Michael McMahon’s otherwise insightful article on the sad state of the public schools in England (“Education and Authority,” Views, January) is marred by a wrongheaded conclusion.  Mr. McMahon avers that the decline in the quality of education in England is the result of education having become a commodity.  In his final paragraph, he laments that “Education is no longer a gift to be shared but a commodity to be bought and sold.”  In actuality, the problem is not that education has become a commodity but that it has ceased to be one.

If the buying and selling of education were the source of the problem, the decline should be manifesting itself more palpably in the private schools than in the public schools.  After all, the private schools unabashedly treat education as a commodity, which is purchased by parents for the benefit of their children.  In the public schools, however, the free choice that accompanies a private purchase is completely suppressed.  Mr. McMahon himself explodes the myth of “choice” in the public-school realm very nicely.  He also implies the great superiority of the private schools in England in the first sentence of his article: “I had taught in private schools for years, but I hesitated before entering the classroom to teach my first lesson in the state sector.”  Why hesitate, unless the inferiority of the public school relative to the private school is already known?

The source of the problem in public education is the same as the source of the problem in the delivery of healthcare and in so many other areas of our society: the dead hand of government bureaucracy ineptly attempting to control and organize a social function that is quite beyond the capacity and legitimate purview of government.  Mr. McMahon rightly decries the unholy marriage of government and business and the deleterious effect of this combination on education, but he somewhat leaves the impression that it is business alone that must butt out.  Genuine reform can only occur when government, with humility, stops interfering in social functions, such as education, that can only be done properly outside the realm of government control.  When education, unashamedly a commodity, is returned to the control of families and local communities—the true consumers—the legitimate authority of teachers as the extension of that of the parent will recover.  The free market cannot do all things, but those things it can do, and they are very numerous indeed, cannot be improved upon by government intervention.  Unfortunately, this is a lesson that no school, public or private, seems to be able or willing to teach to modern intellectuals.

        —John A. Collins
Pembroke Pines, FL

Mr. McMahon Replies:

Redefining education as a commodity does not liberate it; it destroys it.  I describe how this happens—and, indeed, how it is happening now—in “The Abolition of Learning” in this issue (p. 14).  However, I am grateful to Mr. Collins for providing me an opportunity to expand on one aspect of that destruction.  English independent schools have been corrupted by the same materialist values that have been imposed on the schools that are controlled by the government.  The people that pay for private schooling are not buying better education; they are paying for their children to be better prepared to take better-paid jobs.  The “lesson that no school, public or private, seems able or willing to teach” in England at present is that education is a Good Thing in itself.  The problem is not how education is distributed but how education is defined.  The heresy that has taken hold is that the purpose of education is to produce economic well-being, so education is described in the language of the economist, using such words as commodity and consumer.  The late MP Enoch Powell called such talk “the sound of barbarism.”  He described education in rather different terms: “Like all things joyous, beautiful and good, education is self-justified.  It not only needs no secondary justification, it actually shrivels at the touch of secondary justification.”  Comments like his are not frequently heard in today’s educational marketplace.