A few days ago I published Jim Wilson’s thoughts on a topic I also care deeply about: education.
Like Jim, I attended government (“public”) schools and I wouldn’t write off Jim’s ideas solely on the basis of where he went to school. To write off ideas because of where the person expressing them did or did not go to school is a ridiculously shallow caricature of independent thought – be the ideas of the left, right, or libertarian variety. Ideas should be judged on their merits, not their source.
Jim cites the endless disagreements over government schools: They’re too rigid/they’re too soft; They’re anti-sex/they’re too sexualized; They’re bigoted/they promote acceptance of deviancy; There’s too much testing/not enough testing; They don’t teach enough of the basics/they don’t teach enough beyond the basics. It’s true that the American people can’t seem to make up their collective mind about what they want in education. But this is merely a symptom of education’s character and tradition in modern America, not a set of problems owing to some unique feature of education itself. Most debates about education fail to address the important systemic question: the consequences of paying for and providing goods and services primarily as a community through government taxation, rather than as private individuals making private, piecemeal choices.
To understand what I’m saying, imagine if we decided as a society that food is really important, and everybody needs good food to eat. After all, it’s difficult to be a good citizen and participate in democracy if you’re starving, and you’re a drain on health care resources if you eat too much of the wrong kinds of food. So what we do in the name of democracy and fairness and efficiency is: tax all citizens, and fund the local county/city government building a public cafeteria system with a cafeteria in every neighborhood serving up good, wholesome food that everyone in the neighborhood is entitled to eat for free. In order to preserve local control, we’d have food districts with cafeteria boards elected by the people in the district to decide what food is best for their own community. We could rationalize such a move with all kinds of perceived benefits: It would relieve people of the need to build and stock elaborate kitchens at home, it would specialize (and probably unionize) the profession of cooking, create jobs, address the problem of people who don’t know how to prepare healthy meals, or can’t find the right ingredients, or can’t clean their kitchens properly, or can’t store their food safely, or just can’t afford to pay the prices at the grocery store. It would help reduce the disparities in the quality of food eaten by the rich and the poor, and government cafeterias could be used as a tool to increase overall public health and reduce problems like diabetes and obesity. Government run “public” cafeterias would reduce the duplication of having many small restaurants and could be much more efficient because of economies of scale in production and distribution. Government run cafeterias would bring people in each neighborhood together, enhancing the social fabric of the community as ample anthropological evidence demonstrates that shared meals tend to bring people together. Public cafeterias would also address the problem of some neighborhoods having tons and tons of restaurants while other neighborhoods suffer with few or no restaurants close by.
Some left wingers are undoubtedly salivating at this idea - which is part of my point. If you think that government solutions work better than private ones, then government solutions sound like pretty good ideas whether the product is food, or education, or health care, or transportation, or retirement. The arguments for such systems are, at base, pretty similar.
I’m not advocating the system of government cafeterias I’ve just described; it’s just a thought experiment for the kinds of problems we’d have if we adopted such a system: Some people would want higher taxes to pay for better quality food. Other people would want lower taxes and be willing to live with lower quality food as a result. The high tax/low tax people would fight constantly about the cafeterias, how much and what kind of people eat in them, etc. A few, the really rich 1%ers, could afford to pay their food taxes and still buy their own very high quality private food in elite restaurants – which would then be viewed as just another of the unfair privileges of the 1% and a reason behind their selfish lobby to reduce food taxes. Some people would want higher food taxes on the rich to pay for higher quality food for the poor – they’d want to use the public cafeteria system as a means of wealth redistribution. Some people would say the food in public cafeterias has way too much sugar and salt and fat for good health and so these ingredients should be reduced. Others would say the food tastes bland and icky – because it lacks enough sugar and salt and fat. Fad diets would go from a curiosity to a matter of public policy. Some people would object that the food of their ethnic heritage – Mexican, Chinese, Italian – isn’t fairly represented on the menu or authentically prepared, and accuse people who advocate for steak and potatoes in the cafeterias of being racists. Some would advocate that everyone must eat their vegetables before they’re allowed to have dessert; others would claim that people have an inalienable right to eat their meals in any order they choose. Still others would say desserts are unnecessary and unhealthy and should be eliminated altogether.
And here’s something for this blog to consider: The religious right would of course want a community prayer to be recited before every meal, or at least a moment for people to pray, claiming that eating without praying out loud infringes on their religious beliefs. Meanwhile those of us who aren’t religious would be accused of infringing on religious freedom when we insist, rightly, that the first amendment prohibits any kind of official prayer in a government cafeteria. Voila – something that was not a contentious social issue (whether people pray before meals) now becomes another tool for divisive politicians to exploit.
We’d have hotly contested elections for the local cafeteria board to decide some of these issues, and others would be matters that would be fought all the way to the US Supreme Court. People would lament that the cafeterias in poor neighborhoods always end up serving lower quality food than the cafeterias in rich neighborhoods, and demand that the state equalize funding across food districts. Others would say, let’s bus some of the poor people to cafeterias in rich areas to better integrate the population through shared meals. And then whenever there’s a local budget crisis, Washington would be called on to intervene to keep hard working chefs from losing their jobs and Americans from starving. And on and on – food would become a political football just like education is today.
If my little thought experiment came to be, after a hundred years or so anyone who remembered today’s system dominated by private food would be dead. Anyone who said the government should get out of the food business would be accused of being “radical” and “unrealistic” and “utopian”. They might be called selfish, for not caring about all the poor people who would surely starve to death without government cafeterias every few blocks. In such a scenario some people might insist on ”home cooking” – maybe because they want to pray before every meal and the supreme court rightly ruled it unconstitutional in government cafeterias. But maybe, just because they want food that isn’t served in the local public cafeteria. Whatever the reason, these home cookers would be looked upon as weird and anti-social because they don’t share meals with their neighbors – by then well established as an absolutely essential part of proper socialization. People would also question whether most of these home cookers are really competent to cook food for themselves and their families – they didn’t get degrees in cooking; most haven’t had any formal training in cooking at all! Microwaves, ovens, refrigerators, and blenders would all be very expensive devices, and only available in industrial sizes leading people to regard the very idea of cooking for one or two people at a time as hopelessly inefficient.
To be fair, there are indeed problems with today’s mostly private food system – obesity and over consumption mostly, real hunger and malnutrition in a small minority. These are just not the kind of problems most people raised with a government dominated food system would think of. A primarily private system is better than a government system, but I’m not pretending it’s utopia.
Point being: the “problems of public schools” mostly aren’t problems about education, they’re problems of centralized funding and communal decision making. It matters little whether centralization occurs on a local, state, or national level, and it matters little what good or service we’re talking about paying for via government. People have different preferences; it’s part of being human. No government system can ever fully accommodate individual preferences and so you end up with inevitable political fights to control various aspects of the system. There’s hardly a problem of education dominated by government’s “public” schools as ours is today, that wouldn’t have an analogous problem in a food system dominated by government’s “public” cafeterias, or a housing system dominated by government’s “public” housing, or a transportation system dominated by government’s “public” transportation, or health care dominated by government’s “single payer” health care. We don’t need to have this argument over and over about every good and service people need or want. It’s the same argument, and the same answer, for all of them.
When you look at education through this lens, some issues are perhaps a little clearer. In our hypothetical America of widespread government cafeterias, a few “private cafeterias” would constitute little improvement if they were basically like public cafeterias except that they tended to be sponsored by a church, have mandatory prayers before every meal, or adhere to Kosher preparation standards. Just as, today, non-elite church sponsored “private schools” aren’t really an improvement over public schools. We don’t need local church schools to replace local government schools. A multi-source, individualized approach to education will work better than either.
And vouchers - vouchers are an absolutely terrible idea. Don’t the right wingers know that vouchers are the education equivalent of food stamps? With education vouchers, the government is doling out money for people to go buy their “private” education with, just like food stamps are government money for people to buy food with. Yet in Arizona, the hypocrits on the right use dirty legislative trickery to enact education vouchers while decrying Obama as the food stamp president. The sad truth is, food stamps work *better* than education vouchers would. Sticking with our cafeteria example, how well would food stamps work in a system dominated by public cafeterias, private church-run cafeterias, and a few high-end restaurants that serve only the very wealthy - with no private grocery stores, few cookbooks and kitchen tools designed for home use, and no moderately priced restaurants run for profit rather than for the promotion of religious dogma? They wouldn’t work well at all. They’d just be a means of funneling public money into private churches without substantially improving food quality.
My wife and I “home school” our children. That really means they learn from us, or extended family members, or friends, or others in our home school group, or private classes in specific subjects, or from activities with private organizations like Freethought Arizona. As a matter of fact, we are also “home cookers”, meaning that we feed our children meals either at home or in other private homes or private restaurants and not government food outlets. The only difference between these two parental decisions, about education and food, are some pretty arbitrary social traditions – neither is more radical than the other when considered objectively. In both cases we have the self-confidence to think and act on the conviction that we can do better as individuals than as part of a collection of communally-minded bureaucrats.
Despite the lack of government involvement in either my kids’ schooling or their eating, neither practice results in them, or us, being developmentally disadvantaged or socially isolated. Humans evolved as social animals and a government program is not required to learn how to make friends. Yes, cooking is somewhat easier than schooling. However, that’s at least partially because there are vast and well established resources available to make providing private food easier; there’s an entrenched tradition of private food in America, whereas the traditions of private education are far more limited in scope. But the difficulty involved in home education is changing: the internet makes home schooling orders of magnitude easier than it used to be, which is one reason why it is the fastest growing model of education.
I say get the government out of mainstream education, and not because I want only the elite to get a good education any more than I want only the elite to get a good meal. I advocate for the separation of school and state because it would make education better than it is today for the majority of American children. I’d like to see most Americans get educated the same general way most Americans get fed: a piecemeal and variable combination of home cooking, meals with friends, and private for-profit restaurants of nearly infinite variety. While allowing that there will be exceptions (like church pot-lucks and Chick-fil-a are in the case of food), I’d like to see education dominated by families and friends and secular enterprises, not by either the state -or- churches. This is not a utopian system, but it’s better than any system dominated by government payment and provision of service can be. Note I’m speaking here about the dominant model. Whether it is right to have government intervene at the fringes of a mostly private system, such as providing for the very poor and instituting basic quality regulations like we have with food and housing today, is another topic.
And with that, I’m handing over management of the blog to Don Lacey. It’s been fun, and I appreciate everyone’s comments and discussion over the last few months whether I agreed with you or not. It’s just time to let someone else have a crack at this for a while.