Wherever is found what is called paternal government, there is found state education. It has been discovered that the best way to insure implicit obedience is to commence tyranny in the nursery.[i]
Benjamin Disraeli, June 20, 1839
I begin this book—part obituary for a great civilization, part wistful dream of a future one—with Disraeli’s pithy account of the meaning of government schools, because his words seem to descend upon us from another world, burning away today’s befogging discussions of education with the warm sun of simple clarity. In short, Disraeli is stating the obvious, which is precisely what today’s education debates are typically calibrated to avoid.
It is my contention, consistent with Disraeli’s précis, that government-controlled schooling, in all the variations in which it now exists throughout the developed world, is essentially a tool of paternalism, by which I mean of the tyrannical impulse; that such schooling was conceived and developed with a compliant and uniform citizenry, rather than an educated one, as its primary goal; and that our present civilizational decline, likely much graver and more intractable than is readily apparent to most of us living through it, is largely the product of the world’s two hundred year experiment in state child-rearing. This decline will not be slowed, or civilization renewed, as long as compulsory schooling remains the norm in education.
How strongly do I mean that last statement? How far, in other words, am I proposing to go in combating government schooling? A logician might note that Disraeli’s observation that all tyrants favor state education does not necessarily entail that all who favor state education are tyrannical. Indeed, even leaving aside that majority of late modern men who, having been raised in the epoch of government schools, can barely imagine any alternative, we can certainly find prominent examples of worthy and honorable leaders and theorists who regarded some form of state-regulated education as acceptable, or even desirable. Such people, however, must be clearly distinguished from the chief architects of public schooling itself, who have generally been men of a decidedly authoritarian bent, “paternalists” who for one reason or another sought to manipulate, and specifically to soften, the general population in the name of solidifying some form of social control for themselves. These men were not always evil, but they were always wrong, and the results of their efforts to restrain society through moral and intellectual indoctrination are invariably disastrous in the long run, a judgment that can hardly be exemplified more starkly than by outlining the decisive role of their project in ending an age defined by its quest for practical freedom and its belief in the dignity of the individual.
Education is nothing less than civilization itself considered from the developmental point of view. It is the process of becoming civilized, which means of learning what we are, how we ought to live, and how we are related to one another and to the whole of existence. It is the clearest instantiation of what Aristotle meant when he described man as a political animal, but also of what he meant by saying there is something divine in us. For centuries of so-called Western humanity, this process, which is always and by necessity as incomplete, faltering and fragile as humans themselves are, was grounded in variations on a few related themes: The rational individual, a natural microcosm who is therefore capable in principle of understanding his immediate surroundings within a comprehensive view of the whole, must live by his own will, which requires cultivating practical knowledge, intellectual self-reliance, and moral independence. To undermine self-reliance, to deny independence, and to diminish or curtail the desire for knowledge, is thus to denature men, in the sense of turning us against ourselves. And that, in capsule, is what public schooling was and is designed to accomplish.
We are living through the final stages of progressivism’s two-hundred-year ascendancy. The expansion of practical liberty and material prosperity in the nineteenth century was rooted in the ideas and sensibilities of the preceding centuries. Already in the early 1800s, however, seeds of modernity’s invasive weed had germinated, and were sending up shoots throughout the West. Progressivism, the idea that History itself is a kind of animate being seeking its goal in a deified Future, and hence that humanity, History’s chariot, is essentially a collective entity with a collective purpose, was an impossible fit in a civilization supported by the intellectual pillars of rational self-discovery, individual sovereignty, and the moral and metaphysical primacy of the personal soul—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as Thomas Jefferson, adapting Locke, so deftly crystallized our nature.
For a long time, this anti-modern, anti-rational, and anti-individual philosophy exerted its most profound effects primarily in its native soil, Germany, although it was gradually invading Western academia and the realm of high art. It might therefore have seemed little more than a background rumble or sophisticated novelty item in the practical political life of the then-ascendant English-speaking world, the world of classical liberalism, rapid industrial expansion, and the promise of endless frontiers and unprecedented individual self-determination. As early as the 1820s, however, European and North American intellectuals and policy activists were making pilgrimages to German universities, and returning home with their hearts full of new, advanced ideas about man, morality, and society. The most practically potent of these ideas, forming the core of progressivism’s political revolution, were those concerned with education.
If man is essentially a collective entity—not Aristotle’s political animal, but rather abstract humanity elevated above the concrete individual, the “ideal” over the real—then individualism, broadly defined, is worse than an error. It is an impediment to the cohesion that is both proper to the species and indispensable to the realization of our true end. From this it follows that all moral theories based on the premise that the quest for happiness is our ultimate natural motive—the premise of the Western moral tradition prior to the late eighteenth century—must be rejected as at best naïve and primitive, at worst destructive, and in any case obsolete. The problem for the original progressives, the German idealists, was that the pursuit of happiness, which is to say of private knowledge, private virtue, and a private glimpse of eternity, seemed to answer to a basic human impulse, or at least one basic to the Western tradition. There could therefore be no hope of realizing their new religion of the progress of collective humanity, i.e., History, short of a radical separation of mankind from the social conditions that both derived from and fostered that older moral perspective.
This radical separation would require the strategic application of coercive authority to snap nature’s thread linking men’s hearts to their own lives, their own needs, and their own futures. As such a strategy, pursued against adults, would immediately be identified and resisted as a form of enslavement, the proper and necessary targets would have to be children—which, as a corollary, would make all existing adults potential obstacles to be overcome on the road to the children’s souls. Hence, as the purpose of this project was to eliminate countervailing influences that would interfere with the creation of a new collective man, ready at last for the great leap forward toward his new deity, the Future, the strategy would have to be applied universally, by force of law; it would have to displace the private family as the locus of authority and emotional dependency in the children’s formative years; and it would have to exploit the children’s natural desires, fears, and pleasures to break them to the will of the collective, which, in concrete terms, means the will of the state.
German thought had been edging toward a systematic rejection of the traditional understanding of human nature for some years before anyone had manifested the combination of profound intellect and profound megalomania needed to conceive of an effective way of bringing these radical ideas down from the ivory tower, and into the practical life of a nation. The man who finally rose to the occasion was one of the four great figures of German idealism, Johann Gottlieb Fichte. His vision of compulsory, government-controlled schooling, designed explicitly to subvert and undo the entire rational and religious heritage of the West in favor of a neo-mysticism with its own new trinity—the future, the state, and the collective—was both progressivism’s first comprehensive mission statement and the blueprint for what in the twentieth century came to be known as re-education camps.
This was the bold new idea that the West’s intellectuals and education reformers flocked to Prussia to study, to admire, and to adapt for application at home. Fichte’s dream was never realized in its pure form even in Germany, let alone in those more liberal nations where concepts such as compulsion, uniformity, and submissiveness still had predominantly negative connotations, while free will, personal happiness, and private property still had predominantly positive ones. Yet in the end, by persistence, obfuscation, and stealth, the admirers of Fichte’s blueprint won the day throughout the civilized world. Compulsory schooling found its voice over the nineteenth century, its chorus joined by statesmen, bureaucrats, business titans, and academics—anyone desirous of coercively entrenching a social status quo with himself in an elite position; anyone swept up in the early waves of progressive theory or activism, whether of the idealist-mystical or the materialist-socialist sort (two waves politically distinguishable only by their superficial crests); and, in principle, simply anyone with the instinct to impose where he is unable to persuade.
Progressivism is a protean political monster, which is why it is not easily reducible to socialism, communism, fascism, or plain old oligarchy. It is less a political doctrine or method of governance than an elaborate rationalization; it is power lust masquerading as social theory and greed masquerading as philanthropy. By the early twentieth century, the West’s first comprehensive philosophy of domination had become the dominant philosophy of the age. (Anyone who doubts this should consider that in 1912, the United States of America, the West’s last bastion of resistance to progressive collectivism, held a presidential election in which two of the three major candidates ran under the progressive banner—Teddy Roosevelt named his third party challenge the Progressive Party—and those two progressive candidacies, along with Eugene V. Debs’ Socialist Party, accounted for seventy-five percent of the popular vote.) As a result of this successful insurgency, compulsory schooling, tyranny commenced in the nursery, became the norm throughout the advanced world—a world, we would do well to recall, that had become advanced without such schooling. The schools may not yet have been all that a progressive could hope for, but the ratchet mechanism of ever-expanding government control within the private spiritual realm, i.e., the mind, had been set in irreversible motion. The most vital, or rather fatal, step, namely compulsoriness itself, had been taken.
And what is compulsory schooling, in a nutshell? It is the legally enforced diluting of parental authority over the raising of children, with intellectual and moral lessons, goals, and methods regulated by the government. It is usually undertaken in government buildings away from the family home, and under the supervision of various levels of government agents trained in accordance with government standards to represent and administer government policy regarding the proper rank-ordering of society, the attitudes and skills deemed by the government to be most socially useful, and the pre-emptive extinguishing or subduing of beliefs, attitudes, and behavior judged to be undesirable to the government for any reason. It weakens the natural attachments to family and familial associations in favor of cultivating alternative attachments to government officers, and to the artificial, government-designed social order of the school. Broadly, it encourages feelings of submissiveness to, and dependence upon, the opinions and judgments of an abstract collective, thus effectively discouraging independent thought, thwarting the development of self-reliance, and in general ensuring that no one ever actualizes his full intellectual and practical potential.
At this point, no doubt, most progressive readers are rising to object that the preceding description completely misrepresents the purpose and value of public education, while many conservatives, I imagine, may be ready to accuse me of going too far, of weakening my own case with hyperbole. To those critics, or to those among them prepared to engage honestly with this subject matter, I issue a friendly challenge: Go back and re-read the offending paragraph, this time without the presuppositions we have all had drilled into us about the supposed necessity of public schools. Find in that paragraph one sentence, one phrase, one adjective that may properly be said to exaggerate anything, or indeed to say anything at all apart from a simple matter-of-fact description of public school.
Furthermore, to remove from this challenge any hint of subjective bias, I ask you to find one statement or description in that paragraph that has not also been offered, in similar words, in defense of public education, by any number of the institution’s most influential advocates. Admittedly, you will find that most of the public school proponents who spoke this honestly about their methods and intentions were men of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before progressivism, as part of its assault on the final pockets of civilized resistance, invented the dainty linguistic duplicity that we now call political correctness. Be that as it may, I can safely aver that the major historical architects, supporters, and caretakers of modern compulsory schooling are completely on board with every word in my description; in fact, my description was derived entirely from their own statements, as will become quite clear as we proceed.
So we return to the question I posed on the reader’s behalf at the outset: How far am I proposing to go in combating government schooling? Consider, again, the last part of Disraeli’s critique of paternalistic government: “It has been discovered that the best way to insure implicit obedience is to commence tyranny in the nursery.” I draw your attention to the main verb, “discovered.” Disraeli’s important observation is that the superlative value of state education as a tool of tyranny is a discovery that tyrannical men have made. That is, men with a desire for illegitimate power will find their way to this most ingenious and effective method of control if it is made accessible to them. Recognizing this, many thinkers and statesmen of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bravely resisted the calls for establishing publicly controlled and funded education systems, universal schooling, in spite of the obvious surface appeal of the idea of using public funds to promote the kind of good citizenship that is necessary for a civilized society to survive and thrive. They fought this losing battle because they foresaw the danger inherent in mistaking some men’s decent and noble sentiments for a universal condition, thereby inviting whole societies to pave their roads to hell with good intentions by establishing the legal and practical means to their own enslavement.
All that has changed since the young Disraeli and others made their cautionary stands is that we have now witnessed the full poisonous fruit of the subversion they foresaw, with government schools more comprehensively controlled and controlling than anything a nineteenth century “conservative” or “liberal” could have imagined. Public education is now universal in a sense that might have seemed unthinkable to Disraeli. By deliberately restraining spiritual growth in the name of entrenching state paternalism as an inescapable norm, progressivism has added a final twist to Disraeli’s ironic stab. For he warned of “tyranny in the nursery,” whereas today’s educational establishments have taken this one step further, seeking, by means of the maturation-stunting effects of public school, to establish nothing less than tyranny as a nursery.
My aims, then, are two-fold. On a theoretical level, I hope to make the rational case for the complete elimination of government-controlled schooling as a matter of principle. My immediate practical goal, however, is more modest, namely to persuade a few thinking adults to join the fight against tyranny’s most ubiquitous outreach program in any way possible within their own personal spheres of influence. The susceptibility of government schools to exploitation as tools of oppressive social manipulation was always, as it turns out, a risk too great to be borne. Today it is a reality too manifest to be denied. The so-called Western heritage, the flowering of mankind as a race of rational inquiry and self-discovery, has been reduced to embers, and the primary agent employed in suffocating this most glorious flame has been the public school. More narrowly, the promise of modernity—the promise of liberty and a civil order grounded in practical reason—remains now only as a dim shadow of its true self, maintained merely to pacify the masses with a chimerical representation of freedom and morality in place of the real things. If there is to be a renewal of civilization in the foreseeable future, it will of necessity begin with an educational revolution. I hope the present work will play a small role in the development of such a movement.
I am a teacher. If there were a Hippocratic Oath for teachers, its primary injunction would be, “I will do my utmost to cultivate men’s natural abilities, and in all instances avoid any practice or policy that would restrain those abilities.” My conscience, reflecting on the many beautiful but forcibly diminished souls that I have had the privilege to call my students, demands that I give voice to the concerns detailed in the following pages.
[i] “On the Order of the Day for the resumption of the adjourned debate on National Education,” HC Deb 20 June 1839 vol. 48 cc578-689, available online at http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1839/jun/20/education-adjourned-debate#S3V0048P0_18390620_HOC_4.