Educational middle ground between left and right

I often return to the article archive of the now defunct quarterly public policy journal, The Public Interest, founded by Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol in 1965, and in particular to a few of the hundreds of writers for that journal, such as: Edward Banfield, Peter Drucker, Milton Friedman, Nathan Glazer, Richard Hofstadter, Samuel Huntington, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, James Q Wilson, and of course James Coleman whom I’m going to cite, this passage taken from his Rawls, Nozick and Educational Equality, Number 43, in the Spring of 1976:

TWO recent treatises on moral philosophy have attracted far more general attention than is ordinarily given to works in academic philosophy: A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls, and Anarchy, State, and Utopia, by Robert Nozick. Together, they offer a framework for considering the difficult problems of inequality in education….

NOW what do these two positions imply for education?


Rawls’ position implies erasing all the “accidents of birth” which give one person more opportunity than another, and thus creating a full equalization of opportunity for each child. As political philosophers have long noted, this necessitates removing the child from all influences of his family-because families provide differential opportunity, and raising him as a ward of the state, subject to precisely the same conditions as any other child.

Nozick’s position implies, in contrast, no system of public education at all. For public education is redistributive, and by Nozick’s “entitlement” principles each child is entitled to the full untaxed benefits of his family’s resources, insofar as it chooses to use those resources for his benefit. Thus for Nozick, all education is private, paid for individually by each family according to its resources and preferences.


Coleman is describing, of course, the two extreme positions that one might take towards education. There have been those who have tried to follow Rawls’ proposal, the creators of the Israeli Kibbutz for example, and many other experimental Communes where absolutely everything is shared in equal parts. There have also been those who have proposed making all education, or at least schooling private, subject only to the wishes of individuals, Milton Friedman for example, has proposed this.

But it doesn’t take a lot of brain power to understand that neither extreme is going to be the answer to the problem of how the young ought best to be educated. Rather the place to be is on the ground in the middle, leaning perhaps a bit to the left, toward equality, or a bit to the right, toward individual freedom. In this respect how have the public schools done? Have they been occupying that middle ground?

I would say no, that they’ve done poorly, and as a result, almost since their beginning, with the Common School of Horace Mann in Massachusetts in the 1840s, they have utterly failed to realize Mann’s original mission which was to make, following some 12 years of free schooling, knowledgeable and skillful young men and women ready to be active and responsible citizens of the Republic. Any quick look at our high school graduates, now or in the past, will see that this has not been done.

Why given the colossal failure of the original mission of the schools, why haven’t the school administrators and their handlers, the politicians, moved onto a middle ground, and why haven’t they ceased acting as if government were at all capable of somehow distributing an equality, if only of opportunity, to everyone? For this is not possible, of course, and government should have turned long ago to the private sector for help in carrying out what has up until now been the almost impossible task of universal free and compulsory education.

Government’s role in education as elsewhere should always be to provide those essential services that for whatever reason individuals seem not able to provide for themselves. Defense, infrastructure, roads and bridges, air and water quality, health and old age assistance, although with caveats, and even certain educational programs, but not as of now the whole nine yards as we have done with our public schools.

In many areas of our lives we the people probably know better than government what we need and how best to obtain whatever that be by our own efforts (including in many respects our good health and education). And as much as possible the representatives of government should stay out of our way, move back onto that middle ground between Rawls and Nozick, and from where they can then easily move in either direction, much as a parent when “helping” a child to do for himself without that help.

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