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Sell the Schools

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In the state of Arkansas, it’s 1925 again. That was the year of the famous Scopes “monkey” trial in Tennessee. Now a member of the Arkansas House of Representatives has introduced a bill in essence prohibiting the public schools from using textbooks that say Darwin’s theory of evolution is true. (After a vigorous debate, the bill failed to get enough votes to pass.)

“It’s just a theory,” the anti-evolutionist legislators say. That misses the point. The question is whether it is a good or bad theory, that is, whether it explains the facts we observe or not. (It does indeed.)

But that’s not really the point either. The real point is this: Why on earth are state legislators debating this? I’m a little uneasy having a bunch of politicians decide what is and is not good science. (Let them tackle ethics first. That’ll keep them busy for a while.)

My question is easy to answer. Politicians are debating whether evolution is good science because government runs the schools. There’s a good reason right there to separate school and state, just as we separate church and state.

President Bush has proposed a plan to reform the nation’s worst schools by obligating the states to set education standards and to give tests to make sure the standards are being met. All of this is premised on the idea that a good school curriculum is uncontroversial and therefore government mandates won’t violate anyone’s conscience. That’s nonsense. The Arkansas episode (like the Kansas one a few years ago) shows otherwise. An uncontroversial curriculum is as bogus a value-free education. There is no such thing.

Schools have had controversies not only over history and science, but over math and reading as well. Remember the New Math? The bitter fight between phonics and Whole Language goes on. There’s no mystery here. A curriculum is not just content; it’s the underlying approach to education. Competing approaches to education embody conflicting notions of how children learn and therefore of human nature. No wonder people get upset when someone else’s approach to education is forced on their children.

In this sense, education is much like religion. It entails deeply held views about the world and one’s children. Most people believe that religion is too important and personal to let government make decisions about it. Yet we routinely let government make decisions about education. In fact, governments make all the big decisions, usurping what Americans once firmly believed was a parental prerogative.

That’s why we end up with such idiotic spectacles as politicians arguing the scientific merits of Darwin. In a country that claims to respect liberty and freedom of conscience, no one should be taxed to support schools, especially schools that teach what offends them. And parents shouldn’t be forced to send their children to schools that violate their values. This has nothing to do with one’s position on evolution. The ethical principle I’m endorsing doesn’t just serve religious people. No evolutionist should be forced to support or send his children to schools that teach that creationism is just as valid as evolution.

What’s the alternative? It’s sad that question has to be asked in America. The alternative is freedom. Parents should be free to send their children to private schools that are consistent with their values. Of course, they can send their children to private schools today. But the system is rigged. Even when they send their children to private schools, they have to keep paying for the government’s schools. Besides that, people without children have to pay also. That is not how things were supposed to go in this republic.

In a free society, government would operate no schools. Parents, controlling their own money, would choose schools that best served their children’s interest. And education entrepreneurs would offer schools and services that they believed parents would want to buy.

Sound familiar? It’s essentially how we have done religion in this country, and it’s worked rather well. America has had no serious religious conflicts because people are free to do what they want as long as they leave other people alone. In contrast, we’ve had continuing rancor over school curriculums.

Maybe there’s a lesson in that.

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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.