Murray N. Rothbard – September 7, 2020
[A selection from Education: Free and Compulsory.]
One of the most important facts about human nature is the great diversity among individuals. Of course, there are certain broad characteristics, physical and mental, which are common to all human beings.1 But more than any other species, individual men are distinct and separate individuals. Not only is each fingerprint unique, each personality is unique as well. Each person is unique in his tastes, interests, abilities, and chosen activities. Animal activities, routine and guided by instinct, tend to be uniform and alike. But human individuals, despite similarities in ends and values, despite mutual influences, tend to express the unique imprint of the individual’s own personality. The development of individual variety tends to be both the cause and the effect of the progress of civilization. As civilization progresses, there is more opportunity for the development of a person’s reasoning and tastes in a growing variety of fields. And from such opportunities come the advancement of knowledge and progress which in turn add to the society’s civilization. Furthermore, it is the variety of individual interests and talents that permits the growth of specialization and division of labor, on which civilized economies depend. As the Reverend George Harris expressed it:
Savagery is uniformity. The principal distinctions are sex, age, size, and strength. Savages…think alike or not at all, and converse therefore in monosyllables. There is scarcely any variety, only a horde of men, women, and children. The next higher stage, which is called barbarism, is marked by increased variety of functions. There is some division of labor, some interchange of thought, better leadership, more intellectual and aesthetic cultivation. The highest stage, which is called civilization, shows the greatest degree of specialization. Distinct functions become more numerous. Mechanical,—commercial, educational, scientific, political, and artistic occupations multiply. The rudimentary societies are characterized by the likeness of equality; the developed societies are marked by the unlikeness of inequality or variety. As we go down, monotony; as we go up, variety. As we go down, persons are more alike; as we go up, persons are more unlike, it certainly seems…as though [the] approach to equality is decline towards the conditions of savagery, and as though variety is an advance towards higher civilization….
Certainly, then, if progress is to be made by added satisfactions, there must be even more variety of functions, new and finer differentiations of training and pursuits. Every step of progress means the addition of a human factor that is in some way unlike all existing factors. The progress of civilization, then…must be an increasing diversification of the individuals that compose society….There must be articulation of each new invention and art, of fresh knowledge, and of broader application of moral principles.2
With the development of civilization and individual diversity, there is less and less area of identical uniformity, and therefore less “equality.” Only robots on the assembly line or blades of grass can be considered as completely equal, as being identical with respect to all of their attributes. The fewer attributes that two organisms have in common, the less they are “equal” and the more they are unequal. Civilized human beings, therefore, are unequal in most of their personalities. This fact of inequality, in tastes, and in ability and character, is not necessarily an invidious distinction. It simply reflects the scope of human diversity.
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. Since abilities and interests are naturally diverse, a drive toward making people equal in all or most respects is necessarily a leveling downward. It is a drive against development of talent, genius, variety, and reasoning power. Since it negates the very principles of human life and human growth, the creed of equality and uniformity is a creed of death and destruction.
There is a sense, however, in which equality among men is sensible and beneficial. Each individual should have the freest possible scope for the development of his faculties and his personality. In order to have this scope, he must have freedom from violence against himself. Violence can only repress and destroy human growth and endeavor, and neither can reason and creativity function under an atmosphere of coercion. If each person has equal defense against violence, this “equality before the law” will permit him to maximize his potentialities.
Since each person is a unique individual, it is clear that the best type of formal instruction is that type which is suited to his own particular individuality. 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. One child is best suited, in interests and ability, for an intensive course in arithmetic three times a week, followed six months later by a similar course in reading; another may require a brief period of several courses; a third may need a lengthy period of instruction in reading, etc. Given the formal, systematic courses of instruction, there is an infinite variety of pace and combination which may be most suitable for each particular child.
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. It is only under such conditions that human potentialities can develop to their greatest degree. It is clear that the formal school, characterized by classes in which one teacher instructs many children, is an immensely inferior system. Since each child differs from the other in interest and ability, and the teacher can only teach one thing at a time, it is evident that every school class must cast all the instruction into one uniform mold. Regardless how the teacher instructs, at what pace, timing, or variety, he is doing violence to each and every one of the children. Any schooling involves misfitting each child into a Procrustean bed of unsuitable uniformity.
What then shall we say of laws imposing compulsory schooling on every child? These laws are endemic in the Western world. In those places where private schools are allowed, they must all meet standards of instruction imposed by the government. Yet the injustice of imposing any standards of instruction should be clear. Some children are duller and should be instructed at a slower pace; the bright children require a rapid pace to develop their faculties. Furthermore, many children are very apt in one subject and very dull in another. They should certainly be permitted to develop themselves in their best subjects and to drop the poor ones. Whatever the standards that the government imposes for instruction, injustice is done to all—to the dullards who cannot absorb any instruction, to those with different sets of aptitudes in different subjects, to the bright children whose minds would like to be off and winging in more advanced courses but who must wait until the dullards are hounded once again. Similarly, any pace that the teacher sets in class wreaks an injustice on almost all; on the dull who cannot keep up, and on the bright who lose interest and precious chances to develop their great potential.
Obviously, the worst injustice is the prevention of parental teaching of their own children. Parental instruction conforms to the ideal arrangement. It is, first of all, individualized instruction, the teacher dealing directly with the unique child, and addressing himself to his capabilities and interests. Second, what people can know the aptitudes and personality of the child better than his own parents? The parents’ daily familiarity with, and love for, their children, renders them uniquely qualified to give the child the formal instruction necessary. Here the child receives individual attention for his own personality. No one is as qualified as the parent to know how much or at what pace he should teach the child, what the child’s requirements are for freedom or guidance, etc.
Almost all parents are qualified to teach their children, particularly in the elementary subjects. Those who are not so qualified in the subjects can hire individual tutors for their children. Tutors may also be hired where the parents do not have the time to devote to the formal instruction of their children. Whether or not they themselves should do the teaching, or which tutor is the best for their child, is best determined under the overall supervision of the parents directly. The parents can determine the progress of the child, the daily effect of the tutor on the child, etc.
In addition to parental instruction and tutorial instruction, the parents can send the children to private schools. This alternative, however, is not as satisfactory because of the necessary lack of individual instruction and individual pacing. There are classes with many children, set times for courses, set grades, etc. The only reason for schools instead of individual instruction is the economic one: that the price of individual tutoring is prohibitive for most parents. Consequently, they must adopt the only practical alternative of mass tutoring, where the teacher instructs many children at the same time. It is clear that such private schools are an inferior solution to individual instruction. Whichever pace the teacher sets, an injustice is done to many of the children. If the State enforces certain “standards” on the private schools, a far worse crime against the children is committed. For if the parents’ selection of instruction is completely free and unhampered by State coercion, they, knowing and loving the child best, will be able to select the best type of instruction that they can afford. If they hire tutors, they will choose the most competent for their child. If they can select any type of private school, they will select that type which is best suited for their child. The advantage of unlimited development of private schools is that there will tend to be developed on the free market a different type of school for each type of demand. Schools will tend to be developed especially for bright children, for average children, and for dull ones, for those with broad aptitudes, and for those for whom it would be best to specialize, etc. But if the State decrees that there may be no schools which do not, for example, teach arithmetic, it would mean that those children who may be bright in other subjects but have little or no aptitude for arithmetic will have to be subjected to needless suffering. The State’s imposition of uniform standards does grave violation to the diversity of human tastes and abilities.
The effect of the State’s compulsory schooling laws is not only to repress the growth of specialized, partly individualized, private schools for the needs of various types of children. It also prevents the education of the child by the people who, in many respects, are best qualified—his parents. The effect is also to force into schools children who have little or no aptitude for instruction at all. It so happens that among the variety of human ability there is a large number of subnormal children, children who are not receptive to instruction, whose reasoning capacity is not too great. To force these children to be exposed to schooling, as the State does almost everywhere, is a criminal offense to their natures. Without the ability to learn systematic subjects, they must either sit and suffer while others learn, or the bright and average students must be held back greatly in their development while these children are pressured to learn. In any case, the instruction has almost no effect on these children, many of whose hours of life are simply wasted because of the State’s decree. If these hours were spent in simple, direct experience which they were better able to absorb, there is no question that they would be healthier children and adults as a result. But to dragoon them into a school for a formative decade of their lives, to force them to attend classes in which they have no interest or ability, is to warp their entire personalities.
Reprinted from Mises.org. Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.
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- For further writings on the topics of biological individuality and psychology see Roger J. Williams, Free and Unequal (1953), and Biochemical Individuality (1956); Gordon W. Allport, Becoming (1955); and Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being (1962).
- George Harris, Inequality and Progress (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1898), pp. 74–75, 88 and passim.