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How government control
— even local—
has ruined public education

And what you can do about it

by Marshall Fritz1 · 3,230 words

Speech to Conservative Leadership Association
Washington University, St. Louis · Oct. 15, 2002

Abstract

Popular explanations of the troubles in government schools don't get to root causes. They ignore the fact that public schools must avoid the "Purpose of Life Question" in order to maintain broad-based political support and avoid lawsuits.

By exiling questions about human origins, destiny, and purpose of life, public schools end up limiting the use of reasoning itself, primarily by restricting it to the material world (e.g., math, physics, and chemistry).

A schooling system that puts a barrier on reasoning dooms itself to a downward spiral into a skills training regimen, and a weak one at that.

Worse, a society that ejects reasoning on the most compelling questions of human life from the formation of its youth gradually diminishes personal integrity, initiative, creativity, political awareness, and intellectual independence among its people. In 2002, we saw vivid, real-world examples of this in Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Anderson, and the Catholic clergy scandals.

An essential step to fully recover education is to separate schools from the state in a manner similar to our historic separation of church and state. However, individual families need not wait for society-wide change; they can liberate their children and enjoy the benefits of genuine education simply by home schooling or paying private school tuition.


School strife has plagued America since the 1840s, when the government started taking over K-12 education. Many reforms have come and gone. Yet there remains one unexamined presumption that not only defeats each reform, but has actually caused the problems: It is the presumption that government ought to be running an education system.

In a pluralistic society such as ours, government can control schooling only if it either (a) offends freedom of conscience and religion, as in the Soviet Union, or (b) it diminishes the life of the mind so much that it disfigures students' minds, as we have done in America.

Let's look at how we got into this mess, how our schools contracted Educational Immunodeficiency Virus (EIV), how EIV-infected schooling disfigures students' minds, and finally, how we can extricate ourselves from the schooling mess.

I. Why does resorting to government power ruin education?

"Becoming educated" is something that everyone must do for him or herself. "Being educated" is more than getting college degrees or memorizing the facts of literature, history, and geography. It means having taken responsibility for living and acting reasonably. Some can be coaxed into studying on promise of some future externally awarded "success." But real education is the proper use of reason. That is, the inquisitive, critical, respectful, abundant use of the human intellect.

Whom would you rather have as a jury foreman, an emotional fool with the PhD or a bus driver who can reason? Who is the educated person?

Government schooling is not about instilling respect for reason. Rather, it's about a promising career with social and financial success. This is the root of the crisis in American education.

Government control of schooling for 160 years has corrupted our educational system and the culture built upon it. When a school system sells "success" as education's goal — instead of the "self-respect" of living in accord with reason — it strangles the mind and produces the integrity-deprived, multi-millionaires and accountants at Enron, World Com, Arthur Anderson, etc. In other words, when you train a bright guy in accounting to believe that success is the goal, not morality, all you get is an embezzler who's hard to catch.

Let's examine how it happened here in America and what its consequences are.

II. 1840s bargain: Exile reasoning as the price of common schooling

For two centuries — from the 1620s to the 1840s — most American schooling was independent of government involvement. Church schools, charity schools, private schools, dame schools,[2] apprenticeships, and home schools built a culture that birthed the American Republic.

Even in the nation's earliest years, however, some proposed a governmental takeover of education in pursuit of the political goal of improving national unity.

However, the intense religious beliefs of some citizens were an obstacle to state takeover. Proposals for governmental takeover of schools made little headway until the late 1830s.

1. Americanizing the Immigrant

In the 1830's and 1840's, the immigration of Irish Catholics destabilized this standoff. The Irish were not well received. It was much worse than the occasional saloon sign, "Dogs and Irish not allowed." Many Americans feared the presence of large numbers of Catholics as a threat to the Republic.

Horace Mann, often called the "Father of Public Education," and his allies proposed "common schooling," meaning that children of various religions and classes would be schooled in common, not separately as was traditional. This pleased many who felt threatened by an alien Catholic presence. To preserve harmony among the different religious groups, the schoolers proposed this formula:

What is believed in common will be taught in common — including basic Biblical morality. Theological distinctions will be taught at home and church.

Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Presbyterians rejected this compartmentalizing of religion. But the idea was accepted by Baptists, Congregationalists, and Methodists.[3] "To read the Bible without commentary by the teacher" fit well with their individualistic theology. Also, it was directly opposed to the Catholic approach of having experts explain the Bible's meaning.[4]

The bottom line was that common schools could be established only on the condition that certain issues not be discussed. This "Horace Mann Compromise" has resulted in schools that diminish or even demolish children's ability to reason.

2. Exiling the "Purpose of life question," and with it, reasoning itself

Our society has exiled the "Purpose Question" from all 92,000 government schools. By the "Purpose Question," I mean questions about the origins, destiny, and purpose of human existence. Answers to these questions that involve a spirit world are called religions. Answers without a spirit world include atheism, agnosticism, scientific materialism, secular humanism, etc.

But these questions about the origins, destiny, and purpose of human existence are the most fascinating questions the human mind can pose to itself. Indeed, once they occur to the human mind, they demand attention, discussion, and, if possible, a satisfactory answer. Hence, precisely because the questions are so compelling, their exile from the public classroom necessarily entails the exile of reason itself from the most important aspects of human existence.

This exiling of reason has destroyed education in America's public schools. Presumably sent to school to learn the proper and adequate use of reason, students find themselves prevented from applying their reasoning powers to the most fascinating questions of all.

Think, for example, of the awesome power our democratic system has vested in ordinary citizens to end the life of another human being by deciding as jurors whether there is sufficient evidence to prove a capital crime "beyond a reasonable doubt." Feelings of sympathy for the victim — or the defendant — can interfere with a just judgment. A just jury requires each juror to submit him-or-herself to the dictates of reason.

Does it suffice to say that the Purpose Question can be discussed at home? I think not. One of the pivotal features of the teen years is searching beyond their parents for answers to their questions.

III. 92,000 schools with EIV — Educational Immunodeficiency Virus

With each succeeding generation, the "cultural memory" of authentic education grows dimmer and dimmer. The cultural impact of the counterfeit "education" provided by government is cumulative, and the result after 160 years is the educational and cultural crisis we face today. Let's look at three examples of the autoimmune virus at work:

  1. Politicizing the goals of the schools,
  2. Schools became susceptible to fads,
  3. Creation of a fake right, the so-called "right to an education."

1. Politicize schools and they become agencies of social engineering

From the beginning, American public schools have substituted social engineering for authentic education. For example:

Era Political Purpose
1865–1900 Destroy the independent attitude of the defeated Southerners
1880s–1950s Maintain subservience of blacks in the South and border states[5]
1970s–present End white racism
— " — Accept sexual liberation; foster "safe sex" for public health
1980s–present Protect the environment

Proponents of government schooling openly acknowledge their political purpose. For example, Lester Frank Ward, pioneer in American sociology, wrote in 1897, "The secret of the superiority of state over private education lies in the fact that in the former the teacher is responsible to society . . . [T]he result desired by the state is a wholly different one from that desired by parents, guardians, and pupils."

That governments have different purposes than parents was just as true in the 20th Century as the 19th, and remains true today. Maybe it is easier to see in a distant Marxist or Fascist regime (such as the Soviet Union or the Third Reich) than up close here where the teacher is friendly and goes to your church. Still, she works for a government that has a different purpose for schooling than most parents.

2. The Plague of Educational Fads

The imposition of politicized goals weakened the public schooling system's educational integrity so much that it has become a patsy for destructive fads. Examples range from phrenology to new-new-math, and from Outcome Based Education to No Child Left Behind. (Pity if they all have to sing as badly as I do so that I won't be left behind.)

Chasing fads helps politicians hide the fact that they've replaced the child's interests with political interests. Continual change can give the impression of progress and provide a weapon against those who want to return to sanity: They can be accused of being reactionaries who fight all progress.

3. The Destructive "Fake Right to an Education"

Politicized schooling has spread into American education a false notion, the fake "right to an education." Education is not a right, but a duty. Think of it this way: Nobody can be educated without his or her active participation. Each of us must learn to think for ourselves. Hence, nobody has a "right" to an education that someone else must supply. No one can think for you any more than he can eat, sleep, or breathe for you.

Like the right to pursue happiness, we have the right to pursue education. Imagine the chaos if politicians were to create the fake right to happiness.

IV. How public schooling disfigures students' minds

You might believe that public schooling did not affect your commitment to reason. In fact, however, exposure to the politicized, EIV-compromised system of government schooling injured you in three ways:

  1. The schools violated your intellectual integrity,
  2. They can rob you of your intellectual independence,
  3. They inject alienation between you and your parents.

1. EIV schools violate your intellectual integrity

The exile of reason violates your intellectual integrity in three ways:

  1. Schools make students dependent upon external "attaboys" for gauging progress,
  2. Schools provide students with role models who exhibit a "duty not to know," and
  3. Schools supply you with peers who parade a "right not to think."

1) Externalize Educational Success

Passing tests, winning awards, getting into a "good" college, having a successful career, and getting recognition from others have become the external and false yardsticks of government schooling.

No wonder we see those pathetic bumper stickers proclaiming, "My Child is an Honor Student at xyz." Who cares? What really matters is whether he is honest, does he work hard, and is he reasonable?

Children from the most deprived backgrounds will inevitably suffer worst in such a system. If education is about external success, they see the head start held by those from middle and upper class families as an insurmountable disadvantage. That is one of the reasons why the poor will do so much better when we end government involvement in schooling.

2) Schools provide students with role models who demonstrate a "duty not to know"

Exiling the Purpose Question from public schools established for teachers a "Duty Not to Know" any answers to life's most important questions. By so doing, the teachers destroy their intellectual authority before their students.

Students become excited to undertake the difficult task of becoming educated more by the example of their favorite teachers' habits than by any other force. But, what example do their teachers offer them? In order to avoid lawsuits, government schoolteachers are safest if they act as if they have never given any thought to the most fascinating questions of all. Indeed, many act as if they have a contractual duty not to know.

3) Schools give you peers who parade a "right not to think"

Young, immature individuals have an inherent aversion to the hard work that is required to become educated. Many conclude that if their teachers don't think about the most important questions, then they have the right not to think about any questions. When the teachers adopt "a duty not to know," students can adopt a "right not to think." These are many of your peers.

2. The Loss of Intellectual Independence

Government schools establish boundaries on where reason can be used:

Topic Reason

Math
Physics
Chemistry
Promoted
Encouraged
Fostered

Origin of human life
Destiny of humans
Purpose of life
Forbidden
Prohibited
Banned

Thirteen years of such compartmentalizing can convince some students that government has the right to tell them where they may and may not use reasoning. Consider the danger to a free country to allow the government to train its young citizens to expect that government should set limits on reason. Those who saw the movie "Twelve Angry Men" remember the call to use reasoning, not just feelings, in reaching the verdict. How much intellectual independence can we expect from the next generation when they have been incessantly indoctrinated "to be cooperative" and "to be true to their feelings"?

Even if you maintained your intellectual independence, what about the others who will become your subordinates, bosses, customers, vendors, neighbors, and perhaps, jurors?

3. Alienation from Parents

Only parents can judge whether a particular school or teacher is a real opportunity for a child. Only they can determine whether the child is making an effort to take advantage of the opportunity. Once we displaced respect for reason as the purpose of schooling and made external "success" the measure, then parents became unreliable as an accountability system. What does any individual parent know of future job opportunities?

Parents have abandoned a major educational function: that of holding teachers and schools accountable for their children's education. Parents are schooling's only authentic, viable accountability system.

This displacement of parents plays directly into the hands of the political overlords of the public school system. Once government schools adopted political goals, they needed to exclude parents because so many have opposing goals for their children. In the absence of parents' role as schooling's primary customers, genuine accountability for the quality of education becomes impossible. Witness the incessant blather in school reform proposals about accountability, but nary a word about who gets disgraced, demoted, fired, or even jailed for malfeasance if that reform harms children.

V. The social and cultural consequences of reason-lite schooling

Finally, even for those who still insist that the assault on reason did not injure them, the evidence is clear that it injured vast numbers of their peers. So many have been maimed that our society may not survive. Again, let's look at three factors:

  1. Feelings have replaced reasoning for many people,
  2. Politics no longer seems to function at all, and
  3. We've ejected religion from the Public Square.

1. Feelings . . . it's all about feelings

One of the worst consequences of exiling the Purpose Question is the substitution of feelings for reason as the source of morality. If teachers and students cannot discuss the origins, nature, and destiny of human existence, how can they reason about how we ought to act? Morality becomes mere opinion and feeling. Children are taught to be true to their feelings, to their own peril and ours.

2. The End of Politics

Another consequence of the exile of reason is the death of reason in politics. If American politics is supposed to be "free persons deliberating the questions of how we ought to order our life together," then schooling's exile of reason guarantees that only reasonless power seeking will follow.

Consider Timothy McVeigh. His inability to discuss the grave issues of politics, coupled with his high passion, led him to express his inarticulate rage by blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh had only a 5-year-old's ability to deal with political conflict: When frustrated past his emotional endurance, he simply "knocked down the other kid's castle of blocks" with utter moral indifference that he was murdering 163 innocent people.

3. Take religion out of the public square

By indoctrinating students for 13 years with the implicit message that religious faith is private and not subject to reason, government schooling produces citizens who regard any mention of religion in the public square as an illegitimate attempt to foist one's irrational passions on a wider audience. We've heard that one does not discuss religion and politics in polite company, but now people of faith are marginalized in public discussion.

In summary, the consequence of the exile of reason is a culture of ignorance. We have managed to destroy the moral duty to learn.

VI. How we can get out of the schooling mess

1. Start by avoiding the wrong solutions

Let's stop looking for the conspiracy of bad people. Let's forgo another doubling of spending. Let's stop the winner-take-all school wars.

Let's end the subtle teacher bashing that demands that they get more degrees. Please note that I condemn the system, not the individual educators within the system. The vast majority strive to be good teachers or good administrators. But when good people are caught up in a bad system, the system wins — often in the short term, always in the long term.

2. The only solution: Take a lesson from history — Separate schools from the state

Two centuries ago, our American forebears looked for an antidote to the religious wars that had plagued their European ancestors. They decided that their new Republic would have no power to establish a religion. Today, we loosely call this the "Separation of Church and State."

The solution for the school mess is simple but difficult: We need to recapture the wisdom and the courage of our nation's founders. Your generation of Americans can separate schools from the state. If earlier generations were able to liberate America in the 18th Century, liberate the slaves in the 19th Century, and liberate Europe in the 20th Century, then your and my generations can liberate schools in the 21st Century!

Thanks to our American forebears, government does not run Sunday school. Or finance it. Or command how many years a child should attend. Or determine who is qualified to teach.

Sunday school is not the government's business. To rebuild a free and wholesome society, the same must be true of Monday school, Tuesday school, Wednesday school, etc.

We have public grocery stores without government control. We can have public education the same way.

3. What will happen when we liberate schools from state, federal, and local government?

When we liberate schools from government, teachers will be invigorated by the opportunity to apply themselves to the blossoming of human minds. A whole generation of children who desire to understand the world and beyond will be channeled and fed rather than dried up and blown away. Historians will someday call it "the Great Emancipation of the Poor."

And, we will see the restoration of the family. Parents will again accept their duty to provide for their children's education rather than casting it off to the government. Further, this allows them to exercise their right to make the decisions regarding that education. Most parents will become far more responsible again, actively involved in their children's lives. While I have no utopian answer for the exceptions, I believe many fewer children will fall through the cracks of tomorrow than the canyons of today.

4. How you can help move toward School Liberation

  1. Most important, liberate your own children from public schooling. If you are a college student, bring this idea to your parents about your younger siblings.
  2. Contribute to groups such as the Children's Scholarship Fund[6] to help others rescue their children from state schooling.
  3. Help spread the School Liberation movement by signing the Proclamation for the Separation of School and State (www.SepSchool.org).
  4. Educate yourself about what will be required politically to end the role of government in education.

Let's not conserve a schooling system just because we've had it for 160 years. Rather, let's conserve the original American ideals by separating SCHOOL and state.


1. Many of the ideas in this speech are from my friend Ed Hurlbutt, Fresno.

2. Dame school: private primary schools taught by women in their homes; similar to today's day care, but they taught reading, ciphering, and manners to children 5-8 years old.

3. Lloyd P. Jorgenson, "Birth of a Tradition," Phi Delta Kappan, June 1963, pp. 408-409.

4. For the full story, see Lloyd P. Jorgensen, The State and the Non-Public School, 1825-1925 (Univ. of Missouri Press: 1987); Rockne McCarthy, Disestablishment a Second Time: Genuine Pluralism for American Schools (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing: 1982); and Rousas John Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education (Ross House Books: 1995, reprint).

5. Border states: Remember the 1954 Supreme Court decision was in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education.

6. CSF provides scholarships for 34,000 K-12 students. Visit www.scholarshipfund.org or call (212) 515-7100.

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