Friday, March 30, 2007

Van Ornum, Why Government at All? - Part III, Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII.

PUBLIC EDUCATION.

Another institution that is held up for the admiration of the world, as an instance of the beneficent effects which can be obtained by government, is the common schools. I will examine them also, and see what virtue they possess; and if they furnish any just grounds for maintaining an institution so essentially evil in its nature and tendencies, as we have found government to be.

The excuse used to justify the usurpation by the state of the functions of the schoolmaster is, curiously enough, the same as that for the detection and punishment of criminals. In fact, the schools are made auxiliary to the police function of government, on the ground that to educate men is to make them better citizens; and reduce the average amount of criminality. It is claimed that in this way the public security is promoted, which we have seen, is the ostensible function of government, it is because of this supposed increase of public security that men are taxed to support the schools notwithstanding they may have no children to attend the schools.

But does education reduce the rate of criminality? As a matter of fact, it does not. On the other hand it has a direct tendency to increase it. To educate a man,—that is, to increase his knowledge, is to increase his wants. Unless his ability to satisfy those wants is increased, to correspond with that increase in needs, a tension is produced under the pressure of which crime is committed. In any case, it cannot decrease that pressure because the ability to satisfy want cannot increase beyond the want. The first step in individual progress is an increase in [270] knowledge. Previous to that, the want cannot exist; for, manifestly, a man cannot want a thing of which he has no knowledge. But give him a knowledge of it, so that he formulates the want, and un‘ less he also has the ability to obtain it legitimately, he may steal it. Therefore, education can never reduce criminality; but, so far as it has any influence at all on the ratio of crime, it is to increase it by increasing the disparity between want and gratification. Increase in want, through an increase in knowledge, always carries with it increased ability to satisfy want unless something else interferes; and the only thing that does, or can interfere, is the will of other men exerted through the law in some form. Where the resources of nature are monopolized by law, to educate men without at the same time increasing their freedom; that is, relaxing the law,—decreasing the power of monopoly, is to inevitably increase crime.

Such an increase in crime has been going or steadily in this country, at least, during the last one hundred years. This increase, in proportion to population, is so marked a feature of the moral history of the country that no one at all observant will question it. Its confirmation will be found in every table of statistics of crime and population published since the establishment of this government.

There are two causes which have contributed to this effect. One is the general increase in knowledge; and the other is, the increase in the restrictions of the law; so that, instead of the law relaxing its severity to permit of more freedom as knowledge has been increased, it has tightened its hold, and thus increased the tension from both sides. Of course, this has increased the ratio of criminality. This increased tension is shown in the increased pressure of hard times, decrease in wages, increase in rents and prices, and lessened opportunities [271] for employment and business. That a change must come soon admits of no doubt. Knowledge cannot always continue to increase on one side, and repression to do the same thing on the other. The only question is, how long before we reach the breaking point?

But this is a digression. We started out to find what influence the state has upon human progress through its promotion of the common schools. We have seen that its claim, on which it founds its right to meddle in public education, is fallacious,— that it does not and cannot reduce crime.

What influence then does it have? In answer, I will refer again to the work of Baron Wilhelm Von Humboldt. “The Sphere and Duties of Government,” from which I have made frequent quotations, and which has been of the most valuable assistance to me in my whole inquiry.

Speaking of schools under the control of the state, he says:

“A spirit of governing predominates in every institution of this kind; and however wise and salutary such a spirit may be, it invariably superinduces national uniformity, and a constrained and unnatural manner of action. . . . In proportion as state co-operation increases in extent and efficiency, a common resemblance diffuses itself, not only through all the agents to which it is applied, but through all the results of their activities.”

Again: “State measures always imply more or less positive control; and even where they are not chargeable with actual coercion, they accustom men to look for instruction, guidance and assistance from without, rather than to rely upon their own expedients. , A general state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism of the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.”

And as to conditions of freedom from state interference in other matters, as well as in education, he says:

“Among men who are really free, every form of industry becomes more rapidly improved,—all the arts flourish more gracefully,—all [272] sciences become more largely enriched and expanded. In such a community, too, domestic bonds become closer and sweeter; the parents are more eagerly devoted to the care of their children, and, in a higher state of welfare, are better able to follow out their designs with regard to them. Among such men emulation naturally arises, and tutors better befit themselves, when their fortunes depend upon their own efforts, than when their chances of promotion rest on what they are led to expect from the state. There would, therefore, be no want of careful family training, nor of those common educational establishments which are so useful and indispensable.”

Summing up his conclusions respecting state schools, he again says:

“All such institutions, I maintain, are positively hurtful in their consequences, and wholly irreconcilable with a true system of polity.”

The one universal purpose of human life;—.the grand leading principle toward which every advance in human civilization directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity. State schools must always promote a definite form of development, so far as they do not actually repress the acquirement of real knowledge, notwithstanding the greatest precautions. Even where they seek to encourage the spontaneous development of the faculties, they must prove impracticable, because, wherever there is an uniformity of organization, there is certain to be an uniformity of result. Every institution which acts to thwart individual development, and mould men into common types, directly counteracts the current of civilization.

But it is not only in the tendency to repress the expression of individual character and development, that our common school system is bad. It will probably be found that the whole theory of crowding into the first twenty years of a child’s life, while mind and body are both in a state of immaturity, the acquirement of a knowledge of the facts and theories, which are to form the basis of a life’s work, and which people are pleased to call education, is to dwarf its development, and prevent its [273] obtaining a real and practical education. To cram the mind with a knowledge of facts without the exercise of thought in the comparison and arrangement of those facts, so as to reach an understanding of their significance, is like overcrowding the stomach with food which it cannot digest. But thought only comes with maturer years. The child does not think beyond the quick comparison of objects immediately present to its senses, or nearly so. Imagination, which is an important element in thought, only becomes possible in a methodical way, after it has been tempered by observation. In early youth the imagination runs riot: and a child can no more exercise prolonged and connected thought than a new-born babe can digest pickles. In this immature state, when every muscle and fiber of the body calls for the intensest activity, and the mind is chiefly employed in taking observations,—correcting and tempering the imagination, to prescribe a given number of facts and rules daily, which the child must memorize, and be able to repeat, is to produce a mental dyspetic, incapable in after life of thinking to any considerable purpose. It matters little whether the amount of drill applied in the school is sufficient to impress a clear understanding of those facts and rules upon the child’s mind or not. They are received before the mind is ready for them, and consequently require too great an effort to master them, an effort so great as to cripple the power of future mental action. To attempt to train a child in the essential affairs of life in the common school is like trying to teach him to swim without going near the water. He may with sufficient effort be taught the rules of swimming; but he cannot swim. A carpenter cannot learn his trade by storing his chest with fine tools, and learning to repeat the names and describe the uses of those tools. He must use them.

A child if left to itself, will seek the knowledge [274] it wants, and will not require any severe mental process to master it. It will develop its own individuality and not another’s. It will become capable of strong, vigorous, and independent thought, a thing impossible under any system imposed from without.

But carry our examination closer to the administration of the schools themselves, and what have we? I speak from personal observation. Generally the local school boards in country districts have for their leading member the richest man in the district, regardless of his qualifications, with one or more, according to the number of members, whose action he can control. It is often the case that he has no children to send to the school; but as the school tax is the principal direct tax he has to pay, it is highly important to control its assessment and expenditure. And almost invariably he does control a majority of the board. The question of salary has more to do with who teaches the school, than the question of efficiency. And the salary is likely to be exceeding meager, unless it goes to some relative, or favorite of the leading member of the board. The same thing holds in the purchase of appliances for the use of the school, and in the care of the school property. Economy in expenditure is carried to a degree scarcely consistent with the efficiency of the schools.

I am not finding fault with this state of affairs. I only point out that it exists, and to an extent that, if efficiency were really a desirable quality, it must be a minus quantity. But I am inclined to think that they are desirable, just in proportion as they lack in efficiency.

In large cities like Chicago the members of the school board are appointed. Perhaps it i too important an office to risk to a general election by the people of the district. Some of the districts might elect troublesome men. The rich still control the [275] composition of the board just as effectually as in the country, and through that, the expenditures, and the levying the taxes to pay them.

There is no doubt that in point of efficiency, regarding efficiency to mean success in mental cram, the city schools are far in advance of those in the country; but even they are not above criticism. There have recently been published the most sensational reports of extreme inefficiency, mismanagement, neglect, and paucity of results in certain model schools in Chicago. Those reports have been strenuously denied. I have no desire to do injustice to any by giving currency to them. It is even of no consequence whether they are true or not. The real question is, are they possible under the system as it is, or any system that can be adopted? I must answer, yes.

Under any system of officialism possible, favoritism, corruption, and mismanagement are not only possible, but probable. In fact, it is impossible for any considerable time to avoid it. I have before me a paper openly charging the Chicago school board with collusion with a school book trust, by which notoriously bad text books are forced upon the people, in opposition to the united protest of the principals of the high schools; and that the principals were forced to withdraw their protests under penalty of losing their positions. That paper was published nearly three months ago; and yet, I have not even heard a denial. Again I say, these reports may not be true; and for our purpose, it is of no consequence whether they are true or not. The essential thing is that they may be true.

A former member of the Chicago School Board, and a man of undoubted integrity, and high standing in the community assured me in a recent conversation, that “if the real history of that Board could be written the speculations of Boss Tweed would smell as sweet as the attar of roses, by the side of its corruption.” [276]

There is one real, practical advantage that comes from the public schools, and only one, that I can find. They do inculcate patriotism. They teach children to be patriotic. And in a sense that pro. motes security. Patriotism is supposed to be, love of country. But love of country is made to be, love of the rulers of the country; so that patriotism as taught in the schools, means respect, veneration, and submission to those in authority: the office holders. This is varied by a worshipful respect for past rulers who are held up for their veneration, no matter how scandalously corrupt may have been their administrations; or how brutal may have been their personal characteristics. A sentiment of this kind generally prevailing in society undoubtedly promotes the security of the tenure of office of the office holders, and through them of monopoly which it is their office to protect. That is the only kind of security, that I can find, that is protected by the public schools.

Thus we have reached the same conclusion with regard to the public schools as we have in the consideration of all the other functions of government: that is, that the action of government here, as in everything else, is not only unnecessary, but injurious. Whatever government would make, it mars; whatever it would preserve, it destroys; whatever it would save, it kills.

We have covered the field. If there are any important functions of government that have not been considered, it is because they have been overlooked. But they could not change the result. That result has been too uniform, and unvarying, to admit of any material modification, by minor details not involving general principles. We are forced to the conclusion that under any and all circumstances and for all purposes, the control of some men by other men is evil, and only evil.

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