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What Might Have Been - What Might Be

By Carl Watner

[Editor's Note: The following article is the "Introduction" to my anthology, HOMESCHOOLING: A HOPE FOR AMERICA (2010). This 258 page softcover book is available from The Voluntaryists for $20.00 postpaid to US addresses, $25 elsewhere.]

The responsibility of parents for the education of their children is deeply rooted in the spirit and history of America. In his book, IS PUBLIC EDUCATION NECESSARY?, Samuel Blumenfeld points out that there was no mention of education, much less "public/government" education in either the Declaration of Independence or the federal Constitution. Even if one were to argue that education fell within the jurisdiction of the states, rather than the national government, one is hard pressed to explain why only two of the constitutions of the original thirteen colonies (Pennsylvania and North Carolina) mentioned the subject. This absence of concern for what is today deemed to be one of the most central of government functions (both on the federal and state levels) is not too hard to explain.

Education, both before and after the American Revolution, was certainly not the responsibility of governments. The educational backgrounds of the signers of the Declaration and Constitution attest to the richness and diversity of the voluntary educational environment of the time. Their schooling encompassed "every conceivable combination of parental, church, apprenticeship, school, tutorial, and self-education." As Blumenfeld observes: "George Washington was educated by his father and half-brother, Benjamin Franklin was taught to read by his father and attended a private school for writing and arithmetic," and "Thomas Jefferson studied Latin and Greek under a tutor." [1] Charles Dabney, in his book UNIVERSAL EDUCATION IN THE SOUTH, reports that "a great advance in educational enterprises of a private and ecclesiastical character followed" the years after the American Revolution. "The wealthy established private schools. Academies and colleges were started wherever a few pupils could be gathered together and teachers found. A new ideal of education was in the making, ... ." [2] In 1798, Joseph Lancaster opened his first free school in London, England, followed by its spread to New York City in 1805. [3] In short, the "men who founded the United States were educated under the freest conditions possible" and it would have been strange to most of them, indeed, to think that government should have been a provider of education. [4]

This is our ideal, the "what might have been" for American education, and our hope for what might be. Yet, as every 21st Century reader knows, educational freedom in America has been nearly destroyed, so much so that even the validity of homeschooling has been challenged in many states. This collection of eclectic articles from THE VOLUNTARYIST, which has been published since 1982, is designed to make you think about educational freedom and political statism. It takes the following points for its main theme:

... Government schools are paid for by compulsory taxes. (Why is it assumed that the majority of parents would not willingly pay for their children's education? Why are they presumed guilty? At the very least, if taxes must be collected to pay for public schools, why not collect them only from those who refuse to educate their children and necessitate such schools?)

... Government schools depend on the coercion of compulsory attendance laws. (Why is it assumed that the majority of parents would not willingly educate their children? Why are they presumed guilty? At the very least, why not apply compulsory attendance laws only to those parents who refuse to educate their children? To teachers and state educators we ask: Do you think nobody would willingly entrust their children to you? Why do you have to collect your pupils by compulsion?) [5]

... Before the advent of government schools, parents were primarily responsible for the education of their children.

... The home has always been the main place where education occurred; and the parents were often the primary instructors of their children.

... Although restricted by every conceivable law and political regulation, it is the natural and common law right of the parents to direct the education of their children.

... Parents have a moral duty to educate their offspring. However, a child has no right to an education. (The common law held it as no offense for a parent not to educate his child.) [6]

... Government schools are designed to indoctrinate students in statolatry, in the worship of the State as the provider of all 'good' things. (A tax-supported educational system is the life-like representative of the totalitarian state.) [7]

... Someone or some institution must control the child. (Shall we have a free society with parental control of the child's education or an authoritarian society with state-controlled education?) [8]

... If there is any hope for America as a beacon of liberty and freedom it is to be found in home education.

How does voluntaryism relate to education? Voluntaryism is the philosophic doctrine that all the affairs of mankind should be voluntary. No one has the right to force another peaceful person to act as he or she wishes. Voluntaryism comes about naturally if no one does anything to prevent it. Voluntaryism was a term that originated in the early 1800s in England to identify those who advocated voluntary, as opposed to State, support of religion. It was later extended to those who opposed the coercive collection of taxes. Ultimately, those who shared this position realized that government would probably receive little revenue if it did not threaten jail time or confiscation of property to collect its taxes. In short, voluntaryists question the legitimacy of coercive political government because it initiates violence against those who would decline its protection because they want none, or would provide their own protection, or hire some other organization to provide them with protection. Furthermore, by its monopolization of services, government violates the rights of those individuals or groups of individuals who might choose to offer competing services to those offered by the government. Many voluntaryists see a parallel between government churches and government schools. If it is not proper to support a State church by compulsory attendance laws and coercive taxes, why should it be proper to support State schools in a similar manner? Why is one's spiritual health any less important than one's educational development? [9]

In a free society, no one owes anybody else food, shelter, clothing, medical care, or spiritual or intellectual growth. Respect for individual rights means that some may have more than they need, some less, but each person is or should be secure in what is theirs. Only then, whether they have lots or little, may they be disposed to be charitable or miserly with what they have. Voluntaryism in education follows from each person's self-ownership and rightful control of their property. Parents nurture their children. Teachers, tutors, and masters of apprentices offer their services. No coercive outside agency tells parents when, and where, and what and how to teach. This lack of any centralized agency directing education permits a tremendous variety of what to teach, as well as how to teach. Voluntaryism does not guarantee success, but it does allow for each family to experiment and find out what is best for them. Voluntaryism does not exhibit the one-size fits all approach of government schooling. There is nothing to prevent what works for one family to be imitated and copied, while a government monopoly almost assures us that mediocrity will rule. Parental-directed schooling, unlike government schooling, is not dominated by political considerations and compromises between competing interests and radically different constituencies.

All teaching and teachers are laden with values and beliefs. [10] Education can never be free of dogma. This is an inescapable fact of reality. Thus the question becomes: "Would one rather have a single educational monopolist deciding what is taught and how it is taught, or would one rather have each individual parent and family decide what they will teach or have taught to their children?" Family indoctrination may be just as thorough and enslaving as state indoctrination, but that situation would be far better than if "a universal education agency" were to have indoctrinated everybody in its dogma. As one advocate of diversity in indoctrination explained: if different families indoctrinate in different dogmas, "the dogmatic, indoctrinated product of one family's indoctrination will grow up to profess a different dogma than that of another family's indoctrinated offspring. Then, in social interactions among the various indoctrinated, differences of belief and lack of universality of dogma will become apparent to all, undermining in many the felt necessity of the dogmatic beliefs they were trained to hold." The fact that no monopolist can instill its dogma on a captive audience insures that whatever dogmas are taught will clash in a manner that will make many question their beliefs and lead them to rectify their mistaken beliefs, if they come to that conclusion. But "people in a society where universal indoctrination has been practiced would be less likely to discover the inhibition on their freedom since everyone, everywhere will attest to the putatively obvious truth of everything that person believes." [11] And in a society where government directs the people's education it is a certainty that the people will be taught that voluntaryism in education is dangerous and that government education is best. Who could imagine the government criticizing itself?

Thus, it is readily apparent that the public school is a tool of the State, an idea going back at least as far as Plato. Those who direct the schools "control a character-producing institution" that is an instrument of the "ruling elite to maintain and enhance their power." [12] Public education is simply one of the primary means of molding American children into tax-paying, law-abiding American adults, who rarely question the nature and legitimacy of their own government. As Jonathan Kozol notes: "The first and primary function of the U. S. public schools is not to educate good people, but good citizens. It is the function which we call in enemy nations state indoctrination." [13] John Taylor Gatto expands on this theme calling government schools WEAPONS OF MASS INSTRUCTION:

[M]andatory public education in this country ... was useful in creating not only a harmless electorate and a servile labor force but also a virtual herd of mindless consumers. In time a great number of industrial titans came to recognize the enormous profits to be had by cultivating and tending such a herd via public education, ... . School trains children to be employees and consumers. ... [W]ake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate [and political] society demand... . [I]ts real purpose is to turn them into servants. [14]

When homeschooling parents have been challenged in court for violating the state's education law, rarely are the educational achievements of their children called into question. The accomplishments of the children (whether they have met the state requirements for their grade levels or not) are usually beside the point. The welfare of the child is not the concern of the State. The courts do not consider how well the child is educated, but only whether or not the child is receiving a government-approved education and if the appropriate rules and regulations were followed. [15] If the State were truly concerned with neglected and illiterate children, it would take corrective action to save those children its own educational system has failed to teach to read or write.

It is likely that some children receive a worse education under a government regime than they would in the absence of political laws. This is consistent with the nature of government intervention. Even from the point of view of its supporters, government action often makes conditions worse than before it interfered. If we examine the "Six Political Illusions" enunciated by James L. Payne we can begin to understand how this happens:

1. Since government has no funds of its own, "money spent on government programs must be taken from citizens who have good and useful purposes for their own funds. Therefore, all government spending programs injure these good and useful activities."

2. Government is based on the exercise of physical force to accomplish its ends. "Its taxes and regulations rely on the threat of inflicting physical harm on those who do not cooperate."

3. Government programs "have high overhead costs. Goods or services provided through a tax and spend system end up costing several times as much as they would if citizens obtained these goods or services directly" on the market.

4. "Money is only one factor in success. If the motivation and abilities of recipients are not suitable ... government spending will be useless, or can do more harm than good."

5. "Government has no superior wisdom. Government officials are ordinary people, as prone to bias, intolerance, greed, and error as anyone" else.

6. Government would have us think that it is a problem-solving institution, but it cannot duplicate the "the creative actions of individuals, families, neighborhoods, groups, and businesses. Problem-solving efforts by government almost invariably impair the energy and capacity of the voluntary sphere." [16]

It is easy to see how every one of these illusions applies to government education, and why voluntaryists are more concerned with the means than the ends. Voluntaryists understand Mahatma Gandhi's insight that "if one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself." If they rely on voluntaryism and don't use coercion to educate their children, they not only set their children a moral, non-violent example (not relying on tax funds which are forcibly collected), but they generally do at least as good, if not a much better, practical job of preparing their children for life than the State. Voluntaryism has no formal guidelines that will dictate what kinds of education will take place in a free society. So long as the means are peaceful, respectful of self-ownership and property titles, the ends cannot be criticized from the voluntaryist perspective. This is not to imply that the only standard of judging human behavior is whether or not it is voluntary. Certainly some behavior may be irrational, vicious, immoral, religious, irreligious, (etc., etc.) but the first question the voluntaryist asks is: Is it truly voluntary? This is why the voluntaryist objects to government provision of dispute settlement, police services, schools, etc. Such services may be essential to human survival, but it is not essential that they be provided by government on a coercive basis. There is no logical, epistemological, or societal justification for forcing goods or services upon unwilling customers. The political attempts of 2009-2010 to impose universal national healthcare is just the latest government-mandated service being forced upon people (those who have to pay taxes to support other people's medical care, and those who would prefer to make provisions for their own healthcare).

Education in a free society is the responsibility of every parent. Some parents will be irresponsible. Some will be responsible for the education of their own children. Others may choose to become responsible for the education of children that are not their own. That is the beauty of freedom. Each person must inevitably make their own choice, or choose to make none at all (though indeed, they have no choice; reality will make it for them if they fail to make a choice themselves). The kind of character we develop individually goes far in determining what kind of collective society we shall have. But after all is said and done, the only thing we, individually, can do is "to present society with one improved unit." As Albert Jay Nock put it, "Ages of experience testify that the only way society can be improved is by the individualist method; ... that is, the method of each one doing his best to improve one." [17] This is the quiet or patient way of changing society because it concentrates upon bettering the character of men and women as individuals. As the individual units change, the improvement in society will take care of itself. In other words, if one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.

What better description of homeschooling could one pen?

THE VOLUNTARYIST insight into education offers a unique and seldom heard point of view about children, schooling, and the State. Many of these essays may make you fume but please let them help you think through the issues. But above all else, as Shakespeare wrote: "To thine own self be true: And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."

End Notes

[1] Samuel L. Blumenfeld, IS PUBLIC EDUCATION NECESSARY?, Old Greenwich: The Devin-Adair Company, 1981, pp. 20-21.

[2] Charles Dabney, UNIVERSAL EDUCATION IN THE SOUTH, Volume I: From the Beginnings to 1900, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1936, p. 3.

[3] Erica Carle, "Education Without Taxation," THE FREEMAN, March 1962, pp. 48-55 at pp. 48 and 50.

[4] Blumenfeld, op. cit., p. 21.

[5] Murray Rothbard, EDUCATION, FREE AND COMPULSORY: THE INDIVIDUAL'S EDUCATION, Wichita: Center for Independent Education, 1972, p. 17 citing Isabel Paterson, THE GOD OF THE MACHINE. See Chapter XXI of the Caxton Printers edition, 1964, p. 274.

[6] Robert P. Baker, "Statute Law and Judicial Interpretation," in William F. Rickenbacker (editor), THE TWELVE YEAR SENTENCE, LaSalle: Open Court, 1974, pp. 97-135 at p. 100.

[7] Rothbard, op. cit., p. 15.

[8] Ibid., p. 11.

[9] See Herbert Spencer, THE PROPER SPHERE OF GOVERNMENT (a series of twelve letters published in THE NONCONFORMIST, beginning June 1842, and reprinted as pamphlet in 1843). Especially see the conclusion to Letter VIII. Available on the worldwide web in the Library of Economics and Liberty at

[10] Gerrit H. Wormhoudt, "Supreme Court Decisions," in William F. Rickenbacker (editor), THE TWELVE YEAR SENTENCE, LaSalle: Open Court, 1974, pp. 61-94 at p. 81.

[11] J. Roger Lee, "Limits on Universal Education," in Tibor R. Machan (editor), EDUCATION IN A FREE SOCIETY, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2000, pp. 1-25 at pp. 23-24.

[12] Joel H. Spring, "Sociological and Political Ruminations," in William F. Rickenbacker (editor), THE TWELVE YEAR SENTENCE, LaSalle: Open Court, 1974, pp. 139-159 at pp. 140-142.

[13] Jonathan Kozol, THE NIGHT IS DARK AND I AM FAR FROM HOME, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975, p.1.

[14] John Taylor Gatto, WEAPONS OF MASS INSTRUCTION: A School Teacher's Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling, Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2009, pp. xix-xx, and p. xxii. Gatto admonishes: "School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently." (p. xxii) After reciting many success stories of 'unschooled' but educated children, he concludes "that genius [among children] is common as dirt. We suppress genius because we haven't yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves." (p. xxiii)

[15] Baker, op. cit., pp. 130-131.

[16] James L. Payne, SIX POLITICAL ILLUSIONS, privately distributed manuscript dated November 19, 2009. See Chapter VII, p. 107.

[17] Albert Jay Nock, MEMOIRS OF A SUPERFLUOUS MAN, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1943, p. 307.