This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
It is difficult for Americans to sympathize in the least with the objection which is made in England, even by those distinguished for liberal sentiments, that compulsory education is a breach of the liberty of the subject. Our incapacity for understanding or even respecting that sentiment arises from the fact that such education was early made one of the foundations of our social and political organization, and we have grown up to regard it as an accepted principle of good government. Our intolerance of the English theory, however, is not helped by the consideration that their own state makes the support of a particular religion compulsory on all inhabitants.
This is not the place to discuss whether legal provision for the instruction of youth is an invasion of that field which is recognized, in all governments moderately free, as belonging to personal rights; but it may not be inappropriate to remark, in passing, that the period to which compulsion is applied in this matter is that which cannot, for a moment, by any rational philosophy, be contemplated as capable of liberty. It is the period of youth to which restraint always attaches. Nor can it be urged that such compulsory instruction is a breach of the rights of parents; for their rights are not perfect and primary, but depending on the gift of the state, which can resume the functions of control in any degree for the public good.
The economic results of public education are manifestly in two directions.
1st, It is intended to effect the prevention of pauperism and crime. To use a popular American phrase, "It's cheaper to build schoolhouses than jails." In looking at this matter, we need to take a view between that of the optimist who expects the extinguishment of sin and vice by the advance of knowledge, and that of certain grossly material philosophers who compose statistical tables to prove that general enlightenment rather encourages crime. The first notion is refuted all too quickly by sad experience. We may fairly decline to consider the latter till it receives the sanction of one practical statesman. Such is the theory of our government on public education. We will not argue this. We will say that it is an Americanism to rely on general instruction to check the grosser inclinations of society, refine its manners, foster its self-respect, and multiply its restraints.
2d, Public education is intended to bring about, positively, a higher economical condition.
It is mind that gives man power over the brute creation; and it is by enlarging and instructing the mental power that the greatest possible factor is introduced into his effort.
We do not speak now of the education of the laborer in art or science for their own sake, but solely for his advancement as an individual being; nor do we refer now to the indirect influence on social order and national power, enlarging the desires, stimulating the activities, and promoting the frugality of a people. We allude only to the education of all who labor, whether as masters or apprentices, inventors or drudges, governors or soldiers, in order that they may more intelligently and efficiently discharge their parts in production.
It pays to do so. A few years of boyhood spent in practical studies has taken many a man out of the class of day laborers, and placed him among those who superintend the work of hundreds, or by scientific discovery multiply the power of industry manifold. Nor is it alone in these marked cases that a fortunate result has appeared. It is perfectly practicable in any country to raise the whole body of the people one distinct grade in industrial character; to make every hand and every eye more strong and accurate, while giving to each the repeating power of mind.
The two modern communities which earliest connected a general education with the agencies of government were Scotland and New England. In each, the advance of local industry, and consequently of wealth and social power, has exhibited most strikingly the economical advantages of such a system. But it was when the inhabitants of these regions went abroad to engage in the industry of foreign countries that the triumph of public education became complete and conspicuous. For more than a century, their intelligent labor has reaped the richest harvests of the world. Not to speak of social and civil honors, the Yankee and the Scot has everywhere risen, by virtue of early and thorough training, general information, and ready resource, to the mastership of all enterprises, all sciences, all arts. He never remains on the lowest plane of labor; for he always finds enough who are condemned to it by ignorance and that want of self-respect and social confidence which results from ignorance. He becomes "boss," overseer, master, employer, contractor, projector, from the force of that character which was impressed by early education, and those accomplishments which it bestows; nor only this. Although we may remember that for the greatest inventions we are indebted to inborn genius or fortunate accident, we cannot but admit that genius is more likely to be born in men of such a stock, and that accidents are more likely to be fortunate under this mental training and industrial activity; and accordingly we find, that beneficent discoveries, whether in comprehensive laws or little useful "knacks'," have repaid a million-fold all that education ever cost Scotland or New England, let alone morality, honors in scholarship, happy homes, and civil peace. In plain speech and literal truth, no miner, who at the first blow broke into one of nature's sub-treasuries and found gold rolling out upon his feet, ever by miracle of fortune hit upon a richer reward than every people may secure, beyond the slightest peradventure, by the public, thorough education of its labor.
It is not alone demanded in the interest of a greater production, but also to secure a more just and uniform distribution of wealth. The more highly educated, industrially, the workman is, the firmer and apter resistance will he offer to the aggressions of capital or competing labor; the higher will become his necessary wages, the more reasonable his remuneration. It is the poor man's share of wealth which, after all (while we respect the rights of capital for its own sake no more than for the welfare of labor), is the object of humane science and legislation. To rob the rich, or to make them objects of invidious enactments, is not to help the poor; it is only to make their misery complete and hopeless: but, while wealth is sacred and luxury is unrebuked, to elevate and strengthen the humbler classes by all moral and educational influences, — this is to bring comfort and leisure to every cottage, frugality and temperance to every home, to attain the perfection of the industrial state, almost to realize the dreams of Locke and Sidney.