Is it a good thing or a bad thing for students to master difficult material and move on to greater challenges? It depends on whether your goal is to educate children or to run a diploma factory churning out sheep.

It’s no secret that the U.S. school system does a lousy job with kids outside the norm. With kids who aren’t too bright and aren’t too dumb, the system can open their heads and pour in a basic, homogenized, dumbed-down version of an education.

But heaven forbid someone is different — especially if that person is particularly bright. And what if someone comes up with a way to accelerate kids’ learning in a certain area, say, math? Well, that’s a threat to the system, because the system is designed to move the cattle through a certain process at a certain speed in a certain order to produce predictably mediocre results.

A California man, Salman Khan, developed a system that’s become something of an online marvel. His Khan Academy is available for kids (and others) who want to learn math and advance rapidly — and it’s free. It lets students quickly advance beyond their peers who are using traditional systems. But according to a new article at Wired magazine, this scares some teachers:

Khan’s programmer, Ben Kamens, has heard from teachers who’ve seen Khan Academy presentations and loved the idea but wondered whether they could modify it “to stop students from becoming this advanced.”

These teachers claim that they wouldn’t know what to do with students who were learning so rapidly in math, but are stuck at lower grade levels in subjects in which they’re getting conventional instruction. But that’s exactly backwards. The question isn’t how to dumb this excellent system down. The question is why it took an outside non-educator to develop a system that blows away what the education bureaucracy can design — and why we aren’t finding ways to achieve the same sort of results in other subjects, instead of trying to put the brakes on what works.

To be fair, not every teacher feels that way, of course. Many teachers — especially innovative renegades — have adopted Khan’s program into their teaching. But it’s indicative of the education establishment, which looks suspiciously at things that come from outside of its politically driven agenda, in many cases.

Have you ever read Ayn Rand‘s novella, “Anthem“? You can read it in a few hours, and it’s well worth it. Read it online for free right here. (But don’t read the rest of this paragraph if you’re going to read the book, because there’s a spoiler.) In the book, a nameless man in a totalitarian/communitarian paradise discovers how to make a light bulb, which would instantly make life better for everyone. But because the people at the top making plans for the society don’t have any interest in modifying their existing plans and systems — making candlemakers and all sorts of others have to change their lives — he’s condemned instead.

That book was my first introduction — when I was about 14 — to the notion that some people wanted to hold progress back in order to maintain conformity. It seemed hard to believe that anyone in real life could be so shortsighted, but reality has shown me that he idea wasn’t so farfetched. These teachers wanting to “stop students from becoming this advanced” are living proof that the collectivist mind really is that warped.

Editor’s note: This issue was brought to my attention by an item at the Cato Institute’s blog, which I found via a link at Radley Balko’s Agitator site. I highly recommend following both of those blogs.