Critics of State Education

The radical individualist William Godwin, author of Enquiry Concerning Political Justice(1793), was among the first to express this concern. The “project of a national education ought uniformly to be discouraged,” he wrote, “on account of its obvious alliance with national Government [which] will not fail to employ it, to strengthen its hands, and perpetuateits institutions.”

With the consolidation, in 1843, of Dissenting opposition to state education, the Godwinian warning was frequently repeated and elaborated upon. This passage from The Eclectic Review(a leading Dissenting journal)is typical:It is no trifling thing to commit to anyhands the moulding of the minds of men. An immense power is thus communicated, the tendency of which will be in exact accordance with the spirit and policy of those who use it.

Governments, it is well known, are conservative. The tendency of official life is notorious, and it is the height of folly, the mere vapouring of credulity, to imagine that the educational system, if entrusted to the minister of the day, will not be employed to diffuse amongst the rising generation, that spirit and those views which are most friendly to his policy. By having, virtually, at his command, the whole machinery of education, he will cover the land with a new class of officials, whose dependence on his patronage will render them the ready instruments of his pleasure. Government education, this writer feared, would produce “an emasculated and servile generation.”
A possible advance in literacy would be purchased at the price of man’s “free spirit.”

Elsewhere The Eclectic Review compared state schools to “barracks” and their employees to “troops.” “The accession of power and patronage to that government which establishes such a national system of education, can scarcely be gauged.” Teachers paid by a government will owe allegiance to that government. What a host of stipendiaries will thus be created! And who shall say what will be their influence in the course of two generations? All their sympathies will be with the powers by whom they are paid, on whose favor they live, and from whose growing patronage their hopes of improving their condition are derived. As constitutional Englishmen, we tremble at the result.

The danger is too imminent, the hazard too great, to be incurred, for any temporary stimulus which government interference can minister to education. We eschew it as alike disastrous in its results and unsound in its theory — the criminal attempt of short-sighted or flagitious politicians, to mold the intellect of the people to their pleasure. Indoctrination is inherent in state education, according to Edward Baines. State education proceeds from the principle that “it is the duty of a Government to train the Mind of the People.” If one denies to government this right — as defenders of a free press and free religion must logically do — then one must also deny the right of government to meddle in education. It “is not the duty or province of the Government to train the mind of the people,” argued Baines, and this “principle of the highest moment” forbids state education. Herbert Spencer agreed. State education, he wrote in Social Statics(1851), will inevitably involve indoctrination.

For what is meant by saying that a government ought to educate the people? Why should they be educated? What is the education for? Clearly, to fit the people for social life – to make them good citizens. And who is to say what are good citizens? The government: there is no other judge. And who is to say how these good citizens may be made? The government: there is no other judge. Hence the proposition is convertible into this – a government ought to mold children into good citizens, using its own discretion in settling what a good citizen is and how a child may be molded into one.

Indoctrination was an issue that troubled even some proponents of state education. A case in point is William Lovett, the Chartist radical who is frequently praised as an early champion of state education. In his Address on Education(1837), Lovett maintained that it is “the duty of Government to establish for all classes the best possible system of education.” Education should be provided “not as a charity,  but as a right.” How was the British government to discharge this duty? By providing funds for the erection and maintenance of schools.

Lovett desired government financing without government control: “we are decidedly opposed to placing such immense power and influence in the hands of Government as that of selecting the teachers and superintendents, the books and kinds of instruction, and the whole management of schools in each locality.”

Lovett detested state systems, such as that found in Prussia, “where the lynx-eyed satellites of power…crush in embryo the buddings of freedom.” State control of education “prostrates the whole nation before one uniform…despotism.” Several years later Lovett became less sanguine about the prospect of government financing without government control.

While still upholding in theory the duty of government to provide education, he so distrusted his own government that he called upon the working classes to reject government proposals and to “commence the great work of education yourselves.” The working classes had “everything to fear” from schools established by their own government, so Lovett outlined a proposal whereby schools could be provided through voluntary means, free from state patronage and control.

We see a similar concern with indoctrination in the work of the celebrated philosopher J. S. Mill. Mill contended that education “is one of those things which it is admissible in principle that a government should provide for the people,” although he favored a system in which only those who could not afford to pay would be exempt from fees. Parents who fail to provide elementary education for their children commit a breach of duty, so the state may compel parents to provide instruction. But where and how children are taught should be up to the parents; the state should merely enforce minimal educational standards through a series of public examinations.

Thus did Mill attempt to escape the frightening prospect of government indoctrination. At this point he begins to sound like an ardent Voluntaryist: That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating…. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government…in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body. 

Dissenters who favored state education were also sensitive to the problem of indoctrination, but many thought that the danger could be avoided by confining state schools to secular subjects. The Voluntaryists disagreed, and they repudiated all attempts at compromise. Government aid, however small and innocent at first, was bound to be followed by government strings. Government aid is “atrapand asnare,” declared The Eclectic Review. It is “a wretched bribe” which, if accepted, “will have irretrievably disgraced us.”

The question is not, “How can we obtain Government money?” wrote Algernon Wells, “but, How can we avoid it?” Wells continued with a fascinating observation:[Dissenters] must ever be equally free to act and speak. They must hold themselves entirely clear of all temptation to ask, when their public testimony is required — How will our conduct affect our grants? The belief of many Independents is that, from the hour they received Government money, they would be a changed people – their tone lowered – their spirit altered – their consistency sacrificed – and their honour tarnished.

Perhaps Edward Baines best summarized the sentiment of the Voluntaryists: “When Governments offer their arm, it is like the arm of a creditor or a constable, not so easily shaken off: there is a handcuff at the end of it.” The lesson was clear. Educational freedom is incompatible with state support. If government control and manipulation of education are to be avoided, financial independence and integrity must be maintained.

Another theme of Voluntaryism was the need for diversity in education. Voluntaryists warned that state education would impose a dulling uniformity that would result, at best, in mediocrity. According to Baines, the uniformity of state education will serve to “stereotype the methods of teaching,to bolster up old systems, and to prevent improvement.” 

If we leave education to the free market, we will see continuous progress. But “let it once be monopolized by a Government department, and thenceforth reformers must prepare to be martyrs.”

Algernon Wells made a similar point:How to teach, how to improve children, are questions admitting of new and advanced solutions, no less than inquiries how best to cultivate the soil, or to perfect manufactures. And these improvements cannot fail to proceed indefinitely, so long as education is kept wide open, and free to competition, and to all those impulses which liberty constantly supplies. But once close up this great science and movement of mind from these invigorating breezes, whether by monopoly or bounty, whether by coercion or patronage, and the sure result will be torpor and stagnancy.

The Eclectic Review, protesting that the “unitive design” of state education “would make all think alike,” continued with a chilling account of uniformity:All shall be straightened as by the schoolmaster’s ruler, and transcribed from his copy. He shall decide what may or may not be asked. But he must be normalized himself. He must be fashioned to a model. He shall only be taught particular things. The compress and tourniquet are set on his mind. He can only be suffered to think one way….All schools will be filled with the same books. All teachers will be imbued with the same spirit. And under their cold and lifeless tuition, the national spirit, now warm and independent, will grow into a type formal and dull, one harsh outline with its crisp edges, a mere complex machine driven by external impulse, with it appendages of apparent power but of gross resistance.

If any man loves that national monotony, thinks it the just position of his nature, can survey the tame and sluggish spectacle with delight, he, on the adoption of such a system, has his reward. Auberon Herbert also cautioned against the “evils of uniformity.”  Like his mentor Herbert Spencer, he thought that “all influences which tend towards uniform thought and action in education are most fatal to any regularly continuous improvement.”

Imagine the effect of state uniformity in religion, art, or science. Progress would grind to a halt. Education is no different. Therefore, if you desire progress, you must not make it difficult for men to think and act differently; you must not dull their sense with routine or stamp their imagination with the official pattern of some great department.

As a former Member of Parliament, Herbert was especially aware of the difficulty of implementing change in a bureaucratic structure. A free market, he argued, encourages innovation and risk taking. An innovator with new ideas on education can, if left legally unhampered, solicit aid from those sympathetic to his views and then test his product on the market. But if some great official system blocks the way, if he has to overcome the stolid resistance of a department, to persuade a political party, which has no sympathy with views holding out no promise of political advantage, to satisfy inspectors, whose eyes are trained to see perfection of only one kind, and who may summarily condemn his school as “inefficient” and therefore disallowed by law, if in the meantime he is obliged by rates and taxes to support a system to which he is opposed, it becomes unlikely that this energy and confidence in his own views will be sufficient to inspire a successful resistance to such obstacles.
by George H. Smith.