Libertarians and proponents of other individual-centered philosophies have all but surrendered the subject of childhood education (1-8th grades) to their intellectual opponents. This is largely because they are more willing to “opt out” of state schools and leave the intellectual development of children up to parents and families. Statists, on the other hand, have no qualms about investing resources (their own and others’) in molding and shaping future generations through compulsory childhood education. How is an individual-centered education different from a statist education? What are their competing values?
In the United States, two ideas currently dominate childhood education: what is called (derogatorily) the “factory model,” and the “child-centered” approach. The difference between the two, however, is in their method and not their purpose. Picture a typical classroom with rows of desks, bells announcing the end of periods, and a teacher lecturing at the chalkboard, and you have the factory model. Child-centered theorists argue that the factory model stifles creativity, discourages working with others, and promotes excessive focus on competition and grades. Some, like Kirsten Olson (author of Wounded by School) and Parker J. Palmer, believe the factory model even emotionally and spiritually injures students.
So far, while it has made some inroads in individual classrooms and is the reigning paradigm in university education programs, the child-centered approach has yet to replace the factory model as the dominant educational method in public or private schools. The child-centered approach, however, remains—at its heart—about educating children for particular ends. Its proponents are not fundamentally opposed to the public education system—they simply want to impose their own vision on that system. Many, like William Ayers (former Weather Underground leader and current professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago), seek to use public education and the child-centered approach as arms of their own political battles.
Neither “factory” nor child-centered methods challenge the fundamental purpose of public education, which is to remake the individual into an instrument of the state. As a Catholic school will work to instill Catholic values in its students, it should not come as any surprise that a state-run school will promote statist values, no matter what the method of education.
An individualist recognizes the inherent danger of an education program controlled by the state. Anyone who controls the state schools controls, to a large degree, what children will learn. Thanks to mandatory education laws, parents must surrender their children to these institutions, where they will be molded in any way the state sees fit. That is why countries like Germany have worked so hard to stamp out homeschooling. Any schooling that takes place outside state-approved parameters is a threat. Luckily, in the United States, we still have some options.
A child who is raised, or educated, to act as an individual must be instilled with the spirit of critical thinking, familial and self responsibility, the importance of private property, freedom of conscience, and contract theory, et al. It seems clear that education must return to the basics of a free society, since so much of that philosophy has been pushed to the margins, if it is taught at all. Always, the individual (as a social unit), with his or her accompanying rights and responsibilities, should be set at the center of childhood education.
Individual education does not mean indulging a child’s every whim. More often than not, it is important for the individual to learn what he or she cannot do, and that he or she will sometimes need to shoulder burdens or work for the well being of others. We are against servitude to the state—not against altruism, self-sacrifice, hard work, charity, or good will. Statists argue that if we are for the individual then we must be in favor of selfishness or indifference to the suffering of others. That is simply not the case, and in fact, education for the individual would reflect that reality.
Failure to promote individuality, critical thinking, and responsibility for oneself and others during a child’s formative years will guarantee that libertarianism and other individual-centered philosophies will remain in the minority.