J.S. Mill on school choice

Here’s a passage from On Liberty that I think is really prescient:

Were the duty of enforcing universal education once admitted thee would be an end to the difficulties about what the State should teach, and how it should teach, which now convert the subject into a mere battlefield for sects and parties, causing the time and labor which should have been spent in educating to be wasted in quarreling about education. If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the schools fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them. The objections which are urged with reason against State education do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State’s taking upon itself to direct that education; which is a totally different thing. That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as anyone in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education.

This fits with a general line of argumentation in this blog (see here and here) that school choice would be a good idea. As Mill points out, there is significant argument about what should be taught in schools. The correct response to this, Mill thinks, is to enforce mandatory education without having the State provide it. Parents could choose an education for their children. Such choice would allow many controversies about what should be taught in schools to be avoided (sex education, evolution, certain highly critical interpretations of American history, etc.) In many cases, this will mean paying for education on family by family basis, but as Mill suggests, subsidies could be provided to poorer people so that they could choose their schools with respect to quality rather than pure cost.

I like this outline of a school choice program, but Mill also thinks that it should be enforced by standardized tests. A child would have to past each test or the parents would be fined. There are many problems with this, but the largest one is that it doesn’t solve Mill’s concerns about plurality in education. He says that these tests should be confined to “facts and positive science exclusively,” but then what about evolution? What about sex? It seems that families who opted for a type of religious education would again object and claim a right for their viewpoint to be respected.

In other words, Mill was hoping that privately provided (but publicly mandated) education would be neutralist, and allow each group of people to educate their children in their own way. However, it seems that such a neutralist position is impossible to justify. We think: kids should learn certain things, and they should learn them regardless of whether their parents believe they should not. Or at the very least, there is no way to mark what is required learning and what is not. From my perspective, parents do harm to their kids when they don’t teach them about sex, but from the parents’ perspective, their child is harmed when they are taught about sex.

Even the requirement that education provide children a chance at individuality and autonomy is value-laden in a question begging way. Some religions and groups of people believe that obedience or piety or some other value trumps autonomy. So even a test that requires children to demonstrate autonomy and not acquaintance with specific facts would fail at being fully neutralist.


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