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Education in a Free Society

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 8, No. 4.

bigstock-education-classroomIn “The New Abolitionism: Why Education Emancipation is the Moral Imperative of Our Time” (TOS, Winter 2012–13), I argued that America’s government school system is immoral and antithetical to a free society, and that it must be abolished—not reformed. The present essay calls for the complete separation of school and state, indicates what a fully free market in education would look like, and explains why such a market would provide high-quality education for all children.

The Need for Separation of School and State

What is the proper relationship of school and state? In a free society, who is responsible for educating children? Toward answering these questions, consider James Madison’s reasoning regarding the proper relationship of government and religion—reasoning that readily applies to the issue of education. In 1784, in response to Patrick Henry’s call for a compulsory tax to support Christian (particularly Episcopalian) ministers, Madison penned his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance,” a stirring defense of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. The heart of his argument can be reduced to three principles: first, individuals have an inalienable right to practice their religion as they see fit; second, religion must not be directed by the state; and third, religion is corrupted by government interference or control. Few Americans today would disagree with Madison’s reasoning.

One virtue of Madison’s response to Henry’s bill is that its principles and logic extend beyond church-and-state relations. In fact, the principles and logic of his argument apply seamlessly to the relationship of education and state. If we substitute the word “education” for “religion” throughout Madison’s text, we find a perfect parallel: first, parents have an inalienable right to educate their children according to their values; second, education must not be directed by the state; and third, education is corrupted by government interference or control. The parallel is stark, and the logic applies equally in both cases.

Just as Americans have a right to engage in whatever non-rights-violating religious practices they choose, so Americans have a right to engage in whatever educational practices they choose. And just as Americans would not grant government the authority to run their Sunday schools, so they should not grant government the authority to run their schools Monday through Friday.

Parents (and guardians) have a right to direct the education of their children.1 Parents’ children are their children—not their neighbors’ children or the community’s children or the state’s children. Consequently, parents have a right to educate their children in accordance with the parents’ judgment and values. (Of course, if parents neglect or abuse their children, they can and should be prosecuted, and legitimate laws are on the books to this effect.) Further, parents, guardians, and citizens in general have a moral right to use their wealth as they judge best. Accordingly, they have a moral right and should have a legal right to patronize or not patronize a given school, to fund or not fund a given educational institution—and no one has a moral right or properly a legal right to force them to patronize or fund one of which they disapprove. These are relatively straightforward applications of the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness—the rights on which America was founded.

But the educational system in America today systematically ignores and violates these rights. At its core, America’s system of state-controlled education is compulsory. It involves force from top to bottom: The state forces children to attend its schools (or state-approved alternatives). It forces taxpayers—whether or not they use the schools—to pay for them. It dictates what is taught in the classroom through its mandatory curriculum. And it dictates how teachers are to teach the content, through its requirement and control of teacher certification.

Because a government school system violates rights in such a fundamentally crucial area of life—education—it constitutes, as Madison said of a religious establishment, “a dangerous abuse of power.” Government should never be in the business of forcing or controlling the mind—and nowhere is this principle more important than with respect to the education of young minds. Unfortunately, many Americans today willingly accept this dangerous abuse of power.

Although most parents embrace the responsibility of feeding their children and wouldn’t dream of letting the government dictate what will be put in their children’s bodies, they relinquish the responsibility of educating their children and permit the government to dictate what will be put in their children’s minds. Few Americans see that this is what they are doing, but this is what they are doing. Consider how this all begins. . . .

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