Friday, January 1, 2010

Outside the Box -- commentary

Success workshop gurus often admonish us to think outside the box. Just for fun, let’s think way, way outside the box. The belief that recalcitrant problems require radical solutions, and that the deficiencies in our public education have certainly proven to be recalcitrant inspires this excursion outside the box.

For some reason, we never think of our educational system for what it really is, mass media. It is a part of our system of distributing information to the masses. Public schools are a big player in this game. If schools are indeed a part of our mass media, what business does the government have owning them? Isn’t this a violation of the First Amendment which guarantees freedom of speech and of the press?

At the time the amendment was written, press had to do with printed material. As the broadcasting of words over air waves became common, the first amendment rights of free press and free speech were thought to apply to these new forms of mass media as well.

Because the airwaves are thought to be owned by everyone, there has been some minor regulation of broadcasting by the government, but basically the doctrines of free speech and free press apply. Apparently, no one thought to include the schools in these doctrines. But, if even a simple, ritualistic prayer at a school function threatens the first amendment, how much more is it threatened when government owns 95 per cent of a major mass media outlet?

What would be the public response if the government owned 95 per cent of the print and broadcast media? Yet government owns most of our schools, schools which may be the most powerful medium we have for passing on information.

Throughout much of our history, this didn’t really matter. Our schools were publically owned, but they were controlled by local school boards and as such, they reflected the communities that paid for them. Now they are overly regulated by federal and state governments and are part of a huge bureaucracy. And, they do what bureaucracies do best, produce mediocrity. Local school boards now have almost no control over their schools and the schools no longer reflect the neighborhoods that pay for them. This medium is now anything but free.

In a democracy, the government has a vested interest in its citizens achieving basic literacy so they can at least cast intelligent votes. Beyond that, education should be a private matter of those who want an education and those who want to hire educated people.

If this were so, all education beyond the eighth or ninth grade would be private and free of governmental control and thus be in compliance with the First Amendment. It would also solve other problems.

One of the big problems with public education is that it is so public. Because it is public, businessmen, school administrators, and special interest groups often have different agenda and they often conflict. In a pluralistic society, a monolithic system of education not only destroys free speech, it is often in conflict with the locale it attempts to serve. In one locale, school patrons want sex education taught. In another locale, patrons want sexual abstinence taught. Other locales want school to open with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. There are many more such problems and they lead to the suspension of free speech for one group or another. Just as a newspaper chooses what it will print or a television station chooses what it will broadcast, a privately owned school would teach the content it chooses.

I can sense the questions building. Who is going to pay for this private education? My libertarian sense tells me those who benefit from it, as long as the schools aren’t government owned. Some will argue that every child has a right to an education. If I buy that argument, does it also mean a right to a publically funded one? Does the right to a free press also include a publically funded press? If I agree that every child has a right to a publically funded education, how many years does that right entail? The state’s only valid interest is until basic literacy has been achieved.

Business is the primary beneficiary of educated people beyond basic literacy. It is also the primary complainer of the mediocre product turned out by the public schools. They managed to pass the responsibility of educating workers onto the public at large and now don’t like the product they are getting. The only thing gained by public funding has been government ownership of schools. If you insist every child has a right to a publically funded education for 12 or 13 years, don’t also insist it has to be done in a government owned school.

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