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The Cult Of Forced Schooling

The most candid account of the changeover from old-style American free market schooling to the laboratory variety we have under the close eye of society’s managers is a book long out of print. But the author was famous enough in his day that a yearly lecture at Harvard is named after him, so with a bit of effort on your part, and perhaps a kind word to your local librarian, in due time you should be able to find a hair-raising account of the school transformation written by one of the insiders. The book in question bears the soporific title Principles of Secondary Education. Published in 1918 near the end of the great school revolution, Principles offers a unique account of the project written through the eyes of an important revolutionary. Any lingering doubts you may have about the purposes of government schooling should be put to rest by Alexander Inglis. The principal purpose of the vast enterprise was to place control of the new social and economic machinery out of reach of the mob.2

The great social engineers were confronted by the formidable challenge of working their magic in a democracy, least efficient and most unpredictable of political forms. School was designed to neutralize as much as possible any risk of being blind-sided by the democratic will. Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., writing of his grandfather Senator Aldrich, one of the principal architects of the Federal Reserve System which had come into being while Inglis’ cohort built the schools—and whose intent was much the same, to remove economic machinery from public interference—caught the attitude of the builders perfectly in his book Old Money. Grandfather, he writes, believed that history, evolution, and a saving grace found their best advocates in him and in men like him, in his family and in families like his, down to the close of time. But the price of his privilege, the senator knew, "was vigilance—vigilance, above all, against the resentment of those who never could emerge." Once in Paris, Senator Aldrich saw two men "of the middle or lower class," as he described them, drinking absinthe in a café. That evening back at his hotel he wrote these words: "As I looked upon their dull wild stupor I wondered what dreams were evolved from the depths of the bitter glass. Multiply that scene and you have the possibility of the wildest revolution or the most terrible outrages."

Alexander Inglis, author of Principles of Secondary Education, was of Aldrich’s class. He wrote that the new schools were being expressly created to serve a command economy and command society, one in which the controlling coalition would be drawn from important institutional stakeholders in the future. According to Inglis, the first function of schooling is adjustive, establishing fixed habits of reaction to authority. This prepares the young to accept whatever management dictates when they are grown. Second is the diagnostic function. School determines each student’s "proper" social role, logging it mathematically on cumulative records to justify the next function, sorting . Individuals are to be trained only so far as their likely destination in the social machine, not one step beyond. Conformity is the fourth function. Kids are to be made alike, not from any passion for egalitarianism, but so future behavior will be predictable, in service to market and political research. Next is the hygienic function. This has nothing to do with individual health, only the health of the "race." This is polite code for saying that school should accelerate Darwinian natural selection by tagging the unfit so clearly they drop from the reproduction sweepstakes. And last is the propaedutic function, a fancy word meaning that a small fraction of kids will slowly be trained to take over management of the system, guardians of a population deliberately dumbed down and rendered childlike in order that government and economic life can be managed with a minimum of hassle. And there you have the formula: adjustment, diagnosis, sorting, conformity, racial hygiene, and continuity. This is the man for whom an honor lecture in education at Harvard is named. According to James Bryant Conant, another progressive aristocrat from whom I first learned of Inglis in a perfectly frightening book called The Child, The Parent, and the State (1949), the school transformation had been ordered by "certain industrialists and the innovative who were altering the nature of the industrial process."

Conant is a school name that resonates through the central third of the twentieth century. He was president of Harvard from 1933 to 1953. His book The American High School Today (1959), was one of the important springs that pushed secondary schools to gigantic size in the 1960s and forced consolidation of many small school districts into larger ones. He began his career as a poison gas specialist in WWI, a task assigned only to young men whose family lineage could be trusted. Other notable way stations on his path being that of an inner circle executive in the top secret atomic bomb project during WWII, and a stint as U.S. High Commissioner for Germany during the military occupation after 1945. From Lewisite gas to nuclear explosions (or high schools), Conant delivered.

In his book Conant brusquely acknowledges that conversion of old-style American education into Prussian-style schooling was done as a coup de main, but his greater motive in 1959 was to speak directly to men and women of his own class who were beginning to believe the new school procedure might be unsuited to human needs, that experience dictated a return to older institutional pluralistic ways. No, Conant fairly shouts, the clock cannot be turned back! "Clearly, the total process is irreversible." Severe consequences would certainly follow the break-up of this carefully contrived behavioral-training machine: "A successful counterrevolution...would require reorientation of a complex social pattern. Only a person bereft of reason would undertake [it]."

Reading Conant is like overhearing a private conversation not meant for you yet fraught with the greatest personal significance. To Conant, school was a triumph of Anglo/Germanic pragmatism, a pinnacle of the social technocrat’s problem-solving art. One task it performed with brilliance was to sharply curtail the American entrepreneurial spirit, a mission undertaken on perfectly sensible grounds, at least from a management perspective. As long as capital investments were at the mercy of millions of self-reliant, resourceful young entrepreneurs running about with a gleam in their eye, who would commit the huge flows of capital needed to continually tool and retool the commercial/industrial/financial machine? As long as the entire population could become producers, young people were loose cannon crashing around a storm-tossed deck, threatening to destroy the corporate ship. Confined, however, to employee status, they became suitable ballast upon which a dependable domestic market could be erected.

How to mute competition in the generation of tomorrow? That was the cutting-edge question. In his take-no-prisoners style acquired mixing poison gas and building atomic bombs, Conant tells us candidly the answer "was in the process of formulation" as early as the 1890s. By 1905 the nation obeyed this clarion call coast to coast: "Keep all youth in school full time through grade twelve." All youth, including those most unwilling to be there and those certain to take vengeance on their jailers.

President Conant was quick to acknowledge that "practical-minded" kids paid a heavy price from enforced confinement. But there it was—nothing could be done. It was a worthy trade-off. I suspect he was being disingenuous. Any mind sophisticated enough to calculate a way to short-circuit entrepreneurial energy, and ideology-driven enough to be willing to do that in service to a corporate takeover of the economy, must also be shrewd enough to foresee the destructive side effects of having an angry and tough-minded band of student-captives remain in school with the docile. The net effect was to nearly eradicate the intellectual possibilities of school instruction.

Did Conant understand the catastrophe he helped induce? I think he did. He would dispute my judgment, of course, that it was a catastrophe. One of his close friends was another highly placed schoolman, Ellwood P. Cubberley, the Stanford Education dean. Cubberley had himself written about the blow to serious classwork caused by early experiments in forcing universal school attendance. So it wasn’t as if the destruction of academic integrity came as any surprise to insiders. Cubberley’s house history of American education refers directly to this episode, although in somewhat elliptical prose. First published in 1919, it was republished in 1934, the same year Conant took office at Harvard. The two men talked and wrote to one another. Both knew the score. Yet for all his candor, it isn’t hard to understand Conant’s reticence about discussing this procedure. It’s one thing to announce that children have to do involuntary duty for the state, quite another to describe the why and how of the matter in explicit detail.

Another prominent Harvard professor, Robert Ulich, wrote in his own book, Philosophy of Education (1961): "[We are producing] more and more people who will be dissatisfied because the artificially prolonged time of formal schooling will arouse in them hopes which society cannot fulfill.... These men and women will form the avant-garde of the disgruntled. It is no exaggeration to say [people like these] were responsible for World War II." Although Ulich is parroting Toynbee here, whose Study of History was a standard reference of speculative history for decades, the idea that serious intellectual schooling of a universal nature would be a sword pointed at the established order, has been an idea common in the West since at least the Tudors, and one openly discussed from 1890 onwards.

Thus I was less surprised than I might have been to open Walter Kotschnig’s Unemployment in the Learned Professions (1937), which I purchased for fifty cents off a blanket on the street in front of Columbia University from a college graduate down on his luck, to find myself listening to an argument attributing the rise of Nazism directly to the expansion of German university enrollment after WWI. For Germany, this had been a short-term solution to postwar unemployment, like the G.I. Bill, but according to Kotschnig, the policy created a mob of well-educated people with a chip on their shoulder because there was no work—a situation which led swiftly downhill for the Weimar republic.

A whole new way to look at schooling from this management perspective emerges, a perspective which is the furthest thing from cynical. Of course there are implications for our contemporary situation. Much of our own 50 to 60 percent post-secondary college enrollment should be seen as a temporary solution to the otherwise awesome reality that two-thirds of all work in the United States is now part-time or short-term employment. In a highly centralized corporate workplace that’s becoming ever more so with no end in sight, all jobs are sucked like debris in a tornado into four hierarchical funnels of vast proportions: corporate, governmental, institutional, and professional. Once work is preempted in this monopoly fashion, fear of too many smart people is legitimate, hard to exaggerate. If you let people learn too much, they might kill you. Or so history and Senator Aldrich would have us believe.

Once privy to ideas like those entertained by Inglis, Conant, Ulich, and Kotschnig, most contemporary public school debate becomes nonsense. If we do not address philosophies and policies which sentence the largest portion of our people to lives devoid of meaning, then we might be better off not discussing school at all. A Trilateral Commission Report of 1974, Crisis of Democracy, offered with some urgency this advice: "A program is necessary to lower the job expectations of those who receive a college education." (emphasis added) During the quarter-century separating this managerial proposition from the Millennium, such a program was launched—for reasons we now turn to the historian Arnold Toynbee to illuminate.


2A Harvard professor with a Teachers College Ph.D., Inglis descended from a long line of famous Anglicans. One of his ancestors, assistant Rector of Trinity Church when the Revolution began, in 1777 fled the onrushing Republic; another wrote a refutation of Tom Paine’s Common Sense, that one was made the first Bishop of Nova Scotia in 1787; and a third, Sir John Inglis, commanded the British forces at Lucknow during the famous siege by the Sepoy mutineers in 1857. Is the Inglis bloodline germane to his work as a school pioneer? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

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