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Deference to Authority, Part 1


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Addressing the WikiLeaks controversy, noted New York Times columnist David Brooks opened up his November 29, 2010, column with the following observation:

[Julian Assange’s] mother didn’t enroll him in the local schools because, as Raffi Khatchadourian wrote in a New Yorker profile, she feared “that formal education would inculcate an unhealthy respect for authority.”

That is a fascinating statement. And a very profound one.

It is clear from the rest of the op-ed that Brooks isn’t commending Assange’s mother. Instead, he is implying that there is something weird and bizarre about the way that Assange was raised by her. Since a state-approved education inculcates a “healthy respect for authority,” Brooks is obviously suggesting that any parent who doesn’t submit his children to such a system is doing something harmful to them.

In one sense, Brooks is right. As Sheldon Richman pointed out in his book Separating School and State: How to Liberate America’s Families, which was published by The Future of Freedom Foundation in 1994, the primary purpose of government-run and government-supervised schooling is to do precisely what Brooks suggests: to produce the “good citizen” who has a deep and abiding reverence and respect for the government and who defers to its authority in important matters.

Here in the United States, when children become six years old, the state requires their parents to submit them to the government for a long process of state-approved education. The state permits parents to exercise three options: (1) to send their children to a government-owned, government-run public school; (2) to send their children to a government-licensed private school; and (3) to home-school their children, usually under state monitoring.

Keep in mind that home-schooling is a fairly recent phenomenon and that for most of the 20th century, American families had only the first two options. Most families have exercised the first option — public schools. After all, public schooling is “free” in the sense that no tuition is charged. Parents (and nearly everyone else) pay the taxes that fund the public schools, and there is no tax refund if parents fail to take advantage of that option.

Nearly everyone acknowledges that public schooling is just one of many government programs that are in perpetual crisis. Why should that be surprising? Public schooling is just another example of socialistic central planning. The government, whether at the local, state, or national level, plans in a top-down, command-and-control manner the educational decisions of thousands or millions of children. Textbooks must be approved by government officials, as are the teachers and administrators. Funding is based on the coercive apparatus of the tax system.

So why should it be surprising that public schooling has proven to be such a mess? By now, everyone should know that that’s what socialism produces — messes.

Most parents realize that public schooling is a mess, either consciously or subconsciously. President Obama certainly recognizes it. That’s undoubtedly why he chose to send his two daughters to a private school rather than to the District of Columbia’s public schools.

My hunch is that, given a choice, most parents who care about the education of their children would do what Obama has done — choose private schools over public schools. But for most families, that’s simply not a viable financial option. Private schools are expensive, while public schools are “free.” Home-schooling is also not a viable option for many parents, either because they don’t feel competent to home-school, or because both parents need to work, or because they simply lack the desire to home-school.

While private schools generally provide an education superior to public schools’, often there is little difference between the two institutions when it comes to inculcating a mindset of conformity and deference to authority. In the public school system, the inculcation is more direct and more powerful, given that the state’s control is operating directly on the students. In private schools, the control is indirect, in the sense that if the school is failing to inculcate the proper mindset in the students, the state can always yank its license, putting it out of business.

The military model

Public schools could be considered a variation of the military, an institution that is famous for inculcating a mindset of subservience, obedience, and deference to authority. From the first day at boot camp, such traits are inculcated in every enlisted man. With the push-ups on demand, the surprise inspections, the screaming and yelling by NCOs, the marching in formation, and the “yes, sirs,” the primary objective is to mold the soldier into a person of habitual obedience, conformity, and deference to authority.

It’s no different with respect to military officers, who are inculcated with the same mindset of obedience to orders issued by superior officers and of deference to their authority. Every officer knows that career advancement depends on going with the flow. Challenging or disobeying orders is a surefire way to end one’s career in the military and, even worse, subject him to harsh punishment. Nearly everyone in the military, enlisted personnel and officers, does his best to not “stand out” except by carrying out orders in a superior or noteworthy manner. The cardinal virtue in the military is subservience to authority and the faithful carrying out of orders.

This phenomenon is no different, in principle, with respect to public schooling. While the government’s control over the student is less direct than it is over the soldier, the state nonetheless has ample opportunity to mold the minds of children, especially when their minds are in their most formative state. When the state has control over a child’s mind for five or six hours a day, five days a week, nine months out of the year, from the time he is six years old and continuously for the next 12 years, producing the good citizen whose mindset is one of conformity, obedience, and deference to authority becomes a fairly easy task.

What stands out with public schooling is the regimentation, the conformity, the rules and regulations, the structure, and the “cookie-cutter” manner whereby everyone is treated the same. Children are placed in the same grade as everyone else their age, something they’ll never experience anywhere else in real life. The educational process is divided into different subjects, each of which is taught in 55-minute segments. When the bell rings, everyone knows that that means class is over and that it’s time to report to the next class. Unexcused absences are punished.

Spontaneity is frowned upon, as are self-directed reflective thinking and critical thinking. If a student explains, for example, that the reason he wasn’t in class one day is that he went into the woods to sit and contemplate the wonders of life and the universe, he is punished by school administrators, just as an enlisted man who goes AWOL is punished by military authorities.

Education in public school is a process of filling the student’s mind with information rather than one by which the student seeks to learn things that he is interested in. Assessing whether a student is learning what he is being taught is done by a constant battery of tests. Preparation for tests inevitably involves cramming, memorization, and regurgitation. If a student scores an “A” or a “B,” that means he is being educated. If he earns a “C” or a “D,” he is considered an average or below-average student.

As in the military, the worst thing that a student can do is to stand out with some sort of nonconformist attitude or conduct. Succeeding in public schooling inevitably involves conformity and staying within the parameters of acceptable conduct, just as in the military.

Most children simply conform to the system. While it undoubtedly feels unnatural to many of them to be forced to leave the comfortable environs of their home at an arbitrary age, children are simply incapable of questioning or challenging the system to which they are being subjected. For one thing, they trust their parents. So if their parents are sending them into this institution, it must be the right thing. The possibility that six-year-olds are going to challenge decisions of their parents on fundamental matters or challenge the right of their parents to control their decisions is nonexistent. At the same time, six is a perfect age to begin the long process of molding a child into a good citizen, one who defers to authority, conforms to the crowd, doesn’t make waves in fundamental ways, and comes to the support of his government in times of crisis.

What doesn’t occur to parents is the harm that this system of coercion, conformity, and regimentation might be doing to their children. Why should it? After all, most parents are products of the system and are happy with how they themselves turned out. There is no reason for them to suspect that the system is doing anything bad to their kids.

Yet there are warning signs all along the way. While most children submit and conform to the system, some of them recoil from the regimented and tightly controlled environment. Often-times bored with the information that is being fed into their minds by the state’s teachers and instead wishing to seek out things that interest them, some students become angry, frustrated, and distracted. They rebel, sometimes by getting out of their seats and walking around or by doing poorly on the tests.

The reaction of state officials is not a surprising one. “Something is definitely wrong with your child,” they solemnly tell the parents. “He is not fitting in.” The official diagnosis is “attention-deficit disorder.”

Most parents passively accept the diagnosis. After all, it comes from state officials, aided by counselors retained by the state. The old mindset of deference to authority that was inculcated into parents over 12 long years of public schooling kicks in. Who are the parents to challenge or question the solemn judgment of the state? They’re sad that something is wrong with their child, and they accept the state’s judgment. The child is put on Adderall or Ritalin, making his mind more pliable, less resistant, more amenable to molding.

The last thing that most parents are going to suspect is that a child who is rebelling against this system is doing something perfectly normal. Having been born and raised under a system of public schooling, and having been 12-year public-school students themselves, the last thing that such parents are likely to think is, “Maybe my kid is right. Maybe it’s the system that is all screwed up. Maybe my child is reacting rationally and normally to an aberrant and dysfunctional system, one that relies on coercion, mandates, regimentation, and conformity to produce the good citizen with the right mindset, one of deference to authority.”


By the time children reach high school, the warning signs are much more apparent, but by that time lots of damage has already been done. Illicit drugs become a common part of high-school life. Of course, the state embarks on its never-ending “just say no” drug campaign, exhorting students to refrain from taking drugs. The state also imposes harsh criminal penalties on any student caught possessing or consuming drugs.

What most people miss is that it’s not simply a matter of “just saying no” to drugs. Most people take drugs to medicate some pain that they’re experiencing — deep emotional or psychological pain. The drugs take the pain away, at least temporarily.

What could be causing so many children so much pain as to make drug consumption the widespread problem among youth that it is? It’s tempting to think that the problem is rooted in the family environment. That’s obviously a factor in many cases. One thing is certain, though: hardly anyone, including parents, considers the possibility that kids are screwed up by virtue of having been forced into an aberrant, dysfunctional, abnormal, unnatural system of coercion, conformity, regimentation, and mind-molding.

The final sign comes on graduation day, the day that students celebrate as much as a prisoner who is being released after a 12-year sentence. By that time most students have lost the deep sense of wonder and awe of the universe that characterized them on the day before they began their 12 years of state education. The love of learning that caused them to badger their parents endlessly with that profound three-letter word “Why?” is gone. What is left in most cases is a dislike of school, learning, spontaneity, study, and reflection.

Most high-school graduates become public-school success stories — people whose minds have been molded to accept conformity, regimentation, and deference to authority. They are the ones who end up trusting the state, scared to challenge it at a fundamental level, and ready to defer to the authority of the state in important matters. They are the ones who, like David Brooks, look upon the independent thinkers — those who do not defer to authority — as weird and bizarre.

The beauty of the system is that most people don’t even know what has happened to them or to their minds. They blissfully think that everything is normal with them, unable to link the inner discomfort or pain they are feeling, or their general dislike of life, or their disdain for learning, or their cynicism to the 12 years of state-mandated education to which they were subjected. Worst of all, when they marry and have children, the pattern repeats itself.

Let’s now examine some of the consequences of a society where people have been molded into good citizens who defer to the authority of the state. Let’s begin with Cuba.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.