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  • Writer's pictureAlan Stevens - AWAH - Libertarianism, Freedom.

Education and the University of Life - Part 1

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

State control of compulsory education deforms societies. Britain spends £10,000 annually per pupil and achieves less and less. Western universities have ungratefully promoted a Marxist attack on freedom across the West.

I have been avoiding writing about education because it is a huge topic. For me it’s not about how can we get the current national curriculum – or its equivalent in other western states – more effectively drummed into the heads of our luckless young.

That just begs too many questions. What is education? Should it be the same for everybody? How long should it last? Do most people need it? Are the right things being taught? Would people pay for it with their own money? What do parents or their children think a degree is for? What is the relationship between education and training? How much of what people learn and actually use comes from school rather than parents, other adults or just the TV?

How much ‘training’ is just a way into state-sponsored professional closed shops or monopolies? Is full-time training, or education, even a good idea compared to on the job training or part-time school or evening classes? Does education need to cost this much? Is this all about indoctrination rather enlightenment?

What these questions have in common is that nobody seems to know the answers. And they are never going to be seriously or effectively addressed by the state, but they would all be addressed as effectively and economically as possible in a free non-state society. And with no taxation or compulsion to boot! Who could resist such an offer?

Rather than actually tackle these questions directly, I propose first to go off on another historical tour to explain something at least of how we got into the present situation.


History begins with the written record only about 5,000 years ago, or half-way through the 10,000 years (so far) of the current interglacial period’s relative warmth. Not many scribes were needed to create this record. But the scribes had to be highly trained. There were complex writing systems based on puns, or alphabets (one sound one sign), or syllabaries (one syllable one sign) or pictograms (symbolic pictures representing a word), or based on a mixture of approaches.

Scribes had to master cumbersome writing systems like hieroglyphs or the clumsy use of Linear B signs (developed for Linear A to write Minoan – perhaps an African language) for Greek. From the start there were international languages, for example Akkadian cuneiform in the Middle Eastern Bronze Age. So scribes had to learn languages they didn’t speak to learn to write them.

A key innovation is the iron Age Canaanite invention of a 20 or so letter consonantal alphabet in what is now the Lebanon. The Greeks decided to reuse some of its consonant signs that they didn’t need as vowel signs. The Mediterranean and the West got a writing system capable of supporting much wider literacy. By this time, already, some perennial features of schooling had appeared. It had to do with literacy, often in a different, specialised language which was widely written by elites rather than spoken by ‘ordinary people’. And it mainly got you state jobs. In other words, it was a passport to predation.

The Classical World comprised an enormous range of linguistic groups which came to be ruled and managed through the use of written Latin and Greek (specifically in its Attic or Athenian form) in the Western and Eastern Mediterranean respectively. The Classical World brought us the Paideia or, in Latin, Humanitas. It is described as the training of the physical and mental faculties to produce a broad enlightened outlook combined with maximum cultural development. Subjects included gymnastics, grammar, rhetoric, music, mathematics, geography, music, and natural history and philosophy (‘science’). The Church added theology as the culminating science in the ideal curriculum.

The thing to note is that this classical model, which so resembles the current State Curriculum, was only for a tiny proportion of the population. The Paideia equipped a man to play a prominent role in the life of a Greek city state. The Roman equivalent permitted entry into elite republican politics and, later, into the Empire’s administration.

Many more people could read and write to some degree - at least in business and military circles - when Rome was at its height, as evidenced by excavated writing tablets and papyrus. We cannot know, but must expect, that many people learned basic literacy from relatives or friends. There is no evidence of widespread formal schooling, though absence of evidence is not proof of absence, of course. Most people probably remained illiterate. They nevertheless competently mastered the technical skills they actually needed to earn a living. But they managed this through what amounts to adult supervision or on the job training.


Come the Dark Ages, the Catholic Church either just about saved the classical heritage in the West, or nearly destroyed it – you takes your choice. Perhaps it was a mixture of the two with destruction usually getting the upper hand. Anyway, medieval times brought the (re)creation of the Humanitas (‘humanities’) curriculum. After the monasteries (with their schooling provision) were looted by Henry VIII, Elizabethan philanthropists set about creating replacement schooling. The grammar schools – whether now ‘public’ or state – were all founded by private initiative. They survived until recent times as independent institutions. As ever, various sons of the wealthy or tradesmen might tag along to get some scraps of learning. But the point of the system was still to train priests for the Church.

The academically bright were to go on to the two English universities established under church auspices to train for the clergy. To administer itself, to protect its vast wealth, and to help out secular rulers’ bureaucracies with administrator clerics (‘clerks’), the Church needed men literate in Latin, the international language of the church and of western Christendom until the eighteenth century. So what you have is a narrow system designed to literally indoctrinate a small number of intelligent ambitious men to staff the economically parasitic church and state.

For a millennium the Church had a lock on intellectual life. Maybe the Church did promote or at least preserve the individualism of the classical world at its best. But it certainly discouraged enterprise and reinforced society’s disdain for commerce and economic calculation. It used inquisitions and other legal machinery to stultify capital formation and harass capitalists - who were often Jews because the Church confined them to a very few activities including the rag trade and moneylending. There was no positive connection here between education and prosperity.


As the Catholic Church’s monopoly grip was loosened by the Reformation from the 16th century onwards, an intellectual, political and scientific revolution ensued. In Protestant Holland, Britain and its daughter societies overseas, substantially free Classical Liberal societies came into being, guaranteeing property rights and the personal freedom that intimately depends on them. The result was prosperity and technical progress. (In Catholic Portugal’s case, unfortunately, its promising golden age was stifled by the Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition.)

So what was the state of education in England in the heady days of the eighteenth and nineteen centuries? What contribution did education make when British technologists and businessmen created the marvelous Industrial Revolution and ushered in the modern world?

None at all would be too harsh, but not by much. The two English universities and their feeder grammar schools continued as before to be dominated by the Church and its outlook. University academics still could not get married, even though Anglican clergy now could. The traditional universities were largely bypassed by modernizing Britain. The sons of the gentry would attend and vaguely pick up some learning and maybe some law to help administer their estates. Charles Darwin was not untypical when he studied theology at Christs College, Cambridge, with a view to perhaps becoming a clergyman, but without actually taking a degree.

I can’t help wondering if time at university in those days kept some young men expecting to inherit conveniently away from home but unable to develop any expertise or skills which might make them independent of Daddy.

Surely the universities were pumping out the scientists and technologists without whom no discoveries could be made – and developing the scientific understanding on which technological progress depends, of course? No. Not at all. Chancellor Francis Bacon’s view in the early 17th century that academic excellence would lead to economic growth was dead wrong. It is however still part of the thinking behind Britain’s expensive, tax-subsidised overproduction of science graduates. (The USSR produced loads more engineering and science graduates and experienced no growth in living standards.)

As Terence Kealey, former Chancellor of Buckingham University, explains in ‘The Economic Laws of Scientific Research’ (1996) and ‘Sex, Science and Profits’ (2008), Britain’s technological achievements in creating a revolutionary economy based on abundant hydrocarbon fuel were the result of trial and error by uneducated and very often illiterate ‘mechanicks’ working in a free, competitive business environment. Men of business discovered what worked in practice. Then scientists tried to understand why it worked.

However that may be, in the rest of society there was certainly a general increase in literacy and schooling as prosperity grew. The need for literacy and numeracy (‘reckoning’) increased at pretty much the same rate as the opportunities to acquire them. It seems that schooling, in those days customarily for children up to 12 years old, expanded steadily in response to customer demand for it. This is what you would expect in a free society. There was no state meddling or bullying to get in the way, and next to no taxes. Wonderful.

By the later nineteenth century Britain and other advanced societies had created thriving educational and training systems. Most children went to schools, often smaller ‘Dame’ schools run by a few educated women, until they were twelve. This was a change in that the agrarian poor had always been desperate to put their young children out to any work however badly paid, just to survive. Only as living standards rose rapidly during industrialization did the poor relent and accept state restrictions on child labour.

The population seems to have been as literate and numerate as it is now, if not more so. After all they could reckon in engaging but complicated imperial measurements, and without calculators. There was no problem with truancy since there was no state coercion to needlessly create another pointless ‘social problem’. After leaving school, children would go into service in a big house, become apprentices or just get a job in a shop or a works or on the railways and learn their business or trade.

Before the woeful effects of state regulation, over-taxation, planning controls and modern banking predation of the ‘little guy’, there were also far more independent businesses in society (after all there were a hundred railway companies, not four after Churchill’s compulsory 1922 grouping cartel!). Many more people were lucky enough to go into family businesses than now in the current era of big state sponsored ‘corrupt corporations’.

One can’t help wondering if locking most youngsters up in compulsory schooling and in university does any good. Does it help to deprive many of them of up to a decade of experience and real-world knowledge? How much from their years of secondary schooling do they really use? Wouldn’t it help family formation and prosperity if people became economically competent in their later teens rather than hurriedly adapting to reality in their twenties?

Anyway, as time wore on and prosperity grew in the 19th century, scientific studies made their appearance in universities, often new foundations established in major commercial centres. Business began to need trained scientists, as much to keep abreast of competitors’ research as to do their own. Institutions developed to produce technicians, tradesmen and engineers. In other words, as Britain became more advanced and prosperous, its free markets automatically developed a full spectrum of effective training and schooling entities. Exactly as would happen in any society not yet deformed and distressed by state predation.


The nineteenth century sees the high point of the anglophone Classical Liberal societies but it also sees the slow death of underlying libertarian belief in favour of socialist or statist ideas, imported from much less free, and so much poorer, societies on the Continent. In 1870 Britain produced 70% of the world’s steel, but it also unfortunately introduced compulsory education.

The origins of this mistake, like so many others, go back to the French Revolution in 1789, and to its dreadful disciple, the Emperor Napoleon. French intellectuals in the eighteenth century, in particular Voltaire, had noticed and explained that Britain was outcompeting France in nearly every field. Britain had perhaps a third of France’s population. It had no state centralizing administration in its regions and a largely independent court system. France had a top-heavy absolutist state trying to manage everything, including large scale judicial murder of un-licensed entrepreneurs who would have thrived in unregulated Britain. How could Britain do so well?

Voltaire introduced the key idea that Liberty might work better than Tyranny. Quite an insight, given most people still don’t grasp it – thanks in part to their education. Britain worked better than France because it was substantially, in our parlance, libertarian. When the French state eventually, and inevitably, went bust, the French Revolution kicked off. It started off as a scheme to make France into a constitutional monarchy modelled on Britain, and inspired by recently independent America. Bad luck, bad judgement, and the terrible paradox of trying to impose liberty through state coercion, conspired to create a totalitarian ‘liberal’ revolutionary regime under Robespierre. War with the rest of Europe didn’t help.

Up to 1789 Europe had been a collection of (e)states which were the private possessions of closely related royal families. The unlucky Louis XVI was a member of the Bourbon family which also ran Spain and most of Latin America, and bits of Italy from time to time. His wife was a Habsburg, the family that ran the Holy Roman Empire (more or less the area of modern Germany), the vast eastern territories of Austria and Hungary, and bits of Italy from time to time. When Queen Marie Antoinette was executed in 1793, it wasn’t just ‘political’. For her admittedly estranged brother, the Emperor Leopold II, it was also ‘personal’. The French Republic itself was an affront to monarchies and aristocracies everywhere.

To cut a long story short, the French Republic whipped all its adversaries on land. Its armies were better led and motivated. They were also huge. The French introduced national conscription in what was then by far western Europe’s largest population. The needs of war snuffed out the hoped-for liberty, again.

Conscription provided France with lots of untrained soldiers who could only be massed into columns and thrown at often demotivated foreign royal armies. The revolutionary armies could not be supplied by conventional means. They had to live off the land. They had to move rapidly and therefore aggressively just to find new food supplies to steal.

By the autumn of 1799 the French Republic had expanded to the Rhine and beyond. The Revolutionary wars were winding down. Peace beckoned. Enter Napoleon to ruin the day. In November 1799 he overthrew the Republic in a military coup. This set France and Europe up for another 15 years of pointless bloodletting. Napoleon eventually was thrown out and France lost all the territory it had gained in the 1790s. A big cock-up, in fact, the whole Napoleon thing.

The relevance of all this to education is that Napoleon not just defeated but totally humiliated Prussia in 1806, partly by stripping it of half its territory. A desire for revenge was born in Germany. Given the events of the following century and a half that was not wise.

To prepare for revenge the Prussians introduced a much more thorough version of conscription than the French emergency levy of untrained peasantry. Everyone would be made to do formal military training so they could make good soldiers. As part of this effort, they introduced compulsory state education. That was to make sure that conscripts would be biddable, trainable, literate enough to understand written orders, and indoctrinated from infancy with the ideal of sacrifice for the state. A new form of statist bureaucracy was born.

It worked. As soon as Napoleon carelessly sacrificed half a million of his best soldiers in Russia in 1812, Prussia joined in his downfall with a much-improved version of the French conscript army concept. The Prussian Army played a major role in defeating Napoleon in 1814, and was crucial to finishing off his comeback attempt at Waterloo in 1815.

In years to come the Prussian Army would crushingly defeat Austria, and then France - unhelpfully inspiring the French with a new reciprocal desire for revenge to which they gave vent in 1914. Prussia turned into Germany from 1871. It became the original, archetypal warfare-welfare state under the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismark.

Foreigners rushed to emulate the Prussian example. The Japanese decided to model their army on Prussia’s. This very bad idea would finally play out in the total wreck of Japan and Germany in 1945. But earlier on, at the turn of the century, ambitious statist politicians like Churchill and Llyod George had nevertheless been determined to introduce Germany’s welfare state here after the Liberal and Labour election victory in 1906.


By then the Prussian style state control education had already been introduced here a generation or so earlier in 1870. State controlled and coerced education since then has played a key role in suppressing the correct, libertarian, view of how societies operate and progress. Instead, it has been replaced by a statist fantasy in which politicians are bringers of progress, not leeches on the backs of the productive. Making parents send their children to be indifferently trained in life skills, but indoctrinated in statist belief, is a fundamental attack on personal freedom. It has also been key to our loss of prosperity and liberty.

A brief look at the debate in Parliament in 1870 on introducing compulsory education shows the dishonesty with which the Liberal Government promoted the idea, indeed the dishonesty with which all attacks on liberty are promoted – not to mention a ghastly, patronising attitude to the women who had actually been providing most schooling.

The Liberal Party spokesman got up and basically said that it was a bad thing that only two thirds of children between the age of eight and fourteen were going to school in a city as modern and prosperous as Liverpool. And he added that many children went to Dames Schools, in other words schools run by women. He said that these schools scarcely deserved to be taken seriously. The Dames schools should become history.

The Tory Party opposition spokesman replied that the Liberal spokesmen had used a misleading and dishonest argument. Children generally went to school until they were twelve. The information that two thirds of children in Liverpool between the ages of eight and fourteen were at school actually meant that for all practical purposes all children were already going to school. So no need for compulsion, if such an illiberal need can ever exist.


It took time for the consequences of state education to work their way through to the current situation 150 years later. Parents generally still paid at least something to the schools until the 1940s. The schools that had joined the state scheme to receive government payments often had very long traditions and remained at least nominally independent. They were also supervised by local authorities, not central government. Counties could have different policies. For example, a few counties were more or less successful in keeping selective grammar schools, despite the policies of various politicians in central government.

The system remained very conservative and resolutely academic. Most people were given a highly academic education. In fact, the state simply expanded ‘education’ to embrace the whole population. But it was still designed, as ever, to be of use to would-be university students. Then most people continued not to go to university. Like their parents, they left school and tried as best they could to adjust to the demands of participating in economic exchange to earn a living. Fitting in to the world of work was a task for which they were largely unprepared by the academic school curriculum. The number of university graduates meanwhile rose quite slowly.

Change accelerated here with a new overtly socialist government elected in 1964. The school leaving age in Britain was raised to 16. It has been 18 since 2015. This suited the teachers and administrators and their public sector unions. Education headed steadily down the cost-push monopoly trail blazed most notably by the NHS. By now more than £10,000 is spent per head by the state on schoolchildren. The costs have gone up but the value has gone down as schooling has clearly been ‘dumbed down’.


It sort of made sense to drastically expand university provision from the 1960s. Everybody was still getting a version of the medieval grammar school education designed to produce university entrants. It wasn’t much use for those participating in the productive economy, so why not send them all to university at further taxpayer expense. By this century the objective was to put half of all young people through another three or four more years of academic education.

The state education system also expanded on an existing basis of originally private sector technical training. It created the colleges of technology (‘Techs’). These were to make up for the destruction of apprenticeships caused by the later school leaving age (and indeed by the wreck of UK manufacturing under successive, economically clueless British governments).

But the Techs remained second class because the social status and expected earnings of university graduates remained higher. The mass of the electorate wanted their children to go to university so that their children could all join the 5% or so of people at the top of the earnings tree. They didn’t understand that the small number of graduates historically were well off for reasons other than the possession of university degrees. For example, they belonged to wealthy or professionally well-connected families. Cause and effect were being confused. Naturally politicians made more university places available at taxpayer expense.


One gift of the sixties was post-modernism which has taken over the universities. As Canadian Professor Dr Jordan Peterson explains, post-modernism was based on the new, and apparently correct, philosophical insight that there is an infinite number of ways to understand reality. This was taken by academic post-modernist philosophers to mean that ‘truth was relative’. Notions such as liberty, the family, private property and equality before the law could not be regarded as more valid than any other ideas since everything was merely ‘relative’ and equally ‘valid’.

Similarly, the core western belief in the existence and importance of objective truth - and the belief in rational enquiry and the scientific method to discover it – was denied.

In the hands of French Marxist academics this relativism was hastily pressed into service as a reborn ‘cultural’ Marxism. They were desperate to rebrand communism. Stalinist and Maoist mass murder and abject economic failure could no longer be hidden, even by left wing journalists working for the ‘quality press’.

Knowledge was considered to be just a ‘construct’, often put forward by ‘oppressors’. This time around the oppressed weren’t the workers but ‘minorities’ including women (a majority of the population), and non-western, non-white, non-Christian and non-heterosexual groups. Since then white working-class men on both sides of the Atlantic have loyally voted for socialist parties who, not so secretly, regard them as ‘oppressor’ bad guys.

At just the right time then, along came the expansion of college education in the West. This created a vast number of job opportunities for Marxist academics equipped with their new ‘relativist’ creed. Since then they have been comfortably sheltered at taxpayer expense from facing up to the consequences of Communism’s total loss of real-world credibility.

Instead they have influenced two generations of over-credentialled generations of students who have been led down the garden path mapped out for them by ‘woke’, politically correct, Marxist totalitarians. Graduates have been, by the very nature of academic education, suited to work in economically parasitic church and then state bureaucracies. So they have done an excellent job of taking control of our institutions, all of which are now intertwined with big government. In doing so they have brought society to the edge of the precipice. It’s because they have been indoctrinated with ideas that are not viable. Which could only happen in an artificial academia funded by state looting of productive people.

(The fact that states are always likely to be taken over by unattractive power-grabbers is yet another excellent Libertarian reason for not allowing states to exist in the first place.)

Post-modernism’s unlovely offspring political correctness is just the latest manifestation of the tendency of academia’s tendency to remain cloistered and aloof from the real business of life which goes on somewhere else. Aloof, but resentful and controlling. Plato (the original academic), in his ‘Republic’, put forward a vision of an unfree society run by other-worldly intellectuals. It has a dangerous, perennial appeal to many university intellectuals.

Now we face another attempt to deprive us of our freedoms for our own good. Technocratic socialist totalitarianism – now being experimented with under cover of corona virus lock downs – is not viable. The deep malaise in Britain and the rest of the West suggests that relativism is as noxious and unworkable as Marxism’s earlier incarnations.

In the next part of this post (See Education and the University of Life – Part 2) I look at how free societies might respond to the dangerous failure of compulsory big-state education.

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