Educating for Slavery

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. [From John D. Rockefeller’s General Education Board, “Occasional Letter Number One,” 1906]

Among the eclectic array of hats I wear in my Korean university’s English department is that of “English Conversation” instructor, which is to say that I teach verbal communication skills at the intermediate and advanced levels. Using a variety of themes and short readings of my own devising as a springboard for discussion, we spend the semester developing specific skills and general confidence in communicating about abstract or theoretical topics in English. One of the formal requirements in the course is a short one-on-one oral exam in my office, during which I ask several questions related to our class themes, and judge the student’s facility and maturity of expression.

This past Friday, during this speaking test, I asked twenty-three university juniors and seniors this question: “Would you rather live a long, comfortable life with normal accomplishments, or a short, difficult life with some great achievement?” Out of twenty-three students, only two said “short life with great achievement.” Everyone else chose the long, comfortable life, and most tellingly, when I asked why, most of them offered some variation of “I just want to be normal,” or “I don’t want to achieve anything special.”

I believe them. I have used that question in previous years’ exams, which similar results. I used to think students chose Option 1 because they were scared by the idea of a short life. It finally dawned on me this year that if I took away the “long life” vs “short life” part of the question, most people would still choose the normal life rather than the life of great achievements.

They have been conditioned for their whole lives to want to be “normal,” to fit in. They have been taught in every way, since childhood, that it is wrong to do anything others don’t do, to want anything others don’t want, and that no one should try to be special, except in the modern progressive sense in which “we are all special,” which is to say that no one is. So, at the age when they should be thinking about their nature, the purpose of their lives, and how they want to develop their souls, they are all thinking the same thing: “I want to be like everyone else.” They can’t even form a clear conception of any other possibility. They’ve been prepared to feel this way for their whole lives. In their early twenties, healthy, intelligent, and living in a wealthy society, these young men and women should be energized by painful confusion about how they can forge a meaningful and important life. Instead, they’ve been indoctrinated to identify happiness with “being normal” and, in effect, with doing nothing.

This reflection brings out my natural melancholy and also a good deal of quiet anger. It’s hard to watch talented people throw their minds away just to “fit in,” their lives away in order to be “comfortable.” No one has to think this way. It is unnatural for humans to think this way. They think this way — and by “this way,” to be clear, I mean slavishly — because they have been carefully raised through their school years to serve “the system” rather than to develop themselves. They have yielded themselves with perfect docility — gratefully and responsively — to the molding hands of their social superiors, who have prepared them to submit to their function, their duty, rather than to dream of the kind of fully human life of which their betters already “have ample supply.”

As a teacher, I have faced the (barely) living results of this process of deliberate human diminution for years, struggling, usually with disappointment, to find young people with the inner strength (or, alternatively, the kind of inner weakness that separates one from the crowd, providing critical distance) to have developed properly human aspirations, and some measure of the emotional maturity appropriate to free beings. This often agonizing struggle is one of the chief reasons — the crowning reason, if you will — that I finally said enough is enough regarding modern education, and wrote a lengthy treatise, The Case Against Public Education, to lay bare the philosophical and historical roots of this tragedy.

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