Resisting Dewey-eyed Progressive Mis-education

The century-long fight over control of our children.

We think of American as being "the land of the free" until recently, but it's surprising how much tyranny you find in American history if you look carefully.  Earlier in this series, we talked about the 1852 compulsory attendance laws beginning in Massachusetts which forced parents to put their children into public schools.  As with todays "nanny state" laws, these laws were motivated by a desire to make sure that all children were taught the ideology favored by the ruling elites led by Horace Mann.

This ideological focus of American public education originated in the Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647, which wanted children to be literate so they could read the Bible.  That's not in and of itself a bad idea or goal, but once this ideological foundation of government educational control was established, tyrants like Horace Mann sent the army to forcibly round up kids and march them into government schools.  But at least Mann's schools did generally teach actually useful material.

A little later, John Dewey and his associates argued that children ought not to be taught to read as vigorously as they had been, and that the job of the schools was social engineering instead of imparting knowledge - in other words, public schools should be about indoctrination and submission to the elites.  After a century of Dewey's influence, we find that American public schools are largely about... indoctrination and submission to the elite social and economic views, sure enough!

Yet even today, American parents have a strong desire for their children to receive a good education.  Even if they can't fully understand what's being done to their kids in public schools, they realize on some level that something is badly wrong.  In Mr. Mann's day, many Catholics fought back against the ideology favored by Mr. Mann by founding Catholic schools to teach their kids their way.  Today, a growing way of pushing back is through personally taking over the educational task by means of homeschooling.

The Home Schooling Rebellion

Like the Catholics before them, many Christian parents became disenchanted with the secular trends in public schools which were increasingly visible from the 1960s.  Not being able to afford to send their kids to conventional private schools and not being enamored of the lower-priced Catholic schools, increasing numbers of parents reverted to pre-1647 tradition and started teaching their children at home.

This entailed considerable costs for books and a great deal of parental time, but several decades of experience and studies have shown that the results can be excellent:

The home-educated typically score 15 to 30 percentile points above public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests.

From the perspective of cash outlay, homeschooling is a terrific bargain: the same study found that the average homeschooled child had a grand total of $600 spent on their education in the course of a year.  Cash isn't all it takes, though: homeschooling requires so much time and emotional energy that it effectively makes it impossible for whichever parent does the teaching to have much of a career.  If you include the potential lost income of the educating parent, homeschooling may actually be the most costly form of education used by the middle class.

Most homeschooling parents find this extreme tradeoff to be worthwhile.  Appalled by what they regarded as immorality being taught in the public schools, they have abandoned them for this rather costly alternative, even though the public schools did not charge parents for their services.

When something that's free loses market share to an expensive alternative, the providers might be expected to wonder why they were losing so many customers.  If their desire for ideological conformity had not been so strong, it might have been possible for public schools to address their customers' wants.  Rather than addressing parents' concerns, however, educrats preferred to invoke the precedent of the 1647 act which said children could be removed from parents who weren't educating them adequately while ignoring the fact that the religious foundation of the original law had changed from Biblical Christianity to secular humanism.

By the turn of the millennium, Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies were happy to ally themselves with their fellow government employees in the schools, charge parents with "educational neglect," and go to court to force kids back into public schools.  Religious parents came to believe that the public schools had been taken over by servants of the Old Deluder Satan and that the child protective services had become the embodiment of evil.  This added yet more fire and fury to the debate over how schools should operate.

The ACLU Gets Involved

The courts got involved early in the process.  In 1922, the State of Oregon tightened their compulsory education law to eliminate both home schooling and all non-state private schools.  It may seem odd to moderns, but in those days the ACLU tended to be on the side of liberty: they combined with Catholic organizations like the Knights of Columbus and raised money to fight the change.  (We see that leftists haven't forgiven the Knights for questioning their authority to this day!)

With their help, a parochial school run by the Society of Sisters sued Walter Pierce, the governor of Oregon.  The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, and resulted in a landmark ruling in 1925: the Pierce vs Society of Sisters decision declared that children were not "the mere creature[s] of the state" and that the traditional American understanding of "liberty" prevented the state from forcing students to accept instruction from public schools.  This was the first time the court had applied the idea of "due process" to protecting individual liberties.

The case has been cited in more than 100 Supreme Court cases since, including Roe v. Wade, and in more than 70 cases in appeals courts.  Over the next 50 years, the list of protected rights would grow to include various right to marry, to have children, to marital privacy, to have an abortion, and many other personal rights which are attractive to both sides of the aisle.

It's interesting to contrast the American court's freedom-based 1925 ruling with a later parental rights case in a German court.  Strong families make weak governments; followers of Mr. Mann who favor centralized government power dislike strong families.

Nazis take parents away from children

Nov. 29, 1937 In Waldenberg, Germany, a court has taken parents away from their children because they refused to teach them Nazi ideology.  The parents are pacifists, members of a Christian sect called International Bible Researchers.  The court accused them of creating an environment where the children would grow up "enemies of the state."  The children were delivered into the state's care.

The judge delivered a lengthy statement reading in part, "The law as a racial and national instrument entrusts German parents with the education of their children only under certain conditions, namely, that they educate them in the fashion that the nation and state expect."  [emphasis added]  Horace Mann and John Dewey would approve!

Quoted from Chronicles of the 20th Century, 1987 edition, p 475 Chronicle Publications, Mt. Kisco, NY.

Yes, this was a Nazi court, but modern Germany and indeed most of Europe have not abandoned this aspect of Hitlerian tyranny: just recently, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that parents have no rights to make decisions on their children's education, and that the German government acted legitimately in confiscating children whose parents resist public schooling.

The Long March Toward Homeschooling

Pierce vs Society of Sisters helped secure homeschooling rights along with private school rights, but states kept trying to force children back into the public schools.  Throughout the 1970s, home schoolers banded together to protect themselves from the educrats.  After much political infighting, most state legislatures passed laws which allow parents to homeschool their children even when parents aren't certified as teachers in pretty much the same way that Catholic parishes are permitted to establish their own schools and appoint their own teachers.

As ever, eternal vigilance is the price of parenthood.  Orthodox Jewish parents have always operated yeshiva schools which teach Jewish laws and traditions which go back to the time of Moses.  The New York Post reported in 2018 that the number of students enrolled in such schools was "exploding."

There are now 110,485 kids enrolled at the schools across the five boroughs — a hike of 10,000 from just two years ago, the numbers show.

The Post went on to say that there are as many Jewish children in yeshivas as students in charter schools.  As one would expect, the educational establishment is no happier about the loss of "their" captive customers to yeshivas than they enjoy losing customers to charter schools.  The Post reports on a conflict between Jewish parents who demand the right to educate their children as they see fit and "advocates" who assert that these schools are "dooming young men to poverty" by neglecting math and science in favor of Jewish tradition:

Judaism refers to its followers as “people of the book.” But the children - some 57,000 of them in New York City alone, according to the 2013 census - of the state’s ultra-Orthodox communities are largely being denied an education that includes science, math and English books.

In April, state Senator Simcha Felder (D - Brooklyn) refused to sign off on the state budget unless yeshivas, which accept millions of dollars in government funding, were given more autonomy over curricula.

“The main reason has to do with [yeshiva administrators] saying there’s no time to learn stuff [students] won’t use in life - especially boys, who are [expected] to be rabbis.”

That's democracy in action!  Sen. Felder had the power to block the entire state budget over a single issue which was of great concern to his constituents: the autonomy of their schools which both receive state funding and train young men to be Jewish rabbis.  He supports Agudath Israel, lobbyists who fight state efforts to impose instructional standards on yeshivas.  And in the other corner, we have YAFFED, another lobbying organization that wants to invoke state power to force yeshivas to improve secular education, even though their stated purpose is training young men for the clergy, just like the state-funded Massachusetts schools of 1647.

Note how the yeshiva population is growing - there were 57,000 in 2013 and 110,485 in 2018.  Losing that much state funding to competing education providers enrages the teachers' unions and the education bureaucracy.  What's worse, they're being taught traditional values which are anathema to our progressive elites.

The rank hypocrisy is breathtaking.  YAFFED claims that yeshiva students aren't being taught enough math and science to survive in the modern world, yet they aren't at all concerned that the public schools in low-income areas aren't teaching enough math and science to prepare those kids for the modern world either.

Progressives don't change.  The administration of New York City Mayor DeBlasio is trying to bypass the challenging qualifying exam for New York's best-performing high schools so that their racial composition can more nearly mirror the city's racial composition.  DeBlasio's concern is that there are too many Asians and not enough blacks in the best schools.  Instead of annoying the bureaucracy by improving the schools attended by blacks and other minorities to better prepare them for the exam, DeBlasio wants to change the examination system to admit more minorities and fewer Asians, just as Harvard University does with its subjective anti-Asian admissions system.

How Dewey and the Progressives Pulled it Off

We've seen how the public school system's obsession with teaching an ideology which parents dislike while teaching fewer and fewer of the technical skills needed by our high-tech civilization drives parents to find alternate ways to educate their children.  Why were the teachers' organizations willing to fight so hard for something which has nothing to do with education and which is now known to harm children's emotional and intellectual development?  To understand the driving philosophy, we need to go back to the very beginning of the concept of formal educational credentials.

When Horace Mann was lobbying for compulsory attendance in state-controlled "common schools," his major opponents were teachers in the many private schools which relied on tuition paid by parents who chose to send their children there.  These teachers realized that publicly-funded schools which charged no tuition were substantial threats to their livelihoods.

PBS reminds us that although Mr. Mann was not the first to propose the certification and licensing of teachers, he supported the idea and pushed hard for it through his entire career.  After being appointed as the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, he worked hard to determine who would be permitted to teach in the government-funded schools.  This emphasis on credentialing set up the school system for the same cost escalation and quality issues we see in health care, but in the short term, it seemed like a good idea that would deliver better quality more efficiently.

The original Boston private schools had to persuade the parents of each of their pupils that their teaching efforts were worth the cost.  The public schools not only didn't have to persuade parents to part with any money, they had the force of the law behind them to compel parents to put their children in schools regardless of parental views.  Parents don't pay directly so they don't really care how much the school spends, and schools won't hire anyone who hasn't passed through an accredited teacher's college, thus apparently assuring quality levels.

If the teachers colleges emphasized quality of instructional training above all, this system might have worked.  Like his predecessor Horace Mann, though, John Dewey, the father of "progressive" education, believed that the purpose of education was social engineering, not actual education.  He placed his allies in teacher's colleges where they spread this mantra through the educational establishment.

Of course, having spent time in a costly teachers' college, the graduates expected premium salary levels.  Tight-fisted school district officials could easily avoid these demands by hiring teachers who didn't have those degrees.

To get around this, the early progressives passed laws to ensure that no one could get a teaching job in a government-funded public school without a certificate from an accredited teacher's college.  Since the system of official teacher's colleges had been founded by Mr. Dewey and was operated by Dewey acolytes, his ideas came to entirely control American public education.

Social engineering is a lot less work and a lot more fun than imparting knowledge, so his ideas found a ready reception.  In principle, it's a good idea for a country to have a common culture.  To the extent that public schools train everyone in what it means to be an American, that's helpful.

Indeed, for the first few decades of progressive ascendancy, that's what they did, and to good effect: Greek, Italian, Polish, and Irish immigrants are today fully integrated into the fabric of America.

Pouring Oil On Troubled Flames

Unfortunately, recent progressives have decided that Iran is right and America is the Great Satan.  Today's immigrants are "socially engineered" to seek out and emphasize their own grievances rather than aligning themselves with the importance of getting along with everyone here.  The Boston bomber's evil deeds can be directly traced to this progressive teaching style:

English teacher Steve Matteo at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School put his Chechen-born student in touch with a friend who happens to be one of the top experts on Chechnya, UMass Dartmouth's Dr. Brian Glyn Williams.

That was two years ago. The assignment was to have each student in the very diverse class research their own ethnicity and write about it. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose family fled the horrors of the Russian occupation, was about to learn about some harrowing things he escaped at a very young age.

Neither Mr. Matteo nor Dr. Williams told Tsarnaev to murder innocents nor would they do so themselves, but Chechnya has an awful, multi-generation bloody history.  Is it really a good idea for impressionable students to study the horrors of the past halfway around the world instead of learning the reasons for the greatness of the nation in which they now live?

This focus on feelings, ethnic identities, and past outrages instead of following Mr. Lincoln's desire to educate students in the values and responsibilities of freedom has led to our balkanized education system.  Mr. Lincoln wanted schools to praise the huge economic and lifestyle benefits that have been produced by our original goal of turning everyone into a follower of the American Ideal regardless of original race, creed, color, or national origin.

Instead of promoting national unity, however, our public school teachers and our leaders have been encouraging students to focus on whatever grievances they had experienced or could imagine.  Liberals have been proclaiming "blame American first" for a long time, and Mr. Obama's "apology tour" of traveling the world accepting blame for essentially everything that had ever gone wrong anywhere didn't help.

Jihadi recruiters can tell young Muslims, "Your own leaders say America is no good, that's why we call it the 'Great Satan'.  Come join us and help us clean it up by killing Americans."  As with the Tsarnaevs, our liberals and global-village progressives the world around do 90% of ISIS' recruiting for them.

After a century of progressive ascendancy, an education system that once provided near-universal citizen literacy in one common language has been "dumbed down" to the point that American literacy rates are now lower than they were when Mr. Mann's "common schools" were established.

That's not enough for today's progressives: in the next article in this series, we'll explore how our leftist leaders want to take similar control over all other aspects of our lives.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

Wow, I had no idea the roots of our current indoctrination centers ran so deep. Truly illuminating.

February 1, 2019 3:09 PM

Will left out one of the primary drivers of this switch to propaganda, Woodrow Wilson. His rewrite of American history and other teachings in the 1880s-90s affected the whole educational establishment.

February 21, 2019 5:06 PM

@Jack Van - I knew he had a lot to do with it, but I didn't realize that he trashed hour history as well. Where can I find out more about that?

March 1, 2019 8:53 PM

Most enlightening.
How can the US public school system be saved from the Unionized / Liberal Left???

April 9, 2019 11:48 PM

@R.J. - parents who care enough will have to home school.

"Internet Schooling" at lists a number of FREE online K-16 education resources and gives a simple way to get into any rigorous fact-based high-end college.

Nate's first comment on that site has a link to videos of the MIT freshman Physics course. High-schoolers should watch that, not because everybody wants to be a physicist, but because learning how physicists think will help no matter what the future holds. He also posted a number of links to free computer science courses.

April 10, 2019 1:31 AM

An excellent article as far as it goes, but it should not praise the Knights of Columbus who have ignorantly decided to hold hands with its old Islamic enemy and mislead the faithful big time. I suspect possibly a Stockholm Syndrome going on, but read for yourself its absurd historical and unforgivably ignorant description of Islam:

July 3, 2019 11:31 AM

I honestly think this is from Glavset, the new name for the Russian hackers. No Americans are that nasty and misinformed.

March 6, 2020 11:58 AM

@Geroge Kamburoff

Do you mean to say that we made this up? Have you read any of Mr. Dewey's writings, or Mr. Dolch, his colleague who praised illiteracy because an illiterate man wouldn't read the news and worry?

March 7, 2020 8:53 PM
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