Public Education Is Going Down

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by Gary North: The
Best Turn-Down for a Date I Ever Got, and What I Learned FromIt



I am working
with a young man who turned 18 in December. You know what he got
for his birthday? A B.A. degree from an accredited

His parents
paid for tuition: under $15,000. The college awarded him his degree
for work performed. He did the whole thing at home.

Is this a
better way to go to college? You bet it is.

Are more parents
going to figure this out? I hope to persuade them.

Is boola-boola
at a distant campus worth $100,000 or more, plus five years instead
of four? Not to wise parents and students.

Is earning
a college degree at 18 better than earning a high school diploma?
That family thought so.

What do you


There have
been three models for parent-controlled education throughout history.

  1. Parents
    teach their own children.
  2. A family
    hires a tutor to teach its children.
  3. Families
    join together and hire a tutor.

The first
establishes a family’s control over the content and structure of
education. But with the invention of the printing press, families
have surrendered control over both content and structure to textbook
writers and publishers. The publishers steadily increased their
control. The families delegated control to supposed experts: the
authors of textbooks.

The second
stage adds another layer of delegated authority. The tutor became
the expert in what to teach and how. The most famous example in
Western history of a family hiring the wrong tutor is the story
of Abelard and Heloise, in the early 12th century. He was brilliant;
she was brilliant, and they did something really stupid, but predictable.
He got her pregnant. Her uncle saw to it that he would not get anyone
else pregnant again. Their correspondence survived. It has made
for great scripts over the years. The message: monitor the tutor.

The third
adds another layer of delegated authority, but with added confusion:
several families pay. The students create a greater challenge: the
problem of the lowest common denominator. The tutor must adjust
his teaching to meet the demands of a committee above him and an
intellectually and emotionally mixed group below him. But the cost
per student falls through the division of labor.

To get their
children educated, parents must compromise: with textbook authors,
tutors, and committees. The costs keep falling, but the structure
of authority becomes less clear. Is the tutor earning his keep or
not? Who is to decide? By what standard? Enforced by what sanctions?
By whom? With what long-term results?

Then parents
try to cut costs even more. They pass on costs and authority to
local priests. But the priests have their own agendas.

When priests
demand payment, the parents then go looking for another source of
funding. Ever since the 1830s, this has been the civil government
in the United States. This delegation of authority has been accompanied
by anti-parental new philosophies of education (R. J. Rushdoony,
Messianic Character of American Education
) and new systems
of control (John Taylor Gatto, The
Underground History of American Education

All of this
demonstrates, once again, that we cannot get something for nothing.
When we try to do so, we always transfer authority to the agents
who promise to supply us with something for nothing.


The pattern
of education was this. First, a small school – the family –
taught the children. The operation is small, but it involved a heavy
commitment of time by parents. As soon as textbooks appeared, parents
began to undermine the family’s educational authority. Textbooks
do this by cutting the costs of educating. Parents delegate authority
to an expert, whose book is local.

The move to
a tutor brought in a third party, plus textbooks. This increased
the size of the school.

The tutor
for many families did his work in a single location. This required
a building. It required transportation. It required a schedule tied
to clocks. Families adjust. The school teacher said: “I don’t make
house calls.”

The schools
got bigger as more students were educated. Administrative control
increases. Parents had less and less to say about what went on in
the classroom.

With tax-funded
education, the last traces of parental control finally disappeared.
The PTA was an invention of school administrators to create an illusion
of parental input. It was a way to keep activist parents busy. The
PTA is busywork for parents.

The schools
kept getting bigger. Regional high schools wiped out local high
schools in rural areas.

The mark of
all this has been the school bus. It says, “Teachers don’t make
house calls.” They are symbols of authority: schools over parents.
I have written
about school buses here.

This pattern
of growth parallels the history of mass production. Consider textile
production. Initially, a family raised sheep and spun its own yarn.
Then this was transferred to sheep herders and local carders. The
system of household industry took over: specialists delivered raw
materials to households and paid for output on a piece-rate basis.
Then looms took over: mass production. The costs fell. Factory production
replaced household production.

Choices increased,
but authority over production was delegated. Costs fell, but production
got centralized. Today,
there are cities in China that specialize in specific articles of
: socks, neckties, or sweaters. They ship anywhere.

Asia busted
America’s trade unions in manufacturing. Let us be thankful for
large favors.

Then must
everything get larger, more distant, and more centralized as specialization
increases? No. There is a new movement toward greater local authority.
Just as we saw centralization early in education, so are we seeing
decentralization in education.

Where brainpower
is for sale rather than physical items, digits are returning authority
to local households. The fact that we buy our socks from China is
really neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things. What
customer cares? But when we are talking about ideas, a lot of them


Home schooling
is a throwback to the fifteenth century. It lets parents choose
the content and structure of their children’s education. But it
goes far beyond anything available then. One size does not fit all:
all parents or all children. There is enormous diversity today,
and it is getting even more diverse.

The teacher-tutor
today says, “I do make house calls.” He does this through the Internet.
The student stays at his desk, and he can access programs around
the world.

The model
is Salman Khan’s Khan
. There, a student in India can learn math through calculus,
physics, and several other sciences. It is 100% free. It is 100%

The technology
is moving to classrooms on the Web. The Mises
offers on-line courses, taught live.

For true/false
exams and multiple-choice exams, machines have replaced teachers
at the university level. Now digital exams can match this. Only
essay exams need teachers. If a parent wants essay exams, he can
pay for a tutor. They are available cheap on the Web.

The parent
can choose from a wide range of teachers and courses. This is growing
constantly. Choices increase as prices fall.

The students
are not forced onto buses. They are not governed by the ringing
of bells.

The old model
of the factory, with its rigid time schedule, is dying. The number
of Americans employed in such environments is falling.

The educational
system that was designed to supply highly conditioned workers to
factories is now outmoded. That was what the system designed by
public school educators was supposed to produce. The production
system rolls on, but the programs no longer match reality. The content
of education has been dumbed down: lowest common denominator. The
brighter students get Advanced Placement courses: APs. But there
are few high school courses that require a classroom any longer,
except possibly for chemistry, with its labs. Not many students
take chemistry.

We see a unionized
system of education, which spends far too much on administration,
facing budget cuts. The most feared sanction in any bureaucracy
– budget cuts – now threatens school systems around the
West. The parents are finally rebelling at the polls: no more bond
issues, no more new schools being built, no more pay raises for
teachers, and firing untenured teachers.

Soon, classroom
size will grow. Then other cost-cutting measures will appear, including
Internet courses. But once that happens, the teachers union will
not be able to criticize Internet-based home schooling. The parents
can “hire” the top teachers anywhere on earth.


Physical newspapers
are all dying. They deliver day-old news. They are expensive to
print and distribute. They are aimed at large audiences: the lowest
common denominator. They ask people to be satisfied with local articles
by local columnists, when the Web provides access to the best writers
and cartoonists.

What can the
local paper offer that is unique? Local stories. But local news
can be found online on local blogs.

editors say: “We get professionals to write these local stories.”
But then these stories get posted. We can read them for free. The
production of news stories is being transferred to the Web. The
existing models are no longer working.

The subscription-based
news industry is shrinking, yet the number of readers is growing.
The returns to largeness are falling. The economies of scale no
longer favor the large, centralized producer. They favor the little
guy in most cases. And where they don’t, the users still get their
news for free on-line. The newspapers find that few people will
pay for digital news.

Rupert Murdoch’s
world of paper newspapers is dying. We call them newspapers only
out of habit. He bought MySpace, just in time to be hammered by

The skills
developed in terms of the old technology must be applied in a new
environment or else abandoned. The established producers hope they
can adjust. They won’t. They hope that this process will not continue.
It will.

The move has
been this: (1) small and local without specialization; (2) large
and distant with specialization; (3) small and international with
specialization, As soon as digits are involved, “We make house calls”
becomes the cry. Suppliers deliver to our door. Think of Amazon
and UPS. Think of Salman Khan’s site.

When you can
buy from anywhere, local monopolies die. That happened to medieval
urban guilds. It is happening to education. The local tax-funded
school cannot deliver the goods. Today, it offers babysitting. It
offers sports. It offers a central market where drugs are available.
It offers opportunities for teenagers to hook up, which does not
mean what it did in my day. It offers economies of scale in those
features of education that are either peripheral or objectionable.


Family by
family, parents are making the decision to pull their children out.
They want a better education for their children.

Family by
family, the realization is becoming clear: a mother can stay home
with her children and monitor their performance. She can give them
a better education than the local tax-funded school can.

The existing
educational system is desperately trying to keep the public schools
from losing its best students, but it cannot win this war. Digital
technology is against it. Price competition is against it. The tax
revolt is against it. The looming bankruptcy of municipalities is
against it.

the centralized control over the content of education fades, the
diversity of choices will undermine the existing political order.

The Left cheers
multiculturalism. We are going to see what real multiculturalism
is: a world without ideological control by New York City’s textbook

There is a
scene in the movie, The
Answer Man
, where Jeff Daniels takes on a public school
teacher. It is a great scene. That it could appear in a Hollywood
movie is an indication of what lies ahead for the existing system.

As the old
saying goes, “When you see something wobble, push it.”

6, 2011

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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