A SUMMARY OF OUR SHAME
[Periander] had sent a herald to Thrasybulus and inquired in what way he would best and most safely govern his city. Thrasybulus led the man who had come from Periander outside the town, and entered into a sown field. As he walked through the corn, continually asking why the messenger had come to him from Corinth, he kept cutting off all the tallest ears of corn which he could see, and throwing them away, until he had destroyed the best and richest part of the crop. Then, after passing through the place and speaking no word of counsel, he sent the herald away. When the herald returned to Corinth, Periander desired to hear what counsel he brought, but the man said that Thrasybulus had given him none. The herald added that it was a strange man to whom he had been sent, a madman and a destroyer of his own possessions, telling Periander what he had seen Thrasybulus do. Periander, however, understood what had been done, and perceived that Thrasybulus had counseled him to slay those of his townsmen who were outstanding in influence or ability; with that he began to deal with his citizens in an evil manner.[i]
The modern public school establishment—unthinkable two centuries ago, universal today—is industrial civilization’s wrong turn, our monument to mass production gone awry. We have created a forced retardation factory. If this still sounds hyperbolic, I remind you of Allan Bloom’s warning about the defining outrages of an age. I would also suggest that the difficulty in appreciating the full immorality of what we have done is in part a measure of our detachment from any reasonable conception of human nature and its needs; most of us simply know not what we do.
Addressing the widespread immaturity, amorality, and lack of personal honor which typify our late modern world, a good friend once asked me the most essential question:
But how has this been accomplished? How can a whole society be discouraged from maturing, a process that ought to be as natural as the ripening of fruit on the tree or wheat in the field? What can induce adults to think and act like children?
In other words, if what men used to call mature adulthood—self-reliance, personal responsibility, the honoring of obligations, self-restraint, and self-governance in accordance with rational principle—is truly natural to us, then how are we to explain the general failure of this maturation process throughout a civilization?
Let us begin with the obvious. If an outcome is natural, then the means to preventing it constitute a deliberate thwarting of nature. Specifically, if you want to prevent the results of a natural process, then you must prevent the process from occurring in the first place. This is actually not so difficult to do, if you are deranged enough to want to do it. Public education is our nice name for precisely this deranged endeavor.
The first step is to recognize that the inclination to mature is a deep-seated desire—perhaps the defining desire—of every child, and therefore that this desire itself is your enemy, and must be uprooted and recast as a vice. The development of one’s knowledge and character in the direction of self-reliance and independence must be debunked as immoral and regressive. There must be no room in the new morality for any fulfillment but the social, any achievement but submission to the collective.
The second step is to supply this new morality of self-destruction with a rationalization ostensibly grounded in “the welfare of the child.” Dewey is emphatic that traditional approaches to childhood education were guilty of focusing exclusively on adulthood as the standard determining what ought to be done, rather than focusing on the nature of childhood itself. This may sound benign, or even vaguely reasonable. What it means in progressive educational theory and practice is actively fostering and reinforcing the weaknesses and provisional dependencies of childhood as the proper ends of education, rather than as stages of incompleteness to be outgrown. The intended result? “Adults” who never overcome their dependence on the group, their fundamental reliance on authority and experts (the grown-ups), their desire for approval at all costs, their fear of being excluded or rebuked, and their tendency to distrust and dislike people who “don’t fit in.” In short, the result is a society of people who have been taught, and who have accepted, that they do not fully exist independently of their social relations, and who therefore regard the idea of self-reliance (emotional or intellectual) as not merely illusory, but morally suspect.
As we shall see in detail in Part Two, the two great philosophers of modern public schooling, Fichte and Dewey, were dogmatic socialists, abhorred private property, and made the curtailing of private and independent thought by any means necessary a central tenet of their respective theories of education. They advocated compulsory schooling because—and they were very open about this—they wanted to undermine private family influences, and immerse children in a carefully circumscribed social environment in which all early character formation would be directed toward the annihilation of any thoughts or inclinations not useful to collective authority.
But wishes do not give birth to horses, even for progressive powermongers. It is one thing to seek means of thwarting nature’s impulse toward completion, but quite another to achieve this corrupt design in practice.
Let us, therefore, begin again, and pursue the question from the point of view of a craftsman, rather than an architect.
The primary purpose of all government-controlled education, regardless of how this is expressed by particular defenders of the enterprise, is to produce the kind of citizens the state sees as best suited to its established form of governance. By “the state,” I mean those people and factions within the political infrastructure who are in a position to use regulation and coercion to determine the long-term direction of the community as a whole. Since public education, in the modern sense of government-run schools employing government-trained teachers, is a project that would likely only be undertaken in the first place by people who believe the state can manage people’s private affairs better than they can do for themselves, it is all but inevitable that the kind of citizen such a system will produce will be one who believes implicitly in the role of government as a direct social and moral regulator, and for whom the superior understanding of government in determining the proper course of an individual’s life is generally presumed. This inevitable result, however innocent in its nascent phases, is one reason I insist upon referring to government schooling as an entitlement program. Like all such programs, it fosters reliance upon government for something regarded as a need, and hence expands the scope of expectations from government—which, of course, really means that it causes a tacit submission to broader government authority over one’s life and choices, and a psychological relinquishing of part of one’s own moral authority to choose.
Thus far, I am assuming a relatively benign government, with semi-reasonable, if presumptuous, goals. What happens, however, when the decision-making hierarchy is infiltrated by men with less noble intentions, amoral manipulators who crave more authority than their predecessors considered acceptable, and who seek to promote attitudes and customs designed to expand and perpetuate their control over the power centers of the community—wealth and material production, the permanent regulatory bureaucracy, the institutions of moral influence, and/or the levers of legislative authority? In a community that retained any semblance of its dignity, its moral substance, and its thirst for self-determination, these manipulators would be recognized immediately and rejected outright, whether by vote or by violence—unless they were to conduct their civilizational ambush under the protective cover of rationalizing theory.
Fortunately for Satan, modernity has produced plenty of self-styled “education theorists,” men and women of the intellectual class whose minds have become unmoored from what they dismissively label “traditional morality,” and who are certain they could design the perfectly ordered community, if only they had the means to universal social control. These education theorists are the real life mad scientists, disregarding all moral and rational limits in pursuit of that self-vindicating, immortalizing moment when they can see their artificial creature in motion and exclaim, “It’s alive!”
Such pseudo-scientists are the perfect tools of the corrupt ruling class, as the two groups’ goals are complementary. The wealthy and manipulative power-brokers seek a veneer of “new methods” and “social progress” to mask and justify their urge to control the mind and machinery of society for their own perceived advantage; the intellectuals would happily sell their souls for a chance to see their grand schemes put into practice. This symbiotic relationship is enhanced by the two factions’ awareness of a common enemy: the thoughtful, self-reliant man of character. Such an individual is a threat to the power-brokers because he will recognize what is behind their mask, and refuse to submit to their social manipulations. He is a threat to the mad scientists, because their need to be right has overwhelmed their interest in the truth, and hence their greatest fear is the appearance of living counterexamples, whose presence would refute their life’s work. The undermining of such thoughtful, self-reliant men is therefore a central goal of both the power-brokers and their intellectual lapdogs.
What becomes of the always dubious project of government-controlled education in the hands of such ignobly-motivated men? First of all, these men will need to alter the social aspects of the school environment, using every child’s earliest social learning methods—imitation and checking for approval—to inculcate a new mentality, one both useful to, and accepting of, the state’s gradual encroachments into the territory previously fenced off for freedom, privacy, and moral choice. Intellectual independence and so-called ethical individualism are the natural enemies of this system, and must therefore be discouraged in every way.
At the political level, this means government schooling must be compulsory, so that no family’s children may entirely escape its influence, and it must tend toward ever-increasing standardization of methods and outcomes, to mitigate the effect of any stray free thinkers or plain decent human beings who may find their way into the teaching profession in spite of the various hoops and obstacles set in place to prevent such good people from infiltrating the classroom. At the theoretical level, the goal is to weed out and crush the impulse toward independent thought and action from the earliest stages of child development, and to reinforce the child’s bondage to the collective and dependence upon authority, through methods of rearing so contrary to the true needs of human nature that the entire fraudulent system would be immediately recognizable as pure evil, had that system not also raised every person in the community to doubt the ultimate reality of such old-fashioned notions as good, evil, nature, and truth.
But “weed out” and “crush” are mere metaphors. How exactly does the mass education project of the mad scientists and their political puppet-masters undo curiosity and independence? Adhering to the ancient wisdom of the true philosophers of education, the modern theorists know that the key lies not in verbal rules, lessons, or memorized slogans; those will be spoon-fed later, as reinforcement for the well-laid foundations. Rather, one must begin by educating the feelings—fostering, or in this case stifling, the natural emotional states that drive children to seek understanding and mastery over themselves and their circumstances.
Children must be taken from the home as early as possible, in order to prevent families from instilling habits of private curiosity and enthusiasm for knowledge that would be difficult for the state to undo. (Hence today’s constant push for “universal pre-school.”) They must spend the bulk of their waking hours throughout their young lives within the government’s educational environment, in order to minimize alternative influences. This environment, the primary spiritual force in every publicly educated child’s life—whatever fairytales parents may wish to believe—is calibrated on every level to undermine the development of the child’s understanding of himself as a separate entity capable of knowing his surroundings, projecting his imagination into the future, and contriving means of applying his growing knowledge to his environment to achieve the goals he has projected.
Let us consider a few of the specific means of undermining natural development which may be found in all public school environments.
Where nature gives the child a basic need to begin recognizing the distinction between himself and his surroundings, in order to clarify his sense of being an individual living thing with a mind of his own, the mad scientists of public education lock him in a room full of children, with a teacher whose primary job is to make sure the children move as one, play as one, and study as one. Separating oneself from the group is discouraged. On the contrary, the conditions are designed to foster a desire for “belonging”—a most apt word, as it plainly designates the child’s proper status within the progressive world: He “belongs” to his social group, which, in adult terms, means he is property of the collective. The primacy of the urge to “belong,” in the sense of submitting, which is so essential to popular progressive psychology, runs counter to every earlier ideal of humanity—the brave hero, the founder, the adventurer, the explorer, the theoretical man, the innovative artist, the man of intransigent faith. Against all such archetypes, public education asks the child, “Why risk getting thrown in with the lions, when you could be part of the cheering crowd?”
Where his whole being cries out for mature exemplars of human behavior and understanding, for older children and especially for adults—in short, for evidence and models of his natural completion—public school gives him “peers,” children his own age, as incomplete and ignorant as he is. Worse yet, the universality of this arrangement and its coercive social dynamic force-feed him the sense that this is as it should be, and that there is something wrong with children wanting to be with adults who behave as adults—as opposed to public school teachers, who are trained to play to the child’s sensibility, as though the purpose of childhood education were to learn how to be a child, rather than how to be an adult. (“Let kids be kids.”)
Public education exaggerates democracy’s innate weakness for novelty and youth into a virtual moral doctrine unto itself, with the progressive educational establishment increasingly inclined to stand with the children and childish young adults, pointing at and mocking the old folks with their hopelessly outdated calls for moderation, self-discipline, and rationality. The continual immersion in public school’s alternative reality through one’s formative years is difficult to overcome, and entrenches an immature, less than fully human sensibility (though nothing clear enough to be called a “belief”). Childlike “virtues”—moral dependency, blind trust of superiors, feelings and instinct over reason, protective togetherness over self-reliance—become immovably rooted in the soul of one who has been largely prevented from seeking natural alternatives and ideals.
Where nature gives him practical needs, concrete interests arising from his surroundings, and the urge to develop the knowledge required to meet those needs and pursue those interests, the progressive controllers knowingly drag him away from his real world by force, trapping him for years in an abstract simulacrum of “preparing” for reality, an artificial realm of learning for real life, rather than from real life. This abstraction from the everyday, lost in the stultifying maze of public school Pretend Land, kills his natural impulse to seek knowledge, by removing him from any normal sense of a practical need to know. That is one reason why children learn less and less, while spending more and more years in school. This is no paradox, but a simple matter of cause and effect. The further the mind is removed from personal experience of practical needs and “idle curiosities,” the less inclined it will be to try to grasp things. (“Grasping” is one of our most precise metaphors for learning; it emphasizes the essential role of active will, of rationally directed desire.) Ignorance, dependency, lack of intellectual initiative, and a dearth of simple human curiosity are the necessary results of raising children in abstraction from the world of natural needs and enthusiasms for their entire lives up to voting age. Is it any wonder that the products of such forced abstraction, when they are allowed to vote, consistently choose the candidates (of whichever party) who promise to take care of them and protect them from the daunting world of personal responsibility? They have rarely seen that world, and hence perceive it only as a threat to their comfort.
This thought-stunting abstraction of the soul from life and nature is intrinsic to the entire structure of public schooling, but let us take a moment to consider one of its most ubiquitous and representative instantiations: the bell. The school bell functions on a timer set to promote “regularity” (of what?) independently of the concerns or needs of any of the human beings it controls. Its defining purpose is to cut off each train of thought with arbitrary abruptness, ordering everyone in the school, adult and child alike, to start and stop thinking about the day’s assigned problems at fixed, predetermined times, regardless of where anyone may be in his thought process, or what else he might be inclined to work on at that moment. Compare this to real-life thinking and problem-solving, and you will immediately see the pedagogic significance of the bell. In real life, when something captures our interest, we continue thinking about it until we have exhausted either the topic or our enthusiasm, or until some other pressing concern or interest temporarily distracts us from it. If you smell smoke in your house, you search for the source until you find it; no alarm clock orders you to think about something else while that smoke remains a concern. If you are planning a vacation, no one arbitrarily stops you at the moment of booking your flight and forces you to run outside and play. If you were interrupted in such situations, even once, you would most likely be annoyed and unresponsive. In school, by contrast, a lifeless noise repeatedly and unceremoniously announces that the child must stop thinking about whatever he has been working on and suddenly begin thinking about something else instead, teaching him that nothing he learns at school is important enough to warrant continuing on with it uninterrupted—that is, teaching him not to see any practical purpose or benefit in continuous mental effort.
The emotional message this repeated and systematic derailing of thought delivers to a child’s mind is simple: None of these subjects really matter. This conditions the child to regard learning as a lifeless chore, a burden, and a nuisance. Paradoxically, as a result of this conditioned identification of thought with boredom, the physical mechanism used to separate the mind from its natural functioning—that godforsaken bell—gradually becomes the child’s dearest friend and most ardent hope, as it alone can save him from the daily monotony of the pointless thinking imposed on him by the adults in his life. Rather than feeling interrupted or disturbed by the bell, one learns to crave it as a means of escape. Escape from what? From the task of learning, which ought to be the child’s greatest natural pleasure, but which, thanks to the abstraction from life imposed by school, has instead become odious to him, as palpably unimportant tasks tend to do. The school bell—nothing could represent more perfectly the twin purposes of public schooling: the retarding of intellectual development and the inculcation of moral submissiveness.
Where nature, to use Aristotelian language, fills the potential being with a craving for actuality, i.e., for the fully developed soul of a rational and moral agent, public education deliberately dulls that craving, and ultimately smothers it, diverting him into blind alleys with collectivist social pressures, interminable boredom, meaningless competition for scores and ranks unrelated to real mental development, and a hundred distractions and amusements intended to heighten the most tyrannical of his emotional drives in detachment from any clear purposes or moral considerations. After spending the first quarter of his natural life—the years of his greatest intellectual growth potential and largest reserves of emotional fuel—in this thought-killing, character-thwarting environment, the normal child emerges exactly as he was intended to emerge: dependent upon the collective; incapable of complex reasoning about concrete human concerns (politics, morality); dismissive, cynical, and simple-minded regarding fundamental theoretical questions (God, freedom, immortality); ignorant of all previous human eras, ideas, and art; and incapable of conceiving of any principle or plan of living broader than this moment, or nobler than his ruling desires for physical gratification and an infant’s notion of “security.”
The greatest of the mad scientists and their acolytes throughout the world’s education establishment have demonstrated that this forced retardation machinery may be realized with such a degree of comprehensiveness that only through an unusual combination of natural desire, lucky circumstances, and years of suffering as a fringe-dweller in the public school social apparatus, may a young person have any chance of withstanding the deadening effects of progressive schooling with much of his spirit intact. As for whether anyone may survive this spiritual thresher completely unscathed, my answer—based on experience, reflection, and observation of children from widely different backgrounds, including those I have taught myself—is a firm and unequivocal No.
One of the great successes of modern public education is that, being universal and compulsory, it virtually obliterates nature’s counterexamples, thereby creating vastly reduced expectations and standards in the minds of even the most reasonable parents. It is now, remarkably, a project of theoretical speculation and historical research to discover what a normal human child, having been raised in the real world by his own family, and having learned how to function as an independent person by being one, might look like. That bizarre fact reveals the extent of our catastrophe, of the triumph of the totalitarian impulse over modern liberty, and of mankind’s greatest shame.
We must now refine our mission and ask not merely how tyrannical aspirations have subverted education, but why these aspirations met a world so ill-prepared to resist them effectively. While a complete solution to this mystery may be impossible, the need for at least an outline of an answer demands that we take a detour in our inquiry into the mechanics of civilization’s demise, and climb the misty peaks of late modern thought. For it is there that tyranny was at last unleashed from its post within our traditional moral order and set free to destroy the promise of modernity.
[i] Herodotus, The Histories, translated by A. D. Godley (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1920) Bk. 5, 92F-G.