“The Machine of Industrial Era Education”

Today (August 25) at Reuters’ blog, Shantanu Sinha contends that “America must break the machine of industrial-era education.” Reiterating what has become a truism, that “public education in America is failing,” Sinha notes the inflexible framework of government schools, “treating students like cogs in a factory.”

The specific complaints outlined by Sinha are hardly to be disputed, and they seldom are. Still, America’s schools remain unresponsive and ailing in the face of the widespread understanding that the problem lies at the very foundation of our system. The problem is not teachers themselves, but the cage they and the education system generally are trapped within.

That cage is forged and locked by the state, designed to promote obedience, and repellent to anything like real education. If students are victims of the rigor mortis that the state has set into American education, then so too are the teachers.

For the state, the family and community, as other, competing sources of values and worldviews, are necessarily dangerous, challenging its role as the ultimate authority on ethical questions central to human life. The family unit further rivals state power in its natural function as an unforced and unplanned safety net, one that inevitably engenders independence from the state-corporate economy and institutions.

In the United States, the Progressive Era’s new notion of citizenship, which underpinned the establishment of (for example) the modern government school system, was quite overtly aimed at undermining the family. Immigrant traditions, particularly as embodied in Catholic schools, were regarded as a threat to the civic culture of the desired homogeneous America, at the center of which would be the total state.

The goal of ensuring schooling for the poor or those incapable of paying was never at the forefront of the movement for state-owned and -operated schools. Instead it was a xenophobic animus against the customs of working-class newcomers and a desire to aggrandize the federal government that motivated the “public school” phenomenon.

We shouldn’t shrink at the specter invoked by the ruling class, that, in the absence of government schools, the needy would go without education, unable to afford tuition. This is, of course, a claim only true in an economic environment like the one we drudge under today, in which the overall cost of living is ratcheted up by an oligopoly market — and in which contemporary “private schools” are made artificially expensive.

Frank Chodorov responded to the argument that a stateless society, one without taxation and special privileges, could not produce an education system capable of serving the masses: “[I]t must be remembered that public schooling must be paid for; it is not a gift from heaven. And since the poor are in the aggregate the largest contributors to the tax fund, it is they who pay the largest share of the educational bill.”

Today, the vast majority of Americans are burdened under the strain of taxes and rents to rich elites that are created by barriers to entry and the systematic destruction of self-sufficiency. Absent these government-constructed hurdles to mutually beneficial exchange and cooperation, the necessity of the state in providing education evaporates.

Unless we believe that the state has a magical ability to create valuable resources from nothing — and it seems many do — we shouldn’t give credence to the myth that only coercion is capable of providing education for everyone. True free markets made up of everything from charity, to trade, to complex systems of mutual aid are quite equipped, if allowed, to furnish education — the kind society is asking for rather than the kind foisted on America’s children today.


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Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory