[September 20, 2002]

Capitalist Principles Would Cure Education Woes

By Wayne Dunn

Tennessean columnist Tim Chavez asserts that Metro-Nashville schools need a dose of self-effacing honesty. He dreams of some "courageous" official confessing that the system doesn't "properly educate every child."

And what exactly does Chavez believe this "revelation" might unearth? The "needs of the poor," a "lack of resources," the "deterioration of the family," and the like. These public school concerns are to be ameliorated, he posits, by gathering and disseminating more "data" and "specifics."

This approach to problem-solving is folly.

What's required is not a narrowing of focus, but rather a broadening. In other words, one must think in terms of fundamental principles rather than overwhelming oneself with reams of, often contradictory, anecdotes, minutiae, statistics and particulars.

Armed with the proper, principled approach, one would start by questioning the underlying assumptions regarding how education is delivered and who's doing (or, more accurately, failing to do) the delivering. In short, one should begin by testing one's premises.

With that in mind, consider this illustration.

Imagine if a hundred years ago the government had declared itself exclusive provider of shoes¾ on the grounds, say, that shoes are an important need that the state therefore has a duty to fulfill. So, the Department of Footwear undertakes to clad your great-grandfather's tootsies, then your grandfather's, father's, and now, a century later, yours and your children's.

That the production and distribution of shoes should be the responsibility of government would have decades earlier become the unchallenged and unchallengeable premise of virtually everyone. Few would consider otherwise.

Of course, the public shoe system would forever be in crisis. Quality would be substandard, shortages common, service poor. And, every few years, politicians would promise change. Candidates interested in currying favor with female voters might pledge to boost high heel production; those stomping for blue-collar votes might propose a new idea called "steel-toed boots"--if only congress would jack up the budget 10%.

But despite reforms the situation could only deteriorate. Angry citizens in town hall meetings would display blistered heels. Liberals vying for higher taxes would cry, "It's for the children's feet!" Conservatives claiming that America's footwear woes are punishment for "booting God out of the shoe factory" would advise posting the Ten Commandments. And journalists would write columns calling for more data, more specifics¾ more collective sacrifice.

"Sensible" debate would be confined to such concrete issues as: how much more money the Metro Shoe System needs, whether or not the state could afford sandals, what percentage to thicken soles or lengthen strings, and so forth.

Now, in the midst of all these particularizing mentalities, imagine some "radical" makes the following observation: "Market forces succeed in supplying us with shirts, pants, cars, radios, computers, cell phones, and a plethora of other goods and services, in all different shapes, sizes and price-ranges. Why not simply get the government out of the shoe business and let private enterprise take over?"

Undoubtedly, this proposal would be dismissed instantly, indignantly: "Why, whoever heard of turning the future of our children's feet over to profit-hounds? Do you want only the rich to have shoes, while the poor go barefoot?"

You get the point.

Fundamental problems require fundamental solutions-which can only be derived by thinking in fundamental principles. And that's precisely what's absent from discussions on education.

America can have an unsurpassed education system if two things happen: 1) if it's taken out of the incompetent hands of government and 2) if reasoning skills once again become predominant in the culture. Unfortunately, if people lack the second it's hard to sell them on the first.

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© COPYRIGHT 2002 by Wayne Dunn