- Spaghetti monsters and free exercise Ethan Blevins, NOL
- Social warfare (government schools) Mary Lucia Darst, NOL
- Vulvæ in pornography and culture Bill Rein, NOL
- Early childhood memories of a Cambodian refugee camp Chhay Lin Lim, NOL
On August 17, 2018, the BBC published an article titled “Behind the exodus from US state schools.” After taking the usual swipes at religion and political conservatism, the real reason for the haemorrhage became evident in the personal testimony collected from an example mother who withdrew her children from the public school in favour of a charter school:
I once asked our public school music teacher, “Why introduce Britney Spears when you could introduce Beethoven,” says Ms. Helmi, who vouches for the benefits to her daughters of a more classical education.
“One of my favourite scenes at the school is seeing a high-schooler playing with a younger sibling and then discussing whether a quote was from Aristotle or Socrates.”
The academic and intellectual problems with the state school system and curriculum are perfectly encapsulated in the quote. The hierarchy of values is lost, not only lost but banished. This is very important to understand in the process of trying to safeguard liberty: the progenitors of liberty are not allowed into the places that claim to incubate the supposed future guardians of that liberty.
In addition to any issues concerning academic curricula, there is the problem of investment. One of the primary problems I see today, especially as someone who is frequently asked to give advice on application components, such as résumés and cover letters/statements of purpose, is a sense of entitlement vis-à-vis institutional education and the individual; it is a sense of having a right to acceptance/admission to institutions and career fields of choice. In my view, the entitlement stems from either a lack of a sense of investment or perhaps a sense of failed investment.
On the one hand as E.S. Savas effectively argued in his book Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships, if the state insists on being involved in education and funding institutions with tax dollars, then the taxpayers have a right to expect to profit from, i.e. have a reasonable expectation that their children may be admitted to and attend, public institutions – it’s the parents’ money after all. On the other hand, the state schools are a centralized system and as such in ill-adapted to adjustment, flexibility, or personal goals. And if all taxpayers have a right to attend a state-funded institution, such places can be neither fully competitive nor meritocratic. Additionally, Savas’ argument serves as a reminder that state schooling is a manifestation of welfarism via democratic socialism and monetary redistribution through taxation.
That wise investing grants dividends is a truth most people freely recognize when discussing money; when applied to humans, people start to seek caveats. Every year, the BBC runs a series on 100- “fill-in-the-blank” people – it is very similar to Forbes’ lists of 30 under 30, top 100 self-made millionaires, richest people, etc. Featured on the BBC list for 2017 was a young woman named Camille Eddy, who at age 23 was already a robotics specialist in Silicon Valley and was working to move to NASA. Miss Eddy’s article begins with a quote: “Home-schooling helped me break the glass ceiling.” Here is what Eddy had to say about the difference between home and institutional schooling based on her own experience:
I was home-schooled from 1stgrade to high school graduation by my mum. My sister was about to start kindergarten, and she wanted to invest time in us and be around. She’s a really smart lady and felt she could do it.
Regarding curriculum choices, progress, and goals:
My mum would look at how we did that year and if we didn’t completely understand a subject she would just repeat the year. She focused on mastery rather than achievement. I was able to make that journey on my own time.
And the focus on mastery rather than achievement meant that the latter came naturally; Eddy tested into Calculus I her first year at university. Concerning socialization and community – two things the public schools pretend to offer when confronted with the fact that their intellectual product is inferior, and their graduates do not achieve as much:
Another advantage was social learning. Because we were with mum wherever she went we met a lot of people. From young to old, I was able to converse well with anyone. We had many friends in church, our home-school community groups, and even had international pen pals.
When I got to college I felt I was more apt to jump into leadership and talk in front of people because I was socially savvy.
On why she was able to “find her passion” and be an interesting, high-achieving person:
And I had a lot of time to dream of all the things I could be. I would often finish school work and be out designing or engineering gadgets and inventions. I did a lot of discovery during those home-school years, through documentaries, books, or trying new things.
In the final twist to the plot, Camille Eddy, an African-American, was raised by a single mother in what she unironically describes as a “smaller town in the US” where the “cost of living was not so high.” What Eddy’s story can be distilled to is a parent who recognized that the public institutions were not enough and directly addressed the problem. All of her success, as she freely acknowledges, came from her mother’s decision and efforts. In the interest of full honesty, I should state that I and my siblings were home-schooled from 1stgrade through high school by parents who wanted a full classical education that allowed for personal growth and investment in the individual, so I am a strong advocate for independent schooling.
There is a divide, illustrated by Eddy’s story, created by the concept of investment. When Camille Eddy described her mother as wanting “to invest time in us and be around,” she was simply reporting her mother’s attitude and motivation. However, for those who aspire to have, or for their children to attain, Eddy’s achievements and success, her words are a reproach. What these people hear instead is, “my mother cared more about me than yours cared about you,” or “my mother did more for her children than you have done for yours.” With statements like Eddy’s, the onus of responsibility for a successful outcome shifts from state institutions to the individual. The responsibility always lay with the individual, especially vis-à-vis public education since it was designed at the outset to only accommodate the lowest common denominator, but, as philosopher Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind,witnessed, ignoring this truth became an overarching American trait.
There are other solutions that don’t involve cutting the public school out completely. For example: Dr. Ben Carson’s a single-, working-mother, who needed the public school, if only as a babysitter, threw out the TV and mandated that he and his brother go to the library and read. As a musician, I know many people who attended public school simply to obtain the requisite diploma for conservatory enrollment but maintain that their real educations occurred in their private preparation – music training, especially for the conservatory level, is inherently an individualistic, private pursuit. But all the solutions start with recognizing that the public schools are inadequate, and that most who have gone out and made a success of life in the bigger world normally had parents who broke them out of the state school mould. In the case of Dr. Carson’s mother, she did not confuse the babysitter (public school) with the educator (herself as the parent).
The casual expectation that the babysitter can also educate is part of the entitlement mentality toward education that is pervasive in American society. The mentality is rather new. Allan Bloom described watching it take hold, and he fingered the Silent Generation – those born after 1920 who fought in World War II; their primary historical distinction was their comparative lack of education due to growing up during the Great Depression and their lack of political and cultural involvement, hence the moniker “silent”– as having raised their children (the Baby Boomers) to believe that high school graduation conferred knowledge and rights. As a boy Bloom had had to fight with his parents in order to be allowed to attend a preparatory school and then University of Chicago, so he later understandably found the entitlement mentality of his Boomer and Generation X students infuriating and offensive. The mental “closing” alluded to in Bloom’s title was the resolute refusal of the post-War generations either to recognize or to address the fact that their state-provided educations had left them woefully unprepared and uninformed.
To close, I have chosen a paraphrase of social historian Neil Howe regarding the Silent Generation, stagnation, and mid-life crises:
Their [Gen X’s] parents – the “Silent Generation” – originated the stereotypical midlife breakdown, and they came of age, and fell apart, in a very different world. Generally stable and solvent, they headed confidently into adult lives about the time they were handed high school diplomas, and married not long after that. You see it in Updike’s Rabbit books – they gave up their freedom early, for what they expected to be decades of stability.
Implicit to the description of the Silent Generation is the idea, expressed with the word “handed,” that they did not earn the laurels on which they built their futures. They took an entitlement, one which failed them. There is little intrinsic difference between stability and security; it is the same for freedom and liberty. History demonstrates that humans tend to sacrifice liberty for security. Branching out from education, while continuing to use it as a marker, we will look next at the erosive social effect entitlements have upon liberty and its pursuit.
Apparently to be part of the “Greatest Generation,” a person had to have been born before or during World War I because, according to Howe, the Greatest Generation were the heroes – hero is one of the mental archetypes Howe developed in his Strauss-Howe generational theory – who engineered the Allied victory; the Silent Generation were just cogs in the machine and lacked the knowledge, maturity, and experience to achieve victory.
In The State in education – Part II: social warfare, we looked at the promise of state-sponsored education and its failure, both socially and as a purveyor of knowledge. The next step is to examine the university, especially since higher education is deeply linked to modern society and because the public school system purports to prepare its students for college.
First, though, there should be a little history on higher education in the West for context since Nietzsche assumed that everyone knew it when he made his remarks in Anti-Education. The university as an abstract concept dates to Aristotle and his Peripatetic School. Following his stint as Alexander the Great’s tutor, Aristotle returned to Athens and opened a school at the Lyceum (Λύκειον) Temple. There, for a fee, he provided the young men of Athens with the same education he had given Alexander. On a side note, this is also a beautiful example of capitalist equality: a royal education was available to all in a mutually beneficial exchange; Aristotle made a living, and the Athenians received brains.
The Lyceum was not a degree granting institution, and only by a man’s knowledge of philosophy, history, literature, language, and debating skills could one tell that he had studied at the Lyceum. A cultural premium on bragging rights soon followed, though, and famous philosophers opening immensely popular schools became de rigueur. By the rise of Roman imperium in the Mediterranean around 250 BC, Hellenic writers included their intellectual pedigrees, i.e. all the famous teachers they had studied with, in their introductions as a credibility passport. The Romans were avid Hellenophiles and adopted everything Greek unilaterally, including the concept of the lyceum-university.
Following the Dark Ages (and not getting into the debate over whether the time was truly dark or not), the modern university emerged in 1088, with the Università di Bologna. It was more of a club than an institution; as Robert S. Rait, mid-20th century medieval historian, remarked in his book Life in the Medieval University, the original meaning of “university” was “association” and it was not used exclusively for education. The main attractions of the university as a concept were it was secular and provided access to books, which were prohibitively expensive at the individual level before the printing press. A bisection of the profiles of Swedish foreign students enrolled at the Leipzig University between 1409 and 1520 shows that the average male student was destined either for the clergy on a prelate track or was of noble extraction. As the article points out, none of the students who later joined the knighthood formally graduated, but the student body is indicative of the associative nature of the university.
The example of Lady Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman to receive a doctoral degree, awarded by the University of Padua in 1678, illuminates the difference between “university” at its original intent and the institutional concept. Cornaro wrote her thesis independently, taking the doctoral exams and defending her work when she and her advisor felt she was ready. No enrollment or attendance at classes was necessary, deemed so unnecessary that she skipped both the bachelor and masters stages. What mattered was that a candidate knew the subject, not the method of acquisition. Even by the mid-19th century, this particular path remained open to remarkable scholars, such as Nietzsche since Leipzig University awarded him his doctorate on the basis of his published articles, rather than a dissertation and defense.
Education’s institutionalization, i.e. the focus shifting more from knowledge to “the experience,” accompanied a broader societal shift. Nietzsche noted in Beyond Good and Evil that humans have an inherent need for boundaries and systemic education played a very prominent role in contemporary man’s processing of that need:
There is an instinct for rank which, more than anything else, is a sign of a high rank; there is a delight in the nuances of reverence that allows us to infer noble origins and habits. The refinement, graciousness, and height of a soul is dangerously tested when something of the first rank passes by without being as yet protected by the shudders of authority against obtrusive efforts and ineptitudes – something that goes its way unmarked, undiscovered, tempting, perhaps capriciously concealed and disguised, like a living touchstone. […] Much is gained once the feeling has finally been cultivated in the masses (among the shallow and in the high-speed intestines of every kind) that they are not to touch everything; that there are holy experiences before which they have to take off their shoes and keep away their unclean hands – this is almost their greatest advance toward humanity. Conversely, perhaps there is nothing about so-called educated people and believers in “modern ideas” that is as nauseous as their lack of modesty and the comfortable insolence in their eyes and hands with which they touch, lick, and finger everything [….] (“What is Noble,” 263)
The idea the philosopher pursued was the notion that university attendance conveyed the future right to “touch, lick, and finger everything,” a very graphic and curmudgeonly way of saying that a certain demographic assumed unjustified airs.
Given that in Anti-Education, Nietzsche lamented the fragmentation of learning into individual disciplines, causing students to lose a sense of the wholeness, the universality of knowledge, what he hated in the nouveau educated, if we will, was the rise of the pseudo-expert – a person whose knowledge was confined to the bounds of a fixed field but was revered as omniscient. The applicability of Socrates’ dialogue with Meno – the one where teacher and student discuss human tendency to lose sight of the whole in pursuit of individual strands – to the situation was unmistakable, something which Nietzsche, a passionate classicist, noticed. The loss of the Renaissance learning model, the trivium and the quadrivium, both of which emphasize an integrated learning matrix, carried with it a belief that excessive specialization was positive; it was a very perverse version of “jack of all trades, master of none.” As Nietzsche bemoaned, the newly-educated desired masters without realizing that all they obtained were jacks. In this, he foreshadowed the disaster of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 and the consequences of Woodrow Wilson’s unwholesome belief in “experts.”
The philosopher squarely blamed the model of the realschule, with its clear-cut subjects and predictable exams, for the breakdown between knowledge acquisition and learning. While he excoriated the Prussian government for basing all public education on the realschule, he admitted that the fragmentation of the university into departments and majors occurred at the will of the people. This was a “chicken or the egg” situation: Was the state or broader society responsible for university learning becoming more like high school? This was not a question Nietzsche was interested in answering since he cared more about consequences. However, he did believe that the root was admitting realschule people to university in the first place. Since such a hypothesis is very applicable today, we will examine it in the contemporary American context next.
In the article The State in education – Part I: A History, we examined Friedrich Nietzsche’s opinion of the Prussian public school system and his concern when it became the model framework for public schools, both in Germany and in the world. To summarize quickly, the philosopher held that state-funded schooling was an act of social warfare – students, taught to aspire beyond their capabilities, would become resentful and angry, making them susceptible to propaganda and manipulation. Although Nietzsche did not use the term “welfare state” in the educational context, his predicated his denouncement of public education on the idea that it was a form of welfarism and increased state control.
For historical placement, it is important to understand what resources existed for parents pre-public schools. More importantly, it is also important to understand the difference in curricula and their final goals. Before the late 18thcentury, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the advent of educational “experts,” there were only privately funded schools – many of which were free to those in need – which provided a classical education.
There are two definitions, both equally correct, of “classical education.” The first literally signifies an education based on Latin and Ancient Greek and all the literature in those languages; associated with this definition are skills in music, art, drama, declamation, oratory, and debate, all of which the Romans considered essential to a well-rounded education and which they included as formal subjects in their schools. By the early 19thcentury, this education also carried the expectation that the student could easily acquire most modern European languages since to varying degrees they were all based on the classical languages.
The second definition of “classical education” focuses on the acquisition of a mental toolkit with the goal of enabling the student to think deeply and carefully throughout his life. This system is divided into the trivium and the quadrivium, roughly corresponding to the primary and secondary school levels of the modern system.
The organisation of the quadrivium was formalised by Boethius, and this structure endured for more than a millennium. It was the mainstay of the medieval monastic system of education, which had a structure of seven subjects – the seven liberal arts – comprising the quadrivium and the trivium. The trivium was centered on three arts of language: grammar, for ensuring proper structure of language; logic, for arriving at the truth; and rhetoric, for the beautiful use of language. Thus the aim of the trivium was goodness, truth, and beauty.
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957), an Oxonian classicist and author, explained in her 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” that the trivium is the more crucial of the two since it provides all the skills needed to be an independent thinker and learner. In her essay, she also detailed a scheme whereby the modern institutional schools could implement the trivium in place of contemporary curricula. She recognized, though, the unfortunate tendency of 20thcentury society to prefer for “education” to have a concrete banality, with parents focusing on what their children could “do” with a subject.
The quadrivium, though elucidated by Boethius (480 – 524 AD), was based on the writings of the philosopher Proclus (412 – 484 BC), whom the Renaissance men and women relied upon when they incorporated the quadrivium into formal education. The subjects of the quadrivium are: arithmetic, music, geometry, and cosmology (sometimes listed as astronomy). As Dr. Lynch noted, mathematician Morris Klein described these subjects as “pure,” studying as they do, the abstract and the relationship between the concrete and the metaphysical. In philosophical terms, the trivium is aristotelian and the quadrivium is platonic.
Before turning to the subject of Nietzsche’s Cassandra-like predictions and the loss of classical learning in America, we must briefly look at the history of institutional education since it is the primary component of the American version. As Dr. Lynch remarked, the classical education remained alive in the European Catholic monasteries and convents, which acted as an early form of boarding school.
The schools associated with religious houses were open to all, regardless of rank or income, and did not necessitate a commitment to religious life at the end. That said, it was primarily the nobility who took advantage of the monastic and convent schools, more, in all honesty, because the principle of religious sanctuary meant that the children were secure from predation in times of unrest than from any love of learning. Although there was no prestige associated with this type of education, under these conditions, it became a noble prerogative but not necessarily ennobling in itself. Despite aristocratic mamas and papas seeing education as much less important than sanctuary, the result of this symbiotic relationship was that the upper classes really were better educated than the middle and lower ones, laying the foundation for the educational class war that Nietzsche identified in the 1800s.
Let us fast forward past the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, all of which had profound effects on education, though always within the classical framework, and look at the roots of American public education. The concept of publicly funded education occupied Thomas Jefferson, who initially supported it unilaterally, then opposed it, then compromised (Hegel would be proud) by suggesting that grammar schools might be locally funded and universal but anything beyond that had to be either private or competitive entry, if publicly funded. In general, the Founding Fathers took a laissez-faire view on education, focusing on the aspects of freedom and personal choice. This truly enlightened attitude did not last.
By the 1830s, progressives, including Horace Mann, fell under the spell of the Prussian system. In the 1840s, Mann used his position as Secretary of the (Massachusetts) Board of Education to introduce public schooling. Post-Civil War, in the 1860s, he used his position as a US Congressman to make public schooling compulsory, while homeschooling his own children in a stunning display of “for thee but not for me” hypocrisy. In 1848, as Secretary of the nascent Board of Education, Mann opened his report with these words:
According to the European theory, men are divided into classes, – some to toil, others to seize and enjoy. According to the Massachusetts theory, all are to have an equal chance for earning, and equal security in the enjoyment of what they earn. The latter tends to equality of condition; the former, to the grossest of inequalities. Tried by any Christian standard of morals, or even by any of the better sort of heathen standards, can any one hesitate, for a moment in declaring which of the two will produce the greater amount of human welfare, and which, therefore, is more conformable to the divine will? The European theory is blind to what constitutes the highest glory as well as the highest duty of a State …
The truth is that Mann openly declared that the public school’s purpose is to render control to the state. The awful truth is neatly dressed in a virtue signaling garb that makes reference to religion and God (I challenge anyone to find a single passage in the Bible where God says “go build a public school.”). Buried in this paragraph is one of the major fallacies that afflicts contemporary American society: linking formal education to earning power and social worth. This particular problem we will address in a subsequent article, but it is important to know that promoting this fallacy was a crucial part of the mandate of state-run education.
At the same time as Mann was advocating mass education and social equalization on one side of the Atlantic, on the other side, Nietzsche exposed its flaws:
Let me tell you what I think characterizes the vital and pressing educational and pedagogical questions of today. It seems to me that we need to distinguish between two dominant tendencies in our educational institutions, apparently opposed but equally ruinous in effect and eventually converging in their end results. The first is the drive for the greatest possible expansionand disseminationof education; the other is the drive for the narrowingand weakening of education. For various reasons, education is supposed to reach the widest possible circle – such is the demand of the first tendency. But then the second tendency expects education to give up its own highest, noblest, loftiest claims and content itself with serving some other form of life, for instance, the state (Anti-Education, Lecture I).
The conflation that most concerned Nietzsche was that mass literacy did not equal mass education since the connection between reading and thinking was lost. For him, nothing epitomized this more than newspapers and journalism – “Journalism fulfills its task according to its nature and as its name suggests: as day labour.” Everyone learning to pretend to the laurels of the literate, through simply being able to decipher words on a page, created a societal need for professional intellectual caulkers:
It is in journalism that the two tendencies converge: education’s expansion and its narrowing. The daily newspaper has effectively replaced education, and anyone who still lays claim to culture or education, even a scholar, typically relies on a sticky layer of journalism – a substance as sturdy and permanent as the paper it’s printed on – to grout the gaps between every form of life, every social position, every art, every science, every field. The newspaper epitomizes the goal of today’s education, just as the journalist, servant of the present moment, has taken the place of genius, our salvation from the moment and leader for the ages.
Systemic education was the death of the Renaissance man. It created a strange world where everyone could read but no one was learned. This intellectual world is the United States today.
After Mann forced compulsory education on the American people, the literacy rate, previously rising, declined, an event which occurred in Europe as well when Great Britain and France followed Germany’s lead. When angry parents, appalled at the poor quality of the new “free” education, withdrew their children to place them in private schools, Mann launched a media war against them, branding them un-American elitists and/or social malingerers and starting a social shouting match that continues to the present. Discovering that parents, naturally, disregarded name-calling when their children’s future was at stake, the progressives brought the state apparatus in the form of taxation to bear.
Today, the United States ranks in the middle percentiles in education internationally. The nation is behind all of east Asia, even very poor countries like Vietnam, and most of Europe, including poor Eastern European countries. According to the report, over 40% of American high school seniors rate “below basic” for science and mathematics, which by extension indicates an inability to read and reason adequately (both subjects are more tests of those two skills than anything else at that level). Yet the nation houses the greatest number of elite universities and institutions of higher education in the world. The American people have known since the early 20thcentury that public school graduates could not enter these institutions and thrive – Sinclair Lewis’ book Babbitt describes beautifully the dichotomy existing between 1920s middle-America and the push for an elite education – yet only now has the public decided that this is a problem, but only on superficial grounds. No one is interested in discussing the foundational flaws that result in American students lagging behind their European and Asian counterparts.
We are aware through personal experience that the skills of the seven liberal arts of the trivium and quadrivium are gone. We can cry in vain after the American reading public, which, before the advent of public schools and their version of literacy, created one of the first best seller phenomena with James Fenimore Cooper and later devoured the works of Edgar Allen Poe – during his life writing high literature was lucrative. Just as extinct is the British public that devoured Jane Austen with such an insatiable hunger that she could not keep up. The people whose appetite induced Charles Dickens to exploit it with publishing deals that paid him by the word are gone; for that matter, the ability of the reading public to recognize and delight in Dickens’ colorful language and skillful use of words is moribund – alas the trivium! The rage for reading and, by extension, autodidacticism in Britain reached such a pitch that, in the words of a Mises Institute commentator,“England eventually passed a paper tax [raising the cost of books] to quell a public the leaders felt was too smart.” A public too interested in books is not a contemporary problem.
In his inaugural speech, President Donald Trump described the public school system as having “failed so many of our beautiful young people.” In context, the sentence implied that the public school is supposed to turn out competitive, educated smart people. There is a question to this statement, though: Is it really a failure if a system cannot accomplish that which it was never designed to do? On the contrary, if one takes Mann’s opening report as a plan of action, the American public school has succeeded fantastically. Now everyone is equal in mediocrity and lack of knowledge. One of its missions has not been achieved: forcible creation of a classless society. We will examine the causes of this failure next since it relates to Nietzsche’s predictions of unhappiness for those who believed in state-mandated educational equality.
For reasons both inexplicable and ordinary much of my prepubescent memory is off-limits. I can remember leaving Washington for Northern California, in limbo in the back of what might have been a Toyota Highlander, watching streetlights illuminate every fifth second. I remember combing through my mom’s boyfriend’s horror collection, and then biking breathlessly through my neighborhood, conjuring up xenomorphs, Yautjas and Predaliens on my tail for a few hours every day. I remember capturing lizards and salamanders outdoors, sneaking them into my room and losing them in the house, never to be found again.
And, just recently, I remember being extremely bored.
Most of my friends could quote me as claiming that I never get bored. Apparently, I used to be. But it was only one thing: I was bored with school. It got a little better when my teacher suggested I skip third grade. (And a little better recently, when my sister took a year-long break from studying in Santa Barbara: we will now graduate the same year although she’s two years older. I expect to never let her forget it.) But by and large, I wanted out.
I remember excelling on my tests but having essentially zero interest in what the board had determined to be necessary cirricula. And the classes that they pressed on me, I only wanted to snoop the outskirts. Although math is probably my weakest subject now in middle school it was my best. My professor, Mr. Sharp, would play Apocalyptica until everyone took their seats. He wanted to expose us equally to the Pythagorean theorem and the versatility of the cello. I would challenge him to explain the philosophy behind what we were learning, to just below his breaking point. In the beginning I would ask questions because I thought mathematics was too abstract to be saying anything at all useful or real; in the end, I would ask questions mostly because my classmates got a kick out of it. Much of the time I was trying to understand the context of the formula, an approach which, I think, made reading Thomas Kuhn so fulfilling to me later. Mr. Sharp both loved and loathed me. Once a week we wouldn’t complete the lesson. Nothing quite compared to that environment and I haven’t enjoyed a math class since.
What I remembered just this morning was the real sense of a lack of freedom. Not only in school but in pre-adolescence as a whole. I was allowed to watch R-Rated films, sure, and go on the computer to play Neopets. I could ride my bike at night sometimes, and if I wasn’t allowed I could sneak out. But what I wanted was that radical freedom, the kind that Sartre says I already had. There were too many authority figures and not even the freedom to choose between them. Choice is limited, and American democracy itself didn’t extend to me. And where were my representatives? I couldn’t vote for them. They governed me regardless of my input.
Maybe it’s a good thing that 9 year olds don’t vote. That would be a massive voting bloc for whichever candidate is willing to promise an extra hour of television before bed. Yet I remember feeling powerless as a kid, and astonished that no politicians were out trying to represent us. I realized that people must forget as they get older, and they must think, erroneously, that it’s good that children don’t have the same set of freedoms as the adult population once they join the latter. I remember promising myself with as much moral force as I could muster that when I became an adult, I wouldn’t forget: I would represent kids and fight for their freedom from the servitude of parents and teachers.
Well, I forgot. Until now. And my younger self was right — it now seems perfectly right to me that the youth be granted less freedom than the elder. Does this make me a class traitor of sorts? So be it.
But, what I do see now is that the education system is not serving young people very well. The people in my classes still do not want to be there. The incentives are all messed up for test-taking. Although I went to a very creative and nurturing high school, much of my time in higher education has been “unlearning” things I was taught in lower levels and am being taught concurrently. This has not been so much learning that what I was taught was false, though there has been some of that, but moreso learning that what I was taught was an incomplete picture, open to questioning, and often tainted with ideological bias. The things I have studied outside of class have made me better informed and, I would say, more genuinely knowledgeable than the textbooks inside of class.
The story David gives about “unschooling” his children provides one alternative to the standard model. I have friends, though, that demonstrate the non-universality of this option. Part of the solution lies in fostering an independent mind, and part of it on behalf of the child. David describes learning more about English from reading Kipling’s poetry in his free time than in class. I had read the entire Stephen King pre-2011 corpus before entering high school, and I don’t think any sort of class on writing could have improved on that. David also criticizes the idea that there is a single subset of knowledge that ought to be taught to all people, as our education system performs now. For a more extensive criticism of this, and even more radical, I suggest Feyerabend.
I don’t share the sentiment of my much younger self in radical freedom for children. I have effectively broken that promise, but a promise to oneself is, I have to think, less binding if one person is 10 and the other is 20 and the two persons are the same. The solution to the problem, though, at least of boredom in education, is much clearer now. Though of course, the clarity came from reading material outside of school.
Betsy DeVos was narrowly confirmed as US Education Secretary this week. Of all Trump’s nominees, she seems to have attracted the most rancor, which is a shame considering Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is an outspoken supporter of the US’s brutally racist drug war. Concerns with DeVos’s background and experience are very well-founded. Concerns with her support for school choice, however, are not.
Others, including Nick Gillespie, have already covered the important student-centric case for school choice, pointing out in particular how greater choice benefits minority students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I will focus instead on the benefits to teachers as I see them based on my research in school choice systems in the United Kingdom and Sweden.
A great deal of opposition to school choice is based on the perception that it is necessarily an attack on the teaching profession (it is certainly the way teaching unions portray it). Indeed, it is too easy for generically anti-state advocates of school choice to fall into the assumption that there is a pitched conflict between the supposed special interests of publicly-funded teachers and the interests of students. On this narrow account, the purpose of school choice is to compel teachers to work harder, for longer, in order to produce better results for their students.
The reality is that teachers and students share a lot of common interests, namely having a safe, productive and enjoyable working environment. The broader case for school choice is that a competitive framework allows for these environments to emerge more readily than with a monopoly public provider. This does not necessarily mean importing a ‘competitive ethos’ inside the school gates. If anything, it is school administrators, or proprietors in the case of private schools, that need to be exposed to competition, not the teachers themselves.
How do teachers benefit from school choice in practice? First, schools exposed to competition are encouraged to devote more money to teachers’ salaries (for teachers both in public and private schools). Arguably, this is because retention of quality teachers is more important than more visible expenditure that are often more attractive to policymakers. These include new buildings and electronic classroom aids that officials think can give the public the impression of long-term ‘investment’ in a way that simply paying teachers more does not, even if that is, in fact, what works best.
Second, such schools can allocate training resources more effectively to teachers. I found in Sweden, which has an extensive school choice system, that one private network of schools had developed and provided their own continuing professional development curriculum rather than outsourcing it to consultants.
Third, multiple competing providers combined with the possibility of establishing new schools give more career options for teachers. Conversely, a public monopoly can easily succumb to group-think. This ends up excluding good teachers who happen to disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy. The career trajectory of British teacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, is a useful illustration. She was a successful state-school teacher who made the mistake of appearing at a Conservative Party conference in order to advocate for a more traditional pedagogy and to discuss problems of discipline in the school system. She was suspended from teaching as a result and essentially forced to resign her position.
Under a purely public school system, an outspoken teacher who disagrees with the way the majority of schools are run might be frozen out from further employment indefinitely. They would have to move to the fee-paying private sector instead in order to continue teaching at all. In the United Kingdom, however, we now have array of state-funded but independent schools called free schools. This allowed Birbalsingh to open a new school, the Michaela Community School, which so far appears to be enjoying some success. It is also an attractive employer for other teachers seeking an environment that supports greater discipline in the classroom. Thus she was able to continue contributing to public education. In this sense, a diverse range of schools, based on different pedagogical principles, does not only benefit students who can find a school that better matches their needs. It also gives teachers a wider range of environments in which to work.
I think this piece has regained currency. Look at it when you have a chance.