Murray Rothbard (1926–1995) was an Austrian economist and libertarian who wrote on a variety of subjects, including education. Rothbard wrote journal articles on education in 1971 that were later published in the book format, Education: Free & Compulsory. This 54-page work provides a history and criticism of compulsory state education.
There are only three chapters in Rothbard’s book: (1) “The Individual’s Education;” (2) “Compulsory Education in Europe;” and (3) “Compulsory Education in the United States.” The last two chapters focus on the history of compulsory education, while the first chapter discusses what education actually is. In this first chapter, Rothbard shows that education involves the process of growing up and developing one’s personality. He makes the important point that education cannot be limited to formal schooling, as humans learn from everything they do.
According to Rothbard, humans are diverse and therefore each individual has different needs in education. Contrary to the modern ideology of our day, humans are not equal. They have different strengths and weaknesses. As Rothbard says, “It is evident that the common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity” (p. 6). Recognizing differences in humans is essential to education. Rothbard explains:
“Each child has different intelligence, aptitudes, and interests. Therefore, the best choice of pace, timing, variety, and manner, and of the courses of instruction will differ widely from one child to another . . . It is obvious, therefore, that the best type of instruction is individual instruction. A course where one teacher instructs one pupil is clearly by far the best type of course” (p. 7).
It is hard to argue with Rothbard’s assessment. Anyone who has ever had a good individual tutor can attest to this model. You are able to go at your own pace, and the tutor can tailor your studies for you.
Rothbard goes on to argue that parents are best equipped to provide such an individual education for their children. Rothbard asks, “What people can know the aptitudes and personality of the child better than his own parents? (p. 8). Though never using the modern term “homeschool,” this is certainly the model that Rothbard is advocating. He recognizes that almost all parents are able to teach their own children, “particularly in the elementary subjects” (p. 8). Of course, as children get older, they can take advantage of the many homeschool resources out there in the form of video and book instruction.
It should be obvious that the state cannot provide the individualized education advocated by Rothbard. Even private schools cannot provide this individual attention. Further, many of them are not as private as one would think—“By enforcing certification for minimum standards, the State effectively, though subtly, dominates the private schools and makes them, in effect, extensions of the public school system” (p. 16). This gets to the central question for Rothbard—“Shall the parent or the State be the overseer of the child?” (p. 9).
Unfortunately, our modern educational system is controlled by the state. These schools squash individualism in favor of uniformity, and they teach children to follow the state like sheep. As Rothbard says, “The State has been warring with parents for control of their children” (p. 11).
Rothbard offers a great analogy to show the problem with state education—the newspaper. He says, “What would we think of a proposal for the government, Federal or State, to use the taxpayers’ money to set up a nationwide chain of public newspapers, and compel all people, or all children, to read them? . . . Such a proposal would be generally regarded with horror in America, and yet this is exactly the sort of regime that the government has established in the sphere of scholastic instruction” (p. 17).
The History of Compulsory State Education
Chapters two and three of Education: Free & Compulsory overview the history of compulsory state education in Europe (ch. 2) and in the United States (ch. 3). This history is unknown to most people, but understanding this history helps lead people to reject the concept of compulsory education.
As Rothbard shows, modern compulsory public education has its roots in the German Lutheran schools advocated by Martin Luther in the 16th century. John Calvin also advocated such schools in Geneva, which spread to France and Holland, as well as Scotland under the influence of John Knox. The English Puritans were influenced by the Calvinist tradition, and this tradition of public education was then brought to America when the Puritans came to New England.
While Rothbard is correct that such compulsory state education was a bad idea, it must be said that Rothbard is unnecessarily harsh here. He speaks of Luther as “inculcating the entire population with their particular religious views” and refers to Calvin’s schools as “theocratic despotism” (pp. 21, 23). Rothbard himself was not favorable towards Christianity, so it is no surprise that he was so critical of Luther and Calvin. However, Christian Europe in those days involved strong church-state ties. Their laws were based on the Christian religion, so it was only right that any state schools would teach Christianity. That being said, this model did not work well in the long run and should therefore be rejected. Christian education can be provided perfectly well in a privatized system.
As for England, the state did not interfere in education until the 1830s. This was the practice followed in the majority of the early American colonies, where the only public schools were “those established for poor families free to make use of the facilities” (p. 37). The exception to the privatized system of the American colonies was New England, which was influenced by the Calvinist tradition and the Puritans. The Massachusetts Bay Colony passed compulsory laws and then established public schools in 1647.
The Revolutionary War disrupted such state education and gave the states a new beginning in education. The State of Massachusetts again led the way by enacting compulsory attendance laws in 1789. But it was not until 1852 that Massachusetts established the first statewide compulsory school system, which served as the model for the rest of the United States. Children between 8 and 14 were required to attend school as least 13 weeks per year, and this was later expanded. Rothbard shows that such a public school system was actually quite controversial when it began. There were many who warned against its interference with parental rights. However, over time the system was set in place. “By 1850, every state had a network of free public schools,” and, “By 1900, almost every state was enforcing compulsory attendance” (p. 41).
The American public school system was strongly influenced by men such as Horace Mann, who was fond of the system used by Prussia at the time. Mann’s system sought to inculcate moral principles, and it began teaching basic Christian morals. But at the same time, the system was supposed to remain politically and religiously “neutral.” Rothbard identifies a problem here—“In dealing with political and economic subjects, it is almost impossible to treat them intelligently and accurately while being strictly neutral and avoiding all controversy” (p. 51). But with compulsory laws being enforced, the schools no longer needed to proclaim neutrality. They slowly became secularized and promoted nationalism and uniformity, as they do today.
Rothbard closes the book by identifying some of the central problems of the modern American compulsory school system. He highlights that the public schools “destroy independent thought in the child” and instead pursue “equality and uniformity” (pp. 53-54). Further, children “discuss current events without first learning the systematic subjects (politics, economics, history) which are necessary in order to discuss them” (p. 54). The state seeks to mold the child through its schools, and “the effect of all this is to foster dependence of the individual on the group and on the State” (p. 55).
Rothbard’s forceful critique of state education should lead us to consider alternatives. Thus the central question of the book—will we support education that is free or compulsory?