How the Redneck Intellectual Discovered Educational Freedom—and How You Can, Too
The first in a series . . .
This essay serves as an introduction to yet another series of essays that I will be writing in the weeks ahead, this time on the topic of educational freedom. In my previous 10-part series on the question of rights and education (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), I established the moral foundation for thinking about education in a free society. I there explored questions such as:
Is there a right to an education?
Do parents have an unalienable right to determine how, in what, and by whom their children will be educated?
What rights or authority does the government have to educate children?
With this new series, I’d like to turn in the weeks ahead to the institutional question, “who shall educate the children, the State or parents (including their proxies)?” More specifically, I will be concerned to examine the moral and educational status of top-down, government schooling versus bottom-up, parent-chosen schooling.
All of the essays in the series will head toward a twofold conclusion: first, government schooling is immoral and incompatible with a free society; and, second, a free market in education is the only moral system for educating children and the only one compatible with a free society.
I’d like to begin this series with a brief intellectual autobiography on how and why I came to think about these issues and why I care about them so passionately. We might think of this as an exercise in how to think—in principles and on principle—like a Redneck. Welcome to Redneck Logic 101.
Since the day I started kindergarten, I have spent my entire life in school. I attended elementary, middle, and high schools for 14 years! (I know what you’re thinking: the Redneck Intellectual must have, not surprisingly, failed a grade or two. But you would be wrong. Back in the day, Canadian Rednecks had to attend grade 13 if they wanted to go to college. Yes, grade 13! Talk about cruel and unusual punishment.) Then I went off college for four years, then did a master’s degree, then taught for two years at an all-boys boarding school, then went back to graduate school to do a Ph.D., and ever since then I have been a college professor.
I have only been two things in my life: a student or a teacher. I know no other way of life. Learning and teaching is all I know, it’s what I do, and, truth be told, it’s all I care about.
As a young man, I wasn’t much interested in K-12 education. All that changed in 1995 when my wife, first-born baby son, and I moved to London, England for a year.
At the time, Great Britain was undergoing a kind of education counter-revolution. Prime Minister John Major and his Conservative government were attempting to combat several decades of regressive-Progressive education in Britain’s government school system. This was particularly true with regard to the issue of teaching children how to read.
The 1990s were the decade of the so-called “Reading Wars,” where the preferred teaching method of the Progressives (the so-called “whole language” or “whole word” teaching method) was pitted against the traditional method of teaching children how to read (the so-called “phonics” or “phonemic awareness” approach). It was an intellectual and political battle royale, and the London broadsheets and tabloids seemed to be filled with articles on the subject just about every day of the week for an entire year.
I followed the British Reading Wars with great interest, in large part because my wife and I would soon have to teach our first born and then the rest how to read. By the time we got back to America, the Reading Wars were also reaching peak engagement.
Almost immediately I started researching and writing on the subject. Increasingly, I became interested in K-12 education broadly speaking, but with two particular interests in mind: first, what was being taught in America’s schools, and, second, how it was being taught.
Almost immediately I got caught up in the battle ju jour. I became one of America’s most vocal critics of Progressive education and started writing a semi-regular column on K-12 education. I took a lot of abuse in those days, including threats against my home, my job, and ultimately against my life. One man in Ohio wrote to tell me (via a traceable email) that he hoped my then one-year-old daughter would die of a gut-wrenching illness.
During those years, I became a crusader against Progressive education. My goal at the time was to reform America’s schools by abolishing Progressive education and by replacing it with something akin to what we now call a “classical” education. To that end, my primary policy objective was to abolish America’s so-called “ed schools” (i.e., the teaching-training institutions) by decertifying them or by eliminating the requirement that government schools only hire “licensed” teachers. (I still hold this position.)
At the time, I was what we might call a “reformist.” (A position I now reject.)
But then something happened one day around 2004 that would forever change the way I think about education. I had an epiphany—a conversion experience.
Here’s what happened.
One day, I re-read James Madison’s famous “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (1785). It was my Paul on the road to Damascus moment.
Madison wrote the “Memorial and Remonstrance” in opposition to a bill put forward by Patrick Henry in the Virginia assembly calling for a general tax to support “Teachers [Ministers] of the Christian Religion” (1784).
Madison was a vocal and principled opponent of the bill. In the “Memorial and Remonstrance,” he laid out fifteen arguments for religious freedom and against government support of religion. Even though he did not use the term “separation of church and state,” you could say that Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” was an argument—and one of the very best ever written—for that principle. The Virginian believed that a proper, rights-respecting government should have a laissez-faire attitude toward religion lest the State corrupt it. Moreover, he did not think that religion should be forced on the people by government coercion.
At the heart of Madison’s argument were three key principles: first, individuals have an inalienable right to practice their religion as they see fit; second, religion must not be directed by the State because it violates an individual’s freedom of thought and choice; and third, religious faith and practice are corrupted by State interference or control. Few Americans today would disagree with Madison’s reasoning.
I’d read Madison’s statement before, but this time it hit me like a thunderbolt. It shook me, as Immanuel Kant once said of his confrontation with David Hume, from my dogmatic slumber.
One of the virtues of Madison’s response to Henry’s bill is that its principles and logic extend beyond church-and-state relations. In fact, the principles and logic of his argument apply seamlessly to the relationship of education and State. It occurred to me then and there as I was reading the “Memorial and Remonstrance” that every time Madison wrote the word “religion” I could substitute the word “education,” and every time he wrote “ecclesiastical establishment” I could substitute the word “school.” And with a few other minor tweaks to Madison’s language and argument, I was able to extend his argument to other areas of human affairs, including, if not most especially, the issue of education. (See my edited version of the “Memorial and Remonstrance below.)
The parallel between Madison’s argument for separation of church and State and the argument for separation of school and State is virtually perfect: first, parents have an inalienable right to educate their children according to their values; second, education must not be directed by the State because it violates an individual’s freedom of thought and choice; and third, education is corrupted by government interference or control.
Voila. In a flash, I saw the light! I went from being a “reformist” on the question of education to being a “separationist”—a proponent of the principal of “separation of school and State.”
Let’s think about this how this logic works actually works in practice.
Virtually all Americans support the principle of “separation of church and State.” Religious freedom in the United States is as American as apple pie.
With the exception of kooks such as Adrian Vermeule of Harvard Law School, the vast majority of Americans do not want the government running churches, forcing people to attend church, taxing them to support particular religious denominations, or requiring churches to preach certain lessons approved by government inquisitors.
The principle of “separation of church and State” means that the government should not be involved in promoting or controlling religious thought and practice in any way, shape, or form. Religious faith and practice should be an entirely private affair. Most Americans want to be left alone to determine how, when, and where they will practice their faith.
And just as Americans have a right to engage in whatever non-rights-violating religious practices they choose, so American parents have a right to determine and choose how their children are to be educated. Think about it this way: In the same way that Americans would not grant government the authority to run their Sunday schools, so they should not grant government the authority to run their children’s schools Monday through Friday.
The logic behind the “separation of church and State” principle is virtually identical to school-and-State relations.
The Redneck logic says if you support the principal of “separation of church and State” you must, by definition, logically, support the principal of “separation of school and State” and for the very same reasons. Conversely, if you reject education freedom, then you must reject religious freedom. The two principles are logically identical.
Both principles are grounded in the idea that government force is anathema to thinking in general, and, more particularly, to the kind of thinking that is necessary for living in a free society. The government should never be involved in filling the content of a child’s mind.
And now, for the showstopper!
If you’re interested, I’d like to have you follow the same mental journey that I took on the road to my educational Damascus.
Below is my lightly edited version of Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” (the one I marked up 18 years ago). Read it slowly and carefully—if you dare! Think about the arguments. The logic is impenetrable and it’s irresistible!
I hope you will see and understand the intellectual process and logical leap by which I underwent my transformation from being a “reformist” to a being a “separationist.”
Maybe the same will happen to you!?
To the Honorable the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia “A Memorial and Remonstrance” (1785). By James Madison
We the subscribers, citizens of the said Commonwealth, having taken into serious consideration, a Bill printed by order of the last Session of General Assembly, entitled “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,” and conceiving that the same if finally armed with the sanctions of a law, will be a dangerous abuse of power, are bound as faithful members of a free State to remonstrate against it, and to declare the reasons by which we are determined. We remonstrate against the said Bill,
1. Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that
Religion [Education] or the duty which we owe to our Creator [children] and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” The Religion [Education] then of every man [child] must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man [parent]; and it is the right of every man [parent or young person] to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator [children]. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator [Government] such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe [self-owning and self-governing]: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to t he Universal Sovereign [his children]. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion [Education], no mans right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion [Education] is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.
2. Because if
Religion [Education] be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body. The latter are but the creatures and vicegerents of the former. Their jurisdiction is both derivative and limited: it is limited with regard to the co-ordinate departments, more necessarily is it limited with regard to the constituents. The preservation of a free Government requires not merely, that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be invariably maintained; but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people. The Rulers who are guilty of such an encroachment, exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants. The People who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them, and are slaves.
3. Because it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it. Who does not see that the same authority which can establish
Christianity [Progressive Education], in exclusion of all other Religions [forms of education], may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians [Progressive Educators], in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one [Education] establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
4. Because the Bill violates that equality which ought to be the basis of every law, and which is more indispensible, in proportion as the validity or expediency of any law is more liable to be impeached. If “all men are by nature equally free and independent,” all men are to be considered as entering into Society on equal conditions; as relinquishing no more, and therefore retaining no less, one than another, of their natural rights. Above all are they to be considered as retaining an “equal title to the free exercise of
Religion [Education] according to the dictates of Conscience.” Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion [Education] which we believe to be of divine origin [proper for our children], we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God [man’s nature] not against man: To God [man’s nature] therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered. As the Bill violates equality by subjecting some to peculiar burdens, so it violates the same principle, by granting to others peculiar exemptions. Are the Quakers and Menonists [classical liberals] the only sect s who think a compulsive support of their Religions [education views] unnecessary and unwarrantable? Can their piety alone be entrusted with the care of public worship [educating the children]? Ought their Religions [education views] to be endowed above all others with extraordinary privileges by which proselytes may be enticed from all others? We think too favorably of the justice and good sense of these denominations to believe that they either covet pre-eminences over their fellow citizens or that they will be seduced by them from the common opposition to the measure.
5. Because the Bill implies either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent Judge of
Religious Truth [Truth]; or that he may employ Religion [Education] as an engine of Civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages, and throughout the world: the second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation [knowledge].
6. Because the establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of
the Christian Religion [Education]. To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion [Education] itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world: it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion [Education] both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them, and not only during the period of miraculous aid [Enlightenment], but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence [free men]. Nay, it is a contradiction in terms; for a Religion [Education] not invented by human policy [government], must have pre-existed and been supported, before it was established by human [government] policy. It is moreover to weaken in those who profess this Religion [Education] a pious [rational] confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author [the government]; and to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.
7. Because experience witnesseth that
ecclesiastical [government education] establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion [Education], have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries [170 years] has the legal establishment of Christianity [Government schools] been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy [Educrats], ignorance and servility in the laity [the children], in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity [the government schools] for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy. Propose a restoration of this primitive State in which its Teachers depended on the voluntary rewards of their flocks, many of them predict its downfall. On which Side ought their testimony to have greatest weight, when for or when against their interest?
8. Because the establishment in question is not necessary for the support of Civil Government. If it be urged as necessary for the support of Civil Government only as it is a means of supporting
Religion [Education], and it be not necessary for the latter purpose, it cannot be necessary for the former. If Religion [Education] be not within the cognizance of Civil Government how can its legal establishment be necessary to Civil Government? What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments [government schools] had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy [system of Educrats] convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not. Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen [Parent] in the enjoyment of his Religion [children’s education] with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another.
9. Because the proposed establishment is a departure from that generous policy, which, offering an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and
Religion [philosophic viewpoint], promised a lustre to our country, and an accession to the number of its citizens. What a melancholy mark is the Bill of sudden degeneracy? Instead of holding forth an Asylum to the persecuted, it is itself a signal of persecution. It degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion [Education] do not bend to those of the Legislative authority. Distant as it may be in its present form from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last in the career of intolerance. The magnanimous sufferer under this cruel scourge in foreign Regions, must view the Bill as a Beacon on our Coast, warning him to seek some other haven, where liberty and philanthrophy in their due extent, may offer a more certain repose from his Troubles.
10. Because it will have a like tendency to banish our Citizens. The allurements presented by other situations are every day thinning their number. To superadd a fresh motive to emigration by revoking the liberty which they now enjoy, would be the same species of folly which has dishonoured and depopulated flourishing kingdoms.
11. Because it will destroy that moderation and harmony which the forbearance of our laws to intermeddle with
Religion [Education] has produced among its several sects. Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious [Educational] discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious [Educational] opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease. The American Theatre has exhibited proofs that equal and compleat liberty, if it does not wholly eradicate it, sufficiently destroys its malignant influence on the health and prosperity of the State. If with the salutary effects of this system under our own eyes, we begin to contract the bounds of Religious [Educational] freedom, we know no name that will too severely reproach our folly. At least let warning be taken at the first fruits of the threatened innovation. The very appearance of the Bill has transformed “that Christian [liberal] forbearance, love and charity,” which of late mutually prevailed, into animosities and jealousies, which may not soon be appeased. What mischiefs may not be dreaded, should this enemy to the public quiet be armed with the force of a law?
12. Because the policy of the Bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of
Christianity [liberal education]. The first wish of those who enjoy this precious gift ought to be that it may be imparted to the whole race of mankind. Compare the number of those who have as yet received it with the number still remaining under the dominion of false Religions [Educational philosophies]; and how small is the former! Does the policy of the Bill tend to lessen the disproportion? No; it at once discourages those who are strangers to the light of revelation [reason] from coming into the Region of it; and countenances by example the nations who continue in darkness, in shutting out those who might convey it to them. Instead of Levelling as far as possible, every obstacle to the victorious progress of Truth, the Bill with an ignoble and unchristian [illiberal] timidity would circumscribe it with a wall of defence against the encroachments of error.
13. Because attempts to enforce by legal sanctions, acts obnoxious to so great a proportion of Citizens, tend to enervate the laws in general, and to slacken the bands of Society. If it be difficult to execute any law which is not generally deemed necessary or salutary, what must be the case, where it is deemed invalid and dangerous? And what may be the effect of so striking an example of impotency in the Government, on its general authority?
14. Because a measure of such singular magnitude and delicacy ought not to be imposed, without the clearest evidence that it is called for by
a majority of [all] citizens, and no satisfactory method is yet proposed by which the voice of the majority [all] in this case may be determined, or its influence secured. “The people of the respective counties are indeed requested to signify their opinion respecting the adoption of the Bill to the next Session of Assembly.” But the representation must be made equal, before the voice either of the Representatives or of the Counties will be that of the people. Our hope is that neither of the former will, after due consideration, espouse the dangerous principle of the Bill. Should the event disappoint us, it will still leave us in full confidence, that a fair appeal to the latter will reverse the sentence against our liberties.
15. Because finally, “the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his
Religion [Mind] according to the dictates of conscience” is held by the same tenure with all our other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consult the “Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of Government,” it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis. Either then, we must say, that the Will of the Legislature is the only measure of their authority; and that in the plenitude of this authority, they may sweep away all our fundamental rights; or, that they are bound to leave this particular right untouched and sacred: Either we must say, that they may controul the freedom of the press, may abolish the Trial by Jury, may swallow up the Executive and Judiciary Powers of the State; nay that they may despoil us of our very right of suffrage, and erect themselves into an independent and hereditary Assembly or, we must say, that they have no authority to enact into law the Bill under consideration. We the Subscribers say, that the General Assembly of this Commonwealth have no such authority: And that no effort may be omitted on our part against so dangerous an usurpation, we oppose to it, this remonstrance; earnestly praying, as we are in duty bound, that the Supreme Lawgiver of the Universe, by illuminating those to whom it is addressed, may on the one hand, turn their Councils from every act which would affront his holy prerogative, or violate the trust committed to them: and on the other, guide them into every measure which may be worthy of his [blessing, may re]dound to their own praise, and may establish more firmly the liberties, the prosperity and the happiness of the Commonwealth.
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