by Guy R. McPherson
The entire system of public education in the United States was designed specifically to prevent students from thinking for themselves. That's a pretty strong assertion, so I will review the evidence that supports it.
In an earlier letter, I quoted Jules Henry's book, Culture Against Man: "School is indeed a training for later life not because it teaches the 3 Rs (more or less) but because it instills the essential cultural nightmare fear of failure, envy of success, and absurdity." Henry reached this conclusion after spending hundreds of hours in the classrooms of our public school system and reviewing a mountain of published evidence. His scathing critique of American culture strongly supports the notion that individuality and creativity are purposely eviscerated from students well before they complete high school.
The roots of the cultural crisis run much deeper than the counter-culture days of the 1960s, and well beyond the sphere of education. But education has long been fundamental to the destruction of individuality, creativity, and, for lack of a better word, soul. Consider, for example, a few words in a speech to businessmen by President Woodrow Wilson: "We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks." Wilson's sentiments echoed those of William Torrey Harris in his 1906 book The Philosophy of Education: Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual." In vogue with his time, Harris extended the idea of subsumption to the land as well as the individual: "The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places .... It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature." As I indicated in previous correspondence, Harris was the U.S. commissioner of education from 1889 to 1906.
Harris was not the only influential educator willing to express his desire for docile American citizens during 1906. That same year, the Rockefeller Education Board, a major advocate of compulsory public education, issued this statement: "In our dreams ... people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [intellectual and character education] fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive 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, poet 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 ... we will organize children ... and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way."
The statement by the Rockefeller Education Board and the book by Harris were preceded a year earlier by Elwood Cubberly's dissertation at Columbia Teachers College. The future dean of education at Stanford University wrote that schools should be factories "in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products ... manufactured like nails, and the specification for manufacturing will come from government and industry."
Tracing these ideas further back in time, we find the 1888 Report of the Senate Committee on Education, a summary of which is provided by a single sentence on page 1,382 of this gargantuan document: "We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes." According to John Taylor Gatto, award-winning educator and author of the 1992 book Dumbing Us Down, the committee was justifiably nervous about the high qualify of education provided by nonstandardized, local schools where students were actually taught to think for themselves. The Senate Report parallels the 1897 writings of famous philosopher and industrial educator John Dewey. Dewey's famous pedagogic creed, first published in The School Journal, included this thought about the role of teachers in society: "I believe that every teacher ... should realize he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of the proper social order and the securing of the right social growth." Cubberly provided the "proper social order" and the "right social growth" less than a decade after Dewey and the U.S. Senate supplied the rationale for herding the masses on behalf of business.
In other words, the captains of industry and leaders of government set out to create an educational system that would maintain social order (and increase their profits). How? By teaching students just enough to serve industry but not enough so they could think for themselves. Questioning the sociopolitical order and communicating articulately were not part of the plan. Americans were to become drones in a government-subsidized country ruled by corporations. While Reagan-era neo-conservatives were excoriating communism as a system in which government controls industry, they were promoting a system built on an even worse idea, one in which industry controls government.
Mind you, the development and implementation of K-12 concentration camps is not part of some giant conspiracy. Rather, it is the outcome of the way our educational system was created. Most of the people who originally developed the system believed they were doing the right thing, and they did not try to hide their plans or intentions. It was completely consistent with the perspective, derived from religious organizations, that the domination, cohesion, and vitality of society were inversely related to individualism; permitting free inquiry and action were anathema to control by religious societies and also by corporate society.
Today, the blueprint of "education to serve corporations" remains unchanged. Although the reasons behind the blueprint have been largely obscured by history, they are still known by many contemporary educators. As clinical psychologist Bruce Levine wrote in Commonsense Rebellion: "I once consulted with a teacher of an extremely bright eight-year-old boy labeled with oppositional defiant disorder. I suggested that perhaps the boy didn't have a disease, but was just bored. His teacher, a pleasant woman, agreed with me. However, she added, 'They told us at the state conference that our job is to get them ready for the work world ... that the children have to get used to not being stimulated all the time or they will lose their jobs in the real world.'" In other words, citizens who are capable of thinking for themselves cannot properly serve the corporations that run the country.
The main point of this history lesson is simple, and you've heard me say it before: Get used to swimming upstream. Most people do not want to think for themselves (or perhaps they actually think they are doing so, which is even more terrifying). In fact, they have only rarely been asked to think for themselves. A century of standardized education in support of business pushes society ever closer to corporate hegemony and therefore, in the case of American-style capitalism, ever closer to exterminating the world's cultures and species. A fine recent example of standardization at the expense of thoughtful reflection is the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a bill strongly supported by Business Party I and Business Party II before being signed in January 2002 by self-proclaimed "business" (and later "wartime") president, George W. Bush.
None of which gives you the right to surrender, of course. If resistance is futile, all hope is lost.
This is similar to what other critics like John Taylor Gatto have written. I don't now from what [political] perspective Mr. McPherson is writing.
Something from my own life --
Not sure what to think and feel about this -- should I expect a call explaining why a job had been cancelled? As a professional courtesy? After all, I wouldn't expect it as a personal courtesy, since I don't know the teacher that well. That the job would be cancelled may not be a surprise -- I may be too "nice" for the class, and they need someone more strict. Would I have preferred a human voice telling me so, or something worse?
Would I have done anything differently? Be a severe taskmaster? As for discipline... there's no list of guidelines as to what the proper "consequences" (we have to use this euphemism because we can't talk about punishment?) are for each and every action.
I would rather err on the "nice" side; how adults deal with children can have deep, long-lasting psychological impacts on them, and a substitute teacher isn't around long enough to clean up after any messes. God knows that I didn't always observe this ideal, and I will have to make up for it. There is the pressure to get results, make them perform, because that is how things get down, and one of the characteristics of a "good" teacher -- effective classroom management. What distinguishes the unhealthy suppression of masculine tendencies from curbing laziness and fostering the development of "good study habits"? I still haven't figured out the answer to that yet. I need a different model with which to compare modern mass education.
While I am not a believer in mass education or the principles of the CA public school system, I can't help but feel like a failure because of what happens in the classroom. The immediacy of the situation in the classroom overwhelm any "objective" evaluation of the "bigger picture" and what the classroom actually represents and the unreasonableness of it all. Being unable to effect "positive" change or change in accordance with what is expected also has a bigger impact because I have not fully resigned myself to the fact that at best I can just get by, and still I am not willing to do what is necessary to be successful. By the standards of the bureaucracy, I may be somewhat of a failure, and thinking that one is fighting some holding action is rather useless because it is not recognized as such and the effect is so limited. If one doesn't believe in the system and its procedures, one should make a clean break and maintain some integrity in doing so; otherwise the psychological burden of submitting one's self to such a system will become heavy. Doesn't everyone look for approval, for some confirmation by someone competent that they are performing a task well? It is difficult to shake the sensation that I'm being judged by the regular teachers.
Still, the work and what I feel about being an under-appreciated and mere functionary leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and impels me to look for something else. Now if I could just work on a resume or two tonight. I imagine teaching at a tough school would just deaden the soul after a while.