A Conspiracy Against Ourselves

Chapter 16 of The Underground History of American Public Education

A lower middle class which has received secondary or even university education without being given any corresponding outlet for its trained abilities was the backbone of the twentieth century Fascist Party in Italy and the National Socialist Party in Germany. The demoniac driving force which carried Mussolini and Hitler to power was generated out of this intellectual proletariat’s exasperation at finding its painful efforts at self-improvement were not sufficient.

~ Arnold Toynbee, MA Study of History

Two Social Revolutions Become One

Solve this problem and school will heal itself: children know that schooling is not fair, not honest, not driven by integrity. They know they are devalued in classes and grades,1 that the institution is indifferent to them as individuals. The rhetoric of caring contradicts what school procedure and content say, that many children have no tolerable future and most have a sharply proscribed one. The problem is structural. School has been built to serve a society of associations: corporations, institutions, and agencies. Kids know this instinctively. How should they feel about it? How should we?

As soon as you break free of the orbit of received wisdom you have little trouble figuring out why, in the nature of things, government schools and those private schools which imitate the government model have to make most children dumb, allowing only a few to escape the trap. The problem stems from the structure of our economy and social organization. When you start with such pyramid-shaped givens and then ask yourself what kind of schooling they would require to maintain themselves, any mystery dissipates — these things are inhuman conspiracies all right, but not conspiracies of people against people, although circumstances make them appear so. School is a conflict pitting the needs of social machinery against the needs of the human spirit. It is a war of mechanism against flesh and blood, self-maintaining social mechanisms that only require human architects to get launched.

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I’ll bring this down to earth. Try to see that an intricately subordinated industrial/commercial system has only limited use for hundreds of millions of self-reliant, resourceful readers and critical thinkers. In an egalitarian, entrepreneurially based economy of confederated families like the one the Amish have or the Mondragon folk in the Basque region of Spain, any number of self-reliant people can be accommodated usefully, but not in a concentrated command-type economy like our own. Where on earth would they fit? In a great fanfare of moral fervor some years back, the Ford Motor Company opened the world’s most productive auto engine plant in Chihuahua, Mexico. It insisted on hiring employees with 50 percent more school training than the Mexican norm of six years, but as time passed Ford removed its requirements and began to hire school dropouts, training them quite well in four to twelve weeks. The hype that education is essential to robot-like work was quietly abandoned. Our economy has no adequate outlet of expression for its artists, dancers, poets, painters, farmers, filmmakers, wildcat business people, handcraft workers, whiskey makers, intellectuals, or a thousand other useful human enterprises — no outlet except corporate work or fringe slots on the periphery of things. Unless you do "creative" work the company way, you run afoul of a host of laws and regulations put on the books to control the dangerous products of imagination which can never be safely tolerated by a centralized command system.

Before you can reach a point of effectiveness in defending your own children or your principles against the assault of blind social machinery, you have to stop conspiring against yourself by attempting to negotiate with a set of abstract principles and rules which, by its nature, cannot respond. Under all its disguises, that is what institutional schooling is, an abstraction which has escaped its handlers. Nobody can reform it. First you have to realize that human values are the stuff of madness to a system; in systems-logic the schools we have are already the schools the system needs; the only way they could be much improved is to have kids eat, sleep, live, and die there.

Schools got the way they were at the start of the twentieth century as part of a vast, intensely engineered social revolution in which all major institutions were overhauled to work together in harmonious managerial efficiency. Ours was to be an improvement on the British system, which once depended on a shared upper-class culture for its coherence. Ours would be subject to a rational framework of science, law, instruction, and mathematically derived merit. When Morgan reorganized the American marketplace into a world of cooperating trusts at the end of the nineteenth century, he created a business and financial subsystem to interlink with the subsystem of government, the subsystem of schooling, and other subsystems to regulate every other aspect of national life. None of this was conspiratorial. Each increment was rationally defensible. But the net effect was the destruction of small-town, small-government America, strong families, individual liberty, and a lot of other things people weren’t aware they were trading for a regular corporate paycheck.

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A huge price had to be paid for business and government efficiency, a price we still pay in the quality of our existence. Part of what kids gave up was the prospect of being able to read very well, a historic part of the American genius. Instead, school had to train them for their role in the new overarching social system. But spare yourself the agony of thinking of this as a conspiracy. It was and is a fully rational transaction, the very epitome of rationalization engendered by a group of honorable men, all honorable men — but with decisive help from ordinary citizens, from almost all of us as we gradually lost touch with the fact that being followers instead of leaders, becoming consumers in place of producers, rendered us incompletely human. It was a naturally occurring conspiracy, one which required no criminal genius. The real conspirators were ourselves. When we sold our liberty for the promise of automatic security, we became like children in a conspiracy against growing up, sad children who conspire against their own children, consigning them over and over to the denaturing vats of compulsory state factory schooling.

The Fear Of Common Intelligence

The fear of common people learning too much is a recurrent theme in state records around the world. The founder of the Chinese state, the Emperor Ts’in She Hwang-ti, burned the work of the philosophers for fear their ideas would poison his own plans. The Caliph Ùmar of Syria wrote instructions to destroy the perhaps apocryphal library at Alexandria, using this airtight syllogism:

If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Book of God they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed.2

Literary bonfires in Nazi Germany are often invoked as a vivid symbol of the deepest barbarism of the twentieth century, but extensive press coverage ended the book burning by stirring public uneasiness worldwide. Much more effective have been those silent blast furnaces used by public library systems and great American universities to dispose of 3 million excess books annually because of a shortage of shelf space. Why aren’t they given to schools?

There are other ways to burn books without matches. Consider the great leap forward undertaken in the modern Turkish state under Kemal Ataturk. Unlike Hitler, who burned only some of the past, Ataturk burned it all without fire by radically changing the Turkish national alphabet so that all the vital writings of the past were entombed in an obsolete symbol system. Not a single Turk voted to have this done, yet all accepted it.

From 1929 on, all books and newspapers were printed in the new alphabet. All documents were composed in it. All schoolchildren were instructed in it and no other. The classics of Persia, Arabia, and Turkey vanished without a trace for the next generation. Obliterate the national memory bound up in history and literature, sift carefully what can be translated, and you open a gulf between old and young, past and present, which can’t be bridged, rendering children vulnerable to any form of synthetic lore authorities deem advisable.

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Turkish experimentation is echoed today in mainland China where a fifth of the population of the planet is cut off from the long past of Chinese literature and philosophy, one of the very few significant bodies of thought on the human record. The method being used is a radical simplification of the characters of the language which will have, in the fullness of time, the same effect as burning books, putting them effectively out of reach. Lord Lindsay of Birker, a professor at Yenching University outside Beijing where I recently went to see for myself the effects of Westernization on the young Chinese elite, says the generation educated entirely in simplified characters will have difficulty reading anything published in China before the late 1950s.

First, said Plato, wipe the slate clean.

There are many ways to burn books without a match. You can order the reading of childish books to be substituted for serious ones, as we have done. You can simplify the language you allow in school books to the point that students become disgusted with reading because it demeans them, being thinner gruel than their spoken speech. We have done that, too. One subtle and very effective strategy is to fill books with pictures and lively graphics so they trivialize words in the same fashion the worst tabloid newspapers do — forcing pictures and graphs into space where readers should be building pictures of their own, preempting space into which personal intellect should be expanding. In this we are the world’s master.

Samuel Johnson entered a note into his diary several hundred years ago about the powerful effect reading Hamlet was having upon him. He was nine at the time. Abraham Cowley wrote of his "infinite delight" with Spenser’s Faerie Queen — an epic poem that treats moral values allegorically in nine-line stanzas that never existed before Spenser (and hardly since). He spoke of his pleasure with its "Stories of Knights and Giants and Monsters and Brave Houses." Cowley was twelve at the time. It couldn’t have been an easy read in 1630 for anyone, and it’s beyond the reach of many elite college graduates today. What happened? The answer is that Dick and Jane happened. "Frank had a dog. His name was Spot." That happened.

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.3

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."

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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 cannons 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.

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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.

Disinherited Men And Women

In the chapter "Schism in the Body Social" from his monumental Study of History, Toynbee calls our attention to some dynamics of Western imperial success over the past four centuries which have important implications for the way state schooling is conducted. As major victories were registered, he tells us, "many diverse contingents of disinherited men and women" were subjected to "the ordeal of being enrolled in the Western internal proletariat." Between 1850 and 1950 "the manpower of no less than ten disintegrating civilizations [was] conscripted into the Western body social" and underwent "a process of standardization" which blurred or wiped out "the characteristic features by which these heterogeneous masses were once distinguished from one another."

Under his mannerly academic diction runs a river of insight explaining the paradox of forced schooling. It can allow no pilgrim way because it aims at leveling the turbulent singularity of youth, by a process of standardization, into featureless components of a universal mass mind and character. Nor, says Toynbee, has the victorious Western political state been content to prey upon its own kind:

It has also rounded up almost all the surviving primitive societies; and while some of these, like the Tasmanians and most of the North American Indian tribes have died of shock, others, like the Negroes of Tropical Africa, have managed to survive and set the Niger flowing into the Hudson and the Congo into the Mississippi — just as other activities of the same Western monster have set the Yangtse flowing into the Straits of Malaca.

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Not only have Darwin’s "disfavored" races been so manhandled, but the free domestic populations of these countries have also been "uprooted from the countryside and chevied into the towns" in preparation for a strategic replacement of small-scale mixed farming by mass production specialized agriculture whose crops are produced by the modern analogue of "plantation slavery."

England was first to commodify agricultural products so intensely, "uprooting its own free peasantry for the economic profit of an oligarchy by turning plowland into pasture and common land into enclosures." This state-driven push away from the independent farms of yeomen reduced that class to "white trash" (in Toynbee’s colorful idiom), and this disquieting social initiative was powerfully augmented by a pull from the urban industrial revolution also being engineered at the same time. Handicrafts were replaced by output from coal-driven machines. During the agonizing transition, owners of the new mechanical technology created another new technology of social control through abundant use of police, spies, sabotage, propaganda, and legislation to hasten the passing of the old ways of moral relationship.

Try hard to visualize through all this milling grief of "beaten peoples" and "disinherited men and women," not their agony but the perplexity of the corporate state. What is a modern scientific state, having transcended the principles of Christian life, to do with its masses once they have been "degraded to the ranks of a proletariat," like so much detritus, and then further rendered superfluous by a stream of inventions? Even more today than yesterday, this is America’s problem.

The question is all too real. It raises the grim spectre of revolution which public policy seeks to push away through schooling. What can anyone do with human flotsam in a crowded world that scorns their labor and scorns their companionship? Set them to watching television? From a scientific perspective, people management isn’t all that different from dealing with industrial waste. At bottom, moral principle has little to do with it. Dispositions are mainly matters of possibility and technique. Here is the secret of scientific life which refuses to stay hidden amidst the hollow moral rhetoric of scientific schooling.

Toynbee’s observation that most inhabitants of a modern state are in a condition of disinheritance, and hence dangerous, calls for what he terms "creative solutions." One creative solution is to establish work for some of the dangerous classes by setting them to guard the rest. This guardian class is then privileged a little to compensate it for playing the dirty kapo role against the others.

Toynbee is eloquent about the function of bureaucrats in serving the creative minorities which manage society. Creative minorities always manage complex societies, according to Toynbee, but the dominant minorities which comprise modern social leadership are the degenerate descendants of this originally creative group. Dominant minorities manage the rest by conscription of all into a massive two-tier proletariat. The guiding protection is a mechanism to ensure these proletariats don’t learn much lest they become "demoniac." This is the unsuspected function which school tolerance of bad behavior serves — in both school and society. The great majority of proles are kept away from what history refers to as education. This can be done inexpensively by leading children from ambitious exercises in reading, writing, declamation, self-discipline, and from significant practical experience in making things work. It really is that simple, and it needn’t be done forever. Even a few years of control at the beginning of childhood will often suffice to set a lifetime stamp.

Toynbee, and by extension the entire cultivated leadership class he represented, was unable to see any other alternative to this stupefaction course because, as he hastened to assure us, "the religion of the masses" is violence. There is no other choice possible to responsible governors who accept the melancholy conclusion that peasants are indeed revolting. The only proles Toynbee could find in the historical record who managed to extricate themselves from a fatal coarseness did so by escaping their proletarian circumstances first. But if this were allowed for all, who would clean toilets?

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You might expect such an observation would lead inevitably to some profound consideration of the astounding crimes of conquest and domination which create uprooted, landless classes in the first place — England’s crimes against Ireland, India, China, and any number of other places being good examples. But a greater principle intervenes. According to certain sophisticated theory, you can’t operate a modern economy without an underclass to control wage inflation; in spite of bell-curve theory, a mass doesn’t subordinate itself without some judicious assistance.

In his glorious Republic, which may have started it all, Plato causes Socrates to inform Glaucon and Adeimantus, twenty-four hundred years ago, that they can’t loll on couches eating grapes while others sweat to provide those grapes without first creating a fearsome security state to protect themselves from the commonality. It would appear that long ago some people realized that a substantial moral trade-off would be required to create ease for a fraction of the whole, while the balance of the whole, served that ease. Once that kind of privilege became the goal of Toynbee’s creative minority, once high culture was defined as a sanctuary against evolutionary reversion, certain horrors institutionalized themselves.

The clearest escape route from tidal recurrence of caste madness is a society bred to argue, one trained to challenge. A mentally active people might be expected to recognize that the prizes of massification — freedom from labors like toilet cleaning, a life of endless consumption (and reflection upon future consumption) — aren’t really worth very much. The fashioning of mass society isn’t any chemical precondition of human progress. It’s just as likely to be a signal that the last act of history is underway.

Serving The Imperial Virus

Toynbee thought he could calculate Britain’s jeopardy if it allowed the masses dreams of independence by a comparison with the Soviet Russia where revolutionary dreaming once dictated social arrangements:

In Marxian Communism we have a notorious example in our midst of a modern Western philosophy which changed in a lifetime quite out of recognition into a proletarian religion, taking the path of violence and carving its New Jerusalem with the sword on the plains of Russia.

The working-class proletariat conceived by Toynbee is in a permanent childlike state, one that requires constant management. Because of this ongoing necessity, a second proletariat must be created, "a special social class" which represents a professionalized proletariat, "often quite abruptly and artificially" gathered by the national leadership to aid in managing the lumpish mass of ordinary folk.

The size this bureaucratic cohort will reach depends upon the circumstances which call it into being. If the dominant minority decides to wage war, for instance, a vast enlargement of noncoms and line officers will occur; if it decides to concentrate public attention on charitable benevolence, a mushrooming of social work positions will ensue; if the public is to be kept fearfully amused and titillated by the spectacle of crime and law enforcement, a new horde of police and detectives will be trained and commissioned. The social management of public attention is a vital aspect of modern states. To the extent that schools, together with commercial entertainment, control an important share of the imagination of the young, they must be heavily involved in such a project. There is no possibility they can be allowed to opt out. Social management of public attention through schooling can be seen as very similar to management of public attention by corporate advertising and by public relations initiatives. Mass production demands psychological interventions intended to create wants that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Among its other roles, school is an important agent of this initiative.

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The professional proletariats created to do this important task and others like it can be seen, says Toynbee, to be "a special class of liaison officer" between the governing minorities and the masses. This English way of seeing middle classes clears some of the fog away. Consider the real-life effect of an abstract rule of first allegiance to management on those schoolteachers who work too intimately with parents, or struggle in children’s interests too resolutely — inevitably they become marked for punishment. Good teachers from the human perspective are natural system-wreckers. They don’t fit comfortably into a service class designed to assist governing elites to manage. Their hearts aren’t in it.

Toynbee is brutally candid about where loyal pedagogues fit: "As the [imperial] virus works deeper into the social life of the society which is in the process of being permeated and assimilated, the intelligentsia develops its most characteristic types: the schoolmaster… the civil servant… the lawyer…."

Quill-Driving Babus

A servant to the imperial virus! Here is a whole new take on what I was hired to do with my adult life. It helps to explain why I encountered such violent reactions from administrators as I innocently deviated further and further from my function in an effort to be useful to kids. While straining to find ways to be helpful, I constantly ran afoul of this hidden directive forced schooling was created to serve, about which I had previously not the tiniest clue except that gleaned through intuition.

Professional associations of proles expand or contract according to the schedule of the political state for absorbing fringe groups and outsiders for retraining in new habits and attitudes. If a great social project is underway, bureaucracy grows. When no compelling agenda is afoot it shrinks. As populations learn to discipline themselves, the need for expensive professional assistance to do it for them diminishes.

For instance, if the managerial promise of computer workstations is realized — hooking children into automatized learning systems which have been centrally engineered — then great numbers of schoolteachers and school administrators who were hired for a computerless moment now passed will melt away like ice in spring to be reabsorbed into the leveled and featureless common proletariat. My guess is that this process is already well underway. Low-level school administrators are a class facing imminent extinction if I read entrails correctly.

Indeed, the bureaucratic giantism we have endured since the end of WWII has clearly lost momentum. Whether or not we should consider that a cause for celebration is dubious. A retreating bureaucracy is a sign the dominant minority considers the proletariat tamed, its own danger past; the bureaucratic buffer becomes superfluous. It marks a time when people can be trusted to control themselves. Woe to us all if that is so.

There is a catch, however, to the wonderful elasticity of bureaucracy. It is found in the degree of violent backlash occasioned by bureaucratic shrinkage, or downsizing as it has come to be known. This dangerous reaction Toynbee refers to as "the bitterness of the intelligentsia."

Indeed, grounds for bitterness are formed in the very scheme for training civil servants. They surrender any prospect of developing full humanity in order to remain employed. Private judgment, for example, is an inevitable early casualty, personal courage is totally out of order. Bureaucrats often regard themselves privately as less than whole men and women, not totally insensitive to the devil’s bargain aspect in what they do. For Toynbee:

This liaison-class suffers from the congenital unhappiness of the hybrid who is an outcast from both the families that have combined to beget him. An intelligentsia is hated and despised by its own people.

He continues:

And while the intelligentsia thus has no love lost on it at home, it also has no honor paid to it in the [workplace] whose manners and tricks it has so laboriously and ingeniously mastered. In the earlier days of the historic association between India and England, the Hindu intelligentsia, which the British Raj had fostered for its own administrative convenience, was a common subject of English ridicule.

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Servants of state and corporation, like schoolteachers, lawyers, and social workers, are inherently untrustworthy because of the stress and insult they constantly endure living and working suspended between two worlds. They must be carefully watched during training and subjected to spiritually deficient education to measure their dependability for the work ahead. If they swallow it, they get hired.

This hothouse situation creates fault lines deep in the breed which begin to crack open when employment is cut back. Because what these men and women do can, in fact, be done by almost anyone, they live in constant peril of being excessed even when a shrinkage isn’t underway. Toynbee again:

A Peter the Great wants so many Russian chinovniks or an East India Company so many clerks, or a Mehmed Ali so many Egyptian shipwrights…. Potters in human clay set about to produce them, but the process of manufacturing an intelligentsia is more difficult to stop than to start; for the contempt in which the liaison class is held by those who profit by its services is offset by its prestige in the eyes of those eligible for enrollment in it. (emphasis added)

The applicability of this principle to your own boy or girl in school, embedded painfully in one of the many bogus gifted and talented classes of recent years, or graduating from a watered-down college program set up to accommodate more than half of all young men and women, is this:

Candidates increase out of all proportion to the opportunities for employing them and the original nucleus of the employed intelligentsia becomes swamped by an intellectual proletariat which is idle and destitute as well as outcast.

Now you have a proper frame in which to fit the armies of graduate students enduring a long extended childhood in prospect of a sinecure not likely to be there for most. In Toynbee’s eye-opening language, this "handful of chinovniks is reenforced by a legion of nihilists, the handful of quill-driving babus by a legion of failed B.A.s." Be careful not to smirk; that quill-driving babu you see every morning in the mirror is likely to be you.

Nor have you heard the worst: an intelligentsia’s unhappiness builds geometrically — an underemployed chinovnik or babu becomes angrier and more cynical with the passage of years. Sometimes this rage discharges itself quickly, as when postal employees shoot up the joint; sometimes it takes centuries. For an example of the latter, Toynbee offers us:

  1. The Russian intelligentsia, dating from the close of the seventeenth century, which "discharged its accumulated spite in the shattering Bolshevik Revolution of 1917"

  2. The Bengali intelligentsia, dating from the latter part of the eighteenth century, which began in 1946 to display "a vein of revolutionary violence which is not yet seen in other parts of British India where local intelligentsia did not come into existence till fifty or a hundred years later." [Shortly after those lines were written, the intelligentsias brought British India down.]

I hope this helps you understand why, from a policymaker’s standpoint, the decision to muzzle intellectual development through schooling has been in a bull market since the end of WWII despite the anomaly of the G.I. Bill. The larger the pool of educated but underemployed men and women, the louder the time-bomb ticks. It ought to be clear by now that the promises of schooling cannot be kept for a majority of Americans in an economy structured this way; only by plundering the planet can they be kept even temporarily for the critical majority that is necessary to keep the lid on things.

In the society just ahead, one profession has astonishingly good prospects. I’m referring to the various specialties associated with policing the angry, the disaffected, and the embittered. Because school promises are mathematically impossible to keep, they were, from the beginning, a Ponzi scheme like Social Security. The creative minority who unleashed this well-schooled whirlwind a hundred years ago seems to have finally exhausted its imaginative power as it transmuted slowly into a dominant minority without much creative energy. Dr. Toynbee points to such a transition as an unmistakable sign of society in decline. Another ominous sign for Toynbee: the increasing use of police and armies to protect private interests.

In 1939, on the eve of war, the defense budget of the United States was $11 billion (translated into a constant dollar, year-2000 equivalent). We were at peace. Today, at peace again, without a visible enemy on the horizon, the defense budget is twenty-four times higher. The appearance of a permanent military force in peacetime, which claims a huge share of society’s total expenditure, can’t be explained by saying we live in a dangerous time. When wasn’t that true? It is our own leadership which lives dangerously, dwelling in a Darwinian world in which its own people are suspect, their danger so far contained by ensnaring the managed population through schooling into a conspiracy against itself.

We meet every day in school a reflection of the national leadership class displaying every indication it has abandoned its fundamental American obligation to raise ordinary people up, becoming instead an overseas transmitter of the original mother ideas of England.

The Release From Tutelage

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What kind of schools do we need to extricate ourselves from the conspiracy to be much less than we really are? Why, enlightened schools, of course, in the sense Immanuel Kant wrote about them. "Man’s release from a tutelage," said Kant, "is enlightenment. His tutelage is his inability to make use of his understanding without guidance from another." Tutelage is the oppressor we must overthrow, not conspiracy. Eva Brann of St. John’s College saw the matter this way: the proper work of a real self, she said, is to be active in gathering and presenting, comparing and distinguishing, subjecting things to rules, judging. The very notion of America is a place where argument and self-reliance are demanded from all if we are to remain America. Annoying as it often is, our duty is to endure argument and encourage it. "Would the world be more beautiful were all our faces alike?" wrote Jefferson. "The Creator has made no two faces alike, so no two minds, and probably no two creeds."

The first Enlightenment was a false one. It merely transferred the right to direct our lives from a corporate Church and a hereditary nobility to a pack of experts whose minds were (and are) for sale to anyone with a checkbook. In the second Enlightenment we need to correct our mistakes, using what schools we decide upon to help us strive for full consciousness, for self-assertion, mental independence, and personal sovereignty — for a release from tutelage for everybody. Only in this way can we make use of our understanding without guidance from strangers who work for a corporate state system, increasingly impatient with human beings.


  1. The labels, themselves, are an affront to decency. Who besides a degraded rabble would voluntarily present itself to be graded and classified like meat? No wonder school is compulsory.
  2. This quotation is from John Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion. Draper, an excellent scholar, took the story from one Abulpharagius, a writer composing his story six centuries after the burning of Alexandria’s library. But no earlier writers confirm Abulpharagius’ account and the known character of Umar (of Medina, not Syria!) is quite liberal — for instance, he opened the holy places of Jerusalem to all sects, Hebrew, Christian, or whatever — and inconsistent with such a statement. Furthermore, the reverence for learning in early Islam would all by itself bring this alleged statement by the head of the Muslim empire into question. So, while the anti-rationalist logic is still flawless, it might be well to consider what group(s) had something to gain by spinning history this way. Official history seems to be saturated with such machinations, hence the need for underground histories…of everything!
  3. A 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.

Chapters of The Underground History of American Public Education:

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.