Tag Archives: knowledge

A Libertarian Philosophy of Education

          Most libertarian discussions on education focus on promoting private schools. Advocates for private schools do not go far enough. They assume that a system of private education would be consistent with libertarian principles. However, private schools can be as oppressive or even more oppressive than government schools. Private funding does not necessarily result in schools that respect the personal sovereignty and individuality of each student. Libertarians need to promote libertarian principles for all schools.

The foundation for a libertarian education requires recognition of both personal sovereignty and individuality. A sovereign individual is a free agent engaged in self-determination. Free agents set their own goals and choose the means to achieve those goals. Further, a community of unique individuals represents a diversity of goals and of methods for reaching those goals. The only limits libertarians should accept on personal goals and the means used to achieve them would be prohibition of the use of coercion or force to prevent the exercise of personal sovereignty by another. The purpose of education is to help an individual acquire knowledge and develop skills. This is a noble objective, but it does not justify the use of coercion or force in its pursuit. The choice to seek an education and the nature of that education is a matter of personal sovereignty.

The education of children raises an important question about personal sovereignty, what is the extent of personal sovereignty possessed by a child? In principle, no difference exists between the degree of personal sovereignty possessed by a child and an adult. Practically speaking, however, dependence on adults limits a child’s sovereignty. Childhood dependence implies a degree of immaturity and a limited capacity to employ reason in making choices. Thus, a parent or parent surrogate has a right to be involved in the educational choices of a child. However, there remains a question about the nature of that involvement.

Parents or others can attempt to influence educational choices by a child in several ways. One can use force, threat or intimidation, or use contrived incentives to influence a child’s educational choices. Finally, one can use persuasion to influence a child’s educational choices. Clearly, the first two options are coercive and inconsistent with libertarian principles. Albeit more subtle, the third and fourth methods are also coercive. The use of contrived incentives or deception to influence a child’s choices is an effort to manipulate the child and therefore represents a soft form of coercion. The final method, persuasion, may be the only method that is consistent with libertarian principles. Persuasion, properly conducted, appeals to the reason of a child. Successful persuasion convinces a child of the correctness of a particular choice. Persuasion is not coercive but educational and contributes to the development of a child’s reasoning ability. Teachers function as surrogate parents. Thus, a persuasion-based approach to education should also extend to teachers. A teacher can best exercise persuasion through a cooperative alliance* with a student. In such an alliance, a student’s participation and cooperation in the educational process is essential. The only way that a cooperative alliance can be formed is for a teacher to develop a positive, supportive and therefore a personal relationship with a child.

Thus, education should be a persuasion-based process that is consistent with personal sovereignty and free choice. The most obvious educational practice that is contrary to this view is compulsory education. Compulsory education, whether imposed by law or parental fiat, should be the first target of libertarian efforts to reform education. Libertarians should focus on the repeal of compulsory attendance laws and promote the principle of persuasion as the basis for education. Compulsory school attendance and the authoritarian atmosphere it promotes often leads students to engage in counter control behavior. Counter control is behavior intended to neutralize or overcome external efforts to manipulate a person. Counter control in students can lead to withdrawal from participation, disruptive behavior, vandalism, truancy and dropping out. In short, it produces many of the maladies that affect schools.

The second foundation for a libertarian education is individuality. Individuality is a natural product of diversity. First, people are biologically diverse. Biological diversity produces a range of abilities and predispositions that are highly variable at the individual level. Thus, part of our individuality is a natural consequence of our complex genetic heritage. Second, people exhibit cultural or social diversity. Different cultures have adopted a variety of values, goals and means. Biological diversity interacts with cultural diversity to produce a complex bio-social individuality. The only limitation a libertarian education should accept on the expression of individuality is on the use of coercion or force to prevent the exercise of personal sovereignty by another individual.

A pervasive focus in education that disregards the individuality of children is a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Obviously, given biological and cultural diversity, schools can offer no single, best curriculum for all students. An educational program guided by libertarian principles requires a diverse curriculum that reflects the biological and social diversity of a student body. Such a curriculum needs to be diverse in both content and teaching methods to maximize choice. When schools maximize choice, a child’s natural interest can be engaged. An education program that respects a child’s individuality promotes personal responsibility and self-determination. A sufficiently diverse curriculum would not need to use coercion or bribery to motivate students. Thus, a second focus of libertarian efforts at educational reform should be directed at promoting recognition of individuality and its implications for educational programming.

One can apply the principles of a libertarian education to home schools, non-profit private schools, for profit private schools or to government schools. The principles may be easier to implement for some schools than others, but the principles are appropriate for them all. Libertarians who are interested in educational reform should promote adoption of libertarian principles in education. Adoption of such principles has the potential to transform both government and private schools.

A Brief Comment on Paradigms

          Paradigms are conceptual models that serve an umbrella function for theories in diverse areas of study. For example, the current paradigm in science (see What is Science?) is scientific materialism. This paradigm serves an umbrella function for theories about such things as physical process, biological processes and behavioral process. This paradigm has its origins in the scientific revolution inspired by the scientific thinking of Nicolaus Copernicus in the sixteenth century and Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century. Scientific materialism as a paradigm assumes that everything is comprised of physical particles (principle of physicalism; i.e., the root assumption of the paradigm) governed by cause and effect relationships (principle of causal determinism), that change is continuous (principle of continuity), that phenomena occur within a finite space and over finite periods of time (principle of locality), that phenomena have objective existence independent of observation (principle of strong objectivity) and can be understood through reducing phenomena to their essential components (the principle of reductionism), which implies that phenomena are assembled from the bottom up, piece by piece. All theories falling under the umbrella share these basic assumptions. See Goswami’s Quantum Philosophy (Part I) and Goswami’s Philosophical Alternative for more detail.

One tenet of science as a methodology is that it holds to certain principles about the nature of knowledge. One of these principles is that our knowledge consists of models of reality and are not elucidations of reality itself. In other words, what we know is always considered to be an approximation never truth. Another principle is that what we know is held as tentatively valid until shown otherwise. How we know is through creating explanations for what appear to be related observations or facts about phenomena in the world. These explanations (a.k.a. theories) are then used to derive hypotheses that can be experimentally tested. Successful tests of hypotheses derived from theory increase the confidence that we can have in the explanation or theory. Confirmation of an hypothesis is sometimes possible by successful prediction of an outcome, such as the prediction of planetary motion based on a theoretical model or explanation of the forces governing such motion. In other and more confounded cases, confirmation of an hypothesis is sought through statistical testing in which a conclusion is reached based on probability calculations. The typical standard in such cases is a p. <= .05, which means the observed result would be expected by chance only 5 times in 100 or 1 time in 20. Standards such as this can, of course, result in some false positives but is considered an acceptable error rate for theory testing (see “What is Science?“)

The flaw in this system is that a paradigm can come to be so central to the scientific process that it begins to be viewed as Truth. Once this happens its assumptions acquire the status of dogma. When this occurs, theories subsumed by the paradigm become inoculated against accepting results that are contrary to dogma, which also means contrary to theory or theories grounded in the paradigm. Once this happens, science has become scientism. It appears that contemporary science is grappling with the problem of scientism. With the advent of quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century the basic assumptions of scientific materialism were challenged. Experimental evidence refutes or strongly questions the validity of the principles or assumptions of scientific materialism enumerated above. Resistance to this challenge has been evident in a variety of fields that have simply ignored the challenges and continued to act as if nothing had changed. This is especially true in the cases of biological and behavioral sciences. Many physical sciences have found ignoring the shifting paradigm more difficult. However, even in the physical sciences the tendency has been to attempt to limit the shift to effects occurring at the micro level and preserve the paradigm at the macro level. Unfortunately, experimental evidence is accumulating that demonstrates quantum effects can also be detected at and thus have effects at the macro level.

Another source of challenge to scientific materialism that became evident during the twentieth century was the results from psi experiments (e.g., see Spirituality and Religion). One early body of experimentation was that done by J.B. Rhine at Duke University. Rhine produced evidence that certainly should have caused some serious questioning of the adequacy of scientific materialism, he and his results were widely rationalized away because they were inconsistent with the prevailing paradigm suggesting that the assumptions of the paradigm had become dogma. Later in the twentieth century a large body of research was accumulated under the leadership of Robert Jahn at Princeton University in its engineering anomalies laboratory. This work too was rationalized away to maintain the integrity of the paradigm or if you prefer to preserve the dogma of scientism. In both cases, the correct scientific response should have been intense investigation rather than out-of-hand dismissal.

There are of course researchers that continue to pursue investigation into these challenges to scientific materialism (e.g., see Society for Scientific Exploration). A large group of open minded investigators have formed an organization (Academy for the Advancement of Post-materialist Science) dedicated to finding a new and better paradigm. Whether or not a new paradigm is justified, careful investigation of challenges should be applauded, not ridiculed as is often the case from those wedded to scientism.