“A Short Angry History of Compulsory Schooling” by John Taylor Gatto
The man from whom I first got wind of the real purpose of American schooling was James Bryant Conant, one of the truly influential Americans of the 20th century. Dr. Conant, descendant of a Mayflower family, was president of Harvard for 30 years, a WWI poison gas specialist, a WWII inner-circle executive on the atomic bomb project, high commissioner of the American zone in occupied Germany after that war ended, and a pivotal figure in the evolution of American forced schooling, as you’ll discover in a little while.
But first you and I must lay some groundwork before we can properly understand what official schooling is meant to be. And keep in mind as I speak about schooling that education and schooling are quite different things. Long-term schooling can only achieve its purposes by inflicting a profound degree of boredom on the young. I’ll defend that thesis later, but for the moment fix your attention on the concept of boredom. If you went through 12 years of school, you were often bored.
I couldn’t have been older than seven when my grandfather told me one day after I’d complained of being bored that I was never to say that word aloud again in his presence or he would slap me silly. He said that the obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, the buck couldn’t be passed to anyone else. He said that bored people were childish people, always to be avoided. Boredom and childishness are closely allied with one another; those trapped in both states have no clear idea of what to do with time, no wisdom about priorities.
Think of institutional schooling as it has evolved over the past 100 years as a laboratory of extended childishness. In the act of having their childhood artificially extended, in ways they can feel, but lack the perspective to think about cogently, most schoolchildren are frequently bored. I want you to consider the possibility that these feelings have been evoked for some rational reason, and as you consider boredom as an essential part of the school equation, remember that institutionalized school-teachers are bored, too— though they might not so readily admit to it.
I taught school for 30 years. From experience I can tell you that boredom is the common condition of schoolteachers: low energy, whining, and dispirited speech inside the teacher culture are readily observable signs of a hollow inner state, one waiting to be filled up by somebody else.
If you ask school kids, as I often did, why they feel so bored, they always give the same few answers. They say that the work is stupid, that it makes no sense, or that they already know it. They say they want to be doing something real, not just sitting around; they say the teachers don’t seem to know much about their subjects and clearly aren’t interested in what they teach.
And when you ask teachers why they are bored, they say it’s the kids fault. They say the kids are rude, that they aren’t interested in anything except grades. So how can a teacher be interested in them? It’s a Catch 22, you see.
When you spend some time watching schools, you gradually become aware of what childish places they are, that kids and teachers are held prisoners there in a childhood they would willingly have left long ago, if they knew how, and if the institution had encouraged them to escape that dependent condition.
Let’s define terms a bit further before continuing. Visualize a continuum from childlike on one end to childish on the other. Childlike is what we expect young children to be; innocent, trusting, anxious to please, full of wonder, respectful. Childish is the dark other side of childlike, childish people are selfish, irresponsible, bored, envious, inconsiderate, whining. In general, childish people lack emotional proportion.
Now contrast these two terms with another familiar word — youthful. Can you sense immediately we are on different ground?! Youthful offers quite a positive window on the early years. It suggests adventurousness, energy, curiosity, resilience, indomitability, the capacity to surprise, an openness to new experience.
Schooling could not exist in its customary shapes if it encouraged the qualities of youthfulness; literally, it could not contain them without exploding its structure. Is this not a strange institution then which finds itself compelled to suppress those very qualities of youthfulness which are widely acknowledged to be passports to success in Western society?
Since personal expression (and development) is so rigorously constrained by the structures of schooling — rigorously enough that youthfulness is suffocated (although childishness is nurtured) — a disinterested observer might be expected to hypothesize that some greater interest is being served by schools as they are, an interest which must be protected from the ingredients, and eventual outcomes, of youthful expression. Put another way, schools couldn’t be the way they are, so expensively flying in the face of common sense and long experience in how children learn things, unless they were doing something right from some particular point of view. Schools may not seem reasonable places to me or to you — or to many children — but that’s not to say they aren’t, at all times, rational from where the managers of our society sit.
To belabor what seems to be obvious: schools wouldn’t be as they are unless that suited the most important men and women in the world; obviously if schools displeased the managers of society, they would cease to exist as they are, over time. How, indeed, could it be otherwise? If we persist in thinking like engineers about the particular problems of schooling, like bad reading or bad manners, we will surely miss seeing what the school forest is really about, for concentrating too heavily on its trees. Getting better teachers, better principals, better superintendents, or better textbooks will not solve the school mess, to do that requires us to understand what forced schooling is really about — and what we jeopardize by trying to rock its boat.
Secondary school was hardly the only path to maturity until after WWII. Junior high schools didn’t exist in many places until then and high school was only a part of the upbringing of a fraction of the young until well after the First World War. To give just two examples that I took very casually from The New York Times of 18 April, this year, and the New-Yorker magazine of April 21: in a Times obituary for the 101st richest man in the world, John S. Latsis, who built a global empire in shipping, I learned that he was born in 1910 in the Greek fishing village of Katakola where, virtually unschooled, he began his working life as a laborer before he graduated to being a deckhand on a freighter. At 28, with his savings and some loans, he bought a rusty freighter which, over the next three decades, he parlayed into a fleet of ships. He then, without any instruction, diversified into construction, oil, banking, and the like without even an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Over the years his yacht was lent to Prince Charles, to President George Bush, to Colin Powell, and to Marlon Brando. How’s that for Greek laborer without a college degree?
The other obit-profile I unearthed without any deliberate research, on the same day I saw the New York Times piece, was about another fellow without a college degree. His name was Lew Wasserman and according to the New Yorker he was “the most significant player in the creation of the Hollywood that we know today.”
Wasserman was born in 1913. By the age of 12 he was selling candy in a theatre and at fifteen he had a regular job, working as a movie usher from 3PM to midnight, seven days a week. He needed to miss high school to keep his job so he made deals, with the principal and the teachers: with the principal he agreed to raise enough money to pay for the school athletic uniforms (which he did by showing movies at the school for 3 cents an admission), with the chemistry teacher his attendance was waived if he passed the tests (which he did by studying on his own). So much for Wasserman’s “education.” He couldn’t afford college, which was time saved for other things. Wasserman used the time to buy up the contracts of Greta Garbo, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Billy Wilder, Josh Logan, Dorothy Parker, Dashiell Hammett, and others (using someone else’s money, or course), and by the age of 33 he was president of M.C.A., the Music Corporation of America. He studied tax law on his own and invented a variety of structured transactions and deferred compensation plans which specialist attorneys had never thought of.
If biographies like this are news to you, it isn’t your fault. Although 50 years ago schools commonly talked of these alternative route triumphs, they don’t anymore; nor do America’s important news outlets focus your attention on how many people make it without the benefit of schooling. If you think I’m exaggerating, how many of you know that as I speak, across the ocean in wealthy Switzerland, less than one kid in four goes beyond elementary school? In the richest nation in the world, per capita, over 75 percent of the population has only a grade school background.
Through most of American history, most kids didn’t go to secondary school. Yet the unschooled rose to be admirals, like Farragut, inventors, like Edison; captains of industry, like Carnegie and Rockefeller; presidents, like Washington and Lincoln; fast-food tycoons like Ray Kroc of McDonald’s or Dave Thomas of Wendy’s; writers like Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad; scholars, like Margaret Meade. None of these names were ever sentenced to 12 years in a classroom.
For most of history, including our own history, people who reached the age of 13 weren’t looked upon as children. Ariel Durant, who co-wrote and enormous multi-volume history of the world of which millions of copies are in American homes thanks to the Book-Of-The-Month Club, was happily married at the age of 13 to her co-author Will Durant, to whom she remained married for more than 50 years until his death. Will was 26, Ariel 13. Would she really have been better off doing eighth grade homework than starting her life studying professional historiography. Something has been left out of the stories we’ve been sold about the proper role of thirteen-year olds, and to find out what that is I need to take you back to the foundry where childlike, childish, boring schools were fashioned — a northern European nation, now vanished, called Prussia.
By 1820, Prussia was teaching the important countries of the world that forced schooling could be a habit-training laboratory for obedient subjects, men and women whose responsiveness to political and economic exhortation could be counted upon. Thus was a novel “fourth purpose” for the school institution put into play; such a purpose had been conceived in antiquity — Plato wrote eloquently of such a system in his Republic and Laws — New England had briefly tried the idea without success in the 17th century, too, but the laurel of forced schooling must go to Prussia.
It was from Prussia that the idea and the method spread west and east, first to the United States and France, later to Britain and Japan and everywhere else. And the world was soon to learn over the course of three titanic Prussian wars, between 1871 and 1945, just how well this scheme worked to concentrate state power. As the psychologies, hard and soft, developed in Prussia and the other Germanies, it was seen that school could become a conditioning laboratory, making children susceptible to any sort of authoritarian command, including the soft-core authoritarianisms of advertising and public relations.
If children could be trained to surrender their judgements and their free wills to political exhortations and commercial blandishments, a revolution in economic affairs would be at hand. In 1776 Adam Smith had detailed the implacable laws of supply and demand in his immortal essay, The Wealth of Nations, but suddenly Prussian schooling and German psychology opened a whole new world, one in which Adam Smith’s laws could be repudiated by the clever. For if demand could be created for virtually any product and service, and for any political idea, then a managerial revolution was at hand. One which freed managers, (and after all politicians are our social managers, so them, too) from a slavish dependence on public opinion. With enough resources and enough access, public opinion could be what management wanted it to be.
Think of the business school subject loosely called “marketing.” If people want something there is really little need to “market” it to them. Anyone can sell ice to Bombay as New England merchants proved two hundred years ago; it’s selling ice to Eskimos or $150 sneakers to poor children when those sneakers are no better constructed than $15 bargain shop brands that takes the marketing. What marketing really means is overcoming sales resistance, regardless of the reasons for that resistance.
It’s an art, but what if it could be made into a science? How? By isolating children far from the everyday world, by confining them with total strangers in strange, sterilized environments where various inputs could be studied, where growing children could be scrutinized, labeled and numbered for different future utilizations? And where data collected from these children could be passed on to other levels of authority for evaluation. Out of this flow of information, materials toward a science of marketing and a science of management would inevitably arise.
Prussian habit-control schooling was turned to serve the emerging mass production business empires, not all at once, of course bit by bit. Thus the founders of compulsion schooling aimed at collectivizing and socializing the ordinary population not by main force, not by bayonets or drillmasters, but through the inculcation of dependency habits in children. Bluntly put, this founding generation of institutional pedagogues executed a plan to extend childhood well beyond its natural limits. They arranged the removal of young people from home and neighborhood associations and their placement with a sub-stratum of pedagogues who might be thought of as false kin, people utterly unknown to the children’s parents. To deepen the estrangement, these strangers we call schoolteachers were often relatively ignorant and childish themselves. Virtually stripped of any effective authority, the teachers were under the comprehensive direction of faraway strangers, men and women who, in most cases, remained nameless and faceless to the teacher cadre.
Over time, students came to see that their teachers cringed at the approach of various school administrators; what they could not see was each level of administration cringed at the one above it: the principal cringed before the superintendent, the superintendent before many levels of authority — perhaps the principal local industries, perhaps the Carnegie Foundation, or the state education department, or one of the government agencies which appear and disappear regularly in the life of a school. And yet none of these agencies ordering about the lives of school superintendents is itself sovereign, each takes many of its marching orders from elsewhere, and to find out from where is not easy. Superintendents learn to sense where they must defer to others, they never learn why. And if they fail to defer they don’t last long. In this amazing fragmentation of control resides the immense stability of institutional schooling — nobody knows how to get anything much done without breaking the law, written or unwritten.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the original three purposes of schooling: 1) to make good people 2) to make good citizens and 3) to make each person his or her personal best gave way to the new Prussian “fourth purpose” everywhere. In the fourth purpose, kids are looked upon as “human resources” to be expended by the nation’s managers when, where, and how they will do the most good for political, social, and economic efficiency. Lip service still was (and is) paid to the original purposes, but to the extent these attractive targets are excessively achieved, the entire system is thrown into peril. We have not evolved either a society or an economy which welcomes principled people, or noisy citizens, or too many accomplished, self-reliant people. At the corporate center of our economy, made possible by uniform forced schooling, principled people and noisy citizens are a deadly nuisance, one which threatens to violate chain-of-command authority unpredictably, and efficient systems do not depend upon accomplished, self-reliant employees, but on qualities quite different.
At the beginning of my presentation, I told you that Dr. Conant, the long-time president of Harvard, the poison gas / atomic explosion specialist, was a pivotal figure in giving us the schools we got in the century just past. Without him, for example, we would be unlikely to have the style and degree of standardized testing which we enjoy (pardon my sarcasm), nor would we have the gargantuan high school plants which warehouse two to five thousand students — like the famous Columbine in Littleton, Colorado.
It was from Conant that I first got wind of the real purposes of American schooling. In a book he wrote published in 1949, bearing the title The Child, the Parent, and the State, Conant mentions in passing that the modern schools we attend were the result of a coup! “Coup” is Conant’s word, not mine. I presume that when a Harvard president, let alone a fellow importantly responsible for Lewisite gas (or atomic bombs) uses a term like “coup”, he means just that. Unfortunately, he fails to elaborate on any details in his book, but he does state that the curious and uninformed should pick up a book published in 1911 called Principles of Secondary Education in order to learn chapter and verse of the coup.
Eventually I was able to do that, but along the way I learned that the books author, Alexander Inglis, (pronounced Ing-els, I believe), had been a Harvard professor back around the time of WWI, whose name is kept alive by having the honor lecture in education at Harvard named after him, “The Inglis Lecture.” I learned also that Inglis came from a distinguished English family who fought on the British side in the American Revolution. One member wrote a refutation of Tom Paine’s Common Sense, one tried to establish the Anglican faith, Britain’s official religion, as the state faith of America as well. And later, another Inglis was the Commanding General at the siege of Lucknow in India during the Sepoy uprising in 1857 — promoted to Major General for blowing the rebellious Sepoy wretches apart with his cannons.
According to Dr. Inglis, modern, institutionalized, compulsion-schooling has six functions, which I’ll get to in a moment. But first he makes it clear that school on this continent was intended to be what it had been in northern Germany: a fifth column into the burgeoning libertarian / democratic condition in which the peasantries and proletariats clamored for some voice at the bargaining table.
School was to provide a surgical incision into the prospective unity of the underclasses, an incision into which the class-based managerial logic of England was to be inserted — to interdict the liberty traditions from spreading. The operant principle was Julius Caesar’s “Divide and Conquer!” — a principle honed and illustrated in his immortal Gallic Wars. If children are divided by school class, by age-grading, by constant rankings on tests, and many other even more subtle divisions, from one another and from one’s own self; the ignorant mass of mankind, divided in childhood, would never re-integrate into a dangerous whole in adulthood. As Caesar had shown, when enemy numbers are overwhelming, the strategy is to divide the enemy into factions and through the intelligent management of incentives to set these factions to battling among themselves.
You needn’t have studied rocket science to realize that children are easier to manipulate in this way than grownups; indeed, if children are regularly manipulated this way, it’s unlikely that they can grow up. Theorists from Plato to Rousseau knew well, and explicitly taught, that if children could be kept childish beyond the natural term, if they could be cloistered in a society of children, if they could be stripped of responsibility, if their inner lives could be starved by removing the insights of historians, philosophers, economists, novelists, and religious figures, if the inevitability of suffering and death could be removed from daily consciousness and replaced with the trivializing emotions of greed, envy, jealousy, and fear — then young people would grow older but they would never grow up.
In this way a great enduring problem of supervision would be decisively minimized, for who can argue against the truth that childish and childlike people are far easier to manage than accomplished critical thinkers. With this thought in mind, you’re ready to hear the six purposes of modern schooling I found in Dr. Inglis’ book. The principles are his, just as he stated them nearly 100 years ago, some of the interpretive material is my own:
The first function of schooling is adjustive. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. Fixed habits. Of course this precludes critical judgement completely. If you were to devise a reliable test of whether someone had achieved fixed habits of reaction to authority, notice that requiring obedience to stupid orders would measure this better than requiring obedience to sensible orders ever could. You can’t know whether someone is reflexively obedient until you can make them do foolish things.
Second is the diagnostic function. School is to determine each student’s proper social role, logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records.
Third is the sorting function. Schools sort children by training individuals only so far as their likely destination in the social machine — and not one step further. So much for making boys and girls their personal best.
The fourth function is conformity. As much as possible, kids are to be made alike. As egalitarian as this sounds, its purpose is to assist market and government research, people who conform are predictable.
The fifth function Inglis calls “the hygienic function.” It has nothing to do with bodily health. It concerns what Darwin, Galton, Inglis, and many important names from the past and present would call, “the health of the race.” Hygiene is a polite way of saying that school is expected to accelerate natural selection by tagging the unfit so clearly they will drop from the reproduction sweepstakes. That’s what all those little humiliations from first grade onward, and all the posted lists of ranked grades are really about. The unfit will either drop out from anger, despair, or because their likely mates will accept the school’s judgement of their inferiority.
And last is the propaedutic function. A fancy Latin term meaning that a small fraction of kids will quietly be taught how to take over management of this continuing project, made guardians of a population deliberately dumbed down and rendered childish in order that government and economic life can be managed with a minimum of hassle.
There you have it. We don’t even need Karl Marx’s conception of a grand warfare between classes to see that it’s in the nature of complex management, economic or political, to require that most people be dumbed down, demoralized, divided from one another and from themselves, deprived of deep relationships, and discarded if they don’t conform. The motives for the disgusting decisions which have to be made to bring these ends about don’t have to be class-based at all, they can stem purely from greed, or fear, or self-preservation. All they require to perpetuate themselves across the years is a belief that efficiency is a paramount virtue, an absolute good rather than the virtue of machinery that it is.
Now it’s one thing to boast that you will do all those things and quite another to actually do them. What would the mechanisms to reduce people to a state where they would become compliant in such arrangements look like? Britain and Germany had both conditioned their own populations for centuries to accept paternalistic direction from the political state, but in both those countries a principal mechanism had been the state religions of Anglicanism or Lutheranism, two Episcopal religions which taught that the head of the political state was God’s personal choice to terrestrial leadership — America had no state religion, forced schooling would have to become its stand-in.
George Orwell’s post-WWII short novel called 1984 examines with uncanny precision how sophisticated the social control design of which schooling was to be a large part, really was. Simple elimination of state enemies, for instance, might be enough for tyrants like Joseph Stalin, but not for the New World Order being born in the western democracies. In the new system, enemies have to be made to love their oppressors, to love their chains. Only in the elliptical fashion could the roots of opposition be poisoned. Language itself was to be corrupted by borrowing the concepts of the rebellious and redefining them so that words became unreliable as a way to know the human heart, political parties became distinctions without differences so there would be no opposition to join, privacy would be invaded to a degree where secrets were impossible.
In this new system of rational, efficient social control, allowances were made for periods of maximum public outrage. During such times, managers were instructed to retract the pseudopodia of control, and wait. Then, under cover of some national emergency like exploding office buildings, crime waves, unemployment crises, or war, the tentacles could be sent racing forward again while public attention was distracted elsewhere.
In just such a fashion the formidable common ability to read in the U.S. was deconstructed during the drums and tramplings of World War II. A convenient and useful way to simplify what these developments added up to is to see them as ways to infantilize the general population of this nation, and then gradually through cultural outreaches to infantilize the world.
Childish people, for all the noise they make, are nearly helpless. They always fall back into line because they have no other choice, they lack the inner resources to be self-sustaining. If schooling was the principal tool, it was far from alone. Centralized popular entertainment removed the necessity to entertain oneself, easy credit removed the necessity of learning self-maintenance (until it was too late, or course), easy divorce the necessity of working at relationships, and I could go on and on — virtually every institution, including the churches, conspired to eliminate maturity in the society. And the less mature societies became, the wealthier and more stable they graze because, when management is given a free hand to work its will on a homogenized population, the road to prosperity is open. The only price the consumers have to pay is surrender liberty, principle, morality and mind.
Toward the second half of the 19th century, beginning in the north German states of Prussia, Saxony, and Hanover, the study of scientific management was launched energetically and studied by certain prominent Americans like Horace Mann, William Torrey Harris, J.P. Morgan, Frederick Taylor, Edgerton Ryerson in Canada, and by many others who envied the control the German way offered to management. They wanted that control for themselves.
A quarter century after the American civil war, a centralized corporate economy surged across the American nation. The prospect of unimaginable wealth through the industrial and financial manipulation provided all the motivation powerful men of that day needed to destroy an older American economy — quite a prosperous and successful one — which made as its goal an independent livelihood for all. And which, not incidentally, demanded competence, resourcefulness, self-reliance, frugality, and stoicism from its adherents. The new corporate economy, on the other hand, demanded childishness from its employees and from its customers alike. Obviously there are more political ways to make such a demand, to mask what was really being asked behind the rhetoric of a great advance in human affairs, but without incomplete people, corporate culture would have been short-lived.
Oddly enough, the pioneering corporate crowd had plenty of honest (but unwitting) assistants in the great project of dumbing down the nation, and making its people less that they might have been. Utopian socialists like Robert Owen and John Ruskin thought that through and endless childhood an agrarian utopia could be finally achieved, the evolutionary crowd, including its leaders Darwin, Galton, and Herbert Spencer, thought that most of us were biologically retarded and could not grow up, scientific historians like Hegel, Herder, and Marx thought that by keeping people dumb and incomplete, history itself would finally reach a conclusion, presumably one better than present reality, and there were other forces at work which wanted a childlike public. So why have I fingered the corporations as the principal culprits who gave us our suffocating form of schooling? The answer is simple. None of the other actors who might have wished for the same denouement we got had any money; none had the resources of corporations to sustain a campaign in that direction.
So while names like the ones above, or like poor John Dewey’s, are often fronted as the villains of the piece, it always required corporate financing given behind the scenes to turn an army of academic and philosophical screwballs loose to do the corporate bidding, always of course ignorant of the motives of their patrons. In Dewey’s case, for instance, his reputation and influence came from is tenures at the University of Chicago and Columbia Teachers College. In both cases his principal patron was none other than John D. Rockefeller himself.
I got onto the trail of a synthetically extended childhood quite by accident, through reading the last few dozen pages of an old-fashioned History of American Education, once quite famous, by a gentleman with the amusing name of Ellwood P. Cubberley, who at one time was a friend and correspondent of Dr. Conant at Harvard. To make Cubberley’s connections with the dramatis personae of this talk even tighter he was also Alexander Inglis’ partner at a major American publishing house active in the textbook trade. Cubberley edited the elementary school texts, Inglis the secondary school texts. This particular publisher, Houghton-Mifflin, once dominated the school trade. If you wanted a book on supervision, financing, or classroom technique back then, likely as not it would be a Houghton Mifflin book.
But Cubberly was much more than just an editor. He was also Dean of Teacher Education at Stanford University, the “Harvard of the West,” and head of a shadowy organization of academics nationwide who, by 1918, were in control of every major administrative post in America. If that sounds too conspiratorial to be believed, you should pick up a copy of the very conservative graduate education school text entitled Managers of Virtue. Its autor, David Tyack, teaches at Stanford I believe, and was once an executive in the state of Massachusetts’ Department of Education. Tyack recounts the establishment of an “Education Trust” by Cubberly and others, a kind of ultimate old boys’ network to homogenize American schooling.
In 1906 Cubberly wrote that “in the new schools coming, children are to be shaped and fashioned like nails, and the specifications will come from business and government.” Specifications is another way of stating particular outcomes based, the aspect which divides liberty from servitude resides in the matter of who decides the outcomes. A frequently used strategy in business to make workers feel that they own a piece of the action is to allow the workforce to decide a large part of how the outcomes are to be reached. This is called “management by objectives”, a regime liberal about methodologies, but retaining the most conservative hold on goals.
In any event, in the last section of his frequently reprinted History, Cubberly casually mentions that childhood has been deliberately extended by four years. This is tossed off so cavalierly that it was apparent to me this was old-hat information in the circles frequented by the author, and while no details follow from clues in the total context we can figure out how the trick was pulled off. It was done by reserving children into compounds through the advent of comprehensive confinement schooling, thus denying kids both a range of associations with the complex adult world, and a dose of responsibility. In the world of children separated from the real world, little human resources could be nurtured selectively, and held until the needs of management summoned them for application.
It isn’t difficult to see that the only interests served by delaying personal sovereignty are the ones of managers. Total management, whether total quality management or some other variety, and liberty are mutually contradictory terms. Once management has been professionalized, through academic degrees and other programs which establish a deep gulf between the managed and the manager, a very natural extension of managerial concern occurs in which the family and the individual come to be seen as potentially dangerous obstacles in the path of the industrial project.
Professional management minds realize that neither parents nor children can be fully trusted to see that children grow up properly, which is to say that they arrive at adulthood in a manageable state. The only sensible defense against unpleasant surprises is through centralized goal setting and frequent interventions into the maturation cycle — not to accelerate or enhance it, but just the reverse: to slow it down and retard it.
Interestingly enough, once a sound structure of schooling is built, nobody involved in maintaining it has to actually know what it was designed to do, the system will tend to grow larger and more complex, and more expensive, through a familiar bureaucratic dynamic — it will pay for political allies, and its suppliers will assist in that mightily, purely out of self-interest. Even if all the architects of the original scheme are dead, together with every knowledgeable descendant (which I’m not suggesting) the system will roll onward as a piece of autonomous social technology.
In Jonathan Messerli’s biography of the early American school pioneer, Horace Mann, he quotes a diary entry Mann made after witnessing a labor parade in the Boston of the 1840’s, an entry in which Mann muses that “we must find a way to break the bond of association among the working classes.” I’m quoting from memory but that will be close to the original. You can decide for yourself who he meant by the “we” of the statement, but the age-graded, test-ranked, Germanically ordered classroom Mann played such a large part in creating is surely a brilliant mechanism to break the bonds of association between children. And if you allow a nice seasoning of low-grade terror into the mix — and what classroom lacks that? — you have sealed the deal, for sure.
Professional management is never well served by allowing children to grow up, whatever their age, or allowing them to grow whole. Over the past several centuries, a group of higher order academic disciplines have grown up — psychology, sociology, anthropology, evolutionary biology come immediately to mind but there are more — each contending in its own way that growing up is impossible for most of us. Regardless of how many famous leftists were associated with these disciplines, all of them were underwritten by corporate or government money.
Why you may ask? I can only speculate, of course. A pressing need of American managerial society was for some an effective substitute for the partnerships of religion and state found in Britain and Germany, our principal competitors. We were unable by constitutional law to have a state church, but state schooling wasn’t so clearly proscribed. The culture could be inoculated with it by increments so that its advance to dominance would be gradual and almost invisible.
In particular, the theology of Christianity was a powerful roadblock in reaching a centralized, layered, managerial utopia. Christianity established the road to salvation as a lonely, personal struggle, whereas corporatized society was stringently collectivized. In corporatized society, deviants must be ostracized, goals, attitudes, feelings, and appetites must be socialized through central management of news, entertainment, schooling, and much else. Thus, Western religious thinking itself became a prime target of schooling, and Western churchmen were relentlessly bought, marginalized, or otherwise silenced.
A litany preaching that ordinary Americans and democratic processes aren’t to be trusted has, by now, been preached aggressively for about 100 years. Where earlier it had been mostly a crusty relic of British colonial rule, by now it is entrenched in every corner of upperclass and upper-middleclass life in America, echoing regularly through every institution of public communication, and every selective university. In the presidential election of 2000, Vice-president Gore’s wife declared at a press conference that 55% of the American population was mentally disturbed and in need of therapy. And daily we hear that we must be kept under closer and closer surveillance — for our own protection. The press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said not long ago that Americans “must be careful what they say and do.” Americans of my generation would have assumed a statement like that could only be made in Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany.
The profound change in the American bargain with its young wasn’t the result of popular demand; nor was it caused by prominent socialists like John Dewey who are often blamed. The great transformation was an undertaking of industrial titans like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, of John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Vincent Astor, Commodore Vabderbilt, and a variety of other well thought of names from well-placed families.
If your scepticism simply won’t allow this surprising assertion, I suggest you ask your librarian to secure for you two congressional reports, one made in 1915 known as the Walsh Committee Report, the other printed in 1953 as the summary of the work of the aborted Reece Commission. Both reached the same conclusion 38 years apart — American schooling has been largely the creation (and ongoing management) of a group of private corporate foundations. Just exactly why it is that no school-teacher, school principal, or school superintendent I ever met even knows that these reports exist, I couldn’t tell you — nor would I care to guess what significance this ignorance implies.
But just for the sake of argument, assume along with me that the great industrialists who owned America at the beginning of the twentieth century when institutional schooling was coming into being would not have been content to allow such a powerful shaper of young consciousness to develop in a laissez-faire way. To be fair, they couldn’t afford to do that. Suppose, for instance, that universal schooling adopted the very attractive stoic philosophy of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius as something to communicate vigorously to children? After all, stoic notions have served as the compass rose for huge numbers of very successful, very important people throughout history. Marcus Aurelius, the wealthiest and most powerful individual of his day, came to the conclusion, as did other stoics, that all possessions and all honors are trivial things, chains to imprison their worshippers. The truly wise, rich or poor, aim for a life in which events outside the self cannot play any part in determining the quality of time. The truly wise person should keep himself out of reach of the exterior world’s power by cultivating an inner life of self-control and self-sufficiency.
The problem with encouraging this kind of thinking for everyone is that it contains the formula to utterly destroy the kind of economy that we were building around 1900 and that we find in a mature form in our world today. A high-powered commercial/industrial economy depends upon people who 1) define themselves by what they buy, and 2) become almost instantly dissatisfied with what they buy, discard it, and buy something else. It requires no great analysis to see that the two attitudes, stoicism and conspicuous consumption cannot coexist with one another. You need search no further than the utility of stoicism to the vast majority of lives, and the disutility of consumption to see why the managerial classes need to keep a close watch on bulk-process schooling. Stoicism isn’t the only dangerous idea stalking outside school walls waiting to gain entry. Eternal vigilance is the price of the economy which school sustains.
Although various notions of forced schooling had been talked about since Plato, it took unique accumulations of capital in the hands of men like Carnegie and Rockefeller, and the unique circumstances of unlimited energy which developed in the second half of the 19th century, to suggest the possibility of an industrial utopia — a place where the problem of production had been solved — was realistically at hand.
But to get there, as the most thoughtful industrialists knew, was no easy matter. Impediments of the past, like intense and wasteful competition, had to be banished and individuality, personal liberty and conventional morality would have to be moderated if the promise of high speed machinery coupled with abundant, non-human energy was to be fulfilled. For instance, most people would have to surrender the dream of an independent livelihood if great corporations and great government agencies were to have a reliable supply of workers and executives. Or consider that mass-produced goods, as alike as pins and paperclips, require that an earlier taste for hand-crafted things be set aside. Otherwise capital investors would be reluctant to put their cash on a mass production gamble.
Put yourself in the position of these visionary industrialists, struggling to bring a new world order into being. To get the job done the majority of Americans would have to give up the independent, self-reliant values of the past and become socialized into a dependence on centralized, non-stop, intimate management. If you need an illustration of that, it’s like raising your hand in school to go to the toilet.
To a very great extent the authority of the business community and the authority of the political state had to replace family tradition, religion, the wisdom of elders, or any other independent source of guidance and instruction.
It was a huge task to contemplate and there was nowhere else to start but with the children. So, drawing on methods pioneered in Prussia, the speedy arrival of young Americans at a responsible maturity had to be interdicted. Extending the period of childhood, controlling the environment of childhood, placing the children in a society of carefully selected strangers who followed orders minutely, dividing the children from one another in a variety of subtle ways, setting them into interminable, meaningless competitions so the natural bonds of sociability among them were strained to the breaking point — all these were techniques to prepare the ground for the scientific management of a vast population.
There were other agencies of socialization for mass society too, of course. Think only of the federal income tax, which comes about in the first flush of universal forced schooling. It takes a minute’s reflection to see that it isn’t an instrument of revenue for the central government — the governments create the currency it needs — but instead a mechanism of mass surveillance, of behavioral regulation, and of intimidation. Or think of the concentration of power over the mass instruments of communication which took place early in the 20th century and has continued ever since. Through newspapers, magazines, television, radio, song, websites and more, a relentless wave of propaganda washes over us morning to night, building and reinforcing attitudes and opinions, gushers of information we have no way to gauge the accuracy of, no way at all. The contents of our minds, in some important fashion, are built upon a foundation of faith not very different in kind from religious faith, if we depend upon media for our opinions. Think of Enron, Global Crossing and World.com if you doubt it.
If you can live with the idea that centralized mass-production economies must have standardized customers who are predictable to a very great degree, you are ready to consider the titanic problem men like Morgan, Carnegie, Rockefeller and the rest had undertaken — how to standardize a wildly variegated, independent-minded, libertarian-oriented domestic population. This was necessary to assure markets for the new non-stop commerce that was being anticipated, a commerce predicated on endless consumption by consumers who defined themselves by the quantity of stuff they could consume.
There were other problems, too. The biggest players in the new game had to be guaranteed some advantages over possible competition which could only be forthcoming if government itself took a discreet hand in stacking the competitive deck. The government of Britain had long been involved in just this sort of favoritism, through regulation, subsidy, virtual trust formation, and other ways. The perils of what used to be called “overproduction” and today is called “overcapacity” were clearly foreseen a century ago. In the new world order, a few would produce everything — food, news, entertainment, whatever — and the mass would consume. Similarly, a few would produce what passed for education.
Mass schooling of a compulsory nature was given its teeth in the U.S. between 1905 and 1915. Canada was often used as a testing ground to measure resistance to school changes. Bruce Cooper’s The Making of the Educational State, demonstrates how vigorously Canadians resisted this profound incursion into the lives of families and children, to the point where police and military were frequently required to impose the new discipline.
Standardized testing, which arises after WWI, was a masterstroke of universal control, inculcating habits, fears and attitudes vital to the new regimens of comprehensive management. And the material payoff for the new management scheme came very quickly. By converting Americans into specialized economic and social functions, by foreclosing their ability to form close relationships, by reformulating personal values into public values under the watchful eye of regulators, the United States and Canada eventually achieved the most reliable domestic markets in the world. The human mutilations of schooling are a trade-off for this prosperity — comfort and security are achieved at the price of personal sovereignty.
And so we come to the paradox of extended childhood. Here in the United States we have evolved a complex. wealthy, and secure society that, at least up to a not-so-negligible point, spreads its benefits to everyone. The poor in the United States have more than the middle classes in many other societies.
Where the paradox lies is this: neither our economy nor our government can function well unless the bulk of the population is made dumb, dependent, fearful, and incomplete. We cannot encourage critical thinking because too much of that would fly in the face of our need to have most of us highly receptive to propaganda. We cannot encourage reliable morality because too many components of our economy depend upon slackness in this regard, from cigarettes, fast cars and dirty pictures to an entertainment industry centered in the glamour of murder and violence. We cannot encourage the development of principled people, because principled people are close to impossible to manage and it is the moral adaptability of our management which confers our great advantage over other nations.
Without mass forced schooling, none of the necessary qualities of a population needed to assure the continuance of this prosperous system could be guaranteed. This is what makes extending childhood through our form of schooling such a paradox, give it up and we would certainly enter a zone of great turbulence, the resolution of which nobody can predict.
Once you understand the logic behind our schooling, its mechanism and effects are fairly easy to avoid. What isn’t avoidable are the tensions that come from growing up outside the mind-control machinery we’ve been discussing. But getting outside the box isn’t hard.
Think of it this way: well-schooled people are trained to reflexively accept the opinions of their betters, to reflexively obey the commands of their superiors and to continually defer to the judgement of strangers. This is how high marks are distributed in schools. Later, when the school game is finished, the exhortations of advertisers, prominent people, and government officials will replace the orders of schoolteachers.
Well-schooled people have a low threshold of boredom. They need constant novelty to feel alive. Since they have only flimsiest inner life — having sacrificed the time to develop one to schooling — they feel the need to constantly stay in touch with official voices through television, radio, internet, cell, commercial entertainment including music, pop journalism and shallow friendships and acquaintanceships frequently left behind for other ones.
Changing classes at short intervals is a drill to prepare kids for changing associates, domiciles, mates and possessions in a dizzying and eternal profusion. The very air that a mass-production economy must breathe is charged with low-level dissatisfaction. If you fall in love with a pair of shoes or any other piece of stuff you buy and keep it too long, you will declare yourself a public enemy of this economy. You must be terrified into thinking that the computer you saved for a year to buy is hopelessly out of date. So too with your clothing, your home and the company you keep.
This is easy to do with those who lack an inner life. Well-schooled people require shallow training in history, philosophy, economics, literature, poetry, music, art, theology, in anything known through history to reliably develop an inner life. Well-schooled folks need life-long tutelage, not liberty, to make sense of their days. Mass journalism and mass entertainment provide that tutelage beyond schooling, to the grave.
To be quit of this school nightmare demands first that we wake up to what our schools have become: they are laboratories of experimentation on young minds as well as drill centers for habits and attitudes. Schools only serve children incidentally, their principal focus is on creating the citizens that corporate business and big government management need. I’m reluctant to be political but I see no way to avoid asking anyone in earshot to struggle for a new political awareness. Contemporary North America is neither a democracy nor a republic; it is an empire careening out of citizen control bent on projecting its own domestic control over the entire planet. Mr. Nader is right. Both major political parties work to exactly the same ends — there will be no relief from that quarter. This thing will run its course like every other empire in human history and then come crashing down from its own irrelevance to what history has show us really matters. The best we can do politically is to hasten that day by raising our voices, by learning to say no, by arguing constantly against any and all schemes which regard ourselves and our children as “human resources.”
Where the fertile field for a better tomorrow lies, it seems to me, is in a personal revolution. De-school yourself before you worry about deschooling society, fashion yourself into a fearless citizen. Make yourself into your own personal best. And do the same thing for your children and your neighbors. Extending kid’s childhood is a curse on the kid’s future, while a blessing of course to management. Don’t allow your boy and girl to define themselves by what they consume; the prizes of such a life habit are too contemptible to be worth the cost.
And when you next find yourself appalled and disgusted by the childish and irresponsible behaviour you see all around you, think of school as it forge, and do something about it.
(For a deeper understanding of the material put forth in this essay, please read The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto and visit his website at johntaylorgatto.com.)