Mill on Public Education (and its alternatives)

Comments on my previous post reporting Mill’s comments on the American Civil War led to some discussion of education. I’ve been teaching for ten years, and so I’ve given a good amount of thought to education, but much of that thought has been about the peculiarities of the subjects I teach: classical languages, literature, and philosophy, with a bit of writing and rhetoric thrown in. I’ve thought less, though still quite a bit, about broader questions in education. Probably the most politically divisive issue in education concerns public education: should we have it, what is it for, how should it be done, and how should we regard various alternatives to it? As often, mainstream political opinion seems to split into two rival camps, neither of which strikes me as satisfying. Though people disagree about details, there’s a discernible trend: progressives tend to be fans of public education and want to increase its funding massively, conservatives tend to be severe critics of public education and prefer some sort of alternative. Rather, many and perhaps most people don’t have strong views about this topic, but when someone does, the severe critics tend to be conservative and the fierce supporters tend to be progressives. As usual, I do not have a firm, settled view on these matters. But insofar as I have any views on the matter, they tend somewhat in the conservative direction in one respect and in the progressive direction in another: we ought to have a much greater variety of schools to choose from, with much greater local autonomy on the part of the schools (the ‘conservative’ part), and we ought to have a lot more funding of a far more equitable sort (the ‘progressive’ part).

I don’t find anything odd about this combination, but it seems to be an unpopular one. Support for ‘school choice’ in general and for charter schools in particular tends to be seen as a right-wing view, while support for vastly increasing public spending on education tends to be seen as a left-wing view. Of course, there’s a reason for this: conservatives hate taxes, while the mantra of ‘school choice’ stands not only for an increase in the diversity and autonomy of schools, but for efforts to have taxpayers fund fully private and religious schools. Debates about charter schools are also complicated by differences among charter schools and the kind of oversight to which they’re subjected in different states; while the best charter schools are non-profit organizations that seek to admit students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, some prominent charter schools are in reality for-profit businesses that effectively price out lower-income families through fees and related expenses. So, as so often, the issues here are complex, but our political discourse tends to reduce them to two bad package deals. On the level of general principle, though, I wonder just what is wrong with John Stuart Mill’s take in On Liberty (I promise that the Mill posts will stop soon!):

Consider, for example, the case of education. Is it not almost a self-evident axiom, that the State should require and compel the education, up to a certain standard, of every human being who is born its citizen? Yet who is there that is not afraid to recognize and assert this truth? Hardly any one indeed will deny that it is one of the most sacred duties of parents (or, as law and usage now stand, the father), after summoning a human being into the world, to give that being an education fitting him to perform his part well in life towards others and towards himself. But while this is unanimously declared to be the father’s duty, scarcely anybody, in this country, will bear to hear of obliging him to perform it. Instead of his being required to make any exertion or sacrifice for securing education to the child, it is left to his choice to accept it or not when it is provided gratis! It still remains unrecognized, that to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society; and that if the parent does not fulfill this obligation, the State ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent.

Were the duty of enforcing universal education once admitted, there would be an end to the difficulties about what the State should teach, and how it should teach, which now convert the subject into a mere battle-field for sects and parties, causing the time and labour which should have been spent in educating, to be wasted in quarrelling about education. If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay for them. The objections which are urged with reason against State education, do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State’s taking upon itself to direct that education: which is a totally different thing. That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism of the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments, carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence. Unless, indeed, when society in general is in so backward a state that it could not or would not provide for any proper institutions of education, unless the government undertook the task then, indeed, the government may, as the less of two great evils, take upon itself the business of schools and universities, as it may that of joint stock companies, when private enterprise, in a shape fitted for undertaking great works of industry, does not exist in the country. But in general, if the country contains a sufficient number of persons qualified to provide education under government auspices, the same persons would be able and willing to give an equally good education on the voluntary principle, under the assurance of remuneration afforded by a law rendering education compulsory, combined with State aid to those unable to defray the expense.

The instrument for enforcing the law could be no other than public examinations, extending to all children, and beginning at an early age. An age might be fixed at which every child must be examined, to ascertain if he (or she) is able to read. If a child proves unable, the father, unless he has some sufficient ground of excuse, might be subjected to a moderate fine, to be worked out, if necessary, by his labour, and the child might be put to school at his expense. Once in every year the examination should be renewed, with a gradually extending range of subjects, so as to make the universal acquisition, and what is more, retention, of a certain minimum of general knowledge, virtually compulsory. Beyond that minimum, there should be voluntary examinations on all subjects, at which all who come up to a certain standard of proficiency might claim a certificate. To prevent the State from exercising, through these arrangements, an improper influence over opinion, the knowledge required for passing an examination (beyond the merely instrumental parts of knowledge, such as languages and their use) should, even in the higher classes of examinations, be confined to facts and positive science exclusively. The examinations on religion, politics, or other disputed topics, should not turn on the truth or falsehood of opinions, but on the matter of fact that such and such an opinion is held, on such grounds, by such authors, or schools, or churches. Under this system, the rising generation would be no worse off in regard to all disputed truths, than they are at present; they would be brought up either churchmen or dissenters as they now are, the State merely taking care that they should be instructed churchmen, or instructed dissenters. There would be nothing to hinder them from being taught religion, if their parents chose, at the same schools where they were taught other things. All attempts by the State to bias the conclusions of its citizens on disputed subjects, are evil; but it may very properly offer to ascertain and certify that a person possesses the knowledge, requisite to make his conclusions, on any given subject, worth attending to.

On Liberty, chapter 5

There’s room for disagreement over details here. Mill, for instance, seems to think that financial assistance for less wealthy parents should not be contingent on the kinds of schools to which they send their children; they can send them to the most sectarian religious school they please, so long as their kids come away able to pass the relevant exams. I’m not so opposed to that idea in principle as most progressives seem to be, but I do wonder whether, quite apart from constitutional principles of the separation of church and state, it’s a good idea to offer people money to send their children to just any school they want. My own experience is mixed. With the exception of a miserable two weeks, I attended private schools my whole life until college. The Catholic school I attended for grades 1-8 was good enough that some non-religious families sent their kids there rather than to the public schools, and though it was far from an elite institution, there’s no case to be made that the Catholic character of the school undermined its educational value. By contrast, I attended a fundamentalist Pentecostal high school that was not even recognized by the state of Ohio because it refused to abide by certain very broad rules, and I would object strongly to any public funds going to any school like it, because what it thought of as education was in fact a poorly executed attempt at the most servile sort of indoctrination, the kind that cannot even sustain an accurate knowledge of the opinions and worldviews it rejects. So my experience shows that religious schools do not invariably produce inferior outcomes, but also that they are sometimes a complete mess of incompetence and dogmatism fundamentally at variance with any respectable conception of the ends and means of education. Perhaps Mill’s solution to such problems would be sufficient, but I doubt it. There is something to be said for schools having to abide by some standards, even some curricular standards. But on the whole, with room for debate about details, Mill’s general principles here seem right to me.

So what, if anything, is wrong with them?

2 thoughts on “Mill on Public Education (and its alternatives)

  1. I have some musings on the topic. Nothing well thought out. Just some thoughts and observations.
    1. I assume that if Mill were alive today he’d consider education to be both father and mother’s duty;
    2. It’s a bit different Mill’s notion of compelling than our notion today, isn’t it? As it stands, we are ALL compelled to pay for the education of the children of others whether we had a vote in their creation or not. Mill is holding that fathers (presumably parents) by themselves and all by their little lonesomes ought to be compelled to provide education to their children, and that this is a duty the parent has to the child by virtue of having brought the child into existence. Also, if the state were to compel parents to satisfy this requirement, then the rest of us wouldn’t have to;
    3. And if the rest of us wouldn’t have to provide for children’s education, then we wouldn’t have to argue about what to teach and how (this addresses the concerns of Conservatives that public schools run the risk of becoming mouthpieces of the state, a not unreasonable concern IMHO). I personally like that he addresses the legitimate concern with the state “taking upon itself to direct that education;”
    4. In terms of charter schools, I have heard two arguments from NYC school teachers against them:
    a. They pay less that the NYC public schools (in general); and
    b. They are not required to be unionized (related to a. above);
    5. Psychotherapists make probably half the salary that NYC public school teachers make. It’s quite a good grift, this public school thang;
    6. I have yet to hear an argument against charter schools — coming from educators — that doesn’t have everything to do with the educators’ self interest (that doesn’t preclude the notion that there is a good argument against charter schools, I just haven’t heard it);
    7. I live in one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and yet the Dominican population here somehow finds the money to send their children to private Catholic schools because they consider them so far superior to public schools that they beg, borrow and steal to send their children to them (and whilst most Dominicans are Catholic, religion is rarely their motive for sending their children to Catholic schools). They’re simply believed to provide not only better education, but more discipline, structure and safety (I guess one could argue all three qualities make better education possible);
    8. I’d love to see the state fine parents for their dumb children! Would we have to use the proceeds for education or could we use it to mitigate the trauma they visit upon us?! Of course, you know this wouldn’t happen today because heaven forbid children or their parents feel bad about not knowing anything! Heaven forbid people feel bad about anything for that matter (but that’s an argument against positive psychology so let’s set that aside for the time being until you write an article on that subject).
    9. If Mill were to put forth these ideas today, he’d be called all kinds of names by Liberals.

    The above all comes from a non-philosopher who thinks Kahlil Gibran said it all in a book one can read in an hour (go ahead, call me simple, see if I care), a lapsed Christian (my mother made me), a lapsed Objectivist (that decision was mine), a lapsed Republican (mine also), and finally a lapsed Democrat (I blame that one of the party!). I hardly think I’ll be able to lapse as an Independent but then again, I’m capable of anything it seems.

    I must be getting old. I’m running out of things to lapse out of.


    • 1. Yes. That is the implication of “as law and usage now stand.”

      2. I don’t think Mill’s notion of compulsion is different than ours, at least not in any way important to this issue. The state can pass laws requiring its citizens to take positive action for the common good, and citizens who do not take such action can be punished. What he has in mind to make compulsory is a little different, but not much. It’s not crystal clear, but I think the most natural interpretation would be that people who can afford to pay for their children’s education should do so and would not be able to send them to schools at state expense. But on Mill’s proposal the state will still help pay for the education of children whose parents cannot afford to pay for it on their own. So “the rest of us” would still have to contribute to the public funds that go to pay for education. For Mill, the rationale for that is easy because, as a utilitarian, he thinks you and I and everyone else have a basic moral obligation to abide by the ‘greatest happiness principle,’ and so to do our part to contribute to the common good. Those of us who aren’t utilitarians will have to give a different rationale, and some libertarians will object simply on the grounds that laws requiring people to pay taxes to fund education are coercive. If you’re sympathetic to that kind of view, there’s likely nothing I can do in a blog comment to persuade you otherwise, but it’s perhaps worth noting that Mill, despite the generally libertarian flavor of On Liberty, holds no such view.

      3. In part for that reason, I don’t expect that arguments about what to teach and how would go away under a Millian system, and certainly not for the reason that you give, viz. that we aren’t paying for other people’s education. So long as we contribute to the funds that pay for other people’s education, there will be some concern about which schools count and why. This is where my main misgiving about Mill’s proposal comes in. He seems quite content to allow any parents to use public funds to send their children to whatever schools they want, on the grounds that schools will either turn out students who can pass the required examinations or parents will stop sending their children there. I’m inclined to require a bit more from a school in the way of non-sectarianism and credentialing as a condition for receiving public funds. In any case, many people would certainly object to taxpayer funds going to private, sectarian schools. Even if those objections were put aside, there would likely still be debate about the content of education via debate about what kinds of examinations the state should require and what kinds should be optional. I see no problem with this; debate is healthy. Unless Mill’s proposal is somehow unworkable, though, I do suspect it would diminish the frequency and severity of the kinds of dispute about curriculum that are now common. For what it’s worth, I agree with you that Mill is right to be concerned that schools become mouthpieces of the state, but I don’t worry about that particular problem quite so much as I worry about the effects of bureaucratic management. Though there are always exceptions, given what I’ve heard from folks who teach in public schools, I simply wouldn’t want to teach in one because neither the school itself nor I as an individual teacher would have the kind or extent of control over what we teach that I think every school should have. In part I think curricular and pedagogical diversity are good in their own right, but mainly I just don’t want to be told what to do in detail by some people who are not in my school on a regular basis working with the particular people with the particular needs, interests, strengths, and weaknesses that they have. This is a problem with state management, but not uniquely so; some reports I’ve heard of how certain charter school chains manage their schools suggest similar problems. In any case, ideological content isn’t at the forefront of my mind, but it is at least a potential concern.

      4. The salary and unionization issues are common complaints about charter schools, but not the only ones. Other complaints include (i) that charter schools can cap enrollment to a certain number, while public schools can’t; (ii) that therefore students who could be well served by charter schools often cannot attend them because they are not lucky enough to win the admissions lottery; (iii) that charter schools are not truly open to all because they require or pressure parents to pay large amounts of money in fees, donations, etc.; (iv) that charter schools are often staffed by unqualified teachers; (v) that charter schools are often badly managed; (vi) that charter schools are often for-profit fronts whose boards of directors not accidentally have business interests in companies from which the charter schools buy supplies, such as textbook companies. Most of these strike me as contingent on the sort of charter school we’re talking about. For one thing, many of the best are non-profits, and I don’t see any reason why a school should be a for-profit business. So too, there’s no obvious reason why charter schools must admit board members with conflicts of interest, and good reason why it might be required that they not do so. Many schools are badly managed, so it’s no surprise that some charter schools are, but some are not, hence proving that there’s no inherent connection between charter schools and bad management. It’s true that charter schools frequently operate under different requirements for hiring teachers, but I think this is a good thing; subject mastery is at least as important as the kind of training demanded by state certifications, if not more so, and the propensity of college education departments to proliferate pedagogical fashions with flimsy empirical support arguably makes it better that schools not hire only those with education degrees. For that reason, while worries about whether teachers are qualified are sensible enough, the anti-charter-school rhetoric on this point often strikes me as an effort by a credentialed guild to guard their privileges and keep those with alternative ideas out. The other issues seem like ones that would go away if charter schools were better funded. Capping enrollment, perhaps not, but with a greater number and variety of schools, enrollment problems would go away, and since excessively large class sizes are one problem that struggling schools have to deal with, it seems to be no solution to require more schools to pack too many students in a classroom. As for unionization, I’ve seen plenty of schools and other companies whose employees are just fine without it. I’m by no means anti-union, but I don’t see that they’re a necessary condition for good employment. When it comes to salary, there’s no denying that most charter schools pay less. If they were better funded, they could pay better. But I’ll just note that I am quite happily volunteering to take less money to teach in a charter school than I could make if I were to spend a bit of time to get a state certification; I can’t say I wouldn’t be happy if it paid more, but at least for now it pays enough, and the advantages in terms of curriculum and pedagogy outweigh the disadvantage in pay.

      5. It depends on where you are. Public schools receive most of their funding through property taxes, and hence the amount of money that goes to the school depends on the property tax revenue in the district. Some teachers in NYC are paid very well; others, very poorly. The same is true all over the country. The real money in teaching, at least at the high school level, is in elite private schools where parents pay upwards of $40,000 per year per student.

      6. There are some non-self-interested arguments up above, but as I’ve noted, even from a self-interested point of view, I prefer the charter school where I’m about to go teach.

      7. Some Catholic schools are still affordable. For many decades, they were extremely affordable, because most of the teaching was done by nuns, priests, or brothers who had taken vows of poverty and chastity and therefore did not need to be paid well to support themselves or their families. As Catholic schools have come to be staffed more and more by laypeople, costs have risen, and Catholic schools in general are no longer a good option for poor people. It’s no surprise that some such schools exist in NYC, though, since there are also a good many religious orders with people there.

      8. One of the problems with Mill’s proposal is how to enforce it. It’s hardly feasible to fine people who already can’t afford to send their children to school. So there’d have to be some other kind of mechanism to deal with it. I suspect the best solution, imperfect as it is, is more or less the one we have now; attendance is mandatory, and there are penalties for truancy, but nobody can be penalized for doing badly in school. One might think that the penalties are self-enforcing, after all. A simpler solution than Mill’s seems to be to penalize schools if their students cannot pass the exams rather than penalizing parents if their children can’t. It can’t be said often enough that parents’ influence over education is enormous, and so some pressure is not out of the question, but since it’s hard to see what kind of punishment could be fair to poor people whose children struggle in school, the simpler thing would be to require that schools produce a certain percentage of students who can pass the exams as a condition of their receiving funding. Problems loom there, too, but if the funding were sure to be adequate, as in our current system it almost never is for schools with low success rates, then many of those problems would disappear.

      9. Mill was called all kinds of names in his own time, even by liberals, so he’d be used to it. It’s true that today’s “liberals” are rather more fond of state intervention and government management than Mill himself was, but I think a nuanced appreciation of his views puts him closer to today’s ‘liberals’ than to today’s ‘conservatives’ on this issue. He will, after all, have no truck with the argument that the state can’t justly spend lavishly to fund education because the taxation required violates people’s rights. Mill makes a lot of noise about the need to attend to the particular circumstances in which moral and political principles are to be applied, so it’s hard to know just where he’d come down in today’s debates if he were around. But I don’t think there’s anything in the general principles of his proposal about education that should be troublesome to progressives today. Much as I loathe sectarian self-designations and revolt against the whole trend of our popular discourse to stereotype political and cultural views into a ‘right’ vs. ‘left’ box, I don’t think it’s unclear to anybody who reads much of what I write that if I have to be fit into that box, I go very definitely on the left side. I get pegged as conservative by the sorts of progressives who think of Marx as a moderate, sure, but stupid people say stupid things. Progressives these days make good sport of calling each other names; Mill wouldn’t fare much differently than anybody else.

      I think it’s possible to lapse as an Independent. I worry that it’ll happen to me any day.

      As for philosophy, I thought of you tonight as I was reading Mill’s On the Subjection of Women. Your recent posts on FB and elsewhere make me wonder what you’d think about it. It’s a bit odd as a document in the history of liberal feminism, since it was written by a man (though he says in the autobiography that it was every bit as much his wife’s work as his own) and published in 1869, so that it often feels now as though he’s breaking through an open door. But when one remembers that the door was in fact very well fortified at the time, it’s interesting. I find it perhaps especially interesting as a man, since it’s really written to men primarily, and it raises issues, sometimes more and sometimes less explicitly, about how oppressive attitudes towards women deform men and our relationship to women. In any case, if you’re up for tackling philosophy and 19th century prose at the same time, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it. I’ll probably post some of mine as I finish it over the next week.


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