Absolute Absolution

Chapter 14 of The Underground History of American Public Education

The leading principle of Utopian religion is the repudiation of the doctrine of Original Sin. ~ H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia (1905)

Everything functions as if death did not exist. Nobody takes it into account; it is suppressed everywhere…. We now seem possessed by the Promethean desire to cure death. ~ Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)

Education is the modern world’s temporal religion… ~ Bob Chase, president, National Education Association, NEA TODAY, April 1997

The Problem Of God

The problem of God has always been a central question of Western intellectual life. The flight from this heritage is our best evidence that school is a project having little to do with education as the West defined it for thousands of years. It’s difficult to imagine anyone who lacks an understanding of Western spirituality regarding himself as educated. And yet, American schools have been forbidden to enter this arena even in a token way since 1947.

In spite of the irony that initial Protestant church support is the only reason we have American compulsion schools at all, the rug was pulled out from beneath the churches quite suddenly at the end of the nineteenth century, under the pretext that it was the only way to keep Catholicism out of the schools. When the second shoe dropped with the Everson decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1947, God was pitched out of school on His ear entirely.

Before we go forward we need to go back. The transformation businessmen wrought in the idea of education at the end of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth is the familiar system we have today. Max Otto argued in his intriguing book-length essay Science and the Moral Life (1949) that a philosophical revolution had been pulled off by businessmen under everybody’s nose. Otto described what most college graduates still don’t know — that the traditional economy, where wants regulate what is produced, is dead. The new economy depends upon creating demand for whatever stuff machinery, fossil fuel, and industrialized imagination can produce. When this reversal was concluded, consumption, once only one detail among many in people’s lives, became the most important end. Great consumers are heroes to a machine society; the frugal, villains.

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In such a universe, schools have no choice but to participate. Supporting the economic system became the second important mission of mass schooling’s existence, but in doing so, materiality found itself at war with an older family of spiritual interests. In the general society going about its business, it wasn’t easy to see this contest clearly — to recognize that great corporations which provided employment, endowed universities, museums, schools, and churches, and which exercised a powerful voice on important issues of the day — actually had a life-and-death stake in the formation of correct psychological attitudes among children.

It was nature, not conspiracy, Otto wrote, that drove businessmen "to devote themselves to something besides business." It was only natural "they should try to control education and to supplant religion as a definer of ideals." The class of businessmen who operated on a national and international basis, having estranged themselves from considerations of nation, culture, and tradition, having virtually freed themselves from competitive risk because they owned the legislative and judicial processes, now turned their attention to cosmic themes of social management.

In this fashion, minister gave way to schoolteacher, schoolteacher became pedagogus under direction of the controllers of work.

Spirits Are Dangerous

The net effect of holding children in confinement for twelve years without honor paid to the spirit is a compelling demonstration that the State considers the Western spiritual tradition dangerous, subversive. And of course it is. School is about creating loyalty to certain goals and habits, a vision of life, support for a class structure, an intricate system of human relationships cleverly designed to manufacture the continuous low level of discontent upon which mass production and finance rely.

Once the mechanism is identified, its dynamics aren’t hard to understand. Spiritually contented people are dangerous for a variety of reasons. They don’t make reliable servants because they won’t jump at every command. They test what is requested against a code of moral principle. Those who are spiritually secure can’t easily be driven to sacrifice family relations. Corporate and financial capitalism are hardly possible on any massive scale once a population finds its spiritual center.

For a society like ours to work, we need to feel that something is fundamentally wrong when we can’t continually "do better" — expand our farms and businesses, win a raise, take exotic vacations. This is the way our loan/repayment cycle — the credit economy — is sustained. The human tendency to simply enjoy work and camaraderie among workers is turned into a race to outdo colleagues, to climb employment ladders. Ambition is a trigger of corporate life and at the same time an acid that dissolves communities. By spreading contentment on the cheap, spirituality was a danger to the new economy’s natural growth principle. So in a sense it was rational self-interest, not conspiracy, that drove enlightened men to agree in their sporting places, drawing rooms, and clubs that religious activity would have to be dampened down.

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What they couldn’t see is that through substitution of schooling for Bible religion, they were sawing through two of the four main social supports of Western civilization. Think of your dining room table; it was like breaking two of its legs off, replacing one with a tall stack of dishes and one with a large dog. The top of the table would look the same covered in cloth but it wouldn’t be a good bet to get you through dinner. A century earlier, Hamilton and Jefferson had speculated whether it might be possible to replace religion with a civil substitute. The heady ideas of the French Revolution were on everybody’s lips. A civil substitute built on expanding the humble grassroots institution of schooling might well free leaders from the divided loyalty religion imposes. Could an ethical system based on law produce the same quality of human society as a moral system based on divine inspiration? Jefferson was skeptical. Despite his fears, the experiment was soon to be tried.

Foundations of the Western Outlook

We will never fully understand American schools until we think long and hard about religion. Whether you are Buddhist, Jew, Moslem, Hindu, Baptist, Confucian, Catholic, Protestant, agnostic, or atheist, this is a hunt for important threads in the tapestry overlooked by secular academic exegesis. More specifically, our quest is for insights of Protestant Christian dissent which have been buried for at least a century, insights which I hope will cause you to look at schools in a different way.

To find out what School seeks to replace, we have to uncover the four pillars which hold up Western society. Two come from the Nordic rim of Europe: the first, a unique belief in the sovereign rights of the individual; the second, what we have come to call scientific vision. Everywhere else but in the West, individual and family were submerged in one or another collective system. Only here were the chips bet on liberty of individual conscience.

The ambition to know everything appears in history in the stories of the Old Norse god Odin, god of Mind and god of Family Destruction, too. No other mythology than the Norse puts pride of intellect together with a license to pry so at the center of things. Science presumes absolute license. Nothing can be forbidden. Science and individualism are the two secular foundations of Western outlook.

Our other two supports for social meaning are religious and moral. Both originate in the south of Europe. From this graft of North and South comes the most important intellectual synthesis so far seen on this planet, Western civilization. One of these Mediterranean legs is a specific moral code coming out of the Decalogue, of Judaism working through the Gospels of Christianity. The rules are these:

1. Love, care for, and help others. 2. Bear witness to the good. 3. Respect your parents and ancestors. 4. Respect the mysteries; know your place in them. 5. Don’t envy. 6. Don’t lie or bear false witness. 7. Don’t steal. 8. Don’t kill. 9. Don’t betray your mate.

The fourth and most difficult leg comes from a Christian interpretation of Genesis. It is constituted out of a willing acceptance of certain penalties incurred by eating from the Tree of Knowledge against God’s command. The Original Sin. For disobedience, Adam, Eve, and their descendants were sentenced to four punishments.

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The first was labor. There was no need to work in Eden, but after the Expulsion, we had to care for ourselves. The second penalty was pain. There was no pain in Eden, but now our weak nature was subject to being led astray, to feeling pain, even from natural acts like childbirth, whether we were good people or bad people. Third was the two-edged free will penalty, including the right to choose Evil which would now lurk everywhere. Recall that in Eden there was exactly one wrong thing to do, eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Now we would have to endure the stress of constant moral armament against a thousand temptations or of surrendering to sin. Last and most important, the term of human life would be strictly limited. Nobody would escape death. The more you have in wealth, family, community, and friends, the more you are tempted to curse God as you witness yourself day by day losing physical strength, beauty, energy — eventually losing everything.

Before the sixteenth century, the orthodox Christian view was that human nature was equal to carrying this burden. It was weak, but capable of finding strength through faith. This doctrine of inescapable sin, and redemption through personal choice, carries a map of meaning through which to organize one’s entire life. Face the inevitable in a spirit of humility and you are saved. This lesser-known side of the Christian curriculum, the one generated out of Original Sin, lacked a Cecil B. DeMille to illustrate its value, but once aware, lives could draw strength and purpose from it.

What I’m calling the Christian curriculum assigns specific duties to men and women. No other system of meaning anywhere, at any time in history, has shown a record of power and endurance like this one, continuously enlarging its influence over all mankind (not just Christians), because it speaks directly to ordinary people without the mediation of elites or priesthoods.

Superficially, you might argue that the success of the West is the result of its guns being better. But really, Western civilization flourished because our story of hope is superior to any other.

Codes Of Meaning

This unique moral chronicle led to an everyday behavioral code which worked so well that in a matter of centuries it became the dominant perspective of Europe, and soon it made inroads into every belief system across the planet. But the sheer extent of its success caused it to run afoul of three other competing systems for producing meaning, each of which held common people in contempt or worse. These competing codes viewed Christianity antagonistically because of its power to liberate ordinary people from the bondage of fear and envy.

Those competing codes of meaning gave us formal schooling, public and private. The first competitor, the aristocratic code, comes out of pagan traditions. It is still the philosophy taught in upper-class boarding schools like Middlesex and Gunnery, and through home training and particular class institutions. Its operating principles are leadership, sportsmanship, courage, disdain for hardship, team play, self-sacrifice (for the team), and devotion to duty — as noble traditions define duty. The boardrooms of certain global corporations are one of the great preserves of this exclusive but universally attractive pagan attitude.

The second code in competition with Christianity was taken from the practice of great commercial civilizations like the Hanseatic League of medieval times or the society of Holland in the seventeenth century. This behavioral code makes security, comfort, health, and wealth the central purpose of life. The main thrust of this kind of seeking is radically anti-Christian, but the contradiction isn’t obvious when the two come into contact because commercial cultures emphasize peaceful coexistence, tolerance, cooperation, and pragmatism. They reject the value of pain, and take principled behavior with a grain of salt, everything being relative to security and prosperity. Pragmatism is the watchword.

The wealth that a commercial perspective delivers produced a dilemma for Puritan society to wrestle with, since the intense neo-Christianity of Puritanism was yoked to an equal intensity of business acumen, a talent for commercial transaction. In the Calvinist vein, this contradiction was resolved by declaring wealth a reliable sign of God’s favor, as poverty was a sign of His condemnation. Both pagan and mercantile ethical codes operated behind a faade of Christianity during the Christian era, weakening the gospel religion, while at the same time profiting from it and paying lip service to it. Proponents of these different frames called themselves Christians but did not live like Christians, rejecting certain tenets of Christianity we’ve just examined, those which interfered with personal gain. Yet in both cases, the life maps these competing theories tried to substitute were not, ultimately, satisfying enough to stop the spreading influence of Christian vision.

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Stated more directly, these competing moral codes were unable to deliver sufficient tangible day-to-day meaning to compete against the religious prescription of a simple life, managed with dignity and love, and with acceptance of the demands of work, self-control, and moral choice, together with the inevitability of tragedy, aging, and death. Neither the pagan outlook nor the commercial philosophy was equal to overthrowing their unworldly rival. Because the commercial code lacked sufficient magic and mystery, and the aristocratic code, which had those things, froze out the majority from enjoying them, it fell to yet a third scheme for organizing meaning to eventually cause the major sabotage of spiritual life.

I refer to the form of practical magic we call Science. Kept rigorously and strictly subordinate to human needs, science is an undeniably valuable way to negotiate the physical world. But the human tendency has always been to break loose from these constraints and to try to explain the purpose of life. Instead of remaining merely a useful description of how things work, great synthesizing theories like Big Bang or Natural Selection purport to explain the origin of the universe or how life best progresses. Yet by their nature, these things are beyond proof or disproof. Few laymen understand that the synthesizing theories of Science are religious revelations in disguise.

In the years around the beginning of the twentieth century, the scientific outlook as a substitute religion took command of compulsion schools and began to work to eradicate any transcendental curriculum in school. This happened in stages. First was the passage of compulsion school legislation and invention of the factory school (isolated from family and community), appearing in conjunction with the extermination of the one-room school. That job had been largely accomplished by 1900. The second stage was introduction of hierarchical layers of school management and government-selected and -regulated teaching staff. That job was complete by 1930. The third stage comprised socialization of the school into a world of "classes" and de-individualized individuals who looked to school authorities for leadership instead of to their own parents and churches. This was accomplished by 1960. The fourth and last stage (so far) was the psychologizing of the classroom, a process begun full-scale in 1960, which, with the advent of national standardized testing, outcomes-based education, Title I legislation, School-to-Work legislation, etc., was accelerating as the last century came to a close.

All these incremental changes are ambitious designs to control how children think, feel, and behave. There had been signs of this intention two centuries earlier, but without long-term confinement of children to great warehouses, the amount of isolation and mind-control needed to successfully introduce civil religion through schooling just wasn’t available.

The Scientific Curriculum

The particulars of the scientific curriculum designed to replace the Christian curriculum look like this:

First, it asked for a sharply critical attitude toward parental, community, and traditional values. Nothing familiar, the children were told, should remain unexamined or go unchallenged. The old-fashioned was to be discarded. Indeed, the study of history itself was stopped. Respect for tradition was held sentimental and counterproductive. Only one thing could not be challenged, and that was the school religion itself, where even minor rebellion was dealt with harshly.

Second, the scientific curriculum asked for objectivity, for the suppression of human feelings which stand in the way of pursuing knowledge as the ultimate good. Thinking works best when everything is considered an equally lifeless object. Then things can be regarded with objectivity. Of course kids resist this deadening of nature and so have to be trained to see nature as mechanical. Have no feeling for the frog you dissect or the butterfly you kill for a school project — soon you may have no feeling for the humiliation of your classmates or the enfeeblement of your own parents. After all, humiliation constitutes the major tool of behavior control in schools, a tool used alike to control students, teachers, and administrators.

Third, the scientific curriculum advised neutrality. Make no lasting commitments to anything because loyalty and sentiment spell the end of flexibility; they close off options.

Last, the new scheme demanded that visible things which could be numbered and counted be acknowledged as the only reality. God could not exist; He could not be seen.

The religion of Science says there is no good or evil. Experts will tell you what to feel based on pragmatic considerations. Since there is no free will nor any divine morality, there is no such thing as individual responsibility, no sin, no redemption. Just mathematical decision-making; grounded in utilitarianism or the lex talionis, it makes little difference which. The religion of Science says that work is for fools. Machines can be built to do hard work, and what machines don’t do, servants and wage slaves can. Work as little as you can get away with — that’s how the new success is measured. The religion of Science says good feelings and physical sensations are what life is all about.

Drugs are such an important part of feeling good we began to need drugstores to sell the many varieties available. People should try virtually everything; that is the message of the drugstore and all advertising. Leave no stone unturned in the search for sensual pleasure. With science-magic you don’t even have to worry about a hangover. Simply take vitamin B and keep on drinking — nor need you worry about incurring the responsibility of a family with the advent of cheap contraceptives and risk-free legal abortion. Lastly, the religion of Science teaches that death, aging, and sickness are ultimate evils. With pills, potions, lotions, aerobics, and surgery you can stave off death and aging, and eventually the magical medical industry will erase those scourges from human affairs.

There. It is done. See how point for point the curriculum of Science, upgraded from an instrument to a religion, revokes each of the penalties Christianity urges we accept gladly? See how Science can be sold as the nostrum to grant absolute absolution from spiritual covenants?

Everson v. Board Of Education (1947)

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The Supreme Court decision Everson v. Board of Education 330 U.S. 1. (1947) prepared the dismissal of religion from American public schools. We are hidden by more than a half-century from the shock and numbness this new doctrine of "separation of church and state" occasioned, a great bewilderment caused in part by the absence of any hint of such a separation doctrine in the Declaration, Constitution, or the Bill of Rights.

The Court, which erected the wall of separation, went on to radically change the entire face of American jurisprudence, establishing firmly a principle which had only operated spottily in the past, the "judicial review" power which made the judiciary final arbiter of which laws were legal. No longer could the people’s representatives expect that by working for legislation, their will would be honored by the courts. A new and higher power had spoken, a power with the ability to dispense with religion in government facilities, including schools and the towns and villages of America where public property was concerned.

Everson was no simple coup d’tat, but an act of Counter-Reformation warfare aimed at the independent and dissenting Protestant-Christian traditions of America. To understand the scope of this campaign, you have to look at a selection of court decisions to appreciate the range of targets Everson was intended to hit:

Item: A verbal prayer offered in a school is unconstitutional, even if it is both denominationally neutral and voluntarily participated in. Engel v. Vitale, 1962; Abington v. Schempp, 1963; Commissioner of Ed. v. School Committee of Leyden, 1971.

Item: Freedom of speech and press is guaranteed to students unless the topic is religious, at which time such speech becomes unconstitutional. Stein v. Oshinsky, 1965; Collins v. Chandler Unified School District, 1981.

Item: If a student prays over lunch, it is unconstitutional for him to pray aloud. Reed v. van Hoven, 1965.

Item: It is unconstitutional for kindergarten students to recite: "We thank you for the birds that sing; We thank you [God] for everything," even though the word "God" is not uttered. DeSpain v. DeKalb County Community School District, 1967.

Item: It is unconstitutional for a war memorial to be erected in the shape of a cross. Lowe v. City of Eugene, 1969.

Item: It is unconstitutional for students to arrive at school early to hear a student volunteer read prayers. State Board of Ed. v. Board of Ed. of Netcong, 1970.

Item: It is unconstitutional for a Board of Education to use or refer to the word "God" in any of its official writings. State v. Whisner, 1976.

Item: It is unconstitutional for a kindergarten class to ask during a school assembly whose birthday is celebrated by Christmas. Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, 1979.

Item: It is unconstitutional for the Ten Commandments to hang on the walls of a classroom. Stone v. Graham, 1980; Ring v. Grand Forks Public School District, 1980; Lanner v. Wimmer, 1981.

Item: A bill becomes unconstitutional even though the wording may be constitutionally acceptable, if the legislator who introduced the bill had a religious activity in his mind when he authored it. Wallace v. Jaffree, 1984.

Item: It is unconstitutional for a kindergarten class to recite: "God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food." Wallace v. Jaffree, 1984.

Item: It is unconstitutional for a graduation ceremony to contain an opening or closing prayer. Graham v. Central Community School District, 1985; Disselbrett v. Douglas School District, 1986.

Item: In the Alaska public schools in 1987, students were told that they could not use the word "Christmas" in school because it had the word "Christ" in it.

Item: In Virginia, a federal court ruled in 1987 that homosexual newspapers may be distributed on a high school campus, but religious newspapers may not be.

Item: In 1987, a 185-year-old symbol of a Nevada city had to be changed because of its "religious significance."

Item: In 1988, an elementary school principal in Denver removed the Bible from the school library.

Item: In Colorado Springs, 1993, an elementary school music teacher was prevented from teaching Christmas carols because of alleged violations of the separation of church and state.

Item: In 1996, ten-year-old James Gierke, of Omaha, was prohibited from reading his Bible silently during free time in the Omaha schools.

Item: In 1996, the chief administrative judge of Passaic County, New Jersey, ruled juries could no longer be sworn in using the Bible.

Item: In 2000, Ohio’s state motto, "With God, all things are possible," was ruled unconstitutional by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because it expressed "a uniquely Christian thought."


Religion is a school of its own, teaching what it values and what it marginalizes or rejects, and why. Judaism, for instance, the older brother of Christianity, has norms which have had important influence on the formation of American character. Although very few Jews lived here until the late nineteenth century, the holy books of Christianity had been conceived by people reared culturally and religiously as Jews, and the elders of the New England colony actually looked upon themselves from time to time as the lost tribes of Israel.

What can be extracted as living wisdom from these Jewish religious thinkers when sieved through many centuries of Christian cloth? The following at a bedrock minimum:

  1. As a condition of creation, humans are called upon to honor their origins in flesh through honoring the father and mother and in the spirit by closely studying the first five books of the Old Testament (known as the Torah), to dwell upon divine origins and a time when God directly interceded in the affairs of mankind.
  2. The acceptance that authority is morally grounded in divine authority. The Commandments must be kept; God will not allow compromise. From this comes respect for law and further organization of Jewish culture around the belief that there is a right way to do everything, discernible to intellect, revealed by wise scholars to ordinary people. Close reading and subtly layered exegesis are Jewish values which became benchmarks of Western intellect.
  3. The Law of Hospitality to Strangers — in the tradition of Abraham and the angels, the Jewish Talmud teaches that strangers are to be treated with respect and affection. This openness to experience led to great advantages for Jews as they traveled everywhere. It encouraged them to be curious, not always to remain self-ghettoized, but to take risks in mingling.
  4. A tradition of prayer, and respect for prayer, as a way to know "before whom you stand," the legend written above the ark containing the Torah scrolls.

Judaism teaches that God wants our love and loves us in return. The first five books of the Bible are His gift to purify our hearts with the story of a pilgrim people making its way through the desert to God. Judaism teaches a way of life that sanctifies the everyday, an outlook that sees no accidents — not a sparrow falling — without a moral charge to select a course carefully, since God always offers a road to the good as well as a road to trouble as His way of honoring free will. Christianity has to some extent incorporated these precepts, but it also has a unique doctrine of its own, just as Muslim stress on egalitarianism, and Hindu and Buddhist stresses on renunciation and self-knowledge are centerpieces of those religions. I’ll turn to what that uniqueness of Christianity is next.

The Dalai Lama And The Genius Of The West

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Some time ago, I found myself on a warm evening in June in Boulder, Colorado, sitting in a big white tent on a camp chair. Directly in front of me was the Dalai Lama, who sat about fourteen feet away with nobody between us.1 As he spoke, our eyes met now and then, as I listened with growing delight to this eloquent, humorous, plain-spoken man talk about wisdom and the world. Most of the things he said were familiar: that love and compassion are human necessities, that forgiveness is essential, that Western education lacks a dimension of heart, that Americans need to rely more on inner resources. But some of his presentation was surprising — that it is better to stick with the wisdom traditions of one’s own land than to run from them pursuing in exotica what was under your nose all the time. At one point, with what looked to me like a mischievous gleam in his eye, he offered that he had always been made to feel welcome in Christian countries, but Christians were not so welcome in his own country. I suspect that many who were there primarily to add to their Buddhist understanding missed this pointed aside.

It was only when Tenzin Gyatso, fourteenth Dalai Lama, spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people, came briefly to the structure, goal, and utility of Buddhism — a location he spent no more than five minutes visiting — that I was able to see in somewhat sharp perspective where Christianity had taken a different path, and American Christianity a very different one. The goal of Buddhism was "happiness," he said, happiness was the key. The Dalai Lama divided major world religions into "God-religions" and "God-less" religions, with Buddhism in the latter category.2

His Holiness seemed to focus marvelously when in response to a question from the audience about how wealthy people and countries could find spirituality, he replied (again, I think, with a mischievous smile) that Buddhism, with its orientation toward comfortable situations, found it easier for rich people to be spiritual than poor ones! Tenzin Gyatso also tossed another bitter herb into the pot for those romantic souls who expected a continuous sweet presence in their lives from imported religious teaching which they felt lacking in their own, [saying, "Better not take someone else’s religion, plenty wisdom in your own."] The Dalai Lama said at another juncture, as if talking to himself, that religion was not for every day; religion was for times of pain. As I recall, his exact words were, "Religion something like medicine, when no pain no need medicine; same thing religion."

The next morning, it was my turn to speak, and with the Dalai Lama’s words fresh in mind, I framed the Christian road as one whose goal wasn’t happiness in the usual sense. It was a road where wealth can be an obstacle to the ends of obedience to God, to loving neighbors as you love yourself, and to redemption through self-transcendence. Unlike Tibetan Buddhism, Western religion has no ultraspecific application, so it can’t be compared with medicine. According to Christianity, religion is not a sometimes thing when you need it but a medium in which we act out our lives. Nothing has any meaning without religion. Remember, even if you violently disagree with what I just said here, it isn’t relevant to this discussion. I feel no urgency to convert you to anything. My purpose is only to show that the wisdom tradition of American Christianity has something huge to say about where we’ve misstepped in mass compulsion schooling.

The neglected genius of American Christianity has taken on greater urgency for me — a lapsed Roman Catholic — as I enter old age because it doesn’t take much wisdom to see that Americans have been substantially broken away from their own wisdom tradition by forces hostile to its continuance. No mechanism employed to do this has been more important than the agency we call public schooling. In neglecting this wisdom tie we have gradually forgotten a powerful doctrine assembled over thousands of years by countless millions of minds, hearts, and spirits, which addresses the important common problems of life which experience has shown to be impervious to riches, intellect, charm, science, or powerful connections.

Wherever I go in the United States these days I hear of something called the crisis of discipline, how children are not motivated, how they resist learning. That is nonsense, of course. Children resist teaching, as they should, but nobody resists learning. However, I won’t dispute that schools are often in chaos. Even ones that seem quiet and orderly are in moral chaos beyond the power of investigative journalism thus far to penetrate. Disconnected children underline school’s failure as they come to public attention, so they must be explained in some way by authorities.

I don’t think it’s off the mark to say that all of us, whatever else we disagree upon, want kids to be disciplined in the sense of exercising self-control. That goes for black mothers in Harlem, too, despite the scientific religion of schooling which believes those mothers to be genetically challenged. But we all want something besides just good behavior. We pray for discipline in the more specialized sense of intellectual interests and skills well enough mastered to provide joy and consolation to all our lives — and maybe even a buck, too.

A discipline is what people who drink vermouth cassis instead of red whiskey call a field of learning, like chemistry, history, philosophy, etc., and its lore. The good student is literally a disciple of a discipline. The words are from the Latin disciplinare and discipulus. By the way, I learned this all from a schoolteacher in Utica, New York, named Orin Domenico, who writes me, and I pay attention. In this discipline matter, I’m Orin’s disciple.

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The most famous discipline in Western tradition is that of Jesus Christ. That’s true today and it was true fifteen hundred years ago. And the most famous disciples are Jesus’ twelve apostles. What did Christ’s model of educational discipline look like? Attendance wasn’t mandatory, for one thing. Christ didn’t set up the Judea compulsory school system. He issued an invitation, "Follow me," and some did and some didn’t. Christ didn’t send the truant officer after those who didn’t.

Orin tells me the first characteristic of this model is a calling. Those who pursued Christ’s discipline did so out of desire. It was their own choice. They were called to it by an inner voice, a voice we never give students enough time alone to possibly hear, and that’s more true of the good schools than it is of the bad ones. Our present system of schooling alienates us so sharply from inner genius, most of us are barred from ever being able to hear our calling. Calling in most of us shrivels to fantasy and daydreams as a remnant of what might have been.

The second characteristic of Christ’s discipline was commitment. Following Jesus wasn’t easy. You had to drop everything else and there was no chance of getting rich. You had to love what you were doing; only love could induce you to walk across deserts, sleep in the wilderness, hang out with shady characters, and suffer scorn from all the established folks.

The third characteristic of Christ’s model of discipleship was self-awareness and independence. Christ’s disciples weren’t stooges. They had to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions from the shared experience. Christ didn’t give many lectures or handouts. He mostly taught by his own practice, and through parables open to interpretation. Orin, my coach, personally doubts Christ ever intended to start an institutional religion because institutions invariably corrupt ideas unless kept small. They regiment thinking and tend toward military forms of discipline. I don’t think he’s right about Christ’s intention, but it’s hard to disagree about institutional pathology.

Finally, Christ’s model of discipline requires a master to follow — one who has himself or herself submitted to discipline and still practices it. The way Orin puts it is this: Christ didn’t say, "You guys stay here in the desert and fast for a month. I’ll be over at the Ramada. You can find me in the bar if you need help." He didn’t begin his own public life until he was almost a rabbi, one fully versed in his tradition.

One way out of the fix we’re in with schools would be a return to discipleship in education. During early adolescence, students without a clear sense of calling might have a series of apprenticeships and mentorships which mostly involve self-education. Our students have pressing needs to be alone with themselves, wrestling against obstacles, both internal demons and external barricades to self-direction.

As it is, we currently drown students in low-level busy work, shoving them together in forced associations which teach them to hate other people, not love them. We subject them to the filthiest, most pornographic regimens of constant surveillance and ranking so they never experience the solitude and reflection necessary to become a whole man or woman. You are perfectly at liberty to believe these foolish practices evolved accidentally or through bad judgment, and I will defend your right to believe that right up to the minute the men with nets come to take you away.

Religion And Rationality

The Supreme Court Everson ruling of 1947 established the principle that America would have no truck with spirits. There was no mention that the previous 150 years of American judicial history passed without any other court finding this well-hidden meaning in the Constitution. But even if we grant the ruling is sincere, an expression of the rational principle behind modern leadership, we would be justified in challenging Everson because of the grotesque record laid down over the past fifty years of spiritless schooling. Dis-spirited schooling has been tested and found fully wanting. I think that’s partially because it denies the metaphysical reality recognized by men and women worldwide, today and in every age.

It is ironic from a contrarian viewpoint that the most prestigious scientific position in the world today is surely heading up the human genome project, and that project, as I write, is in the hands of a born-again Christian. Corporations are lined up all the way to China to make fortunes out of genetic manipulation. The director of that project is a man named Dr. Francis S. Collins, who, according to The New York Times, personally recognizes religion as the most important reality in his life. Collins was reared in an agnostic home in western Virginia where he was homeschooled by his outspoken, radical mother who stretched the school law in a number of ways to give him an education. While in medical school, he came to the conclusion that he would become a born-again Christian because the decision was "intellectually inescapable." And he has maintained that faith energetically ever since, a decision that makes his professional colleagues very uncomfortable.

The difficulty with rational thought, however valuable a tool it certainly is, is that it misses the deepest properties of human nature: our feelings of loneliness and incompletion, our sense of sin, our need to love, our longing after immortality. Let me illustrate how rational thinking preempts terrain where it has no business and makes a wretched mess of human affairs. After this, you can tell your grandchildren that you actually heard someone at the onset of the twenty-first century challenging Galileo’s heliocentric theory.

In materially evidentiary terms, the sun is at the center of the solar system, not the earth, and the solar system itself is lost in the endless immensity of space. I suppose most of you believe that; how could you not? And yet, as far as we scientifically know to date, only planet Earth looks as if it were designed with people in mind. I know that Carl Sagan said we’ll find millions of populated planets eventually, but right now there’s only hard evidence of one. As far as we know, you can’t go anyplace but earth and stay alive for long. So as of 2000, earth is clearly the whole of the human universe. I want to push this a little farther, however, so stick with me.

Planet Earth is most definitely not the center of your personal life. It’s merely a background which floats in and out of conscious thought. The truth is that both psychologically and spiritually you are the center of the solar system and the universe. Don’t be modest or try to hide the fact. The minute you deny what I just said, you’re in full flight from the responsibility this personal centrality entails: to make things better for the rest of us who are on the periphery of your consciousness.

When you deny your own centrality, you necessarily lose some trust in yourself to move mountains. As your self-trust wanes — and school is there to drill you in distrusting yourself (what else do you think it means to wait for teacher to tell you what to do?) — you lose some self-respect. Without full self-respect, you can hardly love yourself very much because we can’t really love those we don’t respect (except, curiously enough, by an act of faith). When you can’t trust or even like yourself very much, you’re in a much worse predicament than you may realize, because those things are a precondition to sustaining loving relationships with other people and with the world outside.

Think of it this way: you must be convinced of your own worth before you ask for the love of another or else the bargain will be unsound. You’ll be trading discounted merchandise unless both of you are similarly disadvantaged and perhaps even then your relationship will disintegrate.

The trouble with Galileo’s way is that it’s a partial truth. It’s right about the relations of dead matter; it’s wrong about the geography of the spirit. Schools can only teach Galileo’s victory over the Church; they can’t afford to harbor children who command personal power. So the subtlety of the analysis that you and I just went through about the way religion confers power has to be foregone. Galileo’s rightness is only a tiny part of a real education; his blindness is much more to the point. The goal of real education is to bring us to a place where we take full responsibility for our own lives. In that quest, Galileo is only one more fact of limited human consequence.

The ancient religious question of free will marks the real difference between schooling and education. Education is conceived in Western history as a road to knowing yourself, and through that knowledge, arriving at a further understanding of community, relationships, jeopardy, living nature, and inanimate matter. But none of those things has any particular meaning until you see what they lead up to, finally being in full command of the spectacular gift of free will: a force completely beyond the power of science to understand.

With the tool of free will, anyone can forge a personal purpose. Free will allows infinite numbers of human stories to be written in which a personal you is the main character. The sciences, on the other hand, hard or soft, assume that purpose and free will are hogwash; given enough data, everything will be seen as explainable, predetermined, and predictable.

Schooling is an instrument to disseminate this bleak and sterile vision of a blind-chance universe. When schooling displaced education in the United States just about a century ago, a deterministic world could be imposed by discipline. We entrap children simply by ignoring the universal human awareness that there is something dreadfully important beyond the rational. We cause children to mistrust themselves so severely they come to depend on cost-benefit analyses for everything. We teach them to scorn faith so comprehensively that buying things and feeling good become the point of their lives.

The Soviet empire did this brilliantly for a little over seventy years. Its surveillance capability was total. It maintained dossiers on each human unit, logged every deviation, and assigned a mathematical value so that citizens could be ranked against each other. Does that sound familiar? It schooled every child in a fashion prescribed by the best psychological experts. It strictly controlled the rewards of work to ensure compliance, and it developed a punishment system unheard of in its comprehensiveness.

The Soviet Union lasted one lifetime. Our softer form of spiritual suffocation has already been in place for two. The neglected genius of the West, neglected by the forced schooling institution as deliberate policy, resides in its historical collection of spiritual doctrines which grant dignity and responsibility to ordinary individuals, not elites.

I have the greatest respect for every other religious tradition in the world, but not one of them has ever done this or attempted to do this. Western religion correctly identified problems no one can escape, problems for which there are no material solutions, problems you can’t elude with money, intellect, charm, politics, or powerful connections. It said also that these problems were, paradoxically, fundamental to human happiness. Serious problems necessary to our happiness? That’s some perverse doom, I know you’ll agree. The question is what to do about it.

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The Illusion Of Punishment

What Western spirituality says is paradoxical — rather than avoiding these hardships, it asks you to embrace them. It taught the counter-intuitive response that willing acceptance of these burdens was the only way to a good, full life, the only way to inner peace. Bending your head in obedience, it will be raised up strong, brave, indomitable, and wise. Now let me go through the list of penalties from this perspective.

About labor, the religious voice says that work is the only avenue to genuine self-respect. Work develops independence, self-reliance, resourcefulness. Work itself is a value, above a paycheck, above praise, above accomplishment. Work produces a spiritual reward unknown to the reinforcement schedules of behavioral psychologists like B.F. Skinner, but if you tackle it gladly, without resentment or avoidance, whether you’re digging a ditch or building a skyscraper, you’ll find the key to yourself in work. If the secular aversion to work is a thing to be rationalized as schools do, requiring only minimal effort from children, a horrifying problem is created for our entire society, one that thus far has proven incurable. I refer to the psychological, social, and spiritual anxieties that arise when people have no useful work to do. Phony work, no matter how well paid or praised, causes such great emotional distortions that the major efforts of our civilization will soon go into solving them, with no hint of any answer in sight.

In the economy we have allowed to evolve, the real political dilemma everywhere is keeping people occupied. Jobs have to be invented by government agencies and corporations. Both employ millions and millions of people for which they have no real use. It’s an inside secret among top-echelon management that should you need to cause a rise in stock value, this can be engineered by eliminating thousands of "useless" jobs; that is done regularly and, I would presume, cynically.

Young men and women during their brightest, most energetic years are kept from working or from being a part of the general society. This is done to keep them from aggravating this delicate work situation, either by working too eagerly, as kids are prone to do, or by inventing their own work, which could cause shocks throughout the economy. This violation of the injunction to work, which Western spirituality imposed, has backed us into a corner from which no authority has any idea how to extricate us. We cannot afford to let too many children really learn to work, as Amish children do, for fear they will discover its great secret: work isn’t a curse, but a salvation.

About the second penalty, pain, Western spirituality has regarded pain as a friend because it forces attention off things of this world and puts it squarely back on the center of the universe, yourself. Pain and distress in all forms are ways we learn self-control (among other valuable lessons), but the siren call of sensuality lures us to court physical satisfactions and to despise pain as a spoiler of pleasure. Western spirituality teaches that pain is a road to self-knowledge, self-knowledge a road to trusting yourself. Without trust, you can’t like yourself; without liking yourself, how can you feel capable of giving love?

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About the third penalty, good and evil, Western spirituality demands you write your own script through the world. In a spiritual being, everything is morally charged, nothing neutral. Choosing is a daily burden, but one which makes literally everything a big deal.

I heard second hand, recently, about a woman who said to her mother about an affair she was conducting openly, despite the protest of her husband and in full knowledge of her six-year-old daughter, "It’s no big deal." That’s what she said to her mother. But if infidelity, divorce, and the shattering of innocence in a child isn’t a big deal, then what could ever be? By intensifying our moral sense, we constantly feel the exhilaration of being alive in a universe where everything is a big deal.

To have much of a life, you must bring as many choices as you can out of preprogrammed mode and under the conscious command of your will. The bigger the life you seek, the less anything can be made automatic, as if you were only a piece of machinery. And because every choice has moral dimension, it will incline toward one or the other pole of that classic dichotomy: good and evil.

Despite extenuating circumstances — and they are legion — the accumulating record of our choices marks us as worthy or unworthy people. Even if nobody else is aware how accounts stand, deep inside yourself the running balance will vitally affect your ability to trust, to love, to gain peace and wisdom from relationships and community.

And finally, aging and death. In the Western spiritual tradition, which grew out of a belief in original sin, the focus was primarily on the lesson that nothing in this world is more than illusion. This is only a stage on some longer journey we do not fully understand. To fall in love with your physical beauty or your wealth, your health, or your power to experience good feelings is to kid yourself because they will be taken away. A ninety-four-year-old aunt of mine with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and a woman I love dearly, said to me tearfully after the death of her husband, who had left her in comfortable circumstances, "They don’t let you win. There is no way to win."

She had lived her life in the camp of science, honorably observing all its rules of rationality, but at his passing, science was useless to her. The Western spiritual tradition would reply, "Of course you can win. Everyone can win. And if you think you can’t, then you’re playing the wrong game." The only thing that gives our time on earth any deep significance is that none of this will last. Only that temporality gives our relationships any urgency. If you were indestructible, what a curse! How could it possibly matter whether you did anything today or next year or in the next hundred years, learned anything, loved anybody? There would always be time for anything and everything. What would be the big deal about anything?

Everyone has known the experience of having had a surfeit of candy, company, or even money, so that no individual purchase involves real choice because real choice always closes the door on other choices. I know that we would all like to have endless amounts of money, but the truth is, too much money wipes out our pleasure in choosing since we can now choose everything. That’s what Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius discovered for himself in his reflections about what really matters — the Meditations, one of the great classics in Western history. He discovered none of the important things was for sale. If you don’t believe an emperor would feel this way, read the Meditations.

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Too much time, like too much money, can hang heavily on our hands as well. Look at the millions of bored schoolchildren. They know what I mean. The corrective for this boredom is a full spiritual awareness that time is finite. As you spend time on one thing, you lose forever the chance to spend it on something else. Time is always a big deal.

Science can’t help with time. In fact, living scientifically so as not to waste time, becoming one of those poor souls who never goes anywhere without a list, is the best guarantee your life will be eaten up by errands and that none of those errands will ever become the big deal you desperately need to finally love yourself. The list of things to do will go ever onward and onward. The best lives are full of contemplation, full of solitude, full of self-examination, full of private, personal attempts to engage the metaphysical mystery of existence, to create an inner life.

We make the best of our limited time by alternating effort with reflection, and I mean reflection completely free of the get-something motive. Whenever I see a kid daydreaming in school, I’m careful never to shock the reverie out of existence.

Buddha is reputed to have said, "Do nothing. Time is too precious to waste." If that advice seems impossible in the world described on the evening news, reflect on the awesome fact that in spite of hype, you still live on a planet where 67 percent of the world’s entire population has never made or received a single phone call and where the Old Order Amish of Lancaster County live prosperous lives virtually free of crime, of divorce, or of children who go beyond the eighth grade in school. Yet not a single one has a college degree, a tractor to plow with, a telephone in the house, or is on welfare.

If I seem to have stepped away from original sin with these facts, it is not so. Until you acknowledge that the factual contents of your mind upon which you base decisions have been inserted there by others whose motives you cannot fully understand, you will never come to appreciate the neglected genius of Western spirituality which teaches that you are the center of the universe. And that the most important things worth knowing are innate in you already. They cannot be learned through schooling. They are self-taught through the burdens of having to work, having to sort out right from wrong, having to check your appetites, and having to age and die.

The effect of this formula on world history has been titanic. It brought every citizen in the West a mandate to be sovereign, a concept which we still have not learned to use wisely, but which offers the potential for such wisdom. Western spirituality granted every single individual a purpose for being alive, a purpose independent of mass behavioral prescriptions, money, experts, schools, and governments. It conferred significance on every aspect of relationship and community. It carried inside its ideas the seeds of a self-activating curriculum which gives meaning to time, and imposes the duty of compassion, even for enemies, on believers.

In Western spirituality, everyone counts. It offers a basic, matter-of-fact set of practical guidelines, street lamps for the village of your life. Nobody has to wander aimlessly in the universe of Western spirituality. What constitutes a meaningful life is clearly spelled out: self-knowledge, duty, responsibility, acceptance of aging and loss, preparation for death. In this neglected genius of the West, no teacher or guru does the work for you. You do it for yourself. It’s time to teach these things to our children once again.


  1. The occasion was a Spirituality in Education conference at the Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado, in 1997. The gathering, at which I was asked to speak, was non-sectarian.
  2. The reader is expressly cautioned not to infer that I mean to imply Buddhism is either hedonistic or without moral foundation.

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John Taylor Gatto is available for speaking engagements and consulting. Write him at P.O. Box 562, Oxford, NY 13830 or call him at 607-843-8418 or 212-874-3631.