Libertarian thinking on education: what's applicable to us and what's not

Low-cost private schools are good, but only as long as they adopt mother-tongue as the medium of instruction.

Encouraged by articles on education on libertarian blogs such as CATO@Liberty, I procured a copy of The Beautiful Tree, a much acclaimed new book written by Prof. James Tooley and published by the CATO Institute, Washington D.C.

Tooley's research and field work shows that the world's poorest people are turning to private schools even when free government schools exist (yes, Kannadigas are among the world's poorest people as are other Indians, the Chinese, as well as the usual suspects in Africa). While the central point of the book is well taken, the book is disappointing when it comes to the issue of medium of instruction. While educationists are shouting at the top of their voice that mother-tongue is best, Tooley expresses no disappointment and takes no action about the fact that these private schools are mostly run in the English medium.

That the poor are turning to private schools certainly appears counterintuitive, as the book argues, since the poor are expected to be poor and incapable of paying for private schooling! Tooley shows that this conventional wisdom is being proven wrong the world over, as parents understand the importance of schooling and are unwilling to send their children to low-quality government schools.

Tooley gives empirical evidence that private schools are better than government schools, and that the poor worldwide are turning to the former and dumping the latter. He argues that government schools suffer from many ills such as absentee teachers, distant teachers (both geographically and socially), poor conditions, low standards, and failure to even reach the poor. Those who have ever taken a peek into government schools in Karnataka don't need to be told these things. Yes, these things are a given in government schools. Private schools, on the other hand, solve nearly all the above problems simply because the school is accountable to the parents who actually pay for its services.

So far, so good.

My grouse about the book began when I realized that the author neglects the fact that the private schools he loves so much have all dumped mother-tongue education in open defiance of the very basics of effective education. I see no disappointment in him while he observes that most of these schools are run in the English medium. Tooley seems to be least concerned about this crucial aspect of education. In fact, he is even appreciative of this decadence because he observes that it seems to be what parents want (English medium). While government schools offer that which parents apparently do not want (Mother-tongue medium), Tooley argues, it is private schools which offer what they want. It is here - in talking about the medium of instruction - that I'm afraid Tooley ceases to be an educationist; instead, he appears only to be an advocate of free-market economics irrespective of whether the people who want or don't want things know what their liberty means to them at all.

Libertarians need to explain why they questioned the judgment of American schoolchildren when Barack Obama addressed them recently. If libertarian thought basically takes what the public says as gospel truth, why did they question the judgment of schoolchildren? And how can they not question the judgment of parents when it comes to medium of instruction, especially when there is a sea of scientific evidence that shows that mother-tongue education is best? Why didn't they leave the children to decide for themselves what to learn from Barack Obama and what not, irrespective of what he planned to say during the address? Why bother to fight to get portions of his planned address edited out? If the answer is that they're only children, I would argue that those parents (mostly illiterate themselves) who do not understand the importance of mother-tongue education are only children too - when it comes to these matters. Why is puberty being used as the dividing line between those whose wants can be taken at face value and those whose wants' validity can be questioned? Utterly illogical - once you see that there is equal illiteracy on both sides of this artificial dividing line.

Also, Tooley's research hasn't even scratched the surface of what parents really want. Will they really want English medium education if say Kannada medium education was good enough and promised a fruitful career? I have no doubt that the answer is no. Tooley's fieldwork is left wanting in this respect - he does not ask this question; he does not question the judgment of those parents at all. That's being 100% libertarian, alright, but is that being an educationist?

In reality, private schools exist in the darkest of slums in the world today because they are run in the English medium, and because illiterate parents are unable to differentiate between good education and English. To them, a few words of English learnt by their children suffices as proof of good education - because of the imperial history of these people and the general eulogization of everything western / european. What is this, if it is not an open defiance of the laws of science? Given this, the fact that the world's poorest people are turning to private schools - which provide English medium education - is really not so counterintuitive after all!

Note that I am not denying the ills of government schools, or that those ills accelerate parent movement towards private schools. Far from it. Of course government schools have all the problems which Tooley points out, and of course low-cost private schools make sense. I'm only pointing out that a true educationist needs to know where to draw the line when it comes to accepting everything people say as gospel truth. Rectifying the thinking of people is what education is all about. If you consider everything people already know as gospel truth, what's the point in a school?

Also, there is a reason why governments run schools in the remotest of rural areas: private schools cannot sustain themselves there. If private enterprise could have entered those rural areas and displaced government schools, it would have already happened. Despite all their ills, only governments are able to provide any sort of education in those areas. Even to this date, 69% of all schools in Karnataka are directly run by the government, and a further 14% of all schools require government aid to run (source: If the government of Karnataka were to pull out of education today, 83% of Karnataka's schools would have to be shut down, with no private enterprise picking up this market share. There is a reason, too, why the government runs Kannada medium schools in Karnataka: it is impossible to find enough teachers to educate Kannadigas in the English medium (not that it is scientifically the best thing to do even if it's possible). Also, it is impossible for Kannadigas to be educated in the English medium effectively - and that's one stone from the mountain of evidence available about the effectiveness of mother-tongue education.

Lastly, the very thesis that developing countries are doing the right thing when it comes to education is laughable. Why should Karnataka turn to Somalia or Nigeria to understand what's the right thing to do? Why should Karnataka not learn from developed countries such as those in Europe and the US itself - where schools are run predominantly by the government? Sure, even there the ills of government schools surface; but Karnataka would become heaven overnight (okay, relatively - compared to what it is today) if its government can rise from the darkness and corruption it currently languishes in to making the mistakes which the government of say Sweden or Texas or California makes when it comes to education. It would be a great graduation if the government of Karnataka can stop making the fatal mistakes it is making today and start making the mistakes which the governments of developed countries make! Why should developing states learn from how the poorest people in the world are educating themselves, and not look up to how the richest people in the world are educating themselves?

In summary, educationists cannot overlook the scientific fact that mother-tongue education is best, even if that's what the public wishes to do (there isn't sufficient evidence that that's their wish, either). Also, public opinion - when it contradicts science - cannot be taken for granted by educationists, whether they're libertarian or non-libertarian. Thus, it makes no sense to accelerate the proliferation of low-cost English-medium private schools anywhere in Karnataka or indeed, anywhere in the developing world (which mostly speaks no European tongue). Those low-cost private schools have to be run in the mother-tongue medium to be effective and to be compliant with the basic laws of the science of education.

Note: I'll follow up with another post on the term Beautiful Tree itself (Tooley borrows it from M. K. Gandhi), and examine how beautiful the tree really was, if it was at all. Stay connected.


elango said...

why people want english mediam?it is because they want to it is begause they can't live or earn with the local frist make sure the local languague is must to live and earn in that region.if you can't use your languague in your banks railway station and post office what is the use of learing in that languague

clangorous said...

@ elango

All the places you have mentioned comes under the Central Government... when they are hell bent on promoting only Hindi... how do you think other languages can be used ?. But if you go to TN, AP and Kerala situation is much better when it comes to interacting in their local language. Only in Karnataka ... even Kannadigas hesitate to speak in Kannada at such places. When the so called Central Government work towards de-centralising and localising of their departments , then the local langauge would work wonders, but that is something I am not hoping Central Government would do in the near future

elango said...

@clagorus raher than cultivating anti immigrant feelings which are used by fraud political parties we can start campain for the use of our languague in our is a shame on all of us that we can't use our languague in our land.whether we are realy indipendent or not? we have ask this question to our fraud political parties

clangorous said...

@ elango,

Anti-immigrant feelings would always exist until the native is being denied of a decent livelihood in their own motherland in the name of pseudo nationalism. Once these immigrants step in , they spread like uncontrolled parasites eventually sidelining the natives meticuosly

elango said...

@clangorus how natives be ill treated when a democraticaly elected goverment of natives rule the it is the immigrants who are always humilated.they don't have the intensoin to fight the natives.they simply request to alow them to work and earn.if you feel it is a threat to native languague and culture it could be dealt with nessary policies to protect the native culture.we all should voice for those policies like nessasitating the knowlege of native languague if they want to reside in that state as a voting citizen.i realy appreciate you as a gentleman as your comments are very contructive.thank you

clangorous said...

@ elango,
All Democratically elected Governments of so called National Parties in Karnataka have never worked for the natives... they go to any level to do all kinds of minority appeasements to come to power. There are N number of instances where Karnataka has not got the deserved share.. be it Cauvery Water, Electricity etc etc... . But my point is not with the Government and immigrants influencing the same.

My concern is, with all the decision making profiles being meticuosly handled by the immigrants making sure natives never get a chance for even employment eventhough they have the necessary skillsets. At the same time these immigrants make sure to hire people in large numbers from their states eventhough they may or may not be good compared to the natives. This is when anti-immigrants feelings start for the natives when injustice is been done to them in their motherland. These things are happening right from Central Government firms to privately owned IT/ITES industries . When Karnataka/Bengaluru has one of the highest number of Engineering Colleges .. most of these IT companies go to other states to hire and when doing hiring within the state, they make sure people from their states get the first preference. Why do you think Kannadigas are a minority in most of these companies ?... its not that they dont have the skills or the abilities, just that they have never been given a chance to showcase their skills/abilities at the root level by denying them job/promotion opportunities. Politics which run in these IT/ITES companies are far worse and disgusting when compared to the politics of democracy.

elango said...

@clangorus i am able to understand your feelings.what is the way out?india is one we can't stop the immigrants.then what are the possible ways to protect natives?useualy the companies worry about their profit they don't want to give or provide any preference to the natives.they want only cheep labour.being a second class citizen in our own land is very pathatic.what else we we can do?

clangorous said...

@ elango,
States like : TN, AP, Orissa etc are already having a setup where 80 % of the jobs go to the natives. Karnataka also should implement such setup, Also Controlled Immigration needs to be implemented where only the jobs which require skills which are not already available should be allowed. These things are already present in lot of places around the world.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I think if a case for private education is being made then consumers will vote with their wallets on what education they want to buy. The blog post is a bit contradictory in using the word libertarian and then imposing the author’s value system on consumers. If the private schools were being coerced to provide education in english, it would make some sense in the outrage.

Otherwise, let a million flowers bloom. If there is a case that mother tongue works best, open a school and attract students competing in the free market.

Kiran Batni said...

@chandrasaurabh, It has become fancy to follow western thinkers on economics and politics and parrot that every rupee exchanged in the 'golden market handshake' is one in which there is no coercion. I am planning to write a book sometime about this misconception, but for starters, please read this small post on how voluntariness does not imply ethicality:

You will have to question your assumption that people are 'voting with their wallets' - hey, reminds me of Milton Friedman saying 'voting with their feet' :-) - whenever a rupee leaves their wallets.

I am not trying to impose my value system on consumers. I have said what the entire sane portion of mankind is saying about education and the mother tongue. It is you who is imposing your value system on everything under the sun, including calling schoolchildren (or their parents) as 'consumers' - an utterly meaningless word in the context of education, as nothing is really consumed in education, unless you are mistaking paper and ink and electricity and suchlike to be education.

It is you who is imposing your value system which seems to have distanced itself so much from ethics, that it has monetized 'value' in the term 'value system' and looks to the market to answer every question that may pop up in the human mind, including that of ethics. And what kind of a market? A market in which sharks, which have grown too fat to compete with by gobbling up food long ago when nobody was looking, challenge small fish to try and survive. This is your value system which you are trying to impose on innocent children who speak no English.

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