The Failures of Public Schooling (Part II)

“It is clear that the suppression of free instruction should be regarded with even greater horror than suppression of free press, since here the unformed minds of children are involved.”
Murray N. Rothbard

As described in my last blog post the three ideas or principles historically underlying the theory of education are equality, democracy and the notion that a literate citizenry assures good public order and honest government[1]. The principle of equality has been dealt with here, so now let us move on to democracy.

free_market_educationGoing back to the origins of public schooling, it is important to bear in mind that the political theory of the time was based on the right of individual self-expression in politics, the conclusion being that those who vote, rule[2]. A famous phrase representative of that era was uttered by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address in 1863, when he referred to democracy as being “government of the people, for the people and by the people”. Today people in developed countries with extensive experience living in democratic societies know better. But how is democracy linked with public schooling?

First of all let’s define democracy. After all, if there was ever a word whose definition is and has been bent and twisted to suit whoever utters it (most frequently politicians), democracy certainly ranks way up there. From Woodrow Wilson’s “making the world safe for democracy” to the contemporary conflating of the terms freedom and democracy, few words have been so ill-defined and loosely used. So let’s get the definition straight here.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, democracy is defined as (a) “government by the people; especially : rule of the majority”; and (b) “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections”. This definition immediately raises questions, because if democracy means “rule of the majority” how can it also mean “government by the people”? Is the minority not composed of people, too? What gives 51 percent of the people the “right” to force their will upon the other 49 percent?

Robert Mugabe, Hugo Chávez and François Duvalier were democratically elected yet hardly friends of freedom. Democratic elections existed alongside tyranny in the Soviet Union, too. On the other hand, the CIA supported coup d’états against many democratically elected governments it didn’t like, in countries like Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Brazil, Chile and Turkey, to name but a few. I don’t envy public school teachers for having to explain that to a class full of students.

The many other objections to democracy will be reserved for a future blog post. For now let’s turn to the third pillar of public education, that good public order and honest government depends on a literate citizenry. Needless to say, public schools are not nearly the only institutions that help children acquire literacy. Moreover, the mere ability to read alone does not guarantee any level of intelligence, nor does a literate citizenry necessarily equate to a well-informed citizenry.

Finally, it would be very difficult to establish a clear relation between literacy and public order. The evidence for any link between public schooling and public order (i.e. the absence or reduction of crime) is very flimsy, too. In fact, an official U.S. report analyzing data from 2011 concluded that “more victimizations were committed against students ages 12-18 at school than away from school”, a pattern which the report says “has been consistent since 2011”[3]. The same report states that “for most years between 1992 and 2008, the rate of theft at school among students ages 12-18 was higher than the rate of theft away from school”[4]. And though rates of serious violent victimization against students in the same age group at school “were generally lower than those occurring away from school” in most years between 1992 and 2008, the total victimization rate against students ages 12-18 at school was higher and grew faster than away from school between 2010 and 2011[5].

Though it cannot be concluded from the above that there is a positive causal relationship between public schooling and violent crime (and no distinction is made between public and private schools), it would be a much bigger stretch to suggest that there is a negative relationship. Besides, government confiscates private property to provide public schooling and makes attendance compulsory by law. Surely the burden lies on the aggressor to somehow justify his actions and back that up with incontrovertible evidence of its usefulness, yet that evidence is severely lacking when it comes to public schooling.

N.B. Those of you that read my previous blog post on this topic might notice the title has been changed. Truth is the failures of public schooling are so numerous there was no space left to make the argument for a free market in education, so be on the lookout for that in the near future.


[1] Nock, A.J. (1932). The Theory of Education in the United States. Rahway, NJ: Quinn & Boden Company. p. 27.

[2] Nock, A.J. (1932). The Theory of Education in the United States. Rahway, NJ: Quinn & Boden Company. p. 34.

[3] Robers, S., Kemp, J., and Truman, J. (2013). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2012. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Washington, DC. p. 10.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Robers, S., Kemp, J., and Truman, J. (2013). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2012. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Washington, DC. pp. 10-11.

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One thought on “The Failures of Public Schooling (Part II)

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