Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Conscience of a Progressive

Ernest Partridge

Chapter Twenty-Two:

Why Should I Pay for Someone Else's Education?



[Society] is a partnership in all science; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.

Edmund Burke


Is it unfair to require those who have no children in the public schools to pay school taxes?

The libertarian-right apparently believes that it is. In its 2000 platform, the Libertarian Party proclaimed:

We advocate the complete separation of education and State... We condemn compulsory education laws. We further support immediate reduction of tax support for schools, and removal of the burden of school taxes from those not responsible for the education of children.1

Furthermore, Christian fundamentalists are disinclined to send their children to public schools, often preferring to send them to “Christian academies” or to teach them at home. They opt out of public education in order to protect their children from “corruption” through and exposure to such secular ideas such as evolution, historical geology, or even tolerance of contrary religious beliefs. If they choose to withdraw their children from the public schools, why should the fundamentalists be required to pay school taxes?

Without a doubt, if, as the libertarians propose, “the burden of school taxes” is confined to those “responsible for the education of children” (presumably their own children), the quality of public education will be severely degraded, while, at the same time the burden of school costs on families with school-age children will be greatly increased – so much so, that poor families will be hard-pressed to support the schooling of their children through High School, and middle-class families will find it difficult to afford college education for their children. In short, without broad-based financial support for public education, the education-level of our next generation will decline precipitously.

So if asked why I should pay for the education of other peoples’ children, I have a simple and straightforward answer: “Because I prefer to live in the company of educated neighbors, and in a country with educated citizens.”

If I were a businessman or an entrepreneur, setting out to establish an innovative and high-tech business enterprise, I would add: “I pay school taxes so that our country might have an educated work-force, without which my enterprise could not possibly succeed.”

The nineteenth-century Sociologist, L. T. Hobhouse, put it well when he wrote:

The organizer of industry who thinks he has 'made' himself and his business has found a whole social system ready to his hand in skilled workers, machinery, a market, peace and order -- a vast apparatus and a pervasive atmosphere, the joint creation of millions of men and scores of generations. Take away the whole social factor, and we have not Robinson Crusoe with his salvage from the wreck and his acquired knowledge, but the native savage living on roots, berries and vermin.2

Thus Ayn Rand’s totally self-made and self directed John Galt type of entrepreneur is a myth. As even Bill Gates must appreciate, there is no MicroSoft without the myriad of publicly educated “micro-serfs” on the payroll.

A libertarian reader of our website, The Crisis Papers, disagrees, as he writes:

People would want to be educated even if there were no public education and would educate themselves, if necessary, as they did in days past. It is the Ayn Rand hero who would take the root-eating savages and educate them so that he could build a factory in their barren land and thus produce a good living for himself and them.

Once again, the libertarian unwittingly gives us a powerful self-refutation. For on reflection, this is a truly absurd and malevolent proposal.

We are asked to imagine Ayn Rand’s "John Galt" or his surrogates strolling through the village of savages, picking out a few children and offering to educate them to work in Galt's factories. This would, of course, require several years of education, and capitalists are not renowned for their willingness to await long-term returns on their investments. But let that pass. More serious problems arise. Would these selected "students" be required to work for Galt to pay off their debt? What if, during their education, they developed other career aspirations. Would they nonetheless be indentured servants to Galt? What kind of "liberty" is this? And if, on the other hand, the chosen students were accorded the right to take their Galt-supported education elsewhere, what entrepreneur would take such a risk on his investment in their education? And what would be the content of that education? Presumably, only the specific skills needed to enhance Galt's profits? If so, forget about literature, history, philosophy, or any of the "liberating" liberal arts. Instead, the selected students would trained to be skilled workers, “human capital,” and not free citizens of a democratic society.

Once again, we find in this proposal the libertarian disregard of the essential "like liberty principle," defended by such great liberals as John Stuart Mill: the principle that each individual is entitled the maximum liberty, consistent with the same liberty for others. The above education scheme exacts a heavy "freedom penalty" and “welfare penalty” on others, all to the exclusive advantage of the “sponsoring” entrepreneur.

Another reason why I should support public education, at all levels from Kindergarten through university graduate schools, is that this support is “payback” to all those who paid for my own public education. This payback is quite justly assessed and taxed throughout my lifetime, since I benefit from the advantages of that public education throughout my life.

But this is a paradoxical sort of “payback,” since I cannot directly “return the favor” to my patrons. Those individuals who built and sustained the institutions that I attended, and those teachers whom I encountered in innumerable classrooms, are either dead or in their dotage. My debt is payable to abstractions: to society and civilization. By this I mean, payable to those fragile institutions that secure, sustain and enrich the lives of us all: our Constitutional government, our laws, civic peace and tolerance, our common history, our sciences and arts. I “pay back” those who paid for my education by preserving those institutions and by enhancing the public good.3

“The public good?” The libertarian will have none of it. For, to recall once again, as Ayn Rand once wrote, “ there is no such entity as ‘the tribe‘ or ‘the public‘; the tribe (or the public or society) is only a number of individual men.”4

Accordingly, the libertarian argues, educational institutions exist only to benefit each individual person who is educated, and thus should be paid for only by that individual’s family.

This is an absurdity that only a doctrinaire libertarian could believe. For in fact, the education of each individual benefits the public at large, and thus should be supported by the public at large. In particular, as libertarian supporters of the “corporatocracy” so easily forget, public education supplies the literate and skilled work force that is the foundation of corporate affluence.

When I entered the University campuses, first as a student and later as a professor, I found magnificent institutions at my disposal: buildings and grounds, faculties, libraries, and traditions – all these supported, refined, added-upon over the decades at great public expense, only a small fraction of which consisted of student tuition and fees. Yet the returns of this public investment to the public are incalculably lavish: scientific advances issuing from university laboratories, the accumulation and integration of knowledge from the many separate disciplines, the public service of the scholars, teachers, engineers, business people, lawyers, doctors, etc. that graduate from these public institutions.

There is no better evidence of the social and economic benefits of public education, than the GI Bill of Rights (1944) that offered free college education to veterans of World War II. This bill, steadfastly opposed by the Congressional Republicans at the time, was the foundation of the middle class that emerged from that war, and a springboard to the unprecedented economic growth that followed. Thus the GI Bill is regarded by many as the most significant federal legislation of the twentieth century.

Universal support of public education affirms the principle that We the People of the United States are a community, and not, as the libertarian right would have us believe, a mere aggregate of disconnected, self-interested individuals and families, the sum of whose private activity is somehow mysteriously, and without need of planning or management, transformed into the public good. On the contrary, the fabric of our national community has been woven, to a significant degree, by the public schools as they took in immigrants from numerous nations and transformed them, in a single generation, into Americans – e pluribus unum. They did so by teaching a common language, our national history, and our founding political principles. Of late, the teaching of history and civics in the public schools has been downgraded, and we are now paying a terrible price for this neglect, as a generation of Americans emerges that is ignorant of their heritage and of their rights, and thus ill prepared and ill-motivated to protect them when threatened.

Public education is now under attack as never before. George Bush promises to “Leave no Child Behind,” and then withdraws funding from the Act bearing that name. Karl Rove attacks the teachers’ union, The National Education Association (called by former Bush Administration Education Secretary, Ron Paige, “a terrorist organization”), because of the teachers’ traditional support of the Democratic Party. “Voucher systems” threaten to draw gifted students, and students from affluent families, out of the public schools, leaving behind the poor and disadvantaged. And so-called “taxpayers’ revolts” are starving the schools of essential funding, often despite the wishes of the public. For example, in my own community, a majority of voters have recently supported two proposals to increase school funding, only to have those proposals defeated by a law that requires a two-thirds majority to increase tax assessments. This law, the so-called Jarvis Initiative of 1979, is believed by many to be the primary cause of the decline of the once-magnificent California public school system, and the University of California, once the undisputed leader in public higher education.

Because we are all continuing beneficiaries of our system of public education, that system deserves universal support - whether or not we happen to have children currently in school. Our very freedom depends upon a flourishing educational establishment, for, as Jefferson correctly observed, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be."

Or as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote in his Aims of Education:

In the conditions of modern life the rule is absolute, the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed. Not all your heroism, not all your social charm, not all your wit, not all your victories on land or at sea, can move back the finger of fate. Today we maintain ourselves. Tomorrow science will have moved forward yet one more step, and there will be no appeal from the judgment which will then be pronounced on the uneducated.5

The Assault Upon Trained Intelligence

As anyone with an active and informed interest in the state of our nation is aware, George Bush's "compassionate conservatism" has impacted heavily and cruelly upon today's generation of college students.

It is one thing to know this as an abstract fact, and quite another to face the particular and personal manifestations of these policies. I was recently vividly reminded of the personal dimensions of the educational crisis when I received a message from a young college student in my neighborhood, hard-pressed to continue his education amidst the public squalor brought on by Bushenomics. He found himself drawn to the distasteful “solution” of joining the military, in expectation of a promised post-service support of his education.

The source of the financial emergency facing this student, and millions of others like him, is no mystery. Federal tax cuts and unfunded mandates have put financial burdens on the states which have, in turn, led to budget cutbacks and tuition increases in the public colleges and universities. Compounding these hardships, the sagging job market has deprived many poor students of the opportunity to put themselves through college. And so, throughout the nation, hordes of qualified and motivated students are being forced to postpone, or perhaps even abandon, their professional aspirations.

The Partridges, professors both, have witnessed this tragedy first-hand, as talented and promising students have had to drop out, as part-time and adjunct faculty at the thresholds of their careers have been "let go," and as course offerings have been withdrawn due to shortages of faculty.

These conditions are being replicated in thousands of public colleges and universities throughout the land.

It is bad enough that millions of our young people are thus being deprived of the opportunity to realize their potentials and achieve their aspirations in life. Far worse are the implications of this fiscal starvation of public higher education for the future of our country. It is indisputable that no nation can compete and survive in this technological age without a trained work force. Nor can an advanced and free civilization endure without a cadre of educated public servants -- lawyers, doctors, professors, entrepreneurs, administrators -- and a public liberally educated in the history and political laws and traditions of the state, and instilled with critical skills, moral insight and civic responsibility.

In sum: Public education is not, as the right wing regressives would have it, merely an avenue of opportunity for those individuals who can afford it. The education of each individual is an essential investment in the future of the entire society.

The city of New York recognized this a century ago, when it established its system of tuition-free City Colleges (now the City University of New York). In the City College system, students were accepted on academic merit alone, and the competition was fierce. Living at home and commuting by subway, children of immigrants had a "ladder" of opportunity that led them from poverty to the professions -- an avenue that was taken by thousands of outstanding and productive scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers and teachers. These were exemplars of Thomas Jefferson's "natural aristocracy of talent and virtue."

The City University system was replicated in California, as it established what was to become the world's finest public university system -- until, that is, Ronald Reagan became the Governor of California, and until, in 1979, the infamous "Proposition 13" slashed California tax revenues.

Today, as tuition costs rise at the City University of New York, in the California public universities, and in public colleges and universities throughout the land, the door to higher education is closing to the talented and motivated young people who have the misfortune of also being poor.

“Why Should I Pay for Someone Else’s Research?”

This complaint by the public, and in particular the parents of college students, is all too familiar to college and university administrators and faculty. “I pay taxes and tuition so that my child can get an education. Moreover, the professors are paid their salaries to teach, not to be distracted by research and surely not to hand-off their teaching responsibilities to unqualified graduate students.”

CBS correspondent Leslie Stahl echoed this complaint in a 1995 report on “Sixty Minutes.”  In that feature, titled "Get Real!", Stahl visited" the University of Arizona, and used that occasion to dredge up the usual criticisms of large public universities: i.e., that they promote research at the expense of education, that this research results in cryptic papers published in obscure journals that nobody ever reads, and that undergraduates generally encounter graduate teaching assistants rather than professors in their classes.”

When that program was broadcast, I was on the faculty Northland College, a small, private teaching-oriented college in northern Wisconsin. As such, my institution was not a target of the 60 Minutes critique. Nonetheless, I found the segment to be offensive, unfair, and worst of all, dangerous – “dangerous,” because it attacked and undermined the essential contributions of public universities to science, to scholarship, to our national culture and economy, and to world civilization.

Because the caricature of higher education presented in that program is believed by a large and influential segment of our population, it deserves a measured response.

It happens that I am the product of a large state University (the University of Utah), and for the larger part of my career, I taught at such institutions in Utah, Colorado and California. But much more to the point, small private colleges such as Northland proudly sends many of their graduates to research universities -- if, that is, these students have proven themselves capable of meeting the high standards they will face. And as any professor knows, whether that professor serves a large university or a small college, the most significant content of the courses that he or she teaches is the output of scholarly researchers, either now or recently at work. Moreover, today scholarly research remains active, alive, and in progress. Any scholar knows this who has waited too long to complete a paper and then sent it out for publication while the "cutting edge" moved on, leaving his work behind.

Foremost among the taxpayers’ and parents’ complaints is that students who go to college to gain an education are cheated when they find that the primary interest of the professors is research, and that the despised task of teaching is left to the untenured and even to graduate students. Stahl called this "consumer fraud."

Soon after the 60 Minutes program was broadcast, I had a conversation with a University of Arizona philosopher, Keith Lehrer, who was interviewed by Stahl in that program. Lehrer pointed out to me those same university faculties, including the inexperienced teaching assistants, routinely accomplish a small miracle. As we know all too well, the reading, writing and computational skills of our high school graduates are a national disgrace. Yet in four years these research-distracted institutions somehow manage to raise the knowledge and skills of these students to a level sufficient for them to qualify for graduate schools, where they successfully compete with the same foreign students that so thoroughly outclassed them just four years earlier. And why are so many foreign students at our graduate schools? Because they recognize these institutions to be the finest in the world.

"Consumer fraud?" 60 Minutes provided eloquent refutation of its own accusation, which the critically alert viewer might have noticed. Early on it was pointed out that the University of Arizona takes in $250 million for funded research. Not mentioned was the fact that more than forty percent of that amount (perhaps $100 million) is directed to "overhead," which is to say, the general operating expenses of the University. Yet near the close of the program, Stahl suggested that someday, some parent may sue a university for "consumer fraud," since the tuition intended for their child's education was being used instead for research. It seems that Stahl had the matter entirely reversed. As any University Bursar can readily demonstrate, in a large graduate university, the teachers do not support research; research supports teaching -- from those aforementioned "overhead charges." Far more justified would be a "consumer fraud" suit against the university from a funding organization, on the grounds that the cash which they had intended for research, was being "misappropriated" to support teaching.

Graduate students teaching undergraduates? Shocking! Presumably, no one should ever be allowed to teach for the first time, just as no one should ever practice law or medicine for the first time. Are we expected to believe that outstanding professors like Keith Lehrer never taught for the first time: that they simply walked down, fully formed, from Mount Olympus? And should senior professors teach such entry classes as beginning Calculus or Freshman English? Wouldn't it make as much sense for a senior surgeon to walk the wards, take temperatures and blood pressures and dispense medications, or for a judge to act as his own clerk? This is not a question of caste or privilege; just a question of the optimum use of resources and talent.

And when professors do teach, just what is the content of their teaching? Quite simply, it is the results of research. Moreover, this will be research done recently, and most likely at a university -- the more advanced the course, the more recent the research. End the research, and soon there will be nothing to teach but aging content and stale ideas, accumulated up to that dreadful moment when the research, and thus all progress, was halted.

It is equally true, of course, that research to the exclusion of teaching would also bring progress to a stop. Surely, there must be a balance.

To be fair, much public criticism is not of "research" per se, but of frivolous and pointless research – what one cynic characterized as “digging up old bones, putting them in a new box, and reburying them.” There is some merit to this complaint. I would guess that if half of the scholarly journals were abolished, the reduction of significant thought and information would be about five-percent as quality material was rerouted to the remaining publications. Even so, I dare say that the complaint is ill-founded, for it falsely assumes that one can assess, as research is proposed and begun, the value of that research when it is completed.

The late Wisconsin Senator, Bill Proxmire, used to give "Golden Fleece Awards" to what he regarded as useless government-supported research. As I recall, he took special pleasure at pointing out studies of "the sex lives of insects" as paradigms of federal boondoggling. However, this research has led to a very effective, and at the same time ecologically benign, method of controlling insect pests. But one need not be an agronomist or an entomologist to figure out a connection between sex and reproduction, though apparently this evaded Proxmire's notice.

To support her complaint about the alleged frivolity of scholarly research, Stahl took special delight at grabbing a (presumably) random journal off the shelf of the UA library, and reading a cryptic title therein. It was, of course, totally meaningless to anyone outside of the discipline in question.

So too, the following:

"Regarding the Development and Alteration of Light from a Heuristic Perspective."

"The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies."

"On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems."

Which of these academic publications is worthy of anyone's attention, far less the subsidy of the taxpayers? “Who,” to repeat Stahl’s question, “would read this stuff?”

Fortunately, someone did. The first (published in 1905) earned Einstein the Nobel Prize, and the second (also 1905) was his first statement of the special theory of relativity. The third, by Kurt Gödel (1931) is arguably one the most important mathematical papers of the twentieth century.

Grab a random journal off the shelf of a university library, and the chance that any of it’s content will be of comparable worth is vanishingly remote. And yet, scattered throughout that same library is a record of scientific and scholarly achievement, and the unrealized and undeveloped resources for further advancement. I am quite incapable of judging the quality of all but a few scholarly publications outside of my academic specialty of moral philosophy and environmental ethics, although presumably the editors and referees of such publications are so qualified. An active and ongoing cadre of scholars and researchers is required to assess the value of such publications and to build on them. How are these researchers to be supported, if not by our universities?

Today the US economy imports energy, consumer electronics and automobiles, all of which we once produced domestically. What do we export in return? Municipal garbage, unprocessed National Forest products (i.e., our remaining wilderness), and Midwestern grain. Among our imports are foreign professionals who come to our shores to gain, in those universities that 60 Minutes disparaged, a quality of higher education that until recently was unsurpassed anywhere in the world. In many fields it still is. Many of those foreign students, drawn to our universities, remain to become the scholars, scientists and engineers that enrich our intellectual, technical and cultural life, not to mention our economy.

But now these research universities, our national treasures, are under attack by opportunistic politicians, by taxpayers alliances, by the religious right, and by sensation-seeking popular media. The research therein, we are told, is "an extravagance that we can't afford." American industry and the mainstream media, which has had no qualms about utilizing and prospering from the talents of our university graduates or from the results of their research, finds it all too easy to attack those institutions which have rewarded them so lavishly. The American economy, which has flourished on golden eggs, is now looking hungrily at the goose.

In this blessed land, our cities and infrastructure are in decay, our governments are collapsing under mountains of debt, our foreign rivals out-compete us with technologies first developed in our universities, and now civility has left our politics. But there remain a few things at which we still excel, and foremost among them is scientific, technical and scholarly research, and the higher education which supports and produces this research.

Our commercial media serves us poorly when it recklessly attacks one of our most successful, productive and internationally acclaimed institutions.

{Much more to be added to this chapter}



1.     Libertarian Party:
Libertarian Party on Education, On the Issues.

2.     Via Paul Samuelson, Newsweek, December 30, 1974.

3.     I argue this point at length in my "Posthumous Interest and Posthumous Respect," Ethics, 91:2, (January, 1981).  http://gadfly.igc.org/papers/pipr.htm .

4.    “What is Capitalism?”, 1965.

5.    Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education, Mentor, 1954. p. 26.

6.     That 60 Minutes program elicited the following two letters, the first from a Professor of English at the University of Arizona:  Thomas Miller: "TAs serve valuable roles, faculty teach undergrads," Letter to The Arizona Daily Wildcat (AU Student Newspaper), March 2, 1995.

Thomas Devlin: "'Top' Universities Do Teach," The Particle Adventure (particleadventure.org). (An edited version of this article appeared on the Editorial pages of the New York Times on June 13, 1995.)   Devlin is a professor Physics at Rutgers University.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .