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On the Origins of Public Schooling | Nine Assumptions of Modern Schooling | Myths About Public Schooling

"I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation. Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, etc. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker... I never learned anything at all in school and didn't read a book for pleasure until I was 19 years old."
Stanley Kubrick,
American filmmaker

Myths of Government Schooling

Myth #1: The United States was founded on a philosophy or principle of "public" education; thus, the public school system is the Holy Cornerstone of Democracy.

Myth #2: Government schools are truly "public" schools.

Myth #3: "Private" schools are more expensive than "public" schools, and it follows, therefore, that only the rich can afford them; that's why we need "public" schooling.

Myth #4: We are a more literate nation today than we were prior to compulsory government schooling.

Myth #5: Before the government take-over of education, there weren't enough schools, and many parents neglected their children's education.

Myth #6: The "public" schools would improve if only they had enough money to do the job right.

Myth #7: Your kid will fail basic skills at private schools.

Myth #1: The United States was founded on a philosophy or principle of public education.

AKA "Public Education is the Cornerstone of Our Democracy" and "Public Education is Necessary For a Working Democracy."

But as Karl Bunday points out, ". . . democratic republican government developed first in countries without government-operated schools; the founders of the United States learned without a public school system. By contrast, the first countries to have compulsory school attendance laws were all militaristic dictatorships, including the countries that later formed Hitler's Third Reich, a fact well documented in books on school and state relations throughout history."

Apart from the Old Deluder Satan Act and other local laws passed (largely in New England, and largely in furtherance of and favoritism toward the locally prevailing organized religion), government control and management of universal, compulsory, tax-funded education didn't even begin until the mid-nineteenth century, and not until the 1920s did it spread to every state.

A point made above is so unknown to modern-day, state-schooled Americans that it bears repeating: Not a single founder of this country was educated in a "public school" as we know them today, and such schools did not exist until the mid-1800s. Most people in Colonial times were home-educated to some extent, because to enroll in most schools or engage a tutor a child was expected to have already some degree of literacy and numeracy (in other words, schools generally did not exist to impart basic skills that were easy to teach and learn, but to expand on them). But this was in no way an impediment to enrollment because, contrary to the current educational philosophy, reading is for most people a fairly easy thing to learn (if not taught badly), and various opportunities existed for children whose parents were not able to help them learn to read (dame schools and traveling schoolmasters, for example). For several of the Founders, home-based education constituted the sole form of education until admission to Harvard. Private tutors and various types of small, private schools were also used selectively by some families.

To the limited extent any sort of public establishment of schools did exist prior to the mid-nineteenth century, such schools were entirely under the control of the local citizenry, and funding came from a combination of family tuition, charity, and, rarely, limited public funds, on an as-needed basis. They were not "public schools" owned and under the jurisdiction of the government so much as they were private schools with some tax-funded tuition help (something like the "vouchers" of today).

It is true that some founders promoted certain aspects of government involvement or funding of education, but it is safe to say that few of them could have envisioned or would have desired the drawn-out, monopolistic, bureaucracy-laden, union-manipulated, forced government schooling we have today. (One possible exception was Benjamin Rush, who favored compulsory government schooling with the use of the Bible as a foundational text.)

It is also true that inequities in the otherwise wide-spread availablity of education often put education out of reach (or at least harder to reach) for some people than for others. But one has only to know a little history to know that public schools did not, merely by their existence, change that state of affairs. Public acceptance of education for women and non-whites evolved of its own accord, and the opening of public schools to non-whites often had to be FORCED on the schools, not the other way round. Open-mindedness and plurality were not products of State schooling; they evolved in society, and the schools eventually reflected that.

Clearly, to suggest that compulsory government-controlled schooling had any relationship to the founding of this country or that State schooling in any way supports "freedom" is ridiculous. On the other hand, many regimes and governments have relied heavily on compulsory government-controlled schooling from the get-go: the USSR, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Pol Pot regime, and Sparta all found compulsory government-administered schooling an essential tool in controlling their populations, as do Cuba and China today.

For more on the history of education in the United States, please see How Did Government Come to Control Education in America?

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