Against Compulsory Education – Murray Rothbard’s “Education: Free and Compulsory”
We talk of how we are going to improve public education, what subjects to teach or not in public education, or how to teach certain subjects in public education. Rarely do we talk about the issue all of these questions presuppose: whether to have public education or whether it is the best way to educate children. If nothing else – and there IS plenty else – Murray Rothbard’s short essay “Education: Free and Compulsory” serves to offer up the seldom heard argument against public compulsory education.
There are roughly three arguments used in this book, each taking up about a third of the book:
The first section talks about pedagogical reasons why public compulsory education is not an ideal. Every child, it is noted, has different capacities, interests, and proclivities. Some are bright in mathematics and like bookish knowledge. Others are more creatively inclined, have no aptitude for math altogether, and are more comfortable with hands-on things. Others may really have no ability for academic kinds of knowledge whatever, but could be best served by technical training.
Public education, of course, is the antithesis of this: by its nature, it is standardizing and “averagizing” (in that, for numerical reasons, compulsory universal education cannot focus on differences, but only similarities). Additionally, public compulsory education ensures that students are not schooled in what their talents/interests are, or what their parents want them to learn, but rather what the state believes they should learn. (Why must high schoolers understand Algebra II? Because the government says it is a good idea.)
The second part of the book focuses on exploring the history behind public education in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Much is made of the Prussian model of education, which was the first universal compulsory education system, designed to indoctrinate Prussian children with the things the government thought would make them good citizens. (More on this in [[ASIN:0945700040 The Underground History of American Education: A School Teacher’s Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling]].) History shows that the intent behind all attempts – yes, even the American ones – to mandate state education was to inculcate students with the “virtues” thought by the state to make for good citizens (nothing sinister in that!). (Quite a few of the sources Rothbard quotes here refer to students as, in some way, belonging to the state rather than parents.)
To me, the most interesting part was the very last section, where Rothbard turns to examining the (then and now) present educational scene where “progressive” education is much in vogue. Rather than celebrating this idea of “educating the whole child,” and “student centered education,” Rothbard warns that these ideas often mean that schools have more and more dominion over what students learn. First it was academics, then it was “democratic values” (that Dewey wrote of inculcating children with), then it was health and sex ed, etc, etc. And, of course, compulsory education means that students can be taught things parents object to while giving parents no recourse. (It may be good to ask ourselves here whether there would be a controversy over whether to teach evolution if parents could choose whether students were instructed?)
All in all, this book is a very short, but very powerful, indictment of the idea that the government has any good claim to knowing how best ot educate our children. Rothbard is not against public education as such, but is against the idea of compulsory, state-influenced, education. As an economist and political philosopher of first rate, his arguments are strong and worthy of being heard and acted upon.