“The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.” (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, CXXII)
A number of key Bahá’í principles relate to education. Bahá’u’lláh made the independent investigation of reality and truth a primary article of His faith. He further says the acquisition of knowledge “is incumbent upon all”. This, obviously, requires a person to have the skills to acquire knowledge through independent investigation. Hence, universal education is a foundational principle of the Bahá’í Faith. Bahá’u’lláh instructs the community-level administrative bodies of His Faith (Local Spiritual Assemblies) to provide for the education of children if parents are unable to do so.
Besides being the force that can bring the gems of human virtue to the surface, education is the key to success in almost any endeavor, which is why so many Bahá’í social and economic development projects begin with education and literacy.
Bahá’ís share this regard for the importance of education with the founding fathers of the American republic. John Adams wrote, for example, that
“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.” (John Adams to John Jebb, 10 Sep. 1785)
I was understandably surprised (to put it mildly) to stumble across this headline in the blog of an Ohio state official: Public education in America is socialism, what is the solution? The article was topped by a large, red Soviet hammer and sickle.
I just love to take things apart and put them back together, so I’m going to do that with this headline. It posits that 1) Public education is socialism, 2) that this is a problem that needs to be solved, and 3) that this form of socialism is to be associated with Soviet Communism.
I’m skeptical of all of these points (though the American founding ideal of a government of, by and for the people may be more truly socialistic than the Soviet version), but this last item is particularly odd because Mr. Brenner notes in the article that “our public education system is already a socialist system, and has been a socialist system since the founding of our country.”
In other words, this quintessentially American form of “socialism”, with its regard for universal education and an informed electorate, predates Soviet Communism (which it fails to resemble) by several centuries. This begs the question as to why the accompanying image was the Soviet hammer and sickle and not the Liberty Bell, but I think I know the answer to that one: the Liberty Bell is not nearly as scary.
Let’s dig deeper into the article: The blogger proposes that we dismantle our system of universal education and let the free market shape the educational system by allowing parents to buy the best education they can afford. Though the reference is vague, he seems to suggest that where parents do not have the funds to purchase a good education, “the tax dollars will follow the student to whichever school they choose”. I find this interesting, because the model he proposes is no less socialistic than the public school system as it exists. Having the tax dollars follow the student in the form of scholarships or tax rebates or even vouchers is still a redistribution of wealth, which is one of the presumed features of socialism that draws the most skepticism in a capitalist society.
All that aside, Mr. Brenner makes a claim that I find stunning and which cuts to the heart of the Bahá’í ideal of truly universal education. He says that in a free market system “successful” schools will thrive, and “unsuccessful” ones will simply die off. He asks, in all seriousness:
“The free-market system works for cars, furniture, housing, restaurants, and to a lesser degree higher education, so why can’t it work for our primary education system?” (Andrew Brenner, Brenner Briefs)
Where do I start? First, there are many ways a school can fail. Let’s consider two.
- It can fail economically.
- It can fail academically—or more broadly, it can fail to educate.
A school that teaches state-of-the-art science would seem, at first glance, a school that would succeed. I think we must be realistic in acknowledging that that would depend entirely on what part of our vast nation it is in. Such a school—regardless of its academic excellence—would fail in some parts of the country because the parents of the children in that school do not want their children to learn state-of-the-art science. If the parents don’t like that school’s curriculum, they will withdraw their children and financial support and the school will die, despite its academic excellence.
Conversely, these same parents might send their children and tax dollars to a school whose academics are poor, but whose worldview they are comfortable with. So, while the school would thrive financially because parents that support its curriculum would pay for it to thrive, it would fail to educate. Those who will chiefly suffer because of this, of course, are the children who—when they go out into the world to forge careers or just get jobs, will find themselves disadvantaged by their education.
Finally, I’d like to follow Mr. Brenner’s suggestion above and look at how free enterprise treats certain elements of society now. Education is intellectual food; let’s look at physical food. Right now, the free market has created circumstances in a great many communities—both urban and rural—in which inhabitants find it difficult to get healthy food. While there are few grocery markets, there’s a 7/11 or liquor store on every corner but one, and a Micky D’s on that. The affordable food is junk. If you’ve ever wondered why so many poor people are obese, this is a chief contributor. It’s not how much they eat, it’s what they eat. These are called food deserts and they exist because commercial enterprises do not want to put their markets or restaurants, or other businesses in poor neighborhoods where crime is rampant and profits are not.
Even with the ‘socialized’ system we now have, there are education deserts in these same areas. Schools already find it difficult to find teachers willing to work there or to afford state-of-the-art educational resources. By what miracle does Mr. Brenner propose that the education deserts we already have in poor areas will not get much worse if the attraction for commercial schools is entirely monetary?
The education of our society’s members is too important a subject to leave to the vagaries of the marketplace. Knowledge is not a commodity, it is food for thought.