George II recently described his campaign to bring democracy at gunpoint to the Mesopotamian desert as a “catastrophic success.” Our silver-tounged leader inadvertently hit on the perfect description not only of the results of the Iraqi war, but of most government efforts to improve the world and the people in it.
One of government’s most comprehensive efforts at world improvement, public education, has made headlines lately with yet another study confirming the breath taking ignorance of American high school students — in this case regarding the purpose and application of the First Amendment. This, by the way, is the first item in the Bill of Rights — the amendment that affirms our rights to a free press, free speech, freedom of religion, to gather peaceably in public and to petition our government.
The study showed a generation clueless in matters of both our history and our Constitution. The study revealed that most high school students think the government should censor news reports of all kinds. Understandably, the report induced apoplectic dudgeon in conservatives and liberals alike over the failure of American public education.
There’s nothing like a threat to “freedom of the press” to send even the most ruthless, progressive world-improvers around the bend. The same progressive editors who blithely ignore the Constitution in support of victim disarmament, self-incriminating tax returns, airport strip searches and stealing land for the endangered slime gecko become vigilant Constitutionalists at the first whiff of a challenge to their right to harangue us with collectivist propaganda.
In my enthusiasm for the entire Constitution, I will defend to the death anyone’s right to advocate silly socialism. After all, debunking PC hoo-haw is my beat. Where would I be without self-righteous progressive busybodies? What would I write about? What would fuel my own engine of self-righteousness? To whom would I reveal the inner workings of government, like a father describing the hidden ingredients of a baloney sandwich to his teenaged daughter?
As always, I am happy to join the army of the well-intentioned for a good cause. In this instance, I share liberals’ fear for the future of the republic owing to the abysmal ignorance of our young people. But as usual we disagree about the source of that ignorance. To progressives, pliable, uninformed teenagers who trust the government to spoon-feed them the news represent a failure of the education system. A closer examination of public education, however, reveals not a failure but the “catastrophic success” of a massive government program.
Public education, like every government undertaking, is coercive. The law compels students to attend school. The law compels taxpayers to pay for it. Teachers and administrators are all government employees. Government bureaucrats approve every detail of the curriculum. Children are institutionalized in public schools as early as age four. They spend more time in school than most violent felons spend in prison. Many and particularly boys receive powerful psychoactive drugs to control their behavior. All begin each day by taking a government approved loyalty oath.
Such an environment will not produce adults with a healthy mistrust of official power. A curriculum produced and presented by government employees will never wander far from the smooth, straight path of naive trust in government and a solemn reverence for authority.
Considering teenagers’ natural inclination to rebellion, their deep ignorance both of their rights and of the dangers of overreaching state power is a triumph of government planning, not a failure of education. No organization, and certainly no coercive monopoly, will ever propose its own decline or dissolution.
What high school teacher would long keep his job teaching that the income tax violates Fifth Amendment prohibitions against self-incrimination? What government bureaucrat would approve a course that shows how drug warriors violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, or that the War on Drugs itself is unconstitutional? What government high school would teach that military conscription violates the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibitions against involuntary servitude? How often do public school students learn that the Second Amendment affirms the right of law-abiding adults to own and carry firearms?
We can expect calls from the left and right for more tax money for education to better teach our children about their history and their rights. But more government involvement in education will only intensify constitutional ignorance and strengthen trust in government authority. Programs like No Child Left Behind are quickly morphing into No Child Left UnPsychoanalyzed, No Child Left UnMedicated, and ultimately No Child Left to Think for Himself.
Government bureaucrats will never teach a proper respect and understanding of the U.S. Constitution because the authors of that document intended specifically to limit government power. We will reduce ignorance of history and human rights in future generations only when we reduce the “catastrophic success” government schools have had in producing that ignorance.