The Politics of Schooling

Chapter 17 of The Underground History of American Public Education

Each year the child is coming to belong more to the State and less and less to the parent.

~ Ellwood P. Cubberley, Conceptions of Education (1909)

It was natural businessmen should devote themselves to something besides business; that they should seek to influence the enactment and administration of laws, national and international, and that they should try to control education.

~ Max Otto, Science and the Moral Life (1949)

Most people don’t know who controls American education because little attention has been given the question by either educators or the public. Also because the question is not easily or neatly answered.

~ James D. Koerner, Who Controls American Education (1968)

Three Holes In My Floor

In October 1990, three round holes the size of silver dollars appeared in the floor of my classroom at Booker T. Washington Junior High between West 107th and 108th streets in Spanish Harlem, about twelve blocks from Columbia Teachers College. My room was on the third floor and the holes went through to the second floor room beneath. In unguarded moments, those holes proved an irresistible lure to my students, who dropped spitballs, food, and ball bearings down on the heads of helpless children below without warning. The screams of outrage were appalling. So pragmatically, without thinking much about it, I closed off the holes with a large flat of plywood and dutifully sent a note to the school custodian asking for professional assistance.

The next day when I reported to work my makeshift closure was gone, the holes were open, and I found a warning against "unauthorized repairs" in my mailbox. That day three different teachers used the room with the holes. During each occupancy various objects plummeted through the floor to the consternation of occupants in the space below. In one particularly offensive assault, human waste was retrieved from the toilet, fashioned into a missile, and dropped on a shrieking victim. All the while, the attacking classroom exploded in cackles of laughter, I was later told.

On the third day of these aerial assaults, the building principal appeared at my door demanding the bombardment cease at once. I pointed out that I had been forbidden to close off the holes, that many other teachers used the room in my absence, that the school provided no sanctions for student aggressors, and that it was impossible to teach a class of thirty-five kids and still keep close watch on three well-dispersed holes in the floor. I offered to repair the holes again at my own expense, pointing out in a reasonable tone that this easy solution was still available and that, in my opinion, there were traces of insanity in allowing any protocol, however well meant, to delay solving the problem at once before another fecal bombardment was unleashed.

At that moment I had no idea that I was challenging an invisible legion of salarymen it had taken a century to evolve. I only wanted to spare myself those cries from below. My request was denied and I was reminded again not to take matters into my own hands. Five months later a repair was effected by a team of technicians. In the meantime, however, my classroom door lock had been broken and three panes of window glass facing Columbus Avenue shattered by vandals. The repair crew turned a deaf ear to what I felt was a pretty sensible request to do all the work at once, none of it complicated. The technicians were on a particular mission I was told. Only it had been duly authorized.

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Commenting on the whole genus of such school turf wars, the New York Observer’s Terry Golway said, "Critical decisions are made in a bureaucrat’s office far from the site requiring repairs. One official’s decision can be countermanded by another’s, and layer upon layer of officialdom prolongs the process. A physical task that requires a couple of minutes work can take weeks, if not months, to snake through the bureaucracy. In the meantime the condition may worsen, causing inconvenience to children and teachers. In the end, no one is accountable." Thanks to Mr. Golway, I found out why the missile attack had been allowed to continue.

In my case, the problem lay in the journey of my original note to the custodian, where it was translated into form P.O. 18. P.O. 18 set out on a road which would terminate in an eventual repair but not before eight other stops were made along the way and 150 days had passed. A study of these eight stops will provide a scalpel to expose some of the gangrenous tissue of institutional schooling. Although this is New York City, something similar is found everywhere else the government school flag waves. I think we must finally grow up enough to realize that what follows is unavoidable, endemic to large systems.

Stop One: P.O. 18 was signed by the principal, who gave a copy to his secretary to file, returning the original to the custodian. This typically takes several days.

Stop Two: The custodian gave a copy of the form to his secretary to file, then sent the request on to a District Plant Manager (DPM), one of thirty-one in New York City.

Stop Three: In an office far removed from my perforated floor, the DPM assigned the repair a Priority Code. Three or four weeks had now passed from the minute a ball bearing bounced off Paul Colon’s head and a turd splattered in gooey fragments on Rosie Santiago’s desk.1 A copy of P.O. 18 was given to the DPM’s secretary to file, and the form went to the Resource Planning Manager (RPM), based in Long Island City.

Stop Four: The RPM collects ALL the work orders in the city, sorting them according to priority codes and available resources, and selects a Resource Planning Team (RPT). This team then enters the P.O. 18 in its own computer. A repair sequence is arrested at Stop Four for a period of weeks.

Stop Five: The P.O. 18 is relayed to the Integrated Purchasing and Inventory System (IPIS), which spits out a Work Order and sends it to the Supervising Supervisor. Three months have passed, and used toilet paper is raining down into the airless cell beneath John Gatto’s English class.

Stop Six: The Supervising Supervisor has one responsibility, to supervise the Trade Supervisors and decide which one will at some time not fix but supervise the fixing of my floor. Such a decision requires DUE TIME before an order is issued.

Stop Seven: The Trade Supervisor has responsibility for selecting service people of flesh and blood to actually do the work. Eventually the Trade Supervisor does this, dispatching a Work Crew to perform the repair. Time elapsed (in this case): five months. Some repairs take ten years. Some forever. I was lucky.

Stop Eight: Armed with bags and utility belts, tradespeople enter the school to examine the problem. If it can be repaired with the tools they carry, fine; if not they must fill out a P.O. 17 to requisition the needed materials and a new and different sequence begins. It’s all very logical. Each step is justified. If you think this can be reformed you are indeed ignorant. Fire all these people and unless you are willing to kill them, they will just have to be employed in some other fashion equally useless.

At the heart of the durability of mass schooling is a brilliantly designed power fragmentation system which distributes decision-making so widely among so many different warring interests that large-scale change is impossible to those without a codebook. Even when a favorable chance alteration occurs, it has a short life span, usually exactly as long as the originator of the happy change has political protection. When the first boom of enthusiasm wanes or protection erodes, the innovation follows soon after.

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No visible level of the system, top, middle, or bottom, is allowed to institute any significant change without permission from many other layers. To secure this coalition of forces puts the supplicant in such a compromised position (and takes so long) that any possibility of very extensive alteration is foreclosed.

Structurally, control is divided among three categories of interdependent power: 1) government agencies, 2) the self-proclaimed knowledge industry, 3) various special interests, some permanent, some topical. Nominally children, teachers, and parents are included in this third group, but since all are kept virtually powerless, with rare exceptions they are looked upon only as nuisances to be gotten around. Parents are considered the enemy everywhere in the school establishment. An illustration of this awesome reality comes out of the catastrophe of New Math imposed on public schools during the 1960s and 1970s. In the training sessions, paid for by federal funds, school staff received explicit instructions to keep parents away.

In schoolteacher training classes for the New Math, prospective pedagogues were instructed to keep their hands off classroom instruction as much as possible. Student peer groups were to be considered by the teachers more important than parents in establishing motivation — more important than teachers, too. Kids were to learn "peer group control" of the operation by trial and error.

Nobody who understood the culture of kids in classrooms could have prescribed a more fatal medicine to law and order. But the experiment plunged recklessly ahead, this time on a national basis in the Vietnam-era United States. In the arithmetic of powerlessness that forced collectivism of this sort imposes, students, parents, and teachers are at the very bottom of the pecking order, but school administrators and local school boards are reduced by such politics to inconsequential mechanical functions, too.

Power ÷ 22


FIRST CATEGORY: Government Agencies

  1. State legislatures, particularly those politicians known in-house to specialize in educational matters
  2. Ambitious politicians with high public visibility
  3. Big-city school boards controlling lucrative contracts
  4. The courts
  5. Big-city departments of education
  6. State departments of education
  7. Federal Department of Education
  8. Other government agencies (National Science Foundation, National Training Laboratories, Defense Department, HUD, Labor Department, Health and Human Services, and many more)

SECOND CATEGORY: Active Special Interests

  1. Key private foundations.2 About a dozen of these curious entities have been the most important shapers of national education policy in this century, particularly those of Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller.
  2. Giant corporations, acting through a private association called the Business Roundtable (BR), latest manifestation of a series of such associations dating back to the turn of the century. Some evidence of the centrality of business in the school mix was the composition of the New American Schools Development Corporation. Its makeup of eighteen members (which the uninitiated might assume would be drawn from a representative cross-section of parties interested in the shape of American schooling) was heavily weighted as follows: CEO, RJR Nabisco; CEO, Boeing; President, Exxon; CEO, AT&T; CEO, Ashland Oil; CEO, Martin Marietta; CEO, AMEX; CEO, Eastman Kodak; CEO, WARNACO; CEO, Honeywell; CEO, Ralston; CEO, Arvin; Chairman, BF Goodrich; two ex-governors, two publishers, a TV producer.
  3. The United Nations through UNESCO, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, etc.
  4. Other private associations, National Association of Manufacturers, Council on Economic Development, the Advertising Council, Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Policy Association, etc.
  5. Professional unions, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, Council of Supervisory Associations, etc.
  6. Private educational interest groups, Council on Basic Education, Progressive Education Association, etc.
  7. Single-interest groups: abortion activists, pro and con; other advocates for specific interests.

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THIRD CATEGORY: The "Knowledge" Industry

  1. Colleges and universities
  2. Teacher training colleges
  3. Researchers
  4. Testing organizations
  5. Materials producers (other than print)
  6. Text publishers
  7. "Knowledge" brokers, subsystem designers

Control of the educational enterprise is distributed among at least these twenty-two players, each of which can be subdivided into in-house warring factions which further remove the decision-making process from simple accessibility. The financial interests of these associational voices are served whether children learn to read or not.

There is little accountability. No matter how many assertions are made to the contrary, few penalties exist past a certain level on the organizational chart — unless a culprit runs afoul of the media — an explanation for the bitter truth whistle-blowers regularly discover when they tell all. Which explains why precious few experienced hands care to ruin themselves to act the hero. This is not to say sensitive, intelligent, moral, and concerned individuals aren’t distributed through each of the twenty-two categories, but the conflict of interest is so glaring between serving a system loyally and serving the public that it is finally overwhelming. Indeed, it isn’t hard to see that in strictly economic terms this edifice of competing and conflicting interests is better served by badly performing schools than by successful ones. On economic grounds alone a disincentive exists to improve schools. When schools are bad, demands for increased funding and personnel, and professional control removed from public oversight, can be pressed by simply pointing to the perilous state of the enterprise. But when things go well, getting an extra buck is like pulling teeth.

Some of this political impasse grew naturally from a maze of competing interests, some grew from more cynical calculations with exactly the end in mind we see, but whatever the formative motives, the net result is virtually impervious to democratically generated change. No large change can occur in-system without a complicated coalition of separate interests backing it, not one of which can actually be a primary advocate for children and parents.


By the end of 1999, 75.5 million people out of a total population of 275 million were involved directly in providing and receiving what has come to be called education. And an unknown number of millions indirectly. About 67 million were enrolled in schools and colleges (38 million in K—8, 14 million in secondary schools, 15 million in colleges), 4 million employed as teachers or college faculty (2 million elementary; 2 million secondary and college combined), and 4.5 million in some other school capacity. In other words, the primary organizing discipline of about 29 percent of the entire U.S. population consists of obedience to the routines and requests of an abstract social machine called School. And that’s only so far. According to the U.S. Department of Education, these figures are expected to grow substantially through the first decade of the new century. Could Hegel himself have foreseen such an end to history, the planet as a universal schoolhouse where nothing much is learned?

At the top of this feeding chain are so-called public colleges. As Valhalla was the reward where Vikings killed in battle got to drink, fight, and fornicate in an endlessly regenerating loop, so public colleges are a lifetime of comfort and security for those systems people who play ball skillfully or belong to some political family with a record of playing ball.

If public colleges functioned in meritocractic ways as their supporters allege and as I suspect the general public believes they do, we would expect the economy of public schooling at this level to reflect with reasonable sensitivity what was happening in the total public economy. Spending on public colleges should be a litmus test of how much respect is being accorded the democratic will at any given time. With that in mind try this garment on for size: Tuition at public colleges over the last fourteen years has increased three times as fast as household income, and more than three times faster than the rate of inflation, according to the General Accounting Office. What pressure could possibly squeeze ordinary people to pay such outlandish costs, incurring debt burdens which enslave them and their children for many years to come?

How, you might ask, at the very instant the inherent value of these degrees is being challenged, at the very instant business magazines are predicting permanent radical downsizing of the middle-management force in private and public employment — the very slots public colleges license graduates to occupy, and at the very instant in time when the purchasing power of middle-class American incomes is worth less than it was thirty years ago and appears to be in a long-term continuing downtrend, how in light of these things have public college teachers been able to double their incomes (in real dollars) in the past fourteen years and public college administrators raise their own share of the take 131 percent?

I’m asking how, not why. Greed is too common a characteristic of human nature to be very interesting. How was this done? Who allowed it? Not any "free market," I can tell you. We’re talking about several million individuals who’ve managed to make their leisured and secure lives even more so at the same time their product is questioned and the work their attention supposedly qualifies students for is shipped overseas for labor cost advantages. It seems obvious to me that the whole lot of these collegiate time-servers lacks sufficient clout to treat themselves so well. Their favored treatment is, then, a gift. But from where, and why? Only from an investigation of the politics of schooling might come an adequate answer. So let’s begin to look under a few rocks together.

I’m A Flunky, So’s My Kid

On June 24, 1996, in Franklin County Ohio Common Pleas Court, the attorney for the American Federation of Teachers, speaking against Ohio’s proposed parent-choice initiative, called parents "inconsequential conduits." The Columbus Dispatch quoted Dennie Widener, parent of three, as saying, "I can’t believe we have to fight for an education. I’m a flunky and that’s what they are trying to make my kid." Although his income was well below the poverty line, Mr. Widener was armed with comparative school information that convinced him his own children were being deliberately dumbed down. In public kindergarten his youngest daughter had only learned the alphabet, but he was fully aware that "at private school they were reading in kindergarten."

It’s Not Your Money

Though it was twenty years and more ago, I remember well that day in 1979 when I loaded my old Ford station wagon with broken tape recorders, broken movie projectors, broken record players, broken tripods, broken typewriters, broken editing machines, etc., some nearly new and still under warranty, and without notifying anyone trucked it all over to the repair facility on Court Street in Brooklyn because the Bureau of Audio-Visual Instruction had failed to respond to three official requests for help from the school.

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This was an errand of mercy for a new principal, a fine North Carolina lady serving her probationary period, a woman for whom I had high regard because she broke rules to do the things that mattered.3 The executive on duty at BAVI had once been a "Coordinator" at the school I was coming from. Apart from his job title he was a likeable sort who reminded me of Arnold Stang on the old Captain Video show.

But when he saw my load of wreckage he exploded. "What are you trying to pull?" he said. "We don’t have time to repair these things!" Official ladders of referral did in fact assign the repair function to BAVI; if not them, then who? Because I was there, the equipment was accepted, but shortly afterwards I heard on the grapevine it had been thrown out and my principal upbraided for her lack of decorum in trying to have it repaired. Broken machinery is a signal to buy new and may be reckoned among the lifeblood factors of school’s partnership with the larger economy.

As long as I’m reminiscing, I remember also an earlier time when a different principal wanted to "make space" in the audio-visual vault. Some years earlier a one-time foundation windfall had been expended on thirty-nine overhead projectors even though the school already had ten, and nobody but administrators and gym teachers used them anyway because they bored the life out of kids. "Could you help me out, John, and pitch those things somewhere after school when nobody is around to see? I’ll owe you one." The reason I was asked, I think, besides the fact I always drove an old station wagon and had no reluctance about using it for school matters, was that I always insisted on talking as an equal to school people whatever their title or status. I saw them as colleagues, engaged in the same joint enterprise I was enrolled in myself.

This disrespect for the chain of command sometimes bred a kind of easy familiarity with administrators, denied more conventional teachers with an "us" and "them" outlook. In any case, I drove some of the junk to the dumpster at the entrance to the trail to Lake Rutherford in High Point State Park, in New Jersey, the rest to a dump near my farm in Norwich, New York, where $10,000 or so in equipment was duly buried by the bulldozer. Incidentally, I recall being expressly forbidden to give these projectors away, because they might be "traced" back to Community School District 3.

Community School District 3, Manhattan, is the source of most of my school memories, the spot where I spent much of my adult working life. I remember a summer program there in 1971 where the administrator in charge ran frantically from room to room in the last week of the term asking that teachers "help him out" by spending some large amount of money ($30,000 is the figure that comes to mind) that he had squirreled away on the books. When we protested the school term was over, he explained he was fearful of being evaluated poorly on money management and that might cost him a chance to become a principal. Getting rid of money at the end of the term so it didn’t have to be returned was a major recurring theme during my years in District 3.

Another District 3 story I’ll not soon forget is the time the school board approved funds for the purchase of five thousand Harbrace College Handbooks at $11 each after it had been brought to their attention by my wife that the identical book was being remaindered in job lots at Barnes & Noble’s main store on 17th Street for $1 a copy. Not on the list of approved vendors, I might have been told, though it’s too long ago to recall.

Why do these things happen? Any reasonable person might ask that question. And the answer is at one and the same time easy and not so easy to give. When we talk about politics in schooling we draw together as one what in reality are two quite different matters. It will clarify the discussion to divide school politics into a macro and a micro component. The macropolitics dictate that holes in floors cannot be fixed, or machinery repaired, or independent texts secured at the fair market rate. The macropolitics of schooling are deadly serious. They deal with policy issues unknown to the public, largely out of reach of elected representatives — senators and presidents included — and are almost impervious to public outrage and public morality. Hence the windfall for teachers and administrators at public colleges over the past decade and a half.

On the other hand, the micropolitics of schooling deal with the customary venality of little fish in their dealings with even littler fish. I speak of the invisible market in petty favors that school administrators run in virtually every public school in the land, a market that trades in after-school jobs, partial teaching programs, desirable rooms, desirable classes, schedules that enable certain teachers, but not others, to beat the Friday rush hour traffic to Long Island, all the contemptible non-cash currency without which the management of schooling would become very difficult. The micro-politics of schooling are degrading, disgusting, and demoralizing, but it pales in importance before macropolitical decisions about time, sequencing, curriculum, personnel, ties of schooling to the economy, and matters of that magnitude, for which the opinions of school people are never significant.

What follows in this chapter is mostly a consideration of the macro world, but if I had to sum up in one image how otherwise decent people conspire through schooling against hardworking ordinary people to waste their money, I would tell my auditors of the time I tried energetically to save a Social Studies chairman a substantial amount of money in purchasing supplies even though I wasn’t in his department. I happened to know where he could buy what he wanted at about 50 percent less than he was prepared to pay. After tolerating my presentation and dismissing it, he became irritated when I pressed the case: "What are you getting so agitated for, John? It’s not your money!"

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A Billion, Six For KC

What are the prospects of reclaiming systematic schooling so it serves the general welfare? Surely the possibility of recharging the system when so many seem to desire such a course would be the best refutation of my buried thesis — that no trustworthy change is possible, that the school machine must be shattered into a hundred thousand parts before the pledges made in the founding documents of this country have a chance to be honored again. No one serves better as an emblem of the hopelessness of a gradual course of school reform or one that follows the dictates of conventional wisdom than Judge Russell G. Clark, of Kansas City, Missouri.

For more than ten years Judge Clark oversaw the spending of a $1.6 billion windfall in an attempt to desegregate Kansas City schools and raise the reading and math scores of poor kids. I arbitrarily select his story from many which might be told to show how unlikely it is that the forces which gave us our present schools are likely to vanish, even in the face of outraged determination. Or that models of a better way to do things are likely to solve the problem, either.

Judge Russell G. Clark took over the Kansas City school district in 1984 after adjudicating a case in which the NAACP acted for plaintiffs in a suit against the school district. Although he began the long court proceedings as a former farm boy raised in the Ozarks without an activist judicial record, Clark’s decision was favorable to the desegregationists beyond any reasonable expectation. Clark invited those bringing the suit to dream up perfect schools and he would get money to pay for them! Using the exceptional power granted federal judges, he unilaterally ordered the doubling of city property taxes.4 When that provided inadequate revenue, he ordered the state to make up the difference. How’s that for decisive, no-nonsense support for school reform as a social priority?

Suddenly the district was awash in money for TV studios, swimming pools, planetariums, zoos, computers, squadrons of teachers and specialists. "They had as much money as any school district will ever get," said Gary Orfield, a Harvard investigator who directed a postmortem analysis, "It didn’t do very much." Orfield was wrong. The Windfall produced striking results:

Average daily attendance went down, the dropout rate went up, the black-white achievement gap remained stationary, and the district was as segregated after ten years of well-funded reform as it had been at the beginning. A former school board president whose children had been plaintiffs in the original suit leading to Judge Clark’s takeover said she had "truly believed if we gave teachers and administrators everything they said they needed, that would make a huge difference. I knew it would take time, but I did believe by five years into this program we would see dramatic results educationally." Who is the villain in this tale? Judge Clark is. He just doesn’t get it. The system isn’t broken. It works as intended, turning out incomplete people. No repair can fix it, nor is the education kids need in any catalogue to buy. As Kansas City proves, giving schools more money only encourages them to intensify the destructive operations they already perform.

Education’s Most Powerful Voice

At the 1996 annual convention of the National Education Association, delegates were delighted to learn that the union would pay them a $1000 bounty if they could succeed in getting themselves elected as a delegate to the upcoming Democratic National Convention. No similar prize was offered for selection as a Republican Party delegate. The offer proved a powerful motivater; about an eighth of all the delegates who nominated Governor Clinton for President were NEA members and the union carried more weight at the DNC than California, America’s most populous state.

President Clinton had been the featured speaker at the NEA gathering. When he entered a convention hall hung with Clinton-Gore signs and crisscrossed with strobe lights, Clinton T-shirts and buttons were everywhere, the band blared out rock and roll, and Arkansas delegates pretended to play huge make-believe saxophones. The teacher crowd rocked the room. This was its moment to howl.

The NEA bills itself as "education’s most powerful voice in Washington." It claims credit for creating the U.S. Department of Education, for passing Goals 2000, and for stopping the Senate from approving vouchers. Its platform resolutions and lobbying instructions to delegates include the following planks: "mandatory kindergarten with compulsory attendance"; opposition to "competency testing" as a condition of employment; "direct and confidential" child access to psychological, social, and health services without parental knowledge; "programs in the public schools for children from birth"; a resolution (B-67) criticizing homeschooling as inadequate and calling for licenses issued by the state licensing agency for those who instruct in such schools; and a curriculum "approved by the state department of education."

The NEA also called for statehood for the District of Columbia, and announced its undying opposition to all voucher plans and tuition tax credit plans "or funding formulas that have the same effect." It threatened a boycott against Shell Oil for alleged environmental pollution in Nigeria. The NEA had a foreign policy as well as a pedagogical agenda.

For all this flash and filigree, while the NEA and other professional unions have had some effect on micropolitics in schooling, they have surprisingly little effect on public policy. For all the breast-beating, vilification, and sanctimony which swirl about the union presence in schooling, where real power is concerned the professional organizations are not the movers and shakers they are reputed to be. Mostly unions are good copy for journalists and not much more.

Letter To The Editor

March 22, 1995 Letters to the Editor The Education News

When I began teaching in 1961, the student population of School District 3 on the prosperous Upper West Side of Manhattan was over 20,000, and the cry was heard everywhere from the four district administrative employees (!) that schools were overcrowded.

But I was fresh from western Pennsylvania and saw something different, a small but significant fraction of the school’s enrollment was made up of phantom kids in several categories: kids on the school register who had never shown up but were carried as if they had; kids who were absent but who for revenue purposes were entered as present; kids who were assigned to out-of-school programs of various sorts, some term-long, but who continued as phantoms to swell the apparent school rolls. Then there were the absentees, about 10 percent a day, who were actually marked absent, and the curious fact that after lunch attendance dipped precipitously sending that fraction soaring, although there seemed to be a gentlemen’s agreement not to document the fact.

So it was that when the press announced horrendous class sizes of 35 and 50, in my school, at least, the real number was about 28 — still too many, of course, but manageable. Although everyone agreed there was absolutely no space available anywhere, by greasing the custodian’s palm I was able to obtain a master key and a priceless document known as the "empty-room schedule." Would you believe there was never a time when multiple rooms in that building weren’t empty? By training my kids in low-profile guerrilla tactics I was able to spread about half my class into different cubbyholes around the building where they worked happily and productively, in teams or alone.

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Beginning in the 1980s this tactic became impossible because all the empty spaces did fill up — even though the number of students District 3 was managing fell sharply from 20,000 to 10,000, and with even more lax procedures to account for them than when I was originally hired. This latter development caused phantom children to multiply like rabbits. A simple act of long division will explain in outline what had happened: by dividing the number of students enrolled in my building by the number of teachers on the class register, I was able to discover that average class sizes should have been 17 kids.

And yet actual class sizes were about 28. The mystery of the now unavailable empty space vanishes in the ballooning numbers of "coordinators," "special supervisors," "community programs officers," and various other titular masks behind which deadwood was piling up. Each of these people required an "office" whether that be the former Nurse’s Room, the dressing room behind the stage, or a conveniently large storage closet. It had happened to the Army and to IBM, why should schools be exempt?

John Taylor Gatto New York, New York

A Quality Education

The mantra of "a quality education," was an invention of the real-estate industry in the first decade after the end of WWII, or at least that business was the chief distributor of the deceptively destructive notion. The cry of quality education became the spearhead of a bold and complex scheme to increase the supply of real-estate product — by dissolving the small-farm belts which surrounded cities in those days and converting the farm fields into housing plots. The U.S. government was a major partner in this undertaking, which serves as a useful illustration of how byzantine a reality schooling at the hands of a political state must always be. Government had its own motives, as you’ll soon see.

The partnership came about in this fashion. Long before the war’s end — during the Teddy Roosevelt administration, in fact, as closely as I can figure — seldom spoken of policy idea had taken root which directed the U.S. government to create a centralization of the national food supply as a tool of efficient political management. Since Prussia’s social-class system was not available to organize this process, it would be done through successively corporatizing American agriculture, with strong government assistance through legislation, subsidies, selective purchasing, and indirect advocacy. The small farm family and its children were too formidable an obstacle to efficient governance to be allowed to continue in their independent ways unchecked.

The mechanism hit upon to terminate wholesale the little farms was a series of fantastically accelerated school tax increases whose collective effort over time could not be borne by farmers operating only slightly above the subsistence level. Popular support for these taxes among non-farmers was achieved by a long-term propaganda campaign which radically redefined good education to include football stadiums with lights, band uniforms, huge cafeterias, bus systems large enough to meet the needs of a small city though used only a couple hours a day, costly standardized testing, and many similar additions which once would surely have appalled ordinary citizens with both their high cost — and bizarre irrelevance.

Yet, in an Alice-in-Wonderland twist, high cost was the very point: without high cost there would be no need for new taxes; without taxes no leverage to force small farms onto the housing market, and more importantly, no augmentation of institutional schooling’s ability to serve the purposes of social engineering.

Between 1945 and 1965 school taxes had risen only 12 percent nationally, on average, but over the next ten years they more than doubled, and between 1977 and 1993 they tripled from this new high-altitude base! This six-fold increase over three short decades broke small farmers in large numbers, dumping more than a million small farms onto the housing market. Although completely unheard of in the well-mannered and well-controlled journalistic "debate" about public schooling, this adventure in commanding a society and an economy was a decisive turning point in the strange career of post-WWII public education. For years it was unheard of to think of a school board without at least one member representing real estate interests, usually the loudest voice demanding "quality education."

The rootless people who accumulated on this once productive farmland offered little resistance to further centralization of school governance, although the farmers they replaced surely would have. As commuters, what interested them most was that schools become places of feeding, recreation, socialization, health care, and life counseling for their children. It was the Prussian formula reborn in late twentieth century America, a formula which allowed displacement of social management into the right hands. Thus is institutional schooling always more than it seems.

Who Controls American Education?

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James Koerner was a well-known national figure in the 1960s when he headed a presidential commission looking into the causes of civil unrest after Detroit’s black riots. A former president of the Council for Basic Education, he had more than enough information and experience to write a public guide for laymen in which the players, policies, and processes of the system are laid bare.

His book Who Controls American Education? was published in 1968. The area even Koerner, with his gilt-edged résumé and contacts, hesitated to tread hard in was that region of philosophy, history, principles, and goals which might uncover the belief system that really drives mass schooling. While noting accurately the "missionary zeal" of those who sell ideas in the educational marketplace and deploring what he termed the "hideous coinages" of political palaver like "key influentials," "change agents," and "demand articulators," and while even noting that experts at the Educational Testing Service "tell us that schools should seek to build a new social order and that they, the experts, know what the new order should be," Koerner carefully avoided that sensitive zone of ultimate motives — except to caution laymen to "regard with great skepticism the solutions to educational problems that may be offered with great certitude by experts."

"It is not at all clear," continued the cautious Mr. Koerner, "that fundamental decisions are better made by people with postgraduate degrees than by those with undergraduate degrees, or with no degrees at all." Toward the end of his book, Koerner defined the upper echelons of school policy as "progressive, modern, life-adjustment" folk, but ducked away from explaining how people with these attitudes gained the driver’s seat in a democracy from a body politic which largely rejects those perspectives.

Nor did he explain what keeps them there in the face of withering criticism. Koerner was impressed, however, with what he called "the staying power of the ancien rgime" and challenged his readers to resign themselves to a long wait before they might expect the modern school establishment "to give all students a sound basic education":

Anyone who thinks there [will be] a new establishment in charge of the vast industry of training and licensing teachers and administrators in this country has his head in the sand.

What we miss in Koerner’s otherwise excellent manual on school politics is any speculation about its purpose. We are left to assume that a misguided affection for the underclasses — an excess of democracy, perhaps — caused this mess. That conclusion would be dead wrong. Such a madcap course could not have been pursued so long and hard without a clear purpose giving coherence to the mle, if only for the simple reason it costs so much. What Jaime Escalante, whose teaching career was commemorated in the film Stand and Deliver and Marva Collins (see her book, Marva Collins Way) — and a host of teachers like them — understand is that almost anyone can learn almost anything if a few fundamental preconditions are met, not expensive to arrange. Such teachers explode the myth of the bell curve — without ever intending to be revolutionaries, they are.

The Logical Tragedy Of Benson, Vermont

In 1995, just about one hundred years after the inception of modern institutional schooling in America, the little town of Benson in western Vermont set a national record by voting down its proposed school budget for the twelfth time. Charlie Usher, assistant superintendent in Benson, declared his bewilderment at the town’s irresponsibility. Mr. Usher suggested the task was to get "at the root of why people would be willing to let their schools fall apart…" I think Mr. Usher is right, so let’s see what we can turn up by using common sense. But first, to show how united in outrage Benson school officials were, Education Week, the bible of the teaching business, quoted Theresa Mulholland, principal at the Benson school (more on this shortly) as saying nobody in town had a good explanation for what they were doing: "I think they just want to say ‘No,’ " she said, as if those townspeople were ornery kids or retarded children. Benson just didn’t get it. Schools need lots of money, or, as Usher suggested, they fall apart.

The Education Week piece in which I read these things covered every single inch of a two-page tabloid spread, yet nowhere could I find a single word indicating the problem might just be that its taxpayers and voters didn’t regard the Benson system as their own. Nor is there even a hint Benson may have abandoned its belief that what goes on in school is an essential enterprise worth a substantial part of its income to promote.

So I read this newspaper account of a little town in Vermont and its defiance of the state school institution pretty carefully because I sensed some important message buried there. On the third run-through I discovered what I was looking for. Let’s start with Assistant Superintendent Usher. His title implies that hidden somewhere out of sight there is a Superintendent somebody, too. If you don’t find that odd it’s because I haven’t told you that the entire school district of Benson has exactly one school with 137 kids in it. A brand-new school with a principal, too. Apparently you can’t have a principal without an assistant superintendent giving orders to that lowly functionary and a superintendent giving orders to the assistant superintendent. Three high-ranking pedagogues whose collective cost for services is about $250,000 — nearly $2,000 a kid. That’s nice work if you can get it.

The new Benson school itself is worth a closer look. Its construction caused property taxes to go up 40 percent in one year, quite a shock to local homeowners just hanging on by their fingernails. This school would have been rejected outright by local taxpayers, who had (they thought) a perfectly good school already, but the state condemned the old school for not having wheelchair ramps and other features nobody ever considered an essential part of education before. Costs of reaching code compliance in the old structure were so close to the cost of a new school that taxpayers surrendered. The bond issue was finally voted. Even so, it passed only narrowly. What happened next will be no surprise. Benson School turned out to cost a lot more than voters expected. I am skeptical that it cost more than the State of Vermont expected, though.5

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I have some personal experience with Vermont’s condemnation of sound school structures from the little town of Walden, hardly more than a speck on the map northeast of Benson in the most beautiful hill country you can imagine. A few years ago, four pretty one-room schools dating from the nineteenth century, schools still serving 120 kids with just four teachers and no administrators, were condemned by the same crew from Montpelier that gave Benson its current tax headache. I was asked by a citizen group in Walden to drive up and speak at a rally to save these remarkable community schools, beloved by their clientele. If I tell you when I woke in the morning in Walden a moose was rooting vegetables from the garden of my hostess’ home you’ll be able to imagine them better.

The group I came to speak for, "The Road Rats" as it called itself, had already defeated school consolidation the previous year. Montpelier’s goal was to close the little schools and bus kids to a new central location miles from home. Now Montpelier took off the gloves. If persuasion and seduction wouldn’t work, coercion would. Let’s call what happened "The Benson Maneuver," passing building code provisions with no connection to normal reality. This accomplished, Vermont condemned the one-room schools for violation of these provisions. All official estimates to reach new code standards were very close to the price of consolidating the little schools into a big new one.

Road Rat resistance would be unlikely to mobilize a voting majority a second time; the publicists of mass-production economics have successfully altered public taste to believe it doesn’t make sense to repair something old when for the same price you can have something new. Our only hope lay in getting a construction bid low enough that voters could see they had been flim-flammed. It seemed worth a try. The Walden group had been unable to find a contractor willing to publicly oppose the will of Montpelier, but by a lucky accident I knew a Vermont master architect. I called his home in Montpelier. Two hours later he was in Walden touring the condemned buildings.

Vital to understanding why the state wanted these places closed so badly was that everything in such places worked against professionalization and standardization: parents were too close to the classroom to allow smooth "professional" governance to sneak by unnoticed. It wasn’t possible in such schools to float a scientifically prepared curriculum initiative without having it come under close and critical scrutiny. That was intolerable to Montpelier, or rather to the larger octopus the Montpelier tentacle wiggled for.

After inspection, my architect pronounced the official estimates to reach code compliance cynical and dishonest. They were three times higher than the work would cost allowing for a normal profit. My architect knew the principals in the politically well-connected construction firms which had submitted the inflated bids. He knew the game they were playing, too. "The purpose of this is to kill one-room schools," he said. "All these guys will be paid off one way or another with state work for forwarding the agenda whether they get this state job or not." I asked if he would give us a counter-estimate we might use to wake up voters. "No," he said. "If I did I wouldn’t get another building job in Vermont."

Let’s get back to Benson, a classic illustration how the political state and its licensed allies feed like parasites on working men and women. Where Education Week saw deep mystery over citizen disaffection, the facts put a different spin on things. In a jurisdiction serving only 137 children, a number which would have been handled in the old and successful Walden schools with four teachers — and no supervisors other than the town’s traditions and the willing oversight loving parents would provide because the students were, after all, their own kids — taxpayers were being forced to sustain the expense of:

1. A nonteaching superintendent 2. A nonteaching assistant superintendent 3. A nonteaching principal 4. A nonteaching assistant principal 5. A full time nurse 6. A full time guidance counselor 7. A full time librarian 8. Eleven full time schoolteachers 9. An unknown number of accessory personnel 10. Space, desks, supplies, technology for all of these

One hundred thirty-seven schoolchildren? Is there a soul who believes Benson’s kids are better served in their new school with this mercenary army than Walden’s 120 were in four rooms with four teachers? If so, the customary ways we measure educational success don’t reflect this superiority. What happened at Benson — the use of forced schooling to impose career ladders of unnecessary work on a poor community — has happened all over North America. School is a jobs project for a large class of people it would be difficult to find employment for otherwise in a frightening job market, one in which the majority of all employment in the nation is either temporary or part-time.

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Forcible redistribution of the income of others to provide work for pedagogues and for a support staff larger than the actual teaching corps is a pyramid scheme run at the expense of children. The more "make-work" which has to be found for school employees, the worse for kids because their own enterprise is stifled by constant professional tinkering in order to justify this employment. Suppose we eliminated the first seven positions from the list of functionaries paid in Benson: the superintendent, assistant superintendent, principal, assistant principal, nurse, guidance counselor, and librarian, plus three of the eleven teachers and all those accessory personnel. We’d have the work those folks do absorbed by the remaining eight teachers and whatever community volunteer assistance we could recruit. This would still allow a class size of only seventeen kids per teacher, a ratio big-city teachers would kill to get, and hardly more than half the load one-room Walden teachers carried. Yet it would save this little community over half a million dollars yearly.

In our hypothetical example, we left Benson with eight teachers, twice the number Walden enjoyed in its two hundred-year experience with one-room schooling. Only a calculating machine could consider a large, consolidated school to which children must commute long distances as a real advance in human affairs. An advance in wasting time certainly. Consider this angle now: who in your judgment has a moral right to decide what size weight can be fastened on the backs of the working citizens of Benson? Whose decision should that be?

From a chart included in the Education Week article, I saw that Vermont school bureaucrats extracted $6,500 in 1995 for each student who sat in their spanking new schools. That computes at $162 a week per kid. Is it fair to ask how private schools provided satisfactory service for a national average of only $3,000 a kid, about $58 a week, the same year? Or how parochial schools did it for $2,300, $44 a week? Or homeschools for a mere $500 or $1,000, or about $10 or $20 a week? Do you believe public school kids were better served for the additional money spent?

Those other places could do it because they didn’t support an anthill of political jobs, political purchases, and political routines. These other types of schooling understood — some through tradition, some through analysis, some through trusting inner voices — that transferring educational responsibility from children, parents, and communities to certified agents of the state erodes the value base of human life which is forever grounded in local and personal sovereignty.

Natural Selection

In 1895, the National Education Association announced that school science courses should be reorganized to teach evolution not as theory but as fact. Biology textbooks began to present evolution to secondary schools and colleges with an extraordinary aggressiveness:

We do not know of any competent naturalist who has any hesitation in accepting the general doctrine. (Yale University Press, 1895)

There is no rival hypothesis to evolution, except the out-worn and completely refuted one of special creation, now retained only by the ignorant, dogmatic, and the prejudiced. (Macmillan Publishers, 1895)

What evolution has to do with the macropolitics of schooling becomes clear if you consider that both are concerned with what should be encouraged to thrive, and what should be helped to perish. Evolutionary theory made all the difference in how systematic schooling was internally arranged. Too much effort wasn’t wasted on hopeless trash, and the good stock was separated from the common. With justification.

Global entrepreneurs such as John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Andrew Carnegie found natural selection to be a perfect explanation for their laissez-faire economic principles. To Rockefeller, for instance, "the growth of large business is merely survival of the fittest"; savage business practices aren’t evil, "merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God." According to Herbert Spencer, nothing escaped evolution’s power: "every single organism" or institution evolved, religions evolved, economies evolved; evolution exposed democratic theory for the childish fantasy it really was.

But among common men and women in America who still believed in special creation and democracy, the perception spread that a new political order was strip-mining their uniquely American common rights and liberties like so much coal. In the waning years of the nineteenth century, social unrest was the most crucial problem confronting the security of ambitious new industrial elites. When the myths of George Washington and Tom Paine were flushed down the memory hole of schooling, and the personal call to duty of Christianity was — to use Macmillan’s word — "refuted," a long-range dilemma emerged with no easy solution: no attractive social narrative remained from which to draw meaning. Hedonism, so essential to business success, had a social downside whose dimensions were difficult to predict. And the scientific story, in spite of prodigious labor expended in its behalf, left the unfortunate impression that life was only a goofy accident devoid of any greater significance.

The Darwinian/Galtonian evolutionary script wrote the everyday citizen completely out of the story. It had to be faced that there was no room at the policy table for common citizens, yet thanks to the dangerous power vested in the American electorate through its national founding documents, the full bite of a democratic society stood as a latent threat to the would-be scientific ruling classes. Into this late nineteenth-century industrialization, immigrant confusion of national strikes and violence, breakaway urbanization, proletarianized labor, and political corruption, two ideas surfaced to offer an apparently sensible path through the maze. Each was a highly sophisticated social technology.

One was the movement called Fabian socialism and its various fellow-traveling outriggers. The other was a kind of academic echo of Fabianism called "the theory of democratic elites" — offering a strange kind of democracy-lite which operated "democratically" without needing any direct popular authorization. Democratic elitism had, in fact, been the mock representational model of ancient Sparta. Its modern analogue retained the husk of democratic institutions while stifling the real voice of the people by depriving its elected spokesmen of any effective power, reducing the role of legislatures to a choice between competing expert conceptions.

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In its modern form, the theory of democratic elitism comes partly from John Stuart Mill, partly from the work of Italian intellectuals Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca, especially from the latter’s essay of 1896, translated into English as The Ruling Class: Elements of a Science of Politics,6 a book vital to understanding twentieth-century schooling. The way to make a political regime stable across the centuries had eluded every wise man of history, but Mosca found the key: elites must deliberately and selectively feed on the brains and vitality of the lesser classes.

Identified early enough inside the laboratory of government schooling, the best leadership of these classes could be uprooted and transplanted into ruling class society, reinvigorating the blood stock of the overclass: Count Dracula in education department drag. This genetic harvesting would deliver the best formula for social harmony. Potential future leaders among the underclasses would be targeted early in schooling, then weaned from any misguided loyalty to their own group, using incentives. Far from prying eyes, their minds would be conditioned in special "gifted" classes.

While this process of vetting went on, school would also be used to train most of us in our role in traditional status hierarchies. Class rankings, specialized tracking, daily habituation to payoffs and punishments, and other means would accomplish the trick. Those elected for advancement would be drawn bit by bit into identification with the upper crust and with its ways of dress, speech, expectation, etc. They would come in this fashion to look upon their group of origin as evolutionarily retarded — a brilliant imaginative coup.

It was profound advice, providing a social justification for the expense and trouble of the mass confinement schooling experiment, which had still not been fully launched at the time Mosca wrote his essay. While it was one thing to suggest, as Darwin did, that natural selection would improve the breed, one thing to say with Sir Henry Maine that the destiny of the Great Race would be advanced, one thing to say with the episcopal religions that God’s will would thereby be done; some more down-to-earth surety had to be offered to an emerging superclass of industrialists and international bankers. Now such a surety was at hand in Mosca’s guarantee of social stability.

The theory of democratic elites, together with the promising new German mind sciences, provided all the tools needed to press ahead with the school experiment. Mosca’s ideas were an academic hit across the recently Germanized university spectrum of America, a watchword in Germanized corporate boardrooms and private men’s clubs. By the start of WWI, the familiar Common School idea survived only in the imagination of America’s middle and working classes. In actual school practice it had given way to thoroughly regulated and tracked assemblages geared tightly to the clock, managed by layered hierarchies and all schematized into rigid class rankings. Class-reproduction was "scientifically" locked in place by standardized test scores, calibrated to the decimal. Objections were overridden by pointing to the "facts" of the matter. From its inception, evolutionary racism guided the forced-schooling car, test scores its communiqus offered to the public as evidence of obedience to a higher.

The theory of democratic elites provided a way for plutocracy to hide inside the skin of democracy, to have ordinary people represented by the best selected by the best. Here was Orwellian Newspeak of a very high order. Since the commons could not be trusted to select the best from amongst itself, the community of quality would have to do it for them, backstage, concealing (in the interests of social efficiency but also from humane motives) the full reality of the radical political transformation. America was whisked off stage and replaced by a political imposter, anglicized in its attitudes.

Walter Lippmann, among many, picked up these notes sounded by Mosca and augmented by the important American Fabian Herbert Croly in his book The Promise of American Life (1909). Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive platform of 1912 was heavily larded with Croly/Mosca substance, an outlook demanding the public step back and let experts make the important decisions so the promise of American life could be realized. With these precepts in mind, Lippmann produced his own pair of influential books, Public Opinion (1922), followed by The Phantom Public (1925).

Public Opinion called for severe restrictions on public debate. The historic American argument was "a defect of democracy." It was impossible, said Lippmann, for the public even to know what its own best interests were. The public was hopelessly childish; it had to be cared for. Schools would have to teach children that the old ideal of active, participatory citizenship was biologically impossible. Decisions in complex industrial society had to be made by "invisible experts acting through government officials" for the good of all.

The proper thing to do, said Lippmann, was give the public a "fairy tale" explanation, something to sustain it emotionally, as we tell a bedtime story to infants. Later, as he saw the effects of his advice unfold, Lippmann would repudiate them, but that’s another story. The common public would have to be neutralized in the name of democracy for this expert society, this new republic based on sciences of human behavior to work. In this new world it wouldn’t do to have shoemakers and hairdressers mucking about while important people built the future. In the state institution of forced schooling it would be better in the long run if children learned little or nothing in the short run. America was coming full circle to its British/Germanic and episcopal beginnings.

In the Mosca/Croly/Lippmann redefinition of democracy, common people traded their right to be heard on policy matters in exchange for being taken care of. It was the mother’s bargain with her infants. The enormous training project called School, proceeding in deliberate stages across the twentieth century as opportunity presented itself and traveling at the speed of electronics as the century ended, had as its purpose creation of an automatic social order which could be managed by unreachable national and international elites. It was a new type of flexible social organization capable of being driven in any direction at any time without the need to overcome interference.

By the end of WWI, the labor market and much state/municipal contracting in America was effectively controlled by Fabian-minded administrators, selected by Fabian-minded university placement rings, all nourished by rich contracts garnered with the assistance of political clubs. Whether any of these actually had any connection to the Fabian brain trust (few did) was irrelevant. The atmosphere of schooling was saturated with its disciplined notions of utopia.

Another natural force was at work as well. With each passing decade, there accumulated more reasons to defend schools exactly as they were, not on ideological grounds at all but as a jobs project and a contract-distribution station. Millions had a financial stake in keeping schools as they were. The true philosophical and economic focus of the thing needed be known only to a handful of well-positioned social engineers in universities, foundations, and private associations. The thing ran on momentum now. The reach of schooling grew longer without any special effort. Secondary school enrollment went from 15 percent of the population in 1910 to 40 percent in 1930, to 90 percent in 1960, and to blanket coverage by 1970. Almost every alternative to a well-schooled destiny was squeezed out, show business careers being a notable exception for the thoughtful to contemplate.

With this development, the job pool established by institutional schooling became the leading single source of work in the United States, the very heart of the economy in small cities, towns, and villages. In this way school became a major foundation for local elites, directly and indirectly, through contract and hiring powers. All over America school became the core of local economies while, ironically, at the same time local minds and local customs were being rigorously barred from the policy table of American life. The money served as an effective incentive to self-destruct.

Local schools and school boards began to behave as foreign intelligence bodies implanted in the cells of a host creature, parasitic growths on local life, remote-controlled from state and federal offices which dissolved local integrity by overriding its imperatives. Managers of this simulated "local" schooling descended on towns out of Stanford, Chicago, or Columbia Teachers almost on a status and income level with the ranking local leadership. As the century wore on, even the lowliest pedagogues were surprised to find themselves near the top of local wage scales.

By the 1970s, schools were plunged headlong into a political campaign to redefine national purpose as international purpose, and to formally redefine Democracy as the ritual democracy allowed by democratic elites. Control of schooling by then was so dispersed that power could hardly be located at all in the hands of local administrators and school boards. The world designed by Plato and Thomas Hobbes had become reality. If you could not locate power you could not tamper with it. Local control passed into the realm of fiction as distantly prepared instruction entered schooling from state and federal agencies; the inner reality was that it had not been prepared even there but in colleges, foundations, corporations, and also — a noteworthy new development — in the offices of various United Nations agencies.

The Great Transformation

One of the finest academic studies of the origins of our time and its economic antecedents is Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. Published in 1944, it has been kept in print ever since. Polanyi’s explosive conclusion states unflinchingly that we must now become "resigned to the reality of the end of our liberty." How did he figure this out in 1944? By extrapolation from the track of modern history which he regarded as unidirectional and which teaches us that the end of liberty is "a necessary evil." At the end of his book, Polanyi offers a perfect public relations solution to the anguish of losing freedom. By cleverly redefining the word to mean "a collective thing," the loss of liberty will not hurt so much, he says. This kind of therapeutic Newspeak has been a dominant element in national life for most of the twentieth century, infecting every schoolroom. Professional manipulation of attitudes by control of language and images, once the stock in trade of a few men of bad character like Edward L. Bernays, is a common tool of leadership. Polanyi’s wish for us to be deluded (in our own best interests) has become the daily bread of everyone.

Walter Lippmann’s disrespect for commonality became official government policy during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt years and has remained so ever since. One way to chart the transformation is through the taxing power which should be seen as a way to diminish individual choice in favor of bureaucratic choice. Prior to 1947, less than one twentieth of an average income went for taxes; in 2004 the fraction is much, much larger. Some powerful dynamic now works to take care of us as if we were permanent children. Think of forced institutional schooling as the surgery where out dependency implants are first installed.

The political basis for the schools we have and for the politics of schooling we struggle against was laid down just before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. Where we are today is a kind of intertidal stage in which the last remnants of the historic American tradition are being set aside to make way for a thoroughly planned global economy and society, an economy apparently intended to be scientifically managed by a professional class of technicians at the bottom, a professional proletariat of rootless, well-paid men and women in the middle, and a small group, no more than 1 percent, of knowledgeable managers at the top.


To get where we got, public imagination had to be manufactured from command centers, but how was this managed? In 1914 Andrew Carnegie, spiritual leader of the original band of hard-nosed dreamers, gained influence over the Federal Council of Churches by extending heavy subsidies to its operations. And in 1918 Carnegie endowed a meeting in London of the American Historical Association where an agreement was made to rewrite American history in the interests of social efficiency. Not all leaders were of a single mind, of course. History isn’t that simple. Beatrice Webb, for instance, declined to accept financial aid from Carnegie on her visit, calling him "a reptile" behind his back; the high-born Mrs. Webb saw through Carnegie’s pretensions, right into the merchant-ledger of his tradesman soul. But enough were of a single mind it made no practical difference.

On July 4, 1919, the London Times carried a long account reporting favorably on the propaganda hydra growing in the United States, without identifying the hand of Carnegie in its fashioning. According to the paper, men "trained in the arts of creating public good will and of swaying public opinion" were broadcasting an agenda which aimed first at mobilizing world public opinion and then controlling it. The end of all this effort was already determined, said the Times — world government. As the newspaper set down the specifics in 1919, propaganda was the fuel to drive societies away from their past:

Efficiently organized propaganda should mobilize the Press, the Church, the stage, and the cinema. Press into active service the whole educational systems of both countries…the homes, the universities, public and high schools, and primary schools…histories…should be revised. New books should be added, particularly to the primary schools.

The same issue of the London Times carried a signed article by Owen Wister, famous author of the best-selling novel The Virginian. Wister was then on the Carnegie payroll. He pulled no punches, informing the upscale British readership, "A movement to correct the schoolbooks of the United States has been started, and it will go on."

In March 1925, the Saturday Evening Post featured an article by a prominent Carnegie official who stated that to bring about the world Carnegie envisioned, "American labor will have to be reduced to the status of European labor."7 Ten years later, on December 19, 1935, the New York American carried a long article about what it referred to as "a secret Carnegie Endowment conference" at the Westchester Country Club in Harrison, New York. Twenty-nine organizations attending each agreed to authorize a nationwide radio campaign managed and coordinated from behind the scenes, a campaign to commit the United States to a policy of internationalism. The group also agreed to present "vigorous counter-action" against those who opposed this country’s entrance into the League of Nations. Pearl Harbor was only six years away, an international showcase for globalism without peer.8

Soon after this conference, almost every school in the United States was provided with full-size color maps of the world and with League of Nations literature extolling the virtues of globalism. That’s how it was done. That’s how it still is done. Universal schooling is a permeable medium. There need not be conspiracy among its internal personnel to achieve astonishingly uniform results; multiply this tactical victory thousands of times and you get where we are. Today we call the continuation of this particular strand of leveling "multiculturalism" — even though every particular culture it touches is degraded and insulted by the shallow veneer of universalism which hides the politics of the thing.

Freud’s Nephew

Early in the twentieth century, official language, including official school language, became a deliberate, systematic exercise in illusion. Governments have always lied, of course, but at the beginning of the twentieth century an accretion of psychological insights gathered from past epochs of magic, theology, philosophy, arts, warfare, rumor, and madness, were collected, codified, and the conclusions sold to the leaders of political states, global corporations, and other powerful interests, welded into a technology of professionalized dishonesty. Secrets of crowd behavior and the presumed instrumental wiring of human nature were made available to anyone with the price of admission. The newly official pragmatic philosophy became a kind of anti-morality, superior to any ethical code fashioned out of custom and philosophy.

Four hundred years after Niccol Machiavelli wrote his treatise on scientific deceit, Edward L. Bernays began to practice the scientific art of public deception, trading heavily on his uncle Sigmund Freud’s notoriety. A decade earlier, Ivy Lee’s publicity savvy had rescued the Rockefellers from their Ludlow Massacre disgrace. Public Relations as political science was off and running on the fast track.

Bernays was only a solitary word magician at the time, of course, but he was in an ideal position to capitalize quickly upon his rhetorical talent and to set his stamp on the new science’s future. In 1928, Bernays published two books in quick succession which planted his flag in the dream terrain of the "unconscious." The first, Crystallizing Public Opinion, and the second, Propaganda. Adolf Hitler is said to have displayed both on a table in his office under a poster-sized picture of Henry Ford.9 The new world was blazing a trail into an even newer world than it imagined. Both of Bernays’ books argued that language could be used successfully to create new realities. Psychological science was so advanced, he claimed, it could substitute synthetic reality for natural reality, as urban society had successfully replaced our natural connection to birds, trees, and flowers with a substitute connection to billboards, cars, and bright lights.

Crystallizing Public Opinion and Propaganda had much to say to the newly minted administrative classes burgeoning all over American schools and colleges. In Propaganda, Bernays redefined democratic society, in the interests of the mass-production economy. I’ve selected three short excerpts from Bernays’ classic which enriched him with corporate work in the seven decades of life he had left — he died in 1995 at the age of 105 — after its publication.

The first assertion of Propaganda was that common people had to be regimented and governed from behind the scenes. Here are Bernays’ actual words:

The need for invisible government has been increasingly demonstrated, the technical means have been invented and developed by which public opinion may be regimented.

The next important contention was that the critical pollution of language necessary to make this work was already in use:

We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. We are dominated by a relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public.

Finally, Bernays attempts to provide a "moral" justification for proceeding as he suggests:

The conscious manipulation of organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power in this country.

This attitude of manipulation as an important component of "democratic" management entered the urban factory-school classroom in a big way at a time when psychology was taking over from academics as the tool of choice in America’s German-inspired teacher-training institutions. Bertrand Russell had been both a witness and an actor in the new climate of public deceits which characterized the post-WWI epoch. When its first phase was complete, he wrote in The Impact of Science on Society (1952) that the most important subject for the future would be "mass psychology" and "propaganda," studies which would be "rigidly confined to the governing class. The populace will not be allowed to know how its convictions were generated." (emphasis added)

Magic At Work

Magic in one form or another had always appealed to professional school authorities as the means to manage students. Horace Mann, as you know, dedicated his entire Sixth Report to a paean in praise of phrenology, the "science" of reading head bumps, and every major schoolman from Mann to G. Stanley Hall and John Dewey was a serious phrenologist — long after the craze had vanished from upper-class drawing rooms and salons. That should tell you something important about the inner itches of these men, I think. The quest for certainty in a confusing new land without rules was as much the religion of our founding schoolmen as searching one’s family for signs of reprobation had been for Puritans. But modern schoolmen needed a scientific cast over their religiosity, times having changed.

Early educational psychologists scientized the practice of manipulation behind a common expression of modern pedagogy — "motivation." Book after book advised pedagogues how to "motivate" charges with technical advice based on an underlying premise that young people did not want to learn and had to be tricked into it, a premise which on the face of common experience was absurd. As the significance of Bernays’ arguments penetrated the high command of government and industry, so too did manipulation become sine qua non in classroom teaching, the standard by which teacher quality was measured.

But the methods of Bernays or of educational psychologists like Dewey, Munsterberg, Judd, Hall, Cattell, Terman, Thorndike, Goddard, and Watson which so radically transformed the shape of twentieth-century schooling are about indoctrination strategies — building and using psychological tools to create compliant children. If nature hadn’t cooperated by actually making empty children, then schooling would have to do the job. And yet, for what grand purpose children had to be emptied, not many knew. For those without religious training or ignorant of the evolutionary sciences, it made only the bleakest sort of sense.

The Culture Of Big Business

Between 1890 and 1930, the culture of big business took over the culture of public education, establishing scientific management and corporate style as the predominant imperative. Although linkages between business and education elites were complex, the goals and values of business established the rules by which both played. And while schools proved unwilling to dare influencing business, the reverse was far from true.

Businessmen dominated the political movement in schools to abolish the system of local control through wards nearly universal at the end of the nineteenth century. Along with professionals, businessmen served disproportionately on new streamlined school boards. Business language permeated the corridors of school management. Businessmen and their wives were the political force behind Froebelian kindergartens which removed young children from family influence, and they were behind vocational schooling, which left no romantic dreams for ordinary children.

The National Association of Manufacturers, the National Civic Foundation, the Ad Council, the Business Roundtable, and other business-relevant private associations publicized the need for school change, told the public how children should act, what they should honor, what behaviors would be rewarded. A steadily lengthening school year led to an extended career ladder, specialization, and a credential-oriented society. School people were assigned the role of bringing about a conflict-free world by teaching indirectly that the preemption of work by corporations and professions (later by government) was right, proper, and "scientific."

The Irish historian and philosopher W.E.H. Lecky, in his history of European rationalism, (Rationalism in Europe), predicted that temptations posed by a forced assemblage of children would prove in the end too strong to resist, powerful interests would inevitably manipulate schooling to serve their own agendas:

The opinions of ninety-nine persons out of every hundred are formed mainly by education, and a Government can decide in whose hands the national education is to be placed, what subjects it is to comprise, and what principles it is to convey.

"If all paths of honor and wealth" are monopolized, said Lecky, the powerful motive of self-interest will be enough to bring most students to heel:

The simple fact of annexing certain penalties to the profession of particular opinions, and rewards to the profession of opposite opinions, while it will undoubtedly make many hypocrites, will also make many converts.

~ Rationalism in Europe (1883)

Once a system of reward and punishment is set up and broadcast by frequent public examples of its power in action, the nature of argument is almost predetermined, although subjects of such a regimen may be "entirely unconscious of the source of their opinions." Once the doctrine of "exclusive salvation" for the cooperative (and damnation for the critic) is clearly established, rulers will never be seriously questioned, thought Lecky.

By 1899 William H. Baldwin, president of the Long Island Railroad, descendant of the man for whom the Baldwin locomotive was named, demonstrated how well the school lesson had been learned and how forcible could be its application. Baldwin was a member of the Peabody/ Rockefeller/Carnegie "Southern Education Board," self-appointed to bring the benefits of Northern schooling to the war-ravaged South. Although in the beginning of its career freed blacks were treated to the same type of rigorous, classically oriented schooling we would call "liberal" today — meaning one designed to liberate the judgment from prejudice and ignorance — as time passed it began to seem impolitic to so treat blacks as equals. It alienated important elements in the Southern white community who were more important fish for the Northern school net to land. Thus a decision was made to jettison equality as a goal and make labor-value the most important determinant of which way each group would be schooled.

There is perhaps no more naked statement of the political uses of schooling on record than Baldwin’s official word about "The Present Problem of Negro Education," delivered before the Capon Springs Conference on Southern Education (1899):

Know that it is a crime for any teacher, white or black, to educate the Negro for positions which are not open to him.

Important liberals like Edgar Gardner Murphy (whose descendants are still active in American schooling) and other leading progressive humanists hastened to agree with Baldwin. In David Tyack’s analysis, these men sought to develop an applied technology of school decision-making similar to technologies of production and management then transforming the bureaucratized corporate economy. This technology reflected evolutionary presuppositions, rooting its values in supposed evolutionary laws. Ideals could be hierarchically arranged and pinned down on a scale of races, classes, sexes, and historical stages grounded allegedly in nature itself.

According to James Russell, for thirty years dean of Teachers College, the purpose was to equip teachers and administrators for "missionary service." What we are looking to discover through building this new institution, said Russell, is "the modern significance of the old doctrines of original sin and salvation by grace — to bring forth works meet for repentance." (emphasis added)

Teachers College, Stanford, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, Wisconsin, Michigan, Yale, etc., were the West Points of the Educational Trust, men like Ellwood P. Cubberley its generals. Cubberley, also writer and editor of Houghton Mifflin’s education series, the largest and most successful set of professional books published for school people in the first half of the twentieth century, legitimized by his influence the new reforms of vocational guidance, "junior" high schools, hygiene programs, and more. The book series gave him great power to shape the new science of education, making him a fortune. Its effects on school management were vast.

Cubberley wrote, "One bright child may easily be worth more to national life than thousands of low mentality." He taught influential schoolmen that genetic endowment explained success and failure in the social order and taught thousands of politicians the same lesson as well. Cubberley was one of a small band of leaders who invented professional school administration as an occupation, and professional school administration created the tracking system so that different grades of evolutionary raw material could be processed in different ways — one of many innovations science and business efficiency seemed to demand. In doing so, a strong class system possessing nearly the strength of a caste system was created, with important political implications for every American child.

Four Kinds Of Classroom

Jean Anyon, a professor at Rutgers, recently examined four major types of covert career preparation going on simultaneously in the school world, all traveling together under the label "public education." All use state-certified schoolteachers, all share roughly common budgets, all lead to intensely political outcomes.

In the first type of classroom, students are prepared for future wage labor that is mechanical and routine. Of course neither students nor parents are told this, and almost certainly teachers are not consciously aware of it themselves. The training regimen is this: all work is done in sequential fashion starting with simple tasks, working very slowly and progressing gradually to more difficult ones (but never to very difficult work). There is little decision-making or choice on the part of students, much rote behavior is practiced. Teachers hardly ever explain why any particular work is assigned or how one piece of work connects to other assignments. When explanations are undertaken they are shallow and platitudinous. "You’ll need this later in life." Teachers spend most of their day at school controlling the time and space of children, and giving commands.

In the second type of classroom, students are prepared for low-level bureaucratic work, work with little creative element to it, work which does not reward critical appraisals of management. Directions are followed just as in the first type of classroom, but those directions often call for some deductive thinking, offer some selection, and leave a bit of room for student decision-making.

The third type of classroom finds students being trained for work that requires them to be producers of artistic, intellectual, scientific, and other kinds of productive enterprise. Often children work creatively and independently here. Through this experience, children learn how to interpret and evaluate reality, how to become their own best critics and supporters. They are trained to be alone with themselves without a need for constant authority intervention and approval. The teacher controls this class through endless negotiation. Anyon concludes: "In their schooling these children are acquiring symbolic capital, they are given opportunity to develop skills of linguistic, artistic, and scientific expression and creative elaboration of ideas in concrete form."

The fourth type of public school classroom trains students for ownership, leadership, and control. Every hot social issue is discussed, students are urged to look at a point from all sides. A leader, after all, has to understand every possible shade of human nature in order to effectively mobilize, organize, or defeat any possible opponent. In this kind of schoolroom bells are not used to begin and end periods. This classroom offers something none of the others do: "knowledge of and practice in manipulating socially legitimated tools of systems analysis."

It strikes me as curious how far Anyon’s "elite" public school classroom number four still falls far short of the goals of elite private boarding schools, almost as if the very best government schools are willing to offer is only a weak approximation of the leadership style of St. Paul’s or Groton. What fascinates me most is the cold-blooded quality of this shortfall because Groton’s expectations cost almost nothing to meet on a different playing field — say a homeschool setting or even in John Gatto’s classroom — while the therapeutic community of psychologized public schooling is extremely expensive to maintain. Virtually everyone could be educated the Groton way for less money than the average public school costs.

The Planetary Management Corporation

Who governs? To what degree may rule be exercised arbitrarily? These are political questions of forced schooling. In a free society contention is liberty’s friend. Conflict extended indefinitely is our personal guarantee there will always be a way out of being suffocated by the will of another.

In a free society, the power situation must always be kept fluid, even though a high price in inefficiency, instability, and frustration is paid by the ruling group or coalition for that fluidity. As long as liberty is cherished beyond efficiency, the price will be paid. It is only a short leap to deduce the political crime of mass forced schooling: it amputates the argument and replaces it with engineered consensus. Once such a peace-making apparatus is built, its interior drive to self-preservation and growth will organize its line and staff personnel around a single-minded logic of orthodoxy. But that orthodoxy will always be committed to the service of the economy, not to the interests of its nominal clientele.

The New York Times of January 18, 2001, had this to say on Page A22 about the economic politics of schooling: "Education aid is distributed through at least 55 different formulas so technical only a select few can pretend to understand them." What explains this: Accident? Stupidity? No, neither: "The school formulas are incomprehensible in order to disguise how the system really works" — an explanation attributed by the Times to an "influential" politician, otherwise unidentified.

As schooling encroaches further and further into family and personal life, monopolizing the development of mind and character, children become human resources at the disposal of whatever form of governance is dominant at the moment. That confers a huge advantage on the leadership of the moment, allowing it to successfully reproduce itself, foreclosing the strength of its competitors. Schooling becomes what is the ultimate form of subsidy for corporate and status welfare, a destroyer of the free market.

Without opposition made possible by the education (rather than schooling) of children, a Planetary Management Corporation is our certain destiny — and just as certain to be followed sometime after its birth by a dissolution into chaos, the fate of all empires. Our school tragedies are an early warning of something inherent in the laws of human thermodynamics. Chaos increases steadily in closed systems cut off from the outside, overorganization precipitates disorganization. Where the developing consciousness of children cries out for jazz, what it gets instead is a scale exercise.


  1. The actual names have been changed.

  2. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann’s Private Power for the Public Good (Wesleyan, 1986) is an excellent place to start to experience what Bernard Bailyn meant when he said that twentieth-century schooling troubled many high-minded people. Miss Lagemann is a high-minded woman, obviously troubled by what she discovered poking around one of the Carnegie endowments, and director of Harvard’s Graduate Education School.

    The pages devoted to Rockefeller’s General Education Board in Collier and Horowitz’s The Rockefellers: An American Dynasty make a good simple introduction to another private endowment which ultimately will repay a deeper look; also, the pages on true believer Frederick T. Gates, the man who actually directed the spending of Rockefeller’s money, bear close attention as well.

    For a sharp look at how foundations shape our ideology, I recommend Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad, and for a hair-raising finale René Wormser’s Foundations: Their Power and Influence is essential. Wormser was a general counsel for the House Committee which set out to investigate tax-exempt organizations during the eighty-third Congress. Its stormy course and hair-raising disclosures are guaranteed to remove any lingering traces of innocence about the conduct of American education, international affairs, or what are called "the social sciences." Miss Lagemann’s bibliography will lead you further, if needed.

  3. She was denied tenure a few years later for failing to play ball with the district office and the teachers who mattered in the building. Although a New York Times editorial came to her defense (!), the superintendent was unrelenting. A year later he was expelled for crossing the local city councilwoman.

  4. They actually were raised 150 percent, from a base already not low. With what effect on homeowners just holding on was anyone’s guess. Here, as in the case of Benson, Vermont, up ahead, the institution’s aspect as predatory parasite appears in stark relief.

  5. Shortly after this twelfth defeat at the hands of local citizens, the state stepped in to override the judgment of the voters. In January 1996, the Vermont State Senate passed a bill to forcibly "lend" the Benson School District the full amount of its twelve-time citizen-rejected budget. Benson voters would now pay the full amount demanded by the school district plus interest!

  6. Mosca’s answer to the problem of political stability can be read clearly in the blatantly anti-democratic first edition of this often revised and reprinted classic. (Later editions are subtler with the central message concealed somewhat in metaphor.) The rarely encountered 1923 edition had great influence on Walter Lippmann’s post-WWI generation, and the triumphant final version of 1939, which is easiest to locate, on Roosevelt’s.

  7. If the article were written today, the magnitude of reduction would be to an Asian or "global" standard, I would imagine.

  8. Just how wide a gulf there is between propaganda and reality where economic globalism is the issue can be gathered from a front-page article in the World Business section of March 7, 2003 New York Tines detailing Australia’s "12th consecutive year of economic expansion" in the face of the dismal performance of other industrialized economies. Australia’s secret, according to the text of "Australia keeps Bypassing Pitfalls of Global Economy," is that Australia’s economy is not export-dependent, "domestic consumers are the main pillar of the economy."

  9. Less than a decade later, Bernays was proud to add Adolf Hitler to his list of clients.

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.