Review: Sheldon Richman, Separating School and State

Years ago, the social critic Ivan Illich argued that a compassionate society would have in its constitution a clause, like the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which would read "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of education". In Separating School and State: How to Liberate American Families, Sheldon Richman observes that the arguments for separation of Church and State apply without alteration to the separation of school and State. People use the words "God", and "education" to refer to ...something... which they obviously consider important but which they can define only in terms which others will hotly dispute. People gain from a separation of Church and State by the reduction of costs involved in resolving disputes over the meaning of "God" and the implications of God's revealed word, the Vedas/Torah/Koran/New Testament. The authors of the US Constitution resolved disputes over the meaning of "God" by the (now obvious) device of letting people find their own meaning and barring the State from taking sides.

If only they had done the same for education.

In six chapters, 101 pages of text and notes, plus acknowledgements, preface (by Jacob Hornberger), introduction (by Richard Ebiling), appendix, and index, Richman examines the institution of government-operated school from historical, sociological, political, and moral perspectives.

Chapters 1 ("Whither Public Schools") and 2 ("What's Wrong with Public Schools") motivate the subsequent examination of this institution and possible options. Chapter 3, "Why there are Public Schools", sketches contemporary (historical, at the time of establishment) arguments for tax support of school and for compulsory attendance laws. Richman devotes chapter 4 ("Opponents of Public Schools") mostly to contemporary (historical) critics of government-operated schools. He quotes (p. 66) an early critic of compulsory attendance:...
"When (Auberon) Herbert anticipated an objection to his argument--that the bureaucracy will be responsive to public opinion--he resorted to what has become known as rational-ignorance analysis":...
When a state department becomes charged with some great undertaking, there accumulates so much technical knowledge around its proceedings that without much labor and favorable opportunities it becomes exceedingly difficult to criticize successfully its action. It is a serious study in itself to follow the minutes and the history of a great department, either like the Local Board or the Education Department. And if a discussion should arise, the same reason makes it difficult for the public to form a judgment in the matter. A great office which is attacked envelopes [sic] itself, like a cuttlefish, in a cloud of technical statements which successfully confuses the public, until its attention is drawn off in some other direction. It is for this reason, I think, that state departments escape so easily from all control, and that such astounding cases of recklessness and mismanagement come periodically to light, making a crash which startles everybody for the moment.
As an aside, George Orwell uses the cuttlefish metaphor in his essay "Politics and the English Language":...
The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.
Either cuttlefish haunt the minds of English writers or Orwell recalled Herbert.
Richman does not cite Orwell among the critics of State education, although he could have:...
The terrifying thing about modern dictatorships is that they are something entirely unprecedented. Their end cannot be foreseen. In the past, every tyranny was sooner or later overthrown, or at least resisted because of "human nature," which as a matter of course desired liberty. But we cannot be at all certain that human nature is constant. It may be just as possible to produce a breed of men who do not wish for liberty as to produce a breed of hornless cows. The Inquisition failed, but then the Inquisition had not the resources of the modern state. The radio, press censorship, standardized education and the secret police have altered everything. Mass suggestion is a science of the last twenty years, and we do not know how successful it will be.
George Orwell, "Review of Russia under Soviet Rule by N. de Basily", Essays, (Knopf, 2002).
One has only to to think of the sinister possibilities of the radio, State-controlled education, and so forth, to realize that 'the truth is great and will prevail' is a prayer rather than an axiom.
George Orwell, "Review of Power; A New Social Analysis by Bertrand Russell", Essays, (Knopf, 2002).

In chapter 5, "Without Public Schools", Richman criticizes reform efforts like charter schools and vouchers, which he asserts will succumb to State intrusion following the demand for accountability for tax funds. He makes a valid point here, but "the best is the enemy of the good". The public is wise to fear leaps into the dark. Workable options outside the State school system must evolve before the public will abandon the neighborhood school. Policies, such as charter schools, tuition tax credits, tuition vouchers, and Parent Performance Contracting, which foster this growth and simultaneously reduce the taxpayers' commitment to the State-monopoly system, will more likely bring an end to the State-monopoly system than will visionary arguments alone. In chapter 5 also, Richman attempts to visualize US society society with an uncoerced market in education services.

Richman observes that the State cannot subsidize education without a definition of "education". Operationally, the State defines "education" to be whatever happens to students in those institutions which the State calls "schools" or in those institutions which authorized accreditation agencies call "accredited schools" (unless whatever happens is bad, then the State blames parents). In two earlier posts, "Exercise for the Reader" and "Why School (Part I)" we gave some brief consideration to the definition of "education" without reaching a conclusion. Observe that we got as far as defining "education" as an investment, and then defining "investment" generally. We have not yet specified which activities qualify as "education".

In the appendix, Richman presents a brief and balanced overview of the statistical case for and against a decline in school effectiveness.

In the final section of the appendix, Richman makes explicit one reason for slighting statistical arguments: that they are subject to interpretation and rely on uncontrolled data. Who can say how society would otherwise have evolved without government schooling? He is clearly correct. We cannot rewind Earth's history and run it forward 100 times, in a controlled experiment. Statistical arguments serve two principal functions: as a demonstration of expertise and to rebut assertions from the other side (e.g., homeschoolers' performance belies the argument that high performance depends on schools, juvenile arrest and hospitalization statistics belie the contention that schools reduce crime).

A further argument against (over)reliance on performance data relates to the infinite regress of "why?" questions. As a wise lady from the ETS once observed to a workshop of Campbell High School teachers: "We can't measure what's important, so we measure what we can." Those who rely on statistical summaries of scores on standardized tests of Reading or Math concede too much of the argument to supporters of compulsory attendance and tax subsidies. Who says that these are important, anyway? How much Russian Literature did Olga Korbut read in her early years? What increase in reading vocabulary compensates for how large an increase in taxation and reduction of children's freedom?

Sadly (inevitably), Richman fails to deliver on the promise implicit in his subtitle: "How to Liberate American Families". The system endures, and no reformer has suggested a way around the organized interests which maintain it. It makes no more sense for those of us who are not in government to argue about what government "should" do than it does for the swimming survivors of a mid-ocean shipwreck to argue about what sharks "should" eat. Fortunately, "we" do not have to arrive at a collective answer to the question: "How do we abolish State education?" "We" can, each of us individually, decide to homeschool. If your (US) State makes this difficult, read O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief", and encourage your children to "drop out" in school. Quite a few poor minority children have discovered this option.

Take care. Homeschool if you can.

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