Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Teacher, Leave Them Kids Alone

A case against public education.

(Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

In a thought-provoking essay from his 1995 masterpiece, The Revolt of the Elites, the iconoclastic left-populist Christopher Lasch contrasted the dueling visions of education articulated in the 1830s by the education reformer Horace Mann and the New England transcendentalist (later, Catholic) Orestes Brownson. Mann, Lasch explained, had argued that without the establishment of a system of non-denominational public schools to educate the masses, the nation was in danger of devolving into an unequal plutocracy in which an educated upper crust lord over the unwashed multitude. Mann’s vision was adopted, and yet—the centerpiece of Lasch’s essay is this irony—the very thing the institution of a system of free, universal public schooling was meant to avert came to pass nonetheless: We live today in a polity ruled by a class of “educated” elites, in which the vast majority of the populace feels unrepresented and excluded from power. What went wrong?

This is where Orestes Brownson comes in. An extended quote from Lasch’s essay captures the essence of Brownson’s argument:


He pointed out that Horace Mann’s educational reforms, far from democratizing intelligence, would create a modern form of priesthood by setting up an educational establishment empowered to impose the ‘opinions now dominant’ on the common schools. “We may as well have a religion established by law,” Brownson maintained, “as a system of education” that would serve, like all priestly hierarchies, merely as the “most effectual means possible of checking pauperism and crime, and making the rich secure in their possessions.” The “old priestly office” having been “abolished,” Mann and his allies aimed to revive it, in effect, by promoting the school at the expense of the press, the lyceum, and other agencies of popular education. By giving the school system exclusive control over education, Mann’s reforms encouraged a division of cultural labor that would weaken the people’s capacity to educate themselves. The teaching function would be concentrated in a class of professional specialists, whereas it ought to be diffused throughout the whole community. An educational establishment was just as dangerous as a priestly or military establishment. Its advocates had forgotten that children were best “educated in the streets, by the influence of their associates, … by the passions and affections they see manifested, the conversations to which they listen, and above all by the general pursuits, habits, and moral tone of the community.”

Had I read these words upon their publication in the mid-1990s, I imagine that I, along with many others, would have found them cogent but rather idealistic, and perhaps even histrionic. Today, I think they pierce to the very heart of the matter. An unrepresentative class of professional educators is hard at work indoctrinating children in: transgender ideology; critical race theory-derived takes on race relations and historical events; an all-around critical and deflationary approach to American history; second-rate literary works selected for having checked appropriate identity boxes, replacing time-tested canonical classics in literary curricula; and social justice-infused math and science. Parents who had formerly thought nothing of entrusting the education of their kids to the State are suddenly finding themselves with no viable alternative but to take up arms against this politicized educational apparatus.

Before returning to these goings-on, let us step back and unpack Brownson’s claims. At least two of this maverick thinker’s brief essays, “The Laboring Classes” (1840) and “Decentralization: Alternative to Bureaucracy?” (1839), should be, I believe, considered essential reading for high schoolers. In “The Laboring Classes,” Brownson takes up the plight of the working poor, in the process eviscerating the contemporary shibboleth (undergirding much contemporary left-wing ideology and blather about slavery reparations) that Southern slaves were the worst-off demographic in America. While making his condemnation of slavery crystal-clear, drawing on both economic data and reasoned argument, Brownson suggests that some of the “free” proletariat in fact had a more burdensome lot in life than many slaves, with only an illusion of freedom in their hunger and homelessness. Most relevant to our purpose here, however, is Brownson’s diagnosis of this problem’s etiology: the establishment of the Brahmin class.

Faced with frightening or inexplicable natural phenomena or challenging life circumstances, we “go to the wise-man for explanation,” he explains. Receiving apt assurance, we confer honors upon this personage, and others, witnessing such treatment, react with envy and aspire to join the ranks of the exalted:

Once the class has become somewhat numerous, it labors to secure to itself the distinction it has received, its honors and its emoluments, and to increase them. Hence the establishment of priesthoods or sacerdotal corporations, such as the Egyptian, the Braminical, the Ethiopian, the Jewish, the Scandinavian, the Druidical, the Mexican, and Peruvian…. Now if we glance over the history of the world, we shall find, that at the epoch of coming out of the savage state, these corporations are universally instituted…. The real idea at the bottom of these institutions, is the control of individual freedom by moral laws, the assertion of the supremacy of moral power over physical force,—a great truth…which at this epoch can only enslave the mass of the people to its professed representatives, the priests.


While “The Laboring Classes” takes aim primarily at the manner in which this priesthood subjugates the populace in the material realm, Brownson’s “Decentralization” essay tackles the same subject in the domain of education, an argument still more impressive because in Brownson’s day, the universalization, professionalization, and bureaucratization of education that are so familiar to us had not yet taken hold. He was, rather, prognosticating, warning about the likely outcome were the system of public schools advocated by Horace Mann to be instituted.

Mann’s view, as Lasch summarizes it, was that “education could take place only in institutions deliberately contrived for that purpose, in which children were exposed exclusively to knowledge professional educators considered appropriate.” This approach, observes Lasch, “has been the guiding principle of American education ever since.” Brownson takes exception to the idea, arguing that it is fundamentally un-American:

A government system of education in Prussia is not inconsistent with the theory of Prussian society, for there all wisdom is supposed to be lodged in the government. But the thing is wholly inadmissible here…. Here the people do not look to the government for light, for instruction, but the government looks to the people…. To entrust, then, the government with the power of determining the education which our children shall receive is entrusting our servant with the power to be our master…. Government is not in this country, and cannot be, the educator of the people. In education, as in religion, we must rely mainly on the voluntary system. If this be an evil, it is an evil inseparable from our form of government. Government here must be restricted to material interests and forbidden to concern itself with what belongs to the spiritual culture of the community. It has no right of control over our opinions: literary, moral, political, philosophical, or religious. Its province is to reflect, not to lead, nor to create the general will.

For many of us today, sending our kids to public school is simply what we do, an unquestioned and common practice, and it is difficult to conceive of a system in which such schools do not exist and are not the default option. When our thoughts, moreover, stray in any such direction, what we likely imagine is some uneasy combination of private and parochial schools, tutors, and homeschooling. There is a place for all of these. But Brownson’s vision is still broader:

Educated, in some sense, all our children are, and will be, whether we will or not. Education, such as it is, is ever going on. Our children are educated in the streets, by the influence of their associates, in the fields and on the hillsides, by the influences of surrounding scenery and overshadowing skies, in the bosom of the family, by the love and gentleness or wrath and fretfulness of parents, by the passions or affections they see manifested, the conversations to which they listen, and above all by the general pursuits, habits, and moral tone of the community. In all these are schoolrooms and schoolmasters sending forth scholars educated for good or for evil or, what is more likely, for a little of both.

The idea that our streets and other public spaces, or even the bosoms of our contemporary families, are places in which our children will be educated may make us anxious—and it should. So many such spaces are clearly unsuited to the task and would make quite a mess of it if permitted to serve the purpose. This misses Brownson’s point: Such education is taking place, whether we like it or not. Our schools may teach different lessons and aspire to operate as counterweights, but all of us know which set of teachings, mores, and morals usually wins out when the fine principles of the schoolhouse and the urgent imperatives of the street are pitted against one another. To say it another way, when prostitutes linger in wait by the temple doors, even the most resolute theology will not abide for long.

That our public spaces and even the overwhelming majority of our families would be abject failures at educating children is the juncture at which we have arrived by outsourcing the task to the priesthood of “professional” educators. Those educators serve their own masters and have their own agenda, which is not ours. As I have previously explained, today, a disturbing proportion of that agenda comes from a single 1968 tract written by Paolo Freire, a Brazilian Marxist who saw education in its rightful form as laying the bedrock for a revolution. To an extent, Freire’s was a misguided response to the very circumstances Brownson had warned against. Freire saw the high priests of pedagogy treating students as passive receptacles into which deposits of knowledge could be made. That knowledge was of a sort that merely prepared those students to become cogs in the machinery of their own oppression.

Freire’s proposed countermeasure was a dialogic, problem-posing education in which there were no teachers, no students, and no preconceived curriculum, but rather, student-teachers and teacher-students who learned from one another and wherein the students’ experiences, interests, and worldviews would anchor their own learning and guide the course of their studies. And yet Freire’s gesture of swearing off any curriculum animating the educational mission cannot be taken at face value: The ultimate end-goal of revolution, the preparation of these students to overthrow their masters and oppressors, was never far from his sights, and he made that goal perfectly explicit. Liberation is “the objective to be achieved,” he explains. The student learns through “participat[ion] in the revolutionary process,” as “the revolutionary process is eminently educational in character.” His brand of education through dialogue segues into a “cultural revolution” as “a necessary continuation of the dialogical cultural action which must be carried out before the revolution reaches power.” 

With 97 Democrats for every three Republicans among English teachers, 99 Democrats for every one Republican among health teachers, and 87 Democrats for every 13 Republicans among high school teachers overall, need we be especially surprised that a book like Freire’s would be our educators’ present-day polestar? For all his surface-level claims to be putting agency back in people’s hands, Freire simply replaced one priesthood with another, far more fanatical than its predecessor. Like most intellectuals, Freire believed he was a better judge of what the unwashed masses needed than the masses themselves. And so his prescription for revolution (working in tandem with similar autoimmune attacks upon traditional norms derived from critical race theory and critical gender theory), now being implemented to varying extents in American schools, inevitably leaves most of us feeling more alienated from the educational institutions in our midst than we were before Freire’s purportedly populist interventions took hold.

We can no longer avoid the consequences of turning over our own responsibilities to others. For some time now, American parents have felt disabled by the perception that we are simply not up to the task. If you have always had someone else do all the cooking in your household, whether another family member or hired help, you never learn to cook yourself. But if such outsourcing is no longer an option, you have little choice but to pick up the basics yourself, and with time, you get better and better at it. The same is true of many tasks, whether home improvement projects or financial literacy or…educating children.

But, we might protest, our situation today is markedly different from what it was in the 1830s or ’40s when Orestes Brownson was writing, in that the skills kids might need to master to thrive in our society are far more complex than they used to be, and the kinds of higher-level math, science, history and literature the more advanced kids encounter in high school are far beyond most ordinary people’s ken. Moreover, with many single-parent households, both parents working in most two-parent households and, in general, so many more demands on our time today, we are far more overcommitted than we used to be in centuries past. It is unrealistic to expect that we would be able to take charge of our children’s education.  

Brownson does not expect us to go it alone. Hillary Clinton’s repetition of the old African proverb that it “takes a village to raise a child” was widely derided on the right when it was made, but that is because it was also widely understood that her “village” was just a synecdoche for “the federal government.” If “a village” had really meant “a village,” and not “the State,” the quip would have had an entirely different tenor to it. Brownson wants us to re-imagine our communities as what they always already are: the primary loci wherein our children receive their upbringing. But Brownson would also parlay our newfound consciousness of our communities’ role into an urge to reshape those communities to be up to the task that is rightfully theirs.

The primary challenge, the first challenge, we face is not to educate our children but to educate ourselves:

The great work, then, which needs to be done in order to advance education, is to qualify the actual generation for imparting a more complete and finished education to its successor, that is to say, educate not the young, but the grownup generation. This educating of the grownup generation is what we mean by the education of the people. Society at large must be regarded as a vast normal school in which the whole active, doing, and driving generation of the day are pupils qualifying themselves to educate the young.

Imagine, now, that we had never made the disastrous choice to entrust our children’s education to government schools staffed by a class of educational professionals. Imagine that we had never relinquished our responsibility to educate our children. Imagine that we were forced to acknowledge from the very outset that our children are being educated not only in an artificially constructed hermetic environment framed by the schoolhouse walls but in the totality of their surroundings: in our homes and the homes of our friends and neighbors, in our streets, our parks and beaches, in our museums, theaters, musical venues, libraries, stores, cafes and restaurants, and on all the screens we permit into their lives. How differently, then, we might have constructed these multifarious environments, and how much more care we might have put into their designs, into ensuring that, wherever they go, our children are both safeguarded and enriched.

Today, the fiction of separation from the continuous stream of common life wrought by the school-building walls is increasingly impossible to maintain. All the barriers we attempted to erect to enforce that separation—school uniforms and other dress codes, prohibitions on foul language and other such disciplinary devices, computers rigged to restrict access to distractions, dangers, and debaucheries—are gradually falling away. Our own technology has done the most to lift the veil, bringing the outside in in the form of screens through which students are perpetually connected, for better or for worse, to the entirety of life’s rich pageant. During the global pandemic, we also proved to ourselves, with the headaches, hiccups, and outright breakdowns of remote learning notwithstanding, that school is not a place but a happening. To add to it all, in their haste to dismantle the last vestiges of American meritocracy, many schools are now failing to hold up the most fundamental part of their end of the bargain: more and more students are not meeting basic competency thresholds, and the schools’ idea of dealing with the issue is simply to keep on lowering standards until they can hit the pass numbers they are looking for.

We can no longer avoid the consequences of turning over our own responsibilities to others.

The crisis in our system of education is not looming; it is here and now. It is up to us to rise to the occasion, to begin to refashion our entire society from the tawdry circus sideshow it has become under the stewardship of the depraved, deracinated elites (those the writer Peter Laffin recently dubbed the “green trash aristocracy”). Soulless corporate conglomerates pollute our culture and environment, especially with their soul-polluting entertainment industry that is either serving up, such as in most commercial pop and hip hop, dollops of crass materialism and debased and deviant sexuality, or else unceremoniously depedestalling great works of ages past in favor of simplistic morality plays in which the only goal is to “represent” certain intersectionally favored groups and show them to be more capable and virtuous than their intersectionally disfavored oppressors. We must remake, as well, the manner in which we dress, in which we dance, in which we speak, and relate to one another. All of these elements must be reinvigorated with decency, decorousness, formality, and beauty, which is incompatible with crassness, carelessness, and casual profanity. We must reverse what Steven Pinker has referred to as the “decivilization” wrought by the 1960s’ counterculture and restore, as advocated by the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, a global culture of civility and politeness, exalting what some might see as anachronistic norms of the “gentlemanly” and the “ladylike.”

The fight against the ’60s counterculture must also get at the deeper cause of the catastrophic turn to the escapes of “sex and drugs,” with their myopic focus on ephemeral neurochemical highs. As the pioneering author and integral theorist Ken Wilber has argued, when deep spirituality falls away, sex comes to the fore because it seems to many of us one of the few remaining paths to something that transcends the limits of our ordinary daily life, offering an apparent gateway to a higher level of being. Consistent with this insight, Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality observed an obsessive focus on sexuality beginning with the decline of religion and rise of our disenchanted modern age in the 19th century, rising to a fever pitch with Freud’s preoccupation with the sexual dimension of human experience before the full-on explosion of sexuality into the public eye in the 1960s. The man who coined the very term “sexual revolution,” the influential Freudian Marxist Wilhelm Reich, saw the disinhibition of sexuality and the unleashing of orgasmic energy throughout society as the keys to the kingdom, and believed the teaching of sex ed in schools would play the important role of undoing the authoritarian repression found within the confines of the traditional family. Mind-altering drugs serve much the same function, appearing to open false portals to higher worlds and sending their chronic users chasing after the unattainable permanence of states that are ephemeral precisely because they are induced through external, neurochemical manipulation.

What is the antidote for these potent poisons? Enacting various legal bans and prohibitions and wagging stern fingers will only entice naturally curious children and teens to taste the forbidden fruit. We must, as I have said, remake our public sphere to remove obvious temptations that come from our mode of dress, our conduct, and our art and culture, but even these measures will take us only so far. The only lasting way to make us see how comparatively superficial sexuality and drug use are is to arm us with the firsthand experience of something far deeper and more abiding.

In contrast to Horace Mann’s vision, brought to fruition, of a system of public education that keeps religion out of our classrooms, Orestes Brownson held that “an education which is not religious is a solemn mockery.” Indeed, that set of beliefs, whatever it may be, which serves a spiritual function in our lives presumably is the set of beliefs we hold dearest; it is an abomination for our children not to be instructed in that creed. But once children attend schools operated by a government prohibited by the Constitution’s “Establishment Clause”—and by the very nature of a pluralistic, multi-religious republic—from proselytizing religion, a religious education becomes the catch-as-catch-can province of the private sphere. The problem with that approach is that it is necessarily schizophrenic: Deep spirituality ordinarily serves as an anchor for all our other forms of knowing about the world. When schools present bits and pieces of knowledge unmoored from spiritual concerns that tether them to an overarching nomos and telos, we get the message that whatever religious education we happen to receive at home is no part of the essential, unquestioned, publicly acknowledged truths we must be taught to get on in life, but rather a mere contingent thing. We interact on a daily basis with other kids who seem perfectly fine believing something else, or nothing at all, and so we come to see religions as pungent add-on toppings on a make-your-own-bowl menu of options, rather than all-encompassing systems overmastering our lives.

There is a reason I am following Brownson’s lead in using the term “priests” to refer to the educational bureaucracy. Like it or not, they indoctrinate us in their faith, even if that faith is political and is anti-religious, if only by virtue of what it leaves out. This is the high price we pay when we allow the secular priests of the public educational bureaucracy to replace us in educating our own children. When we take our children back and organize ourselves in like-minded educational communities that share our values—our shared spiritual commitments being our highest shared priorities—then we will raise children whose knowledge of the world is sacralized, laced through and through with deep meaning. This, the immersion of our children in totalizing spiritual worlds, is the only true way to reverse the rampant sexualization and narcotic haze afflicting our culture.

But, of course, there remains the task of education in the more traditional sense: reading, writing, arithmetic, and the rest. I am certainly not suggesting that all parents need to homeschool their kids in all subjects, though in an ideal world, our society would be organized in such a way that we would have the time and ability to do so, especially in our kids’ younger years, when the material they are learning is elementary. Every community has its sages. It has many of them, in fact. Nearly everyone is a sage in one respect or another. Some of us are wizzes in math or in one or another science, some in reading or writing literature, various epochs of history, this or that foreign language, the history of various art forms (painting, sculpture, film, music, etc.) or in their practice (e.g., creating paintings or films or playing an instrument), computer engineering, economics, statistical analysis, psychology, medicine and other healing arts, various sports, cooking, home improvement, or the theory or practice of a given religion. This is our starting point.

Even today, even in the artificially dumbed-down and incapacitated state in which so many of us find ourselves by virtue of having turned our capacities over to the State and its priestly caste, we are still able to take back our agency when we band together in self-reliant communities organized around shared values we hold dear. The beauty of America is—should be—that so long as we agree to give other communities the freedom to forge their own paths, we need not agree on much else. It is only when we entrust the high priests of the State and their entrenched and burgeoning bureaucracy with more and more essential functions that we suddenly find ourselves so at odds with one another, with every election now a seeming life or death matter, with the potential to elevate or unwind our very vision of the Good.

The increasingly numerous proponents of common-good conservatism, as opposed to classical liberal or libertarian conservatism, have a point in their general observation that when we do not ensure that the government actively promotes collective virtue, it will inevitably begin to promote collective vice. But aside from empowering the would-be priesthood in precisely the way we are seeking to avoid, the obvious problem with their approach is that we live in a vast, pluralistic nation in which people have different conceptions of the good life and in which a government vested with broad powers will, as we have seen, often exercise those powers in ways we do not condone. For that reason, we are better off with a night-watchman-style federal government that does little more than address national defense, international trade and relations, and interstate and international transportation and communication, and break up monopolies (which it should do far more often than it is doing). It is at the community level, the municipal level or, in some cases, the state level at which we can effectively pursue the common good without risking institutional capture by the very forces we are trying to oppose, and it is at those levels, as well, that we should pursue our educational mission.

The task before us will seem daunting at first. What is it that we are to do? Go it entirely alone? Organize small home-schooling communities in which members make their own contributions of time and talent—or, lacking one or both, of money—to educate their kids? Send our kids to ideologically aligned private or charter schools that, though less pernicious than the many-tentacled monstrosity of the public educational bureaucracy, could still lead us back to the place where we rely on a class of “professionals” to do our work of parenting for us? And what to do, particularly if we take a less formal route, about the fact that, as E.D. Hirsch has shown, kids do best when their education consists of a content-rich curriculum of core knowledge rather than random odds and ends? We cannot confer our religious traditions upon our children but ignore or make a mishmash out of our intellectual, cultural, historical, and scientific traditions. These, too, must be presented cogently and cumulatively.

For now, facing an absolute emergency in the both the academic quality and ideological character of public school education, we must let go of the need for perfect solutions and clear answers and do what we can. We must make a start. It begins when we take more and more of our kids out of the failing public school system, which is merely reproducing generations of disabled adults who will have to rely ever more on the priests of the State for education and every other need that may arise. Only once we have thrown away the crutch we lean on to hobble along will exigent need drive us to figure out how to build up the strength to stand on our own two feet, to walk and then to run. We will fail many times over, but at least we will own our failures and learn from them, and before long, we will begin to succeed. And those successes, as well, will be uniquely and wholly our own. On this important matter, let us give Orestes Brownson the last word:

Let every man speak out of his own full heart, as he is moved by the Holy Ghost, but let us have none to prophesy for hire, to make preaching a profession, a means of gaining a livelihood. Whoever has a word pressing upon his heart for utterance, let him utter it, in the stable, the market-place, the street, in the grove, under the open canopy of heaven, in the lowly cottage, or the lordly hall. No matter who or what he is, whether a graduate of a college, a shepherd from the hill sides, or a rustic from the plough. If he feels himself called to go forth in the name of God, he will speak words of truth and power, for which Humanity shall fare the better.