Is School Like Jail?

The people in my community love their public schools. So too it is in most of the country. If only they knew the costs, and I don’t mean just the financial costs, which are two and three times those of private schools. I also mean the opportunity costs: If only people knew what they were missing!

Imagine education wholly managed by the market economy. The variety! The choice! The innovation! All the features we’ve come to expect in so many areas of life — groceries, software, clothing, music — would also pertain to education. But as it is, the market for education is hobbled, truncated, frozen and regimented, and tragically, we’ve all gotten used to it.

The longer people live with educational socialism, the more they adapt to its inefficiencies, deprivations and even indignities. So it is with American public schools. Many people love them, but it’s like the “Stockholm Syndrome”: We’ve come to have a special appreciation for our captors and masters because we see no way out.

There is a way out. But first we have to see the problem for what it is. I know of no better means than exploring an absolutely prophetic book first published in 1974, edited by William Rickenbacker. It is called The Twelve-Year Sentence.

This is not only one of the great titles in the history of publishing; it is a rare book that dared to say what no one wanted to hear. True, the essays are all scholarly and precise (the book came out of an academic conference), but a fire for liberty burns hot below the footnoted surface. Especially notable: This book came out long before the home-schooling movement, long before a remnant of the population began to see what was happening and started bailing out.

The core truth that this book tells: The government has centrally planned your child’s life and has forced both you and your child into the system. But, say the writers, the system is a racket and a cheat. It doesn’t prepare them for a life of liberty and productivity. It prepares them to be debt slaves, dependents, bureaucrats and wartime fodder.

I’m thinking of this book as I look at millions of unemployed young people in the US and Europe. This is what the system has produced. This is the mob that once gathered in “homeroom,” assembled for school lunches, sat for endless hours in their assigned desks and was tested ten thousand times to make sure they had properly absorbed what the government wanted them to know. Now they are out and they want their lives to amount to something, but they don’t know what.

And it’s just the beginning. There are tens of millions of victims of this system. They were quiet so long as the jobs were there and the economy was growing. But when the fortunes fell, many became members of marauding mobs seeking a father figure to lead them into the light.

Think of the phrase “twelve-year sentence.” They government took them in at the age of 6. It sat them down in desks, 30 or so per room. It paid teachers to lecture them and otherwise keep them busy while their parents worked to cough up 40% of their paychecks to the government to fund the system (among other things) that raises their kids.

So on it goes for 12 years, until the age of 18, when the government decides that it is time for them to move on to college, where they sit for another four years, also at mom and dad’s expense.

What have they learned? They have learned how to sit at a desk and zone out for hours and hours, five days per week. They might have learned how to repeat back things said by their warden — I mean teacher. They’ve learned how to sneak around the system a bit and have something resembling a life on the sly.

They have learned to live for the weekend and say “TGIF!” Perhaps they have taken a few other skills with them: sports, music, theater or whatever. But they have no idea how to turn their limited knowledge or abilities into something remunerative in a market system that depends most fundamentally on individual initiative, alertness, choice and exchange.

They are deeply ignorant about the stuff that makes the world work and builds civilization, by which I mostly mean commerce. They’ve never worked a day in the private sector. They’ve never taken an order, never faced the bracing truth of the balance sheet, never taken a risk, never even managed money. They’ve only been consumers, not producers, and their consumption has been funded by others, either by force (taxes) or by leveraged parents on a guilt trip.

So it stands to reason: They have no sympathy for or understanding of what life is like for the producers of this world. Down with the productive classes! Or as they said in the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution: “Expropriate the expropriators” Or under Stalin: “Kill the Kulaks.” Or under Mao: “Eradicate the Four Olds” (old customs, culture, habits, and ideas). So too did the Nazi youth rage against the merchant classes who were said to lack “blood and honor.”

The amazing thing is not that this state system produces mindless drones. The miracle is that some make it out and have normal lives. They educate themselves. They get jobs. They become responsible. Some go on to do great things. There are ways to overcome the twelve-year sentence, but the existence of the educational penitentiary still remains a lost opportunity, coercively imposed.

Americans are taught to love the sentence because it is “free.” Imagine attaching this word to the public school system! It is anything but free. It is compulsory at its very core. If you try to escape, you are “truant.” If you refuse to cough up to support it, you are guilty of evasion. If you put your kids in private school, you pay twice. If you school at home, the social workers watch every move you make.

There is no end to the reform. But no one talks about abolition. Still, can you imagine that in the 18th and most of 19th centuries, as this book points out, this system didn’t even exist? Americans were the most-educated people in the world, approaching near-universal literacy, and without a government-run central plan, without a twelve-year sentence. Compulsory education was unthinkable. That came only much later, brought to us by the same crowd who gave us World War I, the Fed and the income tax.

Escaping is very hard, but even high-security prisons are not impenetrable. So millions have left. Tens of millions more remain. This whole generation of young people are victims of the system. That makes them no less dangerous precisely because they don’t even know it. It’s called the Stockholm Syndrome: Many of these kids fell in love with their captors and jailers. They want them to have even more power.

Jeffrey Tucker
for The Daily Reckoning