Bryan Caplan thinks that schooling is not about education. He thinks instead it is about signaling.
Bryan’s view is benign compared with John Holt.
society demands of schools, among other things, that they be a place where, for many hours of the day, many days of the year, children or young people can be shut up and so got out of everyone else’s way. Mom doesn’t want them hanging around the house, the citizens do not want them out in the streets, and workers do not want them in the labor force. What then do we do with them? How do we get rid of them? We put them in schools. That is an important part of what schools are for. They are a kind of day jail for kids.
Thanks to a commenter on this post for the pointer.
Bryan is also mild in comparison with Ivan Illich.
A political program which does not explicitly recognize the need for de-schooling is not revolutionary; it is demagoguery calling for more of the same.
Illich’s DeSchooling Society starts with a chapter “Why We Must Disestablish School,” which opens
Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. [Does this foreshadow the classic “not about” post by Robin Hanson?] Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends…
the institutionalization of values leads inevitably to physical pollution, social polarization, and psychological impotence…this process of degradation is accelerated when nonmaterial needs are transformed into demands for commodities; when health, education, personal mobility, welfare, or psychological healing are defined as the result of services or “treatments.” I do this because I believe that most of the research now going on about the future tends to advocate further increases in the institutionalization of values and that we must define conditions which would permit precisely the contrary to happen. We need research on the possible use of technology to create institutions which serve personal, creative, and autonomous interaction and the emergence of values which cannot be substantially controlled by technocrats.
The New Left had its vices. As with the Occupy Wall Street movement, within their smoldering discontent it is difficult to discern how they would address economic organization. In The Mind and the Market, p. 345-346, Jerry Muller writes of New Left icon Herbert Marcuse,
his work, unlike Keynes’, was less than useless in providing tangible institutional solutions. For Marcuse was fundamentally uninterested in institutions, whether economic or political….Marcuse proceeded as if these fundamental issues of modern political and economic life could simply be ignored.
The New Left also bequeathed to us an academy where the oppressed-oppressor narrative becomes the sum of all scholarship. As Muller puts it on p. 344,
Scholarship, in this understanding, was not about objectivity…The model of the professor as critical intellectual, liberating his or her audience from one or another variety of false consciousness, became institutionalized in some academic disciplines, above all literary studies and sociology. Three decades after the zenith of the New Left and the publication of Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation, for example, the annual convention of the American Sociological Association was devoted to the theme of “Oppression, Domination, and Liberation”; it focused on racism as well as “other manifestations of social inequality such as class exploitation and oppression on the basis of gender, ethnicity, national origin, sexual preference, disability and age.”
But one thing I will say for the New Left is that they were not the hard-line statists that we see on the left today. On the contrary, they viewed government technocrats as part of what they called “the system,” and opposition to this system was a centerpiece of New Left ideology.
Ken Kesey, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, coined the term “the Combine” to describe forces of control that deprived people of freedom supposedly for their own good. Interestingly, John Taylor Gatto, another anti-schooling radical, wrote a Cliff Notes version of the novel that emphasized its anti-authoritarian aspects.
I imagine that if universal pre-kindergarten had been proposed by Richard Nixon, the New Left would have denounced the scheme as fascist. In that sense, I miss them.