If you study American education during the past one hundred years, you will be continually overwhelmed by a feeling of bafflement. You may find yourself exclaiming, “This does not make any %@ sense!” These people call themselves “educators, ” right? But they continually work to diminish education. How can they be educators when they sabotage and subvert education every chance they get?
It’s like meeting chefs who detest food and don’t believe in nutrition. Generals who can’t stand the sight of guns and want to disarm. Artists who despise color and harmony and design. You’ll struggle to find the best way to describe this counterintuitive spectacle: twilight zone, make-believe, charade, theatre, hallucinations induced by drugs, a tale told by an idiot. Finally, you’ll scream, once again, “What the %@ is going on?”
Here’s the answer.
Around 1890 Education was a new field. Americans with a PhD in Education were few in number (probably only a few dozen) and united in ideology. They had the fervor of new converts-in their case, to Psychology and Socialism. Unilaterally, they executed one of the biggest bait-and-switch operations in history. They eased “Education” out of the knowledge business, and snuck it into the social engineering business. They weren’t asked to do this. No branch of government legislated the change. Nobody in the society wanted this except the conspirators themselves. So, from the outset, there was a startling, in-your-face arrogance (“We know the Truth! You don’t!” This arrogance is half the answer to our question.
As determined as these ideological adventurers were, and as confident of their own genius, they knew that America was not interested in the goods they had to sell. And thus we come to the second half of the answer: deceit and disingenuousness. (Secrecy, it might be said, corrupts, but absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely. ) In short, our educators embraced early on the endless lying that has deformed American education for 100 years.
Think of someone leading a double life-a con artist come to steal your bank account or a pedophile befriending your child. The truth simply cannot be spoken. And so it was with the Fathers of Education. Starting around 1890, gathering force in 1900 and 1910 and 1920, energized by the Great Depression in 1930, they worked in stealth to transform the United States into a different country, populated by more cooperative, less individualistic people. Educators set about creating tomorrow’s simpler citizen by altering today’s child. They could do this by managing the public schools. To control the schools, they had to control the teachers and administrators, and to do that, they needed to dominate the education schools, such as Teachers College. As you see, this was an elaborate conspiracy, tirelessly pursued over decades.
Harold Rugg described the plan in a 1934 book, The Great Technology: “Through the schools of the world we shall disseminate a new conception of government—one that will embrace all the activities of men, one that will postulate the need of scientific control. . .in the interest of all people. ” All the activities? Scientific control? Doesn’t that give one a nice chill? 1984 is dead ahead.
I find that the most interesting history is intellectual history-the invisible ideas that drive visible events. Rarely is such history more weird, unexpected and fascinating than in American education. How could it not be when soaring arrogance merged with rampant dishonesty? What we had, as a half-dozen quotations will show, was educators conspiring against everything most people assumed they cared about-namely, academic content; country; and children.
CONTENT: For the seven centuries leading up to 1900, through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, our smartest people sang the advantages-the joys-of learning, of knowledge, of understanding the world. Even the Communists demanded universal education. But John Dewey and colleagues said, Nah, all that stuff is overrated; in its place, we bring you ignorance; ignorance will be your salvation. (Ignorance, as Orwell would mockingly assert, is Strength. )
In a hundred places John Dewey said things like: “I believe, therefore, that the true center of correlation on the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child's own social activities. . . . I believe that this gives the standard for the place of cooking, sewing, manual training, etc. , in the school. ”
Dewey also said: “The plea for the predominance of learning to read in early school life because of the great importance attaching to literature seems to me a perversion. ” A perversion!
In 1911 G. Stanley Hall wrote: “The knowledge which illiterates acquire is probably a much larger proportion of it practical. Moreover, they escape much eyestrain and mental excitement, and, other things being equal, are probably more active and less sedentary. It is possible, despite the stigma our bepedagogued age puts upon this disability, for those who are under it not only to lead a useful, happy, virtuous life, but to be really well educated in many other ways. ” (This evil quote explains why educators promoted Whole Word, a reading pedagogy that undermines literacy. )
In 1929 Edward Thorndike and Arthur Gates wrote: “Artificial exercises, like drills on phonetics, multiplication tables, and formal writing movements are used to a wasteful degree. Subjects such as arithmetic, language and history include content that is intrinsically of little value. . . . That the typical school overemphasizes instruction in these formal, academic skills as a means of fostering intellectual resources. . . is a justifiable criticism. ”
This sad irony continues today: educators saying that facts and learning are not something that most people need.
COUNTRY: John Dewey spoke of a coming society where everybody would be more “interdependent, ” code for socialistic. He also advised: “Change must come gradually. To force it unduly would compromise its final success by favoring a violent reaction. ”
The Depression made these conspirators more talky. Witness George Counts in 1932: “Historic capitalism, with its deification of the principle of selfishness, its reliance upon the forces of competition, its place of property above human rights, and its exaltation of the profit motive, willeither have to be displaced altogether, or so radically changed in form and spirit that its identity will be completely lost. "
Politically, our educators wanted less religion, less family influence, and less free enterprise. They wanted more socialism, more secularism, more world government, and they wanted to be the true rulers of that government.
CHILDREN: Education, a new field, was born, in the same test tube as another new field, Psychology. All the early people studied in both areas, circa 1890. Most of them studied in Germany and were influenced by George Wundt and a Germanic/Hegelian sensibility which exalts society and denies importance to the individual. To make things worse, all of the foregoing got mixed up with a love for psychoanalytic theory, conditioning techniques, and running rats through mazes. What the Psychologists did with rats, the Educators wanted to do with children.
Edward Thorndike summed up the mood in his 1906 book, The Principles of Teaching Based on Psychology: “The aim of the teacher is to produce desirable and prevent undesirable changes in human beings by producing and preventing certain responses. ”
You’ve doubtless heard the phrase “cannon fodder, ” for soldiers fed to the murderous fire of artillery. To a remarkable degree, children became ideology fodder. All of these early Psychologists and Educators had heads full of theories that basically regarded children as raw material to be turned into something else. Priority One was creating children who got along well in a group. Knowledge could make a child independent and hard to manipulate, so ignorance became a plus. The ed schools, the teachers, the educators, everyone was soon entangled in a conspiracy to make children mediocre.
THE CRISIS CONTINUES: Education can be used for two opposite purposes, to liberate or to control. George Washington, Ben Franklin, all the other founding fathers, just assumed that education in America would be a tool for liberation. Should have been, could have been. Quite unexpectedly, quite mysteriously, our educators went the other way; their bizarre zigzag is the cause of the continuing crisis in education.
Why did these early educators go wrong? They believed Karl Marx? They studied in Germany and absorbed a Teutonic love of community and herd? They bought into a psychiatric vision which viewed children and rats in kindred terms? They wanted to be movers and shakers in a Brave New World? They were arrogant pipsqueaks? All of the above, that is my guess.
The first group of these neo-educators mentored the succeeding generation of educators to be exactly like themselves. As did the next, and the next. And so we moved forward toward the present, with our educational establishment incestuous and inbred, misshapen by inherited disorders, like a sickly clan marooned in some Faulknerian, fog-shrouded mountains. Thus in 1979 Gene Lyons could write in his bombshell article “Why Teachers Can’t Teach” that teacher education was “a mammoth and very expensive swindle of the public interest, a hoax, and an intellectual disgrace. ” In 1983 a government panel issued the famous “Nation at Risk” report, which contained this wonderfully deadpan indictment: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. ” (I believe that was a cute way of saying: our educators ARE an unfriendly foreign power. ) In 1990, Rita Kramer visited some of the best ed schools and wrote a book titled “Ed School Follies, ” noting that what struck her most forcefully was how little the activities in these places had any connection to intellectual ideas or what the children would learn, but everything to do with “socialization. ”
To justify ideas that don’t work and aren’t supposed to work, our educators have become a full-time Department of Disinformation. A million lies told about phonics would be one example (for more on this, Google my “Tribute to Rudolph Flesch”). But let’s just glance at the single most prevalent and destructive con of them all: In order to help the less smart, we need to stifle the more smart. What a weird nonsequitur. Have you really helped the slow students by dumbing down the whole system? Is it so great to be kept wrapped in ignorance, and never challenged? Is it really better to live in a less intelligent society where the engineers can’t count and the doctors can’t heal? In fact, I suspect that it’s the less smart, the less well-off, the minorities and disadvantaged who are most grievously victimized by our educators. They say they care about the children. Yes, they care about keeping them ignorant and puttylike.
IN CONCLUSION: If you’re a socialist or if for whatever reason you want our country weak, then you would have to feel deeply pleased with the job done by our educators. Otherwise, you cannot be pleased. Sadly, the crisis will probably continue until we systematically terminate each of the bad ideas put in place a century ago by a small gang of conspirators. First step: face the truth. Education in America’s public schools is often a twilight zone deliberately created. All we need, to take education to another level, is profound respect for each student’s talent and intelligence, and a genuine desire to help each student succeed as much as possible.
Bruce Deitrick Price is a novelist, artist, poet and education activist. He writes about culture, language and education for his site Improve-Education.org . (Readers of this article would enjoy “21: A Tribute to Rudolph Flesch" and “25: Phooey on John Dewey. ")