A Journal for Western Man





Education: Free and Compulsory: Part I

Dr. Murray N. Rothbard

Issue LXXII- September 14, 2006



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This is the first part of Dr. Rothbard's treatise, Education: Free and Compulsory. Its original Internet version can be found on Mises.org.

The Individual's Education

Every human infant comes into the world devoid of the faculties characteristic of fully-developed human beings. This does not mean simply the ability to see clearly, to move around, to feed oneself, etc.; above all, it means he is devoid of reasoning power — the power that distinguishes man from animals. But the crucial distinction between the baby and other animals is that these powers, in particular the ability to reason, are potentially within him. The process of growing up is the process of the development of the child's faculties. From a state of helplessness and incompetence such as few newly born animals are burdened with, the infant grows up to the glory of the full stature of an adult.

Because they are immediately apparent to the senses, it is easy to overestimate the purely physical nature of these changes; the baby's growth in height and weight, learning how to walk and talk, etc., may be viewed in terms of the isolated physical or muscular activities involved. The overwhelmingly important feature of the growing-up process is mental, the development of mental powers, or perception and reason. The child using the new mental powers learns and acquires knowledge — knowledge not only about the world around him, but also about himself. Thus, his learning to walk and talk and his direction of these powers depends upon his mental capacity to acquire this knowledge, and to use it. As the child exercises his new reasoning, as well as muscular powers, these powers grow and develop, which in turn furnishes an impetus for the child's further exercise of these faculties. Specifically, the child learns about the world around him, other children and adults, and his own mental and physical powers.

Every child coming into the world comes into a certain environment. This environment consists of physical things, natural and man-made, and other human beings with whom he comes in contact in various ways. It is this environment upon which he exercises his developing powers. His reason forms judgments about other people, about his relationships with them and with the world in general; his reason reveals to him his own desires and his physical powers. In this way the growing child, working with his environment, develops ends and discovers means to achieve them. His ends are based on his own personality, the moral principles he has concluded are best, and his aesthetic tastes; his knowledge of means is based on what he has learned is most appropriate. This body of "theory" in which he believes, he has acquired with his reasoning powers, either from the direct experience of himself or others, or from logical deduction by himself or by others. When he finally reaches adulthood, he has developed his faculties to whatever extent he can, and has acquired a set of values, principles, and scientific knowledge.

This entire process of growing up, of developing all the facets of a man's personality, is his education. It is obvious that a person acquires his education in all activities of his childhood; all his waking hours are spent in learning in one form or another.[1] It is clearly absurd to limit the term "education" to a person's formal schooling. He is learning all the time. He learns and forms ideas about other people, their desires, and actions to achieve them, the world and the natural laws that govern it; and his own ends, and how to achieve them. He formulates ideas on the nature of man, and what his own and others' ends should be in light of this nature. This is a continual process, and it is obvious that formal schooling constitutes only an item in this process.

In a fundamental sense, as a matter of fact, everyone is "self-educated." A person's environment, physical or social, does not "determine" the ideas and knowledge with which he will emerge as an adult. It is a fundamental fact of human nature that a person's ideas are formed for himself; others may influence them, but none can determine absolutely the ideas and values which the individual will adopt or maintain through life.

Formal Instruction

If everyone is constantly learning, and each child's life is his education, why the need for formal education? The need for formal instruction stems from the fact that a child's faculties are undeveloped and only potential, and that they need experience in order to develop. In order for this exercise to take place, the child needs the environmental materials on which he can operate, and with which he can work. Now it is clear that for a large segment of his general education, he does not need systematic, formal instruction. The space is almost always available for his physical faculties to develop and exercise. For this, no formal instruction is needed. If food and shelter are provided for him, he will grow physically without much instruction. His relationships with others — members of the family and outsiders — will develop spontaneously in the process of living. In all of these matters, a child will spontaneously exercise his faculties on these materials abundant in the world around him. Those precepts that are needed can be imparted relatively simply without need for systematic study.

But there is one area of education where direct spontaneity and a few precepts will not suffice. This is the area of formal study, specifically the area of intellectual knowledge. That knowledge beyond the direct area of his daily life involves a far greater exercise of reasoning powers. This knowledge must be imparted by the use of observation and deductive reasoning, and such a body of thought takes a good deal of time to learn. Furthermore, it must be learned systematically, since reasoning proceeds in orderly, logical steps, organizing observation into a body of systematic knowledge.

The child, lacking the observations and the developed reasoning powers, will never learn these subjects by himself alone, as he can other things. He could not observe and deduce them by his own unaided mental powers. He may learn them from the oral explanations of an instructor, or from the written testimony of books, or from a combination of both. The advantage of the book is that it can set forth the subject fully and systematically; the advantage of the teacher is that, in addition to previous knowledge from the book, he knows and deals with the child directly, and can explain the salient or unclear points. Generally, it has been found that a combination of book and teacher is best for formal instruction.

Formal instruction, therefore, deals with the body of knowledge on certain definite subjects. These subjects are: first of all, reading, so that the child has a superb tool for future acquisition of knowledge, and as a later corollary, the various "language arts" such as spelling and grammar. Writing is another powerful key in the child's mental development. After these tools are mastered, instruction naturally proceeds in logical development: reading to be spent on such subjects as the world's natural laws (natural science); the record of man's development, his ends and actions (history, geography); and later the "moral sciences" of human behavior (economics, politics, philosophy, psychology); and man's imaginative studies of man (literature). Writing branches out into essays on these various subjects, and into composition. A third elementary tool of great power is arithmetic, beginning with simple numbers and leading up into more developed branches of mathematics. Of these fundamental subjects, reading is of first importance, and for this learning of the alphabet is the primary and logical tool.

It has become fashionable to deride stress of the "three Rs," but it is obvious that they are of enormous importance, that the sooner they are thoroughly learned, the sooner the child will be able to absorb the vast area of knowledge that constitutes the great heritage of human civilization. They are the keys that unlock the doors of human knowledge, and the doors to the flowering and development of the child's mental powers. It is also clear that the only necessity and use for systematic formal teaching arises in these technical subjects, since knowledge of them must be presented systematically. There is clearly no need for formal instruction in "how to play," in "getting along with the group," in "selecting a dentist," and the multitude of similar "courses" given in "modern education." And, since there is no need for formal teaching in physical or directly spontaneous areas, there is no need for instruction in "physical education" or in finger-painting.[2]

Human Diversity and Individual Instruction

One of the most important facts about human nature is the great diversity among individuals. Of course, there are certain broad characteristics, physical and mental, which are common to all human beings[3] But more than any other species, individual men are distinct and separate individuals. Not only is each fingerprint unique, each personality is unique as well. Each person is unique in his tastes, interests, abilities, and chosen activities. Animal activities, routine and guided by instinct, tend to be uniform and alike. But human individuals, despite similarities in ends and values, despite mutual influences, tend to express the unique imprint of the individual's own personality. The development of individual variety tends to be both the cause and the effect of the progress of civilization. As civilization progresses, there is more opportunity for the development of a person's reasoning and tastes in a growing variety of fields. And from such opportunities come the advancement of knowledge and progress which in turn add to the society's civilization. Furthermore, it is the variety of individual interests and talents that permits the growth of specialization and division of labor, on which civilized economies depend. As the Reverend George Harris expressed it:

Savagery is uniformity. The principal distinctions are sex, age, size, and strength. Savages … think alike or not at all, and converse therefore in monosyllables. There is scarcely any variety, only a horde of men, women, and children. The next higher stage, which is called barbarism, is marked by increased variety of functions. There is some division of labor, some interchange of thought, better leadership, more intellectual and aesthetic cultivation. The highest stage, which is called civilization, shows the greatest degree of specialization. Distinct functions become more numerous. Mechanical, — commercial, educational, scientific, political, and artistic occupations multiply. The rudimentary societies are characterized by the likeness of equality; the developed societies are marked by the unlikeness of inequality or variety. As we go down, monotony; as we go up, variety. As we go down, persons are more alike; as we go up, persons are more unlike, it certainly seems … as though [the] approach to equality is decline towards the conditions of savagery, and as though variety is an advance towards higher civilization….

Certainly, then, if progress is to be made by added satisfactions, there must be even more variety of functions, new and finer differentiations of training and pursuits. Every step of progress means the addition of a human factor that is in some way unlike all existing factors. The progress of civilization, then … must be an increasing diversification of the individuals that compose society….There must be articulation of each new invention and art, of fresh knowledge, and of broader application of moral principles.[4]

With the development of civilization and individual diversity, there is less and less area of identical uniformity, and therefore less "equality." Only robots on the assembly line or blades of grass can be considered as completely equal, as being identical with respect to all of their attributes. The fewer attributes that two organisms have in common, the less they are "equal" and the more they are unequal. Civilized human beings, therefore, are unequal in most of their personalities. This fact of inequality, in tastes, and in ability and character, is not necessarily an invidious distinction. It simply reflects the scope of human diversity.

It is evident that the common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity. Since abilities and interests are naturally diverse, a drive toward making people equal in all or most respects is necessarily a leveling downward. It is a drive against development of talent, genius, variety, and reasoning power. Since it negates the very principles of human life and human growth, the creed of equality and uniformity is a creed of death and destruction.

There is a sense, however, in which equality among men is sensible and beneficial. Each individual should have the freest possible scope for the development of his faculties and his personality. In order to have this scope, he must have freedom from violence against himself. Violence can only repress and destroy human growth and endeavor, and neither can reason and creativity function under an atmosphere of coercion. If each person has equal defense against violence, this "equality before the law" will permit him to maximize his potentialities.

Since each person is a unique individual, it is clear that the best type of formal instruction is that type which is suited to his own particular individuality. Each child has different intelligence, aptitudes, and interests. Therefore, the best choice of pace, timing, variety, and manner, and of the courses of instruction will differ widely from one child to another. One child is best suited, in interests and ability, for an intensive course in arithmetic three times a week, followed six months later by a similar course in reading; another may require a brief period of several courses; a third may need a lengthy period of instruction in reading, etc. Given the formal, systematic courses of instruction, there is an infinite variety of pace and combination which may be most suitable for each particular child.

It is obvious, therefore, that the best type of instruction is individual instruction. A course where one teacher instructs one pupil is clearly by far the best type of course. It is only under such conditions that human potentialities can develop to their greatest degree. It is clear that the formal school, characterized by classes in which one teacher instructs many children, is an immensely inferior system. Since each child differs from the other in interest and ability, and the teacher can only teach one thing at a time, it is evident that every school class must cast all the instruction into one uniform mold. Regardless how the teacher instructs, at what pace, timing, or variety, he is doing violence to each and every one of the children. Any schooling involves misfitting each child into a Procrustean bed of unsuitable uniformity.

What then shall we say of laws imposing compulsory schooling on every child? These laws are endemic in the Western world. In those places where private schools are allowed, they must all meet standards of instruction imposed by the government. Yet the injustice of imposing any standards of instruction should be clear. Some children are duller and should be instructed at a slower pace; the bright children require a rapid pace to develop their faculties. Furthermore, many children are very apt in one subject and very dull in another. They should certainly be permitted to develop themselves in their best subjects and to drop the poor ones. Whatever the standards that the government imposes for instruction, injustice is done to all — to the dullards who cannot absorb any instruction, to those with different sets of aptitudes in different subjects, to the bright children whose minds would like to be off and winging in more advanced courses but who must wait until the dullards are hounded once again. Similarly, any pace that the teacher sets in class wreaks an injustice on almost all; on the dull who cannot keep up, and on the bright who lose interest and precious chances to develop their great potential.

Obviously, the worst injustice is the prevention of parental teaching of their own children. Parental instruction conforms to the ideal arrangement. It is, first of all, individualized instruction, the teacher dealing directly with the unique child, and addressing himself to his capabilities and interests. Second, what people can know the aptitudes and personality of the child better than his own parents? The parents' daily familiarity with, and love for, their children, renders them uniquely qualified to give the child the formal instruction necessary. Here the child receives individual attention for his own personality. No one is as qualified as the parent to know how much or at what pace he should teach the child, what the child's requirements are for freedom or guidance, etc.

Almost all parents are qualified to teach their children, particularly in the elementary subjects. Those who are not so qualified in the subjects can hire individual tutors for their children. Tutors may also be hired where the parents do not have the time to devote to the formal instruction of their children. Whether or not they themselves should do the teaching, or which tutor is the best for their child, is best determined under the overall supervision of the parents directly. The parents can determine the progress of the child, the daily effect of the tutor on the child, etc.

In addition to parental instruction and tutorial instruction, the parents can send the children to private schools. This alternative, however, is not as satisfactory because of the necessary lack of individual instruction and individual pacing. There are classes with many children, set times for courses, set grades, etc. The only reason for schools instead of individual instruction is the economic one: that the price of individual tutoring is prohibitive for most parents. Consequently, they must adopt the only practical alternative of mass tutoring, where the teacher instructs many children at the same time. It is clear that such private schools are an inferior solution to individual instruction. Whichever pace the teacher sets, an injustice is done to many of the children. If the State enforces certain "standards" on the private schools, a far worse crime against the children is committed. For if the parents' selection of instruction is completely free and unhampered by State coercion, they, knowing and loving the child best, will be able to select the best type of instruction that they can afford. If they hire tutors, they will choose the most competent for their child. If they can select any type of private school, they will select that type which is best suited for their child. The advantage of unlimited development of private schools is that there will tend to be developed on the free market a different type of school for each type of demand. Schools will tend to be developed especially for bright children, for average children, and for dull ones, for those with broad aptitudes, and for those for whom it would be best to specialize, etc. But if the State decrees that there may be no schools which do not, for example, teach arithmetic, it would mean that those children who may be bright in other subjects but have little or no aptitude for arithmetic will have to be subjected to needless suffering. The State's imposition of uniform standards does grave violation to the diversity of human tastes and abilities.

The effect of the State's compulsory schooling laws is not only to repress the growth of specialized, partly individualized, private schools for the needs of various types of children. It also prevents the education of the child by the people who, in many respects, are best qualified — his parents. The effect is also to force into schools children who have little or no aptitude for instruction at all. It so happens that among the variety of human ability there is a large number of subnormal children, children who are not receptive to instruction, whose reasoning capacity is not too great. To force these children to be exposed to schooling, as the State does almost everywhere, is a criminal offense to their natures. Without the ability to learn systematic subjects, they must either sit and suffer while others learn, or the bright and average students must be held back greatly in their development while these children are pressured to learn. In any case, the instruction has almost no effect on these children, many of whose hours of life are simply wasted because of the State's decree. If these hours were spent in simple, direct experience which they were better able to absorb, there is no question that they would be healthier children and adults as a result. But to dragoon them into a school for a formative decade of their lives, to force them to attend classes in which they have no interest or ability, is to warp their entire personalities.

The Parent or the State?

The key issue in the entire discussion is simply this: shall the parent or the State be the overseer of the child? An essential feature of human life is that, for many years, the child is relatively helpless, that his powers of providing for himself mature late. Until these powers are fully developed he cannot act completely for himself as a responsible individual. He must be under tutelage. This tutelage is a complex and difficult task. From an infancy of complete dependence and subjection to adults, the child must grow up gradually to the status of an independent adult. The question is under whose guidance, and virtual "ownership" the child should be: his parents' or the State's? There is no third, or middle, ground in this issue. Some party must control, and no one suggests that some individual third party have authority to seize the child and rear it.

It is obvious that the natural state of affairs is for the parents to have charge of the child. The parents are the literal producers of the child, and the child is in the most intimate relationship to them that any people can be to one another. The parents have ties of family affection to the child. The parents are interested in the child as an individual, and are the most likely to be interested and familiar with his requirements and personality. Finally, if one believes at all in a free society, where each one owns himself and his own products, it is obvious that his own child, one of his most precious products, also comes under his charge.

The only logical alternative to parental "ownership" of the child is for the State to seize the infant from the parents and to rear it completely itself. To any believer in freedom this must seem a monstrous step indeed. In the first place, the rights of the parents are completely violated, their own loving product seized from them to be subjected to the will of strangers. In the second place, the rights of the child are violated, for he grows up in subjection to the unloving hands of the State, with little regard for his individual personality. Furthermore — and this is a most important consideration — for each person to be "educated," to develop his faculties to the fullest, he needs freedom for this development. We have seen above that freedom from violence is essential to the development of a man's reason and personality. But the State! The State's very being rests on violence, on compulsion. As a matter of fact, the very feature that distinguishes the State from other individuals and groups is that the State has the only (legal) power to use violence. In contrast to all other individuals and organizations, the State issues decrees which must be obeyed at the risk of suffering prison or the electric chair. The child would have to grow up under the wings of an institution resting on violence and restriction. What sort of peaceful development could take place under such auspices?

Furthermore, it is inevitable that the State would impose uniformity on the teaching of charges. Not only is uniformity more congenial to the bureaucratic temper and easier to enforce; this would be almost inevitable where collectivism has supplanted individualism. With collective State ownership of the children replacing individual ownership and rights, it is clear that the collective principle would be enforced in teaching as well. Above all, what would be taught is the doctrine of obedience to the State itself. For tyranny is not really congenial to the spirit of man, who requires freedom for his full development.

Therefore, techniques of inculcating reverence for despotism and other types of "thought control" are bound to emerge. Instead of spontaneity, diversity, and independent men, there would emerge a race of passive, sheep-like followers of the State. Since they would be only incompletely developed, they would be only half-alive.

It might be said that no one is contemplating such monstrous measures. Even Communist Russia did not go so far as to impose a "communism of children," even though it did almost everything else to eliminate freedom. The point is, however, that this is the logical goal of the Statists in education. The issue which has been joined in the past and in the present is: shall there be a free society with parental control, or a despotism with State control? We shall see the logical development of the idea of State encroachment and control. America, for example, began, for the most part, with a system of either completely private or with philanthropic schools. Then, in the nineteenth century, the concept of public education changed subtly, until everybody was urged to go to the public school, and private schools were accused of being divisive. Finally, the State imposed compulsory education on the people, either forcing children to go to public schools or else setting up arbitrary standards for private schools. Parental instruction was frowned on. Thus, the State has been warring with parents for control over their children.

Not only has there been a trend toward increased State control, but the effects of this have been worsened by the very system of equality before the law that applies in political life. There has been the growth of a passion for equality in general. The result has been a tendency to regard every child as equal to every other child, as deserving equal treatment, and to impose complete uniformity in the classroom. Formerly, this had tended to be set at the average level of the class; but this being frustrating to the dullest (who, however, must be kept at the same level as the others, in the name of equality and democracy), the teaching tends more and more to be set at the lowest levels.

We shall see that since the State began to control education, its evident tendency has been more and more to act in such a manner as to promote repression and hindrance of education, rather than the true development of the individual. Its tendency has been for compulsion, for enforced equality at the lowest level, for the watering down of the subject and even the abandonment of all formal teaching, for the inculcation of obedience to the State and to the "group," rather than the development of self-independence, for the deprecation of intellectual subjects. And finally, it is the drive of the State and its minions for power that explains the "modern education" creed of "education of the whole child" and making the school a "slice of life," where the individual plays, adjusts to the group, etc. The effect of this, as well as all the other measures, is to repress any tendency for the development of reasoning powers and individual independence; to try to usurp in various ways the "educational" function (apart from formal instruction) of the home and friends, and to try to mold the "whole child" in the desired paths. Thus, "modern education" has abandoned the school functions of formal instruction in favor of molding the total personality both to enforce equality of learning at the level of the least educable, and to usurp the general educational role of home and other influences as much as possible. Since no one will accept outright State "communization" of children, even in Communist Russia, it is obvious that State control has to be achieved more silently and subtly.

For anyone who is interested in the dignity of human life, in the progress and development of the individual in a free society, the choice between parental and State control over the children is clear.

Is there, then, to be no State interference whatever in the relations between parent and child? Suppose that the parents aggress upon and mutilate the child? Are we to permit this? If not, where are we to draw the line? The line can be simply drawn. The State can adhere strictly to the function of defending everyone from the aggressive violence of everyone else. This will include children as well as adults, since children are potential adults and future freemen. Simple failure to "educate," or rather, instruct, is no grounds whatever for interference. The difference between these cases was succinctly put by Herbert Spencer:

No cause for such [state] interposition can be shown until the children's rights have been violated, and that their rights are not violated by a neglect of their education [actually, instruction]. For … what we call rights are merely arbitrary subdivisions of the general liberty to exercise the faculties; and that only can be called an infringement of rights which actually diminishes this liberty — cuts off a previously existing power to pursue the objects of desire. Now the parent who is careless of a child's education does not do this. The liberty to exercise faculties is left intact. Omitting instruction in no way takes from a child's freedom to do whatsoever it wills in the best way it can, and this freedom is all that equity demands. Every aggression, be it remembered — every infraction of rights — is necessarily active; whilst every neglect, carelessness, omission, is as necessarily passive. Consequently, however wrong the non-performance of a parental duty may be … it does not amount to a breach of the law of equal freedom and cannot therefore be taken cognizance of by the state.[5]

Children's Associations

Another powerful argument against compulsory education, one which is generally overlooked, is that, if instruction is compulsory, and the parent cannot afford to send his children to a private school or tutor, and is prevented from instructing the children himself, he must send his child to a public school. In the public school will be most of the others who would not be there were it not for the universal compulsory law. This includes subnormal, uneducable children, and various types of juvenile delinquents and hoodlums. Whereas the parent would prefer not to send the child to formal schooling, rather than to compel him to associate with these vicious types, the State forces him to do so, with incalculably evil consequences to innocent children. Removed for part of the day from the care and supervision of the parent, the child is compelled to associate with vicious companions, and might even be influenced by them to join juvenile gangs, adopt drug addiction, etc.

These are not exaggerated evils, as any reader of the current press knows, but, true to the common hatred of individual superiority and distinction, the passion for leveling an enforced equality proclaims: this is good; let every child be forced to learn about "life" and be forced to associate with the lowest types of humanity. The envy and hatred toward the potentially better and superior child is apparent in this position, and underlies the argument for enforced equality and consequent suppression of superior individuality.

Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995) was dean of the Austrian School.

[1]Adults, too, are engaged in learning throughout their lives, about themselves, other people, and the world. However, since their reasoning powers, in contrast to the child's, are already developed, they will not be discussed here.

[2]Later on in life, of course, the youth may well take specific courses in athletics, painting, or music, but this is far different, since it would be systematic study of the subject as a specialty.

[3]For further writings on the topics of biological individuality and psychology see Roger J. Williams, Free and Unequal (1953), and Biochemical Individuality (1956); Gordon W. Allport, Becoming (1955); and Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being (1962).

[4]George Harris, Inequality and Progress (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1898), pp. 74–75,88 and passim.

[5]Herbert Spencer, Social Statics: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1970), p. 294. Or as another writer expressed it, with regard to a parent and other members of the society: "his associates may not compel him to provide for his child, though they may forcibly prevent him from aggressing upon it. They may prevent acts; they may not compel the performance of actions." Clara Dixon Davidson, "Relations Between Parents and Children," Liberty, September 3,1892.

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