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Educational Coercion and Aberrant Behavior


Many years ago, a high-school teacher from North Dakota invited me to deliver a lecture to one of her classes, assuring me that I would find it to be a fascinating experience.

The class was composed of approximately 10 students who had been classified by the school authorities as “slow learners.” Rather than lecture, I decided it would be more fruitful to simply have a freewheeling discussion on libertarian ideas.

I began by surveying the students on their political beliefs. Most of them opposed the draft and the particular foreign war that the U.S. government was then engaged in. They were not enamored with the war on drugs. Having been labeled as “slow learners” by their school officials, being in school was not a terribly exciting thing to them.

When I described the principles and ramifications of libertarianism, the students propped themselves up in their chairs and began listening intently. The ensuing discussion revealed that almost all of the students had strong libertarian tendencies. They seemed to appreciate it when I explained to them that their schoolteachers and administrators were the real “slow learners.”

Every time aberrant behavior takes place in the United States, the commonly held assumption is that it has occurred in the context of a healthy, normal environment. Consider, for example, the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, last spring. In the middle of a nice, middle-class area, a group of public-school students began idolizing and emulating Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. Wearing trench-coats similar to those worn by Hitler’s SS, two of them entered their own high school with weapons, targeted certain groups of people for extermination, and began the massacre. Leaving no room for their own escape from the horror, they implemented their obvious plan of suicide.

What in the world would drive young people to such bizarre behavior?

The search for responsibility for the Columbine massacre immediately focused on the family life of the killers, and that certainly would be a rational place to begin an inquiry. The problem, however, is that all too many middle-class Americans do not wish to explore an alternative explanation for the bizarre behavior in their midst – the nature and extent of coercion in the American educational system.

For instance, throughout the post-Columbine analysis, the “given” in all of the answers and solutions was – public schooling. Principals, teachers, students, and parents should come together and study ways to recognize potential aberrant behavior in advance and devise ways to avoid it. Build more schools. Make class sizes smaller. Encourage more parental participation in the public-school process. Enact more-stringent gun-control laws. Have guards and metal detectors. By working together within the system, everyone could more rapidly find the answers and solutions to the Columbine High School massacre.

There’s one big problem with all of this, however. What if Columbine High School – or more accurately, public schooling itself – is a major cause of bizarre and aberrant behavior? What if the public-schooling system psychologically screws up some people so badly that they are ultimately driven to commit extremely weird and destructive acts? What if it’s the public-school system itself that is bizarre and aberrant and helps to produce such behavior in certain people?

All of us are taught that public schooling (or more correctly, government schooling) is the backbone of a free society. Actually, however, the system is the very antithesis of the principles of freedom. Pervading the entire process of public schooling is coercion, not freedom. (It’s not a coincidence that Fidel Castro’s proudest accomplishment in one of the last bastions of communism is Cuba’s public-schooling system.) Coercion, through mandatory-attendance laws, ensures a steady stream of involuntary customers. And coercion, through taxation, ensures a steady stream of involuntary income.

In other words, when a child reaches the age of six years old, he is essentially seized by the state and taken to a state institution to be “educated.” (The exceptions, of course, are those students whose parents decide to homeschool or send their children to private schools, but most parents are unwilling, incapable, or financially unable to do either one.)

It doesn’t matter whether the child is emotionally prepared to leave his family environment. Every child is treated the same – government officials require that he depart his mother and father, board a government bus, attend government-run classes, listen to government-approved schoolteachers, and learn government-approved doctrines (especially in the areas of government, civics, and social studies). The professed aim is to create responsible, educated citizens who will later be able to take their proper place in society. How can such a process not have an enormous adverse psychological effect on at least some children in society?

Every person is created different. Some children respond well to the system of educational coercion. Others have a more difficult time, but ultimately adjust and survive the ordeal. Consider an eight-year-old student who has been forced to attend public school. Let’s assume that he gets bored and distracted sitting in a hard wooden chair for hours on end, listening to some government schoolteacher drone on about subjects about which he knows very little. If the child would prefer to steep himself in a particular area that interests him, he is nevertheless required to continue changing subjects at the ring of the bell. He finds all of this boring and distracting, picks himself out of his chair, and begins walking around the classroom.

In the eyes of the schoolteacher, principal, and school counselor, something is definitely wrong with this kid. After all, the other students have adjusted to their surroundings and listen intently and politely to what their schoolteacher is saying. Why can’t he?

The authorities diagnose the child with Attention Deficit Disorder because a “normal” child would obviously conduct himself in a “normal” way – that is, by sitting attentively at his desk, captivated by the exciting, dynamic lecturer who has been given a teacher’s certificate by the state, and learning to memorize what the teacher has written on the blackboard.

The parents are summoned and are told that their child is emotionally disturbed because he can’t adjust to the rigid, bureaucratic, government environment in which he has been forcibly placed. All too often, the parents (who themselves are usually products of the system) trust the authorities rather than the instincts of their children. The parents authorize the state to begin injecting Ritalin into their child, converting a “drug-free school zone” into a place where the state administers drugs to children who have a difficult time conforming to governmental conformity. Perhaps the worst part of this entire process is that the noncomforming students are taught to believe that something is wrong with them rather than with the system. Year after year, they are forced to go through the system as weirdoes, slow learners, psychologically disordered, or emotionally disturbed. Very few of them ever discover that it was the system and those who forced them into the system who were the ones who were really screwed up.

Compounding the problem are the doctrines that are taught in public schools, especially with respect to the meaning of human freedom. The United States is a free country, they are constantly and repeatedly told. The implication is that such things as public schooling, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, a national highway system, economic regulations, farm subsidies, welfare, and subsidized education are all part of a free society. After all, didn’t Franklin Roosevelt, who is extolled in public schools as one of America’s greatest presidents, include among his “four freedoms” freedom from want and freedom from fear?

The problem, of course, is that the doctrines about freedom that public school people teach the children of this country are bald-faced lies. In fact, it is ironic that the Columbine High School killers emulated Adolf Hitler and his fellow Nazis. Why? Because the core principles of Germany’s system of National Socialism were the very things that American public-schoolteachers teach are the core elements of a free society: public schooling, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, a national highway system, economic regulations, farm subsidies, welfare, and subsidized education.

How can all this coercion and perversion of reality not have a deep psychological effect on at least some students – especially those who are already emotionally on edge owing to a dysfunctional family life? Many people can handle being told, day in and day out, that they are slow learners, emotionally disabled, below average, or attention-deficit disordered. But others do not adjust easily to the accusations and are apt to “go off the deep end” with just a little bit of pressure, especially those who have an abusive family life compounded by an abusive government schooling process.

Fortunately, more and more people, especially those in the inner cities, are discovering the dysfunctional and abusive nature of the entire public-schooling process. Concerned with the well-being of their children, they are doing their best to remove them from the government school system. Unfortunately, however, middle-class, suburban Americans continue to believe that public schooling is a positive part of American life. Continuing to subject their children to the system to which they were subjected, they remain convinced that government schooling, in new and improved form, is the solution to bizarre and aberrant behavior in America rather than a major cause of such behavior.

Despite all of the evidence around them of the terrible destructiveness of educational coercion, middle-class Americans cling to public schooling rather than dismantle it in favor of a free market in education. And the pattern of coercion, abuse, and aberrant conduct continues to repeat itself.

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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.