Separate School and State

We in the Western World have become accustomed to the prevalence of “free” education provided by governments, with results which range from barely tolerable to severely inadequate, and costs which are shockingly high whenever one pulls back the curtains and looks at the government’s books. Is there a better way? Should the government be involved at all?

Compare American schools to churches. Which church do you attend, if any? What is preached? How many hours does the service last? Who is qualified to preach? What are the topics? How are the churches funded? In America, all of these decisions are made voluntarily by you, your fellow churchgoers, ministers, and so forth. How did we come to have such separation of church and state, when many European churches are still funded by the government?

The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, written in 1786 by Thomas Jefferson, provides some clues. I shall paraphrase the archaic language in modern English, replace ministers with teachers, and expand somewhat:

Our minds could have been built that every decision is already hard-wired, but this is not the case; we are free to act according to our own conscience or values. Attempts to force us to behave morally may encourage hypocrisy; outward forms may be kept, while private behavior is often shockingly different.

Those who presume to govern our morals are not angels, but ordinary people with ordinary failings; they cannot be trusted to tell us – by force of law – what to think or to believe.

To compel people to pay for the propagation of ideas in which they do not believe would be tyrannical. To compel them to support state-selected teachers would be tyrannical even if those teachers were nominally of the same persuasion, because it deprives people of the liberty of making a free choice, and deprives the teacher of the feedback offered by those choices. Teachers learn to respond to the preferences of politicians rather than those of voluntary customers with the power to “just say no.”

It is dangerous to permit agents of the government to make decisions about moral conduct, since they will tend to forcibly substitute their own flawed judgement for ours.

The rightful purpose of government (if any) is to interfere when overt acts against peace and good order arise.

Truth itself is great enough to prevail, and is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error; there is nothing to fear from conflicting ideas, unless truth is deprived of its natural weapons, free argument and debate. Errors cease to be dangerous when it is permissible to contradict them.

Reviewing this paraphrase with education in mind, it is difficult to justify treating education in one way, and churches in another. One may try to assert that schools are value-free, and open to all, but this is not at all the case. Any school must assert some set of values, lest it degenerate into a Lord of the Flies environment. Nor are these values confined merely to questions of overt acts against peace and good order. Government schools teach something about the proper role of government, for example; is it too cynical to expect a certain bias toward the interests of the government itself? When government schools teach about themselves as institutions, would it be too cynical to expect them to paint the picture in as glowing a manner as possible, to airbrush away their own flaws, and to emphasize the flaws of any alternatives?

In the Real World, government schools tend to propagate the interests of the government, including the myth that government is merely a neutral agent; that it is “of the people, for the people, and by the people.” In short, government schools suffer from a terrible conflict of interest.

Suppose then that we have no government schools and no government interference in education, beyond that consistent with keeping the peace? Would we have no education, or very little? Would only elites be educated?

James Tooley of the E.G. West Institute has written about his extensive research in several books, including The Beautiful Tree, Global Education Industry, and Reclaiming Education. The gist is that millions of parents in the poorest parts of India, Africa, China, and South America send their children to parent-funded free-market schools, where they obtain a better education than that offered by “free” government schools. (James Tooley tested more than 24,000 students to arrive at this conclusion, which is about 24,000 more statistical observations than were made by the ivory-tower theorists who claim that it cannot be done.)

Consider also the stunning success of home-schoolers, as they are called in the States. This is an unfortunate choice of phrasing, since people tend to import a great deal of baggage from their experience with government schools; they imagine a rigid school day, switching classes every 45 minutes, attendance records, an inflexible curriculum, and copious amounts of paperwork. As home educators gain experience and confidence, they tend to throw out those antiquated aspects of a design which was modeled on industrial factories, and to rediscover that children are not identical cogs in a machine, and cannot be educated by One True Method to Fit Them All.

NHERI research in the States finds dramatic results: children educated at home typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above the averages on standardized tests, compared to those educated by the government. Some do much better; if you research the background of child prodigies nowadays, you’ll often find that they were wholly or partly educated at home. In fact, the biggest contributing factor among those who do well in government schools is a supportive home environment; somebody at home spends about as much time and does much the same things as a home educator would if the child were not attending government schools.

For those considering home education, I must stress this point: you will not spend 6-8 hours per day replicating the way government schools operate. Do not box yourself in; permit your child to retain the love of learning; invest a few hours teaching the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and provide resources for your child to do the bulk of the work. You’ll find yourself spending an hour or two per day, rather than consuming the entire day. Single parents with jobs and businesses have successfully taught their own. You may need to find an aunt or neighbor to watch your children for a few hours; you may need to find a local co-op with other parents who have more diverse expertise. Don’t handicap yourself by thinking inside a school-sized box; you are not trying to replicate that stifling convent-like atmosphere.

Those who believe that learning is so difficult that it requires vast amounts of time and coercion need to get out more, no offense intended. Sugata Mitra delves into this question in two TED talks: Kids Teach Themselves and Child Driven Education – he discovered that, given a computer and connection to information, children would educate themselves.

Nor is home education the only option; as James Tooley and other researchers have discovered, poor parents are entirely capable of funding free-market schools, when the government leaves them free to do so. Parents, teachers, and students must be free to decide what will be learned, how it will be learned, and when it will be learned.

Existing government schools start with the presumption of mandatory attendance laws – a child must keep a seat warm for so many hours, so many days, so many years. If education can occur in much less time – which many home educators and researchers have proven to be the case – then such seat-warming laws are absurd and wasteful; they drive up the cost of education.

Have we always had such massive government interference? Is this, historically, the only way to provide mass education? Not at all. E.G. West, author of Education and the State, studied mass education in the 1800s, and found that it arose in the private sector and was actually viewed as a threat by the government, until it was finally co-opted.

It is time to demand that politicians “let our children go.” The education of our children is too important to demand anything less than their liberty and our own.


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