Friday May 24, 2013
The Way of Education
by Christopher Chantrill
Education is an essential travelers aid on the journey from country to city. An old woman living in the Gobi desert nailed it when she told the National Geographic:
I only know eating, drinking, and tending animals. This is what my parents did. Their parents. The young people today, once they leave the [Gobi], they never return. I dont blame them. The life of herding is coming to an end. Work in cities is the future.
The reason the young people of the Gobi dont return is that they all go to boarding school from first to ninth grade, only returning home in the summer. Nine years of boarding school education prepares them for life in the city. So they join the great trek.
Education is also important to the earnest churchgoer in an American sriver suburb. Said Mary Johnston of Rock Hill, South Carolina, to a Washington Post reporter in 2000: I want my children to go to the best schools, first grade through college.
Modern opinion about education assumes a Year Zero some time in the mid-nineteenth century, when the activists for modern universal education began their agitation for free government schools. The time before Year Zero is treated as prehistoric, an embarrassment of Ragged Schools, one-room schoolhouses, Dotheboys Hall and Wackford Squeers, and opportunity denied to the poor. In fact, of course, education has had a long and checkered history over thousands of years. Athens, for instance, had a free market in education, and Sparta had a government monopoly.
In the United States, mass education has been accepted from the earliest days of the colonies and literacy has always been high. In 1787, free male adult literacy was estimated at about 65 percent, and in the census of 1850 literacy was reported as 90 percent. In colonial times, education was supported with a mixture of private and public funding. In smaller towns, district schools financed by public and private funds were common. Some poorer children got to attend for free, but most parents paid fees for their children to attend.
In England literacy was not as widespread as in the United States, for the rulers preferred that the lower orders remained illiterate. However, according to E.G. West, literacy increased steadily from the beginning of the nineteenth century as the lower orders sought out education for their children in defiance of their rulers. In 1813 James Mill (father of John Stuart Mill) wrote of the rapid progress which the love of education is making among the lower orders in England. He noted that
There is hardly a village that has not something of a school; and not many children of either sex who are not taught more or less, reading and writing. We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.
Henry Brougham conducted surveys of schools in 1820 and 1828, and found that the numbers in schools had doubled in one decade. Literacy in England increased steadily until government education was legislated in 1870.
Schools exist to teach children things that their parents cant teach them. For the peasant, school gives his children a chance to make it in the city. For the illiterate costermonger in Victorian London, it gives his sons the chance to move off the street and sell something that needs a bit of book-learning and bookkeeping. For the earnest churchgoer in an American striver suburb it gives her children the chance to join the professional classes in the big city for whom life is not a grim struggle but a creative adventure, not meat-and-potatoes but nouvelle cuisine. Education, then, is all about embourgeoisment, the making of a citizen, one who lives and works in the city.
It seems that everyone in the modern era, from the lower orders of industrial Britain to the illiterate grandmother in the Gobi desert, understands the value of education for their children. It is curious that we should have developed a system of educational compulsion that treats every parent as a feckless ignoramus that must be dragooned into sending their children to school and compelled through taxation to pay for it. It isnt as though there is a free-rider problem in education. Parents everywhere want their children to thrive and will sacrifice for them.
Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.