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Home Columnists David Warren Get the state out of education

Get the state out of education

If you could completely privatize just one government function, what would that be?

Without much hesitation, my answer to that question would be, education—in the policy sense of, all schools, from the earliest day cares to the last college adult extension program, and any kind of state subsidy for education, along the way. My first argument for this would be: The state has no business in the minds of the nation. Indeed, I think it has more business in the nation’s bedrooms.

I have been devoting a few Sundays to the basic political questions, reversing the pundit’s task from carping, to proposing alternatives broadly. It is easy enough to be against things, but in the end we should answer what we are for.

In the case of education, we are confronting an immense prejudice, inculcated by the education system itself. There is a long history of political intervention in schools in North America, and an even longer ideological history from the Reformation; the Scottish one, especially. Books could be written, and have been: But, in a single phrase, the notion that “education is too important to be left to chance” is so universally accepted, that the public at large is capable of overlooking universal failure. Our state schools, which were (contrary to myth) never all that good, have degenerated into dysfunctional propaganda mills.

We easily accept the associated notion that “in a democracy, public schooling is necessary to assure minimum standards for citizenship.” That schools should provide the machinery for the indoctrination of the masses follows naturally from this. Think it through. The proposition actually reverses the first principle of democracy: that government should answer to citizens, and not citizens to government. And remember, that all “progressive” educational proposals require political compulsion.

The history is deeply important, and I need to present another large fact, about the narrowness with which education has come to be conceived. Again we go back to Scotland, and the Calvinist ideal that everyone should be able to read the Bible and interpret it for himself. With this battle cry, Scotland became the first nation in history to approach 100 per cent adult literacy, centuries ago. Thus the association between education and literacy, and then between literacy and forms of bureaucratic credentialism.

Paradoxically, our high schools now graduate students who are only semi-literate, very few of whom can follow texts on the biblical level of sophistication. Yet literacy and numeracy remain the stated goals, for which all other kinds of education are wilfully sacrificed. And North America has particularly suffered, not merely from discounting the aesthetic dimension of education, but from centuries of propaganda in which truth has actually been opposed to beauty, and finally (clinched via “political correctness”), the good has been opposed to the true.

The worst thing that has happened is the unionization of the teaching force, as a by-product of general bureaucratization. This has extraordinary and devastating consequences. The teachers themselves have become interchangeable ciphers in a “learning machine,” wherein process trumps function. We have come to a point at which students, rightly enervated by the process of indoctrination, are routinely drugged to make them docile.

We could hardly do worse, than achieve this state in which a child home-schooled in the most derelict family may emerge into adulthood in better moral and intellectual condition than the child criminalized by his peers in the perpetual day care. Not everyone may agree with me, and I assume we’ll need a transitional regime to a de-schooled society.

But schools exist for education, not vice versa. We have come to look at the basic issue in an inverted way. There are people alive today who actually think problems with education can be solved by spending more money on schools, in defiance of an easily observed, nearly inverse relation between spending and results. There are people who do not yet realize that, even for the purpose of gaining employment, the standard university degree has inflated to a long row of zeroes.

The one immediate, radical reform for which I think we should aim, after winning the battle of ideas, is the destruction of all centralized school boards and liquidation of all departments of education. Put every single public and high school in the control of a local parent association, and necessity—the most efficient instructor—will soon teach the parents what they must do. Return the universities to the elitist status quo ante, before governments took them over: for “average” people don’t belong in there.

The desire to educate one’s children does not depend upon the state. It is innate in every human. The responsibility to raise them to some understanding of the world in which they must participate should be assumed by persons, not by Procrustean things.

This is of course a vast topic. To conclude my little stab into it, let me say equality is a dark and monstrous ambition. Children are not equal, but diverse in their gifts, so that creativity and variety and flexibility and experiment lead closer to the light.

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