Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Maintaining Educational Diversity

Jerry Stratton, April 20, 2006

No Vouchers No Science

Because when public schools teach things you don’t want your children to learn, the best choice is to make public schools the only possibility.

Among the most important issues facing a free society is the education of its citizens as children. Children are ready to accept knowledge--and also ready to accept conformity, perspective, and prejudice. What we learn as children we can carry unquestioned into adulthood.

In a democracy, the educational system should encourage diversity. It should provide multiple options for parents, and it should not encourage parents to force other children to learn what they want their own children to learn.

The curriculum in a free society should not be subject to the control of the ruling powers. That runs the danger of perpetuating bad decisions by legislatures on social issues.

Schizophrenic ACLU

Among the strangest letters I’ve “enjoyed” receiving from the ACLU were when I received one letter asking for money so that they could fight the teaching of creationism as if it were science, so that they could fight the teaching of religion and political viewpoints in public schools. And then a few days later another letter, asking for money so that they could oppose the dismantling of the monolithic state-run educational system that makes their first fight necessary.

A monolithic state-run educational system is at the root of many of the evils the ACLU justly fights against. When police use the existence of state-run education as a means of implementing universal drug testing among children, the ACLU justly opposes that. When the state attempts to enforce speech restrictions on all students in government schools, the ACLU justly opposes that as well.

And when parents who want a say in their children’s education try to influence the school system they are paying for, try to put their values into their school’s educational materials, the ACLU opposes that. Justly, yes, but there must be a better solution than to tell parents not to care about their children’s education.

Some of the teachings the ACLU opposes are supported in some way by most of the people in the United States. A recent fund-raising letter from ACLU president Nadine Strossen read:

Since 1925, when the ACLU defended a Tennessee teacher convicted of teaching evolution, the ACLU has been resisting attempts by opponents of the scientific theory of evolution to forbid, limit or otherwise undermine the teaching of biological evolution in public schools.

“Intelligent Design”--an assertion that an intelligent supernatural entity has intervened in the history of life--is the latest ploy of the creationism forces. In Pennsylvania’s Dover Area School District, the ACLU has sued on behalf of parents who objected to the recent policy that required the teaching of Intelligent Design in biology classes as an alternative to evolution.

The emphasis is mine. That definition of Intelligent Design that the ACLU opposes is one which everybody who believes in just about any form of religion believes in. It is hard to have a religion, at least one that believes in an intelligent supernatural entity, without believing that this supernatural entity has influenced the world.

That doesn’t mean that everybody should be taught about the possibility of such an intelligent entity. But it also doesn’t mean that those who do believe it, should have to pay twice if they want their children taught that the possibility exists. The people who want this in their schools are people who care strongly about their children’s education, too.

Pigs, dogs, and gnomes

In Orwell’s Animal Farm, the pigs take the dogs aside and teach them to support the state. Orwell recognized the power of a state-run school system. Monolithic school systems are a dangerous tool for a totalitarian state and at the same time limit diverse viewpoints in a liberal state.

In Hitler’s Last Courier, Armin Lehmann describes the entrance week for the state-run NAPOLA schools:

Mostly we were exposed to Weltanschauung (world view), the way things were thought of as ideologically correct by the National Socialist leadership, which of course, were views originated or approved by Adolf Hitler... Throughout the week, we were exposed to a highly organized, well-thought-out program of persuasion. The strongly held convictions of those who enforced the so-called “new order” were passed on to us, the very young, who were being tested, first, for our ability to comprehend and, second, for our capacity to become committed unconditionally to the cause... we took into our minds what was presented to us, without thinking and without comparing, because all of it was impressive and new to us. We had no knowledge of anything to the contrary.

As the Nazis gained power, the state-run schools were readily available to further the new regime’s propaganda. As part of this, the schools were also used to oppress Jews, until finally Jews were expelled from the schools in 1935 as part of their loss of German citizenship.

In 1937, historian Stephen Henry Roberts wrote in The House that Hitler Built, that:

The Nazis have laid a heavy hand on education. They know that the textbooks of to-day are shaping the political realities of the decades to come.... As soon as the child enters an elementary school... his days are given over to the idealizing of the Nazis. He counts up storm troopers, he sews crude figures of Black Guards, he is told fairy tales of the Nazi knights, who saved the civilized maiden from the bad Russian gnomes, he makes flags and swastikas.

We need to design our institutions for bad times as well as for good: we need schools that will not be used as tools of a totalitarian state even if we do not believe that the current state would abuse them.

But is it true that the current state does not abuse the existence of universal, state-run education? Can the ineffective DARE program be viewed as anything other than the state trying to instill a particular political opinion into young students? Children have even turned their parents in to police as a result of these classroom sessions.

DARE Police have used their presence in schools to attack even non-drug-related speech on t-shirts, threatening students to conform to what the police feel should be the only acceptable behavior in the wider community. When Northwood DARE officer Joe Conley threatened a student wearing an Insane Clown Posse t-shirt, the reason given later was that “anything involving Insane Clown Posse is not allowed in Northwood.”

Educational Free Market

We still have, essentially, the same educational system that we had a hundred years ago. Even back in 1899, U.S. Commissioner of Education William Torrey Harris assured businesses that “our schools have been scientifically designed to prevent over-education from happening.” H.L. Mencken wrote, more seriously, “The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed a standard citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.”

Mencken would have understood the DARE program. We need high schools that do allow for “overeducation”. In the 1800s, John Stuart Mill wrote:

A general State education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mold in which it casts them is that which pleases the dominant power in the government, whether this be monarch, an aristocracy, or a majority of the existing generation;

In fact, I think he was wrong. A general state educational system, because of the nature of state institutions, casts children in the mold of several generations back. I think this is the reason that so many people must go to college today. Not because they need a college-level education, but because high school does not provide a modern high school education.

Our entire college system is becoming remedial instruction for young adults who did not learn the necessary basics for a modern job market that they should have learned in high school--because they are learning only what they needed to learn thirty years ago. This is what happens in a monopoly. College--and the massive expenses it incurs on students--wouldn’t be necessary if our high schools worked.

Politically, its even worse. A thirty-year-old education means that the politics of thirty years ago are perpetuated.

As long as we require that all families send their children to high school, we cannot require that they pay for it. Some wouldn’t even be able to afford it. Public mandates must be paid for out of the public purse. I’m not sure that a voucher system is the best choice, but it is the most obvious. Even at its best, a system where nearly everyone goes to the same school system and learns the same philosophy is dangerous to a democracy. A voucher system where the voucher completely pays for a decent education will work at least as well as the current system, which has not set a very high bar.

For the free market to work, however, schools must be free to set their own methods of education and their own schedules. They must truly be independent. Some schools might retain the current system of five days a week, all day. Others might choose to focus school instruction three days a week and encourage students to learn well by only requiring attendance on the final two days if students have trouble learning in the previous three days. They could--and would have strong incentive to--use real rewards to ensure that students want to learn.

Voucher schools could join together to provide common facilities. This might even lead to an a la cart style of education, where parents can choose classes from multiple providers.

There is one aspect of our current educational system that does fit well into a liberal educational framework: the funds for education do not come from the federal government, but from states and communities. It would be counterproductive to implement a system of diversity into education at the same time as handing funding control over to a single entity (the federal government) that could then control school policy through funding law.

Universal education is necessary. Despite Mill’s reservations, we can’t go back to a system where people in general do not educate themselves. A system of education in a democracy must not only support diversity, it must encourage it. And it must not be a tool-in-waiting for a conformist, totalitarian government.

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