People for the Prussian Way

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People for the Prussian Way

by James Ostrowski by James Ostrowski

“It is better to tolerate that rare instance of a parent’s refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings by a forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of his father.”

~ Thomas Jefferson

I’ll never win an Emmy but I did win a Lear. I was recently attacked by Norman Lear’s People for the "American" Way. In a lengthy report attacking the privatization of education, I am called "vicious," "shrill," "arrogant" and "irresponsible" for opposing our Prussian-style system of compulsory education. My Lear-winning essay also appears in my new book, Political Class Dismissed.

Being attacked by a prominent and wealthy group of limousine liberals is a great honor. Others so honored include: Joseph Bast, Samuel L. Blumenfeld, R. Cort Kirkwood, Joseph Farah, Richard Ebeling, Ilana Mercer, Milton Friedman, Gary North, Wendy McElroy and Marshall Fritz. What a team!

Limousine liberals are wealthy people, usually white, who usually live in wealthy white neighborhoods, but who insist on telling the poor, minorities and the working class how to live and with whom to live. Limousine liberals or their forebearers brought us the war on drugs (million man march to prison), urban renewal (people removal), public housing (resembling prisons), the Vietnam War (mass murder), and government schools — also resembling prisons — most of them wouldn’t think of sending their children to.

Limousine liberals are elitists who think that common folk are just too stupid to live in freedom. Though their rhetoric emphasizes their deep concern and compassion for the common man, their true feeling is one of contempt for his ability to function without continual external direction from "the best and the brightest."

So they support centralizing power in distant capitals and glorify those like Lincoln who made it all possible. (See, Mario Cuomo’s new book.) With education, centralizing power in state capitals was not enough. They had to set up a Department of Education in Washington, so the ultra-elites can issue orders to the mid-level elites. And they call me "arrogant"!

They called me "irresponsible" because I said that public schools can’t be reformed. They should have accused me of being a master of the obvious. The defects in public schools are inherent in their nature. It’s virtually self-evident that, like any taxocracy, public schools will be run for the benefit of those who have the power: politicians, bureaucrats and special interest groups. The problem is the power; the politicians, teachers’ unions and bureaucrats have it; the parents, taxpayers and students don’t. Eliminate the asymmetrical power relationship and you eliminate the public school. Ironically, "irresponsibility" is a vice not of my analysis, but of the public school system itself. In some sense, that’s what power means: lack of responsibility for your actions: irresponsible.

As for my other transgression, this is what I wrote:

Government schools introduce and reinforce the bureaucratic mentality, the opposite of a free and spontaneous attitude toward life. To the bureaucratic mind, life is about unthinking adherence to a set of arbitrary rules of behavior established by superiors in a chain of command. No heavy thinking is required; just follow orders. By their very nature, such rules do not differentiate between individuals, but treat all as a mass. Twelve years of habituation to such a mode of living generally inoculates students from resistance to the bureaucratic state they will be suffering under for the remainder of their lives.

Though many government school products survive the experience with their minds intact, many hundreds of thousands emerge ill-equipped, intellectually or morally, to function independently in today’s world. These misfits fill out the ranks of petty criminals, welfare recipients, drug users, and beggars of one form or another. Naturally, the existence of such folk leads to calls for more social service programs, police, prisons, and more spending on education! In this way, government creates its own demand, as the failure of one government program provides the impetus for the next one.

The offending underlined passage is an understatement. Ninety percent of Americans attend public primary or secondary schools. Let’s see. We have millions of petty criminals and welfare recipients, hundreds of thousands of heavy drug users and surely tens of thousands of beggars. So, I should have said "millions." How was understating the damage done by public schools "vicious"?

Let me make a confession, though, just to prove how un-vicious I am. I think that sometimes we libertarians put too much blame for the poor performance of many public school students on the schools themselves. The parent(s) must share the blame. Don’t expect a child to learn much who is a hyped-up sugar junkie who has never seen a book in the home but who watches seven hours of blaring television each day. So, let’s concede that many students come to school unprepared to learn and public schools can’t do much with them.

I am willing to make this small concession; to lose the battle; to win the war. The core rationale for compulsory, tax-supported education is to prevent poor parents or lousy parents from depriving their children of an education. When critics point out the poor performance of public schools compared to private schools, however, its defenders invariably blame the poverty of the students or their lousy parents. Since public schools have failed to overcome the very problems they are supposed to solve, there is little to lose in closing them and everything to gain.

The war is over. Let’s liberate this Prussian conscript student army, fire the generals and puts the barracks up for sale.

July 1, 2004

James Ostrowski is an attorney in Buffalo, New York and author of Political Class Dismissed: Essays Against Politics, Including "What’s Wrong With Buffalo." See his website at

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