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A Real Education

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10/01/2001James Ostrowski

The Free Market 19, no. 10 (October 2001)


The single greatest obstacle to creating a free society is government's control over education. Government dictates that children attend a school, and taxpayers pay enormous sums to subsidize "free" government schools. The frightening result is that the vast majority of citizens--nearly 90 percent--end up sending their children to government-subsidized schools.

The government school monopoly strengthens the state and harms the cause of liberty in many ways. On the state and local levels, education accounts for an enormous percentage of expenditures. It is absurd to suggest, as most Republican candidates do, that they will cut the size of state government but not touch the school system. Federal expenditures on education are still relatively small, but wait five minutes: the foot is in the door.

Next comes the complex web of educational special interest groups: teachers and their unions, suppliers, publishers, administrators, and even parents who get a free babysitting service. Three million government schoolteachers form a powerful army for statism. Since every subsidy is an argument for every other subsidy, the education lobby rolls logs with the best of them. They support not only the cause of ever-greater expenditures on education, but also the entire statist program of endlessly creative wealth redistribution and the ever-increasing bureaucratization and regulation of society.

Most importantly, public schools allow government to determine the political ideas that children are allowed to learn about. Libertarians are always struck by the consistently statist perspective exhibited by the vast majority of government school inmates and parolees. These students just "know" that we needed the Constitution because the nation was in chaos, FDR saved us from the Great Depression, and TR saved us from the "robber barons."

Such ideas and more and worse are inculcated in young minds when they are soft and malleable. They gradually harden like concrete long before any of our libertarian institutions can supply an antidote. Is it not the case that most lovers of liberty formed their views as teenagers or young adults? I personally do not know a single person who became a libertarian after age thirty. You have to get them while they're young or forget them. Presently, that task is impossible.

The present ban on religion in government schools aids the statist viewpoint. As all totalitarian regimes know, religions posit a scheme of values prior to and superior to the state. It is not the case, however, that no religion is taught in government schools. If religion is broadly defined to include even "one's ultimate concern," it becomes obvious that the religion taught in government schools is that interventionist government is the ultimate human value. Government schools forbid the teaching of any religion but state worship.

Government schools introduce and reinforce the bureaucratic mentality, the opposite of a free and spontaneous attitude toward life. To the bureaucratic mind, life is about unthinking adherence to a set of arbitrary rules of behavior established by superiors in a chain of command. No heavy thinking is required; just follow orders. By their very nature, such rules do not differentiate between individuals, but treat all as a mass. Twelve years of habituation to such a mode of living generally inoculates students from resistance to the bureaucratic state they will be suffering under for the remainder of their lives.

Though many government school products survive the experience with their minds intact, many hundreds of thousands emerge ill-equipped, intellectually or morally, to function independently in today's world. These misfits fill out the ranks of petty criminals, welfare recipients, drug users, and beggars of one form or another. Naturally, the existence of such folk leads to calls for more social service programs, police, prisons, and more spending on education! In this way, government creates its own demand, as the failure of one government program provides the impetus for the next one.

It is therefore no exaggeration to state that government control over education is the ultimate foundation of statism today. No substantial progress for liberty will occur unless this foundation is cracked. How do we go about this? Our only choices are to revolt, reform, or withdraw. Leaving revolt to a far corner of our minds for the time being, we are left with reform or withdrawal.

Can government schools be reformed? No. The only viable reform option on the table is vouchers. As Lew Rockwell took the lead in pointing out, vouchers do not move us in the direction of a free market in education. Rather, they constitute a form of educational socialism for the middle class. They provide an excuse for the total regulation of private schools as a condition of funding. "Whose bread I eat, his song I must sing."

Beyond the weakness of the leading proposal for reform, there is the sheer impossibility of defeating the education lobby in the political arena. These special interests simply care more about stopping reform than the reformers do about enacting it. They have more bodies prepared to spend more money, time, and energy. They vote early and often. The laws of rational apathy and rational ignorance protect the present system as they protect all other aspects of the statist system. Reform will not be enacted, and even if it is, it will increase, not decrease, the size and power of government.

Private schools, in the short run, are not the answer. There are too few of them. Those close by tend to be too secular or too religious or the wrong religion, depending on one's point of view. Further, millions of parents, already taxed to death to support public schools, cannot presently afford expensive private schools.

Which leaves only one alternative; withdrawal. This is commonly referred to as home schooling. The spontaneous growth of the home-schooling movement with close to two million students has begun to capture public attention. I am not prepared to say that home schooling is the ideal form of education for everyone. I am prepared to say with certainty that it is the only political strategy that can destroy the public school monster.

Let's make the first day of government school a national day of home schooling. Imagine the embarrassment for the educational establishment if the classrooms were empty on the first day of school. Suppose they gave a bad education and nobody came? In our government-school-induced, semi-literate culture, that picture would be worth a thousand words.

James Ostrowski is an attorney in Buffalo, New York ( Further Reading: Murray N. Rothbard, Education: Free and Compulsory (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 1999).

Cite This Article

Ostrowski, James. "A Real Education ." The Free Market 19, no. 10 (October 2001).

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