education, the state, and protecting children from ignorance

The other day, I started Education and the State by E.G. West. It is sometimes argued that state funded, state regulated, and state provided education is justified by the necessity of  protecting children from ignorance. So, West begins with two chapters exploring this argument philosophically and assessing how well this “protection” works in practice. These chapters hooked me right away, because I have always believed that protecting children from various harms is one of the more legitimate functions of the state.

I want to share with you what I found to be the most important point made between the two chapters:

“If the funds now spent by the local authorities were not in the first place taken away from the general public via taxes… it is possible that in many areas much more would be spent on the education of every child. To the extent that this is true there is a new need for the ‘protection of minors’ principle to come into operation, but in the opposite direction to that which is so often invoked. The relevant protection in this case is directed not against the negligence of parents but against the negligence of the local authority and its officials.” (emphasis added, West p. 22-23)

An objection to this argument immediately comes to mind. You might question the speculation that parents would ever actually choose to spend more money on their children’s education that the state does, even if they were paying less in taxes.

Notice that people don’t believe that education is important because the government tells them so. They thought that education was important before the state became so involved, and they would keep thinking it is important even if state involvement in education were reduced. There is interesting work in this area, such as “Market Education: The Unknown History” and “The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How The World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.” Also, keep in mind that spending on education doesn’t necessarily track educational outcomes.

But, assuming that spending really matters, and even if it were true that parents wouldn’t fork out for education in the absence of coercive taxes for educational purposes, that leaves untouched the theoretical point that a principle about protecting children can count not only for but also against state intervention in education. Here are some other possible applications:

  1. State schools’ failure to teach students basic civics may constitute a failure to protect them from ignorance of their rights and responsibilities as citizens. (See this shocking report from the Goldwater Institute).
  2. State schools’ refusal to teach students about evolution may constitute a failure to protect them from ignorance of the basic principles of contemporary science. (An example from my hometown)
  3. Protecting children from ignorance is a specific aspect of the more general duty of states (and persons) to protect children in general. The most obvious and least controversial harms from which children need to be protected are physical harms. And it’s a well-known fact that many public schools in the United States just aren’t that safe. State schools’ refusal (or maybe inability) to maintain decently safe learning environments runs seriously afoul of the more general Protecting Children principle.

So basically, parents are not the only potential violators of the Protecting Children From Ignorance principle (and its parent principle, the Protecting Children principle). State schools can and do fail to protect children in a variety of ways, not limited to those dealing with equitable funding. As such, the principles cut both ways. Sometimes Protecting Children From Ignorance will weigh in favor of measures taken by the government to protect children from the ignorance that would have been imposed on them by their parents. But, other times, Protecting Children From Ignorance – or even just Protecting Children – will weigh in favor of reducing the government’s role in education, or withdrawing students from the system, when public education itself threatens to harm children, intellectually or otherwise.


  • Your blog name reminds me of the command I’m often given when attempting to sign up for something via the web. It’s an odd analogy but in the same way you’re suggesting that in order to obtain something better (the good life) I must sacrifice something.

    Best of luck with the blog and your walking around in circles at the bus stop. I’m looking forward to commenting in the future.

  • That command was my inspiration, in fact :-) I have never succeeded in being a more-than-intermittent blogger, but your comments are always welcome!

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