Gentle reader and I are enduring my series of Sunday columns in which I consider not “what is wrong with the world” but rather, “what would be right?” Last week I touched on the need to remove the state from any role in the business of education. Comments I’ve received from readers, all over, persuade me that I’m not “alone,” but raise several issues worth addressing independently.

Many begin with a practical question: Why don’t I advocate one of the many voucher systems that have been proposed, or even partially adopted in some U.S. states? These are arrangements in which the state, in effect, refunds school taxes, per capita, in the form of “education vouchers” that, by analogy to food stamps, can be applied to tuition in (almost) any school. The state thus retains its supposed “right” to redistribute income, but surrenders its near-monopoly on providing the schools.

And my answer is, sure, this would be an improvement on the arrangement where parents must pay tuition twice (once in taxes, once directly) to put their kids in private schools—which, in turn, means that only the children of wealthy or very determined parents can hope to escape the catastrophic effects of public schooling.

I am entirely in favour of half-solutions and ameliorative acts that move us generally in the right direction.

I am entirely opposed to the spirit of fanaticism, which will make no compromise until “the enemy” unconditionally surrenders. I do not think civil society can be improved if we proceed on Clausewitzian principles of Total War.

But half-solutions are incomplete. Vouchers do not eliminate the educational bureaucracies, and so leave the state in a position to impose arbitrary eligibility requirements, moronic paperwork loads, fathead “minimum curricula,” and so forth. Less cancer is better than more, but in the end, “no cancer” is best, and we should never abandon the position that the education of our children is none of the state’s (expletive) business.

Yet even here, the state should not be powerless to enforce criminal law. Should reports be circulating of some sectarian school in which the children are being trained as terrorists, by all means, send in the cops to investigate (and should the reports prove groundless, investigate the people who circulated the rumours). Meanwhile, let us not be distracted by the usual red herrings, nor let our argument depend on the distribution of rose-tinted spectacles.

To the argument, “If parents had choices comparable in price, poor schools wouldn’t have a chance,” I reply, “Yes, but.” I have seen some pretty dysfunctional private schools in my time, and have ceased to be amazed when parents pay good money to enrol their little ones in them. It’s as if they will send them anywhere, just to keep them out of the public schools, not realizing that some private schools are as bad, and the only difference is the teachers are paid less.

There have always been incompetent educators, under every known educational regime. There have always been shysters, who know nothing themselves, offering to educate your children. Put this another way, there will always be a niche for incredibly bad schools. I just don’t think the state has an obligation to supply them.

Moreover, by their very existence—supposing an “open market” where real alternatives are available—extremely bad schools serve a useful function. As my late friend, Anne Muggeridge, used to advise parents: “If you cannot be an inspiring example to your children, then you should be a terrible warning to them.” Some of the best adults emerge from the worst homes, and likewise, from some of the worst schools—because, from an early age, they had to become self-educating. Indeed, this is the reason we still have many intelligent and capable people graduating from our public high schools.

We must never forget that schools can only do so much, whether positively or negatively. And even parents can only do so much. An open system helps—by creating the conditions in which people must make decisions for themselves—to free us from the fatalistic belief in the inevitability of failure.

Primary responsibility for the education of a child resides in a place that we have almost forgotten, as a result of our exclusive attention to externals.

It is within the child’s own soul. And it is in the development of the child’s moral sense—of being responsible for his own actions, of rising towards his own vocation—that the capacity for learning is also unfolded.

I can get quite Platonic about this, by insisting there is something in the child, implanted from the moment of conception, that is of unique and irreplaceable value. And in a sense, the whole purpose of education is to help that child in a disciplined act of “recollection”—to help him discover what, mysteriously, he “already knows,” through the agency of a love that resides within him.

For Love is, in the final analysis, not the greatest of teachers, but the only one.

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