Bill Shorten, leader of the Australian Labor Party, has announced a plan to subsidise two years of pre-primary-school education for children. This means children as young as three years old will now be able to receive state-subsidised education.
Some may ask, "why is this bad?" After all, isn't education the key to a successful future? Isn't an educated workforce more productive? Doesn't education pay for itself? Isn't providing more education a way to ameliorate disparity and disadvantage?
The reality, however, is that not only are our lofty hopes for education unrealistic, but Shorten's plan perpetuates a phenomenon I shall refer to as the Progressive Institutionalization of Childhood, and this phenomenon appears to be implicated in the erosion of our civic culture over the past several years. Only a few years ago, the young were resilient and rebellious and more inclined to free thinking and defiant of convention; today, our college campuses are dominated by those begging for authority figures to protect them from emotional distress.
Education as signalling
As Bryan Caplan points out in his recent work The Case Against Education, the generous subsidies granted to education are premised on the idea that education makes people smarter and thus more productive. This, in turn, implies that government spending on education ultimately pays for itself, as a more productive workforce is a more lucrative tax base. However, there is an alternate understanding of the value of education; education's value is in verifying which people are going to be more productive employees. The orthodox understanding is called the 'human capital' model, and the alternate understanding is called the 'signalling' model; if the signalling model is correct, then education really just certifies pre-existing productivity and doesn't create new productivity. The implication of the signalling model is that the government over-invests in education, and thus devalues it through causing credential inflation; once upon a time, a Bachelor's Degree was sufficient for the same job that now requires a Master's Degree, and so forth.
Caplan argues that the value of education is 80% signalling, however even if education is only 50% signalling there is substantial over-investment in education (particularly advanced college degrees). Does education make you more productive? Some basic education does, but whether degrees in English Lit, Communications or any of the Victimhood Studies fields improve productivity is contestable. Does education open up opportunities? It does to an extent, but there is also a positional aspect to education, and as the costs of education are reduced the educational requirements of jobs increase. Ultimately, does education really make people more productive, or does it merely certify pre-existing competencies? The literature Caplan cites leads to some depressing conclusions; beyond some critical core skills, much of what the education system teaches is utterly irrelevant to productivity, and students often forget much of what they learn in the first place. The miserable truth is that some people are simply innately more intellectually gifted than others, and a mixture of education and "hard work" usually cannot overcome the cruel biological reality. Whilst some of the education system improves productivity, much of it does nothing more than serve as a (very expensive) sorting mechanism to certify innate abilities.
So what would Shorten's plan accomplish besides further overproduction of education and the creation of additional public sector jobs for a demographic that is disproportionately likely to vote Labor-Green? Would it make Australians more intelligent and more productive? Arguably it wouldn't; even if it didn't contribute to credential inflation, it would merely mean that yet another year of children's childhoods is spent in a regimented, institutional environment.
The progressive institutionalization of childhood
As Jonathan Haidt and Lenore Skenazy have pointed out , parents have become progressively more scared for their children's wellbeing over the past years. Haidt and Skenazy trace this back to the late 80s, when high-profile child abductions alongside a general spike in violent crime rates occurred. As such, parents became less likely to leave their children alone, or to let children explore and discover things by themselves. Children's activities became progressively more formalized, scheduled and structured, ostensibly for children's protection.
Even though violent crime rates dropped throughout the 90s, policy became progressively more protective of children. Letting one's kids play in the park was enough to get someone to call Child Protective Services. The news media gleefully indulged scaremongering over the constant danger faced by children, including from satanic cults engaged in ritual abuse which were later found to not exist.
In recent years, technology has contributed to this trend, if perhaps informally. The advent of social networking has essentially resulted in children being constantly surrounded by a peer group, and entirely new forms of bullying have flourished as a result. Now, instead of being able to escape the panopticon-like scrutiny of the pack-animals of the schoolyard, children are consistently under the surveillance of them; to the extent children are actively involved with social media connected to their real life identity, children are never free from the savage social politics of childhood.
These trends have contributed to habituating children to hierarchy, authority, formal organization, constant peer pressure, and an astonishingly weak sense of individuality. The young no longer spend time by themselves, thus denying them a distinct sense of identity as individuals. The young spend huge amounts of time inside formalized structures, thus encouraging them to be comfortable inside environments that by definition infringe upon their liberties and regulate their choices. The young are denied the ability to escape from the informal structures that define social politics, further sabotaging the development of independent identity and keeping them constantly subjected to the rewards and punishments meted out by group norms. They care not about their individual self-sovereignty or their dignity, they are comfortable sacrificing liberty for security, they embrace a moral culture where almost all disputes are worked out through appeal to formal structures they are taught to trust, or informal lynch mobs on social media.
The atrocious stories we see coming out of university campuses clearly bear the mark of children raised in a culture that sabotages individualism from the very moment they're born. They are discouraged at every turn from developing a sense of individuality, they are encouraged to depend on formal institutions, they are denied opportunities to escape the peer-group panopticon, and they are told that their safety matters more than their freedom. Individualism is not merely a political phenomenon; it has cultural roots which are being systematically poisoned.
And this poison is first introduced in schools. The savage cruelty of schoolyard social politics – a cruelty which has driven people to murder – is very well documented in countless recollections and books and movies. As Ayn Rand explained in The Comprachicos, this environment habituates children into a tribal, irrationalist mindset where fitting in is the highest good, and truth barely matters. Schools also select for general conformity, obedience and compliance, as hierarchical institutions generally do. Home life has become even more like schooling, as organized activities take up what was once free time and as the social politics of the schoolyard become the reigning principle of the internet.