In conversations about my objections to the compulsory nature of public school I often stare into reflections of my old self. It goes something like this:
I’ll say that I am completely against school attendance being compulsory and my friend, relative, acquaintance, or polite enemy will take a few seconds to think then say,
“Yeah, but….you and I would still make sure our children were well-educated – what about all those other people who wouldn’t?” The words vary, but the message is incredibly consistent. The message is that you and I can be trusted with our children, but those other people can’t be trusted with their children.
It happens over and over and over again.
In other words, compulsory education is needed to reign in those other people who aren’t capable enough or enlightened enough to understand how to take care of their children the way we know they should.
Think about it. Then see if you aren’t holding your nose at the stench it carries.
If you are a friend or family member who has said this to me, I apologize for sounding like a pompous ass…I still love you, though you may be less sure how you feel about me. I’m pointing a finger at myself as much as anyone because I recognize the impulse. I also see it as very wrong and I’m hoping to have company in this recognition. I held this attitude for a long, long time. My self respect depended on the belief that I was somehow superior to the average person, and certainly superior to some generic lower class of people. Eventually I had to admit what this actually meant…at least for me. It meant that I believed a small class of people had the right to make decisions for a much larger, less intelligent, less well-educated class of people. I don’t think that anymore.
The point isn’t to judge but to express that, in my case at least, this position was based on little but prejudice. The kind of prejudice we pick up from the people who nurture us, often in their attempt to turn us into good people.
I recognized it in myself because I’ve felt the shame of being judged by others, and sometimes the people who have judged me as inferior to them were the same people I’ve judged as inferior to me. Tell me, which one of us should control how the other one educates their children?
Even if I was convinced that I knew what was best for someone else’s child, what right do I have to impose my decisions on them? How often has the inclination to fix someone else been fueled by blind prejudice that does more harm than good?
Those other people…people with bad taste and bad grammar, the ghetto rats, or obscene materialists, the fat people or the sluts, the gym rats, the ugly people; the Creationists, Fundamentalists, Atheists, Jews, or Muslims; the people who clear their chakras and drink green smoothies after their cleansing fasts; people who join Mensa, people who leave school at the first chance, home-schoolers; people who depend on food stamps and payday loans, or earn millions by selling questionable products; people who spank their children and saddle them with chores, or people who let their children roam free and don’t hold them accountable; people who drive pickup trucks or people who drive Smart cars; NRA members, hunters, video gamers; people who wear designer clothes, or balance champagne glasses on their butts, or have trophy houses, trophy jobs, trophy wives, and trophy kids, or devote their lives to the bottom line of Amalgamated Interglom; people who buy their clothes at Walmart or flout designer logos; people who go on cruises, backpack through the wilderness, or never leave home; professors who spend their entire lives analyzing a handful of arcane books from the middle ages; people who plan to vote for Trump, or plan to vote for Hillary, or don’t plan to vote at all; banjo players, oil drillers, drifters, activists, vegans, Paleos, survivalists…
Who are the other people we think we’re better than? Whoever they are, I’m suggesting we respect them enough to trust them with their own lives – and their own children. If we think we have the right to impose ourselves on them, then they have a right to impose themselves on us. If we think the government has the right to impose itself on them, then we should be more honest about our ideals. The opposite of this interventionist attitude isn’t a cutthroat environment with every man for himself; the opposite is an environment of mutual respect in which real relationships can develop.
I have come to believe that we cannot override individual freedom of belief for a collective ideal, and that is exactly what compulsory schooling does. What would I put in its place? I’d keep public school, but I’d put the reins in the hands of children and their parents. Its true that there are many opposing viewpoints still alive and well in our country, but there is a frightening uniformity in the belief that a single system of education, in which both the goals and evaluations are imposed from above, can and should be forced on the entire population. That system of education exerts enormous influence over major life decisions and the actual minute to minute activities of our daily lives. We are not free in our movements, associations, decisions, or transactions as long as we are required to spend the entire childhoods of both our selves and our children engaged in constant service to compulsory schooling.
Yes, education should be freely, and universally available, but the power of judgment is in the wrong hands.
The mythology that this sacrifice of freedom is justified because of the skills and ideals it provides, and that those skills are necessary for democracy, just doesn’t hold up. It’s an ends and means problem. The ends are greater equality and freedom, but the means are strict institutional control that happens to be fueling inequality and subordination. The means are in direct conflict with the ends, so it shouldn’t be surprising to find that we’re constantly falling short. We fool ourselves that evil is recognizable by clear evil intent. We forget that contempt and manipulation routinely camouflage themselves in good intentions. What better, or more appropriate, example do we need than eugenics? The idea that breeding of good people was appropriate for the good of society as a whole was enormously popular, even if it meant the rights of some individuals were sacrificed.
In his book Nietzsche and the Nazis, Stephen Hicks points out one way we rationalize the rise of Nazi power. We believe “that as masters of rhetoric and propaganda the Nazis succeeded in fooling millions of Germans about their agenda and manipulated their way into power.” Hicks has some sympathy for this way of thinking, “for it is the kind of explanation that comes naturally to those of us raised in liberal democracies.”
But what Stephen Hicks goes on to argue is that “National Socialism was first a philosophy of life believed and advocated by highly intelligent men and women. Professors, public intellectuals, Nobel Prize-winners—all powerful minds working at the cutting edges of their disciplines. It was they who shaped the intellectual culture of Germany in the 1920s and who convinced millions of Germans that National Socialism was the best hope for Germany’s future…They believed their ideas to be true, beautiful, noble, and the only hope for the world.”
“Nazi intellectuals and their followers thought of themselves as idealists and as crusaders for a noble cause”
“It may be hard to believe that the Nazis thought of themselves as noble idealists, especially with our after the fact knowledge of the horrible destructiveness of Nazism. It may be especially hard for those of us raised in Western liberal democracies to believe it—since from the cradle we’ve been raised to believe that freedom, equality, and peace are almost self-evidently good. ”
And there, in that last quote, is my dilemma: “we’ve been raised to believe that freedom, equality, and peace are almost self-evidently good.” Yet our freedom is so grossly curtailed by the requirements of state education that we only accept it because of the depth and strength of its mythology. That mythology assumes that state education actually teaches those ideals that Hicks stated, but examination of the behaviors required show a different truth. Professors and public intellectuals design the programs for us, and our very ability to be a part of the community demands that we follow along. State education teaches obedience to authority and a willingness to accept external goals and judgment on a level most of us don’t expect from our dogs. We accept it because the social mythology is so strong. Our identities depend on the affirmation of worth we gain from its approvals. We accept it because we’ve learned that those other people won’t do what’s needed if it isn’t required.
I’m having trouble finding evidence that Freedom and Equality are being taught as anything more than flimsy abstract concepts. Their reality is being trained out of us.