"It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expence, either by sumptuary laws, or by prohibiting the importation of foreign luxuries. They are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society. Let them look well after their own expence, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will." ~ Adam Smith
Education for the Individual
Column by Michael Kleen.
Exclusive to STR
Previously, in “Education and the Individual,” I discussed how the two competing educational methods in the public education system in the United States both presuppose a State monopoly on education, and how both seek to impose a uniform purpose and set of standards for all children. In this article, I will lay out the fundamental premises of individualist-oriented, free market education and will propose a few examples that illustrate what education freed from the State might look like.
There are three basic premises at the foundation of individualist education: 1) All children are not born with the same innate abilities. 2) A child who is allowed to develop his or her own unique abilities has more to offer him- or herself and others than one who is not. 3) Each individual has a right to make fully informed decisions about his or her own destiny.
The third premise is contingent on a) an individual’s ability to pursue his or her own destiny, and b) social need. Social need can limit this ability in many ways. A person may want to make a living selling paintings, for instance, but if the market is saturated by painters, he or she may have to settle for something else for the time being. Premise 3 is sometimes described as the fundamental right of “the pursuit of happiness.” In relationship to education, I argue simply that a person has a basic right to pursue his or her own destiny with the aid of unrestricted access to information on which to base those decisions. There is no guarantee of being successful in that pursuit.
Premise Three is especially important because it holds within itself a counter-argument to one of the most frequently asserted objections to a non-Statist approach to education. The argument is as follows: If there were no national education standards, and each school (or family) was free to pursue education in their own manner, then there would be an alarming increase in the number of people who held nonsensical beliefs. For example, fundamentalists would be free to teach Young Earth creationism in their science classrooms, or an agriculture school would be free to teach that “Brawndo’s got what plants crave.”
The idea that the universe was created in seven days and that all life on the planet was created at the same time, however, can be easily disproven by counter-evidence. It would be difficult to reinforce that belief in a free society with unrestricted access to information (that is why Tennessee banned teaching evolution in public schools between 1925 and 1967). The proliferation of incorrect or nonsensical beliefs is only possible when access to information is restricted. Therefore, it is much easier for the Statist, with control over the public education system, to enforce a regime of disinformation and deliberate ignorance. The chance that children will have access to all available information is much greater when their options for schooling are more diverse.
Premises One and Two are the foundation of individualism. If both are false, then there can be no argument against Statist attempts to mold and shape the public in any manner they choose. To deny Premise Two is to say that each individual is like a stem cell that—through intervention by the State—can be specialized to meet the needs of society based on a centrally-directed plan. The role of education would be to simply “stamp” whatever skill set is desired on any given schoolchild, regardless of his or her personal inclinations.
As an individualist, however, I believe that each individual has certain abilities, needs, and desires that cause him or her to pursue certain ends, and that he or she should be free to pursue those ends (insofar as they do not directly harm anyone else). Individualist-oriented, free market education is directed toward preparing the individual to pursue those ends with as little restriction as possible. By “restriction,” I am not referring to rules of behavior or dress codes or any other cosmetic issue discussed in schools today. What I am referring to is the freedom to choose what education one is to pursue, even if that education is different from what we are accustomed to.
What will occur as a consequence of this freedom is nothing less than a radical transformation of the American school system, and we would immediately encounter a wide variety of schools from which to choose. Imagine for a moment a community in which children were not forced to choose between one or two public and private schools with roughly the same curriculum. In our imaginary community, children would have any number of options, including traditional liberal arts schools, vocational schools, and/or apprenticeships; schools with high standards and schools with low standards; expensive schools and inexpensive schools. There would also be a plethora of supplemental education programs all based upon the needs of the individuals in that particular community.
Schools would more than likely be run by professionals in those various fields—people who have an interest in producing the best possible future colleagues. In contrast, public schools today are staffed by educational professionals; teachers who have been trained to feed a watered down version of their subject area to every child, regardless of the individual interests of the child. A plumber does not need to understand Shakespeare to be a successful plumber, for example, but he or she does need to understand plumbing. Needless to say, there are a certain set of skills that are necessary for success in any modern profession (including reading, writing, etc.) and a school in a free market would not last very long if it failed to impart that knowledge.
In a world without public or State-run education, we could cease speaking of an “educational system.” Schools would survive or fail based on the needs of individuals in particular communities, and each individual would be free to pursue his or her own natural calling or vocation. As a result of an absence of one set of educational standards, schools would embrace approaches to education that were the most successful, rather than those dictated from afar. This would ultimately lead to a more pragmatic and less political educational environment.