Monday, February 8, 2010

The Government and Education

Does the civil government have any right in education, and, if so, what is it and what is it not?

That is the question I promised to deal with yesterday. In a world where homeschoolers can be arrested in certain "respectable" countries, and where other governments are coming closer and closer to imposing their wills on families universally, I think many people would be shocked by my manner of flipping the question around: not, does the Church have a right to educate, or do families, but does the state. Consider the worst case in Canada right now - Quebec; but many other provinces are not far off from imposing such human rights violations on their citizenry.

The Historical Proof that the Question is Legitimate

Historical analysis demands that the question be asked. Hardly has education be so totally under the control of the state than in modern times. Sure, Plato strongly advocated the "state dimension" of education, but we should not be so sure if there is a precise parallel between what he had in mind and what modern technocracies have in mind. Hardly anyone in history supposed that children had a duty to the state supervening that owed to their parents. Now, by means of shock with worst-case scenarios of parental abuse governments strip more and more authority away from parents. Granted that the complexification of technology must enter into consideration of what the state ought to do for families, but the central point must be that governments are there for people, not people for governments, people for efficiency, people for a pre-ordained way of life. The minute that the cart is put before the ox, that people are considered as resources for the state, all bets are off. I have absolutely no problem with the diminution of the GDP for sake of liberty.

In fact, the Greeks may be the exception to the rule in premodern times. The Romans were far more independent-minded, to them was hearth and home everything (kudos to the writers of "Gladiator"), and, thus, was their education far more familial. Read Marrou's seminal Education in Antiquity for more on this.

The state as a factory was an invention of the Enlightenment and of Absolutism (I suspect that before that from the Italian city-states - a trick that the Northern Kingdoms picked up from them, but I am no historian, so I'm just guessing). Nevertheless, this is the commonsense of the secula. But it is objective madness. Why is a productive state better? We have to remember that this whole thing emerged as a way for kings to compete amongst themselves - who had the greater kingdom: France, Spain or the Empire, thus which sovereign was more glorious. The strength of the economy was always interconnected with military strength. In other words, it was more about glory and might than about making the lives of citizens better.

Productivity and Education

The logic of utilitarianism is sound, although the presuppositions of governments about what makes a life happy are not. When I travel from Barry's Bay to Toronto, I travel from rural poverty to urban wealth, from what is considered a depressed Canadian economy to Canada's wealthiest economy. However, I am not travelling from depression to happiness. There are far more smiles in Barry's Bay than in Toronto - and this despite the fact that there are so many Poles here - not a people known for their joviality! Making this journey, I arrive in a land of relative misery. What it is that makes a life happy is not found in wealth itself.

The claim that the state makes about its rights in education are tied up in the question of productivity, the overall good. In other words, you do not have a right to diminish the potential GDP of the state. Sometimes the state claims that it wants to free all of its citizens from ignorance, and that is why it presents (not offers, offering implies the possibility of refusal) universal, free education. Both of these terms - universal and free - deserve some comment. 'Universal' implies at the very least that those who would not otherwise receive education, receive it through the state. Sadly, today it also tends to mean only what the government approves shall be taught. 'Free' sounds like the government is giving something from its own largess. They are not giving something, however, that they did not take from the citizenry in the form of taxation, though. Yet, this totalitarian regime has construed it to appear as its own generous gift. (Americans have a much healthier understanding of the fact that the wealth in the country belongs to people, not to the state.) It is the charitable aspect of 'universal and free' that has permitted the travesty of 'universal as totalitarian' or as 'monolithic' to arise. Freedom of education now tends to mean deviation from a universally-recognized truth. We are scared by the spectres of creationism and neo-nazism into agreement.

Freedom allows in obvious errors. Taking away freedom permits subtler and, for all that, deadlier ones.

If we were to do John Rawl's 'original position' thing - if we took a step back, and imagined a society without knowing what place we would have in it - would any of us chose to have a society with a mandatory, monolithic system of education, or would we not opt for variety, yes, taking a chance that some very bad ones would appear, but certainly guaranteeing that the Gospel wouls not be stiffled? To chose for the former would require a huge act of faith in that society's educators and governors. How can you trust them - are you willing to bet it all? I think a logical person would hedge his bets, not knowing what that state would do, hoping that, amongst a variety of options (it is almost mathematically certain!) something will arise better than just about any version that a state can design to fit 'all cases'. I'd much prefer a system that occasions stupid schools teaching creationism or nazism, so long as it makes room for the good as well. I'm not saying freedom is itself a categorical good; I am saying that giving up true Catholic education is too great a price to pay for the removal of creationism and nazism. Avoiding a thousand evils does not justify the failure to bring to fruition a single good thing.

I am by now bound to assert the unequivocal: the state has no rights in education per se. It has a mandate to provide services to the people who desire them, and not to impede people who do not. Basic education - the impartation of the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic - is a human right, but this should not be manipulated into servicing the imperialistic and ideological goals of states. Thus, taxation should be revised to reflect this. Taxation for education should be minimal to the extreme, that is, to provide 'free' education to people on welfare, and that is it. Anything more is not about service to people, but service to the state. Curricula would be better formed by market competition than through government policy. Education should in no way be construed to service the GDP.

I'm too tired to check my grammar right now. Pax Christi!

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