Would It Be Ethical To End Public School Education? Is It Ethical To Even Consider it?

The second question in the headline is based on an Ethics Alarms core principle: it isn’t ethical to propose policies and social changes that are impossible. Would it be possible to eliminate public school education, after it served the nation so well for so long? Still, another Ethics Alarms core principle is “Fix the problem!” Public school education is a serious problem for the nation, the culture, democracy and the future, and it is getting worse. If the problem can be fixed without eliminating public schools entirely, then it should be, though I am dubious about the practicality of that too. If the only way to fix the problem is to come up with a new model and fight for it, ethics tells us that it would be irresponsible not to make the effort.

I am thinking about this as a result of a few things. One is my own unshakeable conclusion that public education now is in a state of irreversible rot, and does more damage than good. I see evidence of this literally every day, and, as regular readers here know, we pulled my smart, curious, knowledge-hungry and authority-resisting son out of public school and eventually out of private school as well, having witnessed just how horrible the process of education was thanks to the institutions and the people who now provide it. Another thing is the now open embrace by schools, teachers and local governments of a deliberately anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-Western culture indoctrination.

A third prompt comes from the recent writings of conservative science fiction novelist Sarah Hoyt, Glenn Reynold’s usual late night blogsitter for Instapundit. Sarah is a bit extreme for me most of the time—here’s her Ethics Alarms dossier—but I always take notice when a serious thinker starts thinking the same thoughts I’ve been thinking, or the equivalents thereof.

These are some of Hoyt’s trenchant thoughts in the post (Do read it all Sarah is always fun), “Let’s Separate State and Education”…

“What I am calling for is a cold, hard look at the utility of mass-industrial, state enforced education as we head out of the mass-production, mass-skills era….Oh, I know what the excuse/reason was at the turn of the 20th century. Then as now, the US was trying to digest a massive bolo of immigrants who didn’t know how things were done here. And let’s be honest, teaching them to be “good Americans” was better than now, when we teach them to hate the country they just immigrated to….So why not remove all educational requirements, take the public schools and raze them, possibly salting the land afterwards, just so people get the point that no, this is not good and should not be done again.

“Oh, you work and can’t be at home to look after the kids? Well, then. The money the government takes from your paycheck to pay for education should be refunded with all possible alacrity, and you can probably find someone to teach your kids what you want them to be taught, or just to let them free-range while you’re at work. Look, if you really insist, we can find you a multi-tattooed, pink-haired monstrosity to convince your kids that they’re really trans-dragons and you get the entire public school experience…..[W]hile there probably are still good teachers laboring in vain in public schools, I can guarantee there are fewer of them every year…The entire system is designed to make those who actually want to teach, and those who actually want to learn run out of the system or turn into useless drones. And our university system has been turned into a credential factory that actually teaches remarkably little.

“In fact, the predictable result of turning education over to the state (note not the states, but the state, since it’s all overseen and dominated by the Federal government) has been to make it a factory of indoctrination, turning out people with the “correct” views, instead of those that conform to reality. The only way we escape this dumpster fire in a clown shoe factory is to stop the automated production of more clown shoes by our state indoctrination mechanisms.

“But Sarah” you’ll say “People will be illiterate!” Will they? They weren’t by and large, before the institution of free public schooling. Communities, groups of families, and even cities got together and chipped in money to hire teachers. Yes, I know, horrors, teachers wouldn’t be “certified.” They might however — take heart – be able to count to twenty with their shoes on. And likely wouldn’t be trained in teaching your kids the new gender of the week. Or enforce bizarre rules that ostracize kids they don’t like. Or–

“Worst case scenario, the kids will indeed be illiterate. But they will be honestly illiterate and not illiterate holding a diploma from — is it Oregon? — that says they’re high school graduates, even though they cannot spell their own names.

“.…Heck, even in the worst neighborhoods it wouldn’t be any different. They are already not going to school. The only difference would be that there isn’t a gigantic building where some people are getting paid for not teaching them.

“All in all, yeah, the illiterate will always be with us. They’re with us now.

“But a lot of the now illiterate might very well learn to read and write, at least enough to get by, by other means than state school, if we weren’t imprisoning them in mandatory seclusion and stealing their best learning years in a system that is obviously broken.

“We don’t need any more state schools to produce “experts” for the system.Open the doors. Let the kids out. Let employers find their own way to certify what people know. Or allow different companies to set up competing systems of certification.

“Let the best system win.

“The free market works better than the captive market in everything.

“Education is no different.”

In her follow-up piece, “The Overton Window Moveth,” she adds in part,

…Some of you had quibbles, and a friend had straight up opposition, so let me dispose of those before I return to the whole over-tuned window of legend.

The quibbles were:

  • —that letting the families fend for themselves in education meant some kids wouldn’t be educated at all. I think you’ll find that’s wrong, if you look at past and other places with no state school. There are all sorts of organizations and societies that offered schooling, down to “That kind lady on the corner, who teaches poor kids”. (Someday remind me to tell you about my very first school, which was not a government school.)
  • “But Sarah,” you say. “If the parents don’t care, the kids won’t learn.” “Yes,” I say. “And the same is true of government schools. We’re already in a massively stratified educational culture, in which kids don’t learn much, and most of what they learn in school is indoctrination about whatever the thing the government is chasing is. (Right now, weirdly, anti-Americanism.) If parents don’t take an interest and push, they end up with maleducated liberal parrots. I don’t see how getting rid of the centers that make them so is any worse.
  • —For a well educated officer corps, there must be central instruction. Well, yes, indeed. Which means the various services could/should set up schools (perhaps at high school level, to which admission would be by exam, and those interested in the services, or perhaps merely wanting to study there, would apply to them. Yes, these would still be government funded, but with specific purpose and intent, which makes them different from “push the newest thing this administration thinks it’s cool at everyone in general.” Which leads to yes, anti-Americanism, but also total educational malpractice, such as teaching kids that white people invented slavery to enslave blacks, instead of just teaching them that slavery is a sin as old as mankind, and existing in all races, and inflicted upon all races. And that we’re blessed and happy to be existing in a time when slavery is not everywhere. All of this poison is being put in the national bloodstream by the schools paid for by a government that seems bent on annihilating us. A school set by a military service would obviously be different. But beyond that, you’re missing the fact that other entities would set up schools. Small towns, for instance, would be quite likely to start schools for their youth. As would larger cities. Various companies would set up schools for the kids of employees, as a benefit (bet me.) As would neighborhoods and just some people wanting to make money.

Now, would all those be equal/comparable/teach the same thing? No. And therein is a strength….Yes, if you have different entities controlling the schools, then all of them will teach false things to some extent. It is impossible to teach the absolute truth, not the least because we don’t know it (though the truth 200 years back should NOT be a challenge.) But then many “Truths” will be in circulation, and by rubbing elbows with people who were taught differently, people get to discuss things, and eventually maybe come closer to the truth.

Then the essay expands to the connection between eliminating state-controlled public school education, and breaking the “Overton Window,” which has come up for discussion here before. By all means read it, but let’s keep this post on public school education.

I think Sarah underestimates the extent to which the internet and the resources it has made available at the click of a mouse have rendered current public school education methods obsolete. Watching “The Civil War” PBS documentary with my son, for example, I and he learned far more about that period in history than I learned before college, and I graduated out of an excellent public school system for the time. Grant taught himself how to repair computers and cars by checking online resources and experimenting on his own. He has watched dozens of Ted Talks, and taken video recordings of classic college courses on subjects that interested him. The greatest loss to kids who don’t go to a traditionally run public school may be the socialization factor and the pure experience of dealing with a hierarchy and an often random, arbitrary, unjust system.There are other ways to acquire those skills though.

There are other ways to acquire those skills though.

I’m not sure what to do about our dangerously incompetent, irresponsible, societally toxic public schools. I have, however, come to believe that it is incompetent, irresponsible and dangerous not to conclude that an alternative has to be developed and tried. I know, I know, that sounds a lot like the “do something” mantra we hear to justify futile and dictatorial “solutions” to climate change and gun violence. Two material distinctions are that breaking up public school education won’t cost more money than the problem itself, and trying an updated approach to education doesn’t require constricting personal liberty.

Maybe it’s possible.

I sure hope so.

__________________________

Apology: WordPress put me through hell with this post, I have no clue why. I could not get the formatting right, and it would not allow me to make the type shades consistent. I took 30 minutes to try to fix these issues after I saw what the post looked like published, which bore no resemblance to the draft. I failed. I’m sorry.

23 thoughts on “Would It Be Ethical To End Public School Education? Is It Ethical To Even Consider it?

  1. Jack,

    Why not post a link and be done with it? I check your site to read your commentary, but often get hoodwinked into reading lengthy treatises of other people’s word garbage because you quote them at length. Meanwhile, I hang on hoping you’ll provide thoughts at the end but, no …

    • Often? I can disprove that, and easily. I do this rarely, and only when I think the post being quoted makes points well and worth relating. Many, many commentary blogs seldom do anything else.Here’s Althouse just yesterday, for example: https://althouse.blogspot.com/2022/09/jia-tolentino-millennial-essayist-and.html

      Meanwhile, here were my “thoughts at the end,” 265 words worth:

      “I think Sarah underestimates the extent to which the internet and the resources it has made available at the click of a mouse have rendered current public school education methods obsolete. Watching “The Civil War” PBS documentary with my son, for example, I and he learned far more about that period in history than I learned before college, and I graduated out of an excellent public school system for the time. Grant taught himself how to repair computers and cars by checking online resources and experimenting on his own. He has watched dozens of Ted Talks, and taken video recordings of classic college courses on subjects that interested him. The greatest loss to kids who don’t go to a traditionally run public school may be the socialization factor and the pure experience of dealing with a hierarchy and an often random, arbitrary, unjust system.There are other ways to acquire those skills though.

      “There are other ways to acquire those skills though.

      “I’m not sure what to do about our dangerously incompetent, irresponsible, societally toxic public schools. I have, however, come to believe that it is incompetent, irresponsible and dangerous not to conclude that an alternative has to be developed and tried. I know, I know, that sounds a lot like the “do something” mantra we hear to justify futile and dictatorial “solutions” to climate change and gun violence. Two material distinctions are that breaking up public school education won’t cost more money than the problem itself, and trying an updated approach to education doesn’t require constricting personal liberty.

      “Maybe it’s possible.

      “I sure hope so.”

      In short, What–the Hell–are you talking about?

  2. A big step in the right direction would be to get rid of the Department of Education and move authority over schools as local as possible. As the spouse of a teacher, a lot of headaches teachers deal with can be traced to mandates from the federal and state levels like standardized testing, reams of paperwork, and even nutritional requirements for cafeterias. Give parents more control over what and how their kids are taught. Stop making schools one size fits all. And, this may sound cruel, but some children need to be left behind for the good of the students who care and want to learn.

  3. It’s an EXCELLENT post, so thank you for trying to fix the formatting.

    Thank you for always treating ethics, and therefore EA, with everything you have and living in a manner that aligns with the best possible intent, ideals, and purpose.

    You are a tremendous educator, Jack, and an anchor to many of us who would be unmoored without your leadership.

  4. Ah, now we’re asking the visionary questions! In order to figure out how best to educate people, we need to figure out what makes a good education. I submit that an education system must do three things.

    First, it must empower students to realize their potential and develop their strengths. That way they can build good lives for themselves with what they earn by contributing to their communities and to society in general.

    Second and equally important is that the education system must be mindful of what constructive skills society needs in order to deal with the fundamental problems we face as a civilization–resource limits, natural disasters, et cetera–and equip people with those skills. If there is a shortage of a particular type of skill, we may want to encourage people to learn it and reward them for accepting a less comfortable path.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, education must alleviate students’ blind spots. It is not necessary that every person be an expert in every subject, but every person should know how to recognize malfeasance or incompetence in important fields, just from knowing the mindsets involved in those fields and from brief research on the fields’ foundational principles. People with basic literacy in all the core mindsets can follow conversations about any problem and ask insightful questions. They will not only be informed voters, but will also be able to suggest and judge good policies for their communities.

    We can accomplish these goals by teaching mindsets. A mindset is a meta-skill, a way of thinking that engages with a particular aspect of the world. Practicing a mindset in one context makes it easier to learn skills in other contexts that use the same mindset. Schools can teach students the core mindsets through skills and contexts that are meaningful to their local communities. Then the students can learn to apply those mindsets to other skills and contexts if they have to. With a solid foundation in all the mindsets, students have a place to start handling any problem, and can continue learning and developing their skills however they see fit.

    If we educate people in this way, humanity will start thriving. Questions, comments, concerns?

    • EC
      What is meant by a “ mindset in those fields”. Do you mean a cursory awareness of say Biology, Engineering or Economics?

      • EC
        No need to respond. I looked up the concept. The question I now have is who determines what are the proper mindsets to be taught and how do you overcome the outside political and social influences that undermine positive beliefs about personal capabilities without giving people a false sense of importance and value – ie everyone gets a reward.

      • Good question! No, the cursory awareness of the fields comes from the cursory research. I use the term “mindsets” to refer to modes of thinking that pay attention to different aspects of reality. All mindsets involve the mental processes of guessing (iterating through hypotheses) and checking (assigning a hypothesis a relative probability based on how well it matches one’s current model of reality). Different mindsets are defined based on which of those processes are emphasized.

        There are four primary mindsets.
        Synthesis mindset emphasizes guessing: it evolves ideas and sees possibility. You may also call it imagination. People use synthesis for many things, because there’s not much you can do unless you look at the possibilities first. It helps us brainstorm, conjecture, look at options, et cetera.
        Analysis mindset emphasizes checking: it evaluates ideas and sees consistency. It’s important for figuring out how things work and why things happen.
        Organization mindset emphasizes both: it allocates effort and sees priority. It helps us make decisions that make the most of what we have.
        Operation mindset emphasizes neither: it shapes effort and sees trajectory. You may also call it intuition. It helps us navigate the physical world and get a sense of what’s going to happen in familiar situations without spending as much time and effort to figure it out the explicit way.

        There are secondary mindsets (semantics, empathy, tactics, and strategy) which are almost as important as the primary mindsets, a zeroth mindset (observation) that helps us suspend assumptions and take a step back, and all sorts of peripheral and composite mindsets that give us a place to start approaching any sort of problem.

        To address the issue with the “mindsets” you may have found online, when people have the mindsets I describe above, they can accomplish things and prove to themselves what they’re capable of. They can develop genuine confidence and a real sense of their importance and value. Does that make more sense?

        • Yes it does and thank you for your detailed response. Your explanation of mindsets is somewhat different from the rather limited definitions I found which could be boiled down to “lived experience”.

          What you outlined is similar to the goal I had when I taught Economics. It was frustrating that students wanted a simple answer to all questions instead of having to evaluate the implications of competing variables that might impact a system at any given time.

          • Based on what I know of most college educators, few if any practice, let alone are able to teach, the mindsets you described. For example: Math teachers demand you show your work and if it is not in the structural format the teacher used it is wrong or severely downgraded; Interpreting Shakespeare’s Macbeth in any way other than the conventional thinking will seriously jeopardize your grade.

            History is subject to all sorts of contortions to fit the teacher’s biases instead of simply laying out all the facts and letting the student derive an objective perspective. CRT is an example of this because it demands obedience to the narrative weaved by the progressive authors. The facts are secondary to the conclusion. Hell, even in standard “objective” History classes we leave out material facts that either undermine the ideas that might cast the protagonist in less than a desirable light or portray the antagonist in the most villainous position. This is a result of the notion that the winner gets to write the history.

            FDR is the great savior and we all hate Adolph Hitler but how many students know that his rise was a direct result of France wanting to impose maximum pain on the German people? Why there is limited discussion of Hirohito’s ambitions of global domination but instead focus on the scary bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We focus on slavery as the root cause of the Civil war when in fact it was started to preserve the Union because Lincoln felt that was necessary for the welfare of the nation. What if he had simply said, Ok, go about your merry way, don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out instead of sending troops to South Carolina to reinforce Fort Sumpter. The slavery issue was no more contentious among the public then than the abortion issue is today, yet no one is clamoring for secession except a few zealots. But we teach that the civil war was only about the slavery issue. We know slavery is an abomination and the south had them, so they were bad. Union states had them too but only the southern states were bad. But what would happen if the federal government started to initiate policies that would obviate most State’s ability to decide issues for themselves such as federalizing elections or creating a national school board under which all educational systems must adopt the federal curriculum, or banning the use of fossil fuels? Much of these ideas are in place or on the drawing board. I seriously doubt that most educators ever consider or even capable of weaving the long-term ramifications of the what if’s of contemporary events into our history lessons.

            Thus, to create what you see as an ideal educational system we must first reeducate the educators. To do so we will need to consider The Shadow’s and Isolumikko’s comments as precursor activities.

            • That all makes sense to me. Education mindset is one of the more sophisticated mindsets, combining perception and communication as well as all the other peripheral mindsets that mix and match the basic mindsets that go into those two. It deals with paradigms. Also, there’s the education method to consider: concept, context, calibration.

              I think there are enough people out there who either already know education mindset or are able to learn it easily enough. The major problem I see is that the education system doesn’t leave much room for teachers to use education mindset effectively. That’s something we can fix by defining education mindset in the policy, so that teachers are free to use it effectively.

              My plan doesn’t require changing the education system first, though. Once people learn to recognize constructive ideas, they’ll be able to overhaul the education system and hold it accountable for actually using education mindset. How does that sound?

            • That’s ironically pretty insightful. Many solutions that are easy to implement aren’t immediately obvious. Then there’s the solutions which are highly effective but which take more effort to implement and more diligence to maintain, which is why people aren’t as likely think of them.

              • And there’s a problem that shows up in Shakespearean tragedy: only a protagonist who can succeed in ways he initially does can fail like that later, even though others could well have seen the trap. Here, the issue is that blindingly obvious ways of not failing to begin with, or of at least mitigating things once you are in trouble, simply aren’t visible at all to those who get in charge of these things. It happens in all sorts of public matters, from economics to education and more. It is even arguable that this was a deeper, underlying dynamic to both Fascism proper and Nazism; each applied sound policies they had stolen, that had eluded their parliamentary predecessors, and then went on to apply unsound policies they had stolen without ever receiving meaningful corrective parliamentary feedback that might have salvaged something. (No, I am not trying to belittle anything by using the term “unsound” rather than, say, “evil”, merely to analyse it all.)

    • EC:
      “In order to figure out how best to educate people, we need to figure out what makes a good education. ”
      I suggest we do not need to know what is best, in order to know what is bad. Indeed, the desire to know best, and impose it on others lies at the root of the problem. Just stop feeding the bad, in particular the highly-paid bureaucracy which diverts the tax money from actual teaching and learning to endless harmful initiatives, one relentlessly following another.

      • It’s true that we can recognize something is bad without having an idea of what is good. However, we can’t necessarily fix what is bad without having an idea of what is good. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”

        You’re certainly right that people cause problems when they have a narrow idea of what is good. That’s why it’s important that we learn to recognize when something is constructive even if it’s not exactly what we had in mind. That’s part of why the four constructive principles of investment, preparation, transcension, and ethics aren’t more specifically defined. People should be able to make those principles their own and use them within whatever contexts they choose, and other people should be able to recognize that. How does that sound?

  5. I am the proud product of the public education system, experienced in Brooklyn NY. I graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1965. In those days the system was about critical thinking, not critical race theory. Science at my high school was central as well as hands-on work. My freshman year had me taking technical drawing, pattern making, foundry, and machine shop. My final years were filled with chemistry, (both inorganic and organic), semi-micro analytics, and biochemistry (memorizing Kreb’s cycle). I was truly well served by the public education I received. The teachers I had were excellent, but they were not my friends nor pretended to be my parents. They did rely on my parents to support the required discipline they meted out whenever I violated the expected rules of behavior.
    By the time my own oldest offspring (born in 1983) began public education, I noticed changes. As a result, my youngest son (born in 1990) was enrolled in parochial school, I noticed changes. At the same time “homeschooling” was become increasingly popular. I first objected to those “homeschoolers” on the premise that they were “insulating” their children from the greater society.

    I have since changed my attitude and now believe that if I had school-age children I would keep them far away from both public and parochial education. Both systems are failing.

  6. The question of would it be ethical to eliminate the public school system is the wrong question. The right question would be: Should we eliminate the department of education and return control of the public school system to the states.
    Consider that in the early 70’s when the department of education was established, the United States school system was the best in the world. After nearly a half century under their centralized rule our educational system is seen as steadily falling behind other industrialized countries.
    This is largely due to the uncomfortable revelation that our school system has prioritized indoctrination over actual education, and has become a forum for disseminating racist propaganda and overt discrimination based on skin color, and sexual brainwashing, and striving to conceal such activities from parents.
    Returning control to the states and decertifying the NEA would go a long way to restoring the integrity of our school system by refocusing on actual education.

    • Consider that in the early 70’s when the department of education was established, the United States school system was the best in the world…

      I wonder where you learned that? In actuality, it is only correct by the same sort of criteria that rate its industry in the early 20th century as best: attaining a consistently high median in large amounts, not by the excellence of its peaks. That is why the U.S.A. could field so many bombers during the Second World War, but could never manufacture licensed British Merlin engines that worked without downrating them to lower power. Those criteria were utterly suitable for a country of that sort of size, but they are not universal (or the Battle of Britain might have turned out differently, with underpowered Merlin engines).

      • I am not sure if this advances the question at hand. Every country has its strengths. It is what is known as comparative advantage. We cannot measure educational systems by the exceptions to the rule. We had Jonas Salk and the Germans had Werner Von Braun. Was Mitsubishi a better manufacturer than Northrup Grumman; it does not matter. Finally, are we forgetting that the Battle of Britain also relied on the skills and determination of its pilots and not just engine power.

        We must look at how to achieve the maximum output given the vagaries of the inputs. Children and young adults are the primary raw materials educators work with to create a valuable output. If the raw material inputs are of the highest caliber, getting superior output is far easier than if your inputs need significant processing beforehand. In addition, some inferior inputs will be statistically likely to make its way into the process which could yield a product with imperfections or spoil an entire batch.

        Ed’s question, “Should we eliminate the department of education and return control of the public school system to the states.” is what is in play and not who had the world’s best educational system. If we simply examine the output based on Federal policies, we actually may throw the baby out with the bath water. I don’t think we can lay the decline of education entirely at the feet of any one causal entity. I will agree that the US Department of Education should get the hell out of social engineering and focus on what instructional modalities achieve the greatest levels of student achievement in whatever core areas local school boards determine are most relevant. EC’s commentary above might prove to be a good starting point. From there, if it remains, it should simply serve as a clearinghouse for best practices. In short, it should be a research and information sharing entity and not involved in command and control of school systems that uses funding as a lever to exert control. That is my opinion based on my experience in dealing with that federal department. Education is first and foremost racially neutral. Every race has the same capacity to learn so perhaps we need to examine what or who stymies academic progress in some quarters.

        Focusing on one relatively insignificant statement does not negate the value of Ed’s post. We should be asking more questions along these lines.

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