If intellect is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine in comparison with human life. But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass all the rest.[i]



The mere absorbing of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness. There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat.[ii]

John Dewey


i. Two Motives of Education


 Throughout this postmortem for a civilization, I have described universal compulsory schooling as a tyrannical design to separate children from themselves, or from nature. I am quite aware that such statements live on the border between precision and obscurity, and that in offering them as my ultimate case against compulsory schooling, I run the risk of seeming to bet my whole stake on a will-o’-the-wisp. Therefore, having set out my arguments—practical, theoretical, and historical—I feel compelled to address, however inadequately, a topic in speaking of which I am not only inexpert, but might also be, if I may use such a word, impious.

Let us recall how the two most profound thinkers behind the growth of compulsory schooling expressed the supposed moral problem that their education models were designed to combat.

First, Fichte explaining why the child must be raised in a facility apart from the family and community into which he is born: 

He must not even hear that our vital impulses and actions can be directed towards our maintenance and welfare, nor that we may learn for that reason, nor that learning may be of some use for that purpose. 

Next, Dewey explaining the distinction between the self with which we are born and the self achieved through proper socialization: 

The actual self, the self recognizing only past and sensible satisfaction, is set over against the self which recognizes the necessity of expansion and a wider environment. Since the former self confines its action to benefits demonstrably accruing to itself, while the latter, in meeting the demands of the situation, necessarily contributes to the satisfaction of others, one takes the form of a private self, a self whose good is set over against and exclusive of that of others, while the self recognizing obligation becomes a social self—the self which performs its due function in society. 

Now, against these prime examples of the progressive standard of education, let us juxtapose the Aristotelian standard which we observed in Part One: 

The [educational] object also which a man sets before him makes a great difference; if he does or learns anything for his own sake or for the sake of his friends or with a view to excellence, the action will not appear illiberal; but if done for the sake of others, the very same action will be thought menial and servile. 

Seeing these two points of view together, particularly in light of the overall philosophical and historical context that we have outlined, one becomes fully aware that we are looking at diametrically opposed views of the purpose of education, of the relationship between man and society, and, if our modern minds are still large enough to contain such a notion without embarrassed laughter, of the meaning of life. Both Fichte and Dewey, in the above statements and throughout their entire philosophies of education, isolate as their enemy the natural human impulse to harness one’s powers in search of one’s own well-being. As we have also seen, both men specify that the target of their attack, the “selfish self” or “dim consciousness,” embraces all actions not motivated by the feeling of pure servitude to the state, from those aimed at securing the good of one’s friends up to and including the quest for spiritual salvation and a life of intellectual achievement.

For both men, then, we may say that the defining purpose of the new education is to promote a model of learning pursued exclusively for the sake of “social service.” This is the progressive movement’s development of Kant’s separation of morality from the desire for happiness, the moral agent from the pursuit of “self-interest.” The primary and defining function of modern state-controlled education, derived from this post-Kantian extrapolation of Kant’s moral revolution, is to inculcate the attitude that learning is to be permitted or valued only as part of a program of what may, without exaggeration, be called moral enslavement, insofar as a slave is a man who has been trained to believe he has no right to live at all independently of his usefulness to other men. That this indecent perspective has become the almost universally accepted moral credo of our age indicates the extraordinary and permanent influence that German idealism and the universal schooling model it engendered have exerted over the development of the late modern world.

This directly contrasts with the Aristotelian view, according to which any action not undertaken for the sake of oneself, one’s loved ones, or “excellence,” indicates a servile and menial condition. Fichte and Dewey, for that matter, would not really disagree with Aristotle in this; they merely pass a different judgment on the ultimate value of servility. The whole difference, buried under layers of modern abstraction, turns on the question of the proper motives of action.

Any action—not an involuntary movement, but a voluntary self-movement—answers to a desire. A basic question then, with regard to any deliberate act, is “To whose desire does it answer?” This is the question to which Aristotle attends directly when he distinguishes liberal from illiberal doing or learning on the basis of whose interest is being served. It is the question Fichte looks boldly in the eye when he declares the goal of education to be the destruction of free will. And it is the question Dewey fudges and dissembles over by reducing society to the state, and declaring the existence of his imaginary “social self.” For Aristotle, the only operative motivating desire in moral action must be that of the agent. For Fichte and Dewey, the agent’s natural desire—that is, his interest in his own well-being—is precisely the factor that must be denied any role in moral action.

When applied to education, the two perspectives in question represent two views of the motives for learning. Is the child learning for the sake of his welfare, that of his loved ones, or in general self-improvement? Or is he learning “for the sake of others,” i.e., to satisfy purposes not his own, and without regard for his own interests? The question, expressed from the point of view of the child, would be, “Is he seeking his own completion, or is he being molded to serve someone else’s aims?” From the point of view of the educator, it would be, “Is the child being taught, or is he being indoctrinated?” That it is impossible, within the theories of Fichte, Dewey, and their legions of acolytes, clearly to distinguish teaching from indoctrination at all, or even to explain why the latter should not be the accepted goal (remember Dewey’s Soviet formula: “propaganda is education, and education is propaganda”), is an indication of how far German philosophy has carried us from any coherent notion of human nature, or of freedom.

Therefore, here at the end of our tale of the birth of universal compulsory schooling—the idea that ate a planet—I propose to take one last look back at what has been lost. For if there is any truth in the narrative I have set out, then thinking our way back beyond that fateful fork in the road—beyond German idealism, pseudo-Newtonian social engineering, and the whole progressive assault on humanity that has followed in their wake—may be the key to finding what would have to be done to restore a human world in which men are sufficiently connected to nature to know the difference between freedom and slavery, and to be able to intuit when they are being pushed across the line separating the two.

It must be understood that “thinking our way back” is the best we can do; there is no going back. In this, Nietzsche’s famous word whispered in the ear of the conservative holds great wisdom.[iii] Men and time are not crabs; the backwards crawl is a fool’s dream. The past cannot be restored, but it can provide insight into the present, and an idea for the future. In this case, our task is to dig through the rubble of progressive concepts to find the remaining embers of the fire in men’s souls that once constituted the essence of human life, the fire that Fichte slanders as “dim consciousness,” and Dewey as the “selfish self”—the fire that, above all else, public education was instituted to snuff out.

At the conclusion of one semester-long study of Plato’s Symposium, a very intelligent student sent me an e-mail that made my day, in that it perfectly expressed my deepest hopes for every student I have ever taught, from kindergarten to graduate school. “I want to thank you,” she said, “because I learned something more than philosophy. I think I became more adult than before…and maybe I should thank Socrates, too.”

The goal of becoming more adult is the heart of anything worthy of the name education. “More adult” here entails no submission to one’s due function in social service. It does not involve relinquishing one’s will to state control. “More adult” means more human, more perfect, more of what one is naturally intended to be. And this goal is the satisfaction of a desire without which we would hardly be human at all, but which progressive schooling seeks to discredit and suffocate, leaving today’s non-doctrinaire teacher in the peculiar position of trying to enliven dormant feelings within his students that teachers in the past would have been able simply to presume from the outset.

Fichte says the child must be prevented at all costs from realizing he might learn for the sake of his own “maintenance and welfare,” up to and including for the sake of his hopes of an immortal soul. Dewey says a man who habitually enjoys acting for the benefit of his loved ones, or who seeks knowledge for the joy of improving his mind, is living as a “selfish self.” In short, they, like most progressives, redefine the natural pursuit of happiness as immoral, identifying morality with the forsaking of one’s private good or interest in favor of what is euphemistically called society. This is no mere quibble or technicality. It is the defining distinction between fundamentally opposed moral philosophies. It explains the progressive attempt to subvert the natural desire that was once implicitly understood to be the necessary basis of any moral theory, and to substitute in its place an abstract and artificial lexicon of moral motivations designed to provide a pseudo-religious or pseudo-scientific mask for the real goal of our new morality, which is to produce servile and menial men prepared to live servile and menial lives for the sake, and for the security, of their betters in the ruling elite. Put plainly, Fichte’s love that loves itself as the lover of the interpretation of its love, and Dewey’s social self, social service, and social mind, are progressivism’s noisy but hollow stand-ins for nature’s basic moral impulse, the longing for completion that the Greeks deified as Eros.


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[i] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X.7, 1177b.

[ii] Dewey, SS, 10-11.

[iii] Nietzsche, TI, “Expeditions” 43.

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