Honolulu Advertiser

Second Opinion by Cliff Slater

June 30, 2003

Learning what is important

Since my column about 1940’s British schooling (1) generated interest here in Hawai'i, here’s more: Our pre-1950 teachers’ attitudes towards us students can best be summed up in Thomas Sowell’s words, that “each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”(2)

Accordingly, our curriculum was based on our educators’ assessment of what facts and thought processes we needed to learn in the short time they had to civilize us.

They wasted no time on current affairs. We had history but that was only dealt with up to 20 years prior to our time in school.

This subsequently made sense to me. Virtually every important issue in recent memory was subsequently found to have been significantly burdened with false information at the time. Think of the Vietnam War, the government’s forecast (inflation adjusted) of $170 a barrel for oil by 2000, think of virtually any politician’s forecasts for the effects of legislation—and then consider what actually occurred.

  • Medicare was forecast to cost $12 billion annually by 1990, allowing for inflation; it actually cost nearly ten times that—$110 billion.(3)
  • Aloha Stadium cost $37 million to build (it was forecast to be less) and we were assured it would be rustproof. It cost $60 million to repair the ensuing rust,(4) far more than it cost to build in the first place. We are now told it needs a further $40 million in repairs.
  • We follow that up by building a softball stadium where the spectators cannot see home plate and to remedy it we then have to put in enough soil to raise the playing field by four feet.(5)

I could go on about government failure — it has encyclopedic scope.

Thus, to have young students discussing highly complex current affairs when they have neither the true facts at hand nor the educational background to be able to judge the relevance of what they do know, is to divert them from studies that will be more useful to them in later life.

For example, it is important that students be able to put such issues as slavery, Hawai'i’s past and the U.S. Constitution in the context of their times.

Students are not taught today that we are all descendents of slaves.(6) Slavery existed in every culture and still exists in places like Sudan. Slavery only ended in most of the world through the efforts of Western imperialists in the 19th century.(7) This is not taught today. To focus on slavery in the U.S. as though it were the world’s only slavery is to give it meaning it does not have.

Nor do students (or even their teachers) know that public school teachers’ real salaries, allowing for inflation, quadrupled during the Oligarchy (as Hawai'i’s official textbooks describe the times) and have declined in the 30 years since they were unionized.(8) Is it possible that the Oligarchy was more concerned about education and teachers than their own union?

Nor do students understand that the main protections of the U.S. Constitution were to protect the individual states and their citizens from the potential excesses of the federal government. If we had taught past students to have one-tenth the Founding Fathers’ own skepticism and mistrust about government, we would have had far better governance today.(9)

How many students know that a hundred years ago there were no income taxes, payroll taxes or sales taxes and that the miniscule federal revenues (2 percent of today’s per capita taxes, allowing for inflation) (10) were just from customs duties, and alcohol and tobacco taxes. There were no passports, Bayer Heroin was available over the counter and federal regulation was so light there was not even a Federal Register.

The massive regulatory and tax-heavy environment that now weighs us down is a development of the 20th century.(11)

Students should know all this material instead of learning trivia. These matters are settled history, and it should be important that they know such facts and understand the underlying dynamics affecting them.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater


(1)   Slater, Cliff. Education: Learn from the past. Honolulu Advertiser. April 15, 2003.

(2)   “… each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late. Their prospects of growing up as decent, productive people depends on the whole elaborate set of largely unarticulated practices which engender moral values, self-discipline, and consideration for others. Those individuals on whom this process does not “take”—whether because its application was insufficient in quantity or quality or because the individual was especially resistant—are the sources of antisocial behavior, of which crime is only one form.” Sowell, Thomas. A Conflict of Visions. William Morrow. 1987. pp. 150-1.

(3)   Helms, Robert. The Origins of Medicare. AEI Online. March 1, 1999

       The Medicare Monster: A Cautionary Tale. REASON Magazine. January 1993.

       Commentary: Another Medicare Monster. June 24, 2003.

(4)   Repairs totaled $80 million with $20 million recovered from suppliers net of $10 million in legal fees. See Pacific Business News. 5-11-1998.

(5)   Honolulu Advertiser.

(6)   Given the prevalence of slavery throughout the world in earlier times it is beyond statistical probability that anyone exists who does not have slaves among their forebears.

(7)   Slavery was the norm in all countries at all times until the last 200 years. Then came a revival of fundamental Christianity in England in the late 1700's and the Abolition movement was born. It flourished and within 50 years slavery was illegal in England and its influence then moved to other European countries and onto America. Within 30 years slavery was illegal in most civilized countries. The last holdouts of slavery were in Africa. Today slavery is still practiced in Sudan and Mozambique—African countries. “… it was European imperialism which stamped out slavery over most of the world.” Sowell, Thomas. Race and Culture: A World View. Basic Books. 1994. p. 222.

(8)   Consolidated statistics about Hawaii public education.

(9)   Some evidence of their mistrust of government follows:

  "Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people, by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations." James Madison. 1788. Platt, Suzy, ed. Respectfully Quoted—A Dictionary of Quotations from the Library of Congress. Congressional Quarterly, Inc. 1989.

  "The germ of dissolution of our federal government is in the constitution of the federal judiciary; an irresponsible body, (for impeachment is scarcely a scarecrow,) working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little to-day and little to-morrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief, over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped from the States, and the government of all be consolidated into one." Thomas Jefferson. 1821. p. 181. Platt, Suzy, ed. Respectfully Quoted—A Dictionary of Quotations from the Library of Congress. Congressional Quarterly, Inc. 1989.

   “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government, which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is no doubt the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” James Madison. Federalist no. 51, February 6, 1788

(10) Federal Government Receipts from Historical Statistics of the U.S. Census Bureau. 1975. Series Y 352-357 & Y 358-373. and graph below from Cato Institute’s Fiscal Facts and Figures.

(11) “If we were offered the freedom which our grandfathers enjoyed before the First World War we should not know what to do with it. We should be like men released after a long prison sentence, overwhelmed by our unaccustomed liberty.” Taylor, A.J.P. Revolutions and Revolutionaries. Atheneum New York. 1980. p. 136.