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Mudsill Theory

A prophetic article entitled "The Laboring Classes" appeared in The Boston Quarterly Review in 1840 at the very moment Horace Mann’s crowd was beating the drum loudest for compulsion schooling. Its author, Orestes Brownson, charged that Horace Mann was trying to establish a state church in America like the one England had and to impose a merchant/industrialist worldview as its gospel. "A system of education [so constituted] may as well be a religion established by law," said Brownson. Mann’s business backers were trying, he thought, to set up a new division of labor giving licensed professional specialists a monopoly to teach, weakening people’s capacity to educate themselves, making them childlike.

Teaching in a democracy belongs to the whole community, not to any centralized monopoly,2 said Brownson, and children were far better educated by "the general pursuits, habits, and moral tone of the community" than by a privileged class. The mission of this country, according to Brownson, was "to raise up the laboring classes, and make every man really free and independent." Whatever schooling should be admitted to society under the auspices of government should be dedicated to the principle of independent livelihoods and close self-reliant families. Brownson’s freedom and independence are still the goals that represent a consensus of working-class opinion in America, although they have receded out of reach for all but a small fraction, like the shrimp lady. How close was the nation in 1840 to realizing such a dream of equality before forced schooling converted our working classes into "human resources" or a "workforce" for the convenience of the industrial order? The answer is very close, as significant clues testify.

A century and a half after "The Laboring Classes" was published, Cornell labor scholar Chris Clark investigated and corroborated the reality of Brownson’s world. In his book Roots of Rural Capitalism, Clark found that the general labor market in the Connecticut Valley was highly undependable in the 1840s by employer standards because it was shaped by family concerns. Outside work could only be fitted into what available free time farming allowed (for farming took priority), and work was adapted to the homespun character of rural manufacture in a system we find alive even today among the Amish. Wage labor was not dependent on a boss’ whim. It had a mind of its own and was always only a supplement to a broad strategy of household economy.

A successful tradition of self-reliance requires an optimistic theory of human nature to bolster it. Revolutionary America had a belief in common people never seen anywhere in the past. Before such an independent economy could be broken apart and scavenged for its labor units, people had to be brought to believe in a different, more pessimistic appraisal of human possibility. Abe Lincoln once called this contempt for ordinary people "mudsill theory," an attitude that the education of working men and women was useless and dangerous. It was the same argument, not incidentally, that the British state and church made and enforced for centuries, German principalities and their official church, too.

Lincoln said in a speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society in September 1859 that the goal of government planning should be independent livelihoods. He thought everyone capable of reaching that goal, as it is reached in Amish households today. Lincoln characterized mudsill theory as a distortion of human nature, cynical and self-serving in its central contention that:

Nobody labors, unless someone else, owning capital, by the use of that capital, induces him to it. Having assumed this, they proceed to consider whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent; or buy them, and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, they naturally conclude that all laborers are necessarily either hired laborers, or slaves. They further assume that whoever is once a hired laborer is fatally fixed in the condition for life, and thence again that his condition is as bad as or worse than that of a slave. This is the mudsill theory. (emphasis added)

This notion was contradicted, said Lincoln, by an inconvenient fact: a large majority in the free states were "neither hirers nor hired," and wage labor served only as a temporary condition leading to small proprietorship. This was Abraham Lincoln’s perception of the matter. Even more important, it was his affirmation. He testified to the rightness of this policy as a national mission, and the evidence that he thought himself onto something important was that he repeated this mudsill analysis in his first State of the Union speech to Congress in December 1861.

Here in the twenty-first century it hardly seems possible, this conceit of Lincoln’s. Yet there is the baffling example of the Amish experiment, its families holding nearly universal proprietorship in farms or small enterprises, a fact which looms larger and larger in my own thinking about schools, school curricula, and the national mission of pedagogy as I grow old. That Amish prosperity wasn’t handed to them but achieved in the face of daunting odds, against active enmity from the states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere, and hordes of government agencies seeking to de-Amish them. That the Amish have survived and prevailed against high odds puts a base of realistic possibility under Lincoln and Brownson’s small-market perspective as the proper goal for schooling. An anti-mudsill curriculum once again, one worthy of another civil war if need be.

It takes no great intellect to see that such a curriculum taught in today’s economic environment would directly attack the dominant economy. Not intentionally, but lack of malice would be poor compensation for those whose businesses would inevitably wither and die as the idea spread. How many microbreweries would it take to ruin Budweiser? How many solar cells and methane-gas home generators to bring Exxon to its knees? This is one reason, I think, that many alternative school ideas which work, and are cheap and easy to administer, fizzle rather than that catch fire in the public imagination. The incentive to support projects wholeheartedly when they would incidentally eliminate your livelihood, or indeed eliminate the familiar society and relationships you hold dear, just isn’t there. Nor is it easy to see how it could ever be.

Why would anyone who makes a living selling goods or services be enthusiastic about schools that teach "less is more"? Or teach that television, even PBS, alters the mind for the worse? When I see the dense concentration of big business names associated with school reform I get a little crazy, not because they are bad people—most are no worse than you are or I—but because humanity’s best interests and corporate interests cannot really ever be a good fit except by accident.

The souls of free and independent men and women are mutilated by the necessary soullessness of corporate organization and decision-making. Think of cigarettes as a classic case in point. The truth is that even if all corporate production were pure and faultless, it is still an excess of organization—where the few make decisions for the many—that is choking us to death. Strength, joy, wisdom are only available to those who produce their own lives; never to those who merely consume the production of others. Nothing good can come from inviting global corporations to design our schools, any more than leaving a hungry dog to guard ham sandwiches is a good way to protect lunch.

All training except the most basic either secures or disestablishes things as they are. The familiar government school curriculum represents enshrined mudsill theory telling us people would do nothing if they weren’t tricked, bribed, or intimidated, proving scientifically that workers are for the most part biologically incompetent, strung out along a bell curve. Mudsill theory has become institutionalized with buzzers, routines, standardized assessments, and terminal rankings interleaved with an interminable presentation of carrots and sticks, the positive and negative reinforcement schedules of behavioral psychology, screening children for a corporate order.

Mudsillism is deeply ingrained in the whole work/school/media constellation. Getting rid of it will be a devilish task with no painless transition formula. This is going to hurt when it happens. And it will happen. The current order is too far off the track of human nature, too dis-spirited, to survive. Any economy in which the most common tasks are the shuffling of paper, the punching of buttons, and the running of mouths isn’t an order into which we should be pushing kids as if such jobs there were the avenue to a good life.

At the heart of any school reforms that aren’t simply tuning the mudsill mechanism lie two beliefs: 1) That talent, intelligence, grace, and high accomplishment are within the reach of every kid, and 2) That we are better off working for ourselves than for a boss.3 But how on earth can you believe these things in the face of a century of institution-shaping/economy-shaping monopoly schooling which claims something different? Or in the face of a constant stream of media menace that jobs are vanishing, that the workplace demands more regulation and discipline, that "foreign competition" will bury us if we don’t comply with expert prescriptions in the years ahead? One powerful antidote to such propaganda comes from looking at evidence which contradicts official propaganda—like women who earn as much as doctors by selling shrimp from old white trucks parked beside the road, or thirteen-year-old boys who don’t have time to waste in school because they expect to be independent businessmen before most kids are out of college. Meet Stanley:

I once had a thirteen-year-old Greek boy named Stanley who only came to school one day a month and got away with it because I was his homeroom teacher and doctored the records. I did it because Stanley explained to me where he spent the time instead. It seems Stanley had five aunts and uncles, all in business for themselves before they were twenty-one. A florist, an unfinished furniture builder, a delicatessen owner, a small restauranteur, and a delivery service operator. Stanley was passed from store to store doing free labor in exchange for an opportunity to learn the business. "This way I decide which business I like well enough to set up for myself," he told me. "You tell me what books to read and I’ll read them, but I don’t have time to waste in school unless I want to end up like the rest of these people, working for somebody else." After I heard that I couldn’t in good conscience keep him locked up. Could you? If you say yes, tell me why.

Look at those 150,000 Old Order Amish in twenty-two states and several foreign countries: nearly crime-free, prosperous, employed almost totally at independent livelihoods; proprietors with only a 5 percent rate of failure compared to 85 percent for businesses in non-Amish hands. I hope that makes you think a little. Amish success isn’t even possible according to mudsill theory. They couldn’t have happened and yet they did. While they are still around they give the lie to everything you think you know about the inevitability of anything. Focus on the Amish the next time you hear some jerk say your children better shape up and toe the corporate line if they hope to be among the lucky survivors in the coming world economy. Why do they need to be hired hands at all, you should ask yourself. Indeed, why do you?

2By "community" Brownson meant a confederation of individual families who knew one another; he would have been outraged by a federation of welfare agencies masquerading as a human settlement, as described in Hillary Clinton’s It Takes A Village, in which the village in question is suspiciously devoid of butcher, baker, and candlestick maker joining their voices in deciding child-care policies.

3The Boston Globe for September 8, 1999, carried this dismal information: if all the households in theUnited States are divided into five equal fractions, and the household incomes in each fifth averaged together, the economic classes of the country look like this compared to one another: the bottom fifth earns $8,800 a year, the second fifth $20,000 a year, the third fifth $31,400 a year, and the fourth fifth $45,100 a year. The balance of the fruits of our managed society have been reserved for the upper 20 percent of its households, and even there the lion’s share drops on the plate of a relatively small fraction of the fat cats. If this is the structure our centrally controlled corporate economy has imposed after a century in close partnership with science, government, religion, and schools, it argues loudly that trusting any large employer not to be indifferent, or even hostile, to American social tradition and dreams is misplaced trust. Of course, it’s always a good idea to treat such data with caution because marshaling numbers to prove anything is remarkably easy to do (indeed, teaching a reverence for numbers may be the most significant blindness of modern times). And yet my own intuition tells me that profound social insecurity is the direct legacy of our economic management and its quantitative values.

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