In 1983 in "A Nation at Risk" the alarm was sounded that education in the United States was broken, really, really broken. Twenty years later most politicians still agree that education is broken, and if you vote for them, they'll fix education; yet year after year children leave the public school system with declining test scores, and many of these children are functionally illiterate.
As any good doctor knows, you need to understand just what the problem is before making a diagnosis. E. G. West's book, "Education and the State" largely explores the history of Education in Great Britain. In looking at the problems of education in Great Britain, there is a lot of insight into what works and what doesn't work. Up until 1870, education was largely a private concern that the parents of children dealt with. Things dramatically changed in 1870 under the Foster Act, which put government into what had been a private concern.
The author asks a number of good questions about why the government should be involved and are there better ways for the government to be involved.
E. G. West looks into the two main arguments for the intrusion of government into education. The first is the government needs to protect children from neglectful parents. The second is the government should be involved because of the effect education has on society.
In response to the first argument E. G. West looks at the data in the early 1800s and shows that by and large parents had not been neglectful. He asks why we trust the same parent to vote, but won't let them chose where to send their children to school. He points out that it is important not to let children starve, but we don't force parents to send their children to specific public kitchens. And it is important that people know the rules of driving, but we let people chose where they learn to get an education in how to drive.
In response to the second argument the author shows data that education doesn't reduce crime. He explores the effect of education on democracy. One thing I found funny was that in the early 1800s many people in government were complaining that people were too literate. He explores the connections between education & equality of opportunity, education & economic growth, and education & the quest for 'common values.'
The basic conclusion E. G. West comes to is government should not be so involved in education, and especially in forcing parents to send their children to a particular school. He argues strongly for a voucher system to allow people to find the solutions best for their children, and as a way to encourage schools to do a better job.
This was originally written in 1965, but this is still an informative book to read. For anyone interested in the fundamental questions about just what the role of government should be in education, this is a good book for a second perspective into how having the government involved in educations creates a number of problems.