Education and Freedom
My Friend's Education
“My Friend's Education” was a tribute to Albert Jay Nock and his views on education. It appeared in The Freeman (August 1954).
A friend of mine did what all good friends do; he died. The loss caused the proper amount of grief, of course; but in this case the grief was polluted by an odd petulance. For some unknown reason I felt that he had abused his rights by dying at that time. For his going left me at loose ends. He had “done me wrong.”
The friendship had been a highly profitable one for me. He was an intellectual warehouse from which I was always free to lift as much merchandise as I was capable of carrying; and much that I lifted and incorporated into my stock-in-trade was borrowed while we sipped a beer or munched a midnight rarebit. For he was a superb raconteur, always with the parable that exactly fitted the subject at hand, and for his illustrations he could draw on an intimate knowledge of a half-dozen literatures, ancient and modern, augmented with much intelligent travel. He had digested a lot of thoroughly nonutilitarian information, covering such fields as medieval architecture, manners of the Second Empire, music, the culinary art, the Bible (in the original), lovemaking in the tenth century, and the economy of the Minoans, and if you knew how to draw him out (he preferred to listen) an evening with him would prove a bonanza. A companion of that sort is not easy to come by.
Well, the inevitable is the inevitable, and one turns to pleasant memories. And to cogitating. The thought that hung on with tenacity was that all the knowledge and understanding he had stored away in three-quarters of a century went down into the grave with his body, and that seemed to be a terrible loss. That “you can't take it with you” is a self-evident fact; but the “it” referred to in the aphorism is the fund of tangible things the average man usually piles up in a lifetime. My friend, however, was outside the average, in that he never gave a hoot for anything that could be listed in a will; he acquired only learning and that he surely took with him. And except for examples of it in the half-dozen books he published, the literary style he never tired of perfecting was gone forever. Being something of a utilitarian, I could not help asking, why put in all that time and effort at pursuits that produced so little that could be seen and catalogued? It seemed so un-American.
To which he would have answered, I am sure, “Didn't I have fun doing it? And what can a fellow get out of life more valuable than fun?”
And thereby hangs a theory of education which he exemplified. It runs something like this: education is the pursuit of knowledge that pays off in the enjoyment of it; if it does not yield that kind of profit, you quit the pursuit, and you keep at it only in proportion to returns. For instance, he once told me that he had got so much fun out of reading the Greek and Latin classics, in his college days, that he later took on Hebrew, and found its literature just as gratifying. On the other hand, if he found a book uninteresting, even one he had been hired to review, he would drop it; one book which had received accolades from eminent litterateurs he discarded after the first fifty pages with the remark, “I ain't got education enough for that kind of tripe.”
THE TEST OF EDUCABILITY
According to this theory, some people are educable and some are not, and there is nothing one can do to change this natural arrangement. This does not mean that some people are “better” than others, for in respect to functional ability the noneducable are usually better endowed than the educable, and their contribution to material progress is certainly greater. Then again, the educable are so engrossed in self-betterment that they are of no use in the democratic business of improving others, and as reformers or politicians they are quite inept; in fact, they are a bit on the antisocial side, even though they can be wonderful companions. However, it is idle to pass value judgment on either of these personality groups; each is what it is and cannot be the other. As for determining who is educable and who is not, there is no other test than the purely subjective one of pleasure; the educable get satisfaction from the pursuit of learning, the others find the occupation distasteful.
It is an individualistic theory of education, resting its case on the premise of innate characteristics. My friend, obviously, was an individualist of the first water; he would have no truck with the notion that the individual is what his environment makes him. Environment, including college, can make it difficult for the educable to get an education, but it cannot prevent them from getting it. Just as a tree will work its way around impediments to reach the sun, so those bothered by a questing spirit will persist in reaching for “the best that has been said and thought in this world,” and will absorb their share of it. On the other hand, those born without the eternal “why” in their souls can live among books all their lives without being touched by learning.
The theory, most assuredly, rejects the democratic notion that all are equally and indefinitely educable. In point of fact, nobody really takes that notion seriously, least of all the hierarchy of professional teachers who pay it lip service.
In what is called “progressive education” the general objective is to produce what is called a social consciousness, with emphasis on both uniformity and conformity; but to reach that objective individual differences must be minimized; thus, it is inferred that all are equally educable only if those of greater intellectual capacity are written off, as if they did not exist.
COURSES GROW EASIER
Likewise, the democratic notion of education gets a lift in the colleges by the adjustment of courses to fit the lowest common denominator, which gets lower as more and more candidates for the commercially necessary degree are enrolled. It is certainly true that all are equally educable if you equate education with the ability to pull teeth, to use a slide rule, to memorize a legal code, or to order a meal in a foreign language; and you prove your case incontestably by fitting examinations to the examinee.
This is not to condemn our educational system; far from it. Given the premise of democracy, no other educational system would do. Certainly if the system were shaped to serve the needs of the educable, education would be making a concession to aristocratic notions, which democracy simply cannot do. The axiom of uniform perfectibility must be adhered to at all costs, even if this involves the redefinition of education. It would hardly be democratic to deny the badge of educability— the degree—to those whose intellectual capacity finds expression in tending cows; therefore, we must have agricultural colleges. And so that there will be no discrimination against the geniuses of the household, a school of domestic science must have the power to grant appropriately engraved parchments.
It is only if you are a stickler for the purity of words that you find fault with our system of education. For instance, my late friend maintained that what goes by the name of education in a democracy is in fact only training. The high schools, with their courses in carpentry and bookkeeping, have replaced the discarded apprenticeship system, while the law school is simply a glorified clerkship in a legal office. Even in the schools of philosophy, the guiding spirit is utilitarianism rather than speculation; in the popular pragmatic philosophy—if it is a philosophy—the only absolute recognized is “that whatever works is good,” which is putting a premium on skill as against learning. However, since everybody above the grade of idiocy can be trained to do something, the democratic dictum that all people are equally educable is proved true by a simple device of semantics.
Not only does the democratic idiom give support to this equation of education with training, but so does another important facet of our mores—economism. From the time of birth, the American learns of the importance of getting on in the world, of acquiring wealth and social position, and it would be inconsistent with this ideal if his schooling did not take it into account. No American father should, in the circumstances, channel his offspring's development along any but utilitarian lines; were he to stress learning for the sake of learning he would be unfaithful to his parental duty. Should his own son or daughter prove educable, he must use his influence to try to overcome the handicap, so that his progeny may not suffer from social disabilities. And, as a citizen and taxpayer, he must bring the conventional point of view to bear upon the established educational facilities.
A SANCTUARY FOR INQUIRING MINDS
If the intellectually curious find such facilities unsatisfying, they have only themselves, or their misfortune, to blame. They must shift for themselves. Curiously enough, they always do, as a matter of necessity, even if the colleges make the going rough for them; not infrequently, they pass up both the college and the degree in favor of an education. As a consequence, they will probably find it difficult to get a job as an insurance salesman, and about all they can claim for their educational spree is a lot of fun. That is all they ever get from it.
One wonders how many of these rare and unfortunate birds there are around. About the only way one could estimate their number would be by the establishment of a college designed for them, something like a sanctuary set up for almost extinct animal species. The special feature of such a college would be that one could get nothing from it except an education, and no one would think of going there for any other purpose. Not a single utilitarian course would pollute the curriculum. For instance, one might learn how to appreciate Molière and Racine, even though one might have difficulty in reading a French newspaper; economics would be taught as the science of how we make a living, not as a preparation for a job in the government; as for psychology, the textbooks would be Shakespeare and Tolstoy.
To make sure that none but the educable would enroll, this college would give no degrees or even certificates of attendance; it would not deign to peddle such papers. In fact, no record of attendance would be kept, nor would there be any examinations or other means of judging the educability of the students. Each student would have to figure that out for himself, if the matter bothered him, by the test of fun.
That, I believe, would be a practical application of the theory of education my late friend propounded and lived. By the way, he was the editor of the original Freeman, published between 1920 and 1924, and his name was Albert Jay Nock.
Why Free Schools
Are Not Free
This was the lead article in the October 1948 issue of analysis.
Dixon is an obscure mountain village in New Mexico; population 1,200. Its obscurity is presently disturbed by a problem of democracy: the divorcement of secular and religious training in tax-supported schools. Reports have it that the Catholic citizenry, who seem to be politically in the ascendancy in New Mexico, have got hold of the management of the Dixon school system, introducing their catechism into the curriculum and putting the teaching nuns on the payroll. The Protestant minority vehemently denounce this as an abuse of democratic principle, as well as a misuse of public funds, and have brought the matter to law. Non-Catholic elements outside New Mexico have come to their support, and thus the contention becomes national in scope. Dixon is no longer a village; it is a new battleground in the old war between ecclesiasticism and secularism in education.
The issue will not be settled in the court of law, which can come up with only a temporary compromise, for involved is the larger question as to whether schooling is a proper function of the state. If we admit that it is, then we must also admit that the subject matter of education will be decided by those in control of the political machinery and will vary with the incidence of control. It is silly to think otherwise. The notion that a political institution can be divorced from politics is typical American jabberwocky.
Right now the group most concerned with getting control of tax-supported schools is the theologians. Catholics are particularly active in this effort—for reasons inherent in their faith— but that they have the support of other creeds was shown in the fight for “released time” in New York. Practically the entire clerical fraternity (except Jews, whose religious classes are conducted in the evening) joined in demanding that time be set aside for out-of-school religious education. Suppose the children prefer to devote this time to play, rather than the designated purpose; suppose they are encouraged to do so by their nonreligious parents, will not the clericals carry on? Will they not strive to put religious training into the regular curriculum? In the matter of “released time,” and in the demand that public funds be used to convey children to parochial schools, the clericals have shown that they can throw their political weight around. How can they be prevented from asking that their teachers be permitted to give religious instruction in the school buildings? Or, perhaps, that these teachers be put on the public payrolls?
Let us extend the doctrine of “separation” to other than religious subjects. Large gobs of socialistic doctrine have seeped into our school textbooks and teachers of that persuasion are its protagonists. While socialism is not organized along church lines, the element of faith in it gives that ideology a religious tinge, and the attitude of socialists toward nonbelievers as sinful and wicked suggests a further similarity. Well, how did socialism creep into the school curriculum if not by the political power acquired by its devotees? The outlawing of the teaching of evolution by the anti-Darwinians is another case in point. Then again, because the constitutionalists were in the ascendancy in the beginning of our country, the Federalist point of view never got into our history books. How can it be otherwise? As long as schooling is a function of the state, the dominant political group will determine what and how the children will be trained. And for good reason.
The business of education is the transmission of ideas from those who have them to those who are lacking; that is, from elders to youngsters. But, all ideas acquire value, and those which carry the greatest weight with the elders are the ones which the pupils will be exposed to. Education, therefore, can never be free from the prejudices and preconceptions of elders; even if the teacher enjoys “academic freedom,” he is not free from the values he has built up in his mind. Objectivity is impossible, save with a mind that is incapable of weighing facts. A transcendentalist will somehow drag in the concept of natural laws even in teaching physics, and the pragmatist will go out of his way to denounce it; a collectivist cannot help insinuating that Jefferson's natural rights are an archaism, or extolling the modernism of Hamilton's centralization idea. Can the free trader avoid berating protectionist history?
It is because of this value emphasis that private schools are established and endowed. The parent selects for his son a classical school or a military school because he puts a higher value on that kind of education; he believes his son is deserving of what he deems better, even if “better” is mere ostentation. One may question the judgment of the parent, but one does not question his right; it is his son and his money.
When we get into adult education the heterogeneity of values is most confusing. There are schools for the teaching of anarchism, the mystic religions, existentialism, decentralism, every shade of Marxism, the ideas of Mary Baker Eddy, of Henry George—schools without end, to say nothing of purely vocational schools. Every enthusiasm has its discipline, and so long as private opinion and private property are not outlawed there will be institutions designed to propagate it. Society is none the worse for this practice; in fact, it can be socially beneficial, so long as it remains a private pursuit, for the more values flying around in the cultural air, the less likelihood of its being fouled up with a dead uniformity.
The tax-supported school cannot permit such free flight to intellectual enthusiasm. By right of ownership every citizen feels that his values should be included in the curriculum, but by the same right others press their values and in the end somebody must be cheated. The monopolist objects because his line of business is disparaged in the economics course, the chauvinist denounces the history teacher for debunking national heroes, the classicist decries the emphasis on modernism, and—above all—the secularization made necessary by a diversity of creeds satisfies nobody except the irreligious. The tax-supported school is abomination to somebody, no matter what or how it teaches.
The state as teacher tries to keep to the middle road, which is a denial of all values and satisfies nobody. But, even as a compromiser the state is a failure, for it is compelled by political considerations to favor the values of the dominant elements in the community. The Texas school reader glamorizes the oil industry, trade unionism must be treated gingerly in industrial centers, and in the South “white supremacy” is intimated even by the fact of segregation. Furthermore, the attempt to find a compromise is abandoned and bias reigns supreme when the state grinds its own ax in the schoolroom. In mentioning our fiscal system, can the tax-paid teacher even hint at the immorality of taxation? Can he void the glorification of political scoundrels in the school books? And now that we have gone in for state capitalism in a big way, how can he question the correctness of TVA, public housing or the monopoly of the mails?
The private school—the school in which you pay for what you want—would be ideal if it were truly private. But, as in all human affairs, the tentacles of the state reach out into this sphere of education and create disturbance and iniquity. Escape from political interference is impossible as long as men use political means to advance their private purposes.
In pushing their claim for tax-paid transportation for parochial school pupils, the Catholics maintain that under our fiscal system they were paying double for the education of their children; they taxed themselves for the kind of education they deemed desirable and were levied upon for the maintenance of secular schools. Though the transportation issue was finally decided by the weight of the Catholic vote, not by reason, there is an enticing plausibility in this argument; but, when you extend it you come to disturbing questions. Since the general taxpayer provides books and lunches and equipment for the public school pupil, as well as transportation, why not spread this largess? Should not the private schoolteacher be put on the public payroll? On the other hand, if the taxpayer contributes anything to the maintenance of the private school, why should he not have some say in the subject manner taught?
Furthermore, private schools forfeit their right to complete privacy by asking for and getting tax favors; exemption of their real estate from local levies for one thing. Not only is the property they use for educational purposes untaxed, but in some localities even the property they rent out to commercial institutions is similarly favored. The exemption amounts to a subsidy. For the values of these properties, frequently located in city centers, are enhanced by the conveniences provided by the taxpayers; the amount of this subsidy is sometimes considerable, as can be ascertained when a school, or a church, disposes of its old site.
There are other tax favors which make the private school beholden to the state. Where sales taxes obtain, its purchases are frequently excused. If it carries on any commercial venture in connection with its educational business, such as publishing, that venture pays no tax profits. Then, of course, there is the big advantage of being able to advertise that under its “charter” contributions to its treasury are deductible in computing personal and corporation income taxes.
Thus, the private school sacrifices its integrity on the altar of special privilege. It cannot claim immunity for its values simply because it regularly sells out its immunity. Under the circumstances, “academic freedom”;—vis-a-vis the state—is a specious assertion; no private school is likely to jeopardize its privileges by teaching what the state may deem “subversive,” and should the state decide to make use of the school's facilities (including the faculty and the curriculum) for its own purposes, it would be entirely within its rights.
In the full sense of the word, a free school is one that has no truck with the state, via its taxing powers. The more subsidized it is, the less free it is. What is known as “free education” is the least free of all, for it is a state-owned institution; it is socialized education—just like socialized medicine or the socialized post office—and cannot possibly be separated from political control. As for being “free” in the sense of being without cost, that is one of those impostor terms we like to use to hide ugly facts from ourselves; our public education is fully paid for, with all its deficiencies and inadequacies. And it is paid for mainly by the poor, not the rich, because the poor in the aggregate constitute the largest segment of society and therefore pay the most in taxes. It would be an interesting, though useless, exercise to compute the number of private schools that could be maintained with the total amount exacted from us, locally and nationally, for politicalized education.
The root question raised by the Dixon affair is not the separation of the church from the school; it is the separation of the school from the state. The channeling of education along religious lines is a consequence of socialization. These days we associate the effort to introduce ecclesiasticism into the schoolroom with the Catholic church. But, the fact is that in the early history of our country the Protestant denominations fought bitterly against the secularization of all American institutions, including the school, and their lack of success was due mainly to their rivalries; wherever any sect was in the saddle, its particular catechism was obligatory education. Even in the lifetime of the present writer, the reading of the New Testament in the daily school assembly was objected to by the Jews, who were promptly rebuffed with the assertion that this is a “Christian country.” It should be recalled that only the agnostic leanings of several constitutional fathers prevented the official designation of the new nation as a “Christian country”;—which, by a strange twist of bigotry, meant an anti-Catholic country; there were few Jews and fewer Muhammadans in the colonies.
If we start with the premise that education is a proper function of the state, we must be prepared to accept the corollary: that the kind of education the state dispenses will be that which those in control think desirable. For the state is not an impersonal or impartial diety; it is a committee of persons, replete with desires, prejudices, values. To the Catholic the highest values are embraced in the sacraments of his church—enjoying divine sanction—and his conscience impels him to promote acceptance of these values. For a thousand years, therefore, he has been preeminently a teacher. When the opportunity falls into his hands, as it has in Dixon, to use political power to advance his cause, he would indeed be lacking in integrity if he failed to take advantage of it. Would it be any different if a Hindu, a Baptist, an atheist, or a communist fell heir to political power?
This wrangling over ecclesiasticism in education is a Tweedledee-Tweedledum argument. If we would reform our educational system basically, we must desocialize it. We must put it back where it belongs, in the hands of parents. Theirs is the responsibility for the breeding of children, and theirs is the responsibility for the upbringing. The first error of public schooling is the shifting of this responsibility, the transformation of the children of men into wards of the state. All the other evils follow from that.
Private Schools: The
Solution to America's
This was originally published in pamphlet form by the National Council for American Education (no date).
Periodically and with annoying persistence, the public school bobs up as a social problem. Nobody leaves it alone; it leaves nobody alone. Right now the most prominent point of contention about it is the matter of federal subsidization. While legislation toward that end was sidetracked by a minor issue— whether parochial schools should participate in government largess—the political potential of subsidization will not let it die. The public school will be injected into the campaigns in the offing.
Teachers keep the public school in the headlines by their agitation for larger stipends. In this they are generally supported by parents, who are equally vehement in their opposition to the higher taxation that increased salaries call for. Lack of funds and opposition to taxation are also the points of debate over inadequate school facilities, overcrowded classrooms, lack of personnel.
Meanwhile, the curriculum is under attack. The infiltration of collectivist concepts into our textbooks is a matter of wide concern. Parents and even public officials are inquiring whether the schools are being used as an instrument of socialist indoctrination. How far has the teaching fraternity gone down the line? Loyalty tests come into conflict with the doctrine of academic freedom and the debate pro and con becomes acrimonious.
A pedagogical controversy rages over what is called “progressive education.” Many, both professionals and lay students, maintain that this innovation is not education at all and point to its product with derision. There is much viewing with alarm.
Recently, an Illinois couple challenged the compulsory attendance law, and the supreme court of that state decided that parents who have the necessary qualifications may teach their children at home. To what extent will voluntary withdrawal from the school system go? It is a certainty that further deterioration of the schools will prompt many parents to give their personal attention to the three Rs.
Thus, the battle over the public school rages on all fronts. One never hears a solid, unequivocal defense of it, for even its loyal advocates are strong for some kind of reform; on the other hand, there are not a few who argue with considerable cogency that the public school is basically unsound and the only cure for it is abolition.
And yet, if one stands off a way from the heat of the argument and calmly reflects on the problem of education as a whole, a compromise suggests itself that comes near to being a solution. There is nothing wrong with the public school that could not be cured by putting it into active competition with the private school. This is not to say that the private school is without fault, for no institution can possibly provide the capacity for learning that every mother ascribes to her offspring, and when the results fall below her expectations the institution will certainly be blamed. But, if parents could exercise a choice between private and public school, if they had the means to make the choice, the entire controversy over public schooling would collapse. For the responsibility would then be on the parent alone; he would have nobody to blame for a wrong selection.
The immediate reaction to this suggested solution is that it is economically impossible. Only the rich can afford private schooling, it will be said, and recourse to it means that the children of the poor will be deprived of this advantage. However, it must be remembered that public schooling must be paid for; it is not a gift from heaven. And since the poor are in the aggregate the largest contributors to the tax fund, it is they who pay the largest share of the educational bill. It should be possible to derive a method by which they could pay for their schools directly, rather than through the taxing powers of the government. This can be done; but first we must be convinced that our public school problem cannot be solved in any other way.
THE NATURE OF LEARNING
Whatever else education is, whatever its ultimate purpose may be, in substance it is the transmission of ideas. In the case of children, the ideas must come from adults. Even if the child is not submitted to any formal education, his natural curiosity about the new experiences with which he is confronted leads to interrogation of those who presumably have had some acquaintance with the phenomena. That is in the nature of things. The child might be able to dig out the facts by laborious observation, but his instinct is to shortcut the process by asking questions.
It is in this very necessity of learning that the troubles of our school system begin. For, we who are called upon to transmit the knowledge we have acquired are in disagreement as to the validity of that knowledge. Even in matters on which no particular importance is put, like fishing, the uncle and the father may differ violently in their instruction. To religious parents the teaching of the catechism comes first in the curriculum; others would call this the transmission of error.
The teachers, the parents, find it most difficult to free themselves from the values they put on the knowledge they are called upon to transmit. We might all agree, to take a simple example, that the child should learn to read, because reading is the prerequisite for further learning. But, should it learn to read from the classics, the newspapers, or the Bible? Will the boy profit more from an understanding of Milton or from a study of business letters? It is most important, say some parents and teachers, that the child confine his education to subjects that will aid him in the making of a living. They contend that effort in any other direction is wasteful, perhaps harmful. Other teachers and parents take the cultural point of view.
At this particular time, many of us are disturbed over the emphasis in education on social rather than on individual values. In teaching American history, for instance, one can lay stress on the doctrine of natural rights or one can dismiss it as an eighteenth-century fairy tale. There is a tendency in professional pedagogy to take the latter point of view, or to twist the doctrine into a meaning it never had before. Civics can be taught as the art of public management, or as a demonstration of the necessity of submerging one's individuality for the common good. Even biology can be channeled ideologically; the teacher can point out that just as the organs of the living body are interrelated and interdependent, so the individual is not an integer in himself, but only a necessary part of the body politic. Not only the textbooks for grade schools and high schools, but even the comic strips to which the tots are exposed lend themselves to the transmission of “social values.”
One of the factors that makes the educational problem so difficult is this disparity in the values we put on ideas. For example, one mother is an aesthete, the father is of a practical turn, and the professional teacher harbors a “social conscience.” What set of values shall be put before the pupil? Shall we first agree on a common set? But that, if it were possible, is undesirable. The striving for a better life, the search for truth, is a matter of selection, and selection presupposes freedom of judgment. That which we call progress results from man's capacity to weigh evidence and make decisions. When that capacity is stultified by repression, civilization declines; when one cannot choose, one cannot aspire. The animal, as far as we know, is incapable of making evaluations and his world is, therefore, delimited. A uniform and rigid set of values would make education a simple process, but the education would be extremely simple.
Well, if the child must learn from adults, and if the adults are not in agreement on what ought to be taught, or how, the public school must resort to the political expediency of compromise. It is odd how, in discussing the public school, we are wont to overlook its inherent political character, the fact that it is tax-supported and subject to political considerations. There is no way of ridding politics of politics. The best the public school can do as a transmitter of values is to favor those that are held by the most numerous, the most aggressive, or the most dominant element in the community. That is not only a necessity, but also in accordance with the democratic process.
While we are on this topic of political schooling, we might consider, parenthetically, the probable effect of federal subsidization. Certainly nothing inimical to the interest of the party in power would pass as sound education, while the historical doctrines of home rule and states rights would have to be reinterpreted. Would the subsidized teacher, if he were so convinced, stress the undesirability of other forms of federal subsidization? The values taught would emanate by direction, suggestion, or tacit understanding from Washington. It could not be otherwise.
However, the political principle of majority rule does not work well in educational matters, simply because of our great concern with the welfare of our children. In this country we have not yet come around to relieving ourselves of the obligations of parenthood; our children are still ours, not the state's, We feel this obligation keenly, and are as determined to protect their minds from hurt as we are to protect their bodies from harm. If the public schools are inculcating ideas we think wrong, or even if we think the education inadequate, we do not blithely submit to majority rule, as we do in matters that concern adults only. We may accept the decision of the ballot box, or the directives of officialdom, because we are helpless, but we nevertheless resent the plight of our children. That is why controversy over public education takes on a peculiar bitterness.
The only way out of this impasse is to throw the responsibility for the education of their children on the parents. Those who find the public school inadequate must be permitted a choice. The teaching of the children at home is one choice. But that way presents difficulties. There is the probable incompetence of the parents as teachers, the compulsory education laws in many states, and, most important, the effect on the child of withdrawing him from the companionship of his friends. That leaves us with a second alternative, that of the private school, the school that offers for a price the kind of education the parent wants; and it leaves us with a problem of meeting the price.
THE PRICE OF LEARNING
There is no such thing as free schooling; it must be paid for and, taking the school system as a whole, its cost is defrayed by the toil of those who are under the delusion of “free” education. In the cities, where the schools are most numerous, the budget is met primarily by levies on real estate. If the dwellings are owned by the occupants, most of whom are merchants and artisans, it is they who pay the bill; if they are occupied by tenants, the taxes are incorporated into the monthly rent. The “rich”—a word of no definite meaning—pay their share as consumers, but their consumption as a class is infinitesimal compared to that of the rest of the population, and their share is correspondingly small.
Whatever kind of education the children get is paid for by the parents. If the parents do not like what they are involuntarily buying, the only thing for them to do is demand that their share of the bill be remitted to them so that they can patronize schools to their liking. They should be permitted to make a choice.
Most of the cost of public schools is met by local taxes— state, county, city, or school district. If all the parents were property owners, the problem of remission for school tuition would be simple; but a great difficulty arises where the taxation is indirect, as in the case of the tenant, or where sales taxes are imposed. The obstacle could probably be overcome, but it would require a study of the various fiscal systems in the states and political subdivisions. Those states that levy on the incomes of their citizens could readily solve the problem of allowing a deduction for tuition fees paid to private schools; thus, they not only would right a basic wrong, but would also relieve the state and local budgets of the perennial and troublesome school problem.
However, since federal income taxation is the largest single direct burden put upon the household, and since comparatively few of us are now free of it, the simplest way of solving our school problem is by a federal exemption for tuition. This proposal should commend itself particularly to the present administration, which has expressed interest in the improvement of our educational establishment. Instead of subsidization, with a consequent increase in taxation, it could more easily improve our school system by putting it on a competitive basis. Incidentally, the federal government would thus remove the widely held suspicion that its interest is not in the betterment of the child's mind through education but in the control of it through indoctrination.
There are not enough private schools in the country to take care of the influx of pupils which would result from such exemption. Even now, the private schools in New York City find it difficult to accommodate all the applicants for admission; it is interesting to note, by the way, that many of their pupils are children of public school teachers. The increased demand resulting from such exemption as here proposed would bring into being an untold number of these selective schools. Every pedagogue who takes pride in his profession would be tempted to start on his own, to ply his skill free from institutional restrictions. Every school of thought would offer its wares to the public. Every pedagogical theory would have a chance of proving itself. Every denomination would expand its parochial activities. There would be, so to speak, a private school on every city block.
The public school would then be forced to offer a product of competitive value. It should be in a better position to do so. If only a quarter of the present public school attendance should be lost, the school could do an infinitely better job. The overcrowded classroom would disappear and the teacher might show her skill as such, rather than waste her energy in mob discipline. The lure of the private school would certainly draw off many of the more competent in the profession, but the public budget would be relieved of its present strain and the authorities could pay for and demand higher standards. Ancient, unsanitary, and dangerous structures now pressed into service could be abandoned and the land returned to the tax roll. The cost of transportation would be considerably reduced, for one of the competitive features of the private school would undoubtedly be nearness to the home. There would be important collateral savings, such as less equipment, and fewer textbooks and lunches to provide.
The spur to education would be phenomenal. A single teacher could maintain herself with an enrollment of a dozen children, giving each of them the personal attention that is often the difference between successful education and failure. A high school staff of four good instructors could do wonders with a hundred boys and girls. Every teacher would bend his efforts toward building up a reputation for efficiency, not only to attract enrollment but also to justify higher fees. Pride in the profession would replace its present status as a unionized trade.
There would be, to be sure, schools in which socialistic ideology permeated the curriculum, but these would be supported by parents of that persuasion, just as denominational schools would draw upon their members for patronage. The taxpayer would not be forced, as he is now, to maintain objectionable schools or teachers. He could take the pride of his life right out of that environment and march him across the street to one more conducive to a proper upbringing. He would always be able to find just what he wants, for competition would see to it. There would be schools in which music or art play the leading part; others would stress the classics or mathematics or history or manual training; or various combinations. One can imagine young mothers discussing with experienced matrons the relative merits of this or that school, this or that pedagogue, all in the interest of Junior.
MORALS AND FREEDOM
The improvement in educational methods and standards following from the proposed competitive system is secondary to the moral consequences we can expect. The sense of responsibility for the welfare of the child they brought into the world would be returned to the parents. They could no longer shift their personal obligation to an amorphous thing called society; that is, they could not do so without losing the respect of their offspring. The teacher would likewise attain a position of esteem by the necessity of properly discharging her duties. She would be a teacher, not a political timeserver. Her first concern would be with the children in her charge, not with the terms of tenure; no law, no union could cover up incompetence or negligence.
Second, the proposed reform would remove the injustice of compelling payment of unwanted and unused facilities. The argument of the Catholics on this point is well worth considering; it applies equally to every parent who pays a tuition bill. They complain that they are subjected to “double taxation”— once for the schools they use and again for those they do not. The injustice is obvious. The rejoinder that the public school is at their disposal is silly; they do not deem it satisfactory, and who is endowed with the right to compel a contrary opinion? Is the majority favored with omniscience? But, the unfairness is not righted by making a return to the Catholics of some slight service for their tax money, like furnishing transportation for children attending parochial schools; that is patchwork. The moral thing to do is to remove the imposition.
Finally, the exemption proposal should help restore to America the concept of freedom on which it was founded and built. The public school has been pictured as the guarantee of an informed citizenry, which in turn is the necessary condition for a free society. This plausibility has obscured the fact that the public school is a political institution, and as such can be used for ends quite the opposite of freedom. For example, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin did not abolish the public school, but, rather, favored it as a necessary integral of their regimes; and the word freedom was not erased from their textbooks. Does the word carry the same weight in present usage that it had before World War I? At that time, as an instance, freedom and conscription were opposite ideas; are they now? Freedom in those days implied an obligation of the citizen to his government, while today it has acquired quite the opposite connotation; one is free only in proportion to the amount of social security, unemployment doles, subsidies, and parity supports the tax fund can furnish him. The public school has not been the entire cause of this perversion, but it has helped greatly. The high school graduate today, even if he has heard of them, has little understanding of the theory of checks and balances or of the doctrine of states rights; to him the idea that a weak and divided government is a condition of freedom would be rather strange.
To be sure, the private school will not automatically restore to the concept of freedom the values of self-reliance and responsibility. There are too many influences working the other way. But, those parents who hold to the philosophy of individualism will most certainly patronize the schools that teach it, and the teachers who lean that way will cherish the opportunity to stress it. Thus an influence will be fostered that will counteract the trend in thought; an intelligent opposition to the indoctrination by the public school must eventually make itself felt. Indeed, if the proposed tuition exemption should reach the legislative stage, who would oppose it but those who are hell-bent for a regime of socialism?