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We Need Freedom, Not School Standards

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Academic standards are all the rage. Nearly everyone thinks they are the key to improving the dismal state of American education.

The nation’s governors recently affirmed their intention to hold the children of their states to high standards. President Clinton supported the governors’ position when he told them, “If you want the standards movement to work, first you have to do the hard work of defining what it is you expect children to learn.”

That is the essence of the standards movement. Some level of government will dictate to children (and their parents) what’s expected of them. There may be debate over which level of government should do the dictating but not over whether some government should be doing it.

Ironically, the basic problem with the schools is that government has been setting standards for over 150 years. Before about 1840, government had little or nothing to do with education in the United States. It didn’t set standards. It didn’t tell children how many hours a day, how many days a year, or how many years they had to attend school. It didn’t tell them what to study. Children didn’t have to attend school at all!

Yet, America was a highly literate society–the most dynamic and enterprising in history. Almost everyone who wished to read and write could do so. Publishing boomed in the young republic. In 1818, Noah Webster’s spelling book sold five million copies in a population of less than 20 million. That is equivalent to 65 million copies today. Reading was such an easy skill to acquire that the southern states made it illegal for slaves. People could also do arithmetic, and they knew their history.

Back then there were no educational standards imposed by government. Parents and children together decided what it was worth knowing, and they acquired that knowledge. That’s all it took.

When government became involved later in the 19th century, things went downhill. Education no longer was seen as the child’s road to independence. The architects of the modern public schools had something else in mind. Horace Mann, the father of the American public school, put it bluntly, “We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.” The public schools were designed to mold children according to the plan of social engineers like Mann. “Children are wax,” he said.

During the Progressive Era, when the factory and assembly line were designed to mass produce identical copies of products, the schools were built to mass produce identical copies of good industrial citizens. Children were to be imbued with an artificial national culture and with skills that would ready them for the new industrial system. Every child would learn the same thing at the same point in life. The individuality of the student played no role in that system. Society, not the child, was to be the primary beneficiary of the public school. As one of Mann’s predecessors, Benjamin Rush, put it, “Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.”

The contemporary standards movement is little more than a revival of that earlier “sacred cause.” Ask a proponent of standards why government should set educational expectations for children and you will hear that the competitiveness of the nation depends on it. The movement is aimed at making America No. 1–whatever that means. America is no longer the land of the individual.

We must rediscover the idea that education is not for the glory of the nation, the good of society, or the health of the economy. It is for the growth of the child into a free and independent adult. What the American people need is not a standard set by someone else but rather liberty, so that they can set their own standards and once again make the big decisions about their children’s education. The only way to get that is to separate school and state.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of 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.