Private Schools Increase Political Knowledge and Reduce the Danger of Political Indoctrination

Allison Benedikt’s Slate essay arguing that if you send your kids to private school you are a “bad person” who is undermining the “common good” has drawn many responses. Art Carden, Kevin Grier, Kevin White, and Megan McArdle have pointed out most of the flaws in her logic.

But both Benedikt and her critics have overlooked one important way in which private schools actually contribute to the common good. One of the most important rationales for public schooling is the need for an informed electorate. Public schools are supposed to teach our kids about government, history, and public policy, so that they will grow up to be informed voters. Unfortunately, as I discuss in my book on political ignorance, political knowledge levels have stagnated at fairly low levels for decades, despite massive increases in funding for public education. Many studies show extensive ignorance about politics and history among recent high school graduates. This is unlikely to be accidental and also unlikely to change, even if all current private school students start attending public schools, as Benedikt would have them do.

On the other hand, as I discuss in Chapter 7 of the book, the evidence suggests that political knowledge is higher among students who attend private schools, even after controlling for various demographic variables such as race and family income. I’m not suggesting that private schools necessarily do a great job of teaching history and civics. But they are, on average, doing a better one than government-run schools. Sending all students to public school would further exacerbate the already severe problem of political ignorance.

The elimination of private schools would also increase the power of government to use public education for indoctrination. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty, “A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the dominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, an aristocracy, or a majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind…”

Public schools were initially established in the 19th century in large part precisely because they could be used to indoctrinate students in doctrines that “please . . . the dominant power in the government.” In Europe, many governments used them to promote nationalism. In the United States, the objective was often to enforce cultural homogeneity on immigrants and strengthen Protestantism at the expense of Catholicism. Indoctrination continues to be an important aspect of public education today. Think of conservative jurisdictions that try to use it to promote creationism and homophobia, and liberal ones that indoctrinate students to support government regulation and “political correctness.”

In the United States, the tendency identified by Mill is partially mitigated by the fact that public schools are mostly controlled by state and local governments, which vary in ideology. Nonetheless, most such governments are controlled by national political parties that often reflect national ideological tendencies. And the federal government has exercised increasing influence over public school curricula over the last several decades.

Private schools – including religious sectarian ones – play a valuable role in providing a counterweight to the indoctrination prevalent in public schools. Obviously, some private schools indoctrinate students in dubious ideologies of their own. But to the extent that their ideologies are in some ways different from the ones promoted by state and federal governments, they help maintain ideological diversity and make it more difficult for the government to “mould” the next generation into the conformity that Mill feared. Some degree of indoctrination of students is likely inevitable, regardless of what kind of schools they attend. The danger posed by state domination of education is that everyone will be indoctrinated into the same ideology (or at least the same relatively narrow range of ideologies), thereby making opposition to “the dominant power in government” far more difficult.

Since some 90% of American K-12 students already attend public schools, people concerned about the important public goods of political knowledge and ideological diversity should be looking to expand private education rather than get rid of it.

UPDATE: As I discuss in some detail in the book, the government’s incentive to use public schooling for indoctrination complicates efforts to reform education so as to increase students’political knowledge. In many cases, increasing knowledge could end up undermining the message the government seeks to inculcate, or at least lead students to give greater consideration to opposing viewpoints. For that reason, increasing knowledge often goes against the interests of what Mill refers to as “the dominant power in the government.” This might not matter if we had a well-informed electorate that closely monitored education policy and rewarded elected officials who use public schools to increase knowledge, while punishing those who emphasize indoctrination instead. But if the electorate were that knowledgeable, we wouldn’t have widespread political ignorance in the first place. Ironically, political ignorance created in part by flawed public education undercuts attempts to use public education to increase political knowledge among the young.