Some beliefs die hard. The belief that education is a common and public good, and free, is one of them. Also that education is a right, that we have a right to education, much as a right to health care, is another one.
These two ideas, as seductive as they still are, are now dying, first because they’re just too expensive and governments can no longer afford to pay the bill. But also regardless of their cost they still ought to be dying, and in fact shouldn’t have been held in the first place.
Why? Because they’re based on the false assumption that education and health can be given to people regardless of their readiness, imposed on both children and adults from without, from on high, whether the recipients want them or not. And of course they can’t.
I’d be willing to grant that some goods can be imposed upon us from without, —clean air, clean water, roads and sidewalks, sewage systems, security and what not come to mind.
Furthermore, in regard to these goods it’s not even important whether or not they are wanted by the recipients, although in most cases they probably are. For given to us, most often by government actions, we accept them, with their functioning properly requiring only that acceptance, nothing else on our part.
But education, and health are different. It is not within the power of any government to give them to the people. They depend much more on individuals doing for themselves whatever it takes in order to possess them.
Up until now we have been terribly mistaken about the delivery systems for both. In fact, in regard to the one, education, many of us still believe that the schools have it within their power to educate our children. And for 200 years, in spite of an endless series of reforms in response to failure, the schools have failed to do just that.
Now all that doesn’t mean that education is a consumer good, like shoes and iPods, although that’s how the progressive educational wing of school defenders would have it, —in their view education being either a common, that is public good, or a private consumer good. And when it’s put that way, education vs. shoes, say, who would come down on the side of shoes?
Not the liberal reformer and still believer in the common school of Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann and John Dewey.
But the real tie between education and consumer goods is something else. Consumer goods, at least in a free, liberal democracy, come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, corresponding to and satisfying the no less huge and diverse population of consumers of those goods.
And that is the tie or link between them. The schools also, if in our brave new world we continue to have such, ought to come in at least as many shapes and sizes as shoes.
Of course the things we buy and consume are valued differently. And consumer goods cannot always be compared in regard to their value to us. Some such as education and healthcare may even be priceless although in order to make them available, and thereby help the individual acquire them, we do put a price on them. such as the cost of a college degree, or a hospital stay.
Education and health care, properly removed from the responsibility of government, and from being rights owed to individuals, and instead being positioned in our society as the responsibility of individuals who would have them, not their right, goods to be obtained principally by their own efforts, do become then, but only in that sense, like other goods sold on the free market.
Finally, education, even when properly placed as we would have it among consumer goods, will always be more than shoes, and the schools themselves in whatever form they may come in, but now meeting in their endless variety of shapes and sizes, the no less endless variety of students coming to their doors in search of an education, will always be more than shoe stores.