Public Education:  An Autopsy  by Myron Lieberman.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge.  1993.  390 pages.  $27.95

Review by Del Meyer, MD

It is my understanding there are several private schools in the capital community that owe their existence to the tuition paid by members of our profession.  Apparently many of us have voted with our feet through the public school exit.  Most of us feel that private schools do a better job of instructing our charges for the future of America.  But have we really thought that the public school system is dead and needs analysis by post mortem dissection?  As Dr. Lieberman states, social institutions, like individuals, die.  The time of death may be an arbitrary or a controversial judgment.  We cannot always wait until rigor mortis sets in to consider what should be done to meet the new situation.  Avoidance or denial of the unpleasant reality is often the first problem that has to be addressed.  When public education does not produce the desirable habits and attitudes toward our society and its institutions, the rationale assumes that “education reform” will remedy the situation.  This rationale is beyond life-sustaining measures, and reality cannot be avoided for very long.

Perhaps Lieberman has a lesson for physicians in the demise of socialized education as we face the onslaught of socialized medicine.  He feels the best analogy is to perestroika, the effort to restructure the economy and governance of the Soviet Union, based on the demise of socialism as a political, social, and economic doctrine.  Physical and institutional manifestations of socialism survive and will do so for a long time to come.  Nevertheless, Lieberman maintains, socialism is a lost cause intellectually, despite individuals and interest groups with a stake in its preservation acting as if socialism can be saved by reform, when in fact it is an intellectual relic.

Coming from immigrant parents, educated in the public educational system by many dedicated public school teachers, principals, board members and countless others, Lieberman feels anguished by a sense of loss and the inescapable truth of its decline. 

Lieberman, Visiting Scholar, Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, contends that the government’s role as producer of education conflicts with its role as protector of consumer interests, resolved in favor of its producer role.  He presents an analysis of the alternatives, concluding that the existing system must be replaced by a three-sector education industry encompassing public, non-profit, and for-profit schools with the latter playing an important role.  He points out the underestimation of the real cost of public education (Does it really cost more than the $6,000 to $17,000 per student we read in the press?), the overestimation of its benefits (Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers are misquoted if we view them in favor of public education), the breakdown of its information system, the destructive role of higher education, the media emphasis on secondary issues such as multiculturalism, the futility of educational research and development, the role of teacher unions in protecting the status quo, and the anti-market bias that pervades every aspect of public education. 

As a true scholar, he also takes on the ineptitude of the educational choice movement in moving toward a market system.  Vouchers are destined to fail unless built upon true market principles. 

The wide interest of the book can be seen by the number of scholars he acknowledges for their valuable suggestions or assistance on earlier versions of the manuscripts.  A goodly number of the individuals are from well-known institutes (including Cato, Heartland, Brookings, National Catholic) and universities (including Harvard, Stanford, UCB, UCLA), several of which disagreed strongly with his views, with some from the same institutions breaking ranks to support the treatise.  James W. Guthrie, UCB, states this in the book that professional educators will love to hate.  Abigail M. Thernstrom, Boston University, states “this book both delighted and astonished me.  None are as good as this one…Lieberman knows the literature, knows schools, knows teachers, administrators and their unions, and understands monopolies and markets.  The book is thus not only a wonderful exploration of the education hole we’re in, but a primer on the efficacy of markets as well.”

I hope this volume will find its way to the coffee tables or bedside reading stands of all purchasers and supports of education for the next generation of Americans.