Is Public Education Necessary?, by Samuel L. Blumenfeld, Greenwich, Conn.: Devin-Adair, 1981, 263 pp., $12.95.
This year of '82 is one of discontent for Albert Shanker and other statists who feed at the trough of the government school system. Ronald Reagan is seriously advocating tuition tax credits for parents with children in private schools, and the measure has at least half a chance of passing. The government school monopoly rightly sees tuition tax credits (and some voucher systems and other efforts to limit the pervasive influence of the "public" schools) as a threat to their comfortable, protected status.
As this new debate heats up through 1982, and the government unionists and bureaucrats are denouncing private-school advocates, there is no book better than Sam Blumenfeld's Is Public Education Necessary? to afford a needed historical perspective on the issues at hand. Most US citizens unthinkingly believe that government-operated and -controlled schools—public schools—are as American as apple pie, wide streets, mom, and the US Constitution. The statists among us calculatingly exploit this belief when they threaten all manner of dire results if the present government system is weakened in any way.
As Blumenfeld makes very clear, the present government system is founded not on Jeffersonian ideals of liberty, individual freedom, and justice but rather on muddled 19th-century misconceptions of socialism. He documents this assertion with ample and fresh material mined from a mother lode of basically untouched sources on early American government education found in the libraries of Boston where Blumenfeld himself teaches in a private school.
Some reviewers have wrongly criticized Blumenfeld for giving a contemporary title to a work that is basically a history of the ideological origins of government education. Such criticism is misplaced if one subscribes to the axiom that the one thing we learn from history is that nobody learns from history.
Blumenfeld's treatise is a bold underscoring of a simple truism: in a long-range project, an apparently simple but initial error, left uncorrected, frustrates even noble objectives. A rocket launched toward the moon, but off just a few degrees at Cape Canaveral, will miss the lunar orb by many thousands of miles. So in the worlds of social change and ideological frameworks for such change: a century and a half ago when government intervention in the schooling of citizens looked like an idea whose time had come, the "small" error of rooting the program in philosophical and theological ideas tinged with European socialism (as opposed to American notions of individual liberty) has resulted today in an American public school system that fundamentally undermines the very greatest of traditionally American ideals: individual freedom, free enterprise, excellence honed to a fine edge on the whetstone of free competition.
Without benefit of Blumenfeld's research and an understanding of his conclusions, it is impossible for the average citizen today even to begin to comprehend the depth of fallacy and deception behind the tortured rantings of the National Education Association, Shanker, the Department of Education (which Reagan has not disbanded), and others. Yet it is still possible to correct our course. But if the correction is to put us on target, liberty and not statism will be the magnet for our ideological compass.
Blumenfeld's history book is in fact as contemporary as bloated public school budgets and frightening illiteracy rates. His title, like his book, is right on the money. Blumenfeld himself gives the best answer to the question he raises.
Is public education necessary? The answer is obvious: it was not needed then, and it is certainly not needed today. Schools are necessary, but they can be created by free enterprise today as they were before the public school movement achieved its fraudulent state monopoly in education. Subject education to the same competitive market forces that other goods and services are subject to, and we shall see far better education at much lower overall cost. Instead of a "crusade against ignorance" to reform the world, we shall have schools capable of performing the limited and practical functions that schools were originally created to perform.
The failure of public education is the failure of statism as a political philosophy. It has been tried. It has been found sorely wanting. Having learned from our mistakes, would it not be better to return to the basic principles upon which this country was founded? Education was not seen then as the cure-all for mankind's moral diseases. But it was on that premise that the reformers built the present system. They were wrong. The system cannot work because in a free society government has no more place in education than it does in religion. Once Americans grasp the full significance of this idea, they will understand why the return of educational freedom is essential to the preservation and expansion of American freedom in general.
The next time you observe some CBS hack obsequiously interviewing Albert Shanker (as Bill Kurtis did during the July 1982 NEA convention) or the next time you read Shanker's $5,000-plus per Sunday ad in the New York Times "Ideas" section (of all places), run out and get a copy of Sam Blumenfeld's book. It's an oasis of sanity in the statist wasteland created by the government's education system.
Frank E. Fortkamp is an educator, writer, and long-time advocate of separation of school and state.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Wasteland of Public Education".