Public Education versus Liberty: The Pedigree of an Idea

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by Michiel Visser


“[E]veryone, after he has been fully trained,
will be like his teacher.” — Luke 6:40

That education is in a state of crisis has become something of an axiom. Parents and politicians alike are deeply concerned about the state of our schools. Parents because their children come home from school without the ability to read or write or do sums properly, politicians because infuriated parents threaten political revolt to punish those held responsible.

However, to think that the system of education is doing badly is to miss a crucial issue. Given the general unhappiness with the results of education, the system must be doing something wrong, although many seem to have difficulties articulating just what it is or what should be done about it. But by speaking of crisis, we obscure that the education system is doing exactly what it was set up to do. There is a crisis, yet one in the original meaning of the word, “the turning point for better or worse in an acute disease or fever.” The education system today is best seen as in a state of acute disease (albeit one inflicted on purpose), the current moment as that point in time where the system must choose between change and collapse.

Public education as we know it grew from a desire by 18th century monarchs to mold more malleable subjects. Pupils were not primarily supposed to learn reading, writing, arithmetic or anything else, but were meant to become obedient citizens. The history of modern education, then, is a history of social control.

The situation is bleaker yet. Public education today actively destroys children’s religious belief, particularly of the orthodox Jewish and Christian type; and the traditional morality based on those religions; and, as an indirect result, the liberty-religious, political and economic-for which so many have given their lives. It may be difficult to imagine well-intentioned teachers as the direct agents of some sinister conspiracy to subvert traditional religion and morality. The answer to this paradox lies in the realization that good intentions in a malignantly structured system will produce evil outcomes.

To understand the structure of public education, and its character, we must study its history. Lord Acton famously said that “few discoveries are more irritating than those that expose the pedigree of ideas.” And indeed, an exposé of the pedigree of the idea of the public education is likely to be both instructive and unsettling.

Acton set us on the right track in writing that: “[f]or Centuries it was never discovered that education was a function of the State, and the State never attempted to educate. But when modern absolutism arose, it laid claim to everything on behalf of the sovereign power.” This is not merely a description of historical events, but a normative claim — one of disapproval. For Acton, education is one of many good purposes a government ought to leave to others. Two questions must be answered. Why should the government renounce good enterprises such as education? And how, when and why did the state begin to educate? I will begin with the latter question.

In 1763, the French royalist philosophe Louis-René Caradeuc de la Chalotais penned his “Essay on National Education”, directed against the Catholic church, particularly the Jesuits, whose claim that “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:11) worked against the King. Chalotais proposed to end, in particular, the Jesuit influence on French education. “I claim the right to demand for the Nation an education that will depend upon the State alone; because it belongs essentially to it, because every nation has an inalienable and imprescriptible right to instruct its members, and finally because the children of the State should be educated by members of the State.” Since the French kings were much less successful in establishing an absolutist regime than historians have sometimes suggested, the designs of Chalotais were first introduced not in France but in Prussia, where our public education system was born.

When people think about (primary) education, they think of children grouped by age, spending most of their day in a building especially designated for education, each age group in a separate room, under constant supervision of teachers, who have been trained primarily in “pedagogy.” The curriculum is focused on reading, writing and arithmetic, instruction is usually collective, working from state board approved textbooks. When pupils want the teacher’s attention they must raise their hand. Attendance is compulsory, often enforced by taking roll call attendance in the morning. Schools around the world operate like this. Many can hardly conceive of education as meaning anything else. Few people realize that all of these elements are a direct legacy from Prussia, where they were introduced in the 18th century by a group of Pietist reformers working on behalf of the Prussian King.

Pietism, a reformist group within Lutheranism, forged a political alliance with the King of Prussia based on a mutual interest in breaking the dominance of the Lutheran state church. The Prussian Kings, Calvinists among Lutherans, feared the influence of the Lutheran state church and its close connections with the provincial nobility, while Pietists suffered from persecution by the Lutheran orthodoxy. Bolstered by royal patronage, Pietism replaced the Lutheran church as the effective state religion by the 1760s.

Pietist theology stressed the need for “inner spirituality”, which can only come about through the reading of Scripture. Consequently, Pietist founded the modern school, with all its familiar characteristics, among which the stress on literacy. The emphasis in Pietist theology on inner piety instead of merely outward conformity blended almost naturally with the political plans of the King. Seeking to replace the controlling functions of the local aristocracy, the court attempted to instill social obedience in the citizens through indoctrination. Every individual had to become convinced, in the core of his being, that the King was just, his decisions always right, and the need for obedience paramount. A series of schools edicts that for the first time made clear that education was a task of the state, finally culminated in 1763 when Frederick II made schooling compulsory for all children between five and thirteen. In 1794 all schools and universities were made institutions of the state.

Other ‘enlightened absolutists’ followed suit. In Austria, Empress Maria Theresa made use of Pietist pedagogical methods as a means to strengthen her hold over Austria. The German reforms in education spread quickly through Europe, particularly after the French Revolution. A fateful trip by the school reformer Horace Mann, who toured German schools in 1843, ensured that Pietist pedagogy traveled to America. Mann was largely responsible for the introduction of compulsory public education, Prussian-style, in the United States.

Modern absolutism seeks total control over society and is thus closely connected to the notion of united sovereignty. The absolutists sought to destroy any political power that resided outside of the Court. Its main political opponents were the provincial aristocracies, with their intermediary political structures; and its main cultural opponents the Church, with its structure of parallel authority in religious matters. According to Acton, unfettered sovereignty amounts to “irresponsible authority” — which is necessarily incompatible with liberty.

The links between Christianity and liberty are well-known. Acton comments that:

[W]hen Christ said: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” those words…gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of Freedom. For our Lord not only delivered the precept, but created the force to execute it. To maintain the necessary immunity in one supreme sphere, to reduce all political authority within defined limits, ceased to be an aspiration of patient reasoners, and was made the perpetual charge and care of the most energetic institution and the most universal association in the world [the catholic Church].

The links between aristocracy and liberty are not as well known, but certainly important. Aristocrats believed that their honor depended on their ability to defend local autonomy and the dispersal of power. Locked in continuous battle with the centralizing tendencies of the royal courts, the aristocrats relied on old Roman ideas of libertas as the freedom of the noble man (broadly understood) as opposed to slavery in the form of dependence on the throne.

For centuries, Church and aristocracy exercised parts of sovereignty and thus prevented the rise of the absolute state. In the course of the 18th century, however, modern absolutism made a pact with the common people to destroy the aristocrats. Grounded on the injustice of social privileges on the basis of birth, the aristocratic political system, still taken for granted by Montesquieu as late as the 1740s, quickly crumbled as the result of the pincer movement of royalists and democrats. Once unleashed, the forces of democracy swept away the monarchy, the greatest privilege of all, as well.

It often happens that victors in a war take over the political theory of their defeated opponents. Instead of reflecting on the rich political theory of liberty that could be found in authors influenced by a combination of aristocracy and Christianity, the democrats inadvertently took over the political theory of modern absolutism, insisting on unified sovereignty, albeit one vested in the common people rather than in one person, the King. But like modern absolutism, the democrats sought to eradicate intermediary political structures and failed to understand the requirements of true liberty.

“The history of institutions is often a history of deception and illusions”, according to Acton — and this is certainly true for the history of public education. The compulsory “common school” prospered throughout the Western world as the new democracies recognized the need to spread enlightenment through education. But as the Prussian King had manipulated the Pietist schools to produce more obedient subjects, so the political reformers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries turned to the public education system to produce the kind of citizens they desired. From Robespierre to Marx, Lenin and Mussolini (“At every hour of every day, I can tell you on which page of which book each schoolchild in Italy is studying”) — the designs of the enemies of liberty have been the same. All have made great use of the confusion between schooling and education.

Today’s education theorists, although democrats instead of tyrants, differ not substantially from Lenin and Mussolini. A prominent example is the Princeton political theorist Amy Gutman, who in her lauded book Democratic Education explains that the primary task of the public education system is to produce good “democratic citizens.” Like her intellectual predecessors Gutman holds that the task of education is not to teach children knowledge or skills — no, children must become good democrats, which apparently means that they must be inculcated with those kinds of political habits that are beneficial to the social order that Ivy League professors deem appropriate.

The likes of Gutman have hijacked most institutions in most Western countries in the last fifty years. And so the Pietist schools, founded to spread the Gospel, have morphed into today’s public education. For the structure of the public education system, with its state funding and compulsory character, has proved even more amenable to take-over by the modernist elite than many other institutions. The American public school, of course, pretends to be “neutral.” But every education teaches a philosophy, sometimes openly, sometimes by atmosphere. Everyone knows that the philosophy modern education imparts is incompatible with traditional religion. Some parents may want this for their children, but many more do not.

One size does not fit all, especially where values (moral, political and religious) differ as widely as they do today. Taking the task of educating children entirely out of the remit of parents, who are even denied the opportunity to select their children’s schools, has resulted in a massive derogation of parental responsibility and subsequently a staggering rise in social delinquency. Moreover, no experimentation is possible within the school system. Perhaps children learn better when are they are grouped according to ability instead of age. They may learn better in small groups or individually, taught by their parents, or their older siblings, or privately hired tutors. Perhaps it is not good to send children away to school all day. Perhaps a school should not even be a separate building. Heaven only knows, since the state has set the Prussian model of the late 18th century as the immutable standard forevermore.

Christians are taught to be loyal subjects, but Christians “obey God rather than men” and Christ taught that there are limits to government. The phenomenal success of home schooling demonstrates that creative alternatives to the state structure are possible. But home schooling will not be the solution for every family. Now that many parents have taken things into their own hands, thus re-conquering bits of sovereignty ceded long ago, we wait for political leaders who will not be afraid to state the truth. That the attempt of the state to educate has failed. That it is time to undo the antiquated legacy of absolutism. That we must once again separate state and school. Thus we await the liberation of our schools.

Michiel Visser, a doctoral student in legal philosophy at the University of Oxford, was awarded first place and a prize of $2,000 from Acton Institute in 2001 for his essay.