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