The Chief Cause of Excellence

This morning’s disturbing Washington Post op-ed by Colbert I. King describes a sexual assault that took place in one of D.C.’s public high schools — an assault committed by an adult whom the D.C. schools placed there as a “mentor” for the children. Mr. King is dissatisfied with the D.C. government’s response to the incident.

Horrific things happen even in good schools, so I do not bring this up in order to bash the D.C. schools or public schools in general. Indeed, these things happen in private schools as well, and Catholic institutions in particular have come in for more than their fair share of bad ink on the subject of adults imposing themselves sexually on adolescents.

But the incident does call to mind a quotation I’ve been meaning to share with Reasonable Minds since I first heard it last spring.

The quotation is from Edward Baines, Jr., who was one of a group of people known as the “Voluntaryists,” who opposed public education in England in the nineteenth century. The Voluntaryists argued that public intervention in education interfered with intellectual freedom and set the stage for state indoctrination of impressionable youths. They described compulsory attendance laws as “child-kidnapping,” and even opposed government inspection of existing schools as a form of “government surveillance.”

They lost, of course; and one of the reasons they lost was because gaps and deficiencies in the schools of the day seemed to many to cry out for reform and public correction. Baines (who served in Parliament) was charged with being an advocate of “bad schools.” His response?

In one sense I am. I maintain that we have as much right to have wretched schools as to have wretched newspapers, wretched preachers, wretched books, wretched institutions, wretched political economists, wretched Members of Parliament, and wretched Ministers. You cannot proscribe all these things without proscribing Liberty. The man is a simpleton who says, that to advocate Liberty is to advocate badness. The man is a quack and doctrinaire of the worst German Breed, who would attempt to force all mind, whether individual or national, into a mould of ideal perfection, to stretch it out or to lop it down to his own Procrustean standard. I maintain that Liberty is the chief cause of excellence; but it would cease to be Liberty if you proscribed everything inferior. Cultivate giants if you please; but do not stifle dwarfs.

Well, of course this argument lost as far as public schooling is concerned. And at least in the United States, we have managed to draw the line Baines thought insufficiently bright. That is, we have asked the state to address “wretched schools” while at the same time keeping the state out of the business of trying to fix up “wretched newspapers, wretched preachers, wretched books, wretched institutions, wretched political economists,” etc. (We do, apparently, want the state to fix up wretched insurance companies, wretched banks, and wretched automakers.)

But we should also notice this product of our experience, which modern problems with public schooling illustrate quite well: moving primary and secondary education into the public sphere has not eliminated “bad schools”; it has simply made them harder to improve. Private schools are sometimes bad, and public schools are sometimes bad. But the former either improve or go out of existence. We cannot say that about the latter.

There is a tendency, when we see private actors behaving badly, to imagine a public policy response that would correct the problem and then take it for granted that of course the corrective policy should be adopted. We often fail to consider whether the policy is likely to be perfectly or even competently administered. Our experience tells us this is a rather large oversight.

And so, in retrospect one is tempted to say that Baines made the wrong argument. Perhaps he should have argued not that we cannot proscribe bad schools without proscribing Liberty, but rather that we cannot proscribe bad schools even if we proscribe Liberty. But give the man his due: Baines did not argue against state-sponsored education by promising a Libertarian Utopia. We cannot say as much for many modern advocates of government intervention, who often decry the inadequacy of what Liberty produces and promise a Statist Utopia without confronting all the empirical reasons we should be suspicious of such promises.

[Incidentally, I first heard Baines’s “chief cause of excellence” speech in an audio production by the Cato Institute last spring. Finding it in print took a bit of effort, so I should probably mention where I found it. The quotation, and much of the context, is from an essay by George H. Smith entitled, “Nineteenth-Century Opponents of State Education.” Smith’s essay appears as Chapter 3 in an out-of-print book entitled, “The Public School Monopoly: A Critical Analysis of Education and the State in American Society” (Robert B. Everhart ed. 1980). Thanks to Laura Schweiger for finding the book for me at Catholic University after the copy I ordered from a used book store went missing. ]

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