A Reviewers Notebook: Is Public Education Necessary?
DECEMBER 01, 1981 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
As Edmund Opitz has said, where we once had public (State-connected) churches and private schools, the situation is now completely reversed. Whether the public schools are engaged in imposing a new faith, that of secular humanism, on an unsuspecting populace is a matter of much discussion. Such an imposition is surely happening in some places. But families and churches will combat it. The greater danger in public education is that State-supported schools must fail to give anti-Statist philosophies (in economics and political science) an even break. Who, in a public school, would recommend Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State as alternative reading in a course? I wouldn’t hope for anything better than a clash of opinion about Statism in a public school class, but I’m still waiting to see it.
Leonard Read once said that the struggle to separate school and State should be high on the libertarian agenda of the future. The recent upsurge in private schools is an indication the battle is already on. But declining scores on Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) have had more to do with the change than any increase in philosophical understanding. We have been waiting for a long time for a book that would correctly assess the totalitarian potential in a universal “free” (i.e., tax-supported) public school system that relies on compulsion to recruit its students. But now the book is here.
Samuel L. Blumenfeld, the author of a previous book called How to Start Your Own Private School—and Why You Need One, has gone back deeply into history to write the story of the “Prussianizing” of American education in the early Nineteenth Century.
His new book has a sharp title—Is Public Education Necessary? (Devin-Adair, P. O. Drawer A, Old Greenwich, Conn. 06870, $12.95). The big point that he makes is that the public school system was fastened upon us by a band of fanatics who were primarily concerned with imposing their elitist power on a public that had already achieved almost universal literacy by patronizing the private academies of the time.
Almost from the beginning America had some tax-supported public schools. The Boston Calvinists believed in a back-stopping arrangement that would give indigent students a chance at making their public Boston Latin School, which offered the classical training necessary to entering Harvard. But private academies were the general rule in most of the states in the early nineteenth-century years.
Literacy levels were higher then than they are now. The general system was peculiarly American. In Pennsylvania, for example, the law provided for tuition grants to help poor children enter the private academies. But most people paid for their own education. This would have become the “American way” if it hadn’t been for the Boston meddlers who were breaking from their historic Calvinism to proclaim that human nature was perfectible and that it was the business of the State to train the young mind in the ways of perfectibility.
Harvard University became the forcing house of the new anti-original-sin doctrine when it was taken over by the Unitarians in 1805. The Unitarians were not averse to using the State to combat Calvinist influence. They sent their promising young men to Germany to study at Gottingen. It was there that George Ticknor and Edward Everett became converts to the Prussian system of State-directed compulsory education. With the help of an enthusiastic study of Prussian and Hegelian educational philosophy by Victor Cousin, a Frenchman, Ticknor and Everett made State-dominated public education a Unitarian “must.”
Mr. Blumenfeld does not allege there was any conscious impulse toward socialism among the Harvard Unitarians. They had not yet yielded Harvard Power to Galbraithians. But it seems significant to him that the Owenites—the followers of Robert Owen—should also be working to impose compulsory State education on Americans in the 1830s. The Owenites had socialist ends in view, but they were willing to let the Unitarians’ Horace Mann do the preliminary work in accustoming the American public to the idea that the State could best impose standards of virtue on the youthful mind by training all the teachers in so-called normal schools. The Owenites, along with Josiah Holbrook of the Lyceum movement, were willing to wait for the day when socialism itself might be defined as the national way of virtue.
Horace Mann, who combined zealotry with a prodigious faculty for political manipulation, had his way all too easily with a country that had not had the opportunity to see how Prussianism could mutate into Bismarckism and, at the last, into Hitlerism. The Unitarians’ belief that the State could be the inculcator of an anti-Trinitarian Christian morality was rudely shattered when American education, with Supreme Court blessing, went totally secular. By then it was too late even to save the day for voluntary prayer in the schools.
Mr. Blumenfeld’s book is a blow in a good cause. It will help the growing private school movement. But it will take far more than a single book to separate school from State. Public education is a tremendous vested interest: Mr. Blumenfeld says it represents an annual cash flow of $80 billion. There are more than two million educators who are committed, through their National Education Association and other organizations, to increase the volume of the flow.
Up to the moment, local control of public education in the fifty states has prevented nationalization of the system in the ultimate Prussian manner. But the existence of a cab-inet- rank federal Department of Education could be an omen if the present plans to abolish it aren’t carried through.
For myself, I don’t expect to live long enough to see the work of Horace Mann undone. But I do expect to see a dramatic increase in competition between the public and the private school. And, with the publication of such books as Is Public Education Necessary?, Leonard Read’s hoped-for crusade to separate school and State will at least get into a strong uphill second gear.