In the previous posts of this series, I developed a definition of freedom as the ability to make meaningful and consequential decisions; briefly discussed the three key concepts in this definition (ability, meaningfulness, and consequence); and described liberty as the set of social constructs we erect to sustain freedom.

I had planned for this post to focus on perhaps the most interesting concept underlying freedom, namely, consequence.  However, the discussion of institutions that do (or do not) support freedom in the previous post brought out some interesting comments on schooling, and reflecting on these led me to some new insights. Before moving on to consequence, I would like to put down some of those insights.

The previous post touched on some structural aspects of schooling, noting that private schools avoid a lot of conflicts of interest inherent in a public system in which the government is both the regulator, provider, and customer for education, and expressed some skepticism of homeschooling largely on empirical grounds. On further reflection, I have concluded that this misses the point, which is that the value of schooling depends very much on what the purpose of that schooling is perceived to be.

One can quickly come up with a long list of things we might wish schooling to accomplish. I took it as almost a given that one of its chief purposes is to prepare students to exercise their freedom by cultivating their capacity for reason and enriching their store of knowledge so that their choices would be meaningful. I note now, and will further examine later, that this is not in fact a given for many educators, parents, and students. Other purposes of schooling include: To instill vocational skills and so increase the social utility of students; to prepare students for the next level of education; to sort students by aptitude so that the most talented can be identified for further education or choice work opportunities; to instill correct political views to students so they will vote appropriately; to improve the socialization of students, in part by teaching a common culture; to provide free daycare for the parents of the students; to keep students in a controlled environment during their wildest years in order to reduce juvenile delinquency; and to keep students from competing with low-skill adults for low-paying work. Some of these purposes are respectable enought to be openly advocated, while others are undoubtedly important to significant segments of society but are not the kind of thing one says plainly in polite society. It clearly makes a great deal of difference which of these objectives is given priority in a school’s program.

Let us examine each of these, in no particular order, from the perspective of what I will call education for freedom.

We can dispose at once of keeping students from competing with low-skill adults for low-paying work. This is most nearly the opposite of education for freedom. I do not know how important it actually is. Minimum-wage laws are probably more effective, from the point of view of low-skill adults, and to my knowledge we now have no U.S. jurisdiction that is not subject to some kind of minimum wage law.

Keeping students in a controlled environment during their wildest years in order to reduce juvenile delinquency is not actually a motive to be sneered at. This is a pretty good description of the reform school, at its best, and the unhappy outcome of the reluctance to keep reform schools at their best (usually for reasons of false economy) does not invalidate the basic concept. Reform schools serve to take those who have failed to learn the lesson that choices are meaningful and consequential, but who are not otherwise severely defective, and give them a second chance to learn what freedom really means. This ties into the larger theme of crime and punishment, which I will address later. I also note that reform is a matter of degree; even an excellent school with excellent students will occasionally have to correct them, and molding of moral character is in fact an important function of any school devoted to educating for freedom.

Providing free day care for parents has nothing to do with educating children for freedom, and does quite the opposite for the parents themselves. Having children is one of the most consequential choices most people will ever make in their lives. The effort to make it less consequential, however tempting in the face of dismal birth demographics, is to be resisted. That this is a real motive for some schooling is shown by the enduring support for for Head Start, in spite of credible, well-designed, well-conducted research that show that the educational benefits of Head Start almost completely evaporate by the child enters his teen years.

Preparing students for the next level of education is almost a given. It is important, however, that students be given as much choice in the matter of their studies as possible, and also as much information as possible on the opportunities that will realistically be opened by such education. I think I may already have quoted Charles Murray to the effect that only about 20% of those attending college really have the aptitude for a college education. The incentives here are distorted, of course, so that failure to attend college closes a lot of doors that it should not. But the failure to be realistic about what college is really about leads to a tremendous waste of resources and prevents students from exercising real choice in the matter. Perhaps I am not putting it sufficiently bluntly: Far too many educators reflexively urge the great majority of their students to prepare for college.

The distorted incentives mostly have to do with schooling as a way to sort students by aptitude so that the most talented can be identified for further education or choice work opportunities. Given the reality of limited resources for advanced schooling, such sorting must take place; but making it the responsibility of the high schools poses a tremendous conflict of interest. Schools cannot simultaneously be devoted to giving the best possible education to each student while giving an honest ranking of their students’ potential to the university or employer. Standardized tests administered across schools are the obvious answer, and explain why such tests endure in spite of strong opposition to them from radical egalitarians.

Instilling vocational skills that increase the social utility of students seems honorable enough in itself, and it is hard to imagine that it will not be a significant side effect of educating for freedom. However, there is nothing that requires vocation-based education to also educate for freedom. Totalitarian states run school systems, and their students often score better on achievement tests than students from what passes today for the free world. But they have not been educated for freedom.

Such totalitarian schools put considerable emphasis on instilling correct political views to students so they will vote appropriately. Sadly, so do many schools and most universities in the United States, due to the stunning success of the Left’s march through the institutions. Does one really need to elaborate on the blow to freedom administered by an education in which the concept of “freedom” that is taught is nearly the Orwellian opposite of the real article?

Improving the socialization of students, in part by teaching a common culture, is similar to teaching vocational skills in that it can be honorable and is likely to be a side effect of educating for freedom. It depends on what the common culture being taught is, and it depends on the socialization being emphasized. A school operating in the former Soviet Union, and devoted to educating for freedom, will of necessity be profoundly countercultural. Many a homeschooling parent has replied to concerns that homeschooling fails to socialize kids with the observation that, at his or her public school, “socializing” meant being beat up by bullies on the bus, being subjected to locker room talk in physical education classes, being taught sex without moral significance in sex education classes, and observing classmates engaging in substance abuse and premarital sexual activity without any adult intervention. (Or, in rare cases, with significant adult involvement.) And, on this issue, the homeschoolers offer a strong point. My counterpoint is that there is absolutely no reason why formal schooling should not be able to illustrate the consequences of such antisocial behavior, by imposing proper discipline and chaperoning. Our schools don’t do it because too many parents don’t want it.

This is probably the place to pause and summarize my views of homeschooling. My observation, and that of some other regulars here, is that the success of home schooling seems to be bimodal. It either works quite well, or it fails miserably. It is my opinion that this depends almost entirely on whether the parents are committed to having their children confront their weaknesses or are content to let them explore their strengths. It is my view that the whole point of structured, formal education is to challenge a child’s weaknesses. Children will naturally gravitate towards their strengths and need no structured environment to develop them. They only need to have suitable learning resources placed before them, and they will teach themselves. It is in those areas where we are not strong that we need a nudge (or, sometimes, a swift kick in the fundaments) to get us to make progress.

So I would say that the successful home schooling parents are those who impose the structure needed to educate their children in areas where the children are not strong, while those parents who subscribe to theories of homeschooling based on letting children choose almost entirely for themselves what to learn (of which the worst manifestation is “unschooling”) seem to have the worst outcomes. This not only seems theoretically sound; it accords with my real-world experience with homeschooling parents and their children.

I would say that the priorities of our current public schools are, in diminishing order: Preparing students for the next level of education; sorting students for the benefit of universities and employers; instilling correct political views; keeping students from competing with low-skill adults for work opportunities; instilling vocational skills; providing free daycare; socializing students; controlling juvenile deliquency; and preparing students to exercise freedom. This will vary somewhat with school, so that inner-city schools probably put much less emphasis on preparation for college and more emphasis on providing free daycare.  I base this ranking, not on what educators say their priorities are or even what I think they sincerely believe their priorities are, but on how the schools are actually structured and where the resources go. Consider it a form of revealed preference.

I would say the correct priority ranking would be: educating for freedom; controlling juvenile delinquency; instilling vocational skills; socializing students; preparing students for the next level of education; sorting students by ability; and instilling correct political views. Keeping students out of the work force and providing daycare are actually contrary to a school’s proper function and should not appear in the priority rankings at all. Instilling correct political views will, according to my own view of which political views are correct, come about naturally from addressing higher priorities. Socializing children is, I think, more important than this list of priorities suggests, but the discrepancy is explained by the observation that parents and the churches and other civic organizations in which they participate are in a much better position to do this than schools will ever be.

I have not described what educating for freedom actually looks like. It goes almost without saying that it will include teaching children plainly that they have a power of choice, there are meaningful distinctions between our choices that can be rationally weighed, and that our choices are consequential. But I think history and literature, which in my opinion are appallingly badly taught in public schools, are very important subject matters in such an education. Conrad’s Lord Jim is a long exploration of the consequences of a cowardly choice made early in life, which chain of consequences could not forever be avoided. The protagonist’s choice to accept the consequences of the second great decision in his life, which ended moments thereafter, is a powerful lesson. If the Melancholy Pole is not to your tastes, there are other great lessons in both history and literature, and it is no coincidence that in Britain, back when it was still Great, the education of the elite was almost entirely devoted to the study of the classics, often in their original languages. I trace part of the decline of the British Empire to the tendency to begin pursuing classics for their own sake rather than as a form of moral education.

It may seem ironic that educating for freedom and controlling juvenile delinquency should be at the top of my priorities. This is better understood when one considers the importance of consequence to the exercise of freedom, which is probably the most misunderstood of all facets of freedom, and particularly on the political Left and in the educational system. Having discharged my mind on schooling, I mean to begin addressing this important topic in a more systematic way in my next post.

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