Education

“I’ve never let schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain

“The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all. It is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardised citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.” – H. L. Mencken

“Education is a weapon, whose effect depends on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.” – Joseph Stalin

 One more: “We don’t need no education/we don’t need no thought control.” – Roger Waters

Well, we do need a lot of education, but we could do without the thought control. Instead, we are getting the latter while hoping for the former.

Public education systems everywhere in the world do a poor job of educating us. We are entering the 21st century, a time that proves to be full of unforseen risks, challenges and opportunities. We are getting schooled with a curriculum for the 20th century in a system created for the 19th century. A good education can bring out one’s true potential, but we are being held back by a lack of accountability to students and parents.

I was once asked, how would you organise education or health care without a government? I find it unfortunate that people think that I or a few people, whoever they are, are qualified to answer that question. A free market achieves the best outcomes precisely because there is not someone at the top organising and directing it, and everyone’s ideas can be put to the test. A free market for education would mean families and communities and schools working together to decide what is right for their children, learning from different schools and teachers what works and what does not, and letting education evolve with society. State education does not offer that freedom. Parents and teachers do not have those choices.

I also find it hard to understand why people believe others to be so disorganised or uncaring that they would not want to take a more active role in what government does. At the moment, they have no role. All they can do is vote for the politician who promises the kind of thing that they want. What if their politician does not win? What if he or she has some policies the person likes but some others that are bad? What if he or she does not implement any of the policies promised on the campaign trail? What if he or she tries to implement the policies but they get stymied by pressure groups or watered down by the bureaucracy? What is the voter’s recourse? And yet, we are talking about education, health care, security and where millions of dollars of a family’s money is going over the course of their lives. Do you really not think they want to be or should be involved?

The ironic tragedy of modern schooling is that the state does such a poor job of educating people that the people believe they need the state to educate them. And education is not getting any better. Accepting the New York Teacher of the Year Award in 1990, John Taylor Gatto said

The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions.

He might as well have been talking about 99% of schools around the world. Totalitarian regimes knew that education was the key to teaching obedience, nationalism and state ideology. Today’s democracies may not teach children to run a cultural revolution, but they are not helping the children become wise, critical-thinking masters of themselves. When governments get their hands on education policy, it becomes a tool for indoctrinating obedience. And even in sciences or physical education, government schools are failing your children. In fact, things were better off before them. Now that we have the wealth and knowledge of the 21st century (including advances in teaching methods), many, many schools can help students understand the world around them and learn the skills for navigating that world. So why do we not have them yet? Like all problems the state causes, the root is a moral one. The initiation of force is the reason Johnny can’t read.

Everything the state does is subject to politics—force, as opposed to markets. Harry Browne explains. “Whenever you turn over to the government a financial, social, medical, military, or commercial matter, it’s automatically transformed into a political issue  to be decided by those with the most political influence. And that will never be you or I. Politicians don’t weigh their votes on the basis of ideology or social good. They think in terms of political power.” (Politics in this sense has little to with elections. Election campaigns rarely hinge on issues related to education and the election goes to the one who best exploits the far more important issues of gay marriage, gays in the military and gay terrorism.) Education policy is subject to all the same lobbying as other policies. Public sector unions and business associations spend millions to induce policymakers to shape education policy the way they think it should be. These are the people who have convinced everyone that we always need more money for schools. Schools that spend more do not necessarily teach better and more important things. Schools that spend less sometimes do better by the students. And why not? Any economist or private-sector manager could tell you that competition among firms and employees generally increases everyone’s performance and improves efficiency. Why would the education sector be different? In fact, it is not. The lack of incentive in highly-regulated public and private schools to do better makes improvement almost impossible. Of course, we could ask parents and even students what they think is right, but they do not have a lobby.

Good teachers have nothing to fear from a free market in education services. They may well get paid better. It is the poor teachers, the ones paid more than they are worth, and who cannot get fired, who benefit from the status quo. At present, there is no correlation between teacher performance and teacher pay. That means the good teachers are being treated the same as the bad, there is little incentive to be a great teacher (beyond the spiritual rewards) and teachers’ unions have an incentive to fight against merit-based pay. There is no market mechanism to offer consumers (in this case, students and parents) the choice to find new and better suppliers.

Teachers’ lobbies are also vehemently opposed to closing schools. But businesses close when they do not serve their customers (or cannot afford to comply with the tens of thousands of pages of government regulations). Let schools close when they do not serve their students. Let the students go to other schools that are actually performing. Or let neighbourhoods and communities start their own learning centres and teach their own children what they think is right. Let them have full control over hiring and firing of teachers. Or do you think some bureaucrat knows and will do what is best for your children?

Then there is the university. One argument often made in favour of subsidising higher education is that education has positive knock-on effects. If you are better educated, you will contribute more to society. Well, maybe. Engineers usually contribute more to society, which is why I would consider giving money to scholarship funds for engineers. (That said, I would like to have a contract stipulating that I get that money back if they end up working for a weapons manufacturer.) But how does society benefit from having someone with tens of thousands of dollars of education in gender studies or acting class? What if I feel that a particular business programme merely reproduces the elite and does not benefit society? Shouldn’t I be allowed to withhold my funding of that programme? But if there is demand for it, the classes will exist.

What happens when we subsidise something? Consumption of it goes up. Subsidise corn, and we find high-fructose corn syrup in many of the foods we eat. It means more corn fed to animals, making animals cheaper, making meat cheaper, when we should be eating more vegetables (not just corn). Subsidise universities and guarantee student loans, and more people will attend university. But not everyone needs to go to university. The more people have a degree, the lower the value of a degree becomes. Just ask thousands of Occupiers if their degrees and average $25,250 of student loan debts have helped them find meaningful careers. The unemployment rate for college graduates is higher than it has been since 1992, when records date back to. The alternative is to return people the millions they have paid in taxes to subsidise education and let them decide what to do with it.

“How will we educate the poor?” Are we educating them so well now? Are schools in poor neighbourhoods just as good as schools in rich neighbourhoods? But even in poor places, for-profit schools have educated people. (See here and here for examples.) The same people who worry about the poor tend to think we cannot afford schools that are not run by government. But as I do not tire of pointing out, if governments did not take your money and give it to schools (and keep some for their retirement funds, and give some to their friends), we would have that much more to spend on education. There is nothing efficient about the tax-and-spend system under which we live, so any claim that government does efficiently what the private sector can do is nonsense.

It also brings up the question of why people are poor to begin with. Sticking people in bad schools and taxing them for it will not help. Poverty is not inevitable. If schools taught financial literacy, we would almost certainly have less poverty. At present the poor, who are taxed on income, consumption and savings, just like everyone else, are paying for everyone’s education (and roads). If they would prefer to become an apprentice or go to a private school; in other words, if they do not want a university education, well, they still have to pay for one. Should they not be allowed to keep their money if they do not want to get a degree? No, says the socialised-education statist, they should not. I would wager that all the money even poor people pay in income taxes, sales taxes and central bank-induced inflation would easily pay for an education for their children. And what do they think they should learn? Should they be charged to learn Latin, algebra and European history? What if they would rather learn metal shop and mechanics? They can make a better living that way than in a career as, well, whatever one does with Latin, algebra and European history.

The state’s takeover of education was, like all state ventures, clothed in language of the public good. State education would improve access and improve quality of education. It hasn’t. And yet, the unions say they need more money. What do schools need more public money for? Where would it go? Is all we need more computers in the classroom? Do teachers need more money? Why can we not let the market decide? Surely, if parents like their kids’ teachers enough to want to keep them, they will pay them well; if they think their kids are not learning, let the parents stop paying for them. Or do I not understand education?

Competition works in education, just like it works in every other market. This is not some libertarian hypothesis; it is well-documented fact. End the monopoly and give the consumers (the parents and students) the power, and quality of education rises.

What do parents think should be taught in schools? Wait, never mind: they are not consulted. It does not matter what parents think. Government mandarins will decide what should be taught. Shouldn’t we teach students their legal rights, how to manage their money, the scientific method, how to think critically, how to start a business, how to defend themselves and maybe even how to be happy? Teachers exist for all those subjects. But the political will does not. The initiation of force, with its pressure group-written laws, fails us all.

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