The Historical Function of Government-School Education


I’ve finally gotten around to Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, which is worth reading but, published in 1953, has been so thoroughly absorbed into conservative thinking that well-rounded modern readers won’t be surprised by much.  In last night’s round, though, I couldn’t resist writing in the margins, “My, my.  We’re just repeating!”  On page 330 of the seventh revised edition published by Gateway, Kirk addresses the Fabian Society of the late 1800s, and writes:

… Socialism, said [conservative progenitor William] Lecky, was become something greater than a simple political scheme: “Its teaching has evidently permeated great masses of men with something of the force, and has assumed something of the character, of a new religion, rushing in to fill the vacuum where old beliefs and old traditions have decayed.”

Fabian literary socialism was calculated to appeal particularly to the new crowd of half-educated young people, trained in the state schools set up in compliance with the Education Act of 1870, augmented by the compulsory feature added in the Act of 1876, and crowned by the adoption of free schooling in 1891.  Industrialists had demanded the establishment of state schools to to supply technical training; they soon were to find that the stream of clerks and ambitious artisans whom  the schools produced could think of other things than efficient production.  As Denis W. Brogan remarks of the Western-educated clerical class in India, “The man who can keep accounts can also read John Stuart Mill, Macaulay, and Marx.”  By 1892, more than seven million pounds sterling was being spent annually by school boards in England and Wales.  This alone would have made necessary a radical revision of the taxation-system and a radically large increase in the amount of taxation.  Lecky perceived that the political value of education was overrated:  “The more dangerous forms of animosity and dissention are usually undiminished, and are often stimulated, by its influence.  An immense proportion of those who have learnt to read, never read anything but a party newspaper—very probably a newspaper specially intended to inflame or mislead them—and the half-educated mind is peculiarly open to political Utopias and fanaticism.” …

To be sure, from the distance of more than a century, we can see that this catch must be considered against a world-changing amount of good derived from broadly available education.  However, looking forward to the next century, we mustn’t forget the simple truism that a scale can change its tilt when the object on one side grows while the object on the other shrinks.  As government schools become dedicated to the indoctrination of students, with the final extreme imposition of the progressive worldview coming with increasingly mandatory higher education, which is also increasingly said to require taxpayer funding, the harm may well — may already — outweigh the benefit.  We must halt this effort to enslave us to the government through the chains of taxation collected and spent in order to enrich activists and brainwash our children.

Our focus should be on reversing the growth of the bad while preserving the size of the good of education.  This means empowering families with choice in elementary and secondary school and resisting the pretension that everybody needs a college degree.  If students aren’t prepared to begin adulthood out of high school, we’re letting our educators slide.