The Venerable Tradition of Opposing “Government Schools”

Writing in Monday’s New York Times, Katherine Stewart–author of 2012’s The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children–has purportedly uncovered what “what the ‘government schools’ critics really mean.” According to Stewart, those who criticize government schools “have their roots in American slavery, Jim Crow-era segregation, anti-Catholic sentiment and a particular form of Christian fundamentalism.” She then catalogues a litany of unsavory characters who opposed “government schools” because they believed in the righteousness of slavery or because they saw the schools as insufficiently fundamentalist.

I’m not going to directly address Stewart’s claims about people like Robert Lewis Dabney or James W. Fifield Jr., both of whom, according to her, opposed government schools for unsavory purposes. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Many policy proposals can attract unsavory people, but the mere existence of such adherents is not a sufficient reason to abandon the policy. If it was, then the fact that many early-20th century Progressive economists and social reformers championed the minimum wage because it would unemploy “racially undesirable” immigrants would be a sufficient reason to oppose the minimum wage.   

Instead, I’ll focus on two fundamental errors in Stewart’s article. First, she ignores the extensive historical provenance of critics of state education, i.e. “government schools.” To demonstrate this, I can’t do better than refer you to intellectual historian and contributor George H. Smith, who has done yeoman’s work on the history of critics of state education. Smith has paid particular attention to 19th century British Voluntaryists, such as Herbert Spencer and Auberon Herbert. In a series of essays on Cato’s, Smith tells the history of those critics. “Rather than giving to government the power to decide among conflicting beliefs and values,” writes Smith, “they [British Voluntaryists] preferred to leave beliefs and values to the unfettered competition of the market.” Smith continues:

One must appreciate this broad conception of the free market, which includes far more than tangible goods, if one wishes to understand the Voluntaryist commitment to competition and disdain for government interference.

British libertarians had a long heritage of opposition to state patronage and monopoly, reaching back to the Levellers of the early seventeenth century. The Voluntaryists, like their libertarian ancestors, believed that government interference in the market, whatever its supposed justification, actually serves special interests and enhances the power of government, thereby furthering the goals of those within the government. The various struggles against government intervention were seen by Voluntaryists as battles to establish free markets in religion, commerce, and education. It was not uncommon to find the expression “free trade in religion” among supporters of church-state separation; when the editor of the Manchester Guardian stated in 1820 that religion should be a “marketable commodity,” he was expressing the standard libertarian position.

When fellow free-traders, such as Richard Cobden, supported state education, the Voluntaryists took them to task for their inconsistency. Those who embrace free trade in religion and commerce but advocate state interference in education, argued Thomas Hodgskin (a senior editor of The Economist) in 1847, “do not fully appreciate the principles on which they have been induced to act.” “We only wonder that they should have so soon forgotten their free-trade catechism,” wrote another Voluntaryist, “and lent their sanction to any measure of monopoly.”

Before free-traders ask for state interference in education, Hodgskin argued, “they ought to prove that its interference with trade has been beneficial.” But this, by their own admission, they cannot do. They know that the effect of state interference with trade has always been “to derange, paralyze, and destroy it.” Hodgskin maintained that the principle of free trade “is as applicable to education as to the manufacture of cotton or the supply of corn.” The state is unable to advance material wealth for the people through intervention, and there is even less reason to suppose it capable of advancing “immaterial wealth” in the form of knowledge. Any “protectionist” scheme in regard to knowledge should be opposed by all who understand the principle of competition. Laissez-faire in education is “the only means of ensuring that improved and extended education which we all desire.”

Smith’s essays, as well as a forthcoming Smith-edited anthology of critics of state education to be published by Cato, give the lie to Stewart’s assertion that critics of “government schools” operate in the tradition of racists and fundamentalists. Instead, we operate in the tradition of people like Thomas Hodgskin–a man who straddled that strange area between libertarianism and socialism–and Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen.

Stewart’s second fundamental error is to conflate conservative and libertarian critics of state education. While I imagine Stewart thinks that there is hardly any meaningful difference between conservatives and libertarians–except perhaps to think that libertarians are more “radical”–the issue of the government provision of schools helps separate libertarians from conservatives and, in the process, demonstrates a fundamental difference between the two. Put simply: many conservatives do not actually oppose government schools, they only oppose government schools that they do not control. Libertarians, on the other hand, as we’ve seen with the British Voluntaryists, will oppose government schools even if they were libertarian.  

In that vein, Jesse Walker at Reason has discovered a significant error in Stewart’s piece that helps underscore this difference between conservative and libertarian views on education. Stewart cites Presbyterian minister A.A. Hodge as one of the first to use the phrase “government schools.” As Walker points out, Hodge was not against government schools, he was against centralized schools. Lest there be any doubt, here’s Hodge in his essay “Religion in the Public Schools”:

It is agreed that the perpetuity of a free state necessarily requires the general education of the people. It is also agreed that no agency can so effectually secure this necessary end as a school system supported by public taxation and controlled by the state herself.

Hodge feared the secularizing tendency of centralized schools, and he therefore wanted the government to control schools at a local level. Again, lest there be any doubt, here are Hodge’s words in his essay “The Engine of Atheism”:

I am as sure as I am of the fact of Christ’s reign that a comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion, as is now commonly proposed, would be the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of antisocial nihilistic ethics, individual, social and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen.

Strangely, and I would say dishonestly, Stewart quotes this passage as follows, completely distorting the meaning:

In 1887, he published an influential essay painting “government schools” as “the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of antisocial nihilistic ethics, individual, social and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen.”

Hodge clearly wasn’t talking about “government schools,” he was talking about a “comprehensive and centralized system of national education,” something akin to today’s common core.

Finally, racists and religious zealots have also conspired against private schools. In Oregon, in 1922, Walter Pierce won the governorship with the support of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan had become quite powerful in the state, and they were pushing for a compulsory education act, which would force children to go to “government schools.” Because the KKK was viciously anti-Catholic, eliminating private Catholic schools was one of the Act’s goals. After the law passed, one Catholic school, the Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, challenged the law on constitutional grounds. In 1925, in the case Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Court unanimously struck down Oregon’s law on the grounds that it violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Whether or not someone supports “government schools” often depends on whether they feel their views are being represented by the school. Conservatives have long believed that public schools are little better than watered-down communist indoctrination camps, and thus they’re often critical of public education. Similarly, if Ms. Stewart found her children’s school overtaken with fundamentalist propaganda, she might pull her kids out and send them to a private school. Libertarians often stand alone, criticizing the very idea of state education as a misguided and quixotic attempt to enforce “shared values”–i.e. those values that won 51 percent of the vote in the last election–on a population.

Rather than being the heirs of racists and fundamentalists, those who criticize government schools are part of proud tradition that includes classical liberals, voluntaryists, and proto-socialists. As Hodge shows, many conservatives are part of a different tradition: one that believes the state should engineer its citizens and only oppose government schools when they disagree with how the schools are being run.