State Education and the Decline in Morality

Paul A. Cleveland

Paul A. Cleveland is Assistant Professor of Economics and Business Administration at Birmingham-Southern College

I. Introduction

Developing the personal moral character of children is an essential prerequisite for the continuation of civilization. Further, education is an important component of that process since moral behavior requires empathy for others. Regrettably, state schools are wholly unsuited to this task. This can be seen when the nature of state education and the participants in the process are considered. The participants of any educational process include parents, children, teachers, and organizers of educational programs. The ultimate responsibility of educating children must rest with the parents. The parents are responsible for bringing a child into the world and are therefore responsible for nurturing that child to maturity. This relationship is fundamental. If the state usurps the responsibility for educating children, it will invariably subvert that education for its own expedient ends. In other words, if the state takes responsibility for education it will attempt to indoctrinate children according to some accepted statist point of view. Furthermore, to the extent that an error serves some particular purpose of state authorities, it will inevitably be promoted and taught as if it were acurate. This becomes especially problematic when children are taught to behave immorally simply because such behavior serves to further some governmental goal.

In addition to this, it should be noted that moral education cannot be divorced from education in general. It is not possible for the state to teach the supposed positive facts of the reality while leaving the teaching of normative values to parents. The reason this is so is because normative values always serve as a framework within which the facts of life are given meaning. Without values, facts become irrelevant pieces of information. The individual brought up in such a system sees no underlying principles of action other than some immediate personal preference. Of course, in the state system, state educators attempt to impose their own preferences. Lamentably, the person whose sole view of the world is that of personal preference and power politics, lacks character and cannot be trusted. As the noted theologian, Charles Hodge, stated so clearly, "A man without character is a man without principles, i.e., in whom there is nothing which gives security as to what his acts will be."{1}

By examining the way in which governments use education for pragmatic purposes, and by demonstrating how the nature of state education subverts traditional moral values, it will be evident that state schooling undermines moral character development and is, therefore, detrimental to civilization.

II. The State's Pragmatic Immorality

David Hornbeck is a familiar name in educational reform circles in the United States. He is a leading proponent of what is called, "Outcome Based Education". His ideas on education are presented in a book he co-edited, titled, Human Capital and America's Future. In it Hornbeck states, "Our present practice of incrementalism or ad hoc treatment and uncoordinated effort is wholly inadequate to raising the next generation of human capital either in school or outside school."{2} In this statement Hornbeck's primary assumption about the purpose of education is made clear. Specifically, he must believe that education is essentially a process whereby children are made fit to do their job in the national economic machine. It is important to note that such a view minimizes the individual's significance by suggesting that one's value is strictly related to his ability to perform some prespecified function. Not only that, but he further assumes that the individual has no right of self-determination in that process. As such, people are seen as nothing more than cogs in a wheel. In his book, Christianity and Liberalism, J.Gresham Machen spoke about such a view:

It never seems to occur to modern legislatures that although "welfare" is good, forced welfare may be bad. In other words, utilitarianism is being carried to its logical conclusions; in the interests of physical well-being the great principles of liberty are being thrown ruthlessly to the winds.
The result is an unparalled impoverishment of human life. Personality can only be developed in the realm of individual choice. And that realm, in the modern state, is being slowly but steadily contracted. The tendency is making itself felt especially in the sphere of education. The object of education, it is now assumed, is the production of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But the greatest happiness for the greatest number, it is assumed further, can be defined only by the will of the majority. Idiosyncrasies in education, therefore, it is said, must be avoided, and the choice of schools must be taken away from the individual parent and placed in the hands of the state. The state then exercises its authority through the instruments that are ready to hand, and at once, therefore, the child is placed under the control of psychological experts, themselves without the slightest acquaintance with the higher realms of human life, who proceed to prevent any such acquaintance being gained by those who come under their care... The dominant tendency, even in a country like America, which formerly prided itself on its freedom from bureaucratic regulation of the details of life, is toward a drab utilitarianism in which all higher aspirations are to be lost.{3}

The view that people are so much clay to be molded by the state, has been behind all social engineering which attempts to create utopia on earth by recreating the human race. In each case of experimentation, the grand utopia was to be brought about by imposing governmental penalties on those who would dissent from the popular social reform movement of the moment. Unfortunately, these efforts ultimately reduce people to mere statistics. The experience with such efforts this century has led to the devastation of human lives and has resulted in widespread hardship and suffering. A close examination of Hornbeck's position reveals that his plan is appropriately classified as another effort to force social reform.

Hornbeck makes it clear that to implement his educational system there must be government legislation. He states, "Such legislation must create a new commitment to solve the deep-seated problems impeding human capital development..."{4} Notice that Hornbeck's aim is to "create a new commitment" by way of governmental action. In other words, he plans to use the collective force of government to change human nature. The notion that state coercion is capable of somehow recreating human nature is the height of arrogance. Sadly, it is this same arrogance which has resulted in the pain, hardship, and murder of millions of people during the twentieth century by way of various socialist experiments.

The Soviet Union's failure to recreate human nature is the primary reason for its ultimate collapse. The most frightening thing about Hornbeck's proposal, is the fact that the language he uses is so similar to that of the communists in Russia. In the leading pedogological text used in the former Soviet Union in the 1940s, the authors argued:

Education for us is a vital public concern and is directed toward the strengthening of the socialist state...We must develop in [every child] a feeling of pride in the most revolutionary class, the working class, and in its vanguard, the Communist Party.... In giving knowledge to pupils and in formulating their work outlook, the school must cultivate in them habits of communist conduct.{5}

Note that in each case the authors speak of the need for government to accomplish certain specified ends in the lives of children. The final result of such teaching in Soviet society was that Stalin was able to have millions of people murdered because it served the state's purpose to do so. The worst part of all of this was that the children who adapted best to the system of state indoctrination were ultimately the ones called upon to execute fellow citizens whose crimes were illusory. Rather than teaching morality, the state school taught gross immorality. Similar situations occurred as a result of social reform movements in both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, where each state sought to promote its particular brand of immorality for its own pragmatic purposes.

Nobel Prize winning economist, Friedrich Hayek, spent much of his career refuting the misguided notions of social engineers such as Hornbeck. In his book, The Fatal Conceit:The Errors of Socialism, {6} Hayek destroys any scientific position which might be claimed by those seeking to recreate human nature and human institutions for utopian purposes. In destroying the socialists argument he states:

So, priding itself on having built its world as if it had designed it, and blaming itself for not having designed it better, humankind is now to set out to do just that. The aim of socialism is no less than to effect a complete redesigning of our traditional morals, law, and language, and on this basis to stamp out the old order and the supposedly inexorable, unjustifiable conditions that prevent the institution of reason, fulfillment, true freedom, and justice.{7}

Hayek refers to the desire to redesign traditional morals as "the fatal conceit"; but it is this very conceit which is at the heart of all socialist education. It is this conceit which undermines the individual's moral education because social reformers and tyrants inevitably use education to teach immorality as they seek and gain power.

For this reason, in the midst of the current decline in civility, it is all the more interesting to hear educational administrators call for individual tolerance. But such calls ring hollow and are largely ignored. After all, how can it ever be expected that children will learn to be tolerant of others in a system which is intolerant of them? Such is the nature of state education. Rather than viewing the child as an individual, with individual needs, each child is seen as being essentially the same.

Fortunately, writers such as Hayek have been present to refute these ideas. In this vein, French economist, Frederic Bastiat, addressed the same issues of socialism in his own country in 1850. Like Hayek, he too accurately characterizes the fatal conceit of socialism. In his book, The Law, Bastiat writes:

Present-day writers--especially those of the socialist school of thought--base their various theories upon one common hypothesis: They divide mankind into two parts. People in general--with the exception of the writer himself--form the first group. The writer, all alone, forms the second and most important group. Surely this is the weirdest and most conceited notion that ever entered a human brain!
In fact, these writers on public affairs begin by supposing that people have within themselves no means of discernment; no motivation to action. The writers assume that people are inert matter, passive particles, motionless atoms, at best a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being shaped--by the will and hand of another person--into an infinite variety of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected.
Moreover, not one of these writers on governmental affairs hesitates to imagine himself--under the title of organizer, discoverer, legislator, or founder--as this will and hand, this universal motivating force, this creative power whose sublime mission is to mold these scattered materials--persons--into a society...
Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed into social combinations...Moreover, even where they have consented to recognize a principle of action in the heart of man--and a principle of discernment in man's intellect--they have considered these gifts from God to be fatal gifts. They have thought that persons, under the impulse of these two gifts, would fatally tend to ruin themselves. They assume that if the legislators left persons free to follow their own inclinations, they would arrive at atheism instead of religion, ignorance instead of knowledge, poverty instead of production and exchange.{8}

The point is clear. The only view of mankind tolerable in state education, is the view that the individual is the property of the state and should submit himself willingly to any mandate no matter how objectionable it may be to his conscience. More specifically, the end goal of socialist education is the destruction of conscience in the hope that the only values embraced by the individual would be those promoted by the state.

III. State Education Subverts Traditional Moral Values

The United States has experimented with state schooling now for 150 years. For many of those years its impact seemed rather innocuous. Furthermore, it seemed to achieve its goal of promoting patriotism and citizenship without any adverse effects. Yet, like a cancer in the human body, state education was steadily undermining the moral health of individuals in society by indoctrinating them into the values of those seeking greater political control. As will be shown below, to promote an inherent vested interest, state education has increasingly assaulted traditional moral values as well as the religions which support them. Unfortunately, without these values, the ideals of liberty and freedom cannot be maintained.

The erosion of personal moral character and individual freedom has occurred largely as a result of the success of naturalism academically. Naturalism operates on the assumption that there is no transcendent God who can reveal Himself to mankind and or who is able to control the affairs of creation. Instead, it assumes that everything operates mechanically. As Phillip Johnson has written, "The assumption that nature is all there is, and that nature has been governed by the same rules at all times and places, makes it possible for natural science to be confident that it can explain such things as how life began. This advantage comes at a high price, however. Naturalism opens the whole world of fact to scientific knowledge, but by the same token it consigns the whole realm of value to human subjectivity."{9}

But the assumption itself makes no sense. The naturalist cannot explain the reason for the existence of life, or the origin of individual personality, or the individual's conscious sense of injustice when a wrong has been committed against him. From the naturalist perspective, morality is swallowed up by personal preference and power politics. Gordon Clark accurately assessed this situation in his analysis of the subject. His argument begins by noting that common opinion presumes the immorality of such things as murder, theft, dishonesty, and adultery. In addition, he notes that any orthodox Christian or Jew, would affirm such moral imperatives as that of kindness, tolerance, compassion, honesty, respect for property, and chastity. Likewise, they would readily acknowledge the need to refrain from murder, theft, dishonesty, and adultery. They would argue their postion, not on the basis of their individual preferences, but on the basis that God has declared some behavior as moral and some as immoral and if the Almighty has spoken, the matter is settled. However, from a naturalistic position, which assumes that God does not speak, there is no ground for the acceptance of the prohibition of certain behavior and the admonition of other. Yet in this case all morality is lost. As Clark continues:

The empirical method in axiology can only begin with the discovery in experience of so-called values. Art and friendship, health and material comfort, are frequently so identified. The precise identification, however, is not the crucial point. These so-called values are all descriptive facts. [One individual] discovers in his experience a preference for art and friendship. Someone else may not value art at all. Similarly, personal preference varies between monogamy and adultery. And Stalin shows a preference for murder... Thus murder, as much as friendship, is a value because it has been discovered as a value in experience. How then can a theory which restricts itself to descriptive facts provide ground for normative prescriptions? If the premise of an argument is the descriptive fact that someone likes something, by what logic could one arrive at the conclusion that other people ought to like the same thing? Any syllogism with a normative conclusion requires a normative premise.{10}

As a possible basis for moral values, Clark points out that naturalists typically appeal to some social demand. But such appeals cannot avoid the fundamental conclusion of the naturalist primary assumption: There are no universal moral values if there is no God whose character defines the essence of right and wrong. In this case, the appeal to some nebulous social contract is not sufficient and, as has already been shown, all horrors are permittable as long as they serve to promote some pragmatic end.

The hard reality for naturalists is this: If God is the Author and Sustainer of life, the assumption to ignore Him is the most foolish intellectual blunder ever committed. Sadly for them, their great prejudice against even reconsidering their fundamental assumption is evidence of the truth of the Bible. Everywhere in Scripture the reader finds the common declaration that man is in rebellion to God since he refuses to submit to His authority and is, therefore, in need of salvation lest a just and holy God should judge him forever. Nevertheless, naturalists continue undaunted because they presume that science cannot proceed effectively if the concession of a transcendent and immanent God be made. Yet this is simply not the case. J. Gresham Machen dealt with this objection when he wrote:
It is sometimes said that the actuality of miracles would destroy the basis of science. Science, it is said, is founded upon the regularity of sequences; it assumes that if certain conditions within the course of nature are given, certain other conditions will always follow. But if there is to be any intrusion of events which by their very definition are independent of all previous conditions, then, it is said, the regularity of nature upon which science bases itself is broken up. Miracle, in other words, seems to introduce an element of arbitrariness and unaccountability into the course of the world.
The objection ignores what is really fundamental in the Christian conception of miracle. According to the Christian conception, a miracle is wrought by the immediate power of God. It is not wrought by an arbitrary and fantastic despot, but by the very God to whom the regularity of nature itself is due--by the God, moreover, whose character is known through the Bible. Such a God, we may be sure, will not do despite to the reason that He has given to His creatures; His interposition will introduce no disorder into the world that He has made. There is nothing arbitrary about a miracle, according to the Christian conception. It is not an uncaused event, but an event that is caused by the very source of all the order that is in the world. It is dependent upon the least arbitrary and the most firmly fixed of all things that are--namely upon the character of God.{11}

The naturalistic philosophy that prevails in state education is, therefore, one obstacle to the moral education of children. But, is this sufficient to suggest that state schooling must inevitably undermine moral education? The answer to the question is a resounding yes when it is remembered that theft is an immoral means for getting the things one wants. An education is certainly something which is desired. Furthermore, the desire to help provide educational opportunities to all potential students is noble. However, no matter how noble the end may be, the use of immoral means to achieving that end can never be justified. Such is the case in the forced funding of public education.

Education is a good, like any other good. When the government collects taxes to pay for the education of children, it does not tax each citizen based on the number of that individual's children that will be attending the state school in the coming year. Rather, it just takes money from all taxpayers for that purpose. Taxpayers have little recourse. They can refuse to pay the tax, and so be placed in jail, or they can pay the tax. This process of taking money from some, for the benefit of others, is essentially a form of legalized theft. It is purely pragmatic and unprincipled since it inherently denies the moral prohibition against violating the property rights of others. Since funding for public education is money legally stolen from its rightful owners, supporters of public education must implicitly assume that some forms of theft are legitimate as long as the end aimed for is noble. But then, the moral principle is no longer seen as fundamental to moral behavior and can readily be discarded whenever it interfers with the personal preferences of some ruling elite or some political majority. As such, state education, from its very inception, undermines moral character by discounting fundamental principles of moral behavior. Moreover, having rejected the mandate to respect the property of others, people working in the system will naturally drift further and further away from morality as other expedient compromises are made. It is in this atmosphere that students are expected to learn about morality. In the absence of actual moral behavior, this seems to be a formidable task. Instead, it seems far more likely that students will learn that moral behavior is irrelevant. As the old saying goes, "Actions speak louder than words."


{1} Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprinted 1993, vol. 2, p. 109.

{2}David Hornbeck, "New Paradigms for Action", Human Capital and America's Future, ed by David Hornbeck and Lester Salamon, Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1991, p.386.

{3} J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1934, pp 10-11.

{4} Hornbeck, op. cit., p.368.

{5} Sheldon Richman, Separating School & State, Fairfax, VA: The Future of Freedom Foundation, 1995, p. xv.

{6}Friedrich A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, ed, by W.W. Bartley III, The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1988.

{7}Ibid, p.67.

{8}Frederic Bastiat, The Law, The Foundation for Economic Education: Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, 1987, pp 33-36.

{9} Phillip Johnson, "Is God Unconstitutional: The Established Religious Philosophy of America", The Real Issue, Dallas, TX: Christian Leadership Ministries, 1995, p. 16.

{10} Gordon Clark, "Can Moral Education be Grounded on Naturalism?", Essays on Ethics and Politics, Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 1992, pp 7-8.

{11} Machen, op. cit., pp 101-102.