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Carl Sagan Warned Us About Government Schools Decades Ago

Carl Sagan Warned Us About Government Schools Decades Ago

My wife and I recently met with the principal of the school our daughter attends to discuss her education future.

My daughter, who turns 12 in a few days, wants to go to a different school in the fall, largely because many of her friends—who are a year ahead of her—are graduating to new schools. (And also because her teacher, whom she adored, took a job in a different district.)

When we stepped into the principal’s office, she offered us chairs. She was warm, knowledgeable, and helpful, and I got the feeling she knows my daughter and wants what is best for her. I suspect my daughter will return to the school for one more year, but it’s a conversation we’ll have together.

I believe that whatever school we choose, my daughter will have a relatively good experience. And I’m deeply grateful for that. I’m all too aware of how badly our schools have failed American children in recent years, and I’m hardly the only person to make this observation.

Decades ago, the esteemed American astronomer Carl Sagan talked about how US schools were ruining the minds of our children.

“My experience is, you go talk to kindergarten kids or first-grade kids, you find a class full of science enthusiasts. And they ask deep questions. ‘What is a dream, why do we have toes, why is the moon round, what is the birthday of the world, why is grass green?’ These are profound, important questions. They just bubble right out of them. You go talk to 12th grade students and there’s none of that. They’ve become leaden and incurious. Something terrible has happened between kindergarten and 12th grade and it’s not just puberty.”

Sagan doesn’t offer a reason as to why US schools have been failing for so long, but I think the simple answer is that it stems from those in charge of the school systems: the government.

‘Good Schools Don’t Need More Money’

I recently was sitting around a fire with a progressive friend while we were enjoying our vacation in the north woods of Wisconsin. We agree on almost nothing, politically. I understand why, but I don’t think he does. So I asked him a simple question.

“What is the purpose of government?” I asked.

He seemed perplexed for a moment, then answered. “To provide for the people.”

There is no worse answer, of course. It’s an answer that runs counter to the ideas of the American system. Thomas Paine spoke for many when he observed that government, even in its best state, “is a necessary evil.”

Government is unfit and incapable of providing for people, as history has shown time and again. It creates nothing. It only spends, and every dollar it spends is taken from others (and almost never from their free will).

“The entire question of government spending is perhaps best perceived when one realizes that the government is not a source of wealth,” the great economist Frédéric Bastiat long ago observed. “The people themselves are the only true source of wealth. Hence the government can only give to the people what it has already taken from the people.”

I bring up the anecdote with my friend for a simple reason. Many Americans think the answer to fixing our schools means simply taking more money and giving it to schools. This is precisely what we did in the decades since Sagan observed that schools were failing our kids.

It’s time to admit that the model we’re using is fundamentally flawed.

John Taylor Gatto, the celebrated American author and school teacher, offered the proper solution decades ago.

“Good schools don’t need more money or a longer year; they need real free-market choices, variety that speaks to every need and runs risks. We don’t need a national curriculum or national testing either. Both initiatives arise from ignorance of how people learn or deliberate indifference to it.”

It was precisely this failing system that drove Gatto, one of the best teachers of his generation and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, out of the American public school system.

“I can’t teach this way any longer,” Gatto bluntly stated. “If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living, let me know.”

Despite the extravagant spending, our schools are failing our kids. Carl Sagan saw it. John Taylor Gatto saw it. And we all see it today.

Our schools must be freed from the hands of the government, and returned to the hands of the people.

This article is reprinted from FEE.org where it appeared under a Creative Commons (CC BY 4.0) license. It first appeared on the author’s Substack.

Image credit: YouTube


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  • Avatar
    Greg Salo
    July 5, 2023, 7:07 pm

    “To provide for the people.”

    Yes, so many people believe this. Half the voters? Or more?

    • Avatar
      Canute@Greg Salo
      July 6, 2023, 10:34 am

      Think in terms of 85-90%. The very dark and nefarious institutional thinking of John D. Rockefeller has been achieved – "I do not want critical thinkers – I want obedient servants."

  • Avatar
    July 6, 2023, 8:53 am

    With all due respect, Mr. Miltimore: If the new school being considered for your child is any type of government (i.e. "public") school, I would go so far as to say you would be, at least on the verge of, if not duly, executing parental malfeasance. I say this with Christian love and respect, but I am also ignorant of your situation, so please bear with me. Thankfully, all of my children have passed through school age, so I, personally, am not faced with these decisions. We homeschooled them all, to great effect, and they all went to colleges that possess a strong Christian identity. (Actually, Catholic colleges having a very strong orthodoxy, but that's somewhat beside the point.) Thanks be to God, my adult children are carrying the Faith in their lives today.

    So, after having that as my experience, and seeing all of what goes on in the government schools, from curricula, to oversight, to extra-curriculars, etc., I cannot more firmly make the following statement: NOTHING OF GOOD comes out the "public" schools as they are instantiated today. It is ALL ROTTEN, all the way to its core.

    So the challenge for any parent, is to navigate this landscape, if he wants to keep his children's souls from being utterly corrupted and subsequently lost to the Evil One. If you just hand over your children's mental and moral development over to the government schools, THEY WILL BECOME CORRUPTED. Sorry, can't say it any stronger than that.

    Sorry to come across like a ton of bricks on this. And yes, this is a general indictment of the public schools and likely not applicable to your situation, but it really is THAT BAD. Further, I believe every parent WILL BE ANSWERABLE TO GOD in this regard.

    Save money elsewhere so you dont have to send your kid to "public" school based on resources. Find those resources. For example, my family did not take ANY vacation to speak of (ala Disney World etc., we camped!) while our kids were school age. My wife worked as a consultant for the homeschool company our kids were attending. (discounted tuition plus stipends, etc.) I worked overtime, weekends, etc. All of our cars were old. I just bought my first, nice, new car 3 years ago, after the last one graduated college. My wife of 32 years HAS NEVER had a new car! Therefore, I don't believe anyone who says they don't have the money/resources, and thereby MUST rely on the government schools.

    Fraternally, MDP

  • Avatar
    July 6, 2023, 10:45 am

    Many years ago, working within the I/C in DC, we were tasked with tracking Soviet and Eastern Bloc disinformation initiatives in the global academic community. As astute as Sagan was in the opinions advance here, I suspect he was a bit off the reservation here. He was one of the most loyal servants of the Soviet forces of disinformation among the American academic community. The "nuclear winter" hypothesis – born as an initiative of Yuri Andropov when head of the KGB, was vigorously advanced by Sagan throughout the west, as an effort to silence Reagan's more strident stance against the USSR. In his final memoirs, Andropov wrote that the N/Winter campaign was his greatest success. I fully realize that Sagan continues to be lionized in America, but since the days of "COSMOS" and it's substantial anti-Christian message, I have taken Sagan with a grain of salt the size of Lott's wife.

  • Avatar
    Bill Dettmer
    July 6, 2023, 6:47 pm

    “To provide for the people.” There is no worse answer, of course.

    And the reason for it is, of course, the dramatic leftward shift of educational philosophy (and control). Gatto explained how this happened in his classic "An Underground History of American Education."

    But if you want to know when the keystone event started for our current situation, look no further than the elimination of the subject "Civics" in elementary schools in the 1950s. They stopped teaching the philosophy behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There was no longer any discussion of the writings of Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams … the list goes on and on.

    You want responsible citizens who know where our fast-disappearing freedom comes from and why, start teaching civics again and get rid of the "woke" and cultural stuff. If it doesn't contribute to your future success in the world (and that includes arts and music!) or help you understand how government works, it shouldn't be in the curriculum.

  • Avatar
    Bruce Kendall
    July 7, 2023, 4:20 pm

    Carl Sagan
    Since you brought up Sagan, I presume you know more about Sagan than I do. So, did Sagan ever explain why children put a damper on curiosity? And if he did, what did he discover?

    I have looked at this issue and have several suspicions, which brings us to Andrew J. Coulson, Director, Cato Institute Center for Educational Freedom.

    I have seen the graphic before and found it misleading.

    First, how many people see right off the average cost of a K-12 education as only three times as expensive in 2010 compared to 1970?

    Why did I ask the previous question? To better understand, one must look at the cost increase of everyday items. It is relative regardless of the original sticker price. And Public schools were everyday items. And I chose bacon.

    So, how many people reading this know the difference between the average cost of basic staples like bacon between 1970 and 2010?

    One pound of Sliced bacon was 4.326315789 times as expensive in 2010 than 1970.
    One pound of Sliced bacon was 5.810526316 times as expensive in 2020 than 1970.

    And yes, I know the academic difference between $55,000 for K-12 education and $0.95 for a pound of sliced bacon in 1970. My point

    If a pound of sliced bacon cost $55,000 in 1970, it would have cost $237,947.37 in 2010. I suspect a K-12 education was and still is more important and valuable than a pound of sliced bacon because it is expensive along with everything else.

    Why am I using bacon as an example? Education has become monetized and entreprenerd to the point it's becoming more and more a commodity over a public good.

    The squiggly NAEP lines do not belong in the chart because they do not show any value comparable to dollars.

    If Coulson had shown the published scaled scores or, better yet, had demonstrated how much a student knows and can do, it would have shown a value. But how does one put a dollar figure to how much a student knows and can do? Raising questions, powers-to-be do not want to be asked and answered. Fortuitously, I know most of those answers.

    Making the chart “Fundamentally Flawed.”

    As for John Taylor Gatto, it seems he is a victim of Elected Political Faction Leadership. For those who do not know the historical and common term used by former president Washington (Read his Farewell Address), today's major Political Factions are called Republicans and Democrats. Political Factions held a stranglehold over the governance of the United States for more than 150 years while fighting to dominate who controls the management of our country. Neither political faction wants you to have the education you could have had. Regardless of the blah, blah, blah they may have stated.

    And I get why Gatto became desperate. He was in a situation he had little control over. Subject to the whims of Political Faction Elected Leadership and their supporters in this endeavor.

    In September, I will finish my 18th year studying education and my 50th anniversary as an autodidact.


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