Wednesday, August 11, 2010

For voluntary education?

The suggestion that choice in public services might not be all it's cracked up to be, which Catherine Bennett does here, has elicited predictable responses from those libertarians who have set their faces like flint against collective action - unless the collective action in question happens to be carried out by firms.

Neither Ms Bennett's article, nor the responses, interested me in particular - but it reminded me of a question that I'm sure I've asked before but to which I have never received an answer: why is education compulsory at all?

Why do libertarians not follow through the logic of their position and advocate an end to compulsory education? It is, if you think about it, fantastically authoritarian. The argument that it is compulsory because minors don't know their own good won't do because the present legal position is that parents who refuse to educate their children are punished.

You might be surprised at how many teachers, members of a most conservative profession, ask themselves this question. One of the most conservative teachers I have ever met suggested to me that because the means of compulsion had been so delegitimized by liberalism, the greater good required that some element of volunteerism should be introduced to the system.

I'm not saying I agree with him but it's by no means absurd. 'School choice' for most people in these Islands isn't going to amount to much in reality. Even in big cities, transport difficulties would mean at best a choice of four or five schools for most people - and in small towns and villages? Two if you're lucky. So what happens if both of them are shit?

Surely the libertarian position should be that people shouldn't be compelled to educate their children at all? Yet none, to my knowledge, advocate this - which rather tends to reinforce the impression of essentially conservative people in the proper sense of the word dressing up their preferences and prejudices in the language of choice and liberation.

Not that I'm advocating this myself, you understand - but if we play a little thought experiment, I would suggest two possible outcomes from a policy of voluntary education:

1) It would make hardly any difference at all. The overwhelming majority of parents want their children to be educated and do well and even if they don't, they have jobs to go to, or half-grammes of heroin to score, and they can't be doing with children getting under their feet while they're trying to go about this.

2) It would make hardly any difference but it would be a tiny bit of leverage for the school afflicted with indiscipline. Any teacher will tell you that at the present time it is not education that is compulsory, only attendance. What's the point in enforcing the latter when the former isn't taking place?

This would redress the balance between 'parent-power' and the schools. I get more than a little exasperated with people who seem to imagine that the former is an entirely benign influence on our educational institutions. Those of us who have actual experience of education will be able to recount to you stories of parents who believe that their little darlings can do no wrong - despite copious, comprehensive and compelling evidence to the contrary. To be able to say to them that neither they nor we are legally obliged to continue with this present arrangement would truly be a beautiful thing.

Via: S & M
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