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?