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The Anti-Educational Effects of Public Schools

Mises Daily: Friday, July 02, 2010 by


[An MP3 audio file of this article, read by the author, is available for download.]

With so many state governments' budgets now under severe strain, there are serious discussions throughout the country about whether or not to cut state funding to public education — an expenditure that, in some states, consumes more than half the budget. Unfortunately, because of extensive resistance by teachers' unions and other parties with a vested interest in the status quo, fundamental changes to the system will be fought every step of the way. At the same time, however, it is useful to acknowledge that public schools do not just do a suboptimal job at educating the young: much in the environment of the public school is directly contrary to genuine education.

As someone who has survived nine years of US public schooling (I completed some of my earlier education in Belarus), I can confidently say that there is no lack of trying to achieve "educational goals" in the public schools. Indeed, some of the teachers there are genuinely competent and interested in the advancement of their students. It is just that virtually all the incentives are wrong — even when one puts aside issues such as the criteria for teacher evaluation and compensation. The very environment of a public school brings with it severe consequences — some unintended, others intended perhaps in part — that turn it into the virtual antithesis of true education.

I have written elsewhere about the pervasive bullying and the stultifying culture of teenage conformity for which public schools become a breeding ground. There I also discussed how the structure of public schools fosters teaching to the lowest common denominator and the suppression of student curiosity.

But there are other, more explicit policy decisions that plague the public schools in our time. The notions of "school spirit" and "discipline" are so deeply intertwined with American public education today that they would probably survive even deep budget cuts. Having directly seen some of their effects, I now hope to educate the public regarding them.

School Spirit

There is hardly a public school in the United States that does not spend tremendous amounts of money, time, and force cultivating the completely absurd and deleterious notion of school spirit — largely aimed at convincing students to "support" the school by attending vast and numerous athletic events and purchasing merchandise containing the school mascot. Alas, if it were only that limited in scope!

In reality, school spirit becomes an outlet for some of the most primitive and vicious kinds of tribalism and, indeed, a breeding ground for the kinds of sentiments that, in an adult, might morph into jingoism and xenophobia. The notion of school spirit quite prominently and crudely creates a clear distinction between "us" in school x and "them" in school y. "We" are urged to beat, smash, crush, bring down, (insert other destructive verbs at your discretion) "them" at the next athletic event or other extracurricular competition.

The high school I attended (call it X South) had a sister school (call it X North). On an almost daily basis, I heard derogatory comments made in my school about "those Northies" being stupid, arrogant, and much, much worse. Never mind that a mere three miles or so separated the two schools, and the students of one school were often the neighbors of the students of the other. But the irrational treatment of "the other" paled in comparison to the verbal abuse heaped on anyone who dared to question the collectivist notion of school spirit altogether.

"How can any human being learn autonomy, initiative, and personal responsibility when the decision of when, where, and whether he may eat his own food is not his to make?"

The school often enforced loyalty to itself by mandating attendance at athletic pep rallies. I recall an occasion when my school's volleyball team qualified for the state tournament, and the entire school was herded into the gymnasium in order to witness and partake in mindless cheering and banner waving. I was quite baffled at the double standard inherent in all this, of course. The math team and the debate team — on each of which I participated — went to the state tournament every year and even won quite frequently, but nobody ever gave those teams pep rallies; they were only given occasional recognition by the school's public address system in the morning.

And yet, as far as genuine education goes, preparing for the math and debate tournaments actually involved some rigorous learning and high standards. It is not that I actually wanted pep rallies for the math and debate teams; rather, this double standard illustrates the entirely misplaced priorities of many schools like mine.

Indeed, the very notion of school spirit goes against the spirit of education: it is noisy, rowdy, primal, focused on fanfare rather than substance, and aimed at energizing the crowd rather than cultivating the faculties of the individual. It is perfect for inculcating unconditional worship of mythic and contrived "higher causes" but not for teaching anyone anything worth knowing. It even corrupts athletics by associating what could be activities aimed primarily at physical self-improvement with the mob mentality and its attendant problems.

In this respect — though in very few others — even the old Soviet educational system was a step in the direction of freedom compared to the American system. In the USSR, athletics were largely separate from public schools — aside from the occasional, basic physical education lesson. Most athletic activities were performed in government-run sport societies dedicated, in part, to training "masters of sports" to represent the Soviet Union in international competitions. Membership in the sport societies was voluntary and considered quite prestigious, as it offered high-performing athletes the option to escape the USSR's mass poverty through a government-approved channel.

While government control of the athletic system was extreme in the USSR, and the penalties for athletes who underperformed were draconian, the system did have a side benefit of largely separating athleticism and schooling. The effect of this separation was a greater orientation of the schools toward academics — highly propaganda-loaded academics, of course.

This is no justification for emulating the Soviet Union. However, in the United States, there is no reason why private sport societies could not emerge to fulfill the athletic desires of every segment of the population. Considering the enormous amount of currently existing private options for engaging in sports, it is bizarre that public schools today hold on so tightly to their athletic programs. In the meantime, school spirit serves to create a captive audience for activities that should be left to the devices of the free market.


Discipline in today's public schools, though not as draconian as it used to be, still serves to turn the schools into de facto prison facilities rather than educational centers. Although the days of corporal punishment are largely gone and detentions have become akin to restricted study halls, there are still enormous constraints on the mobility and autonomy of students.

In my elementary school, virtually all movement of students from one room to another was only allowed when the entire class was arranged by the teacher into a single-file line. Imagine the enormous deadweight loss of time and energy that this entails — and the sheer, mind-stultifying waste inflicted on intelligent and thoughtful students while they are being arranged into arbitrary formations instead of directing themselves toward learning and independent interaction with the world.

"Under the onus of too many arbitrary, minute, and burdensome impositions, many people begin simply to ignore them, until they become unenforceable."

In my middle school, the formations were relaxed, but one still had to have a written note from a teacher in order to be in the halls outside the five-minute passing periods between classes. My high school had a system of restricted areas, where one could not be without written permission except during passing periods. During lunch periods and other free periods, students were required to remain in the open areas, such as the crowded cafeterias, the library, and a few of the adjoining hallways.

There were not many places to sit and either study or engage in leisure reading, so the more clever students began to figure out which halls leading into the restricted areas were being monitored and at what times. For me, one of the most pleasant experiences during the school day consisted in covertly entering a restricted area with a book or essay and a compact, easily concealable lunch. I would sit, alone, for forty-five minutes at a time, near a large semi-circular bay window on the second floor and, while enjoying the view, would perform the kind of self-education for which public schools leave precious little time.

At the same time, I would eat my lunch, which was also against school rules. The prohibition on food in classrooms and hallways — even if no littering or negative externalities were involved — was particularly baffling to me. Even about half the teachers ignored it. How can any human being learn autonomy, initiative, and personal responsibility when the decision of when, where, and whether he may eat his own food is not his to make?

Some of the most severe restrictions at my high school were imposed with regard to students entering or leaving the building. There were no metal detectors there, fortunately, but there was the heinous offense of not signing in if one was called out of an early class by a parent and then arrived later during the day. The offense was often committed by no fault of the student.

For instance, my schedule one semester involved physical education at X South, followed by humanities classes at X North, where I participated in an academic program held jointly between the two schools. I was recovering from an illness one morning, so my parents called me out of physical education, meaning that I would need to report directly to X North for my subsequent classes and sign in there. Unfortunately, the officials at X North failed to tell the officials at X South that I had signed in. As a result, I was called into the office of one of the assistant deans.

This individual, who was known to have a particularly disciplinarian bent, began to lecture me about the vital importance of signing in and the penalty of detention if one did not. I attempted to interject by saying that I had, in fact, signed in but that X North had failed to report it — but I was sharply told not to interrupt. After five minutes of lecturing me, the assistant dean's tone instantaneously changed to a sweet, polite one, as she asked, "Now then, what did you want to say?"

After I explained the facts of the matter, the assistant dean proceeded to call X North and verify my story — all for a mere procedural formality. I escaped detention that day, but others in similar situations were not so fortunate.

And, of course, all students under the age of sixteen were forbidden to leave the building during school hours, even if they had no class at the time. Students aged sixteen and over were permitted to leave (after signing out and on the condition that they would sign in upon re-entry) if they had a special stamp placed on their student ID cards at the beginning of the school year. This left many students with no options during their free periods except to endure the din, chaos, and crudeness of the "open areas" or to sneak into the "restricted areas" and get some peace and quiet, or else to get some work done in one of the computer labs.

The regularity with which the petty rules in my school were flouted taught me the superiority of internal discipline over external discipline based on myriad prohibitions and mandates. Under the onus of too many arbitrary, minute, and burdensome impositions, many people begin simply to ignore them, until they become unenforceable. This creates a problem, however, for maintaining desirable and necessary norms — such as prohibitions against aggression, theft, and vandalism. Once the irrational, punitive norms delegitimize all norms in the eyes of many, even the natural laws, which make all societal cooperation possible, are not immune from the resulting reaction.

"Once the irrational, punitive norms delegitimize all norms in the eyes of many, even the natural laws, which make all societal cooperation possible, are not immune from the resulting reaction."

In my high school, this was primarily manifested in a thriving black market for stolen TI-83 graphing calculators, which all students were required to purchase at exorbitant prices as a result of an exclusive contract between Texas Instruments and the school. During my sophomore year, two of my friends and I conducted an extensive poll of the students and found that, on average, every student had a calculator stolen once during his or her four years at the school. The calculator thieves would then sell the calculators at far below the school's monopoly bookstore price.

In the adult world, a similar dynamic occurs because of the war on drugs. The prohibition of and crackdown on what could be an entirely noncoercive activity results in whole areas and subcultures being ruled and terrorized by violent thugs, beyond the purview of any rights-respecting societal order. While in my school the stakes consisted of a few thousand overly expensive calculators, the war on drugs escalates such stakes to the level of human lives.

At the same time, legitimate commercial activities were prohibited in every public school I attended. I once had the enterprising idea of developing a German-English dictionary consisting only of the words that had been taught during our German class, so that, instead of cramming bulky, standard dictionary texts into already overloaded backpacks, students could have, on a few sheets of paper, a convenient and comprehensive reference to use in exam preparation. I sold the dictionaries at two dollars apiece and made about forty dollars in profit before one student became offended at my venture and reported it to one of the administrators — whereupon I was sternly warned never to sell anything again.

Even some of the teachers told me privately that they had no objection to my seeking to profit in a legitimate manner that benefited other students — and no one could offer a rationale for the prohibition on commercial activities. Indeed, is it not bizarre that learning some of the most important skills for success in life — the skills of innovation, product development, marketing, and negotiation that are so crucial to any business — is literally prohibited in its most effective form? Yes, my school did have business courses, but theory, definitions, and second-hand exposure can only teach one so much. The massive unemployment rate among young people today can surely be explained at least in part by the manner in which public schools prevented them from obtaining many marketable talents and attributes.

The Antidote

My years in public schools were some of the most frustrating of my life. Nonetheless, I ended up graduating at the top of my class in high school — and not because of the environment I was subjected to. Fortunately, the rise of the Internet had already begun in earnest during my early high-school years. I realized early on that, were I only to study what was assigned and do what was expected of me, I would only achieve at the level of the average student — that is, not much.

My readings of philosophy, economics, and political theory as written by some of the greatest minds of all time gave me an invaluable store of knowledge and analytical skills that propel me forward to this day. It was during the internet explorations of my high-school years that I discovered John Locke, Frederic Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard, among many others. The amazing flowering of free knowledge online is the surest antidote to the stultifying environment of the public schools, and I truly envy those who, as children and young adults, have the opportunity to fully ground their learning in these resources.

In recent years, the content base that could be used for genuine education of the highest caliber has expanded colossally, fueled by the efforts of organizations like the Ludwig von Mises Institute to render top-notch resources not just freely available, but also freely reproducible. Just as importantly, the Internet does not confine young people, in the manner of public schools, to an overly narrow range of socially permissible roles. Online, they truly can be creators of an ever-increasing variety of products, and they will largely be judged on the merits of their work, not arbitrarily restricted on account of their age. At the same time, they might even figure out small ways to make money and learn legitimate business skills through first-hand experience.

I continue to entertain the hope that even one of the states will find it necessary to institute deep cuts to public schools and that, under financial pressures, some of the worst elements of those schools will be the ones to go. Then we would find that the level of general education would not decline; indeed, it would increase.

The individualism and internal discipline needed for true, focused learning would naturally emerge as some people pursue their academic interests while others — if compulsory school attendance laws are repealed — would try to get an early start in the business world. The morass of today's teenage subculture would largely disappear, as young people's interactions would become more embedded in the broader society, rather than mired in the largely short-term and superficial concerns of their peers. The quasi-monopolies of the large educational service providers — particularly the textbook companies — would be heavily undermined, as these obsolete firms largely subsist off of exclusive contracts with the public schools.

Technologically, many more people would be propelled into the internet era, as they find it necessary to seek out high-quality, free educational resources. Best of all, a genuine microcosm of socialism in our society would be scaled back. Hopefully, it will one day become a distant memory of a less-enlightened past.