Friday, June 22, 2018
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Stuck in the Statist Box

Christine O’Donnellby Jacob G. Hornberger

The latest political controversy in the Christine O’Donnell and Chris Coons race shows how conservatives, liberals, and, yes, Tea Party types, still operate within the box of statism.

The controversy involves whether public schools should be teaching creationism or evolution.

Coons says that they should be teaching evolution because it is a scientific fact and should not be teaching creationism because that would violate the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.

O’Donnell says that public schools, being local units, should be free to teach whatever they want — evolution or creationism — and claims that the First Amendment doesn’t prohibit such teaching such doctrines at a local level.


Just like the welfare-state way of life and warfare-state way of life, all of us have been born and raised under the system known as public schooling. Thus, like Social Security, Medicare, the drug war, and foreign empire, public schooling is accepted by most people as a permanent and ordinary feature of American life, with no one except libertarians questioning the legitimacy of its existence.

Thus, the endless controversies that rage between conservatives and liberals (and Tea Party types) is over how to run the public schools, not over whether they should be abolished. Of course, the public-school controversies are always politicized, given their nature as a governmental institution.

In fact, the reason the Constitution enters the controversy is because public schools are government schools. The Constitution prohibits the state from establishing a religion. Thus, since children are in government schools by virtue of the state’s compulsory-attendance law, the state is prohibited from using the schools for purposes of religious indoctrination.

The irony is that while conservatives and liberals (and Tea Party types) generally understand the virtues of separating church and state, they are unable to bring themselves to apply the same principle to education — that is, a separation of school and state — a complete end to all governmental involvement in education, as in religion.

Why do they have trouble breaking out of the statist box and raising their vision on education to a higher level — toward a total free market in education?

The answer lies in public schooling itself. Through the 12 years of enforced regimentation, it inculcates a mindset of conformity among the students, one that ensures that the 18-year-old will look upon his government with a deep reverence and never challenge the political order of things at a fundamental level, e.g., by questioning why it’s necessary to have institutions like public schooling, Social Security, Medicare, a military empire, etc.

Thus, the political debates and controversies inevitably occur within the statist box: how to fix or reform the socialist, interventionist, and imperialist programs, but never asking the most important question: Is this a legitimate function of government in a free society?

The real beauty of having a young, captive audience for 12 long years is that over that long period of time the state is able to mold children’s minds into accepting a false notion of what it means to be free. If we were to travel to, say, North Korea and ask the average person, “Do you consider yourself free?” the answer would be, “Yes, of course I’m free,” and the person would genuinely mean it. The primary reason for this false conviction is the many years he spent in the government’s schooling system.

It’s really no different here in the United States. With the exception of libertarians, the average American will respond in the same way as the North Korean citizen, perhaps even embellishing his answer with: “Thank God I’m an American because at least I know I’m free.”

The biggest benefit of public schooling then, from the standpoint of the state, is reflected in the point made by the German thinker Johann von Goethe: None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.

Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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