The Weak Case for Public Schooling

Information Arguments

by David Friedman

Another argument is that government schooling is necessary because parents, being themselves inadequately educated, are incompetent to choose schooling for their children. As John Stuart Mill put it, "The uncultivated cannot be competent judges of cultivation." This argument concedes that government schools will teach what the state wants children to learn instead of what their parents want them to learn, but views that as an advantage of the government system.

This argument seems to justify at most one generation of government schooling. Once we educate the first generation, they should then be competent to choose an education for their children. The U.S. and Britain have now had universal government schooling for at least five or six generations. If it has done a good job of educating students it should now be unnecessary, and if it has done a bad job perhaps we should try something else.

A further problem with the argument is that most of what the government schools actually teach -- or, too often, fail to teach -- is well within the comprehension of virtually all parents. Insofar as the main business of the schools is to teach children the basic skills needed to function in our society, the children’s parents are usually competent to judge how good a job is being done. Even a parent who cannot read can still tell whether his child can. And, while a few educational issues may go beyond the parents competence to judge, parents qua parents, like parents qua taxpayers, have the option of making use of other people’s expert opinion. The crucial difference between the two roles is that a parent deciding what school his child shall go to has a far stronger incentive to form as accurate an opinion as possible than does a parent deciding how to vote.

Parents have one other advantage over educational administrators -- a flood of detailed free information. By observing their children, and by listening to them, parents can learn a great deal about how well they are being schooled. As West put it, describing the situation in England in the 19th century, "Parents were their own inspectors and, compared with official ones, they were not only much more numerous but exercised continuous rather than periodic check."8

Parental preferences have often clashed with expert educational opinion -- but it has not always been the parents who turned out to be in the wrong. Thus in Scotland, around 1800, parents "Increasingly resisted traditional parochial school emphasis on classical languages and Religion ... . Parents complained that their children did not get their due in the school By not having been teached writing." 9 Modern examples might include the controversies associated with the shift away from phonics and towards the look-see approach to teaching literacy and the introduction of the "new math" somewhat later -- both arguably among the causes of the massive decline in the output of the American school system from 1960 to 1980. Parents have to live with the results of educational experiments; the educators can always go on to a new generation of experimental subjects. As Adam Smith put it:

"Were there no public institutions for education, no system, no science would be taught for which there was not some demand; or which the circumstances of the times did not render it either necessary, or convenient, or at least fashionable, to learn. A private teacher could never find his account in teaching, either an exploded and antiquated system of a science acknowledged to be useful, or a science universally believed to be a mere useless and pedantic heap of sophistry and nonsense. Such systems, such sciences, can subsist no where, but in those incorporated societies for education whose prosperity and revenue are in a great measure independent of their reputation, and altogether independent of their industry."10

In a striking passage, E.G. West hints that much of the support for teaching children what they ought to know instead of what their parents want them to know, in the past and presumably today, depends on each expert assuming that it is his version of what children ought to know that will win out:

"The French Physiocrats wanted a national system of education because they could use it to propagate their new found knowledge of the secrets of the workings of the economy. ...For the nineteenth century cleric, the ignorance which led to crime was primarily the ignorance of the teaching of his particular church. For the utilitarian the crucial issue was ignorance of the laws of the state or in other words the want of knowledge and effective warning of the pain that would inevitably follow from certain actions. For Malthus it was the ignorance of his population principle which mattered most. Public education for him was needed to suppress the sophistries of persons such as Condorcet. The latter happened to be the successful instigator of French state education, and undoubtedly intended it to instruct according to his conception of truth." West (1975) p. 123.

David Friedman
July 7, 1993


8. West (1975)p. 36.

9. Quoted by West from C.R. Fay, Adam Smith and the Scotland of his Day, 1956, p. 51.

10. Smith (1976) Bk V, Ch 1, pt III art II, ii 301.