The Central Fallacy Of Public Schooling
When World War II ended, Congress authorized a tax cut to take effect January 1, 1946. Young America, a publication distributed through public schools, ran an article in its December 13, 1945, issue discussing the measure and presenting a brief history of American taxation. The article concluded with a section titled “Then & Now: Taxes Serve Us.”
This article was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in The Freeman, Vol. 49 No. 9 (September 1999).
“One hundred years ago,” the writer stated, “our government helped the citizens by maintaining order. It did little else. Its expenses were low, and so taxes were low.” He then quoted Benjamin Franklin’s observation in Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1758: “It would be a hard government that should tax its people one-tenth part of their income.” The Young America writer continued, “In 1940, our Federal, State and local governments taxed us one-fifth of our incomes. But Franklin could not have guessed the tremendous growth of this country.” (Emphasis in original.)
The writer then offered justification for such high taxes: “As students, our young citizens are given school buildings. Our government does hundreds of things for us in our everyday life.” He finished with a quotation from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “I like to pay taxes. It is purchasing civilization.”
The article vividly illustrates the overriding intent of public schooling, which has always been indoctrination of the young.
Who’s in Charge?
Indoctrination itself is not illegitimate. In fact, it is an intrinsic part of child rearing. Out of love and concern, parents explicitly or implicitly formulate desired outcomes for the young lives they have created. Parents generally hope their children will adhere to their own traditions and belief systems, which they attempt to inculcate.
The question parents must face is, “Who will do the indoctrinating?” Schooling is an adjunct to child rearing. The schooling options available force parents to make decisions regarding the level of autonomy they wish to exercise. They retain the greatest control over their children’s developing beliefs by schooling them at home. An alternative is to enroll their children in an institution where they are certain the indoctrination conforms to their own values, such as a religious school.
When parents send a child to a tax-funded school, they sacrifice their autonomy to alien interests. The state has goals of its own that are distinct from those of parents. Parents are able to economize by availing themselves of a “free” school, but the bargain is Faustian. The child is subjected to indoctrination outside parental control. The price of tax-funded schooling is that parents give up their children to become instruments of the state.
Under totalitarian regimes, the subjugation of parental belief systems to those of the state is blatant. Schoolchildren are propagandized into the doctrines of the leadership, their thoughts molded to the state’s purposes.
But even under a “democratic” regime the state operates manipulatively for its own ends. Those who govern generally like to continue governing. Their governance is more easily maintained when the governed are passive and docile. The state propaganda machine must convince the citizenry of government’s benevolence. Schoolchildren are taught, as in the Young America article, that government “gives” them things and “does” things for them.
Government schools inevitably become battlegrounds for control by ideological adversaries. The nature of the indoctrination changes as advocates of particular ideologies wax and wane in their power to influence curricula. The constant is that parents have relinquished direct control over what their children are taught to believe.
This battle has been going on ever since the modern public school emerged in the first half of the 1800s. Education historian Joel Spring stated, “In the Western world of the nineteenth century, various political and economic groups believed that government-operated schools could be a mechanism for assuring the distribution of their particular ideology to the population. In this sense, public schools were the first mass medium designed to reach an entire generation.”1
Indoctrination through compulsory schooling originated early in the nation’s history. Massachusetts Bay Colony was organized unabashedly as a theocratic government that required citizens to adhere to stipulated religious beliefs. In 1642 the Massachusetts General Court passed an act requiring compulsory education of children and giving town selectmen the authority to maintain orthodox teaching and punish recalcitrant parents. The civil government was in charge of the schools, which were supported by taxes. R. Freeman Butts and Lawrence A. Cremin wrote, “Here was the principle that government had authority to control schools, and it was well enunciated in the New England colonies early in their histories. It was a principle of great importance, for it set a precedent in American life establishing the authority of the state to promote education as a public and civil matter.”2
However, private schoolmasters were in business in Boston by the mid-1660s, according to records examined by Robert Francis Seybolt. The number of private teachers gradually enlarged to the end of the seventeenth century, partly in response to market demand. He wrote, “The two public schools [in Boston] . . . admitted only boys who were at least seven years of age and had learned to read. Girls as well as boys were welcome, at any age, in the private schools.”3
In the 1700s in New England, Butts and Cremin noted, private schools flourished as “colonial legislatures showed a slackening of effort to require compulsory education and gave greater freedom to private groups to educate children in schools of their own preference.”4
A wide variety of curricula was offered in eighteenth-century Boston private schools, Seybolt found. “Unhampered by the control of the town meeting, and little influenced by traditional modes of procedure, these institutions were free to grow with the town. This they did as conditions suggested it. The result was a remarkably comprehensive program of instruction which appears to have met every contemporary educational need.”5
Seybolt articulated the benefits of private-sector schooling. “The private schools were free to originate, and to adapt their courses of instruction to the interests of the students. The masters sought always to keep strictly abreast of the time, for their livelihood depended on the success with which they met these needs. No such freedom or incentive was offered the masters of the public schools.”6
This principle was overwhelmed by the swelling tide of nationalism of the early 1800s. Proponents of common schools, or tax-funded elementary schools requiring compulsory attendance, viewed them as crucial vehicles for indoctrinating young people in Americanism. The movement intensified as immigration increased from continental European cultures that lacked democratic traditions. Benjamin Labaree, president of Middlebury College in Vermont, expressed popular fears in an 1849 lecture before the American Institute of Instruction. He asked, “Shall these adopted citizens become a part of the body politic, and firm supporters of liberal institutions, or will they prove to our republic what the Goths and Huns were to the Roman Empire?”7
Chauvinistic indoctrination becomes a useful tool of the state in wartime, as when President Woodrow Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to build support for American participation in World War I and to blunt opposition by constituencies with European roots. The nation’s high schools were prime propaganda targets and received hundreds of thousands of copies of a CPI-produced pamphlet designed to stir anti-German sentiment. “Germany does not really wage war,” the pamphlet stated.
“She assassinates, massacres, poisons, tortures, intrigues; she commits every crime in the calendar, such as arson, pillage, murder, and rape.”8 Joel Spring commented, “From the standpoint of the public schools, [the CPI] was the first major attempt to bring the goals of locally controlled schools into line with the policy objectives of the federal government.”9
An influential CPI official was William Bagley, who “believed that local control of educational policy was a major hindrance in adapting the public schools to the needs of the United States as a world leader. . . . The combination of the war and the new national spirit opened the door for the federal government to exercise leadership in a national educational policy. Included in Bagley’s proposals was a call for federal financing of the public school system.”10
During the 1920s, local schools suffered for being dominated by the wrong kinds of people on their boards, according to public-school champion George S. Counts. His research showed that “for the most part, [board members] are drawn from the more favored economic and social classes. They are also persons who have enjoyed unusual educational advantages. . . . No longer is the ordinary American community homogeneous as regards interests, philosophy, and ideals. Hence the need of guarding the integrity of the various minority groups.”11 The laboring classes were expressing “lack of confidence in the public school on the ground that it is under the control of the great capitalistic and employing interests.”12 As the high school of that era evolved and expanded in curricula, he noted, “the institution offers itself as a powerful agency of propaganda to any group able to secure dominion over it.”13
Since then the dominion of the federal government over schooling has grown to a scope of which Bagley would approve. Its power, abetted by the activism that the collectivist Counts advocated for teacher organizations, enables it to be the leading propagandist in educational policy.
But the nationalist Bagley would be disappointed in the ideology that has accompanied the federal growth. The current pre-eminent public-school propaganda indoctrinates students in an anti-nationalistic collectivist environmentalism. Meanwhile, Counts’s “capitalistic and employing interests” attempt to re-establish influence because so many products of public schools need remediation before they can become employable.
Proponents of public schooling argue against the complete privatization of schooling on the grounds that the poor would not be able to afford tuition and that some parents would not provide schooling for their children, leaving them “uneducated.” However, the rampant levels of ignorance, subliteracy, and hostility to learning that characterize tax-funded schools argue that the present system is itself not serving the best interests of students.
Instead it is clear whose interests are being advanced. Fifty-four years ago the writer in Young America was moved to emphasize in italics that era’s apparently high tax rates. Since then the average tax burden has doubled. Yet, as one of my acquaintances has commented, “Americans today are in a stupor.” In other words, the tax-supported school system has triumphed. Americans are behaving exactly the way those who govern desire them to behave.
Children who are turned over to the state become molded by the state. Most parents cannot conceive of a totally privatized alternative because they themselves have been indoctrinated by public schooling to believe in its alleged necessity. However, it is fallacious for parents to think that children can escape government schooling without having their traditions and beliefs subverted. “Free” schooling is seductively attractive in the short run, but it has long-term costs. The dismantling of tax-funded schooling will not be accomplished until more and more parents say, “My child does not belong to the state.” 
1. Joel Spring, Images of American Life: A History of Ideological Management in Schools, Movies, Radio, and Television (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), p. 2.
2. R. Freeman Butts and Lawrence A. Cremin, A History of Education in American Culture (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1953), p. 103.
3. Robert Francis Seybolt, The Private Schools of Colonial Boston (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1935), p. 9.
4. Butts and Cremin, p. 103.
5. Seybolt, p. v.
6. Ibid., p. 92.
7. Quoted in Butts and Cremin, p. 192.
8. Quoted in Spring, p. 25.
9. Ibid., p. 27.
10. Ibid., p. 21.
11. George S. Counts, The Social Composition of Boards of Education (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1927), pp. 82, 97. See also Daniel Hager, “Educational Savior?” The Freeman, June 1999.
12. Ibid., p. 86.
13. Ibid., p. 91.
About The Author
Daniel Hager is a writer and consultant in Lansing, Michigan. The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), one of the oldest free-market organizations in the United States, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read to study and advance the freedom philosophy. FEE's mission is to offer the most consistent case for the "first principles" of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.
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