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Mises Daily: Tuesday, June 01, 1999 by

One way to prove that someone's idea makes no sense is to show that it entails something absurd. So you say none of us can know anything. Doesn't this mean you cannot either? So how then do you know none of us knows anything? You know the rest. This is called the "reductio ad absurdum" argument and it is used all the time to discredit flawed notions.

Well, sometimes it is not just silly, unfamiliar notions that can be shown to be absurd by this means. There are those of us who have been critical of public education as such, not just of this or that aspect of it. There are the most basic objections, of course: Taking money from all to educate some is out and out extortion. The government's forcing kids to go to school is a very harmful transfer of authority from parents to the state.

But one of these criticisms has always been that the one-size-fits-all nature of public education is extremely harmful to kids. Given human nature, including our inherent individuality, such a way to educate can only lead to malpractice. It is absurd to subject everyone to the same education process, period.

A good case in point was California Governor Gray Davis's reading incentive scheme. It proposed rewarding schools with $5000.00 if their students read some of the books on a list of 1250 titles.

The only reported objection raised against Gray's idea has been that some people cannot afford to get ahold of the books. Yes, well, that can be a problem but not one that isn't solved rather simply -- get up a collection for the kids, apply for grants, etc., etc. Money is a problem in many human tasks but when it comes to kids they can usually be solved because most of us feel compassion for the needy little ones. Here is where members of various communities can take the initiative--government isn't needed at all for that.

Much worse is another part of this scheme; namely, who selects the preferred titles? You guessed it, the Department of Education of the US Federal Government. Why?

Especially in a cultural climate that keeps stressing diversity in everything, isn't it absurd to believe that the same group of books should serve every child's needs? Even if the list is very long, containing as it does over a thousand titles, that is still nothing compared to all that is worthwhile out there to be read. I am confident that my favorite authors will not be found on it, or those of millions of other Americans. Yet, these are to be the ones the reading of which will be encouraged nationwide and rewarded with big bucks in California.

Do you see the point? Diversity is good -- except when the federal government decides it isn't. This reminds me of the multiculturalist Greens who object to the killing of baby seals by certain Canadians and the whaling of some American Indians who claim it's an element of their distinctive tradition. You cannot have it both ways, multiculturalism with moral absolutes. Nor diversity with reading lists!

Sure, the 1250 titles will include diversity but nothing compared to what the human imagination has offered in such areas as children's and adult fiction. One wonders whether the Amish will find their books there, the Moonies or the Hare Krishna. What about those who prize Iranian or Hungarian literary masterpieces? Or those who think the cream of the crop are works of science fiction or Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novels, or those of Victor Hugo? What about Ayn Rand? Perhaps some of these get on the list -- but then others will be missing.

Aside from the more elementary trouble with public education, such as its coercive funding and attendance, this, too, shows how misconceived an institution we have on our hands by which the nation's young people are to be schooled. It is this kind of cookie cutter approach that alienates so many of our youngsters from the learning process. Who on the national scene has even considered that perhaps all the madness on high school campuses witnessed lately could be related to this aspect of the institution: pressing everyone into service of the educational ideal of a few?

By the time they will have left high school, altogether too many of the graduates are convinced that education is a chore, one best confronted with fear and loathing. Professors at colleges across the country will then face such students. Their first question upon entering a course tends to be "Do we have a lot of reading to do in here?" or "Will we have to write papers in the class?" -- as if anything requiring the use of their minds had to be a scourge. No wonder when their early schools have forced them to read and write in total disregard of their own, individual needs and wants.

Tibor R. Machan Machan teaches at the Argyros School of Business and Economics, Chapman University, CA, and is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford. He is the author of Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society and Classical Individualism.