L. Neil Smith's
Number 216, March 24, 2003

Shucks and Aw!

Government Schools: There's No Success Like Failure

by Anthony Gregory

Exclusive to TLE

That government schools are terrible is largely accepted. Finishing up my last year of college, I believe I have a valuable perspective, with memories of Kindergarten through high school fresh in my mind — memories of government school at its most recent in history, and therefore, most tyrannical and unsettling.

It's obvious that government schools fail miserably at teaching the basics: reading, writing, moral problems with annihilating entire cities. Why is this?

Before we approach this question, there are two important and interconnected axioms we must first understand. First, to the extent that government successfully provides little Jimmy with academic skills, he grows up thinking that only the government can teach such skills. Second, insofar as the government fails to endow little Jimmy with scholastic and intellectual prowess, he grows up that much more docile, uncritical, malleable. Either way, the government comes out ahead.

But we must swallow another truth: it's not up to anyone in particular, or any boardroom for that matter, to decide what the basics are. Conservatives might want their children to learn the Bible. Liberals might want their children to study sex ed or recycling. Libertarians might want theirs to read Murray Rothbard. Some think geography trumps geometry in importance; others say we should all play chess. Since politics determines the curriculum, parents become unnatural enemies of each other, the students' interests and preferences are pushed aside, and the end result is tens of millions of Americans who don't know who the president was during World War I.

This brings me to history, which I consider the most poorly taught "basic" subject in government schools. I am an American history student, and have a decent grasp of the subject. But I got little of this knowledge before college; it came to me upon my own initiative, whether in embracing college classes voluntarily or reading outside books of my choice. It did not come from sitting against my will in a chair for twelve years with a chalkboard in front of me. I'll tell you what I learned under those conditions:

I learned that Shays' Rebellion — and not the taxes in dispute — caused unrest in the Articles of Confederation years. Then our government saved the country with the more centralizing Constitution.

I learned that the South — not their state laws — was to blame for slavery. Then our government saved the country and freed the slaves.

I learned that private business — not the Federal Reserve — was to blame for the stock market crash. Then our government saved the country from the consequent depression.

I learned for at least one day to blame the Germans — not the diplomatic alienation and democratic process that brought Hitler to power — for the brutal murder of six million Jews. Then our government saved the world... by bombing hundreds of thousands in Japan.

Some of these lessons were explicit and others, like the last one mentioned, came through somewhat subliminally. But every day it was one common story: the world is better than ever before because our government made it so. If it weren't for our government, we'd still have slavery and constant economic depression, and the Nazis would have taken over the world. (I was taught very little about how close the Communists got, with U.S. government assistance.)

Sometimes we learn to be critical of our government, but only in counterproductive or unsubstantial ways. We learn that Wilson should have done more after World War I and Hoover should have done more during the Great Depression. We learn to question the validity of the Vietnam war, but not the validity of the President's usurped war powers per se. We learn to thank the system for teaching us to question the world — but we never dare to question the system itself. We learn that "public" education is the basis of a free society.

But the best example of how government education cheapens history is its presentation of the Bill of Rights. A textbook I had specifically said that the Second Amendment does not preclude the "right" of the government to restrict gun ownership. But of course the schools can't teach about the Bill of Rights honestly. How can they teach the First Amendment honestly when you have to get permission to speak? How can they even mention the Fourth or Fifth when they can capriciously overturn your messy desk to embarrass you in front of your classmates, as they once did to me? And they can't begin to explain the Ninth when the times you eat, drink, and urinate are being dictated by an omnipotent bell, and when they tell you to turn in your parents if they break unconstitutional laws.

Our school system is more about social control than anything else. Brought up by it, too many Americans think its perceived successes should be extended to other areas of society yet to be socialized. And its failures succeed like nothing else in creating generations of mindless drones (and in justifying larger budgets). Its most sickening quality, though, is that it gives the illusion of freedom. These days they don't usually force you to pledge allegiance to the flag and the government for which it stands. This makes for millions of future voters who count their lucky stars that they live in a democracy where they can choose between Republicans and Democrats in the next election — or between CNN and FoxNews to watch the bright tax-funded fireworks over Iraq. No, you don't have to honor the flag. But if you walk out that classroom door altogether, if you refuse to pay your taxes, then you can expect multitudes of government minions to come after you. And you can expect your fellow citizens to have a good laugh at you, just as they were taught to when they were your classmates, perhaps on the same day that they read the preamble of the Constitution in civics class to learn what a free country this is.


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