One of the reasons our public discourse is often centered on personalities and meaningless traits of candidates for office can be traced directly to the large scale deterioration in the quality of education the vast majority of our students receive. Most of us have simply becoming comfortable with the thought of Americans receiving a sub-par public education, knowing full well hefty numbers are content to coast through with minimal expenditure of effort. Even as our annual test results sound alarm bells annually regarding our standing among other industrialized nations, parents and taxpayers are willing to shrug it off under the assumption that kids in the rest of the country are getting the same abysmal education that their child is. This in and of itself serves as an indictment of federal control over schooling.
The maddeningly mediocre standardized scores of students in math and science have been well documented: that this is a problem in need of addressing has been the crux of countless articles and boilerplate speeches. We do not need to be bombarded with more hand wringing over this issue; rehashing the inequities of our nation’s current public school system is a topic that has been repeatedly flogged to the point where the bulk of us are immune to further opining. Solving the problems of subpar math and science scores is something worth examining, but this piece will focus instead on an aspect of education that, though discussed far less, carries with it potentially crippling consequences for a responsible republic.
What receives far less attention is the disheartening state of civics, history, and economics instruction in our high schools and universities. Whether in the context of public or private institutions (though one could postulate which form of education, by and large, imparts the most enlightenment to students with regard to these subjects), the vast majority of U.S. students graduate and enter the work force or college with a tangibly inadequate grasp of the traditions and schools of thought that make America distinctly American. Since high schoolers who are eligible to vote during their senior year lack exposure to the components that guarantee American liberty, we should almost thankful that their voting patterns are what they are.
The widespread lack of awareness regarding the principles of freedom in our school curriculum is a virus effecting even the most politically active among us. The bulk of our high school graduates’ history diet has consisted of what economist Thomas Woods facetiously refers to as the “Official Version of History”, meaning they are only exposed to what has been previously approved by the government’s court historians and stenographers. Essentially, they are determined to strip American history down to a few overly simplistic talking points. ‘If it cannot be neatly summed up in a span of three sentences, then it must not be relevant’ is the mindset these registrars of history want our students to leave school possessing.
If you still own it, flip open your high school (or junior high) text book to confirm this conundrum. Without fail, it will read something along the lines of: The Civil War was solely fought by the Abraham Lincoln against those godless, heathen Southerners under the evil, swastika-equivalent Confederate flag. The FDR rescued us from the Great Depression, and oh, by the way, some C list actor was President during the greed-soaked 1980s. Admittedly these are exaggerated characterizations, but they to some degree reflect the broad brush strokes our text book history is painted in. Almost no discussion is allotted to the robust debates that surrounded the states’ rights arguments of the South, the chartering of the Federal Reserve system, or the enshrinement of the income tax into our daily lives. Any dissent from the conventional commentary is tossed out as illegitimate. Praise is meted out to the strong armed Presidents who, curiously enough, always presided in office during wartime. Why the Commander-in-Chiefs whose patient diplomacy saved our country from bloodshed are never given their due is a curious fact that cannot escape the notice of the most casual of observers.
But the underlying issue persists: we are given a one sided view of history, a sketch hashed out by men and women universally statist in their orientation. This simply means that their first reflex is to defend the actions of the State (the government in Washington) and downplay the contributions of those in the private sector (a.k.a. individuals who work and create things for a living.) Considering most of these text book authors are themselves die-hard Democrats who speak of FDR only in reverent terms, they are occasionally willing to question the actions of Republican presidents. This is a fact many conservatives often point out, though one might wonder how things would unfold if the shoe was on the other foot and the actions of Republican actions were the ones beyond reproach. But overall, the crude philosophy behind these authors is one which says the rubes working 50 hours a week in flyover country need the sages in Washington to guide the long term course of their economic well-being.
When times of crisis arrived, according to our inerrant textbooks, blames should never be heaped on Congress or the White House, while the worst of scorn is to be reserved for the so-called greed of those in the private sector. So the scenario is set; we receive our college diploma instilled with the notion that the government in D.C. should be the unquestioned focal point of power. It is through this clouded lens that our erroneous focus on politics stems, causing our first instinct on policy issues both economic and social to inevitably be a rush to Washington so our point of view can receive a hearing. After all, we are taught, this is where the power lies; not in our state legislatures, city councils, or family units as the Founders intended. No, it rests with the all powerful bureaucracy situated in the District of Columbia. And it is a vicious cycle, as the teachers schooled in this Washington-centric thought are the very ones imparting misguided knowledge to our next generation.
This spiral contributes to a nation of graduates taught that every problem of societal import should be factored into their vote for U.S. Congress or the Presidency. Even elected officials who are familiar with the precepts of federalism are willing to discard them; this makes sense from the standpoint of sheer survival. Considering 51% or more their constituents long ago did the same, it would be foolish to exert energy to do away with the federal giveaways never authorized by the Constitution. ‘If the constituents are unaware of this, why bother explaining it’ is the logic followed by many seeking higher office. Why lay out these concepts in a thoughtful manner when focusing on esoteric side issues of your opponent’s personal life is the simplest route to punching your ticket for fancy titles? A distracted electorate willing to formulate its philosophy from ten second sound bites has little interest in following genuine policy debates; this all has as its root problem our lack of formal schooling in these matters.
It is only the natural course of things for a nation that gets at best a cursory lesson on these matters from their teachers and professors. If things like trade and monetary policy received little to no focus during our formative years, why should we take precious time to learn about it now? Focusing on electing the “first this” ,“first that”, or the height and weight of a candidate takes precedence in society where weighty ideas are watered down or completely skimmed over during election season. Sure, issues like “education” and “health care” might be relayed to exit pollsters as an explanation for why one voted for a particular party, but this just further underscores our inherent dilemma. Most of the “issues” named as reasons for voting one way or the other are not even within the federal government’s domain to begin with, making one wonder if the majority of American voters are even familiar with the duties those they are voting for are to carry out. Saying the president’s job is to “run the economy” is a frightening answer commonly given to the inquiry of just what it is that a president actually does. Giving someone a job which infers tremendous powers without clarity on the profession’s description is a dangerous way to run the affairs of a business, much more so the affairs of an entire country.
That we have been engaged in such a practice for several generations should make our current problems less of a shock. This leaves the door ajar for politicians to prey on voter prejudice and angst, since solving shortcomings in society and voting for federal office are now seen as one in the same. That this was never the intention of our Founders has never been relayed to scores of voters flocking to the booth every two to four years.
Come to think of it, how many of us were at least made familiar with the theories of men like Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Friedrich Hayek prior to college (if we even so much as learned their names). This author can state with confidence that he did not know the free market theories of these bright and influential men until a good while after high school graduation. Only in lower level college economic courses is the name of a man responsible for shaping much of our economic thought usually first spoken of, with this being only a quick mention of John Maynard Keynes. How do we expect to have a citizenry ready to wrestle with the tough issues of fiscal and monetary policy when they are not even presented with evidence with which to formulate an opinion? Even if the theories of Marx and Engells are placed on equal footing with those of Schumpeter and Hernando de Soto, we will be made all the better for having had the debate during our schooling. But the only mention of economics that meets our ears prior to entry into college are vague concepts which always mirror the big government approach espoused by Keynesians. A man’s theories that have been largely disproven by events in the real world are taken as gospel by the vast majority of academia; one could hardly expect the generic high school teacher to take on such established orthodoxy, especially one given an aura of invincibility by its adherents in collegiate economic departments (with George Mason, Chicago University, and Grove City College being notable outliers.) Since such a lack of focus is placed on monetary policy, it is no surprise that institutions like the Federal Reserve are never part of our public discussions when presidential election season rolls around. Tinkering with the tax rate by several percentage points is taken as the boldest action a candidate can propose. Though this is highly important, the other side of the coin, which is how loose we are going to be with interest rates and the creation of our currency, is a Grand Canyon-sized deficiency in our dialogue. Devoid of debate over many of the matters that will truly impact America’s economic wellbeing, we continue to replace one politician with another, all the time wondering why we continue to see things deteriorate and our position in the world erode. Perhaps at some point a critical mass of the public will begin demanding that the panderers pandering for our votes will talk about things which truly make a difference, such as where our money comes from and why it is constantly losing value. Many of our elders will lament that “back in their day, product X or Y cost (insert shockingly far lower price here)”, but rarely do we stop and ponder if this is inevitable or if something else is at work. Show me a legitimate candidate for president that actually tries to tackle the complexity of central banking and endorses some form of a gold standard, and I will show you a candidate who is now certifiably illegitimate. And this, like the scant attention paid to history in our high school years, can be traced directly back to the failings of our educational system.
An invaluable benefit would be granted to American society if we had some thoughtful lessons on monetary policy and price inflation for our children during the time they spent in class. Even a class on budgeting in junior high or high school would be welcome sight. Who knows, maybe some heroic school teachers are taking time to educate their students on these matters, but by and large its surface is left unscratched in legions of school districts. We must hope for the sake of a sound currency and lack of societal chaos down the road that this widespread trend will soon reverse itself.
In conclusion, we must take responsibility ourselves to ensure that an expanded teaching of history is once again a part of our student’s educational experience. Private and home schools will likely be the place where this movement initially takes root, considering there is more flexibility allowed in these environments than in government run monopolies masquerading under the title of public schools. But fostering an appreciation for the workings of constitutional government and the philosophical groundwork behind it can help to slowly stop the ebb of statism corroding our country’s institutions and prestige. We do not need to shy away from presenting both sides of an economic argument, as those of us with an unshakable commitment to free markets will naturally understand that, free from government interference, the stronger argument will win out. Recalibrating and reinforcing our views on government will cause them to eventually find a home in public school classrooms, though this will be viewed with scorn by many officials in the education hierarchy uncomfortable with the language of liberty. One could almost picture it now: ‘Wow, we can’t have our children’s minds cluttered by men like Adam Smith and Walter Williams!’ a tenured official might exclaim, their disdain simply masking unfamiliarity with economic matters. But a citizenry that can unflinchingly explain their views will no doubt influence the debate to the point where the lines of demarcation they draw on such matters will slowly make their presence known in the government schools. Only at this point will a coherent discussion ensue in our political conversations. Until then, we will continue to be ensnared in navel gazing and incessant sniping over trivial matters, all the while guaranteeing a demise that before long becomes all but inevitable.