Articles of Interest

Home | Mises Library | Education and the New Left: A Libertarian Appreciation

Education and the New Left: A Libertarian Appreciation

Tags EducationPhilosophy and Methodology

03/01/2017Ralph Raico

(Address to the Mt. Pelerin Society, Brussels, September, 1974. Previously unpublished.)

The New Left of the late 1960s was an international phenomenon and one which manifested appropriately differing emphases in different countries. It is my impression that it was the American wing of the New Left that most often expressed a point of view with which a libertarian, or classical liberal, could have some sympathy. This situation is clearly connected with the relatively stronger American individualist heritage and the relative absence of a Marxist or even socialist tradition. In no area have the affinities between the New Left and libertarianism been more evident than in the theory of education, and it is in educational philosophy that the New Left in the United States continues even today to attract attention and to play an important role in public debate. What I propose to touch on in this brief talk1 are the values and approaches which the New Left — at least in its American version — has in common here with the libertarian standpoint, as well as the points at which, in my view, it is open to criticism. The writers I shall be dealing with are: Ivan Illich, the author of a widely-read book entitled Deschooling Society; Everett Reimer, his friend and associate; Joel Spring; John Holt; and Paul Goodman, the outstanding thinker of the group and inspirer of nearly everyone else in the field.

That these New Left writers have anything at all to say of interest to libertarians may come as a surprise to some — especially to those who have in mind the European, not to say the German, part of the movement — but I think it is demonstrable already from this fact: that these writers are the first in many decades to have presented in a challenging way the demand that compulsory school attendance laws be abolished. This is a position which they all insist on vehemently. Holt pointing out the uselessness of all educational experimentation, of free schools, "individualized learning," etc., in a context of compulsory attendance: as he puts it, "When you threaten people with jail if they don't do what you want, the only thing you can find out is whether they like doing what you want better than going to jail." Moreover, their demand here is the outgrowth of a whole social philosophy and way of viewing human personality that has a good deal in common with the conceptions of such classical liberals as Wilhelm von Humboldt and John Stuart Mill. The crucial importance of activity which is self-initiated and whose ends are self-chosen, and the indispensability of freedom as the condition and context of such activity if such values as creativity, energy and joy in achievement are to be realized, are concepts integrally woven into the New Left approach. When Goodman attacks the current educational system, stating: "it is impossible to do creative work of any kind when the goals are pre-determined by outsiders and cannot be criticized and altered by minds that have to do the work, even if they are youngsters" — I think that the overtones of Humboldtian and even Hayekian ideas are very clear. In connection with this: the links between the ideas of freedom and laissez-faire are, as we know, close, and here, too, the New Left writers reflect elements of the older liberal view: in the idea, for instance, that order and structure inhere in free human interactions and need not be imposed from the outside; and in the notion that growing up is not a process we are called upon constantly to supervise and direct, but rather one that occurs quite naturally — what young people require is not so much "direction" and supervision, but, first of all, simply adult models that can be provided by us as a by-product of our living our own lives rationally and purposefully; and, secondly, to be left alone. So that, the by now well-known insistence of the New Left critics that the abolition of compulsory school attendance laws is the precondition for any worthwhile educational policy is, it seems to me, the tip of the iceberg of a social philosophy rooted in individualist values and an individualist philosophy of human nature.

The New Left position should be of interest to us in another respect, linked with what has just been said: the criticism of "education" (as it is currently understood) per se. Although the accusation to which these critics might seem to be most open, on a number of grounds, is that of "utopianism," they are, ironically, in many ways vastly more realistic than their left-liberal and social democratic opponents. This is particularly true in regard to their evaluation of schooling as it actually operates in the Western countries, as well as their appreciation of its necessarily limited value under any circumstances. While the supporters of the official policy justify the delirium of more and more "education;" while they would have us believe, for example, that the United States, which each year spends on schooling an amount about equal to the GNP of Great Britain, is, nonetheless, pathetically and indecently falling short of its bounden duty to provide an enormously more costly "education" to its young; while, in other words, those supporting the received views are caught up in a system of illusions the attempt to realize which would bankrupt even the United States, the New Left critics direct our attention to a few radical truths: that, for all people, most of what they learn is not learned in schools; that most really significant learning does not even require a teacher but is picked up casually in the course of functioning within environments that minimize anxiety and coercion; that "education" as currently understood — that is, that which one undergoes in schools at the hands of professional teachers — is at best by and large unnecessary for children of middle-class and upper-class parents and by and large harmful for children from lower-class families. All of these writers have been or are teachers, and the analyses they provide of what actually goes on in schools — together with their frequent insightful examples that resonate with truth and reality — have greatly contributed to de-mystifying the so-called process of "education." Most of us knew that the chief result of high-school English courses is to implant in most people an unconscious life-long antipathy to Shakespeare and that undertaking to inform half of the young people of the United States as to the thought and inner spirit of Descartes and Immanuel Kant is a game hardly worth the candle. The humanistic psychology and philosophy of education of the New Left critics brings us, I think, a long way towards understanding why this should be so.

The deadening, mechanistic quality of education as it exists today is already a blight upon society; and yet, as these writers emphasize, there is an incessant imperialism on the part of government educational bureaucracies, an attempt to extend "education" into more and more areas of life and over longer and longer periods of the individual's life. "All educators," Illich asserts, "are ready to push out the walls of the classroom, with the goal of transforming the entire culture into a school," and he adds that, "No one completes school — yet. It never closes its doors on anyone without offering him one more chance: at remedial, adult and continuing education." In this way, Illich, a former priest, proposes the analogy of the current educational establishment to the medieval Church, a suggestive analogy which he and Goodman often employ.

Because of their own special training and background, these writers are able to identify the costs involved in this delirium of ever-greater quantities of schooling — not merely the kind of costs economists tend to think in terms of, but the more subtle costs to the personality-types and general temper of society most of us would find desirable. Schooling, especially schooling under present conditions, brings with it what Illich calls a "hidden curriculum." As the first and most important adult institution (besides the family) with which children become familiar, schools are enormously influential in shaping their view of the human world. The hidden curriculum — the concepts, attitudes and roles that are instilled along with reading a writing (and generally more successfully than reading and writing) are of great significance. There is, for instance, "the myth that bureaucracies, guided by scientific knowledge, are efficient and benevolent." There is the idea that knowledge is what is acquired in the presence and under the supervision of a paid professional (which has obvious costs in terms of self-assurance and self-reliance). There is the expectation that "social entitlements depend on the rank achieved in a bureaucratic process." If the minds of young people are actually being molded in this way by the present educational system — and this seems like a reasonable enough interpretation — the New Left critics deserve credit for bringing it to public consciousness.

Moreover, these critics often direct attention to various issues of political economy surrounding education which a libertarian will not find particularly original but which are seldom broached in public debate. These would include the analysis of teacher-certification (licensing, really) as an attempt to restrict entry to the market; pointing out the obstacles presented by licensing in general and by trade-unions to opening alternatives to schooling for young people (although how compulsory schooling could be abolished and millions upon millions of teenagers thrown onto the labor market without a final reckoning with the unions and with minimum-wage laws is a problem never tackled by these authors); and, very interestingly, an emphasis, in good Benthamite and Manchesterite style, on the sinister class-interests of the tens of thousands of articulate professionals employed by the present system. Goodman refers to the "school monks" who profit by the system, "an invested intellectual class worse than anything since the time of Henry VIII," and says of the billions spent on schooling and of the proliferation of programs, bureaus and studies recommending still more programs and bureaus: "One suddenly realizes that here again is the Dead Hand of the medieval Church, that inherits and inherits and never dies."

One very important aspect of the political economy of the education system, as seen by the New Left, is its tie-in with state-capitalism, historically and at the present time. Joel Spring, in particular, has developed this point. Throughout the world, government education has always had very definite functions of political indoctrination and control. This is clearest, of course, in regard to the inculcation of nationalistic values and myths. In many cases — Latin America, for instance — it was the system of government education (together with conscription) that first created the sense of nationality among the subjects of various states. Spring demonstrates how in the United States, in the course of the twentieth century, the state-schools were the conduits for instilling the values of the corporate-state in new generations of young people. That is, as the social climate of opinion altered, around the turn of the century, to emphasize sociability, cooperativeness, and the subordination of the individual to group aims, rather than the more individualistic values that had previously prevailed, the schools were altered to reflect this change and to help bring about a new, more "up to date" American personality-type. Spring is here extending to the field of education the enormously suggestive interpretation of early twentieth century American history of such New Left historians as Gabriel Kolko, who sees it as the period of the cementing of the state-business alliance that has ruled America, in domestic and foreign policy, ever since. The shaping of personality along lines suitable for the smooth functioning of the modern corporation (Americans in the audience will remember that in elementary school we were given grades for "gets along well with others") was the chief requirement from the viewpoint of the newly-emerging system of state-capitalism; but more specific desiderata were not neglected, such as the exploitation of the schools through the grading and tracking system as a means of personnel-selection at taxpayers' expense. The fact that government education usually functions as a means of transferring wealth from the relatively poor to the relatively rich is often emphasized by these writers. There is doubtless a class-envy quality to their ideas here, a banking on unconscious hostility to the rich in general; but the fact that in this extremely important area, this particular conclusion of libertarian economists regarding the net result of most government programs has been given wide publicity by the New Left writers can only be to the good.

Turning now to the criticisms I would have of these authors: a major source of disagreement would involve their evaluation of the consumer society, which they see as linked up with the educational system in various ways. Here they are altogether negative; they look on the consumer society in the customary terms, as purely the result of a race for artificial status through possession of material goods, as a futile attempt to make good for hollow lives, etc., etc. It is a pity that someone like Goodman could not have devoted some of his unique powers of close observation of the facts of everyday life to developing the insight of the psychologist Gordon Allport, for instance, who found to his surprise that there is a genuine pleasure in driving a powerful car; or of the sociologist Raymond Ruyer, who noted likewise that shopping in a modern department store is often a genuinely pleasurable experience and that it is only the intellectual's auto-suggestion and self-hypnosis that could make him think otherwise. In any case, the rejection of the consumer society would be relatively harmless, or even useful, if it were limited to a cultural critique: it would then serve the purpose of promoting an active-performing rather than a passive-consuming attitude towards life. But with these writers, as with Galbraith, such an attack functions as a preliminary invalidation of the values and decisions of ordinary men and women, preliminary that is to the demand for the coercive re-allocation of the resources that nowadays go to producing the goods people want. (In order to ground this invalidation, they drive the notion of the omnipotence of advertising to absurd lengths.) Goodman, unfortunately, says that even more should be spent by the government on education (although not on schools) than is spent now, rather than that the money should be wasted on "piggish consumption;" and Illich, mixing contempt of the consumer society with the ecological fears and with notions of the exploitation of the Third World by the Western countries, even proposes sharp limitations on the amount that individuals and nations may consume — in other words, a vast system of (international) sumptuary laws.

Connected with this disagreement would be the central difference in outlook between the New Left and libertarianism: namely, in the appreciation or even basic understanding of the market. Illich, for instance, seems to believe that the public school system treats education as a commodity, and he contrasts this with a situation where the student's autonomy would be respected. Holt and some of the others rightly condemn the systematic attempts to demean the student that often occur in schools, to rob him of self-respect, to teach him that growing up means resigning himself to subjection to irrational and unnecessary authority. But they never ask why this is not the typical quality of encounters in supermarkets or bicycle shops, or why advertising, whatever we may think of the specific content of the message, at least projects the concept that the individual and his comfort and convenience are the be-all and the end-all of creation. The perception which Thomas Szasz has so brilliantly applied to psychiatry — namely, that a commercially-oriented free market structure in service professions will have enormously different consequences for the status and ultimately for the self-image of the person taking advantage of the service, from a structure in which the purchaser of the service is someone other than the consumer — this fact, although partially understood by these writers and implicit in their support of the educational voucher system, is never credited to the account of the free market and capitalism. More generally, as Samuel Britten has pointed out in Capitalism and the Permissive Society; there is little appreciation of the fact that many of the values which the New Left holds dear — such as the substitution for mass-culture of a more individualized culture, one that takes into account minority tastes and standards — is possible through an extension of the commercial or market principle: in this case, through pay-TV and cable-TV.

Worst of all, there is in these writers an indifference or hostility to the principle of private property altogether, a refusal to see the incompatibility, not merely of higher humane values but of civilization itself, with a state of affairs where the individual's property is at the mercy of the "need" of any passing stranger. There is an attitude, I think, that private property is too "rigid," too "exclusive," a kind of Rousseauian idea that it erects barriers to human warmth and fellow-feeling and that it must, therefore, be superseded, by force if necessary. To my mind, this attitude goes some of the way in justifying, as applied to them, what von Mises said of their left-anarchist precursors: that they propounded a social philosophy fit only for roaming bands of barbarians.

So that, in their approach to the economic order, the New Left critics are fundamentally flawed; and, in view of the importance of correct economic theory for any social philosophy, this is a serious defect indeed. But the lack of economic knowledge is a common enough failing among social philosophers; and it appears to me that, in the battle against the positivist bureaucratization of the world, the New Left can furnish us with useful allies, from whom we have much to learn.

  • 1. Address to the Mt. Pelerin Society, Brussels, September, 1974. The manuscript was marked "For Private Circulation Only." Previously unpublished.
Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

Ralph Raico

Ralph Raico (1936–2016) was professor emeritus in European history at Buffalo State College and a senior fellow of the Mises Institute. He was a specialist on the history of liberty, the liberal tradition in Europe, and the relationship between war and the rise of the state. He is the author of The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton.

A bibliography of Ralph Raico's work, compiled by Tyler Kubik, is found here.

Image source:
When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here
Shield icon library