Oklahoma is one of only a tiny handful of states in which the overwhelming majority of four-year-olds attend government-run pre-Kindergarten. Oklahomans ought to ask themselves if that aligns with who they are as a people and what they think is important for young children. Rounding up toddlers into the nurseries of the all-providing, all-benevolent state is certainly good for public employee unions, but is it good for the state and its children?
Fully 76 percent of Oklahoma’s four-year-olds are in government pre-K. The average U.S. state has only 23 percent. Only two states (Florida and Vermont) are higher than Oklahoma; only five states send even as many as two-thirds of their four-year-olds to government schools. Nine states don’t have any government pre-K at all—and have somehow managed to stave off a descent into anarchy and barbarism.
Of course this is nothing but good news if you think the purpose of the system is to provide largesse for the special interests that dominate education policymaking. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister recently noted: “We lead the nation in early childhood” education. Education officials have good cause to brag about this accomplishment; every child roped into government schools puts more money in the pockets of teacher and staff unions by expanding the size of the system.
But children aren’t actually served by the unions’ cash bonanza. A large body of research has consistently found that mass-scale early child education like Oklahoma’s is ineffective. There is no serious case to be made that pre-K programs lead to better outcomes.
Admittedly, some small and highly intensive early childhood programs have shown benefits. In some cases, they cost a ridiculous amount of money per student, and thus are utterly impossible to implement on a large scale (Google “Perry Preschool Project”). In other cases, they’re taken to scale and then fail for various other reasons—including a lack of interest in innovation on the part of tenure-protected teachers (head to Jay P. Greene’s Blog and search for “Reading First”).
So maybe the kids don’t come out any better in the end because they go to pre-K. But is there any harm? Maybe parents like this arrangement because it takes the kids off their hands during the day. Why not leave it alone?
Well, for one thing, it’s not clear why parents of four-year-olds should have free babysitting services provided by hardworking taxpayers. I’d like free babysitting for my nine-year-old; why take my money away from me and hand it to other parents—not to mention the unions? But there are more important problems here, too.
A thing like the expansion of government control over education does not take place in a vacuum. Wherever it happens, it is part of a larger social change that affects much more than education. It changes our assumptions about what is right and wrong, what the public square is and what it is for, and even what it means to be human.
The whole idea of pre-K, like the idea of Kindergarten before it, is (as the Germanic name suggests) a product of the technocratic European social welfare state. In the 19th century, Europeans—and then later, Americans, following them—became enamored with technocracy. Just as the advance of science had led to vast progress in our understanding and control of the natural world, it would also give us similar insight and power over human beings themselves. Government would no longer be content to enforce the rules of justice; it would now glean the latest findings of science and take control of our lives to improve us, just as science had allowed engineers to take control of nature and improve it.
Government control of education was the deepest expression of this revolutionary change. At the same time government began taking control of educational systems, which had previously been responsible to families and churches, it was also expanding the scope of its reach to younger children. Believing he could use his superior scientific understanding to improve the early development of children, Friedrich Froebel created the world’s first Kindergarten in 1837. He theorized that children would develop better if given more opportunity to socialize with peers rather than with their families and others. American admirers of the European technocratic experiment were quick to follow suit; in 1856, the first U.S. Kindergarten was founded less than an hour’s drive from where I live in Wisconsin.
This technocratic view embodies the assumption that the most basic structures of human life can be manipulated by experts to improve them. Sure, young children have always been raised in families under the direct purview of their parents and the institutions their parents connect with, such as churches. But what do parents know? Our experts can design something better.
Much more than a year of schooling is at stake in this changed conception. A new view of the proper relationships between human beings is being introduced. If the rearing of children is essentially the responsibility of families, we are (at least when it comes to education) all equal with each other, because we all equally come from families. As G. K. Chesterton said, mothers and nurses are not only the guardians of tradition, but of democracy. Whereas if the rearing of children ought to be turned over to experts, those of us who aren’t experts are essentially raw material for our superiors to manipulate.
Equality is not the only thing we stand to lose. In 1943, C.S. Lewis wrote a famous book called The Abolition of Man about how western democracies were losing the concept of a transcendent morality to which all people were equally subject, creating a danger of totalitarianism even in places like England and America. The thing to notice is that it was a book about education. Its argument was that western cultures were being de-moralized because their educational institutions were based on, and were therefore inculcating in the young, technocratic premises.
In the old view, certain basic commitments and structures, like the family, are taken for granted as essential to human nature. They don’t have to make a moral argument to justify themselves; rather, moral argument depends on presupposing their validity. If we know that providing the body nutrients is good, we can call eating bread “good” and eating bricks “bad.” But if we think we’re free to decide for ourselves whether we ought to provide our bodies with nutrients, on what grounds can we make such judgments? The same principle applies to social structures and activities like education. If you don’t begin with something that you take for granted as good, you can never find a basis for establishing anything as good, and morality is impossible.
The ideology of the people who invented Kindergarten was that they could reshape the basic social structure of childhood in order to make it better. But, as Lewis shows, if you treat the basic structures of human life that way, you have actually removed the only basis for calling one thing “better” than another. We might call this basis the “givenness” or “taken-for-grantedness” of the basic structures of human life.
Like I said, this does not happen in a vacuum. It is no coincidence that the aggressive expansion of power in the hands of government monopoly schools since the 1950s has coincided with a declining social role for families and (by extension) churches and other community groups. They’re being pushed out of their role in the formation of children, and hence displaced from the center of culture.
It may seem extreme or alarmist to make such a fuss about something as simple as pre-Kindergarten. And in one sense, I suppose it is. Of course this individual straw will not by itself break the camel’s back of our humanity and liberty. But it is still important to know whether we are in the process of taking straws off the camel’s back or loading more on. It will only hold so many. We may one day wake suddenly to discover that we know exactly how many.