February 25, 2006

On Liberty, on Education

John Stuart Mill considers education to be so useful that it is one of the few things that he would compel
Is it not almost a selfevident axiom, that the State should require and compel the education, up to a certain standard, of every human being who is born its citizen? ... that to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society; and that if the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the State ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent.

But Mill explicitly rejects that it should be the State that does the educating. This is partly to avoid the provision education becoming a turf war where various ideologies fight it out. In his words it would:
convert the subject into a mere battle-field for sects and parties, causing the time and labor which should have been spent in educating, to be wasted in quarrelling about education.
This can be seen as much a truth in our own time as it was in his. Examples of the politicised nature of state provided education can be seen in David Cameron's championship of Synthetic Phonics to teach reading in the UK and of course the ongoing battles in the USA by some fundamentalist nuts to try and stop the teaching of evolution.
Mill also has a second objection to state control of education.
A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government
This would damage the glorious diversity that he, and I, feel is so badly needed for humanity to progress, as only by allowing many forms of living be tried can the best be found.
Mill does have a solution to how education should be provided.
If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them.
Or in modern terms education vouchers.


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