THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 99, November 20, 2000
Who Wants to be a President?
Education and Social Segregation
by Joshua Freeman
Special to TLE
Whenever it is suggested that compulsory education cease, or even that there be discussion on its value, the suggestion is immediately drowned out by a thousand voices yelling, "Do you want child labor?" This ridiculous bromide has kept back meaningful discussion of this subject for a long time, and thus closed most people's minds to rational thinking and discussion about compulsory education.
1928 was the first year in which every American state had a compulsory education law. At that time, most of them required people under the age of sixteen to attend school for approximately half of the time today's school system demands from students. Yet, the school system's students learned far more even in that time than do most of their contemporary counterparts.
Many people today would argue that, despite the attendant decrease in the quality of schools, the increase in the time spent at them, and the immense increases in their cost, compulsory education is still worthwhile because it prevents "child labor."
This argument presupposes that child labor is undesirable. Of course, it could hardly be well argued that the appalling working conditions under which destitute children in 1928 suffered were good places for the children of that time to be. However, workplace laws now ban that sort of employment from being done at all. Even if no such laws were in place, if children had as many legal rights as other people, they couldn' be forced to work in those places.
The laws barring children from any employment do not meet their stated purpose. Children are barred almost universally from holding any job. While it is probable that few would benefi from working in a sweatshop, it is inane to claim that noone under the age of eighteen years is capable of holding a job that they are productive at, at which they are treated well and from which their pay supports them or helps to support them, which helps to teach them about responsibility and self-sufficiency, and increases their sense of personal dignity.
The actual result of child labor laws is no to bar children from working in sweatshops, but to deny them meaningul, educational, and enjoyable jobs and to put most of them in the predicament of having little useful to do. Frustrated at their impotence, and denied useful employment, many young people turn to crime and prison, as well as develop bad habits caused by forced dependence on others for their most basic needs. They are taught not to work but to rely on others. Are prison terms and the habits of crime, dependency, and unproductiveness preferable to the absence of "child labor laws?"
Not only are the original laws against sweat shops in place, and the laws barring youth from employment, but it is argued that young people must also be forcibly sent to and detained at schools, the specifications of which are set by remote educational bureaucracies and specialists who have no incentive to run schools well, but every incentive to make them run poorly and thus increase the size of their departments.
It is obvious that compulsory education does nothing to prevent young people from working in sweat shops and other unsafe and unrewarding workplaces. The only other argumen for it rests on the presupposition that they teach students more than they would otherwise learn.
Humans are naturally curious. Our curiosity and will to learn is part of our nature, and what differentiates us from inhuman animals. Today, learning and knowledge are more accessible than ever before. Books are inexpensive and enormously variant, auditory and audiovisual educational methods abound, from auditory tapes to television documentaries, and telephones, inexpensive leter-carrying, and the Internet put almost every American at easy reach of a friend or expert in a field.
Despite this new availability of information, ignorance is increasing in the United States and testing scores are plummeting. Despite the fact that compulsory education is three times as expensive as it was thirty years ago, even adjusted for inflation, the United States consistently achieves dismal results from its school system. Despite the enormous wealth that exists in this country, pedagogy is at a new low in this nation's history. Teachers' salaries are rising, and there are thousands of devoted teachers, but the proceeds from these things are less each year. Even the powerful politicians in charge of the school system, and who extoll its greatness, such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore, send their children only to private schools. Scientists have to be imported.
What is most people's response to this? To suggest even greater expenditure on schools. The trebling of schools' funding in the past thirty years has not reversed the decline in standards and the schools' meeting of even those newer, lower standards.
Compulsory education is based on fallacies and hollow slogans. While America's schools are allegedly attemping to accentuate the specialness of each student, students are forcibly grouped together no by ability, interest, and will, but by age. People are forced to slog through twelve years of school at a pace aimed at the average, even though even average students are capable of much more, as we can see by the success of other countries and this counry's past. Everyone below the "average" can't keep up, and everyone above the "average" becomes bored and twiddles their thumbs while their teachers drone on about things that they already know.
What are the results of this? Most people below the schools' standards are relegated to special categories, classes, and schools, designated as inferior and to spend the rest of their lives marked as inferior to most. Most people above the schools' standards, in addition to having some of their earliest years, some of the most fertile for learning, wasted, begin to believe that learning is boring and arduous. Most of the most fertile minds in the United States are taught that learning is uninteresting. Students all over the spectrum believe that learning is unrewarding, since they are denied usage of their knowledge.
Almost everyone begins to believe that learning is something done only in school. They are taught that they cannot learn on their own, and, consequently, do little reading and original thinking. Outside of the failing schools, they do little to increase their knowledge and satisfy their curiosity.
People below the average begin to despise those above them, because they are no placed in the same class as the "inferiors." People near the average begin to despise those who learn more quickly than them, because wha comes effortlessly to them is difficul for them. This is immensely exacerbated by the fact that they are all lumped together into classes. Rather than striving to do well, most give up devotion o learning, figuring that their efforts will always be useless. Those above the average begin to despise those at it and below it, because hey are forced to work with them, and have little chance to see others of similar capability.
All of this resentment is exaggerated, too, by the fact tha ability within individuals is no usually distributed evenly. Those good in math and poor in spelling both resen and are resented.
People who go to schools in destitue neighborhoods are usually taught "their place." Students in wealthier neighborhoods are taught "theirs."
Compulsory education does no do what it is said to do. It causes most people to hate and abandon learning. I segregates society.
It's time that it ended.