Friday, April 29, 2005

Column on Bill Gates and Public Education

Bill Gates Didn?t Go Far Enough

Tibor R. Machan

From his address at the nation?s governors? conference, I give you Bill
Gates: "American high schools are obsolete," he said, adding, "By
obsolete, I don't just mean that our high schools are broken, flawed and
underfunded.... By obsolete, I mean that our high schools?even when they
are working exactly as designed?cannot teach our kids what they need to
know today.?

Indeed, this is part of the theme of a book I edited, Education in a Free
Society (Hoover Institution Press, 2000) and it was the substance of my
essay in 1972, ?The Schools Ain?t What They Used to be...and Never Was,?
in Reason magazine and reprinted in The Libertarian Alternative
(Nelson-Hall, 1974). Actually, I went much farther than Mr. Gates, whose
concern is mostly with how well the schools supply men and women in the
technological sector with a properly trained work force. In contrast, the
concern I (and quite a few others who share my views on this topic), have
is with how well education serves those who are being educated, be they
hard science, humanities, or social science students. Gates merely laments
that "Training the work force of tomorrow with the high schools of today
is like trying to teach kids about today's computers on a 50-year-old
mainframe. ... Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the
needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st
century, we will keep limiting?even ruining?the lives of millions of
Americans every year."

As a matter of historical fact, our public education system was designed
two centuries ago, in large part, to honor a racist public policy. This
was well researched and reported in the late E. G. West?s book, Education
and the State (Institute for Economic Affairs, 1965). Private schools were
doing just fine, providing what markets provide in exceptionally efficient
and, indeed, wise ways: a highly diverse approach to teaching students,
not the statist and mainly one-size-fits-all approach, but they also did
something very benign and decent?in their diverse and decentralized way
they extended their services to all races and religions. But the
politicians at the time couldn?t stomach this, so they decided to impose a
public education system that would be appropriately racist and
discriminatory, to fall in line with the prevailing mainstream public
philosophy of racism.

The result is what we see now, a defunct public education system, defunct
not because of some recent mistakes, as Mr. Gates contends, but because of
a fundamental flaw in it, its association with government.

Most of us who have gone through the various stages of American public
education may not realize this but we have been part of a massive
collectivized system, not unlike one the Soviet Union would have
championed and from which, in time, it choked to death. Elsewhere public
education remains partly functional only because it tends to be highly
elitists and does not aim, as it does in America, to accommodate the
egalitarian pedagogical philosophy of providing everyone with schooling,
nearly to the level of a guaranteed college degree.

The bottom line is that education, like all other productive, creative
services in society, is better off decentralized, privatized. Sure some
will have to seek out special help, but so do some as they seek to satisfy
their clothing, housing, or nutritional needs. Nonetheless, once we
abandon the fantasy that everyone needs to be subjected to the same
schooling and everyone needs to have is property taxed so as to support
this contorted system, the sort of hopes Mr. Gates, and others, with
different but equally legitimate agendas for young people, are voicing
will no longer have to go unsatisfied. There will be plenty of schools
responding to the varied needs to American students and the opportunities
that face them in all the disciplines of education. There will, in short,
be entrepreneurship in education, as there is in the software industry.

No doubt, this approach is going to be dismissed with total disdain by
some?first, by the people who are wedded in their thinking to how
government is the solution to all human problems, and, second, by those
who are currently mindlessly employed by the state educational systems
across the country and care not a whit for proper schooling but mostly for
their continued steady employment, not unlike those who have worked for
defunct and misguided?and indeed more or less unjust?institutions
throughout human history. But they really aren?t the best source of wisdom
about what young human beings need in the way of an educational
alternative to what we have now, an evidently bankrupt one.

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