Rethinking Government Schools
by Ari Armstrong, May 1999
Do government schools help foster violence? The government education system is not somehow to blame for the Columbine massacre. The blame lies with solely with the killers and those who may have helped plot the crime. However, if such incidents of violence would be less likely to arise in free market schools, that is one reason for parents to consider alternatives to the government system.
The Factory Model
John Gatto has discussed the education philosophy of the late 1800s as influenced by such industrial giants as Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan, as one which attempted to "manufacture children like nails." (See SepCon '98: Mass-Producing Children.) While this goal has been largely abandoned by today's government schools, such schools often retain tendencies to compel children to perform repetitive, disintegrated tasks, such as may have been useful in early industrial factories. Such tasks were also seen as useful by Prussian government educators, who created the model on which American schools were based. The emphasis is obedience rather than self-motivation, busy-work rather than exploration and conceptual learning, and social segregation over responsible interaction.
To the extent that such tendencies remain in the government schools, and in the private schools modeled after them, such practices contribute to a sense of boredom and purposelessness in students. (Having attended government schools within this decade, I know that such practices indeed continue.) And boredom and purposelessness probably have something to do with the fact that bullies in school perpetually torment the unpopular kids. Several Columbine students claim to have been constantly terrorized by other students.
Not only do bored students tend to pick on others more, but they also tend to find rebellious fascinations that alienate them from others, thus contributing to the social friction.
The emphasis on boring, repetitive tasks is only one competing tendency in today's government schools. Many classes are interesting and many teachers capture their students' excitement. But not always or even often.
Supporters of market schools argue that schools in free competition are more likely to respond to the learning needs of students than is the entrenched government education bureaucracy. This would tend to reduce boredom and purposelessness.
Government schools claim to be neutral on issues of religion and morality, but they necessarily cannot be. Even the claim, "all religions are equal," carries with it a moral judgment. So government schools must foster some form of character or moral education, at least implicitly.
Government schools are best described as offering a "politically correct" moral program for its students. However, in claiming to be value-neutral, government schools cannot help but to perpetuate a certain cynicism when it comes to moral beliefs.
Government schools also conflict with the moral philosophy of many parents. As one Christian noted after the Columbine tragedy, "Notice that prayer is now acceptable in the school, after the shooting." Government schools ask children to leave their parents' morality at the front door. This too likely contributes to a certain cynicism in moral beliefs.
In a market system of schools, schools can integrate children of different religions without thereby claiming to be value-free. Parents can also choose to send their children to schools amenable to the parents' beliefs, be those schools Christian, secular humanist, or whatever.
Character and moral education are important to a child's upbringing, but government schools must stay out of that discussion. The alternative is to spend tax dollars to promote particular spiritual and philosophical views.
The "You Owe Me" Mentality
Most children receive government welfare from kindergarten through twelfth grade. A child learns to believe that society "owes" him or her an education. What else, then, does society "owe" the child? Love? Respect? Social status? The right to not get picked on?
I agree that we as members of society have the responsibility to care for our own children and to at least be considerate of the children of others. However, there is a difference between care voluntarily bestowed and assistance forced by the government.
Tax subsidies are forced. Many who pay school taxes do not approve of the schools. Yet, education is seen as an "entitlement." The child has the right to that money, regardless of what the person paying the bills may think of the matter.
It's OK to take wealth by force. Why, then, is it not OK to take social status by force? I for one am unable to see any clear lines. Thus, I propose that force be banned from society altogether. That is, coercive government schools should be replaced by voluntaristic, free market schools. Only then will children see of necessity that life is a two-way street : charity, respect, and love must be requested, not demanded, and respect must be returned. (Obviously, people who bring children into the world owe their children good care. But as they grow up children also owe good parents a debt of gratitude.)
An Isolated Bureaucracy
When a business can force its customers to pay for its services no matter what, because that money is taken by force via taxes, the business loses all incentive to take care of its customers. Education is no different.
When taxes pay the bill, customer service goes out the window and is replaced by saving face and passing the buck. Obviously, most school officials care very much about their students. However, if there is only a slight weakening of the incentive to take care of students, dangerous situations can go unchecked. Government school officials know that hardly any action they take, or fail to take, will interfere with their careers.
School shootings could happen in market schools as well as in government schools. However, if market schools create even a moderately safer environment for children, they are worth more serious consideration.