COMPULSORY MASS RETARDATION
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.[i]
John Keats, 1818 (age twenty-two)
If a public education system functions as it is designed to do, every human being, by eighteen years of age, will have completed his government schooling in an effective state of mental retardation, moral infantilism, and childlike dependency. In other words, he will be a model citizen of a collectivist authoritarian state: deficient in reasoning, imagination, and historical awareness; easy to please with material gratifications; unable to recognize the moral distinction between self and other, mine and thine; and willing to obey, out of mortal fear of being left alone.
Such systems often fail in their intentions, of course—to some degree. It must nevertheless be conceded that everyone, in truth, has suffered some effect of this indoctrination to submission, conformity, and intellectual diminution, unless, by the grace of God, he has somehow been spared state intervention in his education entirely. The evidence of this general effect is perhaps best revealed by considering what happened before compulsory public education became the norm.
I remember the surprise with which I absorbed my first philosophy professor’s biographical description of eighteenth century empiricist David Hume, who entered the University of Edinburgh at or slightly before age twelve. A child prodigy in the realm of theory, I marveled! I had always assumed that the phenomenon of child prodigies was limited to the arts, or to mathematical reasoning. And yet here was a philosophical wunderkind. I subsequently learned, however, that although Hume was indeed somewhat precocious in his scholarly progress, his development was not as remarkable as I had imagined. The usual university entrance age in Hume’s day was fourteen.
As a teenager, Hume began early work on the book for which he is most famous, A Treatise of Human Nature, a grand sweep through the essentials of human existence, from cognition and the experience of space and time, through the human passions, property as the basis of justice, and the origins of government. It remains one of the most broadly influential treatises of the Enlightenment, and one of a relative handful of works that may unqualifiedly be said to have altered the course of modern history. Hume completed it in 1737, at age twenty-six.
Hume’s conception of empiricism was in part a response to the “immaterialism” of George Berkeley, whose own three most important works were completed by 1713—at which time Berkeley was twenty-eight.
Just a few years younger than Berkeley, Alexander Pope published his first major poems and his classic Essay on Criticism in 1709 and 1711, respectively. In 1711, Pope was twenty-three.
It was around that time that Pope met and befriended the greatest of all English satirists, Jonathan Swift, who was twenty years his senior. Swift, for his part, after entering Trinity College, Dublin at age fourteen, and receiving his B.A. at eighteen, was forced by practical necessity to earn a living immediately, and was thus forestalled in pursuing his writing career. His youthful employment was as personal secretary to a retired English diplomat, Sir William Temple, beginning at age twenty-one. In this role, he was sent to London to make a case for parliamentary reform in a personal audience with King William III—at twenty-four.[ii] As a result of this employment, Swift did not complete his first great satire, The Battle of the Books, until the ripe old age of thirty.
John Keats was left fatherless at eight, orphaned at fourteen; his brother George married and emigrated to America when John was twenty-two, leaving him to care for their dying youngest brother, Thomas. Keats himself was showing early signs of consumption at twenty-three, and died at twenty-five—though not before producing a body of work that would establish him as one of the greatest poets of the modern world.
Not to be neglected, however, is that during the early period of his rapid ascent from the lyrical experimentation of “Imitation of Spenser” to the great mastery of the Odes, Keats was also studying medicine. At fourteen, he began his years as a surgeon’s apprentice. At twenty, he was working as a surgical assistant (a “dresser”) at Guy’s Hospital in London, where he was also enrolled as a medical student.[iii] Today, the string of hardships that comprise the skeleton of his brief biography would be regarded as ample excuse for any number of failures of character, from sloth and idleness to crime and waywardness, and the death of such a “boy” today would inspire only laments about his having been deprived of the chance to “find out who he is.” Instead, this boy died a learned man of broad historical awareness, an employable medical worker, and an almost unsurpassed master of the English language.
Let us now follow Keats’ brother George to early America for a moment, where we find similar examples.
Thomas Jefferson was asked to write the first draft of the Declaration of Independence—that is, to construct the initial founding statement of a new nation, in defiance of the most powerful government on Earth—at age thirty-three. Consider what this means: At thirty-three, Jefferson had already established himself as a man of such depth of learning and accomplishment that he was judged by great men many years his senior to be the best available person to perform the gravest and most solemn task in any of their lives, and in the eventual history of a nation.
And Jefferson was not alone in this seeming precocity. James Madison cut his teeth as an elected representative in the Virginia Convention at twenty-five, in preparation for becoming “the Father of the Constitution”—at thirty-six. Alexander Hamilton was the first delegate invited to the Constitutional Convention—at thirty-two,[iv] having dropped out of university at eighteen to begin writing political articles against the British, and having been chosen as George Washington’s assistant during the Revolutionary War at twenty-two.
While we are wandering among the ghosts of America’s Founding Fathers, we might note Samuel Adams, who entered Harvard College at fourteen, graduated at eighteen, completed his master’s degree at twenty-one, and began writing political essays for the Independent Adviser, a weekly newspaper he co-founded, at twenty-six. John Hancock earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard at seventeen, at which point he began working toward a partnership in his uncle’s trading company.[v]
The men described above are only a very small sample of like figures in the modern history of the Anglo-American world: men who would be regarded as extraordinarily precocious today—if such men could exist at all today—but who were merely proceeding, albeit with greater public success than most, according to the typical life pattern of centuries past. What do they all have in common? At least three things, to begin with: a complete lack of public school socialization, a dearth of government-standardized testing, and a total privation of state-trained teachers.
Two other things they share: Almost all of them were reading the classics, and typically studying multiple languages, at or before puberty, and most were enrolled in university at the age at which boys today are in middle school, or just beginning high school. (And remember, with the exception of Hume, they were not starting university earlier than their less gifted contemporaries, but rather according to the norms of the time.)
And then there is this similarity, in which they perhaps differ most from today’s youth: As “children,” they were already, as was common in past ages, in daily and substantive contact with the real, grown-up, practical world. They were doing things, performing meaningful tasks, engaging with great literature, with languages and with history, and interacting with adults in contexts that required them to behave responsibly and maturely, rather than being artificially “protected” in an immature social context which imposes childishness even on its token minority of adult overseers.
Pope, severely deformed and dwarfed by a childhood bone disease, and a Catholic at a time when educating Catholics was illegal in England, received only a few years of (contraband) private schooling,[vi] and from age twelve was entirely self-educated.[vii] Hume famously scoffed at his own fast track through formal education, which he left behind at fifteen without completing his degree, noting that “there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in Books.”[viii] Jefferson was a budding naturalist as a boy, which is to say he was preoccupied with forests, not toys; reality, not “creative fantasy.”
Comparable examples abound. Jane Austen had minimal formal schooling, but read widely under her father’s direction, while transforming her quotidian family life into fodder for the hilarious juvenilia which served as an apprenticeship for writing her six classic mature novels, all of which were completed before age forty. Benjamin Franklin’s school days ended at ten years of age, from which point he worked, first for his father, and then, at twelve, as an apprentice to his brother, a printer. Honoré de Balzac was a notoriously unfocused grammar school student who was routinely punished for his lack of studiousness with solitary confinement in a six foot square cell with holes in the door to allow for air. The regularity of this punishment left him seriously ill and unable to continue at the school, and years later, the only man at the school who remembered him was the priest who controlled the cells. Balzac nevertheless relished this solitary confinement, which he used for private reading.[ix] He later studied law while simultaneously attending lectures at the Sorbonne, until age twenty, when he began one of the most prolific careers in the history of the French novel. Stephen Crane, a meandering student at various private academies, whose youth was pockmarked with illness and several family tragedies, published The Red Badge of Courage—his second novel—at twenty-four.
Denis Diderot earned a master’s degree in philosophy at nineteen. Alexis de Tocqueville, a lawyer at age twenty-two, returned home from his eighteen-month investigatory tour of the United States at twenty-six, and, a year after submitting his prize-winning study of the U.S. penal system, completed the first volume of Democracy in America at twenty-nine. Abraham Lincoln had almost no formal education whatsoever, and yet he not only overcame this “liability,” but became a world-historical figure largely on the strength of his rhetorical genius.
To object here that I have cherry-picked some of the most exceptional biographies from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is to miss the point, or points. What, then, are the relevant thoughts to be gleaned from these anecdotal case studies?
First of all, the case for what we call secondary school—that is, pre-college public schooling from approximately fourteen to eighteen years of age—is dubious on its face. It was formerly normal for “children” in that age bracket to be completing university degrees. In other words, those years, for which we have manufactured a term, adolescence, in order to tie them decisively to childhood, and to detach them from early adulthood, are now wasted years. Indeed, they are worse than wasted; they are counterproductive. Those precious post-pubescent years when young men of the “educated class” were once being introduced to life’s great questions, becoming immersed in ancient literature or the newest theories of physics, are now spent in forced, perpetual sputtering within the intellectual doomsday machine we have amusingly dubbed “high school.” Show me a man who believes that today’s best high school graduate is as intellectually and morally advanced as the average fourteen-year-old university freshman of 1750, and I’ll show you a public school administrator.
Furthermore, a fifteen-year-old who might have been working, doing an apprenticeship, learning the family business, acquiring the practical skills that would allow him to provide for himself, support a family, and become a productive contributor to his community, instead spends four years staring bleary-eyed at the legs of the girl across the aisle while lazy government union workers drain away his rightful future, droning on with reading comprehension prompts such as “What can we infer about the salary for this job from the phrase ‘Entry level position’?”[x] The enthusiasm for work, the pride of developing competence, and the hope of growing self-determination are stunted, where they are not completely snuffed out, by this elaborately contrived stalling tactic.
As a boy, I used to watch the Kentucky Derby on television every year. I loved that moment when the last horses were being coaxed into the starting gate. I could almost feel the bursting frustration of the horses already inside, as they were forced to wait another ten seconds, fifteen seconds—how much more could they take?—before the final competitor was in position, and the starter finally set the horses free to run their hearts out. I wonder how long a race horse could wait in that little gate, champing at the bit, before its pent up energy released itself uselessly through a kind of mad kicking and struggling, followed by a hopeless submission to confinement, and eventually by the mental and physical inertia of desuetude. How long, in other words, before Secretariat is transformed through artificial restraint into The Old Gray Mare? The answer, I would wager, is the horse brain’s equivalent of about three months of high school.
Young men and women are herded from room to room, subject to subject, on a tight, fixed schedule—requiring them to start and stop thinking about each subject on a dime, at the whim of adults most of whom they will never meet—seemingly for no reason other than to keep them awake, while their heads are pumped full of fog from the government’s arbitrary program of spiritual delay. Rather than discovering something, pursuing an interest, assisting someone, or even building a remunerable skill set, they are lulled into a stupor with abstractions about career options, force-fed UN-approved progressive talking points, or titillated with the state-sanctioned deviancy of “lifestyle choices.” Rather than falling in love with great books, i.e., with their own minds, they are bored into a profound disrespect for real literature and thought with four years of “reading strategies.” “Life” is the name of that mysterious world they are never permitted to see, but only to analyze and deconstruct in absentia, until at last the mystery, which ought to have propelled them forward, dries up and is dispersed into the fog that has become their minds. Alcohol, drugs, hypnotically bland, bluntly sexual and repetitive music and imagery, and soul-deflating erotic “experimentation” are—by intention—the only outlets available for these energetic young racers restrained indefinitely at the starting gate. They uselessly kick and struggle themselves into apathy and submission. Thus, when finally released, rather than bursting out of the gate with enthusiasm, they merely wander confusedly in groups, hoping for nothing but a safe place to graze, and an owner to bring them some water occasionally.
Of course, this depiction of high school is simplistic. For my Kentucky Derby analogy implies that high school freshmen are thoroughbreds in peak form, and that all the spiritual damage is done at that time. In truth, most students arrive at secondary school already dwarfed, flabby, and lame. By no means, in other words, am I suggesting that today’s typical fourteen-year-old is ready for university—for ancient languages, for Dante and Milton, for Plato and Hesiod, for theory of government or the study of medicine; or for the responsibility of working as a skilled apprentice, ordering supplies for a farm, or even operating his own small business. He most certainly is not ready for anything of the kind. My point, on the contrary, is that yesterday’s typical fourteen-year-old was ready for these things. Indeed, he was pursuing them.
We artificially restrain our boys and girls from developing themselves into young adults, so that by the time they reach the proper physical age for leaping headlong into life, they are so ill-suited to do so that they almost crave the fettered boredom of high school as a means of avoiding a world for which they (correctly) feel utterly unprepared. Again, the crime is not merely that they are prevented from acquiring the knowledge and skills they might otherwise have developed. It is that they are rendered substantially less mentally fit for acquiring that knowledge and those skills; their innate machinery has been rewired for failure and underachievement. How else to define such a procedure, established by force of law, than as compulsory mass retardation?
Why would an entire civilization choose to commit such an unnatural crime against its own children? We need look no further than the most basic, universal reality of the worldwide educational establishment, namely that it consists of child-rearing undertaken by the state. Some of the reasons a ruling class might desire the systematic diminution of the general populace are almost too obvious to mention—so obvious, in fact, that most people fail to see them, as we normally fail to hear the ever-present hum of electricity around us.
To begin with, early development of skills that engender independence and self-reliance causes, among other things, a shrinking of the potential dependent class, and hence a reduction in the natural support base for progressive political factions—factions which, as the public mask for their power lust, promise entitlements and “positive rights” that will provide for men what they fear they will be unable to provide for themselves. The keyword there, as in so much regarding our current implosion, is “fear,” which is the chief popular sentiment relied upon by progressives: fear of being left to one’s own devices, fear of “standing alone,” fear of failure; fear, in short, of living without a safety net. Children submit to adult authority when they feel incompetent to manage their situation alone; likewise, adults who have been reared to feel ill-adapted to life as self-reliant individuals cling to the authority of those who promise to protect them, and to provide for them.
Consider again the exceptional people we have seen in this chapter. Their names, of course, constitute only a sampling of modernity’s great minds. These minds are regarded as great in part because they changed life, and men’s perspectives on life, in ways that could not previously have been predicted. That is, they were by definition a potential challenge to the status quo. Many of them were of the type that we often refer to strictly as revolutionary. All of them were historically notable precisely as questioners of certain accepted attitudes, sensibilities, or societal structures of their times. They were free thinkers, in the truest sense of the term, as was everyone who has ever made a major contribution to the advancement of the human condition—and, by extension, anyone who ever lived a worthy and dignified human life, public or otherwise.
Free thinkers are a problem for an entrenched ruling class. Such people might encourage or embrace new ideas which, if broadly disseminated, would threaten established power structures. And they are unpredictable, like all other manifestations of freedom. It is impossible to know where they will appear, what they will propound, or how their thoughts might affect the established social order sanctioned by, and supportive of, the ruling class. For example, the disparate collection of serious, unencumbered minds that gathered into the sudden storm cloud that produced the American Revolution could not have been foreseen; once they began to thunder, they could not have been resisted. Even at a more general level, human beings developing enthusiasms, purposes, and a picture of their own lives freely, without an artificially circumscribed and imposed list of career options, may choose ways of life that are less conducive to the smooth operation of a social system supportive of the established brain trust at the top of the pyramid.
Progressive authoritarians, which is to say the leading establishmentarians throughout most of the developed world for more than a century, fear rebellion and unpredictability. That is, they fear challenges to their power. If a private man fears the loss of a preeminent position, his only legal recourse is to work harder and more intelligently to maintain his status. If that same man manages to gain political power, or to glom onto those who have it, he now has the capacity to use that power to restrain or limit private challenges to his preeminence. If he is a man of honor, who has earned his stake in the political apparatus by demonstrating nobility of character, genuine statesmanship, he will not willingly tie his political influence to his private material advantage. If he lacks such honor, and specifically if he is motivated, as Hobbes assures us men are, primarily by fear and vainglory, then he will use that power to protect himself and perpetuate his preeminence.
There is no other light in which to read the following passage, made famous by John Taylor Gatto, from “Occasional Letter Number One,” an early mission statement in educational philanthropy produced by John D. Rockefeller’s General Education Board (G.E.B.) in 1906:
In our dreams, we have limitless resources and the people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions fade from their minds, and unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive rural folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple as well as a very beautiful one…we will organize our children and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way, in the homes, in the shops and on the farm.[xi]
This historical gem, outlining the G.E.B.’s early social engineering experiments in the rural American south, reveals the essence of their ever-broadening aspirations. To paraphrase: We don’t want any more independent thinkers; we want dependent workers, humble and efficient contributors to the great societal machine of which we shall be the masters. Thus, from the titans of American free enterprise came, quite knowingly, poison seeds of American progressivism. Is it any wonder that John Dewey, a socialist philosopher and founder of the twentieth century’s most potent theory of collectivist totalitarian education, became a chief beneficiary of the philanthropic compulsory school advocacy of Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, George Foster Peabody, and many of the rest of the small group of “capitalists” who possessed a significant percentage of America’s total wealth at the beginning of the twentieth century?
If this seems peculiar to you, it is probably because you believe that progressivism is, in theory, incompatible with unequal wealth distribution of the sort represented by names like Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Peabody. That is, you have accepted progressivism’s account of itself, rather than adjusting your view to match the universal truth of progressivism in practice. The truth, borne out by the facts, is that progressivism, unlike all other historically important social philosophies, was never a genuine political theory at all—that is, a theory of how to improve man’s estate—so much as a propaganda campaign. That progressivism has had its dupes and fellow travelers who actually believed that the human good was their goal is certain. These are the men and women who bought the propaganda. The leaders of this ersatz movement, both theoretical and practical, were never so naïve; theirs was the only “political philosophy” that had the power of the few, and the submission of the many, as its primary purpose. Power and wealth concentrated at the top—among the brotherhood of the present elite and their chosen initiates—with the mass of the population artificially prevented from rising, is, and always was, the nature and intention of progressivism in all its variations. A true progressive, we might say without much oversimplification, is a person whose primary social goal is to achieve and maintain his own pre-eminence; whose primary intellectual motive is power lust (whether of the paternalistic or the academic variety); and whose primary psychological state is fear.
The genius of some of America’s early progressives, unlike many of their counterparts throughout most of the rest of the world, is that they intuited the secret of long-term success, which is to sustain a productive economy in which the masses, rather than rebelling at their hardship, are sated with superficial luxury—luxury purchased at the price of their liberty and their minds, which they are to sacrifice, piecemeal, in the names of comfort, security, and the white picket fence. Of course, these men had the great practical advantage of inheriting a society of tremendous productivity and inherent optimism, with well-established institutions of civil society. American progressives are the men who played Tocqueville’s famous record about soft despotism backwards, and heard the hidden message: The gradual superimposition of tyranny upon a civil and economically successful society—pursued under the rubric of “progress,” of course—if undertaken without any sudden jolts, would make life a lot more predictable and comfortable for the grand designers at the top of the hierarchy.
The political machinations of the leading American business titans at the turn of the last century are now well known to most of those who care to know. Their efforts, though focused initially on redesigning the American politico-economic landscape, inevitably caused global ripples, because the nation they were subverting was not only modernity’s greatest experiment in practical liberty, and hence the spiritual backbone of all others, but was quickly becoming the hub of the world economy. These men’s most extraordinary achievement in social reformation, however, was perhaps the least heralded, and remains one of the least appreciated today. By providing financial and ideological support for the enactment of American compulsory school laws and the expansion of public secondary school programs, they substantially furthered progressivism’s anti-modern reversion to society structured along the lines of a caste system, with a strictly protected social hierarchy. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly in the end, by providing material and political support for John Dewey’s revolution in education theory and teacher training, first at the University of Chicago and later at Columbia, they helped to lend an air of science and research-based expertise to the single most influential and corruptive philosophy of education of the past century. Given the ultimate global significance of their efforts, the G.E.B. itself may serve as symbolic of the political impulse and character of the compulsory education movement. The brazenness of their assault on America’s institutions and underlying principles of self-determination, and their plans for subtly reshaping the citizenry, make the G.E.B.’s writings virtually a guided tour through the soul of progressive elitism. Thus, while a detailed analysis of their plans would take us too far afield, the present examination will benefit from delving just a little deeper into their stated goals and methods.
In 1915, the G.E.B. itself published The General Education Board: An Account of Its Activities, 1902-1914.[xii] In an introductory note, the authors explain why they have waited until now to produce an account of their projects designed for general consumption:
The Board has made annual reports to the United States Department of the Interior [since 1902] and these have been regularly printed in the reports of the Department; but no further report has been hitherto issued, because, as the Board’s work was felt to be experimental in character, premature statements respecting the scope and outcome of its efforts were to be avoided.[xiii]
Even in this introductory blurb, there is a presentiment of the tone of much of the group’s account of its work, as well as a strong echo of the infamous passage from “Occasional Letter Number One.” These men had been working closely with an important branch of the U.S. federal government for many years, undertaking “experimental” projects related to public education policy, and specifically to the creation of sweeping new laws that would radically alter American society. And yet they blithely inform the reader that the “scope and outcome” of these activities were deliberately withheld from the general public—that “premature statements…were to be avoided.” What kind of governmental or quasi-governmental projects, undertaken at a national level, are deliberately hidden from the citizenry until after the fact? Strategies of military defense, of course, would fall into this category, along with related information-gathering projects (i.e., spying). In general, we may isolate particular, targeted plans intended to defend the laws and people of a nation against enemies from within or without, as instances of legitimate government secrecy, where the “premature” release of information might tangibly jeopardize the nation’s interests. Lawmaking itself, on the other hand, is precisely the arena in which a free society abhors government secrecy. And then, on the cusp of actual legislative action, there is the nebulous world comprised of those activities we subsume under expressions such as “exerting influence” and “swaying public opinion.” When such activities are conducted so as to be carefully concealed from public scrutiny, we can be sure their practitioners perceive themselves as superior to those whose perceptions they would surreptitiously influence. When such men are operating in tandem with the official agencies of government, we have entered the realm of propaganda and illiberal social manipulation.
This was the early heyday of progressive elitism in the New World, when the paternalistic impulse that is an underlying threat in all times and places blossomed into an open attempt to end liberal democracy and constitutional republicanism, branding it obsolete and seeking to transform it into a workable compromise between a multi-party industrial democracy and a never-ending social engineering experiment.[xiv] The chief players in the G.E.B. were leading lights in this transformation process, a fact demonstrated within the pages of their boastful “account of activities.”
Two of the Board’s main sources of pride were the projection of the idea of public high schools through the southern states and the gradual displacement of private education through the development of “better public standards.”[xv] It is notable that the goal was not, as is often claimed by historians of public education, primarily “universal education”—i.e., the provision of schools for the underprivileged—but rather uniformity of education. That is, the Board was explicitly seeking to eradicate the social influence of non-government schools, which, ultimately, is to say the influence of private families over their own children. Hence:
There was need in every state of a trained specialist in secondary education, who, while sympathizing with local conditions, might skillfully and tactfully marshal all available forces for the purpose of securing concerted acts calculated in time to realize a secondary school system.[xvi]
The G.E.B.’s report is peppered throughout with such language: “skillfully,” “tactfully,” “calculated,” and so on. They are demanding praise for having tricked the “folk” into accepting gradually and unwittingly what they would never have accepted as an open proposition. For, as they explain:
It was from the first clear that sporadic successes due to voluntary initiative on the part of interested communities would not suffice. They could, at best, whet the appetite for a substantial secondary school system. [These local efforts] were, however, valuable because they reduced opposition to satisfactory legislation—constitutional or statutory as the case may be. Within less than a decade important legislative gains have been made.[xvii]
Among other things, these “legislative gains” included the removal, in Georgia, of “the [constitutional] limitation of public education to ‘the elements of an English education only.’”[xviii] Such an amendment was vital to the intentions of the G.E.B. and their federal government allies, for their hope in pushing for the extension of public school into young adulthood was never to lengthen the period of genuine learning. Quite the contrary, they hoped, in the spirit of the secularized Brahmin caste they wished to be, to diminish the role of the “old-fashioned literary or academic course of study”[xix] in favor of increased emphasis on domestic skills, industry-related standardization, and general social submissiveness training.[xx] These goals, they believed, were already well on their way to being realized through the southern states: “The methods followed by the secondary school men may indeed be commended as ideally adapted to the promotion of educational and social reform.”[xxi]
What were the methods employed by these agents of societal transformation? Read the following extraordinary description carefully, for while perhaps slightly less sensational than the passage from “Occasional Letter Number One,” it is at least as revealing:
Their homes were in the states they served; they took up a sympathetic attitude toward local problems and conditions; acquainted themselves with the history and resources of the states; dealt candidly and plainly with every constituency on the one hand without passion or sensationalism, on the other without the faintest suspicion of exploitation or the faintest imputation of self-interest; proposed measures that were within range of possibility, at the same time that they were essential parts of a far-reaching scheme to be developed bit by bit as opportunity afforded. In homely language, they have kept “pegging away,” quietly, persistently, and with ultimate purposes far beyond the immediate propositions, the adoption of which they have urged at any particular place or any particular moment. Their progress has not been marked by explosions which shake a state like an earthquake, and are presently forgotten when some new exposure in another field takes place; but interest and enthusiasm have steadily grown on the basis of achievement, without any liability to reaction or any sign of revulsion of feeling.[xxii]
Consider what is meant by dealing “candidly and plainly with every constituency” while proposing measures that are in fact “essential parts of a far-reaching scheme to be developed bit by bit as opportunity afforded.” Or what is implied by saying they “took up a sympathetic attitude toward local problems and conditions,” while “pegging away” “with ultimate purposes far beyond the immediate propositions, the adoption of which they have urged at any particular place or any particular moment.” Only the refreshing candor of the G.E.B.’s giddy brand of elitism might prevent us from recognizing that what we are reading is a boastful account of the stealthy subversion of a nation’s laws and institutions in the name of purposes never to be fully revealed to the duped until after the fact, i.e., a political bait and switch. Hence the Board’s avoidance of any “premature” disclosure of the “scope and outcome” of its work.
One short-term purpose of their efforts is summarized this way: “Eight years ago the term ‘high school’ conveyed in the South no definite meaning; now it represents a fairly well conceived educational entity….”[xxiii] Pushing private education into social irrelevance, converting schools from halls of intellectual and character development into training stations for humble workers, and extending public school’s indoctrination and developmental delay program through to the end of the teen years, were major accomplishments to be sure. However, all of this was merely part of a broader scheme to develop a fully centralized, government-run educational establishment that would extend from kindergarten through university. The G.E.B. treats the nationalized systems of continental Europe as an ideal,[xxiv] and identifies as the essential evil of privately-directed education its lack of “general purpose,” when what is allegedly needed is a perfect and all-encompassing state-controlled pyramid, with a “strong and symmetrical university as the crown of a public school system.”[xxv]
At no time, naturally, does the Board dally with the question of whether their plans are consistent with the United States as founded, or with classical liberalism and individual freedom in general. Constitutions, laws, and existing notions of civil society and individual character are mere obstacles on the path to social reform. All questions are pragmatic: How can we reconstruct society to match our dreams? What existing social forces and institutions will have to be circumvented in the process? And what methods will be most efficient in achieving this aim?[xxvi] For example, while the Board, many of whose members were themselves major funders of private universities, admits the financial benefits of the private funding of higher education, they express regret at the way this form of funding—though more advantageous economically and practically—reduces the likelihood that “the several states will soon utilize their authority to regulate the founding, development, and conduct of colleges and universities.”[xxvii] That such regulation of private educational “conduct” is desirable is never doubted, but rather it is only encouraged that this be undertaken surreptitiously, once again in order to avoid direct opposition.
Thus far, only a single state has created a department of education with anything approaching adequate powers; and in this instance it has been found that these powers must be employed with the utmost circumspection.[xxviii] (Emphasis added.)
To employ political powers, and specifically regulatory and legislative powers, “with circumspection,” is a cute way of describing tyranny. Specifically, it precisely describes the methods of democratic tyranny or “soft despotism.” The deliberate subversion of that spirit of “voluntarism” which the G.E.B. finds so inadequate to solving social problems, leads us right to the foundational question of modern political philosophy: Why do we have governments? That is, do men create and frame their government in response to natural needs, or does the government frame and manage its citizenry to satisfy its own perceived needs? The G.E.B. assumes the latter, pre-civilized position. Modern paternalism, progressivism, or what have you, is, in a sense, just the divine right of kings without any grounding in that larger conception of a cosmic order which civilized the older notion. It is the “divine right” without any divinity bestowing the right, or with the “kings” simply assigning themselves the divine role, and then granting themselves privileges.
From the point of view of historical understanding, we should be thankful, in a strange sense, for the heady moment of full steam ahead progressivism—authoritarianism without the mask, for once—that America experienced during the early twentieth century, perhaps reaching its zenith during the Wilson presidency. For it is hard to imagine a document produced by progressives today that would be as straightforwardly condescending in its declarations of social superiority as the G.E.B.’s Account of Its Activities. Substantial gains having been made, in education as on various other fronts, they no longer felt any need to “avoid” discussing their “experimental” work. Rather, it seems they could no longer resist the childish urge to announce their triumphs to the world:
It can be fairly said that in framing and putting through this legislation the high school representatives supported by the General Education Board have in every instance taken a leading part. They would, however, be the first to refuse any undue credit.[xxix]
The same humility, apparently, cannot be ascribed to these representatives’ supporters in the G.E.B. itself, who are only too happy to trumpet the success of their efforts to help their federal friends weaken the freedom and independence of the American population, and to dilute the significance of family life, in the name of uniform worker training.
In this light, let us return once again to “Occasional Letter Number One.” Speaking of the “grateful and responsive folk” whom they wish to coerce into their compulsory schooling scheme, these reformers specify that the prescribed schooling “shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science.” That is a politely negative way of stating the true goal, which is expressly to prevent these people from becoming “philosophers or men of learning or men of science.” That is why their conception of schooling requires that “present educational conventions fade from their minds.” The “present educational conventions” and “traditions” from which these men wished to become “unhampered” were, as Gatto points out, and as we have seen in the G.E.B.’s Account of 1915, a reference to the “intellectual and character education” that had hitherto been the motive of formal and informal teaching. The progressive industrialists and their academic allies hoped to break down that model of education—the loose, variously pursued effort to produce well-developed and independent adults—in favor of a unified system promoting humble submission and utility, producing a citizenry grateful to be ruled by their superiors.
“We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply.” Genuine education does not “search for” anything, strictly speaking. Rather, it seeks to encourage the development of innate capacities. “We shall not search for” is a euphemism for “We shall not try to encourage.” Notice the precisely chosen qualifier, “great.” This new educational model would be calibrated specifically to discourage greatness, which is to say individual distinction, in any of the listed endeavors. That is, students would be allowed to pursue these vocations only at meek and unexceptional levels. Truly original thinkers, statesmen of character and vision, revolutionary artists, and inspirational leaders—the natural enemies of the social structure of the progressive planners—are to be nipped in the bud by the school system, a system configured to “organize children…and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.” “Organize” is another apt word. The plan was, and remains, to produce a stratified society in which men and women keep to their places, present no surprises, and serve the overlords’ purposes without disruption. To restate the message simply: We already have a queen bee; all we need now are efficient drones. People will be sorted into useful roles, and psychologically confined to specialized areas of endeavor that serve the interests of the larger machine, at the expense of the broader, more integrated personal growth that is almost definitive of our species.
One last point: Reread that passage from “Occasional Letter Number One” one more time, with your attention focused on the word “we.” Don’t let that “we” out of your sight. Lest you mistakenly assume “we” means society as a whole, consider such expressions as “we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk,” or “we shall not try to raise up from among them….” “We” means the G.E.B. and its political allies. Thus, after having listed the pursuits that their proposed school program will discourage—namely, those which collectively comprise the intellectual, moral and political realms—they provide the explanatory clause that gives the game away: “of whom we have ample supply.” These social planners were declaring, in no uncertain terms, that “in their dreams” the intellectual and creative elite would be entirely under their sway; no new thinkers or artists would be permitted to spring up willy-nilly (that is, naturally), as this would necessarily produce social influences to rival the overseers.
Men with the urge to tame and reorganize whole societies for their own use recognize the most necessary condition of such an effort: They must feel certain their authority as organizers will never be challenged, for this would reduce all their ingenious edifices to sand. Rousseau observes that primitive man could never have invented agriculture without first having established the notion of private property ownership.[xxx] He had to feel confident in his stable proprietorship over a piece of land before he would invest time and energy in its cultivation. Likewise with those who come to perceive an entire nation as their personal property, and to view its cultivation for their own ends as their rightful role. Thus, “we” have ample supply of intellectuals and artists; that is, all significant theoretical and creative endeavors must be pursued under the auspices of “our” design, perhaps even within “our” very bloodlines, or not at all.
That last point may seem implausibly absurd, and yet it is so important, and so damning of the progressive educational mentality, that it deserves to be mined for every last repulsive implication. After generations of progressive indoctrination, it might be difficult for a reader inclined to gloss carelessly the words of men long dead to perceive the enormity of what the authors of “Occasional Letter Number One” were actually saying. There is great cleverness in their use of the word “folk” to name their victims. “Folk,” in English, suggests simple people, people without grand ambitions or aspirations. It is for the folk, therefore, that the Rockefeller egalitarians dream of creating a universal compulsory education system designed to produce efficient workers while actively discouraging or thwarting high intellectual, moral, scientific, or artistic achievement among them.
Remember that the folk they were planning to educate were in fact virtually the entire American population—that proportion which had not already attained elite stature in society. The G.E.B. and its allies were condescendingly presuming that greatness could not spring from such ordinary stock, and therefore that educating them should mean only preparing them to perform useful roles. It is easy today to forget that theories of bloodline superiority, issuing in fantasies of carefully engineered human husbandry, were part of the stock in trade of Western progressivism throughout its pre-World War II history.[xxxi] It is also easy to overlook the obvious convenience of such pseudoscience for those wishing to conceal authoritarianism behind a benign face. Invoking science becomes the perfect rationalization for rendering one’s fortuitously elevated status permanent—it can make the accidental appear essential, and the contingent necessary. It was only the association of genetic engineering with one of progressivism’s most advanced incarnations, Nazi Germany, that forced these convenient theories, and the general intellectual presumptions related to them, underground.
But here we arrive at the deepest implication of this desire forcibly to restrain the ambitions and development of the folk. As a matter of historical fact, the children of ordinary folk include many of civilization’s great men, from Socrates and Epictetus to Cervantes and Lincoln. The explicit effort to build an impenetrable intellectual ceiling for the denizens of compulsory education bespeaks not paternalistic nobility—“Why expose them to things they cannot understand?”—but rather a profound hatred of the intellect, and a desire to prevent it from “coming up” unpredictably from anywhere, rather than from the establishment class. This is not the old democracy versus aristocracy debate. Rather, it indicates a more fundamental dispute, one that returns us to the foundations of Western civilization: reason versus power. The full significance of this progressive hatred of the mind, and the meaning of the effort to stifle it, cannot be overemphasized. Socrates is, ultimately, precisely the problem these elite planners were hoping to obviate through compulsory schools—the independent thinker who asks questions of the elite, undermines their moral authority in the minds of the folk, and thereby destroys the illusions on which unjust power is based. Athens dealt with Socrates in the immediate term, but, as Socrates himself predicted at his trial, she lost the long war. Modern progressives, wised-up authoritarians that they are, recognize that competing with Socrates is difficult and dangerous. Socrates must be prevented.
A defining goal of all modern compulsory schooling, stated with what in hindsight seems remarkable candor by Rockefeller’s G.E.B., was and remains nothing short of the practical effort to abort Socrates.
Of course, this is a statement of ideals. Even the most committed progressives are capable of seeing that no system of indoctrination and mass diminution is flawless. Men will slip through the cracks and achieve exceptional things despite the best efforts of the school system to prevent such anomalies. Compulsory schooling gives the ruling class their best chance of preventing mass challenges to their authority, and also of isolating and intercepting individual exceptions on their way up. What to do, however, with men who somehow manage to beat the system, and to rise from among the “folk” to achieve the kind of social influence capable of changing the political dynamic in unpredicted ways? Complete one-party states which dispense with the pretense of pluralism, or are not burdened with a local history of tolerance and free-thinking to begin with, have an easier time of it. Exceptions, insofar as they survive youth at all, may simply be killed, imprisoned, or controlled with threats to loved ones. Things are more complicated in those progressive nations whose ruling establishments are forced by historical precedent and remnants of citizen vigilance to manage their societies’ descents into tyranny by gradual steps. In these cases, the elite must, in the name of self-protection, adopt a more difficult policy: If you can’t prevent them, co-opt them.
One of the saddest spectacles of the compulsory schooling era is the manner in which some of the most extraordinary living arguments against public education have become not merely dupes, but shills, for the very establishment whose intellectual and moral bankruptcy they exposed. Modern conservatives or classical liberals are all too familiar with the despair induced by watching a seemingly principled man or woman rise through the political ranks to achieve national office, only to turn around and start behaving like the rest of the political establishment once he or she is in a position to do some good. The education equivalents of this corruption are even more disturbing; these turncoats use their success, which ought to serve as inspiration in the war to end compulsory schooling, to seal up the cracks in the very oxygen-deprivation apparatus they escaped.
That is to say, where independent minds do develop beyond the clutches of public schooling, these are brought into the progressive fold, and thereafter used as “experts” to justify a more all-encompassing authoritarianism, rather than holding themselves up as models of independent thought and the benefits of intellectual freedom.
Bill Gates developed his computer programming interests and skills while a student at a private prep school.[xxxii] In fact, having shown promise in this area, he was permitted to work on his own in the computer room, puttering and programming, rather than attend math classes. Through this freedom to spend time working on (and playing with) his interests, rather than being forced to conform entirely to a standardized study schedule and curriculum, Gates quickly developed his innate talents, becoming the Henry Ford of the computer age, judging a Harvard degree a waste of his time, and amassing tremendous wealth and influence while still in his twenties. Would anyone dare to argue that he might have developed his computer wizardry and business acumen more quickly or more successfully in a public school environment? On the contrary, one of the contemporary world’s famous benefactors might never have accomplished any of this had he been confined more completely within compulsory schooling’s favored social and academic context.
Nevertheless, today Gates is a key player in, and chief advocate for, the U.S. federal government’s creation of an even more inescapable system of compulsory school uniformity, through his participation in the Department of Education’s Common Core Standards Initiative, which is designed to standardize and micromanage alternative education and locally controlled public schools out of existence. By being the technological point man in the implementation of this monopolistic atrocity, Gates becomes yet another self-made individual who has forsaken the lesson of his own life in the name of the self-serving “philanthropy” of the progressive elitist.[xxxiii] Private education, freedom from regimented study schedules, opportunities to apply his enthusiasms directly in real-life situations, and dropping out of his freshman year of college were good enough for Bill Gates, but apparently they are not good enough for those he actively seeks to confine to standardized schooling, and whom he insists must complete university degrees in order to be ready for today’s economy—the economy of which he, a privately educated university drop-out, is the foremost exemplar. A well-bred modern reflex compels us to respond to such an example with, “But that’s different—he’s Bill Gates!” If you can carry on and explain exactly what you mean by that response without blinking, without shame, then you are a perfect product of the system advocated by the G.E.B. and its spiritual allies throughout the modern world.
Let us sum up, then, what we have outlined thus far. Compulsory public education is a mass retardation factory. Its planners and advocates are the factory managers and foremen, in charge of overseeing modern civilization’s dismantling in favor of a paternalistic quasi-caste system.
The next question, however, is the most important, if we are to persuade those for whom history and common sense are not enough to awaken radical action: How does public schooling work its black magic? It is time to proceed from the antechamber, where we have investigated modernity’s hell in relative safety, down into the subterranean channels to which modern man has condemned his children, and hence, through divine justice, himself.
[i] John Keats, “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be,” in The Complete Poetical Works of John Keats (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1900), 67, available online at https://archive.org/details/completepoetical01keat.
[ii] The Reverend John Mitford, “Life of Swift,” in Jonathan Swift, The Poetical Works of Jonathan Swift, Volume I (London: William Pickering, 1833), xv-xviii.
[v] Cf. “The Life of John Hancock: Timeline,” http://www.john-hancock-heritage.com/timeline/, 2015.
[vi] New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Alexander Pope,” New World Encyclopedia, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Alexander_Pope&oldid=983788 (accessed May 29, 2015).
[vii] Samuel Johnson, “The Life of Pope,” in The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope, edited by William Warburton (Philadelphia: Jas. B. Smith & Co., 1859), 10-11.
[viii] Ernest Campbell Mossner, “Hume at La Flèche, 1735: an unpublished letter,” Studies in English (The University of Texas) 37 (1958), 30—33.
[ix] Mary F. Sandars, Balzac: His Life and Writings (London: Stanley Paul & Co., 1914 ), 32-33, available online at https://archive.org/stream/honoredebalzac00sandiala#page/n9/mode/2up.
[x] From the 2007 Ontario Grade 10 English curriculum, p. 89, available online at http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/secondary/english910currb.pdf.
[xi] General Education Board, Occasional Papers (New York: General Education Board, 1916), 6.
[xii] The General Education Board: An Account of Its Activities, 1902-1914 (New York: General Education Board, 1915.) Hereafter G.E.B.
[xiii] Ibid., xv.
[xiv] An excellent example of this, very much in the spirit of the times, is the novel Philip Dru: Administrator, by Edward Mandell “Colonel” House, closest advisor to Woodrow Wilson. The book, published the very year Wilson was elected president, is an extraordinary testament to the madness of the progressive mind. See my “Progressivism’s Revenge,” at American Thinker, March 4, 2013. (Available online at http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2013/03/progressivisms_revenge.html.)
[xv] G.E.B., 74-5.
[xvi] Ibid., 80-1.
[xvii] Ibid., 86.
[xviii] Ibid., 86.
[xix] Ibid., 96.
[xx] As we shall see in Part Two, these goals are the defining mission of the two most important theorists in the development of compulsory schooling, including the G.E.B.’s most important beneficiary, John Dewey.
[xxi] G.E.B., 89.
[xxii] Ibid., 89.
[xxiii] Ibid., 93.
[xxiv] Ibid., 103.
[xxv] Ibid., 105.
[xxvi] In this attitude, they were merely echoing the normal approach to “education reform” as manifested throughout the Old and New Worlds by the nineteenth century’s leading advocates of public schools. This theme will be developed further in Part Two.
[xxvii] G.E.B., 106.
[xxviii] Ibid., 106-7.
[xxix] Ibid., 87.
[xxx] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Essay on the Origin of Languages (John H. Moran translation), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966, 33.
[xxxi] Consider Tommy Douglas, Canada’s beloved advocate of the democratic West’s first socialized healthcare system, whose master’s thesis was an argument for genetic engineering (Cf. Caleb McMillan, “A Brief History of Tommy Douglas,” at Mises Canada [October 8, 2012], http://mises.ca/posts/blog/a-brief-history-of-tommy-douglas/); or Margaret Sanger, the founder of America’s Planned Parenthood, who advocated abortion and birth control in order to minimize the lower races (Cf. Tanya L. Green, “The Negro Project: Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Plan for Black America,” at Black Genocide [2012, accessed June 10, 2015], http://www.blackgenocide.org/negro.html.)
[xxxiii] It is an important question in itself, though one slightly beyond the scope of this book, to ask what drives so many self-made men to support the very ideology whose most recent figurehead openly rejects their lives and accomplishments, declaring “You didn’t build that.” In other words, why do the men who might, in theory, do the most good in helping mankind resist the progressive bulldozer almost invariably take the side of paternalistic oppression? An examination of this question would, I suspect, uncover a powerful pair of self-perpetuating motives controlling the hearts of men who have broken free of conventional expectations and limitations, but without having developed a proper moral compass: greed and fear.