of moralityâ”respect for personhoodâ”turns out to make precisely the
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APPLY ING THE PRINCIPLES
The chapters of Part I were intended to sketch both a principled and an
empirical case for the classical liberal state. The principled case drew on
the notions of human â˜personhoodâ™ and â˜judgment,â™ and on the notion
of â˜justiceâ™ and the General Liberty principle they implied. The empirical
case showed that evidence supports the classical liberal state as well: on
balance, everyone, including the poor, does better in states approximat-
ing the classical liberal ideal than in other kinds of states.
Now, in Part II, I turn to a handful of presently vexing practical moral
and political problems, and I investigate how the conceptual tools and
empirical evidence developed in Part I can address them.
Part II is not by any means exhaustive: there are a number of other
problems I might have discussed. My hope instead is that by addressing
these few it will become clear how the general position I defend would
address other issues not explicitly discussed.
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things You Should
Be in Charge Of
One of the most important issues adults face in their lives is education
and schooling, since what kind of schooling a child gets is instrumental
in creating chances for a better life later on. Yet the traditional tracks
and mainstream options routinely short-change students. Partly that is
because, as entailed by the â˜local knowledgeâ™ argument developed in ear-
lier chapters, it is not possible for a distant third party to know which
form of schooling is best for you or your children. Only you can know
that, based on your knowledge of yourself, of your children, of your con-
ception of the good life, of your schedule of values, and of the resources
and opportunities available to you. Since with respect to you I too am
one of those distant third parties, in this chapter I do not attempt to
lay out a curriculum of education that you or anyone else should follow.
Indeed, on my argument, there is no single path everyone should follow.
Instead I try to convince you here of two things: ď¬rst, a childâ™s schooling
is more deserving of his parentâ™s personal attention than is sometimes
assumed; second, the current American system of educational provision
needs radical reform.
what exactly is the suggestion?
In Part I, I staked out and defended a conception of moral personhood,
and the freedom and responsibility it entails, as well as a conception
of government that I argued was necessarily limited by that conception
of personhood. You might have found some of the implications I drew
from the concept of personhood unsettling, but they were supported by
reasons and considerations that I hope made them plausible. I would like
Applying the Principles
to warn you now that in this chapter my argument may well unsettle you
again. I argue that all public schooling should be abolished. And yes, I
really mean it. By the time you reach the end of this chapter I hope you
will think so too.
To avoid any misunderstandings, let me ď¬rst state my position exactly.
By âpublic schoolingâ I mean schooling that is subsidized or paid in full
by the state through taxation. To avoid terminological confusionâ”in
Britain, for example, a âpublic schoolâ is what in America would be called
a âprivate schoolââ”I refer to state-subsidized education as âgovernment
schooling.â By saying it should be abolished I mean that the state should
cease having anything to do with it. It should neither subsidize it nor
regulate it nor tax for it. I do not mean that the state should forbid the
creation or existence of schools or that there should be no education.
The argument I defend has sometimes been interpreted in this way, but
it does not follow from the claim that there should be no government
education that there should be no education. I argue the former, not
the latter. (How could I argue the latter given my chosen profession, for
So before even beginning we can head off the objection that my posi-
tion either is or amounts to a rejection of education altogether. The
nineteenth-century French economist FrÂ´ dÂ´ ric Bastiat pointed out that
this objection is a typical rhetorical strategy employed by people pushing
certain state programs (he actually said it was the typical âsocialistâ strat-
egy, reď¬‚ecting the political persuasion of the opponents he faced; but
people who make such arguments today come under many more ď¬‚ags
than just the âsocialistâ one). Bastiat wrote, âSocialism, like the ancient
ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government
and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done
by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done
at all.â1 He continued:
We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to
any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want
no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we
are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse
us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.
Bastiat admitted to some puzzlement, as well as frustration, at how
the obvious logical mistake this objection makesâ”inferring a universal
1 In his 1850 The Law, p. 29.
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 203
objection to something from an objection to a single particular form
of itâ”could be pointed out again and again, all apparently to no avail.
Regardless, let me repeat my own position so that there is no confusion
or question: I do not oppose education; I oppose government education.
getting the case off the ground
Government education has had a fairly long run in the United States,
and it has had an awful lot of money and resourcesâ”not to mention a
seemingly boundless measure of public faith and forgivenessâ”and yet
it has managed to get itself into an exceedingly bad way. Government
education in America is indeed so bad overall, I suggest, that only radical
reform has any hope of making things better. The insubstantial tinker-
ing that the education establishment has permitted over the last several
decades is so much rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.
Despite repeated examples of its failures, however, people usually ď¬nd
ways to defend government schooling nonetheless. One sometimes won-
ders what it would take for people to lose their faith in the necessity, or
in the benevolence and beneď¬cence, of government schooling. Would it
be overwhelming evidence of its systematic incompetence? Would it be
almost daily reports of embezzlement, mismanagement, waste, and even
outright robbery? Would it be the regularly recurring battles required
to stem the education establishmentâ™s relentlessly bad judgment about
educational curricula and standards? Would it be their transparently self-
serving defenses, their political special pleading, their outright dismissals
of criticisms and ad hominem attacks on critics? Would it be that they
force unwilling nonusers of their services to pay for them no matter what
religious, moral, or other objections those nonusers have to what they do?
Would it be that they routinely do not ď¬re but rather defend incompetent
teachers, that a majority of their teachers have no academic degree in the
discipline they teach, that most of their teachers and their administrators
come from âeducation schoolsâ notorious for being havens both for the
worst students and the worst faculty? Would all of this sufď¬ce?
I argue indeed that all of these problems beset the government educa-
tion establishment in America, and that therefore continuing to support
this failing system is not what we should do. A more radical course is
called for. Before I give the particular counts of the indictment, however,
let me ď¬rst present an argument that I hope will give pause even to those
inclined to be unmoved by the empirical evidence. That argument is that
state intervention in education violates the same moral principle that
Applying the Principles
state intervention in religious matters does, namely, violation of person-
hood because it violates private conscience.
freedom of conscience: religion and education
Government support for education is analogous to government support
for religion, which means that the moral acceptability, or unacceptability,
of the one is going to be the same as that of the other.2 The reason for
this is that they both fall under the scope of freedom of conscience, which
itself falls under the General Liberty principle entailed by peopleâ™s â˜per-
sonhood.â™ By âfreedom of conscienceâ I mean the freedom to think or
believe whatever one wishes. Since anything a person might think or
believe cannot by itself constitute a violation of justice, and is moreover a
function of and an integral part of oneâ™s judgment, I argue that it should
be protected on the same principle requiring protection of peopleâ™s per-
One of the freedoms protected by the classical liberalism I have
defended is freedom of conscience. Many other protections are means to
the end of protecting this one. Private property rights, for example, can
be defended by arguing that allowing individuals to maintain personal
jurisdiction over a speciď¬ed area of things (beginning with themselves)
enables them to act on their beliefs about the good life without interfer-
ence from others. Actions are, after all, the product of beliefs about the
world, and so the claim that people should enjoy this liberty of action
on private property is an extension of the belief that persons are alike in
having action-guiding private beliefsâ”which effectively amounts to say-
ing that people are â˜persons.â™ It can then be argued that the beliefs them-
selves should be protected because a person cannot live a truly human
or truly happy lifeâ”that is, cannot truly exercise his personhoodâ”unless
he is allowed to hold and act on his own beliefs. Because private property,
by providing a realm or arena in which a person can act and associate
according to his beliefs, is necessary for maintaining and acting on oneâ™s
private beliefs, it is thus protected as a necessary means to the end of pro-
tecting oneâ™s private conscience. And since oneâ™s private conscience is a
function of, and necessary prerequisite for developing, oneâ™s judgment,
and judgment is itself in turn an integral component of personhood, the
protection of private property and thus private conscience turn out to be
required by respect for peopleâ™s personhood.
2 The following is based in part on my âFreedom of Religion and Public Schooling.â
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 205
Several other political principles follow from the requirement to pro-
tect private conscience. Arguments for freedom of the press, freedom
of speech, and freedom of association can all be plausibly construed as
the claim that the private consciences of individuals must be protected,
and that these various freedoms are required to do so. Even people who
argue for âfreedomsâ that go beyond the â˜negativeâ™ freedoms included in
the protections of justice I have defended often do so (if inconsistently in
my view) on similar grounds.3 So, for example, state-provided universal
health care has been defended on the grounds that good health is a nec-
essary prerequisite to leading a happy, ď¬‚ourishing life. The connection
between the two is thought to be that good health grants a person the
peace of mind to work out, adopt, and maintain private beliefs about the
good life, as well as the soundness of body to act on those beliefs. Again,
however, since the actions are dependent on the beliefs, it turns out that
to create a sanctuary for private beliefs is the ultimate end of supporting
universal health care.
These examples license our drawing the general moral principle that
because of the crucial role oneâ™s private conscience plays in the exercise
of personhood, it must be protected against interference. Although I
subscribe to this principle, I will not defend it here more than I already
have. But I do want to emphasize that it is already widely accepted. It
is explicitly at work, to recur to an earlier example, in the widespread
belief in the freedom of the press. Since John Miltonâ™s early statement
of the argument in his famous speech to the English Parliament that was
published in 1644 under the title Areopagitica, the claim has been that
ideas are crucially important to living a ď¬‚ourishing and good life. The
reason is that part of the experimental nature of human life is the trying
out and exploring of different possibilities. One way to do this is to write
and publish ideas and expose them to public scrutiny.4 Thus freedom
of the press is protected as one means of expression of privately held
My suggestion is that because they both fall under the principle of
freedom of conscience, both education and religion are analogous in all
the morally relevant ways. For parents this means that they should have
the freedom and authority to determine which sort of schooling their
3 See notes 32 and 33 of chapter 2 for examples of people making arguments like these.
4 Another classic early defense of this position is Catoâ™s Letters no. 15, written by Thomas
Gordon in 1720, entitled âOf Freedom of Speech: That the Same is Inseparable from
Public Libertyâ (in Catoâ™s Letters, vol. 1, pp. 110â“17).
Applying the Principles
children get, just as they have the freedom and authority to determine
which religious education their children get. And for adults, the free-
dom of conscience that is entailed by their personhood means they
should have the freedom and authority to make the same decisions for
themselvesâ”though, of course, only for themselves. This freedom should
therefore disallow state intervention in educational practice, including
subsidies drawn from taxes, compulsory attendance laws, and mandatory
curriculum standards, just as it disallows religious subsidies drawn from
taxes, compulsory church attendance, and state-prescribed religious cer-
emonies, rites, or doctrines. Hence âpublic schoolingâ should be abol-
ished on exactly the same grounds that state-enforced âpublic religion,â
wherever it exists, should be abolished.
Let me take a moment to address a concern one might have here.
One might be willing to grant that respect for personhood and private
conscience entails that the state may not forbid educating children, just
as it may not forbid imparting to them religious beliefs; but one might
nevertheless question how that means that the state may not subsidize
education, tax for it, and so on. Even if the state makes me pay to support
a religion in which I do not believe, I am still free to believe whatever
I wantâ”and hence the state would not be violating the sanctity of my
private conscience. Or so one might argue. My argument to the contrary
is that by making me pay to support a belief system that I do not accept,
whether educational or religious, the state fails to respect my judgment.
For it thereby takes from me the opportunity to decide whether to give,
how much to give, and to whom to give. Instead, the state makes those
decisions for me, thus substituting its judgment for mine. Now it is true
that if the state, say, taxes me 10 percent of my income to support its
schooling (or religious) program, I still have the other 90 percent to
dispose of as I judge ď¬t: on this basis one might again claim that I am still
free to believe, and support monetarily, whatever I want. Again I disagree.
Taking that 10 percent from me and putting it in the service of beliefs I
do not holdâ”or disagree with or perhaps even believe to be immoralâ”is
just like the case contemplated in chapter 2 of an employer using my
forced labor for only part of the day. Being coerced into working for
you for, say, âonlyâ one hour per day is better than if I were forced to
work for you for ten hours per dayâ”but it still violates my personhood.
The same holds, I suggest, in the case of state-mandated tithes. Part of
personhood is exercising judgment, and part of exercising judgment is
acting on oneâ™s own beliefs. This is what state support of either religion
or education denies, and why it is therefore unacceptable.
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 207
an argument divided cannot stand
I believe that settles the matter. And I believe most peopleâ™s actions tend
already to be consistent with my judgment. For example, we try for the
most part not to allow the state any inď¬‚uence over religious matters. The
fervorâ”one is tempted to say secularized religious zealâ”with which some
elements of todayâ™s American political scene pursue even the merest hint
of, for example, Christianity in government or, especially, in government
schools suggests that many will brook absolutely no connection between
church and state.5
Of course, not everyone in America believes that religion should
have nothing to do with government. Indeed, a plausible argument has
been made, for example, that liberal American legal institutions exist in
part because they are descended from arguments made by Christians in
Europe about the sanctity of the individual.6
More recently, one of the ď¬rst things the second Bush administration
initiated on taking ofď¬ce was what it called âFaith-Based and Community
Initiatives,â which, according to its own description, aims âto help faith-
based and community organizations build upon and expand their good
worksâ; it claims it will do this by
working legislatively to encourage the good works of faith-based and community
organizations and give them the fullest opportunity permitted by law to compete
for Federal funding; identifying and eliminating improper Federal barriers to
the full participation of faith-based and community-serving programs in the pro-
vision of social services; [and] encouraging greater corporate and philanthropic
support for faith-based and community organizations, through public education
and outreach activities.7
Should the government be doing these things? To be honest, it is hard
to say for sure, since, as is typical of government verbiage, it is difď¬cult
to know from the descriptions what exactly these âinitiativesâ will be.8 It
5 For discussions from various perspectives, see David Limbaughâ™s Persecution; the
American Civil Liberties Unionâ™s defense of âreligious liberty,â Http:/ /www.aclu.org/
ReligiousLiberty/ReligiousLibertyMain.cfm; and the efforts of the Americans United
for the Separation of Church and State, http:/ /www.au.org/site/PageServer (both sites
accessed December 14, 2005).
6 See, for example, John Danfordâ™s Roots of Liberty, M. Stanton Evansâ™s The Theme Is Freedom,
Alan Macfarlaneâ™s The Origins of English Individualism, my edited collection The Levellers,
and Rodney Starkâ™s For the Glory of God.
7 See http:/ /www.whitehouse.gov/government/fbci/ (accessed December 14, 2005).
8 For an insightful discussion of the philosophical issues involved here, see Tomasiâ™s âShould
Political Liberals Be Compassionate Conservatives?â
Applying the Principles
follows from my argument above that if the government places barriers
or hindrances in the way of people pursuing their private religions, then
those barriers or hindrances should be removed. Respect for peopleâ™s
personhood entails that we should respect peopleâ™s decisions to practice,
or not practice, religion as they see ď¬t, the practice being, as I argued
before, an integral part of exercising oneâ™s judgment with respect to
these matters. The other side of this same principle, however, is that
the government may also not endorse any religion or subsidize it with
money; it may not even endorse or subsidize all religions or âfaith-based
initiativesâ generally because that would be to violate the personhood of
those whose judgment leads them to agnosticism or atheism. The Bush
administrationâ™s documents endorsing its âfaith-based initiativesâ argue
that local faith-based organizations are the best vehicles for helping those
among us who need help, and that may well be true. Since they would
operate on their local knowledge, they are far more likely to be effective
and efď¬cient than anything run by a distant centralized state. But that
is just one more reason why the state should stay out altogether of the
business of having anything to do with religion.
My suggestion, then, is that the moral case for freedom of religion
stands or falls with that of freedom of education. That means that a society
that champions freedom of religion but at the same time countenances
systematic state regulation of education has some explaining to do.
other arguments against state religion
A number of ways to defend government schooling against my objections
will have occurred to you, but before considering themâ”which we do
belowâ”let me ď¬rst ask which other arguments there are to oppose state
meddling in religion. I said above that I think the compelling case has
already been made, but in case you are not yet convinced, I propose
now to look at the central typical arguments against state support of
religion. To let the cat out of the bag: afterwards I will suggest that all
the arguments one might marshal in favor of government regulation or
support of education must, since the cases are analogous, face the same
objections raised against government regulation or support of religion.
So my strategy is to bring out the objections to government religion,
and thereby challenge government schooling as well. I try to capture
the most common arguments presented in opposition to state-supported
religion, hoping that you will subscribe to or be convinced by at least
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 209
one of them, and then attempt to show that the same arguments can,
without substantive alteration, be raised in opposition to state-supported
Objections to state intervention in religious matters fall chieď¬‚y under
four heads: (1) government support for religion is forbidden by the
Constitution or other fundamental legal documents or judicial decrees;
(2) government support for religion leads to various bad consequences;
(3) religion is too important a matter to be left to politicians or to deci-
sions made by political processes; and (4) government support for reli-
gion violates peopleâ™s rights.
Because I would like to pursue a general moral principle, rather than
base my argument on a necessarily limited legal claim, I exclude from con-
sideration arguments based on the American Constitution. Interpreting
the Constitution is a tricky, not to mention highly contested, businessâ”
even for something as seemingly clear as the First Amendmentâ”so I
would prefer to sidestep it altogether. As I hope the following shows, we
can build a compelling case without recourse to the Constitution. Let us
then consider the other arguments in turn.
1. Government Support for Religion Leads to Bad Consequences
This argument can be constructed in several ways. A religious believer
might argue, for example, that true faith cannot be had by coercion: the
strength of a personâ™s faith is diminished if he is forced to believe, instead
of choosing to believe on his own. Now, it may be impossible to force
someone actually to hold a belief, as opposed to merely behaving as if
he held the belief. This argument claims that a person is less likely to
hold religious beliefs if he is forced against his will to act as though he
believes them. A person must instead come to hold them on his own and
to take responsibility for them himself. Hence, this argument concludes,
government support of religion actually works against the religion by
disinclining people to believe it or even inclining them to oppose it. This
is John Lockeâ™s argument in his 1685 Letter Concerning Toleration, in which
In vain therefore do princes compel their subjects to come into their Church
communion, under pretense of saving their souls. If they believe, they will come
of their own accord; if they believe not, their coming will nothing avail them.
How great soever, in ď¬ne, may be the pretense of good will and charity, and con-
cern for the salvation of menâ™s souls, men cannot be forced to be saved whether
Applying the Principles
they will or no. And therefore, when all is done, they must be left to their own
A differing believerâ™s voice is Blaise Pascalâ™s, who argues in his 1660
PensÂ´es that âCustom is our Nature. Anyone who grows accustomed to faith
believes it, and can no longer help fearing hell, and believes nothing elseâ
(p. 153). Part of Pascalâ™s famous âwagerââ”by which he argues that belief
in God is a rational bet, even irrespective of belief in Godâ™s existenceâ”
depends on the assumption that people who make the conscious and
intentional decision to act as though they believe in God because it is a
rational bet to do so will, despite this perhaps less-than-earnest beginning,
come in time to actually hold the beliefs. But it should not be supposed
that Pascal therefore supports state enforcement of religion: he is quite
clear that his aim is to persuade his readers rationally.
This argument can also be construed in light of the effect state inter-
vention might have on parents, who are charged with the task of passing
on proper beliefs to their children: if the government takes over the
responsibility of maintaining correct beliefs, then parents might relax
their own commitment to the important job of religious education of
their children. This can have the undesirable unintended consequences
both of weakening the parentsâ™ own faith and of weakening the fabric
of the religious community that is based on the joint efforts in faith of
Now it is true that supporting a religion is not the same thing as coerc-
ing belief, so one might argue that a state policy of, perhaps, giving equal
amounts of money to all religions, or of giving out generic vouchers for
church donations, would not be affected by this consideration. Perhaps
these are the sorts of policies envisioned by the Bush administrationâ™s
âFaith-Based Initiatives.â It is what Iceland, for example, currently does:
Icelandâ™s ofď¬cial religion is Lutheranism, and all citizens are taxed to
support the Lutheran church; since Icelanders are free to support or
attend other churches too, however, the Icelandic government never-
theless claims that it is not restricting its citizensâ™ freedom of religion.10
But I doubt many Americans would accept the Icelandic governmentâ™s
argument. How can people still be considered to enjoy religious free-
dom when they are forced to support a particular church whether they
want to or not? A proponent of the argument we are contemplating now
9 In David Woottonâ™s edited John Locke: Political Writings, p. 410. See also Lockeâ™s 1693 Some
Thoughts Concerning Education.
10 See Gordon Grahamâ™s The Case against the Democratic State, chap. 5.
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 211
should respond that one important element in coming to hold oneâ™s own
beliefs is the initial decision of whether to believe. If Pascal is right that
practice leads to belief, then when the government takes money from
citizens through general taxation and earmarks some of it for support
of or donation to churches or other religiously based organizations, it
preempts each taxpayerâ™s initial decision of whether to donate and thus
whether to believe. That decision was instead made by the state. And even
if Locke is rightâ”that is, if making a person support religious doctrines
in which he does not believe will not, in fact, lead to true beliefâ”then
a believer may still argue that if the government has decided to support
religion, then its imprimatur gives a credence to a set or sets of beliefs that
people will thus be more inclined to accept uncritically. But the believer
may argue that the proper relation to such important beliefs cannot be
maintained if the beliefs were not adopted freely and after due consid-
eration. Hence, the believer might conclude, the government must not
prejudice people, as it inevitably would, with its ofď¬cial stamp of approval.
A believer might also be concerned by the very real possibility that
the government could support the wrong religion or religions. So even
the believer who thought it would lead to good consequences if his own
religion were supported (if, say, you were a Lutheran in Iceland) might
well think it would lead to badâ”indeed, perhaps disastrously badâ”
consequences if some other, false religion were supported (if, say, you
were a Muslim in Iceland). This is the core of the argument that some
Christians make today when they charge public schools with pushing
a speciď¬c secularized moral vision.11 Since there can be no guarantee
that the government will choose correctlyâ”the decisions will be made
politically, after allâ”the prudent conclusion for the believer is that the
state should abstain altogether from supporting religion. Let individuals
keep their money and use it to support, or not support, which church or
religious organization they judge proper.
On the other side, nonbelievers have at least two clear reasons for
believing that government support of religion would lead to bad conse-
quences. First, it might propagate beliefs that the nonbeliever holds to
be false, which is not only undesirable in itself but also might stand in the
way of cultural and scientiď¬c progress. Carl Sagan, for example, argued
in his The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark that todayâ™s
religions are tomorrowâ™s superstitions; and since we want to encourage
11 For an example, see Limbaughâ™s Persecuted. See also Zimmermanâ™s Whose America?
Applying the Principles
knowledge, which for Sagan means science, and not superstition, which
for him means religion, the last thing we should allow our government
to do is to support religion. Consider, as Sagan argues, that the money
that would go to support the contemporary equivalent of belief in witches
might have gone to support research into space exploration and coloniza-
tion, gene therapy, cancer research, or any number of other enterprises
far more conducive to human welfare. The second argument a nonbe-
liever would make is that state support of religion might propagate not
just false beliefs but dangerous or counterproductive ones. In addition
to slowing the growth of knowledge, it might, for example, lead people
to put less stock in improving life on earth, to be less concerned with
âmerely temporalâ suffering, or inclined to believe that whatever hap-
pens is Godâ™s will. In any of these cases a believer might hence develop
an apathy or resignation that inclines him not to work as hard to change
a contemporary, earthly situation that the nonbeliever thinks should be
2. Religion is Too Important to Be Left to Politics and Politicians
This second argument is often supported by both the believer and non-
believer. Its claim is that oneâ™s religious beliefs, whatever they are, are a
foundational element of oneâ™s worldviewâ”perhaps even the single most
important element, the one that ď¬xes and orders all the others. As such
they should bear an intensely personal relationship to the person hold-
ing them: they should be consciously and deliberately weighed, accepted,
and endorsed by the person himself. If the state played an active role in
supporting religion, however, it would tend to divorce a person from his
beliefs by giving him the dangerously complacent attitude that someone
else is taking care of such things for him. As soon as he starts thinking
that, the potential believer loses the personal commitment to religion
that many maintain is the sine qua non of true belief. Because of the
supreme importance of these beliefs, then, we should be even more sus-
picious and wary of political inď¬‚uence here than we might be in other,
less important areas of our lives.
Often coupled with this argument is a general claim about the inef-
ď¬ciency, incompetence, or moral or religious failings of politicians and
political bureaucrats.12 Hence even if government inď¬‚uence did not have
12 For examples of the following arguments, see Buchanan and Tullockâ™s Calculus of Consent,
Millâ™s On Liberty, Nockâ™s Theory of Education in the United States and âAnarchistâ™s Progress,â
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 213
the effect of dissociating people from beliefs to which they should be per-
sonally attached, the last people we should entrust with the care of matters
as important as religion are agents of the state. Here one might marshal
a public choiceâ“style argument that such people do not have the proper
incentives to encourage them to actually work in the best interest of indi-
vidual people and their religious beliefs; their incentives might rather
incline them only to ensure steadily increasing pay and minimal work for
themselves, regardless of its effect on people and their beliefs. One might
also make a local-knowledge argument that religious beliefs can be prop-
erly maintained only by people who have close personal knowledge of the
people holding or potentially holding those beliefs. One might thus con-
clude that parents, priests, pastors, rabbis, or other personal mentors are
better equipped to handle this task than any remote stranger, as an agent
of the state would necessarily be. A ď¬nal possibility is an argument based
on the fact and value of human diversity. Even if state agents could some-
how have all the knowledge about people that is requisite to know how
best to maintain proper religious beliefs, it would be impossible to estab-
lish a single set of rules, laws, or programs that would be best for everyone:
some simpliď¬cation would necessarily be required, limiting thereby the
range of âallowableâ religious belief. One might then argue that since
human diversity is good, artiď¬cially limiting it is bad. And of course one
should also point out that if not all religious observation gets supported,
it might be oneâ™s own that gets left outâ”not a small consideration.
The upshot is that fallible politicians are not competent authorities on
the ultimate good for others, and thus they should not be entrusted with
the power to make decisions about such matters for others. Each person
must instead be allowed to take his chances on his own, which means
that he should have the freedom to make what he can of his own and his
childrenâ™s religion, without the coercive interference of the state.
3. Government Support for Religion Violates Peopleâ™s Rights
Perhaps the most powerful and most widely held argument against gov-
ernment support of religion is that it would violate peopleâ™s rights.
A potential rights violation in this case can be seen in at least two
aspects: a violation of the right to free speech and a violation of property
Reschâ™s âHuman Variation and Individuality,â Rogge and Goodrichâ™s âEducation in a
Free Society,â and Westâ™s Education and the State.
Applying the Principles
First, one can argue it would infringe on a personâ™s right to free speech
to make him support beliefs he does not hold.13 Requiring a person to
support a religion in which he does not believe is equivalent to requiring
him to support any other position, institution, or view in which he does
not believe. Since, as I argued earlier, freedom of speech is protected
not as an end in itself but rather as a means to protecting oneâ™s private
conscience, the close connection between religious practice and âspeechâ
licenses bringing the protection of the former under the scope of the
latter. Thus, requiring a person to support a religion in which he does
not believe violates his right to freedom of conscience. If it is true that
oneâ™s religious beliefs are of central importance to oneâ™s life, then such
a violation would be especially egregious.
This argument recalls Thomas Jeffersonâ™s famous claim in his 1779 Act
for Establishing Religious Freedom in the State of Virginia that âto compel a man
to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which
he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.â14 If you are tempted to think
13 As the American Civil Liberties Union argues. See http:/ /www.aclu.org/
ReligiousLiberty/ReligiousLibertyMain.cfm. See also its page âGovernment-Funded
/www.aclu.org/ReligiousLiberty/ReligiousLibertylist.cfm?c = 37 (both
sites accessed December 14, 2005).
14 In The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, p. 312. Jefferson in fact goes on to raise
several of the objections articulated here, so his statement is worth quoting at length:
âWell aware . . . that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propa-
gation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing
him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of
the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals
he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness,
and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporal rewards, which proceeding from
an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and
unremitting labors for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no depen-
dence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that,
therefore, the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public conď¬dence by laying upon
him an incapacity of being called to the ofď¬ces of trust and emolument, unless he profess
or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges
and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right; that
it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by
bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments, those who will externally
profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand
such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to
suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the ď¬eld of opinion and to restrain
the profession or propagation of principles, on the supposition of their ill tendency,
is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of
course judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve
or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his
own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its ofď¬cers
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 215
that Jefferson exaggerates the risks involved, consider what your reaction
would be to the creation of a new government program called, let us
say, the âPatriotic Political Freedom Fundâ to which you are required to
contributeâ”donâ™t worry, though: the mandatory contribution is nomi-
nal, only 1 percent of your earnings (initially)â”and among the recipients
of this money will be the American Civil Liberties Union, the Christian
Coalition, the North American Man/Boy Love Association, Operation
Rescue, and the presidential campaigns of Newt Gingrich, Ted Kennedy,
Ralph Nader, and Pat Buchanan. Do you still think Jefferson exaggerates?
Government support of religion is also a violation of property rights
insofar as that support is in the form of money taken from taxation rev-
enues. On a Lockean view of property rights, for example, it is illegitimate
to tax a person in order to support something he does not expressly or
tacitly consent to support. Now, the notion of âtacitâ consent is a tricky
one, as Locke is aware. Locke writes in his 1690 Second Treatise of Govern-
ment that âevery Man, that hath any Possessions, or Enjoyment, of any part
of the Dominions of any Government, doth thereby give his tacit Consent,
and is as far forth obliged to Obedience to the Laws of that Government,
during such Enjoyment, as any one under itâ (Â§119; emphasis in original).
As I suggested in chapter 2, Lockeâ™s position strikes me as overly broad
since it sets a pretty demanding standard to meet if one wants not to be
âconsentingâ to whatever the government does. Does it mean I have to
actually move out of the country if I donâ™t want to âconsentâ to what the
government does? What if I do not have the resources to do that? And
by the way, this is as much my country as it is yoursâ”why do you get to
demand that I leave if I disagree with something? In any case, it seems
to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;
and ď¬nally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and
sufď¬cient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conď¬‚ict, unless by human
interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceas-
ing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.
Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent
or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced,
restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on
account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and
by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall
in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
And though we well know this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary pur-
poses of legislation only, have no powers equal to our own and that therefore to declare
this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare, and do declare,
that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act
shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will
be an infringement of natural right.â
Applying the Principles
clear that a person who did not enjoy the beneď¬ts of any religious insti-
tution, or especially if he expressly renounced any such beneď¬ts, would
not, even on Lockeâ™s view, have either expressly or tacitly consented to be
taxed to support it. Hence taking a personâ™s money to support a religion
to which he otherwise would not give his money is violating his right to
do with his legitimately acquired property as he chooses. On the Lockean
view, this would be for the government to overstep its legitimate authority.
Moreover, as I have already argued, it would also violate the rules of
â˜justiceâ™ that I defended in Part I because it violates the personhood of
those it requires to pay. The taxpayers would be allowed to exercise their
judgment neither in the decision of whether to support this or any other
religion nor in the decisions of (1) how much to support them, as opposed
to supporting other causes, (2) in which way to support themâ”whether,
for example, with oneâ™s time or oneâ™s money, nor, ď¬nally, (3) at which
point they no longer deserve or need to be supported, perhaps because
they have served their purpose or because they have become corrupt.
against government education
I now wish to argue that the same three clusters of arguments that are
brought against state intervention in religion also count against govern-
ment support of education: government support of education leads to
various bad consequences, education is too important a matter to be left
to politicians or decisions made by political processes, and government
support for education violates peopleâ™s rights.
One might also here again make the argument that state support and
regulation of schooling is a violation of the U.S. Constitution, in this case
basing the argument on the Ninth and Tenth Amendments in conjunc-
tion with Article I, Section 8. This argument would claim that Congressâ™s
legitimate powers are enumerated in Article I, Section 8, of the Consti-
tution, and are thus limited to what is listed there. Since there is nothing
there empowering Congress to support or regulate schooling, however,
and given that the Ninth and Tenth Amendments hold, respectively, that
the âenumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be con-
strued to deny or disparage others retained by the peopleâ and that the
âpowers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor pro-
hibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to
the people,â the natural conclusion seems to be that the federal gov-
ernment exceeds its constitutionally legal limits when it undertakes to
have anything to do with education. The only government interference
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 217
in education that would be licensed by the Constitution would be under
the auspices of local or state governments.15
I believe this is an argument worthy of consideration, but for the reason
I gave earlier I put constitutional questions to one side for the sake of this
discussion. Let us instead see whether there is in fact the close analogy
I allege between the arguments offered against state support and regu-
lation of religion and state support and regulation of education. Again,
consider the arguments in turn.
1. Government Support of Education Leads to Bad Consequences
Government support of education leads to bad consequences similar
to those raised in discussing government support of religion: peopleâ™s
personal commitment to education is weakened by the governmentâ™s
relieving them of the responsibility of educating themselves or their own
children; the government runs a signiď¬cant risk of supporting a bad sys-
tem of education; and the government runs an again signiď¬cant risk of
supporting a system of education that propagates dangerous or coun-
terproductive attitudes. Each of these charges has been leveled against
government schools by recent critics, including those who otherwise sup-
port government schooling.
As an example of the ď¬rst charge, in his Separating School and State,
author and editor Sheldon Richman argues that true education requires
above all else personal initiative and commitment, and that government
schooling tends to deaden personal commitment by depriving people of
the responsibility of providing for their own or their own childrenâ™s educa-
tion. The result, Richman argues, is that the burden of educating children
tends to fall on the shoulders of politicians and bureaucrats who lack the
proper incentives or knowledge required to do the job well.16 Second,
in his The Closing of the American Mind, philosophy professor and social
critic Allan Bloom argues that government schools from the elementary
through the college level operate under the rubric of badly ď¬‚awed theo-
ries of knowledge and truth loosely based on the views of Nietzsche and
Dewey. Bloom argues that these theories inform educational practices
that encourage an unsophisticated epistemological and moral relativism,
severely impeding both scientiď¬c progress and moral growth. And third,
15 For a recent detailed case for interpreting the Constitution this way, see Randy Barnettâ™s
Restoring the Lost Constitution.
16 See also Flewâ™s Social Life and Moral Judgment, chap. 6.
Applying the Principles
in his Inside American Education, economist and historian Thomas Sowell
argues that public schools across the nation pursue educational poli-
cies that foster the dangerous mix of high self-esteem, ignorance, and
moral vacuityâ”which has led, quite predictably, Sowell argues, to the
amoral monsters we see increasingly often today, not to mention the fact
that in the most important cutting-edge scientiď¬c and technological posi-
tions Americans are slowly but steadily being supplanted by people from
other countries. And one should not make the mistake of thinking that
these are uncommon criticisms: in each case numerous other critics make
I shall not defend each of these claims; the authors do a ď¬ne job
of that themselves. But I will point out that a large body of evidence
exists indicating that public schools have been steadily declining in qual-
ity for at least four decades, despite the facts that (1) expenditures per
pupil have steadily risen in real terms over the same time period and that
(2) class sizes have steadily decreased during the same time period.17 In
1955 the average number of pupils an American public school teacher
had was 26.9; in 1995 it was 17.1, fully a one-third reduction. Moreover,
between 1959 and 1990, the annual cost of public education rose from
$1,710 per child to $5,233 in constant 1991 dollars, a more than three-
fold real increase. The increase is even larger if the timeline is expanded:
over the period of 1920 to 1996, American public schools saw a fourteen-
fold increase in constant-dollar per pupil spending (indeed, some studies
argue that a proper accounting reveals the increase to be over twenty-
fold18 ). It would take a massive, dramatic improvement in educational
quality over that period to justify an increase of that scale.
And what in fact do we have to show for this? Well, not only have we not
seen the dramatic improvement in quality that we should expect given
the rise in funding and the reduction in class sizes, but by virtually every
objective measure public schooling has indeed gotten worse. I would
argue that that is no coincidenceâ”that given the nature of state-run
organizations, as well as their past performances, we should expect that
they would not meet their lofty stated goals and expectationsâ”but be
that as it may, the fact that government schools are failing their students
in nearly every respect cannot be gainsaid. But that of course has not
stopped people from doing just that. David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, for
17 This information and what follows is widely available. For one excellent detailed resource,
see Coulsonâ™s Market Education; see also Brimelowâ™s The Worm in the Apple, Gattoâ™s The
Exhausted School, Sowellâ™s Inside American Education, Westâ™s Education and the State, and
Zimmermanâ™s Whose America?
18 See Coulson, Market Education, pp. 205â“6.
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 219
example, authors of The Manufactured Crisis, point out that the proportion
of people receiving high school diplomas has increased in the last forty
years, a fact they say is âmarvelous.â19 But this argument is specious since it
fails to note that the requirements for getting those diplomas have ebbed
signiď¬cantly, in many places amounting to little more than attendance.20
There is nothing marvelous about having more high school graduates if
the increases come in the form of not being able to do long division or
read and comprehend a book like this one.21
Am I exaggerating the decline in quality of government schooling?
Just how bad is it? A 1992 study by Harold Stevenson compiled a decadeâ™s
worth of international studies comparing educational performance and
attitudes in the United States, China, Taiwan, and Japan.22 The study
showed that American children had the worst performance: by the ď¬fth
grade, for instance, the best American schools had math scores lower than
the worst schools from all three other nations.23 The study also showed,
however, that, due apparently to a systematic campaign of misinformation
by their schooling representatives, the American parents were overall the
most satisď¬ed with the job their local schools were doing! A 1996 National
Assessment of Educational Progress study found that studentsâ™ perceptions
of their own writing abilities and their overall levels of self-esteem showed
slight but statistically signiď¬cant increases over the same 1984â“95 period
during which their actual knowledge and abilities declined markedly.24
Studies have even shown that overall levels of public literacy have
not beneď¬ted from the huge amounts of money the state has spent on
19 See ibid., p. 26. See also Tyackâ™s recent Seeking Common Ground, which defends public
schools on several of the grounds I here contest.
20 See, for example, Brimelowâ™s The Worm in the Apple and Gattoâ™s The Exhausted
School. See also the National Association of Scholarsâ™ 2002 report âTodayâ™s College
Students and Yesteryearâ™s High School Grads: A Comparison of General Cultural
Knowledge,â http:/ /www.nas.org/reports/senior poll/senior poll report.pdf (accessed
December 14, 2005), and Sommerâ™s edited collection, The Academy in Crisis.
21 See Mulroyâ™s The War against Grammar, chaps. 1â“4, for illustrations of how bad things have
gotten. Berliner and Biddle claim that virtually all of the problems besetting American
public education are mere âmythsâ constructed and propagated by people with âcon-
servativeâ political agendas. I ď¬nd their dismissals of the evidence unpersuasive (and at
times offensive: they often characterize their opponents as âcon menâ and âcharlatans,â
even suggesting their motives are similar to Adolf Hitlerâ™s! (p. 8)), but a person wanting
a view different from mine might consider consulting their book.
22 âLearning from Asian Schoolsâ in Scientiď¬c American.
23 For further recent corroboration, see the New York Daily Newsâ™s âDuh! 81% of Kids Fail
Testâ; the Wall Street Journalâ™s âAmericaâ™s Câ“â; and the Washington Postâ™s âIn a Global Test
of Math Skills, U.S. Students behind the Curve.â
24 See âThe NAEP 1996 Technical Report,â http:/ /nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ /pubs/
main1996/1999452.asp (accessed December 14, 2005).
Applying the Principles
schooling. Indeed, there is evidence that overall levels of literacy are actu-
ally lower now than they were before spending on public schooling began
its steep increase, especially among underprivileged populations.25 Amer-
ican blacks, for instance, had a higher rate of literacy, and the rate was
increasing, in 1960 than they did in 1990.26
Perhaps even more worrying are the socially divisive effects of govern-
ment schooling. One of the arguments routinely marshaled in support
of government schooling is that it provides a community cohesion that
our society would otherwise lack: by requiring children from all walks of
life to come together and study, read, and learn together, we break down
social, class, and racial barriers that would otherwise stratify and rend
society. That is a pleasant myth. The reality is that government schools
have historically been among the most aggressive instruments for per-
petuating political oppression and enforcing conformity to fashionable
moral, political, or religiousâ”and often bigotedâ”views. Consider how
Andrew Coulson summarized his comprehensive study of the history of
Few institutions have caused as much strife and conď¬‚ict as public schools. They
have been used to beat down minorities of every color and creed, setting family
against family and community against community. Protestants in both France
and the United States used them to attack Catholicism, and Catholics, when they
achieved the upper hand in French politics, turned them against Protestantism.
U.S. whites used the public schools to segregate African Americans. Instead of
welcoming immigrants in a spirit of mutual respect, government schools often
sought to extinguish their cultures and beliefs. Far from promoting social har-
mony, government schools in the U.S. undermined it, forcing Catholics to set up
their own schools in order to avoid the discrimination they suffered at the hands
of the state system, and breeding resentment among many other immigrant
groups who felt that their traditions were derided in the public schools. Blood was
shed and property destroyed in disputes precipitated by the âcommon schools.â27
A similar picture has recently been painted by Jonathan Zimmerman,
whose 2002 Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools sets out in
painstaking and painful detail the social division, the racial, religious,
and class antagonisms, and the callous disregard of minority interests
25 See Westâ™s Education and the State, esp. chaps. 9â“11.
26 See, for example, Clint Bolickâ™s âA Lot More to Learn,â James J. Heckman and Amy
L. Waxâ™s âHome Alone,â Kirsch et al.â™s Adult Literacy in America, and Thomas Sowellâ™s
âBlack Education: Achievements, Myths, and Tragedies,â in his Black Rednecks and White
27 Coulson, Market Education, pp. 104â“5.
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 221
that have marked government schoolingâ™s unsavory history in America.28
The ever-continuing cavalcade of stories about outright theft and gross
misappropriation of funds on the part of public school administrators is
just salt in the wound.29
The problems are exacerbated by the fact that the persecuted minori-
ties often cannot escape the schools, owing to mandatory attendance laws
in many districts, and in any case they certainly cannot avoid paying for
the schools even if their children do not attend. If you can afford to send
your children to a private school, good for you: but you still have to pay
taxes supporting the government schools. How many more people would
be able to send their children to schools of their own choosing, schools
that match and support their own cultures, traditions, and values, if they
did not also have to pay for the government schools? The number can-
not be known for certainâ”they are part of Bastiatâ™s âunseenââ”but their
existence cannot be denied and must be counted among the undesirable
consequences of state-enforced subsidization of schooling.
One could continue to adduce examples of government schooling
problems almost indeď¬nitely, but of course it is not true that every gov-
ernment school is bad or every government school teacher is bad. On
the contrary, there are occasional stories of heroic schools and teach-
ers, managing somehow to soldier on in almost uncomprehendingly bad
conditions. Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., for the ď¬rst half of
the twentieth century and St. Augustine in New Orleans are examples of
excellent schools, and John Taylor Gatto and Sherry Shefď¬eld Davis are
examples of excellent teachers. But the argument here depends on over-
all trends, which are quite indisputable. These exceptions prove the rule.
One ď¬nal fact will illuminate the reality of government schooling. Here
is a partial list of books that were most frequently banned from American
public school libraries from 1990 to 2000, according to the American
1. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
2. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
28 See also Katzâ™s History of Compulsory Education Laws, Richmanâ™s Separating School and State,
chap. 3, Rochesterâ™s Class Warfare, Rothbardâ™s âHistorical Origins,â and Westâ™s Education
and the State.
29 Stories of these misdeeds are legion and recur in every state in the United States. One
recent story that came to my attention is the New York Timesâ™s âAudit Describes 8 Years of
Looting by L.I. School Ofď¬cials.â
30 See http:/ /www.ala.org/ala/oif/bannedbooksweek/bbwlinks/100mostfrequently.htm
(accessed December 14, 2005).
Applying the Principles
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Toni Morrison, Beloved
J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
The full list is longer; these are just some of the highlights. But they
make the point: when the government is in charge of schooling, deci-
sions about educational form and content will reď¬‚ect the reigning polit-
ical atmosphere of the moment, with all the stupidity, short-sightedness,
and prejudice that implies. It may be that these consequences of govern-
mental oversight of education were unintentional, but, really, they can
hardly be surprising.
2. Education Is Too Important to Be Left to Politics and Politicians
The education of children is one of the most important tasks facing par-
ents and communities. Yet the same objections to government support of
religion also dog government support of education: it dissociates people
from something to which they should have an intensely personal com-
mitment, and it is unreliable because of the inefď¬ciency, incompetence,
or moral or religious failings of state agents and bureaucrats.
A common complaint of conscientious parents involved in the oper-
ations of their childrenâ™s government school is that there are disap-
pointingly few parents similarly involved. Low parental involvement is
a chronic and perennially lamented problem, but why are so few parents
involved? One plausible explanation is that when the state takes on the
responsibility of providing for the education of children, parents corre-
spondingly, and quite understandably, stop concerning themselves with
it. The present system of government schoolingâ”with its compulsory
monetary support by taxation, compulsory attendance, compulsory certi-
ď¬cation of teachers, and compulsory curriculaâ”attempts to cover almost
every aspect over which parents might otherwise have exercised any
independent judgment. Parents do not decide on their own how much
they are willing to pay or to whom, whether their children should or
should not continue to attend school, what qualiď¬cations teachers or
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 223
administrators should have, or what the curriculum is. With so little, then,
for which parents are personally responsible, and moreover dissuaded
from attempting to become personally involved by the knowledge that
they will not likely be able to accomplish anything,31 it is not surprising
that they tend to dissociate themselves from what should be a matter of
great personal attention and commitment. Taking responsibility for oneâ™s
childrenâ™s education requires a lot of energy, after all. If someone else
is looking after it for you whether you asked for help or not, it is only
human nature to allow oneâ™s vigilance to relax.
Plato was perhaps the ď¬rst person to make a systematic case for the cru-
cial importance of carefully designing the educational system of children,
and he made sure not to leave such matters to just anybody. Indeed, this
was a matter that could be properly handled only by the âwisestâ human
beings: the philosophers.32 But Plato by no means stands alone: a succes-
sion of thinkers over the centuries has maintained the great importance
of education and the even greater importance of removing responsibility
for it from parents and putting it in the hands of âexpertsâ enjoying a state-
enforced monopoly. Various reasons are given for this, but most revolve
around the central claim that education is necessary for a person to live
a ď¬‚ourishing or truly good life and thus cannot be left to the benighted
souls who populate society. But note that exactly the same claim could be
made for religion: since having the correct religious beliefs is crucially
important to leading a good lifeâ”and, one might add, having a good
afterlifeâ”it cannot be left in the hands of your average Joes. No, discov-
ering the true will of God or the gods must be the exclusive province of
shamans, witch doctors, clerics, and mystics, all of whom have secret cer-
emonies and mysterious rites and speak or communicate with the other
world in strange tongues. Your job is to accept unconditionally what they
sayâ”it was divinely inspired, after allâ”and to obey without question.
If we take away the rhetorical ď¬‚air, this is not at all unlike the
position adopted by those running government education in America.
Education of children is too important to be left to their parents;
indeed, we must actively, though often clandestinely, seek to minimize
or destroy altogether the inď¬‚uence on children that their racist, sexist,
classist, homophobic, parochial, eurocentric, capitalist, speciesist, and
31 This is partly because school administrators often deliberately shut parents out. See, for
example, Brimelowâ™s The Worm in the Apple and Marantoâ™s âNo Class: Why Are â˜Publicâ™
Schools Closed to the Public?â
32 Republic, bks. 4 and 5.
Applying the Principles
superstitious parents have. Childrenâ™s education must instead be over-
seen and directed by experts from âeducation schoolsâ where things are
taught that you just would not understand, and where people write in
language you would barely recognize as your own. Moreover, we shall
have to require attendance at our schools by law; we shall discourage
those trying to opt for schools outside our purview by making them pay
twice; we shall resist innovations such as homeschooling or vouchers with
demonization, viliď¬cation, and vigorous pursuit of legal hindrances to
them; we shall undertake to convince every citizen, starting of course
with their children in our charge, that public schooling is necessary for
the good of the country and for the good of the children and that the
country and the children cannot be served in any other way; and we shall
campaign against any critic or reformer, resist any studies or data critical
of us, and minimize the chances of ever losing our monopoly by treating
all substantive dissension from our wisdom as unpatriotic, un-American,
anti-poor, and generally immoral.33
Does that about cover it? Now do not object that not every single
member of the government schooling establishmentâ”not every single
teacher, every single administrator, every single school board memberâ”
consciously believes all this and deliberately acts in the service of these low
ends. Of course not: it bears repeating that some teachers are quite com-
petent and well intentioned, even surprisingly so given the conditions in
which they work. But the lowest, not the highest, common denominator
usually prevails. Consider this question: what other fundamental organiz-
ing theory, what other systematic educational worldview, is better able
to explain what the government education establishmentâ”as a whole, if
not every single memberâ”does?34
I agree with Plato and the education establishment about the impor-
tance of childrenâ™s education, and that is precisely why I argue that it
should not be left to the dynamics of political processes. And this is the
same argument made in the case of religion. If, therefore, the impor-
tance of religion warrants that decisions regarding it be removed from
the arena of political decision making, the same conclusion should follow,
I argue, for education.
33 See Brimelowâ™s The Worm in the Apple and Gattoâ™s The Exhausted School for numerous
34 Some critics draw strongly negative conclusions about the general moral character of
these educational institutions, as well as of the administrators who oversee them. See, for
example, David Limbaughâ™s Persecution, Val MacQueenâ™s ââ˜Frankly, I Blame the Schools,â™â
and Thomas Sowellâ™s Inside American Education.
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 225
3. Government Support for Education Violates Peopleâ™s Rights
Finally, government support for education also commits whatever rights
violations that government support for religion does. It infringes upon a
personâ™s right to free speech to make him support an educational system
with which he disagrees, on exactly the same grounds given in the case
of religion. And if a person has beliefs about religion, morality, or pol-
itics that differ from what is taught in the government schools, forcing
him nevertheless to support that school system involves the same rights
violation as does forcing him to support a religion in which he does not
Educational policies and curricula are ultimately dependent on our
views about deep matters of conscienceâ”such as conceptions of the good
life or religious commitments35 â”and hence they are protected by the
same freedom of conscience that would protect our beliefs about mat-
ters of religion. You simply cannot have it both ways. You cannot with
consistency endorse state supervision of education but object to state
supervision of religion. Emersonâ™s quip that âa foolish consistency is the
hobgoblin of little mindsâ is aimed, and rightly so, at those who insist on
consistency regarding the trivial matters that occupy little minds; but it
is not aimed, as indeed the quotation implies, at weighty matters such as
A handful of objections typically arise and should be addressed. The ď¬rst is
that the cases of religion and education are not in fact analogous because
whereas everyone supports education, not everyone supports religion;
thus one might claim that government support for education enjoys a
prima facie justiď¬cation that government support for religion does not.
I suspect, however, that the widespread endorsement of âeducationâ is
the joint product of two things: vagueness and habit. Everyone supports
âeducationâ partly because the term is vague enough to mean very differ-
ent things to different people. But that support evaporates once details
of a speciď¬c program are ď¬‚eshed out. Indeed, the endless and ongoing
battles over public school curricula would seem to be evidence that in
fact there is exceedingly little general agreement about what the form
and content of âeducationâ should be.
35 See Reschâ™s âHuman Variation and Individuality.â
Applying the Principles
If you ask people a question like âDo you oppose or support educa-
tion?â the answer will of course be obvious. But try asking these more
speciď¬c, and thus dispositive, questions instead:
r âDo you oppose or support mandatory prayer in public schools?â
r âDo you oppose or support instruction on the use of condoms, on
masturbation, on homosexuality, and on anal sex in the ď¬fth grade?â
r âDo you oppose or support the abolition of class rankings?â
r âDo you oppose or support teaching that Christopher Columbus was a
great man who discovered America (or was a racist imperialist exploit-
ing indigenous peoples)?â
r âDo you oppose or support teaching that homosexuality is natural (or
that opposing homosexual rights is a vice like racism, or that homo-
sexuality is a sin)?â
r âDo you oppose or support teaching creation science (or intelligent
design or evolution)?â
And so on. The point is clear, but I would add that these examples were
chosen speciď¬cally because American public schools take stances on each
of them. The battles fought over these topics are epic and legendary, and
they and others like them recur annually in school districts throughout
the country. As long as the government is in charge of education, and
thus imposes a one-size-ď¬ts-all policy, battles like these will continue to be
political, rather than educational, issues. And they will never go away.36
These considerations also dispatch a related objection to my argu-
ment, namely, that whereas the state cannot secure religious conviction,
it can provide education. The above considerations demonstrate that the
state could provide âeducationâ only as long as the term âeducationâ is
not deď¬ned with any precision. The moment one begins to specify what
actually constitutes education, the irreconcilable differences indicated
above come ď¬‚ooding in. There might be general agreement that the ď¬rst
step in any educational program is mastery of the three âRsââ”reading,
writing, and arithmetic. But that can be accomplished by the third or
fourth grade. It is what happens for the subsequent ten years of manda-
tory government schooling that is at issue. Hence although it might be
true that in (sufď¬ciently vague) principle the government can provide
education, any particular actual program of government schooling will
conď¬‚ict with substantial numbers of peopleâ™s own conceptions of what
36 See Dianne Ravitchâ™s âEthnomathematicsâ and Jonathan Zimmermanâ™s Whose America?
Schooling, Religion, and Other Things 227
The other main factor contributing to the semblance of consensus
about education is that since the close of the nineteenth century, an
almost continuous succession of inď¬‚uential people in America, begin-
ning with Horace Mann, Edward Ross, and John Dewey, has argued that
âpublic schoolingâ is required to mold children into the kind of citi-
zens a âtwentieth-century democracyâ needs.37 The result is that by now
most people are so thoroughly steeped in belief in the necessity of such
schooling that the notion of its abolition never surfaces. As is the case
with other beliefs that are held on the basis of deeply ingrained habit
and inculcation, their advocates tend to meet searching questioning not
by considering, contemplating, and weighing it but by ignoring it or dis-