Category Archives: Left and Right

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.

Postcript to Notes for a Science of Education

In case you believe there’s something new  (under the sun) about the public’s low opinion of their schools, or that attempts to reform the schools have not been around at least as long as the schools themselves. Well if you do believe it, that what’s happening today is not at least some 200 years old, read this shocking statement from a Wikepedia source on Common School founder, Horace Mann,

“In 1838 Horace Mann targeted the public school and its problems.”

And things have changed so little that one today would not be at all surprised to read in the news that the leaders of both Houses of Congress had “targeted the public school and its problems.”

Shocking because 1838, with the publication of Mann’s Common School Journal, was the moment in time when our public schools had their beginning, the beginning of free and compulsory education for all. So there were problems even before its founding, and there were problems immediately afterwards. And there are still problems. It does sound a bit like,,,  the launch of Obama Care?

For the founder of our public schools, like the rescuer and provider of health care for all, did suddenly appear on the scene much like a knight in shining armor setting out to correct what he perceived as a wrong. But from the beginning the problems encountered were without easy if any solutions. And in fact both “rescuers” were really Don Quixotes, and like the Don, were only masquerading as knights in shining armor, and would probably eventually realize like him that they had taken the wrong path.

Perhaps it’s the nature of government plans and programs that there are inevitably problems from the very start, and in too many instances (farm subsidies, public transportation, immigration, the mail, … and of course the public schools) the problems never seem to go away. But I would readily admit there are exceptions, the clean air and water acts, social security and health care for the deserving elderly, and a myriad of others, and that’s why we keep trying. And that’s what makes us the truly exceptional nation.



Many have noted the President’s proposal to add some $48 billion to next year’s defense budget. Not many have objected to this proposal because it comes right after 9/11 and in particular right after the President’s decision to wage a new War on Terrorism. For it is readily thought that this War, like the earlier War on Communism, will not come cheap.  Just how much should we be spending on defense? Are there any rational limits? At the present time, even before the proposed increase, the U.S. spends more each year on the military than the next nine largest national defence budgets combined. Although spectacular this fact is not surprising when we realize that the U.S. navy alone outfits and maintains 12 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Rational limits? Not in regard to our presence on the seas.
We should be asking ourselves whether we really need the additional $48 billion in defense expenditures. Furthermore we ought to ask ourselves, might we not wage an even more effective war on terrorism by redirecting some of our current defense spending? By changing our defense posture before the new enemy? How many terrorists, for example, will be stopped and brought to justice by any one of our 12 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers? It’s the other way around. The carriers become targets of the terrorists and we have to invest even more in their defense.
And there are better ways for us to defend ourselves. In an article in the current Nation magazine former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern says the following about the President’s proposal: "Instead of adding $48 billion to the Pentagon budget,…  wouldn’t we make the world a more stable, secure place if we invested half of that sum in reducing poverty, ignorance, hunger and disease in the world?" McGovern is right to question how we might most effectively use an additional $24 billion. Also it may very well be that by reducing poverty, ignorance, hunger and disease in the world we would thereby do more to reduce the threat of terrorism than by increasing our spending for the military, let alone the good in itself that would result.  However, there’s no way that the Congress of the United States is going to allow that amount of money to go overseas, into the hands of people who will do nothing to assure that the current members of Congress be returned to office at the time of the next election. If ever it were taken from the defense budget that amount of money would have to be redirected to projects within the congressmen’s own districts. It was probably this kind of extravagant thinking that accounted more than anything else for McGovern’s loss to Richard Nixon in 1972. Then he proposed a guaranteed annual income for each American family.
So what should we do with the money from the President’s proposed increase in defense spending if it could be redirected?  In a word, education. Why, even our politicians would become "education presidents," "education congressmen." Whether or not they understand what this means, they know that it’s what they need after their name, along with health care sponsorships and job protection programs, if they would get reelected. For who would deny that there is any one attribute more important than the educational attainment of its citizenry among those attributes and qualities that make up the strength of a nation? Furthermore, who would deny that the most important education of all is that which occurs during the first five years of life? Therefore, for the very best defense of our nation, shouldn’t that $24 or $48 billion that we are ready to release, be directed to the end of high quality preschool care for all children in order that, as Marian Wright Edelman has been advocating for years, no child be left behind?
Now only a fraction of the preschool children in this country are being fully served by day care providers, most of all for the reason that child care is expensive. Full day care easily costs from $4,000 to $10,000 per child per year.  Currently the United States is spending some $6 billion for child care, mostly in the form of Head Start programs. (Compare this with the current Defense budget of $330 billion.)The Head Start programs reach nearly 1 million children, up from a few hundred thousand during the presidency of Richard Nixon, and they serve a little more than half of the eligible children. And there are many more families, working families not eligible for Head Start, who still need help with child care. In addition to the million and one half children who are eligible for Head Start programs there are probably twice as many more whose parents need help with the costs of child care. That makes some 4.5 million children. Head Start costs are about $6,000 per child, and in many instances Head Start is not doing the job. Put the cost per child at the upper end, some $10,000 per child, and then what would it cost our government to fund this "child care for all?" Do the math. It comes to some $45 billion, not even the amount that the President is asking for the military. If our President were really interested in defending our country, why wouldn’t he propose to spend the additional funds, that evidently are available, for child care? I’m reminded of President Eisenhower’s admonition to his fellow Americans at the end of his presidency in 1961, "We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." Well, we’ve let our guard down and aircraft carriers have usurped the special place that our children ought to have in our lives and in the life of our country.