What is a libertarian parent to do about school? As it is now, with little hope of any change in the near future, the State intervenes to tell parents that they must force their children to attend school. Most libertarians object to compulsory education because of the coercion involved. But compulsory education, financed by taxation, is what we have to live with now.
Parents and children could have a greater variety of choices available to them under a voucher system or if an income tax credit could be taken by parents or others who purchased nongovernment education for a child. With parents more financially able to pick the school of their choice from among a variety of freely competing alternatives, the bureaucratic scourge of government schools could be avoided. Unhappily, however, this would not do away with parental power over children. Children would still be forced to obey their parents' wishes regarding schooling.
Should schooling be treated like a medical or health-related need in which parental discretion must outweigh the very young child's own decisionmaking? I do not have an easy solution in regard to this, though I think that allowing children to choose their own parents would go a long way toward ameliorating the problem. A 10-year-old who disliked his parents' attitudes could seek out another more compatible with him. More important, creating a context of rational, loving communication between parent and child would lead to the solution of such problems between the parent and child.
For our purposes, it is not necessary to get into the pros and cons of compulsory education and its alternatives. Even most libertarians obey the law and send their children to school and, therefore, must deal with compelling their children to attend. This is how I have handled the issue.
First, I have never lied to my children about school. I told them from first grade on that the government made me send them to school. I told them that if they did not enjoy the particular school to which they were going, I would talk it over with them and try to improve on the situation at school through my own interventions or try to find a better alternative. I told them I'd do everything I could in my power to find as happy a school setting as possible and to back them up personally when in conflict with authorities, but that I had decided to obey the law and send them to school.
Second, I told them that they must not take their teachers too seriously. I explained that many of their teachers would be bullies and worse. I urged them to view their teachers not as "authorities" but as "other people," and that they should learn to remove themselves emotionally from emotionally upsetting people. I explained to them how I had learned the art of thinking my own thoughts in boring classes, while maintaining a studious look on my face.
When they came home with stories about nastiness and stupidity in their teachers, I generally accepted their viewpoint as rational (it almost always was), and I tried to figure out ways to help them get along in the situation. Usually this involved their seeing the teacher as a person whose ethics should neither be applauded nor taken seriously. Sometimes it involved my wife or I going to school to back up the child. Usually this amounted to nothing more than reassuring some wretched bully of a teacher that my children had real parents. With such bullies, threats are hardly ever necessary—only a parental presence.
Third, I tried to explain to my children that most of what they would learn in school would be poorly taught, unnecessary, and irrelevant but that any bright person could master it easily enough to enjoy some of the day's events. I assured them that most of their education would come from within themselves, from their friends, and from the pursuit of knowledge on their own.
Finally, I told them not to take the grading system seriously as a reflection of their worth. I also told them that getting good grades had nothing whatsoever to do with "learning" or with "being educated" and that getting good grades was mostly a reflection on the individual's willingness to spew back material in an acceptable fashion. I made it very clear that their report cards meant nothing at all to me but that their daily happiness meant a great deal to me.
Over the years, my children have received fairly high grades with very little studying, but neither of them has tried to be at the top of the class. Looking back over the years, my children agree that they have largely enjoyed school. They have accommodated to the coercive situation by turning it into a social get-together with their friends, against the background of a largely humdrum class schedule interspersed with occasionally interesting educational experiences. Sometimes, they find school-related activities genuinely exciting, such as a relationship with a good teacher, a special study project of some interest, sports, cheerleading, or the school newspaper. I believe that their happiness at school has a lot to do with being loved at home and with not taking school and their teachers too seriously.
The view I am suggesting may seem very radical, but my own experience suggests that many people share it with me. In my private practice, many parents who have no notion of "libertarianism" or "antistatism" realize that public education is largely oppressive and boring. They recall day after day stuck in the doldrums of a classroom. Yet, they have tried to "motivate" their children to "take school more seriously." They feel like hypocrites and they fail to achieve their ends.
I have frequently seen the same phenomenon in regard to religious training. Nearly all of my clients have looked upon their religious education as fundamentally suppressive and irrational. And yet many have gone on making their children go to church and to Sunday school. It strikes them as a "revelation"—albeit a revelation of a whole new kind—when I suggest that they follow their own judgment and liberate their children from institutional religion.
As a parent, you will develop a much happier and more full relationship with your children if you stop hypocritically enforcing the very institutions that tormented you and made you miserable as a child. In regard to religious education, you can put an end to it if you wish. In regard to compulsory education, you can try to find the happiest solution for your children, and you can teach them the art of maintaining personal sovereignty in the face of external compulsion. You can help them take themselves more seriously and their "formal education" less seriously.
John Holt, an educator who began his career by trying to reform the public schools, now urges parents to keep their children out of school and to educate them at home. This is a libertarian position but one that most parents will find hard to adopt in the near future. Whether or not you have the energy, the time, and the courage to follow Holt's policy, as a parent you must recognize that school will not provide your children with an education in becoming free and independent. Instead, your children will be taught to accept the authority of others in matters where individual reason and individual conscience should prevail. Unless your children are to discover and sustain the truth on their own, you must provide the most important aspect of their education—confirmation of their capacity and their right to think and to feel as independent persons.
In general, I have tried to dissuade my children of the idea that authorities or laws are sacred. There is a superstition that people are morally obliged to obey laws and even to worship laws. I do not think so. Along with Thoreau and a variety of other heroes, I personally believe that the individual is instead obliged to listen to his or her own conscience. Neither you nor I asked to be born into this particular nation, nor even onto this particular earth. I see no reason to hold sacred the particular compulsions laid upon us by our ancestors or by our contemporaries in this or any other society. I happen to like America better than other nations because it permits more freedom and diversity. I especially approve of the Bill of Rights. But in general, I find most of the laws of the land to be coercive and unjust.
On the other hand, overtly breaking laws is rarely in anyone's interest. It leads to all manner of aggravation. Even the most radical antistatist tries not to get into trouble with the government over minor issues, even though he or she has determined to rebel actively, as through tax resistance or draft resistance. Whether my children wish to be rebels in adulthood will be their own business. As far as I am concerned, I want them to grow up with a healthy, happy disregard for all forms of authority and coercion. If they eventually choose to rebel more actively against authority and coercion, that will be their own business.
Peter R. Breggin, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. He is the author, most recently, of Electroshock: Its Brain-Disabling Effects. This article is adapted, by permission of the publisher, from The Psychology of Freedom, to be released in November by Prometheus Books. Copyright © 1980 by Peter R. Breggin.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Everything Your Child Always Wanted to Know".