How to (Inadvertently) Argue Against the Public Education System

In a recent article, Allison Benedikt makes her case that, as the title says, “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person” (Slate, August 29). She clarifies: “Not bad like murderer bad — but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad.”

The proper course of action, she argues, is to take one for the team. “… [I]t seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.”

Besides, she says, even if your local public school is pretty crappy, your kids probably won’t suffer too badly. After all, if you’re the kind of parent who’s selective and involved enough to send your kid to a private school in the first place, you’re probably providing the kind of support system your kid needs to do OK despite going to a crappy school.

Benedikt brings in her own bad self to clinch the deal. She went to a mediocre school, never learned a lot of that fancy college-prep stuff, and consequently didn’t learn much in college, either. But still, she turned out “perfectly fine.” And even if she never read Walt Whitman in high school, she got the benefit of socializing with all sorts of kids — e.g., “getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park.”

Here’s the thing: The very fact Benedikt could write something so utterly devoid of critical thought is proof that she did not turn out “perfectly fine.” If she takes such a conventional, uncritical view of the functional role of social institutions, then she’s exactly the kind of product the schools are designed to churn out. If “one of our nation’s most essential institutions” means “essential for the interests of the people running the nation,” she’s exactly right.

The public schools are, as they were originally set up to be in the 19th century, human resource processing factories. Their purpose is to supply the state with compliant subjects and employers with compliant workers. The ideal products are functionaries smart enough to perform their assigned tasks, but not smart enough to critically analyze the system or their roles in it.

The purpose of modern public education is fundamentally evil: To inculcate a view of a society organized around giant corporations, centralized government agencies and other authoritarian hierarchies as natural and inevitable — “just the way things are” — and an acceptance of one’s own role in that society as a reflection of merit.

Think I’m exaggerating? The first statewide public school systems were organized in New England around the time textile mills needed people conditioned to line up on command, eat or urinate at the sound of a bell, and cheerfully comply with orders from someone behind a desk. Take a look at the public educationist literature from the turn of the 20th century, quoted at great length in the work of critics like John Taylor Gatto and Joel Spring, on the purpose of the system. The public educationist literature of that period is explicit on the role of the schools in shaping a human product perfectly socialized to be satisfied with its role as cog in a machine managed by other people.

And those kids from the trailer park she talks about being socialized with? The system is set up to process kids like that (in the terminology of Huxley’s Brave New World) into obedient Gammas, managed by uncritical, cheerleading Betas like her.

What’s more, the idea that everyone should voluntarily herd themselves into the same crappy authoritarian institution, so that all will have some incentive to make that institution somewhat better, is utterly perverse. The beauty of networked communications technology and the free replication of digital information is that it’s no longer necessary to get everybody on the same page, and coordinate their efforts through some common institution, in order for anyone to do anything.  The public schools are built on a mass-production industrial model of moving humans to a central location to be processed with a limited, uniform menu of information. But a near-infinite amount of education can now be moved around instantly at almost zero cost.

It’s like saying “if everybody gave up the Internet and forced themselves to rely on CBS, NBC and ABC News, they’d work harder to see the Fairness Doctrine enforced.” If we all just force ourselves to rely on an archaic industrial-age dinosaur and it’s one-size-fits-all product, we’ll have an incentive to make sure the homogenized product isn’t too crappy.

If we were just means to the end of the public schools’ flourishing, it would be a good argument. But we’re not.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory