“Education” in America Today

by Don Boudreaux on February 24, 2021

in History, Myths and Fallacies

Here’s a letter to a high-school junior who reads my blog. (Smart kid!)

Mr. J__ C__

Dear J__:

Thanks for your e-mail.

You correctly predict that I disagree with your teacher’s claim that (as you quote her) “America is the most racist, class structured society in all history.” I apologize, though, for being unable to grant your request that I tell you how you can best respond. Such a response is up to you. I’m sure that you’ll do an excellent job. Yet regardless of the contents of your response, offer it with respect, with politeness, and with an open-mind – and with courage.

Although I can’t tell you how to respond, I can recommend to you some sources of historical knowledge that I’ve found to be especially informative on this topic. For starters, read the slim Walter Williams volume – Race & Economics – that I mentioned in the blog post of mine that sparked your e-mail. It’s inexpensive and readily available.

I’m no historian, but if you have the interest and more time, I recommend that at some point you also study the following:

– Robert Higgs, Competition and Coercion: Blacks in the American Economy, 1865-1914 (revised edition, University of Chicago Press, 1980).

– Deirdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

– Thomas Sowell, Ethnic America (Basic Books, 1984).

If I think of other sources – and I’m certain that I will – I’ll pass them along to you.

I leave you here with this observation from Lord Acton, the eminent British historian of the second half of the 19th century; it’s found on pages 589-590 of this volume:

America first established the idea that absolutism is wrong. Till then it had been inconvenient, injurious, a burden and a drawback to prosperity etc. It was a privilege to be free from it. But liberty was an acquired privilege, not a universal right. Aristotle had allowed absolute power; S. Augustine likewise. In the Middle Ages, the idea that the heterodox are equal, that rights belong to individuals, apart from their land, their faith, their colour, was not known…. Indeed, it would have overthrown every throne in Europe. It arose in America.

That this belief in individual rights arose in America only imperfectly is undeniable; we regret the imperfection. But equally undeniable, or so it seems to me, is the fact that before the American experiment “the idea that the heterodox are equal, that rights belong to individuals, apart from … their colour, was not known.” Surely we can take some pride in the reality that this idea “arose in America” – a reality that strikes me as being at odds with your teacher’s claim.

Good luck!

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

UPDATE: An e-mail from my colleague Dan Klein prompts me to wish that I’d been just a bit more subtle in using the quotation from Acton. To say, as Acton does, that the idea that rights belong to individuals arose in America seems not quite correct. This idea was certainly at the heart of the American revolution (which I suspect is what Acton had in mind). But it’s more accurate to say that this world-changing idea was birthed in Britain, with America nourishing it with greater, if not perfect, care and gusto.


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