Paul Peterson on Compulsory Schooling and His Best Teacher
By David Henderson
One of my more-delightful colleagues at the Hoover Institution (there are actually many to choose from) is Paul Peterson, the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard University. He’s also Senior Editor of Education Next.
I was up at Hoover yesterday to go on a show on RT and had lunch with him beforehand. Not surprisingly, given that he is an education scholar, we ended up talking about education.
I told him of something I had written about him in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey in 2001, relating to an event at Hoover in 1999. Here’s what I wrote:
In 1999, I attended some presentations at the Hoover Institution given by 11 leading U.S. education scholars/school reformers. They agreed that smaller class sizes and higher teacher pay are not the answer, basing their belief, no doubt, on copious evidence, showing little relation between such things and standard measures of educational achievement, that one of them, economist Eric Hanushek, had assembled. But many of them wanted to stiffen and make uniform the content of school curricula, have teachers give more homework, have statewide testing, and impose other requirements to make schools and teachers do a better job. During one of the question and answer periods, I posed the following question:
One of my heroes when I was a teenager was Sammy Davis, Jr. In his autobiography, Yes I Can, he tells of going on the road with his father and uncle as a performer starting at age two-and-a-half. Sammy Davis, Jr. never went to school. But in every state today, governments require attendance at school. They enforce that requirement by threatening noncomplying parents with prison sentences. My question for each of you is, if you were in charge back then, would you have been willing to send Mr. and Mrs. Davis to prison?
Three of them⎯Paul Peterson, Herb Wahlberg, and Williamson Evers⎯said they would not have been willing to send Sammy Davis, Jr.’s parents to prison. The other eight said that they would have sent his parents to prison. One of the eight, Dianne Ravitch, said, “For every Sammy Davis, Jr., there would be one thousand kids whose parents didn’t care.” The purpose of compulsory attendance, she implied, was to keep the parents in line.
The other eight, by the way in alphabetical order, were John Chubb, Chester Finn, Jr., Eric Hanushek, E.D. Hirsch, Paul Hill, Caroline Hoxby, Terry Moe and the aforementioned Dianne Ravitch.
I had forgotten whether he was one of the three. He said that he had to have been because he opposes compulsion. Of course, as you can see above, he was. We shared our stories about our own Grades 1 to 12 experiences.
He gave me permission to tell the following story about his favorite teacher in 1 to 12. It was his teacher in 8th grade, I think in history. The teacher would call the students to order and then leave the class for the whole period to smoke with the janitors. The students ended up visiting with each other. Not Paul. He looked at the library in the classroom and eyed the volumes of historian Arnold Toynbee‘s 12-volume work, A Study of History. He started working his way through the volumes. Each time that class met he looked forward to reading more Toynbee.