The lesson? That schools today (and since antiquity) are institutions not of learning, but of authoritarianism. Force and fear reign supreme. Administrators and instructors “are the authority figures who must be obeyed in every respect, and students, who are the ‘peasants’ in this establishment, must try in every way to please those who rule over them.” In short, students “must please the schools, colleges or universities, instead of these institutions having to please the students.” The power of the book is in its illustrations of the lesson and in the free-market alternative that Johnson proposes.
From the primary and secondary school level:
Discipline. The authoritarian setting, says Johnson, works against the possibility of order in the classroom. Students are forced to be there by law, directly in the lower grades and indirectly in the higher, by the hampering of a free market through regulation. As a result, “almost everything in the classroom is done by means of orders and threats.” The students are ordered to perform certain tasks and threatened with low or failing grades if they don’t comply. Cornered rats—and prisoners—rebel when squeezed too hard. Schools are scholastic prisons and teachers are the guards and wardens paid to keep order.
Drugs. In the authoritarian climate of today’s schools, where the “customers” are not permitted to pursue their own interests, boredom, resentment, confusion, and low self-esteem frequently result. Drugs are seen by some students as a way to relieve their feelings of hopelessness.
Violence. “Force is the hallmark of any authoritarian establishment whether this be a state or an institution. And wherever there is force there will always be acts of violence. They are inevitable companions.”
Cheating. Anyone who has been through today’s school system knows that knowledge is not what is being marketed. “Students, recognizing that good grades and a diploma are what is really valuable to them, will often not hesitate to cheat in order to obtain these primary ‘goods’ which the teachers and schools are really selling.”
At the college level, Johnson has this to say:
Degrees. “It is because institutions of learning give out diplomas or grant degrees that they operate in an authoritarian manner. It is because the students must please the teachers and professors, as well as the institutions, in their attempt to ‘win’ the certificates of graduation that allows the schools, colleges and universities to be the dictatorial institutions that they are. . . . The professor orders the students to perform certain tasks—read certain assignments, write specific papers or reports, give designated oral presentations, etc.—and the students either follow these orders, or else.” Professors hold the degree up for ransom and their red ink pens are their guns.
Student Government. Why does it exist? Because students “realized that matters were often in need of change at the college or university and so they decided to band together in the attempt to see what they could do to bring about the desired changes.” In a free market, dissatisfied customers can stimulate change in a supplying business rather quickly, or else a new one will soon be on the scene to meet the needs of the dissatisfied buyers. But schools are not free enterprises. “All student government could really do was to petition, that is to beg, the administration or Board for favors—like changes in rigid social rules—that would make life at a bit more bearable.”
Academic Freedom and Tenure. Similar to the plight of students in an authoritarian climate, professors organized to protect themselves against administrations. They demanded and got the privilege of lifetime employment and the license to say and write whatever they please (as long as it is consistent with state or administration dogma). In a free market, employees who disagree with their employers simply leave and go elsewhere, and perhaps start their own businesses. Education, however, is not a business; there is nowhere for the professors to go.
Titles and Robes. Johnson discusses other issues, such as honor systems, academic and social probation, dress codes, hazing, and school spirit. His crowning achievement, however, is his comment on titles and robes.
“But what do titles signify?” asks Johnson, titles such as “Doctor” and “Dean.” He answers:
Titles signify power, prestige and authority, and they have always been used to instill fear in others—to con others into thinking that the titled personage is someone special and better than others who must be looked up to and obeyed. . . . Titles . . . are almost always found where there is some degree of tyranny.
How about academic regalia—
all those Medieval robes, caps and hoods? . . . It is true that certain businesses do have their employees dressed in similar outfits, or many businesses have a particular character, like a clown, dressed in a certain way and acting as a representative or symbol of the business. But one does not find, as one does in the academic community, a group of academic “clowns”—the professors, administrators, and board members—dressed in Medieval clerical garb forming and marching in academic processions that look almost identical to religious processions. . . .
Titles and robes are always found wherever one group of people is trying to lord it over another group of people. Kings and dictators get themselves up in fancy costumes and demand that they be called by an array of titles. Military and academic personnel do the same. But not businessmen. They do not, and cannot, lord it over customers. They must win the favor of customers by demonstrating their talent and ability. Talents and robes are of no help in a rational and healthy business environment.
The rational alternative to this forceful, fearful authoritarianism is a free market of educational businesses—”private, profit-making and openly competing enterprises that are only selling instruction, not grades and degrees. . . . There would be no entrance requirements and no prerequisites. . . . There would be no grades and no diplomas or certificates.” The customers would evaluate the sellers much as is done in free-market businesses today. Teachers, the peddlers of knowledge and ideas, would not evaluate the customers.