SepCon '98: The Critics of Separation

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom

SepCon '98: The Critics of Separation

by Ari Armstrong, January 1999

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 formally promoting 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.)

Introduction | Religion and Separation | Political vs. Cultural Separation
Critics of Separation | Vouchers, Tax-Credits, and Separation | Mass-Producing Children

The Colorado Freedom