Just about anyone who values excellence, innovation, low prices, and variety in their consumption understands the important role played by competition in realizing each of these qualities. The ideal of the marketplace is associated with the promise of competition: a wide assortment of goods and services accessible to the largest possible segment of society.
Such is our love of competition that we even mandate it, however misguidedly, by means of antitrust legislation. We love a good horse race.
And competition is not just reserved for the arena of supply and demand. In our schools, millions of students are competing daily, hour by hour, with their peers, in alleged “preparation” for the real world; once out of school, persons will have to compete with one another for jobs, promotions, and the biggest paycheck. A good start is working hard for good grades, a high-school diploma, a high SAT score, and, if you’re lucky, a scholarship. Might as well get used to it, the wise intone.
The government school system is not unlike an episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
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The trouble with this approach is that school — at least in the compulsory form it popularly takes — is nothing at all like the real world, and it is nothing at all like the marketplace, making a system of competition between students for pre-arranged prizes using pre-determined means not only absurd and misguided, but cruel and possibly even damaging.
The school system does not prepare kids for the real world: it chooses winners and losers, and not according to any objective criteria, but according to a shifting and subjective standard that is devised for the system’s (and parents’) ease and contentment. The alternative is much closer to reality, though much more difficult to administer, which probably explains why so few desire it.
Far from being a reflection of market competition, schools are more like a microcosm of Soviet-style society. Kids are grouped according to their class (rich, middle class, or poor; black, white, or Hispanic), ability (see above), age, or geography (see class). They are sorted, placed in a local “workplace” (the school), given a bureaucratically determined set of instructions (teachers, curriculum, subjects), and watched like laboratory mice to see whether they are up to the task of being good workers, citizens, humans.
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A truly free society ought to have an equally free system of education. Contrary to popular opinion, this doesn’t have to mean an elaborate arrangement of brick buildings filled with teachers and classrooms and managed by a central authority. As John Holt, an education reformer, children’s rights advocate, and former teacher, observed in Freedom and Beyond,
Almost all societies and people now define education or learning as schooling, and measure people’s intelligence, competence, job-worthiness, and capacity for further learning almost entirely in terms of the length in years and the expense of the schooling they have already received. This is a most serious mistake.
Indeed it is. Not just children but adults as well could just as easily be learning different skills and trades in apprenticeships. They could also attend individual classes in cooking, foreign language, carpentry, painting, computer programming, or any number of other subjects or intellectual pursuits that provide the skills needed to make a living in the world, and that have as their goal the attainment of knowledge.