Public Education: The Compulsion to Control

Since the promoters of compulsory education do not have history, decency, common sense, and certainly not educational achievement on their side, force is the only way such activists can achieve their goal...

The compulsory education of America’s children represents the bad fruit of allowing religion to influence secular government. And further, that this represents a substantial interference in the personal liberties of parents. In speaking of what began with the Pilgrims in Plymouth and Roger Williams in Rhode Island (and which was brought to fruition in the U.S. Constitution), we wrote:

Sadly enough, those first freedoms are eroding quickly in these modern times. They did not have buses in the old days to bus the children great distances into the cities to learn the wisdom of the world, so parents were still free to pass on the knowledge and beliefs that they felt best for their own child. They had no such idea as public school or college until the Organized Religion in America with its strong governmental influence brought in the concept of compulsory education regulated by the government. Eventually, state taxes were forced upon every citizen along with mandatory requirements of what would be taught. Today, public schools are a hotbed for every kind of evil peer pressure that undoes the good morals and decent path that parents try to teach their children. Instead, state-controlled education leaves the citizen no options as to what the state uniformly and unalterably teaches each parent’s child, as if they and we were all the same. Allowing this substantial interference in the personal liberties of parents — the very choices of what goes into their children by example and by indoctrination — is just one example of the bad fruit of allowing religion to influence secular government.1

This entire structure of state-controlled education is based on a fundamental Christian concept. The power of this concept in this day and age will surprise you. In fact, many of its most ardent champions would deny even being religious, let alone guilty of advocating one of the most well known and least liked of Christian doctrines – the total depravity of man. In this view parents are corrupt, easily tending to be abusive, unreliable, and therefore needing to be watched over. Lest you think this is an exaggeration, consider what Dr. James Dobson, a foremost exponent of conservative Christianity, has to say about children, from whom all the parents once came!

Therefore, with or without bad associations, children are naturally inclined toward rebellion, selfishness, dishonesty, aggression, exploitation, and greed. They don’t need to be taught these behaviors. They are natural expressions of their humanness.”2

His thinking is obviously built on the total depravity of man. 172 years before him, James Carter, a Massachusetts legislator, building on the same foundation wrote the following in 1826. It was part of his ultimately successful campaign to pass compulsory education laws. In speaking of children, he writes:

Their whole education, if it may be called by that name, is drawn from parental examples, which are not always the best, and are often times the most corrupt; and derived from the influence of surrounding society, which, all will acknowledge, contains abundantly enough of depravity to corrupt the propensities and pervert the tender principles of a child.”3

Forty years earlier, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a prominent Christian, statesman and physician, had written towards the same end, describing mankind in brute-like terms:

Man is naturally an ungovernable animal, and observations on particular societies and countries will teach us that when we add the restraints of ecclesiastical to those of domestic and civil government, we produce in him the highest degrees of order and virtue…

Our schools of learning, by producing one general and uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government…

Our country includes family, friends, and property, and should be preferred to them all. Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property. I consider it as possible to turn men into republican machines.4

Carter and Rush’s explicit goals were social change and social control. They speak approvingly of the homogenization of mankind. The public school system was created to achieve this goal.

This deep-seated view of the ineptitude, if not depravity of parents, people like you and me, is therefore shared, as a core value, between groups that are today seen as fiercely opposing forces in society: socially conservative Christians and socially liberal family “protection” and “planning” agencies and “child welfare advocates.” Of the later, Paul Roberts writes to the parents of America:

If you want to avoid ruin, understand that “child advocates” have succeeded in convincing school teachers, doctors, your neighbors — just about anyone who sees your child — that three out of four parents are child abusers.5

The Christian forerunners of compulsory education like Carter and Rush, as well as the advocates of the modern welfare state, do not explain how teachers or social workers or foster parents escape this general depravity. They assume that educated professionals are better suited to the care and training of children. In saying this, they are actually attempting to set up a new social order. You can look all around you to see the fruit of their way of thinking.

It is not hard to foresee the day when such powers in society will make common cause as they realize how advantageous the other is to their shared goals.6 Both the Presidential candidates spoke during the campaign, from their very different social and political viewpoints, of assisting “faith-based” welfare programs for this very reason. The victims of such programs and agencies will continue to be those parents who desire to pass their culture, habits, and ways of thinking to their children independent of the state’s control or oversight.

That is because force is the only way such activists have to get their way, since they do not have history, decency, common sense, and certainly not educational achievement on their side. It is an astonishing fact that in the two centuries of America’s history preceding compulsory education, America’s children were better educated, by every fundamental measure, than they have been since. As you consider this, know that the U.S. Supreme Court has already defined what those measures are, in ways that may surprise you. In 1972, in the case of Wisconsin v. Yoder,7 the Court identified the goals of compulsory education laws as:

  • Minimize the danger of child labor.

  • Prepare children for meaningful occupations so that they will not become a public charge.

  • Prepare children to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship.

The emphasis for the last thirty years in American politics on welfare reform alone tells you that the compulsory educational system of America has failed radically on its second purpose – keeping people off the welfare rolls. How has it done on fulfilling its third purpose, to prepare children to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship? Let’s compare the new system of state controlled education with the freer, public, private, and parental controlled, non-compulsory system of education that preceded it.

The famous French observer of American life, Alexis De Tocqueville, who traveled the United States extensively in 1831-1832, made the following amazing observation about education in America twenty years before the first compulsory education laws:

The mass of those possessing an understanding of public affairs, a knowledge of laws and precedents, a feeling for the best interests of the nation, and the faculty of understanding them, is greater in America than anyplace in the world.8

A century and a half after education was made compulsory, Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, would say before the November 7 election,

Young people no longer study current events or get tested on them… A large majority don’t discuss politics and a large minority are civicly illiterate.”9

De Tocqueville would not be able to repeat his words today, would he?

And lastly, what of the traditionally stated goals of public education, “reading, writing, and arithmetic?” In 1800 DuPont De Nemours was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to survey education in America. He could happily report to Jefferson that:

Most young Americans… can read, write, and cipher. Not more than four in a thousand are unable to write legibly – even neatly…10

Four in a thousand who can’t read and write translates into 99.6% who can! And this was 52 years before the first compulsory education laws. De Tocqueville especially praised the citizens of New England:

There has never been under the sun a people as enlightened as the population of the north of the United States. Because of their education they are more strong, more skillful, more capable of governing themselves and understanding their liberty; that much is undeniable.11

This being the situation, it may reasonably be asked, “What problem was compulsory education imposed upon America to fix?” It would seem as though something needs to be found to fix the solution. Estimates in 1981 of the numbers of people who were “functionally illiterate” are truly astonishing:

Those who can not read a want ad, bus schedule, or label on a medicine bottle – run as high as 25 million; another 34 million are just barely capable of simple reading tasks.12

So these people can read, but they cannot do what the Americans De Tocqueville saw in 1832 could do. They cannot govern themselves. They cannot even take care of themselves. They need, even demand that the government help them. They certainly do not understand their liberties – or they never would have handed over the education of their children to such a foundationally flawed, corrupt, and failing system as compulsory education!

So why does it stay in place, besides obvious self-serving reasons as the power of teachers’ unions? Gene I. Maeroff, education writer for the New York Times, cautions, “Make no mistake. Schools have been viewed by Congress primarily as instruments of social change.” Therefore, as Helen Hegener writes,

The benevolent teacher imparting knowledge to children has been replaced with a combination of psychological goals and restructured intellectual objectives. Schools have become the primary agency for eliminating social ills in this country, and for developing personal integrity and the national character. It has been a masterstroke to veil this design with an inspired long-term public relations campaign that has turned parents into staunch allies by proclaiming that “Education is the key to ’The Good Life!’”13

The “social change” and “national character” schools are now developing in students are actually homogenizing students’ thinking to embrace wider loyalties to a one-world government and economy. This is achieved by downplaying patriotism, “dumbing down” curriculum and training students for menial jobs, says former Department of Education official Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt.”14

Dr. Rush is prevailing, isn’t he? Karl Marx failed in his efforts to produce the “new socialist man,” which was supposed to come about through the removal of all the middle class concepts about individual rights. Dr. Rush desired his “republican machines.” They are not really any different as far as human freedom and dignity are concerned. Behold your teacher, America! Or maybe your pied piper…

Closing Thoughts

We mentioned the Wisconsin versus Yoder case earlier. In it the Justices of the Supreme Court said the following:

There is no doubt as to the power of the state, having a high responsibility for education of its citizens, to impose reasonable regulations for the control and duration of basic education. Providing public schools ranks at the very apex of the function of the state.15

“Control and Duration” are polite ways of saying compulsion and there is no doubt as to the power of the state. Did America’s founding fathers have any such thing in mind when they left education itself out of the Constitution? It says something about the mutation of the role of government in American life that it can change so greatly that a function not even conceived of at the time of the Revolution and Constitution can become its highest function. I will leave you to ponder what that means as I don’t know exactly myself.

However, historians do know it effect on the role of the father within his own family and how he viewed himself with the advent of compulsory education.

Increased mandatory schooling both symbolized and furthered the diminution of fathers’ roles as moral tutors and practical teachers… Fatherhood declined in this context, as a practical force in the lives of families and of men themselves.16

The state, with its new found most important function, grows great. The father, with his all-encompassing responsibility from God, diminishes. As the old saying goes, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Before we address that, the same historian of the family, Peter Stearns, finds agreement among the authorities as to what has happened to parental authority in the last fifty years:

Most authorities agree that the parental authority generally has deteriorated since World War II, as children increasingly respond to other voices including those of peers. Contacts between fathers and teenagers, particularly, have suffered as part of this pattern.

In this case, I would say the authorities are right. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this. Let’s look at it from the point of view of the family as an institution with certain functions, as the Supreme Court spoke of the institution of the government having functions:

An institution is defined by and gets its life from its purpose and functions. Take away those functions and the institution must, to some degree, die. That is true of the family. A primary function of the family is the raising of children, including cultivation of the intellect. To the extent the government usurps that function, the family withers. If government replaces parents as the educational decision-maker, they will tend to turn their attention elsewhere on the assumption that the government's certified experts are seeing to their children's intellectual development. The tragic irony is that the key to successful education is the support of parents. Moreover, if education has the illusion of being free of charge (of course, it is not), a bad situation is made worse as parents are relieved of the conscious responsibility for paying for a critical part of their children's upbringing. What appears to be free is undervalued.17

These statements are true in every aspect of a child’s life and of a family’s functioning. Whatever roles the government takes over (the “village” as former First Lady Hillary Clinton liked to put it) the family withers to that same extent. However, the government can never replace the family. Yet in the face of the family whose functioning it has usurped, whose parental authority it has diminished, and whose children it has improperly educated, it uses the damage it has caused to acquire more power and authority over the family. This cycle can only end at Dr. Rush’s desired goal, that America’s children will believe they are public property, as he wrote to the shame of the Declaration of Independence he had signed 10 years before. Unfortunately, many of America’s best and brightest educators, politicians, and philosophers have shared his thinking.

I would like to leave you, as parents or future parents, perhaps, with several quotes. Among them who share Rush’s views was the father of American public education, Horace Mann. He wrote of these poor creatures, the parents, that:

We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.

Perhaps sensing what was to come, and doing all that he could to prevent the terrible thing, that a son would be taken away from a father, which was probably happening in Europe even as he wrote, Thomas Jefferson also spoke the topic we have been. His words reach something in the conscience of mankind about who a father is. But it’s more a memory to us, because we have grown up in Horace Mann’s America, not Thomas Jefferson’s.

“It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated,” he said, “than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of the father.”18

A century and a half later, we can consider the fruit of Mann’s sacred cause.

  • 1. See, “Religious Freedom in the 21st Century”
  • 2. Dr. James Dobson, Focus on the Family, December, 1998, p. 5.
  • 3. Essays Upon Popular Education, containing a particular examination of the schools of Massachusetts, and an outline of an Institution for the education of teachers. By James G. Carter. (Boston: Bowles & Dearborn, 1826). This document may be downloaded from: http://www.schoolchoices.org/roo/carter1.htm.
  • 4. “Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic,” by Dr. Benjamin Rush (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1786).
  • 5. Paul C. Roberts, “The U.S. Child and Family Services Gestapo Targets Parents,” December 16, 2000. Also, 55% of all child-abuse investigations are eventually deemed “unfounded,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  • 6. Such cooperation is far advanced in the socially liberal Christian democracies of Europe.
  • 7. 406 U.S. 205 (1972)
  • 8. De Tocqueville quoted in G.W. Pierson, Tocqueville in America (Garden City, NY, Anchor Books, 1959), and p 350.
  • 9. “Low Voter Turnout Expected on Election Day,” by Garrick Utley, November 3, 2000, for CNN.
  • 10. Dupont de Nemours, National Education in the United States of America (Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1923), pp 3-5.
  • 11. See reference 8, p. 294.
  • 12. “Johnny Still Can’t Read: A Horror Story of the Computer Age,” Tulsa World, Aug. 23, 1981, Sec. 1, p. 1.
  • 13. Helen Hegener, “Jumping Through Hoops.”
  • 14. Iserbyt, Charlotte Thomson. “The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America.” (Sept. 1999: Conscience Press.)
  • 15. Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972)
  • 16. “Fatherhood in Historical Perspective and Social Change” by Peter N. Stearns. From the book Fatherhood and Families in Cultural Context, (Fredrick W. Bozett & Shirley M.H. Hanson, Editors. Springer Series: Focus on Men, Vol. 6, Springer Publishing Co. NY, NY). This article was published in the Fathers' National Review, Fall 1994.
  • 17. “End Compulsory Schooling” by Sheldon Richman and David B. Kopel, an Independence Institute Issues Paper, available at www.i2i.org.
  • 18. Loraine Smith Pangle and Thomas L. Pangle, “The Learning of Liberty: The Educational Ideas of the American Founders” (Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1993), p. 115.

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