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Vol. 13, No. 15
July 21, 1997
Table of Contents

More on Education


Before the Public Schools
by Gary Benoit

Not surprisingly, the education and opinion cartels claim that the demise of the public school system would mean the demise of education. They paint a bleak picture of a nation of unschooled illiterates who would not even be able to read and write, much less acquire technological or scientific expertise. As is the case with so much of what is presented as "conventional wisdom," however, the truth is exactly the opposite.

Those who honestly seek the truth need only to examine the history of this country from colonial days until well into the 19th century. During that vast stretch of time, education, with the exception of a few "common" schools in New England, was conducted in an atmosphere of free enterprise based on the preferences of the parents. The one-room school and homeschooling were common forms of education. Private schools -- supported by the parents or by churches or charitable institutions -- flourished without the benefit of government subsidies. Parents determined how and what their children would be taught and how much of their resources (in time and money) to devote to their education.

The products of this laissez-faire approach to education were not intellectually handicapped by the absence of government largess, educators, and facilities. Without compulsory attendance laws and other controls mandating a "good" education, they somehow managed to launch the world's "greatest experiment in human liberty" -- an experiment that quickly transformed a supposedly backward wilderness nation into the envy of the collectivist old world. "Of the 117 men who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution," Samuel Blumenfeld notes in his book Is Public Education Necessary?, "one out of three had had only a few months of formal schooling, and only one in four had gone to college." Benjamin Franklin, Blumenfeld notes, "was taught to read by his father and attended a private school for writing and arithmetic. Thomas Jefferson studied Latin and Greek under a tutor."

Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead, in his book Home Education and Constitutional Liberties, notes that many Americans from various walks of life were educated primarily at home, including Presidents George Washington, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, and Abraham Lincoln. Regarding the latter two, Whitehead elaborates: "John Quincy Adams never attended a formal school until he entered Harvard [a private institution] at the age of fourteen. President Abraham Lincoln likewise received all of his education, except one year, through home instruction."

Not just these famous Americans, but the common man, possessed a high degree of literacy and understanding prior to the establishment of the public school system as the most common form of schooling. John Adams stated in 1765: "[A] native of America who cannot read or write is as rare an appearance ... as a comet or an earthquake."

The enduring Federalist Papers of 1787 and 1788 provides compelling evidence that Adams was not exaggerating. Originally written as a series of 85 newspaper columns to "sell" the Constitution to the man on the street, these Papers today offer a reading challenge to many of our college graduates.

But the colonial and post-colonial generations of Americans not only knew how to read and write; they also possessed values that are under attack today -- self-reliance, diligence, respect for authority, perseverance, honesty, hard work, bravery, etc. But how could it have been otherwise? Because the parents controlled the education of their children, they were able to transmit to their offspring the same traditional values they had grown up with.

The 19th century set of McGuffey Readers, which dominated the education market for decades, is a testament to the impressive quality of both the literary and the moral instruction of that time period. These readers became so popular that during their heyday approximately half of all American children learned to read with them. Between 1836 and 1850 alone, seven million copies of the McGuffey Readers were sold, even though the population at the time was less than 23 million.

Altogether, more than 100 million copies were published, and they were especially popular in the American south and west -- regions a few smug sophisticates in the east might have viewed as being "backward." Unlike the "see Spot run" look-say/whole-language drivel contained in the expensive public school readers of today, the McGuffey selections presented valuable moral lessons and good writing in a form that children could enjoy and understand.

Tragically, many Americans mistakenly believe that the public school system of today constitutes an integral part of our form of government and cannot conceive of its eventual elimination. What they fail to recognize, of course, is that such a separation of school and state would not constitute a revolutionary new development in the history of this country but a welcome return to our philosophical and cultural roots.

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