Socialism, Public Schooling, and The Battle
Last spring, we had the great fortune of welcoming Arthur Brooks, author of Gross National Happiness and president of the American Enterprise Institute, to Eagle Hill as one of the guests for the student-led interview program. Later this week, we will again welcome Dr. Brooks to discuss his new book The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future.
In The Battle, Brooks makes the argument that Americans believe first, foremost, and fundamentally in the principles of free enterprise. Of particular interest to me as a teacher is Brooks’s suggestion that our commitment as Americans to universal education is the best evidence of our basic commitment to equality of opportunity, a core principle of free enterprise according to Brooks. Immediately, the connection between opportunity and education will sound familiar to us as Americans. In our tradition, education is often charged with being an equalizer, and the sense of making oneself—perhaps even remaking oneself—aligns closely with the ideas of personal responsibility and earned success central to conservative thought. In fact, as Brooks convincingly points out, these are core elements of the American narrative. At the same time, there are clearly tensions between free enterprise and the idea of universal schooling, and these become especially evident as we examine the relationship between free compulsory public schooling and equality of opportunity.
One interesting tension arises when we consider the state sponsorship of universal education in the United States. In a recent essay in National Review, Kevin Williamson argues that “public schools constitute one of the most popular instantiations of socialism in American life…[and] are a classical socialist failure” (1-24-11, p. 36). There’s an inherent conflict here: how can it be that our attempt to enact our belief in universal education, the very mechanism we choose for achieving equality of opportunity as free enterprisers, is also a classic example of the failure of socialism? Williamson’s point, to be fair, is that socialism is best defined as a commitment to centralized planning rather than simply a redistributionist economic program, but it’s clear that he sees state-run public schooling as antithetical to the tenets of free enterprise. It isn’t difficult to see proposals for voucher programs and business-models for schools, for example, as references to the principles of free enterprise in the education arena, but these suggestions do not begin to address the more basic tension between a national commitment to universal education and the complicated project of achieving that national vision in a decentralized fashion.
A second, perhaps more mundane but critically important, question relates to education as an actual and important instance of equality of opportunity. It seems non-controversial to assert that public schools provide vastly different, certainly unequal, offerings to their students and communities. Clearly, there are excellent public schools and failing public schools—and it would be hard to imagine a reasoned argument that suggests that simply offering something, anything at all, is a reasonable expression of a fundamental belief in equality of opportunity. And this again highlights the inherent difficulty of putting into practice a commitment to universal education absent considerable centralized planning. It may be, as I often suggest to my students in other situations, that human beings—even Americans—are complicated; we are capable of holding and expressing many and conflicting commitments simultaneously. How we might work out a way forward given our conflicting commitments in the case of universal education is the interesting work we have before us.One thing seems clear to me, though: if Arthur Brooks is right that universal education is an expression of Americans’ commitment to free enterprise then even conservatives must admit that that mission should be carried to its logical conclusion and not left to flounder. We cannot be satisfied with periodic criticism of public schools by private industry, and we must take seriously the notion of equality of opportunity that is so closely tied to our impulse to universal schooling. The history of American social reform, from slavery through women’s suffrage, points to another element of our national character. We show a remarkable capacity to tolerate contradictions between the values we espouse and our willingness to grant government the power to make them practicable. This reluctance to empower our government may be the most American value of all, and it has allowed the American experiment to survive against long odds. It is, however, misapplied in the case of public education. The disparities in the quality of educational opportunities offered to America’s children must be remedied for our democracy to continue to thrive, and the scale of the project of universal education requires a measure of central planning for equity to be achieved.