It's another day in the elementary school classroom. While most of the children remain relatively focused on their activities, Johnny, as usual, presents management challenge. The teacher is used to it by now, because he's that way almost every day. Early in the school year, when the pattern became apparent, the teacher conferred with the usual sources of advice - the school's psychologist and social worker - and learned about Johnny's home life. Johnny's parents are either incapable or unwilling to parent properly. Johnny's diet consists mainly of potato chips and cola. He is allowed to stay up as late as he wants, watching cable TV unsupervised, playing video games, or surfing the web. Electronic media has exposed him to unreasonably high amounts of extreme violence and deviant sexuality. Johnny wears whichever clothes he wants - which usually means that he wears the same clothing day after day, without benefit of having laundered the clothes or having had a bath or shower himself. Other children in the classroom complain that "he smells bad," and the teacher doesn't want Johnny to overhear these complaints, lest his feelings be hurt, and yet she is forced to acknowledge that the children are correct in their assertion.
The teacher wishes more than anything that she could simply tell Johnny's parents that they must give Johnny nutritious food, ensure that he gets enough sleep, and limit the hours he spends with electronic entertainment. Why can't somebody force them to be better parents?
The teacher's sentiments are perfectly understandable. Yet there is a danger lurking in what seems to be an obvious, commonsensical, solution to such problems. As much as we want to intervene in the case of negligent parents, we must respect a core American belief which asserts, coarsely phrased, that the government can't move into a person's private life and tell him how to live it.
A public school is a government institution. It's part of the same system that brings you the IRS, the Post Office, the FBI, and the Army. To preserve freedom in our society, which is the stated goal of our governmental system, a government school can't intervene into private life and restructure families - even if it would be good for them. In the vignette above, Johnny would certainly be well-served if, in fact, someone did force his parents to take better care of him. But if the government is the one doing that forcing, Johnny's gain would be the world's loss. While such intervention might improve his life marginally, society as a whole would suffer, because a precedent would be set which endangers the goal of maximizing freedom.
So if it's best to tell the government that it can't intervene in Johnny's home life, are we condemning him to misery? The situation does, after all, have a material effect on Johnny's quality of life: his education is already greatly impaired. If, in the name of liberty, we don't allow governments to barge into homes and regulate parenting, are we consigning some children to permanent neglect?
No. Because while government intervention into home life constitutes a net loss of freedom, the concept of freedom of association allows private sector organizations to influence private life and private decisions without harming liberty. While government bureaucrats should not show up at Johnny's house and tell his parents how to raise him, other, more organic, structures in society can and should do precisely that: neighborhoods, clubs, chambers of commerce, synagogues, mosques, churches, teams, extended family, etc.
In a case of glaring parental neglect, such organizations have the ability and the obligation to intervene. Because they are not part of the government, their intervention does not defile liberty.
Government must not only refrain from intervening in private life, it must also refrain from obstructing those societal structures which can and should so intervene. Sadly, it is sometimes now the case that not only does the government intervene into private matters when it should not, but it restrains those private associations which should intervene. Often citizens are afraid to intervene in cases of parental neglect or domestic abuse, knowing that any altruistic effort in this direction could in fact be seen as actionable by the government: the benevolent intervener might find himself accused in court.
Because freedom is the preeminent public value in the United States, education fits differently into American society than into many other societies. To say that freedom is the ultimate public value does not mean that it is the highest private value. Indeed, if freedom were the highest private value, the result would be an anarchy filled with selfishness and violence; if freedom were the highest private value, it would actually bring about the demise of political liberty; if freedom were the highest private value, it would lead humanity into that famously grim situation described by Thomas Hobbes.
In society, people are free to choose a highest private value: friendship, altruism, charity, family, faith in God, and other ways of finding meaning in life. But in order for each person to have the freedom to find a highest private value, the highest public value must be freedom. If anything besides freedom becomes the highest public value, then the individual is no longer free to choose altruism or friendship or charity as her or his highest private value.
The contrast between the need to place freedom as the ultimate value in the public sphere and the need to allow the individual to choose some other good as the highest personal value becomes perhaps more intelligible in concrete form. There are many specific instances in which this tension manifests itself - in freedom of speech, in economic freedom, for example.
This principle is also at work in education. There is a dynamic at work which limits the effectiveness and quality of American public education. The desire to improve our governments educational system must be limited if it is not to damage our freedom. The utopian drive which lies, explicitly or implicitly, within many political ideologies would have us able to obtain maximum levels of both public education and personal freedom. In reality, however, both of them cannot be simultaneously maximized.
Four instances of the tension between personal liberty and the maximization of public education can be identified.
First, the principle of personal freedom means allowing the individual to make choices which may conflict with any given set of values - simply put, the freedom to make the right choices is the freedom to make the wrong choices. To the extent that parents and children are private individuals and citizens, optimizing government-run education would require compulsion of some type. This is present already in truancy laws and mandatory attendance until a specified age. We allow students to choose from an offering of certain books or courses or schools; the desire to optimize education would deny this freedom to the individual. Likewise, to maximize the achievement of our public schools, the government would override non-academic choices made by the individual student, inasmuch as they affect the educational process. All of this would conflict with the stated value of freedom in society. The society which values freedom recoils at the specter of government officials making endless educational decisions, decisions effecting students, decisions in which students and parents have no say.
Second, the principle of freedom means respecting the parent's authority over the child, even when the parent makes decisions which do not maximize educational achievement. The government, if it is to respect freedom, must refrain from intervening, even if it means that the parents are free to make decisions which will not maximize educational achievement. As much as it might be clear to the public and to common sense, decisions regarding how much sleep a child gets, good nutrition, physical exercise, general transmitted attitudes toward education and learning, etc., lie with the parents, even if the parents fail to make the best choices in these matters. To be sure, society has a duty to intervene in the worst cases of negligence, but even then, it may be society which intervenes and not the government. In any case, there is a distinction between intervening in the worst cases and intervening in cases which are merely suboptimal. An institutionalized respect for liberty shudders at the prospect of government bureaucrats managing a family's private life - determining menus and bedtimes for children, supervising grocery and laundry.
Third, the principle of freedom means that government schools are under the jurisdiction of elected officials. Obtaining a majority or a plurality of votes in a school board election does not guarantee that the people thus elected will, or can, make decisions which maximize achievement. Indeed, it guarantees that optimization will not be achieved. There is no ideal expert who can refine our educational systems to perfection. Yet the utopian desire will seek to find those who even come close, and place them into positions of power, instead of the freely-elected representatives of the people. However proficient a technocrat may be, the cause of freedom is better served by elected representatives than by appointed experts. Free people must not allow the hope of efficiency to persuade them to relinquish the power of their ballots.
Fourth, the principle of freedom means that the vertical separation of powers - city, state, federal - along with the horizontal separation of powers - legislative, executive, judicial - is necessary to ensure that freedom is protected. But this same mechanism which protects liberty also ensures that policies, like educational policies, will never be completely, or even largely, consistent. To maximize public educational achievement would require a bureaucracy which is guided by a unified vision, and which is largely consistent with itself. While this is certainly impossible, the attempt would be dangerous. Entrusting power and control to a government which is not hamstrung by both vertical and horizontal separation of powers is a sure step on the road to tyranny. It is in the citizen's interest, and in the service of freedom, to ensure that the government is partially handicapped. But this also means that public education will lack a unified program which might optimize it. Despite a great desire improve the performance of the government's schools, it is more important for the sake of freedom that we keep our government weak and fragmented. A strong government might foster the illusion that it can better manage its educational institutions, but will in reality merely reduce personal liberty.
These four tensions reveal why public education cannot be optimized, and why we should not even attempt to optimize it. The effort to maximize achievement in government-run schools cannot lead to the best possible educational outcome, but will certainly result in a net loss of liberty.
Yet society recognizes the importance of education and wishes to maximize it. While efforts to improve education may never yield a utopian purity of achievement, there are promising routes to developing the educational process. While the principle of freedom means that the citizen's life and decisions must be protected from the government at every turn, the tension between the desire for freedom and the desire for refining our educational institutions dissolves when the institutions are neither owned nor operated by the government. Privately-owned schools avoid the four quandaries enumerated above.
Private schools are founded on the principle of free association. Thus the life and choices of the individual are not violated by an institution which she or he has freely joined. It is to be noted that the smaller units of government mimic this aspect of privacy, inasmuch as a city government is more accessible and more responsive than the federal government, and with ease one can leave a city for another, while only with great difficulty can one leave one nation for another. Two routes are thus available for the improvement of education: either privatization, or the complete exile of the federal government from educational matters. In the latter case, state, county, and city governments would be left to the task.
To be sure, smaller local governments have their own weaknesses and flaws, as do privately-owned and privately-operated schools. Any arrangement which removes the federal government from education is good; any arrangement which removes state and city governments as well is even better. A purely private system will not be perfect, and is not a panacea for any set of social ills. But a private system is the best available mechanism for education.
Although the matter at hand is the improvement of education, the funding of education cannot be separated theoretically from its improvement. As matters stand at the beginning of the twenty-first century, greatly reduced funding for education would not be incompatible with simultaneously increasing its quality and increasing teacher salaries, so great is the room for increased efficiency in the use of such funding. Senator Goldwater wrote:
I agree with lobbyists for federal school aid that education is one of the greatest problems of our day. I am afraid, however, that their views and mine regarding the nature of the problem are many miles apart. They tend to see the problem in quantitative terms – not enough schools, not enough teachers, not enough equipment. I think it has to do with quality: how good are the schools we have? Their solution is to spend more money. Mine is to raise standards. Their recourse is to the federal government. Mine is to the local public school board,the private school, the individual citizen – as far away from the federal government as one can possibly go. And I suspect that if we knew which of these two views on education will eventually prevail, we would know also whether Western civilization is due to survive, or will pass away.
Goldwater's way of framing the question is instructive - quantity versus quality. The qualities which one would hope to find in an educational system are those which are a priori unlikely to be found in any governmental undertaking. Even when the government succeeds in shifting its attention from quantity to quality, it is unable to produce, or even properly identify, the desirable qualities.
To put this somewhat differently, I believe that our ability to cope with the great crises that lie ahead will be enhanced in direct ratio as we recapture the lost art of learning, and will diminish in direct ratio as we give responsibility for training our children’s minds to the federal bureaucracy.
In general, the best a government can do is to produce mediocrity. Any effort at increasing quality results in resources being drained from society for a futile effort to improve something which is of inevitable necessity mediocre. This effort will consume not only material resources, but will damage personal liberty in the process, as the demand will invariably arise for more governmental control in order to get everything just right.
Let us put these differences aside for the moment and note four reasons why federal aid to education is objectionable even if we grant that the problem is primarily quantitative.
Goldwater goes on to make his four reasons. First, federal involvement in education is unconstitutional; education is the business of cities, counties, and states, but not of the national government. Second, the need for federal funding in education has never been demonstrated; if more money is needed for schools, money from cities, from counties, and from states is just as effective. Third, federal funding distorts a citizen's perception of the economics of education: federal money is never "free money," but rather it is taken from the taxpayers; it is mistaken to think that having the federal government acquire the educational system from the state or city government will somehow ease the burden on taxpayers. Fourth, federal aid to education inevitably means federal control of education, which can have no good effects but multiple bad effects.
Common sense, and most experienced educators, will inform us that it is not in the interests of a child, or a child's education, that she or he be fed exclusively on potato chips and cola, that she or he spend the majority of her or his time surfing an unsupervised internet, playing unsupervised electronic games, or watching unsupervised television. Yet we shudder to think of government bureaucrats barging into a family home to regulate parental decisions; this would be an unacceptable violation of the personal freedoms on which the United States was founded. Thus the hands of government schools are and should be bound, to preserve liberty; but this binding also means that mediocrity will be product. If, instead, society's influence, rather than the government's control, is brought to bear on such situations, we may often, if not always, find correctives while at the same time preserving the individual from government intrusion.