ground for charlatans, incompetents, and subversives -- in other words, that only a government employee can be trusted.  (If there is a competition for Big Lie of the millennium, I nominate that one.)

On the contrary, consider this: 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 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 failed public system gives parents little recourse; corruption at the top of the public pyramid quickly insinuates itself throughout the system.  A few Marxist-progressives, feeding on the naiveté or stupidity 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 last sentence summarizes the past -- and, in my view, final -- hundred years of modern civilization.)  If anything breeds charlatans, incompetents, and subversives, it is the power to compel "standardization."

As I have said before, if Barack Obama wishes to send his children to Bill and Bernardine's house, he is free to do so.  The problem is that in a public education system, you are not free not to do so with your children.

The issue at hand is of the utmost importance.  We are talking about the most determinative structure in any society, the educational establishment.  It therefore behooves us to quit our stale practical realm for a moment -- our degraded reality of Obama, Dewey, Marx, political correctness, relativism, entitlements and voyeuristic entertainment -- and breathe the fresh mental air of a more rational age. 

It was Aristotle himself who made the strongest case for state-regulated education as a means to societal self-preservation.  In Politics VIII.1, he argues that only legislative control of the methods and means of learning can guarantee the general rearing of the kind of citizens who will sustain a state's form of government.  Leaving education in the hands of families is, he believed, leaving too much of a political community's future to chance.  And he took pains to outline a curriculum directed to the production of healthy and virtuous minds. 

Aristotle also allows, however, that the realization of a successful and good public education system presumes virtuous and rational legislators attentive to the preservation of their society.  As he notes in Nicomachean Ethics X.9, "Now it is best that there should be a public and proper care for such matters; but if they are neglected by the community it would seem right for each man to help his children and friends towards virtue, and that they should have the power, or at least the will, to do this."

Interestingly, few examples of real public education were available for Aristotle's observation -- education was largely a family matter throughout most of the classical Greek world.  Perhaps, then, his atypical idealism on this matter may be excused.  Be that as it may, it is quite obvious that our moment of Western de-civilization would qualify as the extreme case of "proper care for such matters" being "neglected by the community."  The community, in this case, has lost all direction on matters of what Aristotle calls moral and intellectual virtue -- i.e., living according to human nature -- and thus fails to meet Aristotle's pre-condition for a good public system.

Furthermore, it seems highly noteworthy that the only developed model of universal public education in Greece's classical period was that of Sparta -- a city admired by Aristotle, as by Plato, for its ability to marshal wartime forces.  Aristotle nevertheless chastises Spartan education for its failure to address the deepest needs of intellectual and moral development. 

More importantly, the perspective of time has revealed that everything that made classical Greece truly world-historical -- indeed, arguably the summum bonum of human civilization -- was the product of other city-states, and not Sparta.  That is, notwithstanding Aristotle's admiration for Sparta's unified purpose, civic courage, and military prowess, history shows that Greece's unprecedented peaks of intellectual and artistic achievement were the fruit of "private education." 

The same may be said of the England of the Industrial Revolution, when civilization planted the seeds of a universalizable prosperity; as well as of America at the time of Independence -- i.e., the moment when remarkable men made common cause in establishing a new form of republican government, built on a foundation of modern philosophical genius, and designed to preserve mankind's natural freedom as no previous form of government ever had. 

Seen from this perspective, there is nothing paradoxical, as we are sometimes given to imagine, in the fact that the seemingly humane pursuit of universal public education is arcing towards the de-industrialization, impoverishment, irrationalizing, and practical enslavement of humanity. 

In truth, we ought perhaps to think it strange that we ever imagined public education could lead to anything else, in the end.  For all the noblest hopes and intentions in the world cannot alter humanity's natural frailty, nor deny the destructive logic of the corrupted system, which is increasingly irreversible in proportion to the system's universality.  The fewer the "systems," the wider the dissemination of poison from above.

If you hope to salvage a civilization from today's moment of disintegration, you must begin where all civilization begins, namely with education.  And the first principle of the new education must be the most prosaic wisdom of all: don't put all your eggs in one basket -- especially if that basket belongs to the government.

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