Education and Liberty

In a recent thread on schools and gifted children, one of our frequent commenters said a couple of things that I think bear further discussion. First, she said:

I do believe there are successful public schools.

Well, I do too. I happen to be, from an education perspective, a product of public schools. My first two years of school were in a private school, actually, and everything else was public education. Including university for that matter (California State University). But, I sincerely believe, based on my current experience with the public education system in two different states, that the typical public education today is mediocre, at best. Then again, I don’t define success as attendance, standardized test scores and a diploma.

A significant portion of the problem here is what we define as a successful school. I consider a school to be successful that teaches students to learn and think critically. That, of course, is not in the mission statements of most schools today. In fact, I find the opposite today. I find that schools teach students to accept what authority tells them and that it teaches them to pass standardized tests rather than think critically about the material presented. Most schools view their mission as preparing children to become part of the workforce, I think an education is about being a successful citizen.

By any measure I can find, our current education system is failing, even its own defined criteria.

The fact that a few schools succeed proves the rule when we call them out as examples of what all schools could be.

The next thing our commenter said was:

I also believe that if we must continue to have government that works and a successful country, we need public schools. I think they are essential to democracy.

While there is a certain strength to this statement, it isn’t quite right in my opinion. I would say that in order to have a successful, liberal society we need schools that work. They are essential to the preservation of liberty.

Now, it seems obvious to me, that education and liberty go hand in hand. Democracy is a means, just as education is, to a desired end. That desired end, which I believe is a common goal of the great majority of the commenters and contributors on this site, is a liberal society, one that values the individual and individual rights above the collective whole. It is possible, although reasonably unlikely, to have liberty without democracy. It is quite possible to have democracy with no liberty, as we see daily around the world.

It is entirely improbably that you could have a liberal society without education. Given that, a liberal society should provide a mechanism where all citizens receive an education to a certain level. However, it seems to me, that a truly liberal society would provide publicly funded education as a safety net for those citizens that cannot provide an education themselves. A mandatory education monopoly, such as we currently have, is not a product of a liberal society. In fact, it has, in the past, been used for distinctly illiberal ends, and continues to be today.

While vouchers may not produce a perfect system, I tend to believe that competition will always work better than a given government monopoly. The sad thing about Utah’s approach is that it will isolate the public schools from market competition. There will be no incentive to improve their offering, leading to a unique situation where the public schools will actually do better financially when a student leaves the school for a private one than when the student stays. Still, many students will benefit from leaving the failed public school system.

The bottom line is two-fold. Education is essential to the preservation of liberty. Our current approach to education is a failure.

  • Jason

    “I also believe that if we must continue to have government that works and a successful country, we need public schools. I think they are essential to democracy.”

    I think her point was more about equal opportunity than simply education. Without public schools, only rich people’s children would be educated, and would then become rich and further the cycle. The children of middle class parents wouldn’t have the opportunity to succeed in a society in which they had no access to education.

  • Quincy

    Jason –

    I believe you’re making a very fundamental error in assuming that only the “rich” would be able to afford schooling were the public school system not present. The tremendous amount of money taken out of the economy by the public school system would be more than enough to ensure each and every child a good education in a vibrant marketplace. Also, a vibrant education marketplace would preclude, through market forces, severe dysfunction like that which plagues many public schools.

    All in all, if the transition is made well (not like CA’s “deregulation” of energy), moving to a mostly private school system would produce significant improvements in education.

  • Adam Selene


    Please note that I believe a liberal society (liberal in the classic sense of the word) would provide publicly funded education as a safety net. That said, I think we are all mistaken if we think only the rich will be educated in a scenario where we have a competitive market. If you look at the statistics, it is the poor that try hardest to provide an education to their children, because they know that education is the great equalizer. Our current system, which creates such mediocrity for the poor in our education system, is the anti-thesis of equality of opportunity. If you are wealthy, you can send your children for a fantastic education. If you are poor, you send your children for the mediocre dregs that are our public schools.

  • Jason

    I understand that competitive education would be of a much higher quality than our current system.

    I’m just a little worried about the minority of children whose parents wouldn’t pay for their schooling. I think it is unfair to punish someone for another person’s mistakes, in this case punishing a child for their parents’ mistake of not sending them to school.

  • Adam Selene

    How is that any different from today when that same minority doesn’t make their children actually study and learn? I would suggest that the outcome would be much better. The goal is to improve the outcome, not achieve perfection, right?