Rebirth of Reason


Machan's Musings - Bill Gates Didn’t Go Far Enough
by Tibor R. Machan

From his address at the nation’s governors’ conference, I give you Bill Gates: "American high schools are obsolete," he said, adding, "By obsolete, I don't just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed and underfunded.... By obsolete, I mean that our high schools—even when they are working exactly as designed—cannot teach our kids what they need to know today."

Indeed, this is part of the theme of a book I edited, Education in a Free Society (Hoover Institution Press, 2000) and it was the substance of my essay in 1972, "The Schools Ain’t What They Used to be...and Never Was," in Reason magazine and reprinted in The Libertarian Alternative (Nelson-Hall, 1974). Actually, I went much farther than Mr. Gates, whose concern is mostly with how well the schools supply men and women in the technological sector with a properly trained work force. In contrast, the concern I (and quite a few others who share my views on this topic), have is with how well education serves those who are being educated, be they hard science, humanities, or social science students. Gates merely laments that "Training the work force of tomorrow with the high schools of today is like trying to teach kids about today's computers on a 50-year-old mainframe. ... Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting—even ruining—the lives of millions of Americans every year."

As a matter of historical fact, our public education system was designed two centuries ago, in large part, to honor a racist public policy. This was well researched and reported in the late E. G. West’s book, Education and the State (Institute for Economic Affairs, 1965). Private schools were doing just fine, providing what markets provide in exceptionally efficient and, indeed, wise ways: a highly diverse approach to teaching students, not the statist and mainly one-size-fits-all approach, but they also did something very benign and decent—in their diverse and decentralized way they extended their services to all races and religions. But the politicians at the time couldn’t stomach this, so they decided to impose a public education system that would be appropriately racist and discriminatory, to fall in line with the prevailing mainstream public philosophy of racism.

The result is what we see now, a defunct public education system, defunct not because of some recent mistakes, as Mr. Gates contends, but because of a fundamental flaw in it, its association with government.

Most of us who have gone through the various stages of American public education may not realize this but we have been part of a massive collectivized system, not unlike one the Soviet Union would have championed and from which, in time, it choked to death. Elsewhere public education remains partly functional only because it tends to be highly elitist and does not aim, as it does in America, to accommodate the egalitarian pedagogical philosophy of providing everyone with schooling, nearly to the level of a guaranteed college degree.

The bottom line is that education, like all other productive, creative services in society, is better off decentralized, privatized. Sure some will have to seek out special help, but so do some as they seek to satisfy their clothing, housing, or nutritional needs. Nonetheless, once we abandon the fantasy that everyone needs to be subjected to the same schooling and everyone needs to have his property taxed so as to support this contorted system, the sort of hopes Mr. Gates, and others, with different but equally legitimate agendas for young people, are voicing will no longer have to go unsatisfied. There will be plenty of schools responding to the varied needs to American students and the opportunities that face them in all the disciplines of education. There will, in short, be entrepreneurship in education, as there is in the software industry.

No doubt, this approach is going to be dismissed with total disdain by some—first, by the people who are wedded in their thinking to how government is the solution to all human problems, and, second, by those who are currently mindlessly employed by the state educational systems across the country and care not a whit for proper schooling but mostly for their continued steady employment, not unlike those who have worked for defunct and misguided—and indeed more or less unjust—institutions throughout human history. But they really aren’t the best source of wisdom about what young human beings need in the way of an educational alternative to what we have now, an evidently bankrupt one.
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