[A selection from Education: Free and Compulsory.]
The Reverend George Harris described the effects of compulsory education in imposing uniformity and enforced equality (soon after the establishment of compulsion):
Education is already so generally provided in America and other countries , that, without forecasting imaginary conditions, there is no difficulty in seeing how much equality is given by that opportunity….The same amount of time is given to all; the same courses are prescribed for all; the same teachers are appointed to all. The opportunity is not merely open; it is forced upon all. Even under a socialistic program it is difficult to imagine any arrangement for providing the education which all are supposed to need more nearly equal than the existing system of public schools. Even Mr. Bellamy [a prominent totalitarian socialist of the day] finds schools in the year 2000 AD modeled after those of the nineteenth century. All things are changed except the schools….Behind fifty desks exactly alike fifty boys and girls are seated to recite a lesson prescribed to all….But the algebra is not an opportunity for the boy who has no turn for mathematics….Indeed, the more nearly equal the opportunity outwardly the more unequal it is really. When the same instruction for the same number of hours a day by the same teachers is provided for fifty boys and girls, the majority have almost no opportunity at all. The bright scholars are held back…the dull scholars are unable to keep up…average scholars are discouraged because the brighter pupils accomplish their tasks so easily.1
In the 1940s, the English writer and critic Herbert Read emphasized the diversity of man by pointing out the “psychological” objection to a compulsory “national system of education”:
Mankind is naturally differentiated into many types, and to press all these types into the same mold must inevitably lead to distortions and repressions. Schools should be of many kinds, following different methods and catering for different dispositions. It might be argued that even a totalitarian state must recognize this principle but the truth is that differentiation is an organic process, the spontaneous and roving associations of individuals for particular purposes. To divide and segregate is not the same as to join and aggregate. It is just the opposite process. The whole structure of education as the natural process we have envisaged, falls to pieces if we attempt to make that structure…artificial.2
The great philosopher Herbert Spencer pointed out the despotism inherent in compulsory education:
For what is meant by saying that a government ought to educate the people? Why should they be educated? What is the education for? Clearly, to fit the people for social life—to make them good citizens. And who is to say what are good citizens? The government: there is no other judge. And who is to say how these good citizens may be made? The government: there is no other judge. Hence the proposition is convertible into this—a government ought to mold children into good citizens….It must first form for itself a definite conception of a pattern citizen; and, having done this, must elaborate such system of discipline as seems best calculated to produce citizens after that pattern. This system of discipline it is bound to enforce to the uttermost. For if it does otherwise, it allows men to become different from what in its judgment they should become, and therefore fails in that duty it is charged to fulfill.3
Mrs. Isabel Paterson brilliantly sums up the tyranny of compulsory state education, and the superiority of free choice of private education:
political control is…by its nature, bound to legislate against statements of both facts and opinion, in prescribing a school curriculum, in the long run. The most exact and demonstrable scientific knowledge will certainly be objectionable to political authority at some point, because it will expose the folly of such authority, and its vicious effects. Nobody would be permitted to show the nonsensical absurdity of “dialectical materialism” in Russia, by logical examination…and if the political authority is deemed competent to control education, that must be the outcome in any country.
Educational texts are necessarily selective, in subject matter, language, and point of view. Where teaching is conducted by private schools, there will be a considerable variation in different schools; the parents must judge what they want their children taught, by the curriculum offered. Then each must strive for objective truth….Nowhere will there be any inducement to teach the “supremacy of the state” as a compulsory philosophy. But every politically controlled educational system will inculcate the doctrine of state supremacy sooner or later, whether as the divine right of kings, or the “will of the people” in “democracy.” Once that doctrine has been accepted, it becomes an almost superhuman task to break the stranglehold of the political power over the life of the citizen. It has had his body, property, and mind in its clutches from infancy. An octopus would sooner release its prey.
A tax-supported, compulsory educational system is the complete model of the totalitarian state.4
Here we must add that, in the current system, the State has found a way in the United States, to induce the private schools to teach State supremacy without outlawing private schools, as in some other countries.
By enforcing certification for minimum standards, the State effectively, though subtly, dominates the private schools and makes them, in effect, extensions of the public school system. Only removal of compulsory schooling and enforced standards will free the private schools and permit them to function in independence.
Mrs. Paterson deals succinctly with the problem of compulsory education and literacy:
But would not some children remain illiterate? They might, as some do now, and as they did in the past. The United States has had one president who did not learn to read and write until after he was not only a grown man, but married and earning his own living. The truth is that in a free country anyone who remains illiterate might as well be left so; although simple literacy is not a sufficient education in itself, but the elementary key to an indispensable part of education in civilization. But that further education in civilization cannot be obtained at allunder full political control of the schools. It is possible only to a certain frame of mind in which knowledge is pursued voluntarily.
And Mrs. Paterson answers teachers and educators who would tend to reply in epithets to her criticism:
Do you think nobody would willingly entrust his children to you to pay you for teaching them? Why do you have to extort your fees and collect your pupils by compulsion?5
One of the best ways of regarding the problem of compulsory education is to think of the almost exact analogy in the area of that other great educational medium—the newspaper. What would we think of a proposal for the government, Federal or State, to use the taxpayers’ money to set up a nationwide chain of public newspapers, and compel all people, or all children, to read them? What would we think furthermore of the government’s outlawing all other newspapers, or indeed outlawing all newspapers that do not come up to the “standards” of what a government commission thinks children ought to read? Such a proposal would be generally regarded with horror in America, and yet this is exactly the sort of regime that the government has established in the sphere of scholastic instruction.
Compulsory public presses would be considered an invasion of the basic freedom of the press; yet is not scholastic freedom at least as important as press freedom? Aren’t both vital media for public information and education, for free inquiry and the search for truth? It is clear that the suppression of free instruction should be regarded with even greater horror than suppression of free press, since here the unformed minds of children are involved.
- 1.Harris, Inequality and Progress, pp. 42–43.
- 2.Herbert Read, The Education of Free Men (London: Freedom Press, 1944), pp. 27–28.
- 3.Spencer, Social Statics, p. 297.
- 4.Isabel Paterson, The God of the Machine (Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1943), pp. 271–72.
- 5.Ibid., pp. 273 and 274; emphasis in original
Posted with permission from the Mises Institute.