Teaching Hostility

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The public
schools have a sort of sacred character in America. In the mainstream
of acceptable political opinion, even those who sharply criticize
the failings of the existing system do not criticize the idea
of the public school system, only failings of implementation. The
schools themselves are sacrosanct, temples of the civic religion.

Chief among
the supposed virtues of public education is its value as a unifying
force. Public schools, we are endlessly told in mainstream histories,
statist "good government" accounts of how society works,
and teacher union propaganda, bind the community together by joining
us in a common venture and inculcating common values. Without them,
the social fabric would come apart, and our communities would be
less united and harmonious.

As is so often
the case, the government's services do no not work as advertised.
Exactly the opposite is the truth. Far from uniting people, government
provision of education encourages conflict and makes it harder for
people of differing beliefs to get along. Consider the intense arguments
about what should be taught in public schools. Should children be
taught to regard evolution as a firm fact, or a disputed issue?
What, if anything, should they be they taught about sex, abstinence,
and contraception? What should they be taught about history? Should
there be prayer in schools? What sort of content is appropriate
for school libraries?

These arguments
are often quite rancorous, and not without reason. Who wouldn't
resent not only having their children indoctrinated in opinions
they find foolish or immoral, but being forced to pay for the privilege?
By bringing education into the political sphere — that is, into
the part of society where decisions are made by coercion — peaceful
coexistence between people of differing opinions is made impossible.
We cannot simply agree to disagree; the government school has to
teach something, and so anyone who cares strongly about what
his child is being taught or what ideas and doctrines his tax dollars
are used to promulgate must enter the fray against his fellow citizens.

I believe that
much of the anger, intolerance, and hatred between people of different
beliefs and cultures in this country comes from this. Under normal
circumstances, unless I am a particularly intolerant person, I have
little reason to strongly dislike a person whose religious or philosophical
beliefs differ from my own. If that person starts using the state
to push those beliefs on me or my children, however, I suddenly
have a reason to regard him as an enemy; and the existence of public
schooling that the vast majority of people use, and everyone pays
for, means that you must fight to force your beliefs and
philosophy of education on others, or others will force theirs on
you.

If we had a
free market in education, we could get along much more easily. If
I want my children taught about evolution, and my neighbor wants
his taught about a literal six-day creation, that's fine. We don't
need to fight it out over which of us will be forced to subsidize
the other's opinions. We can each educate our own children as we
wish; neither of us need worry that our children are being indoctrinated
into beliefs we find disagreeable. I won't be forced to pay for
his preference, and he won't be forced to pay for mine. Our differing
beliefs might still cause discord, but a major cause of potential
conflict has been defused. There will still be people who will want
their own beliefs forced on everybody by the state, but in the absence
of a coercively funded monopoly that people concerned about education
must fight for control of, far more people will be willing to live
and let live.

The government's
role in education has many costs — in money, in liberty, in the
well-being and futures of children. The cost in social harmony and
tolerance has been less commented on and is harder to quantify,
but it is real and important. It is long past time we stopped paying
it.

January
27, 2007

John
Markley [send him mail]
is a freelance newspaper reporter from Illinois. He maintains a
blog at The Superfluous
Man
.

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