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June 1, 1999

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

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

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

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.

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