Thanks for The Wakeup Call, Mr. President

It’s one thing for a president to encourage kids to work hard and stay in school – that’s a reasonable use of the bully pulpit. It’s another thing entirely, however, to have the U.S. Department of Education send detailed instructions to schools nationwide on how to glorify the president and presidency, and prod schools to drive social change. Yet as Andrew Coulson has already begun to discuss, the latter is what President Obama, audaciously, has done.

This is, of course, a very troubling turn of events, giving rise to very legitimate fears of political and social indoctrination even if it turns out that those aren’t at all the President’s motives. Perhaps, though, this is also a blessing in disguise. As many liberals and conservatives push for national academic standards and other centralizing education reforms, this situation brilliantly illustrates why government schooling is totally antithetical to a free society, and why the more centralized the power, the greater the danger.

Some background: In anticipation of the president’s planned September 8 address to students nationwide, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent a letter and detailed “classroom activities” with all sorts of alarming buzzwords and guidance to schools across the country. In his letter, Duncan asserts that the work of educators is “critical to…our social progress.” It’s a statement that suggests – as many educators have held and continue to hold – that it is the job of public schools to impose values, often collectivist, on students. Fear that this might be the case is reinforced by suggested classroom activities in the department’s guidance for pre-K-6 students that encourage children to make posters setting out “community and country” goals. Perhaps even more frightening is the lesson being pushed that it is important to listen to “the President and other elected officials.” Possibly most distressing of all, though, is guidance that appears explicitly designed to glorify both the presidency and President Obama himself, encouraging schools to prepare for the speech “by reading books about presidents and Barack Obama.” Finally, schools are told to ask students how president Obama will “inspire” them in his speech before he gives it, and how they were inspired after Obama has spoken.

This is very disturbing, making crystal clear the huge dangers that attend government-controlled education. Ultimately, politicians will use power over education for their own ends, something fully at odds with a free society. And this is just the most stark manifestation of the inherent incompatibility of freedom and government education. As I have emphasized constantly since publication of my paper Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict, every day free people are pitted against one another, forced to defend their freedom and basic values because they all have to support a single system of government schools. Evolution vs. creationism. Prayer in – or not in – schools. Books with offensive material in libraries. Decisions over whose history will be taught, and whose won’t. The curtailment of freedom goes on and on when government takes everyone’s money and provides schools with it. And the more we centralize education – the more diverse people we force to support one system of schools – the greater the cost to liberty.

All of which makes one thing obvious: The only system of learning compatible with a truly free society is not one of government domination, but one rooted in educational choice – public education, not schooling – in which the public assures that all people can access education, but parents are free to choose their children’s schools and educators are free to educate how they wish.

For too long we have ignored freedom when it’s come to education, sacrificing liberty for “test scores” or “efficiency.” As a result, we’ve gotten neither good test scores nor efficiency while fomenting constant social conflict and building increasingly dangerous government control over our children and our lives. But hopefully some good will come of this troubling Obama administration initiative, issuing a desperately needed wakeup call to all Americans about the great damage government education can inflict on otherwise free people.