prev next

David Kirkpatrick

John Stuart Mill on Education

by David W. Kirkpatrick,
Senior Education Fellow, US Freedom Foundation

Consider, for example, the case of education. Is it not almost a self-evident axiom, that the State should require and compel the education, up to a certain standard, of every human being who is born its citizen?...If the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the State ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent.

Were the duty of enforcing universal education once admitted, there would be an end to the difficulties about what the State should teach, and how it should teach, which now convert the subject into a mere battle field for sects and parties, causing the time and labor which should have been spent in educating, to be wasted in quarreling about education.

If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them.

The objections which are urged with reason against State education, do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State's taking upon itself to direct that education, which is a totally different thing. That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating.

A general State education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another, and the mold in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation.

In proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence.

In general, if the country contains a sufficient number of persons qualified to provide education under government auspices, the same persons would be able and willing to give an equally good education on the voluntary principle, under the assurance of remuneration afforded by a law rendering education compulsory, combined with State aid to those unable to defray the expense.

The instrument for enforcing the law could be no other than public examinations, extending to all children, and beginning at an early age. An age might be fixed at which every child must be examined, to ascertain if he (or she) is able to read. If a child proves unable, the father, unless he has some sufficient ground of excuse, might be subjected to a moderate fine, to be worked out, if necessary, by his labor, and the child might be put to school at his expense. Once in every year the examination should be renewed, with a gradually extending range of subjects, so as to make the universal acquisition, and what is more, retention, of a certain minimum of general knowledge, virtually compulsory. Beyond that minimum, there should be voluntary examinations for all subjects, at which all who come up to a certain standard of proficiency might claim a certificate.

The examinations, however, in the higher branches of knowledge should be entirely voluntary. It would be giving too dangerous power to governments, were they allowed to exclude any one from professions, even from the profession of teacher, for alleged deficiency of qualifications. Degrees, or other public certificates of scientific or professional acquirements, should be given to all who present themselves for examination, but such certificates should confer no advantage over competitors, other than the weight which may be attached to their testimony by public opinion.

Share   Share

Featured Columnists
Featured Audio Links