Tom Paine on schooling

One does not ordinarily think of Tom Paine [1737-1809] when considering education or schools. As the author of Common Sense and the American Crisis papers, he was a revolutionary, not only a radical in the eyes of the English, but a traitor. ….

[I]n Part 2, Chapter 5 of The Rights of Man, he places himself squarely in the company of Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson, among others, when he urged the education of students by providing for the costs of their schooling directly through the students themselves. While the term “voucher” didn’t come into common usage until after its introduction by Milton Friedman in the 1950s, the concept is the same. ….

In Paine’s words, … “Public schools do not answer the general purpose of the poor…. Education, to be useful to the poor, should be on the spot and the best method, I believe, to accomplish this, is to enable the parents to pay the expenxe themselves with the aid mentioned above.”

David W. Kirkpatrick, “Tom Paine on Education”, 17 February 2010.

I was previously unaware of Paine’s writings on this subject, but the views of Adam Smith are well-known – for example:

The public can facilitate this acquisition [of basic education] by establishing in every parish or district a little school, where children may be taught for a reward so moderate that even a common labourer may afford it; the master being partly, but not wholly, paid by the public, because, if he was wholly, or even principally, paid by it, he would soon learn to neglect his business.

Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (1776), book V, chapter 1.

Tom Paine’s views were clearly more radical than those of Adam Smith. (I am not sure about Thomas Jefferson.) Paine, unlike Smith, favoured full public funding of schooling, so long as payments are channelled through parents, who can ‘vote with their feet’ when schools fail.


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