New Book Presents Long History of Criticism of Government Schools

Published November 17, 2017

The editors of Critics of State Education: A Reader have compiled 15 brilliant essays on education from 19th century Europe, opening the book with a marvelous introduction explaining how they chose these pieces. Readers of this wonderful book, and even of my review alone, will likely be astounded to learn how many brilliant scholars in England, more than 150 years ago, feared government control of children’s education.

A History of Anti-State Sentiment

The authors first trace the origins of the concept of state-controlled education, finding them in the works of Plato and Aristotle, using ancient Sparta as the initial model. In Sparta, the Greeks subordinated the individual to the demands of the state.

In England, by contrast, elementary education progressed without substantial state aid or interference until 1833, when new legislation was passed allowing government to interfere in schools. Long before that date, the well-known scientist Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen, wrote in opposition to any state involvement, saying, as the authors recount it, “Education is an art, and like any art, it requires many ‘experiments and trials’ before it can approach perfection. To bring government into education would freeze this art at its present stage and thereby ‘cut off its future growth.’ Education, he said, ‘is already under too many legal restraints. Let these be removed.'”

Priestley argued education was a civil liberty which should never be surrendered to the hands of a magistrate, and that the right of conducting it should always remain with the individual, the authors state.

Disavowing Government Schools

Each essay provides more evidence government schools have long been antithetical to what most parents want for their children. William Godwin and Thomas Hodgskin, writing in the early years of the 19th century, both argued government control of education would significantly increase the power of government and would produce homogenized people, not the stuff required for a nation to develop to its fullest.

Wilhelm Von Humboldt, writing in 1792 at age 25, said even if we did see education as an essential duty of government, it should be limited to encouraging the development of the individual’s faculties. Even then, he argued, it would remain impractical because “whatever is pervaded by a unity of organization invariably begets a corresponding uniformity in the actual result.”

Hodgskin, after a brief career as a naval officer in which he was offended by the harsh treatment of British sailors, wrote a book based on his experiences with national governments and their education philosophies. Focusing on Germany and influenced by the writings of Adam Smith, Hodgskin described the inefficiencies and waste characteristic of government projects. Regarding education he wrote, “A free people, like their property, will always be directed more beneficially for them when it is in their own hands.” Hodgskin went on to become editor of The Economist in 1848, a position he held for 11 years.

Education as National Religion

Prominent libertarian Herbert Spencer, in a series of letters published in 1842 as The Proper Sphere of Government, observed governments are most happy taking the task of instruction into their own hands rather than see the people educated by means over which the state has no control. Such government control naturally requires a uniform system of moral and intellectual training, which destroys the variety of character so essential to national growth.

Education, then, can ultimately become a national religion, which Edward Barnes Jr. described in 1847. Barnes stated firmly, “It is not the duty or province of the Government to train the mind of the people.” Moreover, Barnes said, it is also not the duty of government to feed the people, clothe them, or build houses for them. These things, he said, the people can and ought to do for themselves.

One of the more interesting takes on state-run education was presented by Algernon Wells in a lecture in 1848, in which he warned against seeking any money from government for education. Government subsidies to teachers and school administrators will generate a self-interested bias, Wells said. State employees are not likely to bite the hand that feeds them, so to speak, by criticizing the government school system, Wells argued.

Among the essays are comments on education in nearly every European country, most of which tried and failed at government-controlled education. In nearly all cases, it was found nonteaching, state-paid officials far outnumbered teachers, as is the case in the United States today.

A Revelation

This book is a true revelation for those interested in the history behind our nation’s education system and its current woeful condition. It is fascinating to read the old-fashioned, sometimes stilted and wordy English of long ago. It is a charming read for anyone who wants to understand the history of education.

A shorter summary of this 250-page book could become a serious weapon against Common Core, which is currently plaguing our education system. Had Bill Gates been privy to these great essays, he might never have financed so much of the Common Core disaster. Let’s hope someone sends him a copy and he takes the time to read it.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director at The Heartland Institute.