Smith begins his series on the critics of state education with a discussion of Joseph Priestley, the Englishman who discovered oxygen.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

The distinguished historian Bernard Bailyn, writing in 1960, argued that books on the history of American education had become “a form of initiation” for those in the teaching profession – a means to illustrate the purportedly glorious achievements of public schools. Such texts were “the patristic literature of a powerful academic ecclesia,” and the entire field “displayed the exaggeration of weakness and extravagance of emphasis that are the typical results of sustained inbreeding.”

This situation changed dramatically during the 1970s, which saw an outpouring of “revisionist” studies on the history of education by Michael Katz, David Tyack, Clarence Karier, Paul Violas, Colin Greer, and others. Some of the most important of these revisionist works, such as those by Joel Spring and E.G. West, were written from a libertarian perspective.

This new wave of historians demolished the rosy picture of state schooling drawn by conventional historians, such as Ellwood Cubberley, which depicted the victory of state schooling in America as a triumph of humanitarian reform over the reactionary critics of state education. The revisionists presented a different perspective: The battle for tax‐​supported compulsory schooling was a recurring story of political power, social control, and the growth of a powerful, unresponsive bureaucracy.

Revisionists argued that the welfare of children, such as teaching literacy skills, was a relatively minor concern of those reformers who pushed for increased state intervention in education. Instead, nineteenth‐​century reformers had various social goals foremost in mind – such as “Americanizing” immigrants, “Christianizing” Catholics, teaching a proper respect for government, and inculcating the values of the status quo.

Revisionist works on the history of education are of uneven value, to say the least. Some blame the problems of American education on “capitalism” – that ever‐​popular bogeyman of restless intellectuals. For example, in Schooling in Capitalist America (1976), Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis throw everything except the proverbial kitchen sink at the feet of capitalism, including “drugs, suicide, mental instability, personal insecurity, predatory sexuality, depression, loneliness, bigotry, and hatred….” This is alarming news, indeed, but it is at least good to know that such problems do not exist in noncapitalistic societies. (Only academics could get away with this kind of Marxian claptrap.)

Even among the better revisionist works we find a troubling omission: Most pay scant attention, if any, to the libertarian critics of state schooling who flourished during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet these advocates of free‐​market education – or “Voluntaryists,” as they called themselves in nineteenth‐​century Britain – predicted that governmental control of education would result in precisely those problems that revisionists later complained about.

Voluntaryists received little attention in traditional histories of education. Some of the most important figures were never mentioned at all, and to the extent they were discussed they were portrayed in a highly unfavorable light. Those Voluntaryists who warned against the pitfalls of state education, and who desired an educational free market instead, were summarily dismissed as doctrinaire advocates of laissez‐​faire who stubbornly resisted social improvement, especially for the lower classes. All this despite the fact that many Voluntaryists were innovators in education. They were frequently the educational progressives of their day, so to speak, who established and supported schools, funded by voluntary means, that were free to those who could not afford to pay.

This most important Voluntaryist of the eighteenth century was the Englishman Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), an accomplished and highly regarded amateur scientist who is best known for his discovery of oxygen. (He also invented soda water.) Priestley, a minister who called himself a “liberal Unitarian,” was one of the most remarkable polymaths of the eighteenth century. A friend of Benjamin Franklin and other leading scientists, Priestley wrote over 150 books on an astonishing range of subjects, including philosophy, science, theology, grammar, European history, the history of Christianity, and new methods of education.

Priestley also wrote one of the finest and most consistent libertarian tracts of the eighteenth century, An Essay on the First Principles of Government (1771), which included a previously published piece, Remarks on Dr. Brown’s Code of Education. It is here that we find Priestley’s trenchant criticism of state education.

Dr. John Brown was a popular author who wrote several books bemoaning the supposed decadence of English culture. In Thoughts on Civil Liberty , Brown repeatedly invoked the Spartan model of uniform state education as a remedy for England’s problems. Priestley, who believed that diversity and competition are essential preconditions of progress (most notably the progress of knowledge), would have none of this. Sparta was “the worst government we read of” in the ancient world, “a government which secured to a man the fewest of his natural rights, and of which a man who had a taste for life would least of all choose to be a member.” Priestley continued:

While the arts of life were improving in all the neighbouring nations, Sparta…continued the nearest to her pristine barbarity; and in the space of near a thousand years (which includes the whole period in which letters and the arts were the most cultivated in the rest of Greece) produced no one poet, orator, historian, or artist of any kind. The convulsions of Athens, where life was in some measure enjoyed, and faculties of body and mind had their proper exercise and gratification, were, in my opinion, far preferable to the savage uniformity of Sparta.

Priestley understood that there must exist some fixed rules in every society, but, as an advocate of limited government, he maintained that governmental institutions, which ultimately rely on force, should be kept to the minimum required to maintain “the tolerable order of society.” Within this legal framework all social institutions – including religious, commercial, and educational activities – should be left free to develop spontaneously: “It is an universal maxim, that the more liberty is given to every thing which is in a state of growth, the more perfect it will become….”

In the preface to his History and Present State of Electricity (1767), Priestley maintained that the history of science provides the best example of the progress of human knowledge. It is here that “we see the human understanding to its greatest advantage, grasping the noblest objects, and increasing its own powers, by acquiring to itself the powers of nature, and directing them to the accomplishments of its own views; whereby the security and happiness of mankind are daily improved.”

Like many Enlightenment thinkers, Priestley believed that knowledge would continue to progress indefinitely, so long as proper conditions were maintained. But unlike those many Enlightenment thinkers who recommended state education, Priestley regarded educational freedom as essential to progress. As he put in An Essay on the First Principles of Government:

[I]f we argue from the analogy of education to other arts which are most similar to it, we can never expect to see human nature, about which it is employed, brought to perfection, but in consequence of indulging unbounded liberty, and even caprice in conducting it….From new, and seemingly irregular methods of education, perhaps something extraordinary and uncommonly great may spring. At least there would be a fair chance of such productions; and if something odd and eccentric should, now and then, arise from this unbounded liberty of education, the various business of human life may afford proper spheres for such eccentric geniuses.

Priestley continued with another attack on the Spartan model. His preference for the Athenian model of free‐​market education is clear:

Education, taken in its most extensive sense, is properly that which makes the man. One method of education, therefore, would only produce one kind of men; but the greater excellence of human nature consists in the variety of which it is capable. Instead, then, of endeavouring, by uniform and fixed systems of education, to keep mankind always the same, let us give free scope to every thing which may bid fair for introducing more variety. The various character of the Athenians was certainly preferable to the uniform character of the Spartans, or to any uniform national character whatever. Is it not universally considered as an advantage to England, that it contains so great a variety of original characters? And is it not, on this account, preferred to France, Spain, or Italy?

Uniformity is the characteristic of the brute creation.

Priestley’s opposition to state education was based on more than abstract theory. In Priestley’s day the established educational institutions of Oxford and Cambridge had degenerated to the point where they incurred severe criticisms by some leading British intellectuals. In his Memoirs of My Life and Writings, Edward Gibbon — author of Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, one of the greatest historical works ever written – noted that he “spent fourteen months at Magdalen College [one of the constituent colleges at the University of Oxford]; they proved the fourteen months the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life.” According to Gibbon, at Oxford “the greater part of the public professors have for these many years given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.”

Incredible as the fact may appear, I must rest my belief on the positive and impartial evidence of a master of moral and political wisdom, who had himself resided at Oxford. Dr. Adam Smith assigns as the cause of their indolence, that, instead of being paid by voluntary contributions, which would urge them to increase the number, and to deserve the gratitude of their pupils, the Oxford professors are secure in the enjoyment of a fixed stipend, without the necessity of labour, or the apprehension of controul.

As academic tenure caused Oxford and Cambridge to stagnate, competitive Scottish Universities developed into the most renowned universities in Europe, attracting many of the best professors and students from Europe and America.

In England, Dissenters, or Nonconformists — i.e., Protestants who refused to subscribe to the Thirty‐​Nine Articles of the Anglican Church –were banned from attending Oxford and Cambridge. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, given the torpid condition of those universities. Dissenters established their own schools, known as Dissenting Academies, and these private institutions became the most innovative schools in England, often teaching the latest developments in science.

The irony of educational outlaws surpassing established universities in educational quality was not lost on Joseph Priestley, who taught at Warrington Academy (in Liverpool) for six years, beginning in 1761. As Priestley wrote in a letter to the English Prime Minister:

Shutting the doors of the universities against us, and keeping the means of learning to yourselves, you may think to keep us in ignorance and so less capable to give you disturbance. But though ignominiously and unjustly excluded from the seats of learning, and driven to the expedient of providing at a great expense for scientific education among ourselves, we have had this advantage, that our institutions, being formed in a more enlightened age, are more liberal and therefore better calculated to answer the purpose of a truly liberal education. Thus while your universities are pools of stagnant water secured by dams and mounds, our are like rivers which, taking their natural course, fertilise a whole country.

In my first Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org essay I discussed how the libertarian appeal to liberty of conscience was extended to spheres other than religion. This is what we find in Priestley’s call for educational freedom. As he wrote in Familiar Letters, Addressed to the Inhabitants of Birmingham (1790), “I see no reason why any one man should be compelled to pay for the religion of another man, any more than for his instruction in grammar, philosophy, or any thing else.”