Thursday, October 16, 2008

For educational freedom

[Guest post by OCPA intern Emily Solomon]

People often refer to the founding of our nation to back up their opinions regarding the separation of church and state. So, why not look to colonial America for direction on education policy? You might be surprised to learn that the compulsory public education we are all familiar with today was not the norm.

Cato Institute scholar Neal McCluskey points out that in 1647, authorities tried to demand that the colonies maintain public schools, but other priorities like food and shelter took precedence. This lack of public education resulted in amazing educational variety. Communities of all ethnic and religious backgrounds facilitated private and home schooling, and eventually set up for-profit schools once the market allowed. This private education proved successful, for by the drafting of the Constitution, approximately 65 percent of free American males were literate, "a very high number by European standards."

Public schooling as we know it today was not fully implemented until about 1900. By 1918, every state had passed compulsory attendance laws. It was believed that compulsory public education would lead to unity and homogeneity among citizens. Although this belief is built on an ideological foundation of nationalism that is to be lauded, the educational system that has ensued denies the American ideal of freedom. "The greatest proponents of public schooling were all too often driven by the patently un-American conviction that for adults to safely have freedom, the state has to indoctrinate them as children," McCluskey writes.

Although public schooling aims to produce unity and homogeneity among citizens, it often does quite the opposite. A one-size-fits-all approach to education can never work for a people of such diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds as Americans. "The result is seemingly constant warfare over issues such as intelligent design, abstinence education, multiculturalism, school prayer, offensive library books, and so on," McCluskey writes. "When diverse people are forced to support a single system of public schools, they don't come together; they fight to make theirs the values that are taught."

So what's the answer? Freedom. "We must have educational freedom today," McCluskey concludes, "or we'll have neither unity nor freedom tomorrow."

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