Education: right or privilege? (part one)

(This post continues a series of posts about socialism. I thank this week’s ice storm for making the writing of this post possible by canceling a day of work without cutting off electricity to the home.)

In the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress affirmed that all human beings have three God-given rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Less than a decade later, the new government treated the education of children as a right. In 1785, Congress declared that in all the territories and incipient states of the USA, the sixteenth section of every township would be reserved for a school. A township is a thirty-six square mile piece of land, six miles wide and six miles long. A section of a township is one square mile. The sixteenth section would be near the middle of the township, guaranteeing that every family in the territory or state would live within four miles of a school.

Of course, a school does not need an entire square mile. Congress intended for portions of the land to be sold to raise money to erect a school building, supply it with educational materials, and begin to pay the salary of a teacher. In some places, this plan worked as Congress intended. In others, school board members sold the property and pocketed the profit. Sooner or later, most schools needed additional funding to remain open. Some townships established a tax to support their schools; many others required a fee to be paid by the families of students. In addition to instructing students of varying ages, teachers were also required to maintain schoolhouses, from lighting the stove early in the morning to cleaning the classrooms at the end of the day. They were generally expected to gather fees from the families, which they would often accept as farm produce or volunteer labor when families could not afford to pay directly for their children’s education.

The education of children has always begun in the family. Young children learned to walk and to talk by imitating their elders. In agricultural families, children began working with the crops as soon as they were mobile. Children learned crafts from their parents; in some cases, they would become apprentices to another craftworker in the community. Wealthy families hired or purchased private tutors for their children.

Over time, religious communities began to establish schools for their children. They learned to read and write by studying religious texts. They were taught songs and stories of their religious heritage. Martin Luther was among the first to suggest that governments should support such schools for the benefit of the community. Immigrants to the western hemisphere often established schools along with their congregations—this was especially true of Lutheran and Catholic settlements. In many cases, a group of Lutherans would build a school first and worship there on Sundays until they had raised sufficient money to build a proper church.

Meanwhile, as rural areas benefited from the establishment of a school in every township, American cities often entrusted their children to private academies. No academic standards had yet been set; any man or woman could open a school and call himself or herself a teacher. Sometimes men taught school for a few years while they completed their preparation to work as doctors, lawyers, or other professionals. Larger schools had faculties and accepted boarders from the countryside and from other towns. After the Civil War, many educators came to the southern states to begin schools for African-American children. At the same time, though, attitudes about educating children began to be more specific and more focused.

American thinkers perceived the value of public education to maintain and preserve a uniquely American culture. As immigrants flowed into the New World from many diverse nations and cultures, their children were gathered into schools and taught to speak and read and write in English. They learned to be good citizens of the United States. Instead of Bible stories, they were instructed about Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims, and the Founding Fathers. They learned to revere George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; later generations were also taught about Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford. American attitudes included patriotism, respect for hard work, and the value of the individual. Tax dollars, usually from property taxes, supported education, so no family was required to pay fees. Private education continued among some religious communities. Still, the “melting pot” of American education fell short in some areas. Many communities used the tax dollars of white families to fund schools for white children while they used the tax dollars of black families to fund schools for black children. Therefore, even when the black children outnumbered the white children, the white children benefited from far better resources in their schools.

Around the middle of the twentieth century, public education in the United States was reevaluated. “Separate but equal” schools were disallowed, and classrooms began to be desegregated, often with children bused into other areas to balance the school bodies racially. In response, many families moved to the suburbs or put their children in private schools. At the same time, new theories about education changed life in the classroom. Baby boomers struggled to understand “New Math.” History and geography were replaced with “Social Studies.” New grading scales replaced the traditional A, B, C, D, and F. Formerly heroic figures like Washington and Lincoln were revealed to have had flaws and shortcomings. Schools began to offer mandatory classes on alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, and on sexual education. Bible readings and prayers were disallowed. Teachers fought for and obtained the right to train students in controversial theories such as Darwinian evolution.

Some families responded to changing school environments by withdrawing their children in favor of private schools or home schooling. A few parents sought positions on school boards in an effort to preserve education as they remembered it. But, at the same time, the federal government became more involved in the education of children, establishing standards to be met by every school in the country, and encouraging testing to ensure that all children were learning the same skills. Earlier schools in the United States saw their goal as rescuing the children of immigrants from their families and making them Americans. Now schools in the United States saw their goal as rescuing children from their families to free them from unfavorable attitudes such as racial prejudice, religious intolerance, and unscientific attitudes toward the world.

Because tax dollars are collected from all property owners to provide public education for all children in a community, public education in the United States sometimes is presented as a successful experiment in socialism. Freedom to choose private schools or home schooling diminishes the argument that American public education is a successful socialist enterprise. Private schools and home schooling are privileges that many families cannot afford. Arguably, though, their existence offers competition to public schools, competition which forces the public schools to maintain higher quality than they might offer otherwise. Many other political factors enter into this discussion, including school choice, charter schools, and discipline problems in the schools. Americans remain largely in favor of education for children as a right, not a privilege. But many questions remain about the best way to teach children and the best reasons to do so. J.

The social contract

All people have rights. When we all try to exercise our rights at the same time, we fall into conflict. Therefore, we make an unspoken agreement with one another. We surrender some of our rights to the government, and we give that government the power to protect our remaining rights. Which rights we surrender and which we maintain—that is the difficult question. Nations differ from one another in their answer to that question, and citizens within nations argue with each other about the answer to that question.

Like many ideas of western philosophy, the idea of the social contract has its roots in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. The idea first reached its full structure in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. All three agreed that government is a necessary evil. All three wanted to see the size and the power of the government limited. Hobbes even compared human government to the Biblical monster, Leviathan, writing that it must be tamed as much as possible, because things would be worse without it.

All people have rights. Locke summarized these rights as life, liberty, and property; in the Declaration of Independence of the United States, Thomas Jefferson rephrased the third right as “the purfuit of happineff.” (All his Ss looked like Fs—Stan Freberg.) Governments exist to protect the rights of their citizens to life, liberty, and property; they do not exist to take these rights away. Locke, and later Jefferson, said that when a government fails in this basic duty, citizens have an additional right to take power from their government and give it to a new government. Locke saw that very event happen twice, first with the end of the Puritan Commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and later with the Glorious Revolution bringing William and Mary to power in Great Britain in 1689. Jefferson was, of course, key in seeing the same thing happen in the British colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America.

All people have a right to life, but government can deprive a murderer of life, since that person has deprived someone else of life. All people have a right to liberty, but government can put a convicted criminal in prison to protect its other citizens. All people have a right to property, but the government can take property away from some people in the form of fines if they have broken certain laws. Citizens surrender to the government the power to seek, capture, convict, and punish criminals rather than having each citizen responsible for defending his or her life, liberty, and property all the time.

In additional ways, citizens surrender liberty and property to the government for the greater good. (In times of war, some citizens even risk their lives for the good of their country.) Many people want to travel between City A and City B. If each citizen made his or her own path between the two cities, many property rights would be threatened, and the environment in general would be harmed. With the agreement of the citizens, the government claims a strip of land between the cities, giving the owners of that property due value. The government then builds a road on that strip of land. The road belongs to the government, by agreement of all the citizens. Therefore the government can charge people money to use that road, whether through tolls or through gasoline taxes or through fees paid for vehicle licenses and drivers’ licenses. Because the government owns the road, and make and enforce rules about the road, such as speed limits, stop signs, and laws against littering. Citizens agree to use the road and to obey the rules. This is how the social contract works.

In every family, parents could teach their own children; or groups of families could band together to provide private schools for their children. However, the citizens living in a town or city have an interest in seeing that all the children are in school, both to keep them out of trouble and to prepare them for useful lives in the future. Generally in the United States public schools are funded largely by property taxes. Even households without children and families which homeschool or send their children to a private school pay for the public school, because it is in everyone’s best interests to send the neighbor’s children to school. This is how the social contract works.

Taxes are a visible result of the social contract, but most political controversies also concern the social contract. Governments decide how best to protect the lives and liberty and property of all citizens. Sometimes, however, the rights of two people conflict, and the government must decide which right to protect or how to compromise the conflicting rights. Does a child’s right to life deserve more protection than the right of the child’s mother to liberty and the pursuit of happiness? If so, when does that right to life begin—at conception, at birth, at some arbitrary time between conception and birth, or perhaps a certain number of years after birth? Americans disagree with one another about the answer to that question, as do the members of the American government. Because of the social contract, the government must provide and enforce some kind of answer.

In socialism, the government owns all businesses and industries and decides how much workers will be paid and how much products will cost. Socialist governments generally charge high taxes and then provide many services for free. These can include public transportation, education, medical care, and even housing. In capitalism, private citizens own business and industries. Those private citizens decide how much workers will be paid and how much products will cost. Taxes are lower, but people must pay for things that they need and want. Even in capitalism, though, a social contract exists. Citizens trust the government to inspect factories for the safety of the workers and the quality of the products (such as food and medicine) that are produced. Citizens trust the government to regulate industries to reduce pollution, noise, and other problems. Citizens trust the government to make laws about child labor, limits on how many hours of work a worker must perform each day and week, and even minimum wage rules. Some liberty is surrendered to the government for the good of workers and of customers. People debate the details of such regulations, some wanting more and others wanting less regulation, but very few people want absolutely no regulation of privately-owned businesses and industries.

Human life requires food and shelter. To protect the right to life, should a government guarantee that every citizen has access to food and to shelter? Locke and Jefferson would have said “no,” but today American government provides unemployment compensation, food stamps and other welfare programs, and low-rent government-owned housing. Citizens object to abuses of the welfare system, but few would say it ought to be abolished. Most Americans are willing to see some of their tax money spent to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and care for the poor people who are our neighbors.

Access to health care is also necessary for human life. Since the 1960s, American citizens have debated heatedly the question of government involvement in the nation’s healthcare system. Most Americans are opposed to socialized health care in which the government owns all the hospitals, medical clinics, pharmacies, and other health care institutions. In socialized healthcare the government pays the doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care professionals. That same government sets rates for medical procedures, making the most essential procedures available for free to those who are poor. Most Americans prefer capitalism in health care. Most Americans do not want governments to own the entire system. Most Americans want doctors and other professionals to have freedom to do their jobs in the way they think is best. Most Americans want freedom to make their own choices among doctors, hospitals, and the like. Americans disagree with one another about how much the government can control the health system through regulation. The goal of government participation in health care is to protect the right to life of poorer citizens. However, the same government participation reduces the liberty of doctors and patients, and reduces the property of citizens who must pay taxes to support the system. Discussion of what compromises should be made among these conflicting rights is part of the social contract.

On another occasion, I will write more about taxation and the social contract. J.