This archival article originally was published by the Colorado Freedom Report. Converted articles may be edited and differently formatted from the originals. This article was converted to AriArmstrong.com on July 18, 2018. The publication date reflects the approximate initial publication date. Please see the notes on the archives.
I went to “SepCon,” the conference of The Separation of School and State Alliance held November ’98 in Colorado Springs, feeling a little nervous that I wouldn’t quite fit in with the program. Alliance founder Marshall Fritz, himself a dedicated Catholic, framed the topic of this year’s conference as “Do ‘public schools’ undermine your religious beliefs so much that you should remove your children?” To those who, like me, don’t consider themselves adherents of any particular religion, this question seems beside the point when it comes to the politics of government schools.
While I never quite got over feeling that some sessions of the conference were off the mark, and while I heard ideas from some of the more conservative of the theists that, frankly, frighten me, I also learned to appreciate the diversity of knowledge and opinion that Fritz managed to assemble, and I gained a fairly good understanding of his strategy. I examine the relationship of religion to Fritz’s organization, along with the question of whether his strategies for Separation will work, in a later section.
A question central to the conference was whether Christian parents ought to send their children to Christian schools. Many at the conference stated that a particularly Christian education is indeed appropriate or even a moral imperative. Others disagreed with the notion that education should take a particular religious slant. What argument, then, might those who don’t want a religious education find compelling in the issue of separating schools from the State?
Critics of Separation see religious education as a bad idea, and they want the State to require citizens to pay for non-religious education for those who want it. Fritz invited several such critics—others showed up of their own accord—and libertarians involved with the issue of education would do well to pay attention to the criticisms and consider them thoughtfully. The critics earn their own section in the present series of articles.
The libertarians found plenty to argue about among themselves, though. In particular, school vouchers and tax-credits found both ardent support and vehement opposition.
The final section of the series focuses on the closing speech given by John Taylor Gatto, who suggested that the purpose of government schools during this century has been to churn out masses of “mindless consumers.” Gatto, a fascinating and awe-inspiring man, raised a host of pivotal issues in his talk.
The closing dinner, however, was almost surreal. (It probably didn’t help my emotional state that I was quite exhausted by this time, having been sick before the conference and busy throughout it.) The dinner ran painfully behind schedule with a botched awards ceremony and a long, pointless prelude. (Oh, and Fritz canceled the 1999 SepCon for fear of “Y2K” problems.) Gatto began about an hour late, about 9:45, and the advanced hour may have combined with exhaustion after re-writing his speech — lost with luggage by his air service — to render the speaker incapable of concluding his presentation. Gatto had to sit and then lie down as Fritz read the conclusion while offering a veiled exorcism in the process. It was certainly the most bizarre and frightening conclusion to any conference I’ve yet attended. Fortunately, Gatto was not seriously ill, and the audience got to hear a most provocative talk.
In all, I found the conference exhilarating and thought-provoking. My discussions with the scholarly theists gave me a fresh perspective on a wide number of issues. The supporters of government schools raised thoughtful objections, and at least pointed out the types of arguments libertarians need to make more effectively. I met new friends from Colorado and around the country. Even though SepCon may not be held in Colorado again, I would recommend future conferences to libertarians interested in education.
You the reader are welcome to move on to the discussion in the following set of articles. [Note: What originally appeared as distinct web pages now appear as sections in this unified document.] Each part can be read as a self-contained unit. Taken together, the pieces will offer a fairly comprehensive view of SepCon ’98 and of the Separation issue generally.
Religion, Separation, and Fritz’s Strategies
Marshall Fritz, head of the Alliance, holds that all aspects of life should be directed toward a Christian purpose. Judging from the time I’ve spent around him, he tends not to be particularly subtle or reserved about this point. It was not surprising to me, then, that he chose to give the ’98 SepCon a more religious bent. SepCon was held in Colorado Springs largely because the town is a haven for conservative Christians like those at Focus on the Family. In fact, participants at the conference were invited to tour the facilities of that organization.
Fritz embraces the cooperation of those of all intellectual stripes, though. He is by no means shy about voicing his opinion, but he is also respectful of alternate views and always ready to engage in sincere debate.
One panel early in the conference included a Jew, Yarden Weidenfeld; a Christian, R.C. Sproul, Jr.; and a Muslim, Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad; all of whom argued for getting the government out of education. I was struck not only by the significance of the historical succession, but also by the overwhelming sense of benevolence and camaraderie among the participants.
Walter Olson in the November ’98 Reason Magazine takes Fritz to task for inviting Christian Reconstructionists to his conferences. (Through a series of quotes from the sect’s members, Olson notes that some people in the Reconstructionist movement have called for the political suppression of non-Christian religions and for public executions for a wide variety of “sins,” including homosexuality and blasphemy.) However, Fritz has also invited atheists, pantheists, and supporters of State education, including Bill Spady of Outcome Based Education fame.
While such Reconstructionists as R.J. Rushdoony have signed Fritz’s “Proclamation for the Separation of School and State,” so have such relative main-streamers as new Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, CATO’s David Boaz, and George H. Smith. (Interestingly, Fritz claims early influence on the Separation issue from Smith, who is a social-liberal libertarian, an admirer of Ayn Rand, and the author of Atheism: The Case Against God.) Still, in reference to the Reconstructionists, we must weigh Olson’s reservation: “How serious do differences have to become before it becomes inappropriate to overlook them in an otherwise good cause?”
In a quote collected by Olson I simply must reproduce here, Gary North, a Reconstructionist and Editor of Remnant Review, a newsletter which worries about “Y2K” and global economic meltdown, actually calls for his future theocracy to forcibly restrict freedom in education (and everything else):
So let us be blunt about it… We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.
So much for liberty. However, Reverend Ellsworth McIntyre, an admitted Reconstructionist, the owner of several private schools, and the author of How To Become a Millionaire in Christian Education (a title purposely intended to strike some Christians as peculiar), told me at SepCon ’98 that North is not representative of the Reconstructionist movement, saying, “Gary’s a controversial guy.” According to McIntyre, the Reconstructionist movement “takes no direct political advocacy views.” While this is anything but a firm denial of the beliefs North expresses, it also suggests that Reconstructionists aren’t necessarily homogeneous in their thinking.
SepCon certainly was not overwhelmed by conservative Christian theism. Some sessions dealt with issues like evolution and the Bible “as literature,” but most covered issues of interest to a broader audience. Subjects included accreditation, Constitutionality, vouchers, and history.
Two of my favorite lectures covered the history of philosophy, presented by Christians but from an academic perspective. Charles MacKenzie, former President of Grove City College (which spent millions in court fighting Federal intrusions), gave a talk on Rousseau, while Vincent Fitzpatrick discussed the works of Paul Quay, a recent philosopher of Catholic persuasion.
So what is the significance of the religious bent of SepCon ’98? In my view, the strong religious emphasis poses at least a couple of serious problems. First, it tends to lead the casual outsider to associate the Separation movement, which is much broader than Fritz’s organization, with conservative Christianity. (I almost wrote, “fundamentalist Christianity,” but Fritz explained to me that “fundamentalism” refers only to a narrow range of conservative, highly devoted Christians.) I saw this confusion with the supporters of government schools Fritz invited. This doesn’t help to ward off stereotypes of libertarians as “right-wing.” Of course, Fritz is under no obligation to run an “umbrella” group, but it does worry me that the “alliance” aspect of his organization is weighted toward Christian theists.
A second problem with the religious emphasis of SepCon ’98 is that people both supportive and dismissive of private education tend to think only of particularly Christian reasons for getting the government out of education. Personally, I’m not greatly offended by “sex education,” and I want evolution taught in the classrooms (not as dogma, but as testable science). “Creation science” strikes me as oxymoronic. Over and over various speakers decried the “humanism” in today’s government schools, but that to my mind is not an issue of concern. I want Separation of school and State, but in order to root out Statist indoctrination and inept bureaucracy so children will have the opportunity to learn to their full potential. It strikes me that the arguments which appeal to me have a better chance of appealing to the broader population.
For some at Fritz’s conference, the goal is not so much free-market education as Christian education. The free-market part of it is only an after-thought. This may be cause to worry. It is, after all, the Protestants who first supported government education, to suppress the Catholicism of immigrants. (Fritz, himself a Catholic among a majority of Protestants, did not stress this point.) To the extent that Gary North’s ideas resonate with others, the fact the hard-core Christians seem unlikely to regain cultural dominance is reason to cheer.
Some of the Christians at the conference made caricatures of their opponents, thereby making it easy for the main-stream to caricature the market education movement, or at least the Christian wing of the movement. On several occasions and from several speakers, I heard the view that Christianity stands on one side of the cultural divide, while a package of atheism, relativism, Marxism, “secular-humanism,” Post Modernism, and hedonism stands on the other. This view is a gross over-simplification. Earlier in the summer, I had heard a lecture from an atheistic, libertarian, humanistic, ethically principled Objectivist philosopher who criticized essentially the same list of Post Modern thinkers as did the Christian David Noebel at SepCon.
Even though the religious bent of Fritz’s organization creates some difficulties, Christians and those in other religions obviously have a stake in Separation. Fritz actively seeks the support and participation of all groups, but for strategic reasons he is pursuing the Christians with particular vigor.
Fritz sees the various Christian groups as particularly alienated from the present system of government schools. Issues of evolution, sex education, and non- or anti-Christian teaching render Christians more susceptible than most to the notion of Separation. Not only that, but Christians are fairly well organized, making the task of “spreading the word” easier. In Fritz’s words, “When you go fishing, go where the water is.”
According to Fritz’s theory, which I find basically compelling, our task in getting the government out of education is to attract those parents “at the margins” of Separation who are nearly ready to place their children in private education. Once the number of students in private education increases, a new group of parents will be closer to “the margin.” At some point, a “critical mass” will be reached, and the government control of schools will come tumbling down like the walls of Berlin.
Fritz, then, is banking on there being enough Christians currently “at the margins” to lead to this “critical mass.” This is where I fear the theory may fall apart.
I can think of several possible ways the idea might fail, in terms of getting the government out of education. First, the Christians could gain such political momentum that they would simply push their will onto the government schools. Former Congressman William Dannemeyer advocated just this approach at the conference. Second, the State-education establishment might get wise and put enough Christian stuff back into government schools to lure back the Christians. “Well, I guess we can teach Creation along with evolution. I suppose we can have silent prayers in school.” I fear that if the focus is on Christian rather than libertarian goals, just this end might result.
Fritz has been careful to talk about the “sin of over-rendering:” the surrender of one’s parental responsibility to the State. Fritz argues that parents should turn neither the responsibility of controlling the curriculum nor the responsibility of financing education over to the government. I like Fritz’s argument, and I hope it “sticks” among Christians. If it does, this will prevent Christians from being lured back to “Christian-friendly” government schools. However, Christians have not traditionally been overly hesitant about enforcing their version of “responsibility” on others; hopefully conservative, non-libertarian Christians will remain a small enough minority that they won’t be able to theocratize the State.
A third potential problem with Fritz’s strategy is that the general culture might become so alienated from the Christian schools that they look on private education with increasing disdain. This might prevent the attainment of “critical mass.” Fritz told me bluntly that his religious focus may well alienate some non-Christians. On the other hand, perhaps the religious schools will focus on solid, universal education rather than on religious dogma, so that even the private Christian schools will appeal to the non-theistic masses. This seems to me a likely outcome — today’s Christian schools frequently do a good job of educating their students.
I should note in closing this section that the focus of SepCon varies year to year. While Fritz will always invite many religious speakers, the future emphasis may well shift to more “secular” concerns.
Political Vs. Cultural Separation
One of the prominent themes at the 1998 Separation of School and State Alliance Conference in Colorado Springs was that Christian parents should offer their children a Christian education. Similarly, Yarden Weidenfeld argued that Jewish children need a Jewish education.
These theists argue that life cannot be “compartmentalized.” That is, one cannot learn about “the world” part of the time and “religion” the rest of the time. Rather, all of one’s life should center around God. As Marshall Fritz has put it, religion should be central in “Monday school” as well as in “Sunday school.”
Fritz, then, argues for the voluntary cultural separation of children by “world views,” as well as for the Separation of School and State. However, he certainly does not want a general cultural separation. Indeed, Fritz’s SepCon was a model of open acceptance, cooperation among diverse people, and rational tolerance, where people of many philosophical persuasions and ethnic backgrounds gathered to discuss ideas. Fritz commented to me that there are “age-appropriate times for growth.” In his opinion, a young child should not be subjected to “world views” which would radically undermine those of the parents.
I disagree with Fritz as to the extent children should be separated by “world views.” In a discussion on the Alliance e-mail list, I noted that learning the Pythagorean theorem doesn’t require any particular religious background. Megan Day, a SepCon participant skeptical of the entire endeavor, made a similar point with the fact “two plus two equals four,” which also seems to fit fairly well with most religious beliefs.
Fritz has responded that the reason one learns that “two plus two equals four” is religious in nature. What if a student asks, “Why does two plus two equal four,” or “Why should we learn that two plus two equals four?” These questions obviously require a more philosophical answer. R.C. Sproul, Jr. added in casual discussion that some Post Moderns would indeed doubt the truth even of such a simple theorem from addition, and he certainly would not want the Post Modern “world view” taught to his children.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, President of the Islamic Minaret of Freedom Institute, though not opposed to separating children by religious affiliation, also saw value in intellectual diversity. In Ahmad’s view, voluntary “affirmative action” might even be a useful way to draw more diversity to a school to benefit the children’s education. “Not everybody believes what we believe,” said Ahmad. If children are segregated by religion, they should at least “be taught about other ways of life,” Ahmad noted. Others’ beliefs should be presented accurately so children will not learn to doubt their teachers. About the virtues of open discussion, Ahmad said that “if one’s ideas are true, they should withstand debate.”
John and Carol Geltemeyer, SepCon participants from Colorado Springs and Libertarian Party activists, saw potential problems with Christian education. John said, “Christian education is still instilling a student-teacher dependency,” like today’s government schools. In other words, the danger is in students learning to accept others’ opinions rather than to think clearly for themselves. As Carol put it, “If we teach students to accept our indoctrination, we teach them to accept the indoctrination of others.” Of course, with practically every “world view” comes the danger of indoctrinating rather than teaching. It is a tendency that everyone must guard against.
Obviously, parents must have some fundamental agreements with a potential teacher of their children. As Fritz put it, “you’d be crazy” to send a child to a Nazi training camp. If a teacher suggests that “two plus two doesn’t equal four,” I’ll most likely keep my child out of that school. In one of his sessions, Professor Charles MacKenzie suggested that a healthy Christianity balances reason with faith. Such Christians, I suspect, should be comfortable sending their children to school with the children of those of us who reject religion but who respect a basic rationality.
As to Fritz’s question, “What should a teacher tell a student who asks why two plus two equals four or why we should learn it,” I would respond that a teacher is quite capable of explaining alternate answers to that question (without implying “relativism”) or simply referring the question to the parents. Beyond that, a teacher can offer some universal answers to the questions, acceptable to those of most philosophical persuasions.
In the end, I agree with Leonard Peikoff, an Objectivist philosopher, that if children are taught to employ sound, critical reasoning, their thinking will tend to be self-corrective, even if they are initially taught incorrect content. If children are taught to read, write, calculate, and think for themselves, instead of subjected to indoctrination, I believe that intellectual diversity in education will prove highly beneficial to education itself.
Critics of Separation
On the first afternoon of SepCon ’98 (Thursday, November 12), opponents and supporters of separating schools from the State shared a panel discussion which became rather heated when the audience started asking questions.
Ron Nash of the Reformed Theological Seminary started the session with the claim that the Christian “world view” is incompatible with the “world view” found within the government schools. Yarden Weidenfeld later expressed a similar opinion about the Jewish world view. “Judaism is all-encompassing,” Weidenfeld noted.
Nash discussed some aspects of modern government schools which would shock most theists and upset many atheists as well. Nash quoted one school text that flagrantly supports casual, non-committal sex. Many of Nash’s arguments were broader yet: he claimed that government schools have rendered many of their students functionally and culturally illiterate. Unfortunately, these broader arguments were largely lost as the discussion progressed.
Many of the problems with the session arose from the way the topic was framed: “Are ‘public’ schools undermining most religious families?” With supporters and opponents of government schools on the panel, the debate naturally moved away from this narrow topic to the broader issue of whether government schooling is a good idea. Unfortunately, with the blending of these two issues, much of the discussion found little direction. As I’ve noted in a previous section, the issue of whether government schools undermine religion is irrelevant to the broader population that simply doesn’t care. The universal arguments relevant to government schools per se were largely drowned out.
Jane Urschel, a member of the Colorado Association of School Boards, followed Nash and Weidenfeld with the point that school boards are at least somewhat responsive to the needs of parents. Thus, the “horror stories” cited by Nash shouldn’t be taken as representative of government schools. Jane Behnke, Director of the Colorado Education Association (the regional branch of the NEA), made a similar point, noting that she is unaware of such “horrors” in Colorado. In fairness, I should note that I was not exposed to such “horrors” in the government school I attended in Palisade, Colorado, where I graduated in 1990.
The broader point, however, was never made: even though school boards and the political process make government schools somewhat responsive to parents, a free market is completely and immediately responsive to the needs of parents and students. To draw an analogy, if we had to go through a political “grocery board” to improve our grocery service, we could probably make some headway. The political process, though, is a complete waste of time and only moderately successful, relative to the market.
Urschel next offered the worn cliché: “Public [i.e., government] education is the cornerstone of democracy.” This, of course, immediately drew gasps and “tsks” from the audience.
The comment, and the reaction which followed, revealed a serious flaw in the structure of the panel. Fritz perhaps erred by placing government school bureaucrats on a panel with scholars in front of a well-informed audience. It was fairly clear from the discussion that Urschel knew little of the history of government education and had spent little time mulling over the subtleties and paradoxes of the ambitious term, “democracy.” None of this was Urschel’s fault; she was a pleasant woman and indeed quite generous to join the panel as a replacement speaker at the last moment. A far more fruitful and less uncomfortable panel would have matched the libertarian scholars with Statist scholars. Not only would the discussion have been less upsetting to the guests, but the libertarians in the audience would not have gained a false sense of superiority. I know there are apologists of government schools who could keep pace with any libertarian.
At any rate, the discussion, whatever its problems, raised several pivotal issues. Perhaps Ahmad framed the issue of “democracy” most cogently later in the session. Many mean by democracy simply the rule of law, including the protection of minorities’ rights. In this sense, “democracy” is taken to mean what others might take “republic” to mean—a system of individual rights, strictly limited government, and self-sovereignty.
On the other hand, noted Ahmad, “democracy” can also mean “majority rule,” the system where the majority presumes to decide what is morally right. This is the meaning Cathy Duffy (Citizen’s Scholarship Fund, Los Angeles) attributed to the term when she blasted “democracy” as a bad system of government. Schools, then, Duffy argued, should not be the “bedrock” of democracy, but rather the bedrock of the republican form of government established by the American forefathers. Duffy’s use of the terms is closer to the historical use.
Urschel clearly intended the term “democracy” to mean majority rule rather than individual rights or the rule of law. Within the State, claimed Urschel, we need to “balance the needs of the one with the needs of the many.” Or, to put the idea in a slightly less sympathetic way, we can’t let individual rights stand in the way of the power of the State. To drive her point home, Urschel noted, “We belong to a form of government bigger than us all.” Well, this is not the government of John Locke or Thomas Jefferson, for whom proper government existed only to protect the rights of the individual. Unfortunately, Urschel’s words are fairly accurate today.
(Here’s a question for you trivia buffs. Who said, “It is thus necessary that the individual should finally come to realize that his own ego is of no importance in comparison with the existence of his nation?” The answer is found below.)
Urschel is also stunningly accurate, though quite by accident, in her evaluation of government schools: they are indeed the “bedrock of democracy” in its majority rule sense. Modern democracy is characterized by class warfare; pervasive, mutual looting (with tax rates around half of GDP); and rule by special interests. These are indeed precisely the characteristics of modern government schools.
This brings us to another point raised by Behnke: “[Government] schools are reflective of what society wants and what our country is.” In other words, if government schools are bad, they are bad because of the influences of the culture generally. This is at odds with the point made earlier by Urschel, that government schools perpetuate modern democracy. Nash concluded by siding with Urschel, arguing that schools do indeed change society. Which side of the argument is right? Both are. Surely causality runs in both directions. Schools are the way they are because of the culture in which they are built, and schools also contribute to the nature of that culture.
A full awareness of the concept of “reciprocal causality,” as Chris Matthew Sciabarra (author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical) has called it, sheds light on the movement for getting the government out of education. By working toward a greater cultural acceptance of market education, we help to change the structure of the schools. By changing the structure of the schools, we build a healthier culture.
Behnke continued her presentation by arguing against “segregation” in education. On this point, I heartily agree with Behnke. I do not believe that getting the government out of education will result in segregated education; the value of learning from people of different backgrounds is simply too great for diversity not to thrive in the market. Indeed, I believe that market education will overturn the segregation of modern government schools. The government schools segregate students by strict classifications of age, learning “ability,” geographical boundaries, alleged psychological problems, and so forth. These counter-productive segregatory practices will tend to break down in market education.
Behnke’s final point was that, while government schools earlier in the century may have manifested the “command-and-control” model, today’s government schools are focusing on critical thinking. But are they? Nash made a fairly good case that today’s government schools are turning out many students who can barely write, who learn inadequate math skills, and who know little about U.S. or world history. This discussion, the real meat of the issue, was underdeveloped by both sides.
Both supporters and opponents of government schools need to realize that the issue of efficacy is by nature relativistic: libertarians need only prove that market education will work better than government education. Libertarians don’t have to argue that government education is completely terrible. Nor do we need to claim that market education would work perfectly. Instead, our argument is that, as good as government education may be, market education would be much better yet.
Megan Day, an activist in a Colorado Springs political group who came to SepCon as an observer, brought up in casual discussion a point which would seem to counter Nash’s criticisms of government schools: probably the vast majority of the SepCon participants were educated in government schools. In other words, if libertarians are so smart, it would seem we got that way because of our government education.
This is on the surface a troublesome catch-22. If I, having gone through government schools, say that government schools are bad, then I am also saying I am intelligent enough to understand that government schools are bad, which seems to imply that the government schools did a rather good job with me. The inescapable conclusion: government schools are good. (Day herself did not draw out this argument; I built it from one of her casual remarks.)
However, this argument is easily refuted by the reality of education. Before the mid-1800’s, most people were educated in market schools. Many – perhaps most – of the most successful people in history had little or no formal education whatsoever.
Many of today’s libertarians also prove the argument wrong. I, for instance, gained practically all of my education outside the government schools I attended. Primarily, I educated myself as a child by spending thousands of hours reading hundreds of books of my own choice, entirely outside the confines of school. Through my extensive reading, mostly of sci-fi and adventure stories, I developed my vocabulary, I implicitly learned the rules of grammar, and I spent days on end contemplating new and strange ideas. Before that, I remember learning how to read – on my mother’s lap.
I did learn something in the government schools I attended, to be sure. I learned a bit about the branches of the US government and a smidgen of world history and geography. In high school, one of my teachers – Carolyn Martinez – made an extraordinary impact on my life by giving me a “C” on a book report, thereby encouraging me to actually exert some effort writing my subsequent papers. Virginia Settle taught me a bit about the formal structure of grammar, and more importantly she took me and a few other students on an international adventure (outside the structure of the government system). My journalism teacher was excellent – the majority of my teachers were at least competent. On the other hand, a great deal of my “seat time” was a waste.
When I think of how my physics teacher, an affable man and an effective teacher, was pressured out of my high school because of disagreements with the administration, I wonder when our teachers will come to demand the freedoms, and the added responsibilities, of a market system of education.
At any rate, I can accurately say that I am primarily self-educated. I am certainly not alone. John Geltemeyer (a Libertarian Party activist from the Springs) noted, “I was self-taught. I didn’t learn in [government] schools; I slept through school. Then I read the encyclopedia at home.”
Day raised other, more formal points against separating schools from the State. Day noted that, without tax funding, people would be denied the choice of pursuing an education through the government. This is on one level an obvious point, but it also raises a more subtle difficulty, which is how the poorer members of society would fare in the market system. Unfortunately, this issue was addressed barely if at all during the conference, though it is pivotal in the cultural move to market education.
Libertarians argue, I believe correctly, that scaled tuition and private charity will, in a market system of education, afford everyone a better education than they now receive. This is an empirical point, however, which requires extensive research into the history of charity generally and the history of education charity in particular, as well as into present economic conditions. Yet, as I commented to Day, the mere fact that she and so many other people are so concerned about the poor getting a good education is a fairly good indication that “we” will provide for the poor in a market system.
One continuing concern I have is with the term “public education,” which Day and practically everyone else used throughout the conference. There is nothing particularly “public” about government education; indeed, the government schools remain largely isolated from the public’s input and the public’s interests. Market schools are much more responsive to the needs of the “public,” just as market grocery stores are much more responsive to the needs of America’s public than were State-grocery stores to the needs of the (formerly) Soviet public.
Though the habit of thinking of “public education” is deeply ingrained, intellectual clarity is imperative, so one must draw a consistent distinction between “government education” and “market education.” (I have also used “private education,” but the term “market” is more accurate.)
Day was very receptive to some of the libertarian arguments. She was “very surprised,” for instance, to hear theists like R.C. Sproul, Jr. condemn the enforcement of prayer in government schools. Sproul, along common libertarian lines, argued that religions should not be able to forcibly collect tax dollars to subsidize religious practices. Of course, the parallel argument which would tend to counter Day’s support of government schools is that such schools today force religious people to subsidize anti-religious practices and beliefs.
The final critic of Separation at SepCon ’98 was Bill Spady, father of “Outcome Based Education.” The main reason Spady gave against separating schools from the state is that “we have too much separation now;” we should be trying to bring people together in our culture. This is a confusion of categories, however; libertarians want to get the government out of education, partly in order to create more social harmony and peaceful interaction.
Spady’s more substantive comments dealt with issues of pedagogy, which in turn have political implications. Spady begins with a profound and, to my mind, obviously true proposition: “There is more to learning than knowledge.” In fact, gaining knowledge might be considered only a tiny part of learning. We aren’t merely storage bins for facts; rather, we are emotive, relational, purposeful beings. An intelligent person who can’t control his or her emotions may be dangerous. A person unable to develop healthy interpersonal relationships is not a complete person. A person unable to set and pursue goals leads an empty life.
Spady’s next turn, however, proves highly troublesome. Because we are emotive, relational, and purposeful beings, as well as intellectual beings, reasons Spady, we should therefore create a system of formal education which requires the exhibition of general “competencies” which extend far beyond intellectual skills into the realm of political attitudes and social behaviors.
Spady’s system, then, is mis-named. All types and styles of education are aimed toward “outcomes,” so “Outcome Based Education” fails to distinguish Spady’s system from any other. A better name for Spady’s ideas might be, “whole-person education.”
While I agree with Spady that a rich education develops the whole of a human being, I disagree with Spady that the education system should be concerned with formallypromoting and evaluating “competencies” in the arenas of emotion, relationships, and purposes.
The central argument against Spady’s education system is that it places an instructor in the position of mandating certain behaviors for students. The mandated behaviors are not only those necessary to maintain peace and good order in the classroom; Spady would have schools “teach” students how to build relationships, how to be a good citizen, and so forth. Even the most righteous teacher would be likely to use such a system for questionable purposes, and less scrupulous instructors could easily pervert the system. (To name an extreme example, German leaders of the 1930s were fairly good at inducing particular behavioral “outcomes” among “their” youth.)
My home-town school district came very close to adopting Spady’s plan several years ago. The “outcomes” specified included particular political beliefs and particular cultural attitudes. It was quite frightening. I asked Spady, “How much do you feel OBE was taken away from you?” He replied, “Tons.” In his view, his ideas were being perverted by those who didn’t properly understand them. “It was out of control,” lamented Spady. However, in my view the perversion of the system is inevitable. Once we give any group the authority to instill particular behaviors, behaviors required for “graduation” from school, the group in charge will mandate the behaviors they happen to prefer. Domination of the spirit is the necessary “outcome.”
How, then, should formal education should relate to the “whole person?” First, educators must recognize that each person is ultimately responsible for his or her own personal development. Obviously, parents have certain rights and obligations to keep their children from acting in harmful ways and sometimes to get them to act in helpful ways. Adults have the right and responsibility to protect individual rights. However, it is never appropriate to compel others to adopt particular political, social, or emotive attitudes or behaviors. How, then, do we influence others’ behavior? Via the tradition of rational persuasion.
Even though the person is more than the intellect, the individual can use the intellect to develop other aspects of the self. For example, I can study psychology to better understand and guide my feelings. I can study history and political economy to build reasonable political beliefs and practices. The appropriate way to influence the behavior of others is by persuading them, rationally, to develop certain aspects of themselves.
This issue is central to the entire libertarian project. Proponents of the State view human beings as fundamentally flawed, as incapable of raising themselves to enlightenment and goodness. People won’t give charity of their own accord; they must be forced to do it. People won’t provide a good education for their children on their own; they must be forced to do it. Children won’t learn how to develop civility, personal relationships, and emotional control through rational persuasion; they must be forced to do it.
Libertarians believe that each individual human being is capable of reaching goodness. People can be left free to grow, but they can be forced only to obey—and wither.
(Trivia Answer: Adolph Hitler, Bückeburg, October 7, 1933.)
Vouchers, Tax-Credits, and Separation
Milton Friedman is primarily responsible for the contemporary movement vying for school vouchers, an idea Friedman discusses in Free to Choose. The basic idea has been around much longer, of course: Thomas Paine discussed subsidizing poorer students’ education with tax money. Education tax credits are the recent variation of the voucher proposal.
Colorado voters recently struck down by a wide margin an education tax credit ballot initiative, just as they denied a voucher proposal years ago. Marshall Fritz, founder of the Separation of School and State Alliance, would breathe a sigh of relief at the rejection of such measures. Fritz strongly opposes vouchers and tax credits because they make schools more heavily dependent on the government, thereby increasing government control of schools. On this issue, I agree with Fritz completely.
Of course, the November vote doesn’t stop the state legislature from considering different ways of funneling tax dollars to otherwise private schools. In the 1998 session, state legislators, led by a broad coalition that includes Representative Penn Pfiffner, considered allowing people to funnel their tax dollars to K-12 scholarships for use by practically any school in Colorado. This proposal is the brain-child of Martin Angell, founder of the Every Church a School Foundation, who debated his idea with Fritz at SepCon ’98.
The so-called “school choice” ideas are revised with each new legislative proposal and can vary extensively in their details. However, the proposals can be separated into three broad classes: vouchers, tax credits for families, and tax credits for scholarship donors. Vouchers and family credits compete for attention, but either of these could be implemented along with donor credits, though I have not yet heard of any efforts to combine any two of these proposals. We will here examine each of the three variants.
With vouchers, long supported by newly elected US Congressman Tom Tancredo, the government subsidizes students’ education directly by issuing a “voucher” to each family with students. The voucher represents a certain number of tax dollars and can be redeemed only by the school that receives the voucher from the family. In the typical voucher proposal, every K-12 student receives a voucher of equivalent value. Usually, the value of the voucher is set significantly below the current per-student costs of government education (often at around half of that value). Conceivably, though, vouchers could be issued only to students of families below a certain income level. Families may supplement the voucher with personal funds for more expensive schools.
The problems with vouchers are two-fold. First, they make even more people dependent on the government for education. Currently, around 10% to 15% of the US population does not rely on government at all for K-12 education. Vouchers would tend to make practically everyone dependent on the government for education. Dependency in turn creates two problems: it reduces a person’s level of responsibility, and it creates more and larger special-interest groups to vie for control of government resources.
The second main problem with vouchers is that they invite more government regulations of education. True, proponents of vouchers rail against government intrusion, and they typically even write explicit language into the legislation to prevent increased government controls. However, government regulations always follow government dollars, and no amount of semantic cunning will prevent it. (He who pays the piper calls the tune.) As Charles MacKenzie noted in one of his SepCon sessions, the US Congress once promised, in law, that they would not become involved with regulating education. Why the supporters of vouchers trust politicians to make good on any of their promises is beyond me, given politicians’ history of upholding, say, the Constitution.
Vouchers have come under increasing criticism from a wide range of libertarians. Jacob “Bumper” Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation, Lew Rockwell of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Douglas Dewey of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, and others have joined in the libertarian critique of the voucher proposals.
Largely in response to the libertarian criticism, the voucher advocates modified their proposals into “tax credit” initiatives. Under these new proposals, tax credits would be issued to families with children in private schools or homeschools. Family tax credits are more versatile in that they can easily be offered to select students — for instance, the Colorado initiative would have given tax credits first to students from the worst government schools. Because tax credits are given retroactively and selectively, they are also more flexible for the government’s budget.
Some proponents of family tax credits claim the credits do not create more dependency on government, but only reduce a family’s tax burden. Steve Schuck, President of Coloradans for School Choice and the major backer of the 1998 tax credit initiative, suffers no such illusions. As literature from Schuck’s organization states, “If eligible taxpayers owe less in Colorado taxes than the amount of the credit, they receive a check from the state to cover the balance of the tax refund.” Of course, on the flip side of the coin, families who pay higher taxes will not be fully reimbursed, and the broader population without school-age children must of course continue to pay the full burden.
Schuck, however, erroneously imagines that family tax credits can subsidize private schools without increasing the level of state regulation. The thinking is, because the tax subsidies would go indirectly to the schools through the families, the legislature wouldn’t directly regulate the schools. This is wishful thinking. Everyone will realize that the schools are indeed receiving a tax subsidy.
But the text of the proposed tax credit law even states, “[N]either the state nor any subdivision thereof shall use this section to increase its regulatory role over the education of children in non-public schools beyond that exercised on January 1, 1998.” Of course, this text would not prevent the legislature from increasing regulatory burdens because of the tax subsidies, without technically using this section of the law for the purpose. In other words, the text of the proposal is a dream come true for lawyers and politicians.
Family tax credits, then, do not solve the problems of government dependency and government regulation. What about donor tax credits, which offer tax credits only to those who contribute to scholarship foundations? Angell’s proposal is, I must admit, the most clever and least objectionable of the education tax subsidy proposals. Significantly, Angell’s plan does not permit a credit greater than an individual’s tax burden. It also limits the amount of the tax credit. In the Colorado version the credit cannot exceed $500 of one’s state income tax.
Fritz offered some devastating arguments against the donor tax credit in his debate with Angell. As Fritz showed, the donor tax credit still perpetuates both dependency on government and the danger of more regulations.
Angell does not believe that donor tax credits will create more dependency. Angell calls his proposal a system of “private, voluntary funding.” However, this characterization is deceptive, as Fritz pointed out. The plan still relies on government to redistribute income by force. Fritz drew the analogy of a mugger who gave his loot to a good cause: would the mugging thereby be justified? This is the situation the Angell plan would create. The state would in effect be demanding: “Give me your money, or give it to the scholarship fund.” There is nothing “voluntary” about it. And, of course, the plan makes the recipients of the money dependent upon government force.
Angell is also overlooking the obvious danger that the government will simply raise taxes to compensate for the revenue lost to the scholarship funds. Colorado has some restraints on increasing taxes, but these restraints can be over-ridden fairly easily, and other states have much weaker restraints.
Angell fired back at Fritz that Fritz’s organization benefits from “tax-exempt status” as a non-profit. However, as Fritz noted, donations to a non-profit are not credited by the government; they are merely counted as write-offs which reduce an individual’s tax burden by only a small fraction of the donation to the non-profit. Non-profits, while not necessarily a good idea, do not for the most part depend on the forcible redistribution of wealth.
Fritz presented a clear, simple analogy relevant to the entire libertarian critique of the state. Sex, noted Fritz, is inherently a beautiful thing (he referred to it as the “marriage act” so as not to offend the more sensitive ears). However, forced sex, though it might look the same and have the same physical results, is obviously not the same act as voluntary sex. “Rape,” forced sex, is a perversion of sex and an atrocity, and it is anything but a “blessing” to either party, as Fritz put it, simply because it is forced. Similarly, charity is inherently a beautiful act. Forced charity is something altogether different.
All the advocates of education tax subsidies at SepCon exhorted “us” to “do something” about the deteriorated condition of American education. Fritz’s plan, to draw people into market education one family at a time, is seen as too distant, too difficult. If only we could hurry up the process by political means! Unfortunately, the attitude that we can fix everything with government is what got us into our present messes. As Fritz pointed out, if our goal is a market system of education in which no family is dependent on the government, making more people dependent on government via education tax subsidies is hardly a step in the right direction.
A Review of John Gatto’s Presentation
John Gatto would be an impressive speaker even for someone who doesn’t understand the language, I suspect. His large, commanding form and his somber yet urgent yet also compassionate voice nearly mesmerizes. Gatto’s insights into the history of our culture, however, are what prove riveting.
Gatto’s theme for his closing talk was simple: government schools exist to create mindless consumers.
Government schools create mindless consumerism in three broad ways. First, they perpetuate unecessary industries which feeds on the government system. The drug industry puts out ritalin to tranquilize behavioral problems. School psychologists, the schools which train the psychologists and the teachers, the local politicians, and the bureaucrats all profit from the system.
More importantly from the perspective of the students, schools train children for “whimsical purchasing” of useless and even harmful material products. Schools contract with cola companies to sell and advertise pop in the schools. Businesses provide propaganda materials to students as if it were “course work.” One example given by Gatto was a coloring and language book put out by a butter company and used in government school. The book asks the child to color two pictures of an adult man, representative of the child’s father. One father “got his butter,” the other did not. The book asks the child to color the buttered father with healthy skin tones and eye colors, while it asks the child to color the father who hadn’t eaten butter in grotesque colors, with green hair, black teeth, and so forth.
The deeper criticism, though, is that children are trained in government schools (and the private schools which emulate them) to mindlessly perform meaningless tasks in order to hold a steady job and buy useless products.
The historical background Gatto provides is powerful enough to make even the severe skeptics pause. According to the history cited by Gatto, government schools were quite purposefully directed toward the end of “dumbing us down” (which is the title of Gatto’s book) and creating a compliant, robotic work force.
In the late 1800s, reported Gatto, the young US Department of Education said that the “general ability to read” was creating problems for maintaining a “controllable work force.” In 1888, the US Senate wrote, “We believe that education is the principal source of discontent” among the work force.
According to Gatto, such US business leaders as Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan saw education as the enemy of the “Empire of Management.” Smitten with the ideas of social-Darwinism, which held that some “strains” of people are inherently superior to others, these leaders promoted a government school system which would keep the “genetic dead-ends” in their place and in which children would be, in the words of a commentator of the time, “manufactured like nails.”
In Fritz’s March 1997 Education Liberator, Edwood Cubberly said, “Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials, children, are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.” Edward Ross wrote about earlier government schools, “The role of the schoolmaster is to collect little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and shape them on the social kneading board according to the specifications laid down.”
Gatto’s presentation suggests that the unnaturally compartmentalized subjects of government schools, the well-regulated bell ringing, the anti-conceptual “learning” techniques like “look-say” reading and “new math,” the teacher-controlled classrooms, the compelled and continual submissiveness of the students, the constant tone of commands – all these are a part of a system aimed to create a compliant, rather than an educated, populace.
I found Gatto’s presentation compelling. Notably, for much of Gatto’s lecture, I felt like I could just as well have been sitting in at a socialist conference rather than a libertarian one. Socialists, too, decry the corruptive influence of “big business” and the infatuation with useless material goods. How do Gatto’s remarks mesh with libertarian theory?
Libertarians must admit to themselves that freedom, though a necessary condition for a healthy culture, is certainly not a sufficient one. Libertarians cannot simply argue that the State is the cause of everything wrong with culture, because this omits consideration of what caused and perpetuates the State, which is the same culture.
In terms of education, even a market system is susceptible to corruption. However, the market cannot entrench corruption the way a government system can (and has). Once the government system had created a bureaucracy and a host of other special interest groups dependent on the forced transfer of tax dollars, the structure became very rigid and difficult to change. Also, with the top-down, centrally controlled government, the system is monolithic and unresponsive to grass roots needs.
Government education did not begin in the early 1850s on the models of scientific management and social-Darwinism. Back then, the goals were the less lofty ones of suppressing religious minorities. However, with the structure in place, the social engineers had little trouble seizing control of the levers of power later in the century. The general observation that power tends to corrupt is an important part of the libertarian critique of the State.
On the other hand, it’s not as if the entire education establishment moved with one will. Most of the teachers, though affected by political pull, didn’t alter their teaching styles or methods of interacting with the students, just because a few important men wanted them to train up a generation of obedient worker-soldiers. Similarly, many teachers in today’s government schools continue to do an excellent job, despite the political nonsense going on around them
Today, just about everyone has given up the utopian vision of creating a malleable labor force through social engineering. The information age has smashed all conception of a bee-hive society. People—all people—need to think for themselves again, and this fact is abundantly evident. The rulers of the government schools are no longer driven by a desire to re-shape society according to their plans. Now, they would be very happy to get the public to stop complaining, to raise their students’ SAT scores, and to get subversives like me to shut up about it already. The current problems with the government system arise from the legions of paper pushing bureaucrats and the continual fads that sweep through the schools every other year or so, tearing away at what little remains of a sound pedagogy with every cycle. There is no coherent evil plan; there is no coherent plan for anything. There are just plans—plans and tons of plans that no one even cares about anymore.
Gatto, then, describes only one part of the education elephant. Today’s children are not purposely trained to be “mindless consumers,” though they may learn the attitude from the mindless school systems of which they are a part. If some students learn to go through life just accepting, just “getting along,” just following through with meaningless activities, perhaps they are learning this behavior from the adults around them. But not all young people follow this course: my younger brother nearly flunked out of high school, and in a quite conscientious manner. I used to get on him for his low grades, but now I respect him for keeping his soul intact. He is now quite happy, financially responsible, and a complete success by his own standards. I earned high grades in high school, but I made my own paths doing so.
If Gatto captured only part of the story of education, he also touched on only one aspect of “consumerism.” I wish that Gatto would draw a clearer distinction between “mindless consumerism” and “mindful consumerism.” My Randian sentiments lead me to romanticize productive work a bit, and rightly so, I believe. Just like education, production and consumption can be either authentic or heartless. Endless products make a real, positive difference in the quality and length of human life. Wealth enables us to pursue art, literature, and intellectual discussion more fully. (The computer on which I am presently typing comes immediately to mind.) While too many people of all ages lose their minds in front of the television, others use technology as a tool, as part of a full, thoughtful life.
Despite the limitations of his talk, Gatto perhaps as much as any other person has caused people to think about fundamental issues in education and about the very idea of “school.” If a revolution in education succeeds, it will do so largely because of Gatto’s work.