“Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.” — Frederic Bastiat
In the first part of this essay on government intervention in education I covered the vision of our Founding Fathers for learning and liberty. The Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 demonstrated not only the vision of our Founders, but their actions toward supporting learning at the local, municipal and state level. In this part I will move forward to the 19th century and the beginning of the progressive takeover of education in the United States.
In the second part I explained how the progressives in government and academia began to push for more and more intrusion by the central government into our educational system.
In this third part I will show how a 184 pound object orbiting the earth and going beep, beep, beep, influenced our education system more than Madison, Washington, and Jefferson and even Dickson and Barnard would have never seemed possible.
In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first human contrivance to escape the Earth's atmosphere. Its engines were powerful enough to thrust a 36-pound satellite into orbit. Unbeknownst to its designers, it would have a similar effect on the American education system. In the Soviet mastery of rocket science, our federal government discovered lessons in administration. It did not turn to meet the challenge through the defense power, which is its own under the Constitution and was the obvious response. Rather it used the situation as a lever to manage education.
The "National Defense Student Loan Fund" — contrived in response to the launching of Sputnik-was a system of subsidized loans to students. The federal taxpayer would supply 90 percent and colleges 10 percent. The colleges would be responsible for collections and would be at risk for its 10 percent. The title of the law is, of course, an attempt to find justification for it under the defense power given to Congress in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. (Today we have the "National Direct Student Loan Program." We become progressively less squeamish about constitutional justification.)
(The federal government began guaranteeing student loans provided by banks and non-profit lenders in 1965, creating the program that is now called the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program. The first federal student loans, however, provided under the National Defense Education Act of 1958, were direct loans capitalized with U.S. Treasury funds. Today we have advanced to the Federal Direct Student Loan Program as part of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. To view a brief history of the federal student loan program click here.)
When the central government entered the education system with vigor under the authority of National Defense Student Loan Fund many people thought this was a good idea. After all didn’t we want to pass the Russians in the space race? To do this we believed we needed more engineers, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, and other related technical experts. To accomplish this desire the central government initiated the NDSLF. Progressives and conservatives alike thought this was a worthwhile expenditure of federal direct taxes. It’s Constitutionality could be validated under the defense enumerations in Article I, Section 8, although when reading these 19 enumerated powers it is quite a stretch to find the authority unless you take a broad view of section 19 — the “necessary and proper” clause. No matter how you strain to find justification a can of worms had been opened that has grown beyond belief.
Finally after years of congressional overreach in spending federal fund for education — something Andrew Dickson White could not foresee the Department of Education was founded in 1979 under the Carter Administration. Henry Barnard’s Office of Education had finally grown into a full-fledged cabinet level department with spending, regulatory, and coercive policing powers. The primary functions of the Department of Education are to "establish policy for, administer and coordinate most federal assistance to education, collect data on US schools, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.”
Today The Department of Education operates a wide range of subsidy programs for elementary and secondary schools. The aid and all the related federal regulations have not generally lifted academic achievement. The department also provides subsidies to higher education through student loans and grants. Unfortunately, that aid has fueled inflation in college tuition and is subject to widespread abuse.
The department spent about $98 billion in 2012, or $830 for every U.S. household. It employs 4,300 workers and operates 153 different subsidy programs. Was this the vision of Madison, Washington, Jefferson, or even Andrew Dickson White? I think not. For a timeline on how federal government spending for education has progressed from the Northwest Ordinance to today click here. You will see that with each passing year it became more acceptable to ignore the Constitution and provide the central government with more and more power and money to control education in the United States. Every step along the path from 1787 to 2009 seemed like a good idea at the time. But as with all good ideas each successive one became more intrusive on our liberty and property and always with the mantra for the children as the rallying cry.
Today we hear of Big Pharma and Big Corporations, but we don’t hear too much about Big Education. Big Education has become and industry onto itself employing millions and spending into the trillions. It is supported by the vested interests of academia, politicians, and unions in a symbiotic relationship. Academia wants larger grants, more expensive facilities, and larger subsidized student enrollments to support more tenured professors and their grandiose schemes.
Teachers unions spend millions of dollars in dues collected from their members to support politicians who will spend more and more dollars on education so they can elevate the compensation and tenure of their members at the expense of the taxpayer while claiming they are for the children.
Local school districts fearful of asking their local taxpayers for increases in property taxes to pay for federally mandated programs and misguided expansion programs look to the central government for federal dollars — dollars that come with coercive mandates for curriculums that require more expenditures — curriculums such as the teaching LGBT history and social mores that the local citizens object too. This is far cry from what our Founding Fathers envisioned when they passed the Northwest Ordinance or 1787 and the Land Ordinance of 1785.
With this symbiotic closed loop of Big Education we have no more engineers or mathematicians that were envisioned when the first Sputnik was rocketed into orbit. In fact test scores have been dropping and the high school dropout rates have been climbing among Blacks and Hispanics. For all of the federal money spent on education our society knows less about the organic laws of the nation and the liberty they promote than the farmer of 1787.
Many subsidized and unqualified college students — students who are admitted due to mandated racial, gender, or ethnic quotas drop out after one or two years. Those who do go on take frivolous courses that lead towards degrees like women’s studies and Black history that will provide them with little or no skills to enter the workforce. As long as the college receives the federally guaranteed loan money they care little what happens to the students. It’s the student that is burdened with repayment — if they ever do — for years to come.
At the beginning of the 20th century influential progressives like Theodore Roosevelt, John Dewey, Herbert Coley, and Woodrow Wilson began to initiate a total takeover of education in the United States. While the progressive politicians used the power of the federal purse in total disregard of the Constitution the academics like Dewy began changing what is to be taught in our schools and universities with total disdain for the Northwest Ordinance.
Influential academics, like Dewy, began listening to the Marxist philosophies being espoused by the “Frankfurt School”. Philosophies based on the teaching of Karl Marx and other socialist. Associated in part with the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt am Main the leading members of the Frankfurt School developed the theories of “critical thinking”. While critical thinking may be useful in some professions it is the antithesis of the beliefs of our Founders as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Today some of the precepts of the Frankfurt School have migrated in to our K-12 system at the middle school level where children are being indoctrinated in political correctness and class envy while learning virtually nothing of our organic laws.
Several years ago at the Field Museum in Chicago, there was an exhibit of the possessions and life of Qianlong, the greatest of the Chinese Emperors. The exhibit told a glorious tale. Qianlong was very rich, and he wielded great power after his father conquered China.
The exhibit was at some pains to say what a just ruler the man was. He loved his people. He was energetic and caring in their service. In one place the exhibit materials made the point that the glories of a great national China, as exemplified by the benevolent Qianlong, have been restored to China today. Of course the people who rule that great national China today had to give permission for the exhibit to visit Chicago. Likely they had some influence over what the exhibit said. That would explain some things about it.
A mural in the exhibit shows the Great Emperor visiting a town. The entire population of the town is ranged before him. He is being carried in an ornate chair by hefty men. All the townspeople are on their knees.
That is the meaning of mandarinism. One need only look in the Encyclopedia Britannica to see that not quite everything was rosy and fine during the rule of Qianlong in China. Nor is everything fine there today. China was, and still is, ruled by mandarinism. That is one reason why the exhibit was not candid about the evils that came under the regime of Qianlong.
The Founders of our nation did not intend to establish mandarinism. That is why they taught that responsibility and authority ought to go together. That is why they did not give the federal government power to manage education. It was too important for that. For the sake of education, and for the sake of freedom, the federal government should get out of it.
Powers and interests are so arranged today that it seems hopeless that any good can be done. The modern research university has replaced the liberal arts college as the standard bearer in education. It is entrenched, immovable, almost almighty. Its force is enrolled nearly exclusively on one side of the political spectrum. Politicians bask in its favor or quail before its frown. Bureaucrats work with it hand in hand.
Perhaps the time has passed when politicians of either party should seek to regulate this behemoth. The answer may be less rather than more involvement. It may be time, or long past time, for us to demonstrate what we are by another great act of delegation, another great episode in which the most powerful make treasures available to individuals in their multitude, to husband and direct as seems best to them. In the Northwest Ordinance, the precious resource of Western lands was sold outright to ordinary folk, without condition. The boldest and most persistent people in the world had crossed the ocean and braved a wilderness to secure land. The government owned the land. It gave it up.
In the Homestead Act, the government did the same thing, but this time it did not charge a fee. Once again a wonderful asset was given away. It was not given to barons and earls. It was not given to friends of those in power. There was no chance for bureaucrats to say who got what. There was one grand act of disposition, the same for one and all.
In 1959 the germ of an idea passed Congress, but it was vetoed in the White House by President Eisenhower. The idea was that ordinary folk could give their money to colleges instead of to the government. The great asset that government holds today, greater even than its vast holdings of land, is the enormous claim it holds upon the wealth and income of the American people. There is no good reason why the people cannot give that money away themselves. Some way should be found.
Of course the powers of modern education will object to this. They will say that this is easy for private colleges such as Hillsdale College to recommend. We have found a way to survive without money from the taxpayer. The answer to that is-yes, with great difficulty they have. What one can do, so can another.
These powers will also say that education is so very important, that people must be taxed to pay for it even if they do not want to be. That is a despotic argument, the kind of thing to which our brightest intellectuals are too much given these days.
These powers will say finally that we do not care enough about education. As Frederick Bastiat said so many years ago:
“Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”
The answer to that is that people do care about it just as the Founders of America did. It is vital to all that is good and true. Therefore it ought not to be left in the hands of people who believe in neither good nor truth. It is too important for that. Let ordinary people decide, place by place and family by family, what is to be done.
This argument cannot be won until it is started. After it is started and it will continue for a long time. It face many challenges from the entrenched statist and progressive politicians, bureaucrats, academics, and unions that have a vested interest in the present system of using direct taxes to fund our massive k-12 and higher education system.