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Public Schools and the Assault on the Family


Imagine that you wanted to subvert the institution of the family. What would be the best way to go about it? Well, how about this?: You force parents to surrender to the state the power to make all the big decisions about their children’s education. You would make the following announcement to the parents of America:

“Until now, you have had charge of your children’s education. But the matter is too complex in today’s world. Perhaps in a simpler time such decisions could be left to parents. But things are now more complicated. Expertise is needed. Beginning today, we, the state authorities, will determine the course of your children’s education. We will decide at what age your children will start school. We will decide which state-operated school your children will attend and what they will study. We will decide how many hours a day your children will spend in school; how many days a week; how many weeks a year; and how many years. We might change those things anytime. Right now, your children must start school at age 6. But later we may decide that school should begin at an earlier age, say, 3. We may begin by letting your children attend the school closest to your home. But we may later decide that, for the sake of a great social purpose, your children will be transported many miles to another school across town. Parents who wish to send their children to a nonstate school or who wish to teach their own may request permission to do so. If we find that the alternative education meets our standards, we will grant permission. But that permission can be withdrawn anytime we decide that the alternative is substandard. Two more things: This education will be free (not counting the taxes you pay). Second, if you fail to comply with these rules, we reserve the right to take your children from you.”

The authorities have never expressly said that to the parents of America. But they might as well have. The results are the same. Beginning in the latter half of the 19th century, an elite group of intellectuals, wielding government power and working at the state level, imposed that system on the United States. With time, that system became more and more centralized. Local community schools increasingly came under the direction, first, of large consolidated school districts and education bureaucracies in the state capitals, then of Washington, D.C.

Education was once the province of the family. It did an admirable job. American society before 1850 (excluding slavery) was the envy of the world. Its economic growth was unprecedented. Its population was highly literate. European visitors, such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Pierre du Pont de Nemours, noted the Americans’ erudition and wisdom. Tocqueville could not believe how small a presence the government had in America; he observed that the people of America could go long periods without seeing an officer of the state. He also marvelled at how Americans readily joined together to form voluntary associations to accomplish what they could not do individually.

Thus, state schooling did not arise to fill a deficiency in the people. It arose, rather, because — in the unplanned order of a free society — people were doing too good a job of educating and nurturing their children and facilitating their growth into independent, competent, and moral adults.

In the eyes of some, this had to be stopped. Why? Because the elite and the parents held two conflicting views about education. For the elite, what was lacking in the parents’ approach to child-raising was a sense of national purpose, a vision of the child as future foot soldier, civil servant, or industrial cog in the great national machine. Under the tutelage of their parents, children would grow up preoccupied with their work, their families, their neighbors, and their communities — that is, with their myopic lives. Without the proper guidance, they would not heed the call of the Grand Cause. Parents were seen as a bad influence. In the 19th century, that was thought to be particularly true of Irish Catholic immigrant parents, who, unless the state intervened, were likely to raise up Irish Catholic children.

Lest anyone think this is all an exaggeration, read what some of the proponents of government schooling had to say. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, called for government-sponsored education as soon as America became a nation. Rush said:

“Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. Let him be taught to love his family, but let him be taught at the same time that he must forsake and even forget them when the welfare of his country requires it.”

Rush praised the schools of his day for making up for the deficiencies of parents.

Archibald D. Murphey, founder of the North Carolina public schools, had this to say:

“In these schools the precepts of morality and religion should be inculcated, and habits of subordination and obedience be formed [in children]. . . . Their parents know not how to instruct them. . . . The state, in the warmth of her affection and solicitude for their welfare, must take charge of those children and place them in school where their minds can be enlightened and their hearts trained to virtue.

Edward Ross, a 19th-century sociologist, put it this way: “Copy the child will, and the advantage of giving him his teacher instead of his father to imitate, is that the former is a picked person, while the latter is not.” It was Ross who said that the school’s task is to gather “little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and shape them on the social kneadingboard.”

The founder of what was then called the common-school movement was Horace Mann, the first secretary of education of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Declaring that “children are wax,” Mann pronounced that “we who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.”

This kind of sentiment continued to be voiced in the 20th century. For example, the New Hampshire Supreme Court in 1902 stated:

“Free schooling . . . is not so much a right granted to pupils as a duty imposed upon them for the public good. . . . While most people regard the public schools as the means of great advantage to the pupils, the fact is too often overlooked that they are governmental means of protecting the state from consequences of an ignorant and incompetent citizenship.”

The U.S. Bureau of Education in 1914 issued a document that said: “The public schools exist primarily for the benefit of the State rather than for the benefit of the individual.” Even the landmark 1925 U.S. Supreme Court case, Pierce v. Society of Sisters , which forbade the states from outlawing alternative schooling and opined that “the child is not the mere creature of the State,” added ominously: “[T]hose who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” In other words, the court was saying, he is not only a creature of the state. As late as 1981,William H. Seawell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, said: “Public schools promote civic rather than individual pursuits. . . . We must focus on creating citizens for the good of society. . . . Each child belongs to the state.”

From many quarters we hear laments about the decline of the family. Few, however, have been willing to entertain the possibility that government schooling is in large part to blame. Apologists for government schools in fact argue the decline of the family has caused the deterioration of the schools! But as Charles Murray has noted with respect to communities, when an institution is systematically stripped of its functions, the institution, having lost its reason for being, withers.

Raising children is the key function of the family, and education is a key component of raising children. If parents and children are removed from the driver’s seat and the state is anointed with decision-making power over education, we should not be surprised to see the family fall into disrepair. In a recent fascinating talk, Allan Carlson of the Rockford Institute reported on demographic research indicating that fertility rates fell when governments imposed so-called free and compulsory schooling. That is, parents devalue having and raising children when the state usurps their role as education decision-maker. If that is so, it’s more evidence of how a presumptuous government sucks the life out of civil society.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.