“I consider myself pretty conservative, but hearing what I’ve heard is alarming!”
The man had called in to a popular American radio talk show to register his outrage at the conversation taking place between the show’s guest and its sympathetic host. What alarmed him was that two seemingly sane men were openly discussing the unthinkable, namely that the fundamental problem with public schools may not be that they are failing to fulfill their legitimate mission—his own view—but rather that the institution of public education itself is inherently illegitimate. Recognizing that this gentleman’s alarm was likely shared by many other listeners, I, the show’s guest, tried to allay his fears to the extent that the talk radio format allows, though knowing that a three-minute dialogue could hardly undo presuppositions infused through a lifetime steeped in the daily boil of progressive society. That may have been the moment when this book was conceived.
When I began writing short essays about the political dangers of public schooling, my own intellectual framework on the issue was already substantially built. I therefore wrote in the naïve confidence that if I merely made my case clearly and concisely, reasonable people would surely be drawn to the cause of genuine educational freedom. I have since realized the great folly in expecting others to move in an instant to a position that took me nearly three decades to reach. Since my school days in Canada, my own attitude toward the institution of government-controlled education had slowly evolved from dissatisfaction and skepticism to principled opposition and a tentative search for alternatives; but I was probably in my mid-forties before I settled firmly upon the position that the project of modern government schooling was tyrannical right down to its historical and theoretical foundations. In other words, my doubts began very early, but only much later developed into a fully reasoned rejection of the whole concept of public education. And yet here I was thinking I could provide a knock-down argument for the abolition of a global institution in just a few pages. I finally grasped that I had thus far only been preaching to the choir, and that the positive response I had received merely indicated that many people who already shared my basic conclusion were pleased to have new arguments to support their beliefs. To my embarrassment, I saw that I had been ignoring the basic wisdom of my profession, as well as the core of my own argument against state schooling: Adults cannot jettison long-held assumptions, particularly ones supported by the emotional conditioning of their childhoods, in response to a few pithy arguments or pointed observations. They must be allowed to see the evidence for themselves, and to draw their own inferences—to generate their own pithy arguments and pointed observations, as it were.
Beginning again, I reflected on how I had arrived at the crystallization of my own view. Several years ago, a reader of my political writing sent me a most engaging e-mail in response to one of my essays. Impressed by his observations, I replied in some detail. That was the start of a lively and regular correspondence that continued until my interlocutor, a seventy-eight-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, suddenly stopped replying, and I knew I had lost a good friend. Throughout the period of our correspondence, as we discussed the decay of modern politics and morality, we frequently returned to the notion that the greatest catalyst in this civilizational collapse was the educational establishment. In this context, my friend repeatedly drew my attention to the work of John Taylor Gatto, a long-time New York public school teacher who had become a crusader against compulsory schooling. In particular, I was incessantly urged to read Gatto’s Underground History of American Education, wherein, my friend assured me, I would find a comprehensive autopsy report on the death of liberty.
My friend was right. When I finally heeded his advice and read Gatto’s Underground History, its effect was akin to that of donning a new pair of prescription eyeglasses. Suddenly, objects of which I had long been aware, but which had been visible only in outline, were clearly perceptible in their full detail. Though I did not agree with all of Gatto’s philosophical premises and specific conclusions, the overwhelming experience of reading his account of the practical development of public schooling was one of liberation, and I repeatedly found myself responding to particular facts or observations with an excited “That explains it!” This was only the second contemporary book on education to have had such a profound, focusing effect on my thought. The first was Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. It gradually dawned on me that Gatto’s ideas neatly complemented Bloom’s. Although Bloom’s underlying philosophical view was somewhat more in line with my own thinking, and indeed had helped me, as an impressionable undergraduate, to develop my own perspective, Gatto’s practical radicalism—his clear-eyed willingness to get right to the heart of modern education’s corruptive nature, its deliberate blunting of children’s intellectual and moral growth—appealed to my mature distaste for ivory tower aloofness. Philosophical detachment is essential to the pursuit of wisdom, which means the pursuit of happiness. But practical engagement has its place in even the most philosophic life, as the greatest thinkers bear witness, and one must not allow aspirations to intellectual purity to devolve into an excuse for shirking the responsibilities of political community. Thus, my own small mission, born partly in response to those two earlier ruminations on modern education, was to bring the full weight of philosophical investigation to the somewhat idealistic activism of the education freedom fighter.
Sorting through my essays and notes about government schooling, I asked myself a question that occurs to me often in my classroom teaching, and that perhaps ought to be the starting point of all educational endeavors: How would Socrates approach this? My search for an answer began with Socrates’ lessons about the political danger represented by the Greek sophists; for the modern case for universal public education is one of history’s great sophistries. A sophistical argument is only persuasive to the extent that its key terms remain ill-defined and susceptible to equivocation, that its alleged historical antecedents remain vaguely outlined and deceptively interpreted, and that its audience feels secure in the presumption that the sophist is seeking his and their mutual interest in good faith. From such considerations, I developed the chief aims of this book.
First, we must divest ourselves of the tacit assumption that government schooling is an indubitable fact of nature, rather than a purposeful (and mostly recent) political choice to which history provides clear counterexamples. For the great enabler of today’s ever-tightening chokehold of compulsory state child-rearing is the nearly universal perception that such child-rearing is an unquestionable norm with no viable alternatives. Discovering that not only do such alternatives exist, but that they actually account for the great peaks in the development of civilization, is indispensable mental preparation for an open-minded review of the illiberal machinations of modern schooling.
Second, we must demystify those catchwords and clichés which dominate the public education advocacy of both the so-called left and right factions of contemporary politics, facilitating our sophists’ manipulations with their siren song of “progress.” Socialization, individuality, standards, fairness, “preparing children for today’s economy,” and the rest of our lexicon of educational aims must be dug up by their roots, so that the roots themselves—the seminal thinkers and principles that gave rise to compulsory schooling—may be examined directly, without preconceptions. There is no shortcut to understanding on this score. To dismiss or evade the task of unraveling late modernity’s most profound intellectual shifts, as these pertain to the meaning and purposes of education, is to refuse to face the seriousness of our civilizational predicament and the urgency of substantial action.
Finally, having studied the theory and practice of modern schooling from the ground up, we may, or rather must, consider what ought to be done about it, and how. It is here that I appeal to both the self-interest and the public-spiritedness of the reader. Everyone benefits directly from the tangible improvement of his own community, and therefore stands to gain immeasurably from the liberation of thousands of forcibly dulled minds in his midst. And everyone who sees tyranny growing in his community has a moral obligation to combat it in the manner appropriate to his circumstances and strengths; to fail to do so is to cower before irrational power, which in the long run means reducing oneself to something one should not wish to see in the mirror each day. Virtue and proper pride demand that one do what one can, where one can, when the lives of innocents and the future of one’s society are at stake.
Exactly how one may best advance the causes of educational freedom, moral development, and intellectual achievement within any given community’s legal structure will be determined somewhat by the specific machinery whereby that community’s ruling establishment uses its schooling laws to predetermine social outcomes. Hence there are few universalizable answers to the practical legislative question, “What is to be done?” Precise strategies must vary according to institutional idiosyncrasies, although sound principles and a clear-eyed understanding of the nature and depth of the problem should guide all deliberations.
As for the more essential moral and political question, however—“What is best?”—the answers are as universal as is human nature itself. In truth, all our fashionable relativism notwithstanding, there is no theory of education that does not (overtly or tacitly) presuppose a universal conception of human nature. Seen from a certain angle, any given theory of education is really nothing but a theory of human nature—of our natural needs, tendencies, capacities, and purposes. For the better part of two centuries, throughout most of what we call the developed and developing world, the view of human nature indicated by our educational establishments and their most “advanced” practices has been a rather demeaning picture, in which the vast bulk of the population subsists primarily as a manipulable mass for the use and disposal of a ruling elite and its administrative officers. The extent to which this view of human nature becomes manifest in the politics of any given community is partly determined by the extent to which that community’s educational establishment is centralized in its goals and methods, which, in practice, means the degree to which education has become wedded to the aims and proclivities of government as such.
In other words, not only is our modern, scientific form of tyranny, a.k.a. totalitarianism, inseparable from a more or less centralized education establishment, but in fact the innate tendency of all government-controlled education, at any level, seems to be tyrannical, no matter how honorably-intended the project might be in its initial stages within a particular community. To demonstrate how this is so, and how it has always been so understood by the great founders of modern schooling, is the defining task of this book. Through an account of philosophical principles, specific methods, historical movements, and practical examples, I hope to present sufficient evidence to prompt an earnest reader, one prepared to assess the evidence in good faith, to generate his or her own case against public education.
Recognizing the inherent difficulties in challenging the orthodoxy of one’s time, I have adopted an approach that, at least in its intentions, combines the persuasive force of historical research with the intimacy of the personal anecdote, the rigor of detailed textual analysis with the intuitive elisions of aphorism. In this process, I will often ask the reader to accompany me into foreign terrain that is by turns maddening, heartbreaking, and, hopefully, motivating. The deliberate stunting of human potential is the topic of this book, but that topic necessitates more than a passing glance at what that potential is, or was, which ought to inspire admiration for the creature that so many strange men have worked so hard to subdue, thus far with only partial success.
I have been assisted in this project, directly and indirectly, by more people, and in more ways, than I could hope to enumerate here. First of all, I could never do justice to the contributions of a thousand students I have taught, ranging in age from five to sixty-five, on two continents. All theoretical speculations and historical research would be worthless without the understanding gleaned from years of deep engagement in the lives of so many talented children and adults, in and out of a classroom setting. A few of them find their way into this book as examples and case studies. All of them, however, must be credited with affording me years of invaluable experience, both as a teacher and as an observer of the state of modern civilization, particularly as regards our means of encouraging or thwarting human development.
I owe a great debt to Thomas Lifson and his editorial staff at American Thinker, where the early essays which formed the skeleton of this project were originally published, and from whose readers I received the encouragement to pursue these matters further, and in ever-greater depth.
Throughout the process of writing this book, several friends have helped me immeasurably with comments, questions, and trenchant observations that forced me to rethink various points, to dig deeper, to develop better arguments. Guy Green and Tony Bauer, American men in all the best senses of that phrase, prodded me along from the earliest stages, dragged my ideas into the trial by fire of on-air discussion, and continue to represent principle and good citizenship in an age of petty self-interest and disengagement. Timothy Birdnow is a model of unbowed reasonableness against an enemy whose modus operandi is to flog the free man with a million irrationalities until his will to resist is broken. Ha Yun Kyoung has been a great student and a great friend; in particular, I must thank her for enduring long conversations with a sleep-deprived, companionship-starved writer during a summer spent in the unpleasant company of John Dewey. William Meisler is an increasingly rare entity in this twilight of modernity, a genuine Renaissance man; his probing analyses and questions about education, politics, the arts, my writing, and just about everything else under the sun, have become a mainstay of my intellectual life.
Finally, I thank Shannon, who, when the wars threaten to get the better of my self-control and sanity, always reminds me why I am fighting, and that every moment is worth it. The tragicomedy of the philosopher lies in his knowledge that the best of what is inside him can never be communicated in language, and hence that, insofar as he is a teacher and writer, he must reconcile himself to ultimate failure, which in this case means eternal isolation. In this alone, I have the advantage over the philosophers, for I am always aware that, whatever my deficiencies as a teacher and writer, there is in fact someone who knows.
Changwon, Republic of Korea, September 2016