Removing Classrooms from the Battlefield:
Liberty, Paternalism, and the Redemptive Promise of Educational Choice
by Daniel E. Witte and Paul T. Mero
Utah’s new school voucher law has meant many things to many people. For the thirty-seven percent of our Hispanic and African-American public-school1 students who do not graduate with a highschool diploma, Utah’s voucher law represented a sense of hope and opportunity.2 For opponents of educational choice, the voucher law is un-American and a threat to democratic values.
This Article argues that opposition to vouchers is rooted in a disturbing paternalism.3 This sentiment is emphasized more than any other in opposition to the law—many anti-voucher arguments seem to gravitate to an idealized view of the common good—and, not coincidently, it has been a central historical theme in the relationships between the federal government and indigenous, immigrant, and religious minority groups. To understand perhaps the most beneficial impact of the new school-voucher law is to first recognize the existence of the philosophy of paternalism underlying the establishment and maintenance of our public education system.
Utah’s new school voucher law, as it is written, is primarily4 about helping low-income minority students and others who are currently failing in our public schools.5 In their current socioeconomic circumstances, and unlike struggling students from wealthier families, these students are essentially segregated in their neighborhood schools and told by the keepers of the common good that their challenges do not warrant any intervention transcendent of the higher priority to maintain the alleged seedbed of democracy, our government public school system. Indeed, the sociodisadvantaged are told, the system was created for them—not for the rich and the influential who have far greater choices and opportunities6 and who are able to leverage their successes to benefit their struggling children, but for disadvantaged people who could not succeed without the beneficent (if coercive) hand of government.
If Utah’s new school voucher law only does one thing—eradicate the concept of public school paternalism—it will have done more for the freedoms of all Utahns than any other single policy reform in the past century. But to appreciate the power of that statement, we must first uncover its historical narrative, and this narrative begins with the issue of black slavery. Part II discusses a few historical examples of coercion in our nation’s history of minority education. Specifically, this section outlines General Richard Henry Pratt’s astounding approach to educating minorities after the Civil War. Part III describes how current proponents of the government school system and opponents of education choice make arguments descended from those General Pratt espoused. This section concludes that Utahns and Americans should avoid this paternalistic approach to education by incorporating greater modes of parental choice in our education systems, such as school vouchers. Part IV offers a brief conclusion.
II. GENERAL PRATT, PATERNALISM, AND HISTORICAL COERCION IN GOVERNMENT EDUCATION
General Pratt’s paternalistic approach to the education of minorities incorporated contemporary cultural influences and social class theory. Homebuilders, past and present, know that “mudsill” is a pounded earthen floor prevalent in most primitive homes. In the mid- to late-nineteenth century, the term mudsill was eventually ascribed derogatorily to poor people. A well-known “mudsill theory” held that poorer classes, especially black slaves, were natural and essential to human progress.
The chief proponent of mudsill theory in the Civil War era was a South Carolina planter and United States senator named James Henry Hammond. In a speech delivered on the Senate floor in 1858, Senator Hammond explained,
Hammond’s contemporary, and a popular pro-slavery advocate, George Fitzhugh added,
The paternalism of slavery is deftly described by one historian this way:
Paternalism has enabled brutality against African-Americans, Native Americans,10 and others by positing that government facilitated violations of human (and constitutional) rights are necessary means to ostensibly beneficent ends. The coercive imposition of paternalism has become one of the great ironies of a free nation, and perhaps no person exemplified this irony in the arena of American education more than a seemingly obscure Union Army general named Richard Henry Pratt.
It was against the backdrop of the mudsill theory that Richard Henry Pratt emerged from the shadows of history to seize control of America’s educational destiny.11 We are fortunate that General Pratt left behind a lengthy and detailed journal, now his formal autobiography appropriately titled Battlefield & Classroom, about the ideas and actions supporting his paternalistic quest to turn black slaves, American Indians,12 and Puerto Ricans into “real Americans.”
Pratt’s military career began with the April 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter during the Civil War.13 He fought as a Union soldier for four years in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, participating in some of the most vicious and bloody battles of the entire conflict.14 It was there that Pratt developed an important network with influential military and political friends, including General William Tecumseh Sherman.
After briefly leaving the military on May 29, 1865, Pratt reenlisted and was appointed a second lieutenant15 on March 7, 1867.16 He was assigned to command a newly-organized “Negro” regiment consisting of African-American enlisted men supervised by white officers.17 Of that time, Pratt later wrote:
Pratt believed that the same insights and managerial tactics also applied to other demographic minority groups, including Native Americans and Puerto Ricans.19
When the Civil War came to a close, General Sherman20 and his network of career military officers turned their attention to subduing Indian Territory in the mid-western and western United States, as well as Texas. In spring of 1867, Pratt was assigned to Fort Arbuckle in what is now Oklahoma.21 At that time, various Indian tribes were involved in an insurgency against the United States military’s effort to gain permanent and exclusive territorial control. Pratt participated in eight years of battles and negotiations22 involving various tribes, including the final conquest of the Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes, and Arapahos.23
One of the primary grievances of the warring Indian tribes was encroachment of white settlers and the resultant reduction of available land and resources. In particular, the elimination of the buffalo herds caused Indian starvation.24 As the natural game was depleted and Indians were confined to territorial boundaries on reservations and elsewhere, Indian tribes were forced to rely upon the federal government for food.25
However, experience demonstrated that the federal government often sent insufficient or inadequate rations in violation of government obligations set forth under treaties the federal government had forced the Indians to sign.26 The Indian tribes complained that the white man was a first aggressor who had driven the Indians from their traditional lands, declared war on the Indians, and killed Indian women and children unnecessarily and indiscriminately.27 The Indians believed that their own brutal attacks against white settlements and supply convoys constituted a natural and justified tactic of self-defense and self-preservation. As a result, Indian Territory at that time was enmeshed in a vicious war on all sides, characterized by insurgency, terrorism, gruesome atrocities, sexual assault, kidnappings, torture, involuntary servitude, dismemberment, and scorched-earth tactics.28
Pratt was surprised to learn that the Cherokee Indians, who by then had been relocated to Oklahoma from Georgia as part of the “Trail of Tears” migration coercively supervised by the military in 1838,29 were already quite “civilized” and had their own self sufficient system for education:
Notwithstanding this discovery, Pratt decided that neither the Cherokee nor other Indians should be permitted to run their own schools or control the upbringing of their own children.32