Sticking It To The Mann

How did we end up with mostly government run education?

So far in this series, we've been discussing the time frames which are required to graft technology onto a non-technical culture.  The British ran the Indian education system for 112 years.  When they granted Indian independence in 1947, there were enough technically-competent Indians to maintain the infrastructure the British had built; by now, 70 years later, they are extending and maintaining their infrastructure without British help.

In contrast, Rhodesia had a British system for 51 years but were unable to maintain their sewers or productive farms after independence as Zimbabwe in 1980.

The Japanese were never colonized; they did their own technological grafting under their own initiative, which worked rather well in terms of also preserving their unique culture.  Depending on how where you start, the Japanese went from a feudal muscle-powered farming society to defeating a European naval power in 1905 in either 36 or 51 years of intense top-down focus on acquiring technology.

Becoming a technical society isn't just a matter of teaching a few selected people the principles of advanced physics, biology, or electronics, although that's required.  The book Anna and the King of Siam - well known as the source material for the musical The King and I - tells how a British widow named Anna Leonowens taught Western literature, math, and science to the children of the King of Siam.

The royal family learned a lot, and certainly were better rulers for it, but that did not make Siam a technical power.  Today, Thailand is a second-world country; it's been bypassed by many of its neighbors, though it's also far from being a third-world hellhole.  Having Western-educated leadership helped a great deal, but by itself is not enough.

Weaving technology throughout an entire culture requires that literal armies of mostly men become technically savvy enough to build and maintain waterworks, railroads, automobiles, the electric grid, and much else.  This sort of urban infrastructure is required for the creation of serious wealth, but maintaining it costs a lot of toil, time, and treasure.  Most of the work is not particularly pleasant or enlightening but requires a fair amount of skilled attention to detail.

Perfection is not required, but minimum standards are, and the closer to perfection the greater the possible wealth.  To this day, cost pressures and unionized mismanagement make the Indian electric grid shaky enough that large companies maintain their own generating systems and Internet plumbing.  Running generators on top of everything else they have to do is very difficult for small businesses.  The unreliability of the shared infrastructure makes it hard for small businesses grow to the point of creating significant numbers of jobs or challenging incumbents.

Unreliable infrastructure is generally due to a lack of enough trained people to maintain and expand it; modern Indian public schools are not particularly effective.  They aren't completely ineffective either: India has been able to grow and progress in wealth and technology, and the nation is working hard to continually improve their education system.  The quality and breadth of Indian education puts a cap on the nation's wealth and growth.

The Power of Education

Any nation which wants to grow in wealth and power must pay close attention to educating the next generation, and America is no exception.  The great and the good of 17th-century Massachusetts felt that the ability to read the Bible was so important that literacy education deserved funding from the "inhabitants in general," that is to say, all taxpayers regardless of how individual taxpayers might feel about paying for public education.

There wasn't a lot of concern for teaching technology at that time because most children were expected to learn whatever skills they would need as adults either from their parents or by being apprenticed to skilled tradesmen; the level of societal scientific knowledge of the day was low enough that this system worked fairly well.  Still, the colony elders felt that minimum standards of education were important enough to be provided to all at taxpayer expense.

No school board would dare to say so today, but the whole reason for setting up the first American public schools was to further religious education.  This is clearly stated in the Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647.

Towns of fifty families had to hire a schoolmaster to teach children to read and write.  Towns of a hundred families needed a grammar schoolmaster to prepare children to attend Harvard College.  Harvard's mission at the time was to prepare young men for the ministry.  Emphasis on getting kids into the Ivies goes a long way back, but the Ivies in those days trained students to run churches, not to run the country.

The Battle of the Ideologies

Knowing how to read the Bible didn't directly make you a better farmer; Biblical technical knowledge had nothing to do with earning a living.  Reading what the Bible said about ethics and morality made you a better person, however, and this was considered to be extremely valuable by taxpayers of days gone by.  The Bible teaches that God wants you to work hard, an idea with great appeal to the politicians who planned on collecting taxes earned by those hard workers.  What's become known as the Protestant work ethic was good for the colony, state, and eventually nation as a whole.

However, even though the religious emphasis of early American public schools did significantly benefit the economy as a useful side-effect, that wasn't their original intended purpose.  From the very beginning, American public schools were first and foremost supposed to indoctrinate students with the prevailing ideologies of the day as opposed to imparting technical skills.  That makes fights over how to run American schools particularly vicious by international standards: it's not merely about the grades.

Abraham Lincoln stressed the importance of ideological education in his first public address in 1832:

"Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we, as a people, can be engaged in, that every man may receive at least a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance."  [emphasis added]

Mr. Lincoln said nothing about technology or the skills needed to earn a living.  He emphasized the necessity of teaching students enough literacy and history to appreciate the American ideology of independence, individual responsibility, and hard work so that they could appreciate American freedoms without being afraid of taking on the accompanying responsibilities.

In short, Mr. Lincoln emphasized the purely ideological aspects of the school system; he didn't worry about the technical ones.  This emphasis would become more and more problematic as technology advanced and maintaining our civilization required more skills.

To be fair to Mr. Lincoln, America operated with relatively little technology as he grew up.  The Civil War gave the traditional wartime push to advance many technologies.  Armies learned to rely on railroads for logistics and on the telegraph for communication.  Ironclad, steam-powered battleships replaced wooden sailing ships crewed by "iron men."  By the end of the war, the new technologies offered a great many opportunities for educated technologists which is why the parochial schools started teaching them.

As we saw in earlier articles in this series, Baron Macaulay's 1835 decision to operate the Indian schools in English put money in the pockets of teachers who were versed in English and took it away from teachers of Sanskrit or Arabic, but there was no particular religious or political ideology behind the desire to teach Indians the technical skills needed for sewer systems, railroads, and the coming electric grid.

In that sense, Baron Macaulay was considerably more far-sighted about educational needs than Abraham Lincoln; to be fair, coordinating the education systems of the British Raj was Baron Macaulay's job, whereas in President Lincoln's time the Federal government was expected to have just about nothing to do with education.

Smooth Systems with Less Conflict

It's not as if there aren't examples of other ways to run educational systems that work far better than ours; but for historical reasons, they're often less contentious.  For example, America has had advocates for an educational voucher system for decades; this innovation is resisted tooth and nail by the massed forces of the Left, with the result that it's barely even been tried.

Yet Sweden, the famous example of successful supposed socialism at work, has a voucher system where money follows parent's choice of school; the only way for a school to get more money is by making parents want to send kids there.  Teacher's unions didn't like the idea, but there was enough concern for educating children effectively that the 1994 voucher law had broad support.  There was broad agreement on what schools should teach so the argument was only about money, not about teaching religion.

American educational philosophy not only directs vast sums of money, it also determines which ideology will be taught.  American edu-wars are not about mere money; they also concern the ideas that the next generation of students will hold.  This largely determines how they will vote once they're old enough.

Therefore, American edu-wars are first and foremost about who will hold power in the next generation; imparting knowledge of any kind is a secondary concern.

Compulsory Attendance Laws

In the mid-1800s, Massachusetts politician Horace Mann promoted the "common school" not merely to increase literacy, and certainly not to prepare a majority of students for college.  His movement, which gave birth to the modern American public school system, was designed to inculcate good citizenship by putting all kids through a "shared experience" modeled on  Prussian schools.

The Prussian system was designed to prepare most of a barely-educated population to be ruled over by governing elites.  The governing elites, of course, made sure their children never darkened the door of a public school; they had private tutors or elite military academies, as did the Boston Brahmins of Mr. Mann's social class.

In Mr. Mann's time, America was just beginning to undergo the Great Migration of immigrants from Europe to America.  These newcomers weren't the familiar English and Scotsmen.  Mr. Mann and his peers were terrified that non-British immigrants in general and Catholics in particular would absorb anti-American ideas if parents were allowed to handle their own children's education.

That is why he labored to persuade legislators to make attending "common school" compulsory: he wanted to ensure that the next generation of Americans, no matter who their parents were, were indoctrinated in the values he wanted them to have.  When compulsory attendance laws were first passed in Massachusetts in 1852, there was considerable resistance:

Our form of compulsory schooling is an invention of the state of Massachusetts around 1850. It was resisted - sometimes with guns - by an estimated eighty per cent of the Massachusetts population, the last outpost in Barnstable on Cape Cod not surrendering its children until the 1880's when the area was seized by militia and children marched to school under guard. [emphasis added]

Yes, you read that right: military action was needed to round up children whose deplorable parents didn't approve of Mr. Mann's glorious vision of a conformist future under the benevolent guidance of the better-educated elites.

Mr. Mann was correct in his concern that Catholics would resist having their children brought up in the Protestant religiosity of the "common schools."  He did achieve victory in the sense of the government forcing people into formal schooling, but he wasn't able to achieve the total indoctrination and control he desired.  After a considerable struggle, Catholics won the right to establish their own parochial schools which taught Catholic dogma as opposed to Protestant heresies.

By 1890 the Irish, who controlled the Catholic Church in the U.S., had built an extensive network of parochial schools across the urban Northeast and Midwest.  Catholic ethnic groups funded parochial schools to protect their religion and to enhance their own culture and language, but they also focused on teaching the technologies which were needed as American civilization became more complex.  As sectarian strife became less of a problem, Catholic schools developed a reputation for educational excellence, with perhaps a bit of harmless rosary-thumbing on the side.

John Dewey and Progressive Education

Beginning toward the end of the nineteenth century and stretching through the middle of the twentieth, not too many decades younger than Baron Macaulay and Horace Mann, we find the career of American educator John Dewey.  He wrote more books and pamphlets than you or I could read in a year, and his major area of focus was on how our educational system should operate.

He agreed with the emphasis on ideology which had been part of our system since the beginning.  In “My Pedagogic Creed”, was published in 1897, he added the foundational principle that technical and factual information should be de-emphasized:

I believe that we violate the child's nature and render difficult the best ethical results, by introducing the child too abruptly to a number of special studies, of reading, writing, geography, etc., out of relation to this social life.

I believe, therefore, that the true center of correlation on the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child's own social activities.

Dewey shared the Prussian view that children go to school to learn how to be members of a group, but he intended them to do so via participating in "social activities" as designed by himself.  He differed profoundly from his predecessors in advising that schools intentionally not emphasize literacy:

It is one of the great mistakes of education to make reading and writing constitute the bulk of the school work the first two years.  The true way is to teach them incidentally as the outgrowth of the social activities at this time.  Thus language is not primarily the expression of thought, but the means of social communication. ...

The plea for the predominance of learning to read in early school-life because of the great importance attaching to literature seems to me a perversion.

Shades of the modern "look/say" reading "methods" that have led to a generation of illiterates!

Mr. Dewey wasn't at all stupid: he knew that the parents of his unwilling victims were hardly likely to take kindly to an educational approach that minimized actual, um, education.  His warning to his fellow progressives made it clear that he realized that his advice would not be any more acceptable to the non-expert public than Mr. Mann's compulsory education laws; his conspiracies against literacy would have to be implemented slowly:

Change must come gradually. To force it unduly would compromise its final success by favoring a violent reaction. [emphasis added]

He knew that parents, being practical and commonsensical folks, would rightly not believe that his changes would benefit their children, even to the point of violent resistance.  So, like the classic frog in hot water, they would have to be introduced to Dewey's control by stealth and deception, one step at a time.

In pursuit of his goals, he created a spectacularly successful albeit slow-moving revolution that, over a century or more, has utterly destroyed what once was the world's finest primary education system.  He demonstrated an approach that has been emulated by leftists ever since: John Dewey pioneered what has become known as the Long March Through the Institutions.

The actual term was a slogan coined a century later by student activist Rudi Dutschke to describe his strategy for establishing the conditions for revolution: subverting society by infiltrating institutions such as the professions. The phrase "long march" is a reference to the prolonged struggle of the Chinese communists, which included a physical Long March of their army across China.

Indeed, it took Mr. Dewey's successors the better part of a century to destroy the American educational system.  Despite not having the term ready-made, John Dewey understood the concept intimately, and communicated it to generations of leftist educrats down to this day.

What Hath Progressives Wrought?

On July 25, 1991, after 26 years of teaching in public schools, John Taylor Gatto wrote a public letter of resignation that was published as an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.  He asserted:

Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents. An exaggeration? Hardly. Parents aren't meant to participate in our form of schooling, rhetoric to the contrary. My orders as schoolteacher are to make children fit an animal training system, not to help each find his or her personal path.

Mr. Gatto had recognized that the public school system had been designed from the very start to teach the conformity required by elites ruling over the masses.  It was also required of assembly-line workers where management required that someone put an oil pan on an engine every 15 seconds all day, every day.  He later went on to explore the lessons of the public education system as he found it.

Gatto's book The Underground History of American Education tied educational philosophy back to the Prussian system so beloved of Horace Mann.  He was convinced that the switch from phonics-based reading to "look/say" whole word recognition was responsible for the doubling of the black American illiteracy rate and the quadrupling of whites' illiteracy rate from 1940 to 2000, just as Mr. Dewey had planned.  Gatto says:

After the Civil War, Utopian speculative analysis regarding isolation of children in custodial compounds where they could be subjected to deliberate molding routines, began to be discussed seriously by the Northeastern policy elites of business, government, and university life…effective early indoctrination of all children would lead to an orderly scientific society, one controlled by the best people, now freed from the obsolete straitjacket of democratic traditions and historic American libertarian attitudes.  [emphasis added]

This represented a switch away from the ideology of freedom and responsible democracy advocated by Abraham Lincoln toward a conformist tradition where the "best people" make all the decisions.  Indeed, we see colleges and large Internet businesses such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Apple facilitating "early indoctrination of all children" by systematically censoring anyone who advocates traditional American values on the grounds of "intolerance" or "hate speech."

According to the work Social Control, by Edward A. Ross in 1901:

"Plans are underway to replace community, family and church with propaganda, education and mass media… the State shakes loose from Church, reaches out to School… People are only little plastic lumps of human dough."'

A century later, Mr. Ross' 1901 dream has come to pass.  Church attendance and influence have indeed declined precipitously, schools teach a uniform brand of group-think which is weak on the traditional 3 Rs of "reading, writing, and 'rithmetic", and the Twitterverse stands ready to subject nonconformists to public shaming.

As with the Catholics who pushed back against Mr. Mann's "common schools" in the late 1800s, parents who abhorred the ideological conformity and low factual standards of the public schools sought to protect their children from what they regarded as anathema.  The homeschooling movement was driven by parents who couldn't afford to send their children to private schools but were willing to sacrifice time, talent, and treasure to teach their children the complexities of today's society.

The public schools were unwilling to change their secular ideology, so they resorted to political action to compel these deplorable rebels to put their kids back in the public schools.  After several decades of political struggle, homeschooling has become legal in all 50 states.  Notwithstanding its legality, parents have had to band together to protect themselves against ambitious bureaucrats who seek any opportunity or excuse to force kids back into their system.

This is partly for financial reasons - most states supplement the local property taxes that pay for schools with state funds which are based on the number of kids in each class.  It's becoming clear that being able to enforce conformity to the prevailing ideology is just as important to our ruling elites.

The next article in this series discusses the homeschooling movement and explains how Mr. Dewey's progressives got away with their deliberate lowering of the educational standards of the public schools.

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

Thanks for another fine piece. By 1974, after four years, I'd finally had enough of trying to understand the real motivations of the school system which employed me...and I quit. I sent a letter to the school board explaining my conviction that the educational level of the entire system could be elevated pretty substantially with a bit more effort and the setting of higher expectations of the staff. I said that I was leaving because I'd finally come to cynical conclusion that the system, as operated, turned out the exact mix of dropouts, high school grads and college material that fit what someone thought best met the needs of society, and altering the ratio would only cause trouble.
It was either that, or I was just learning how incredibly lazy and selfish public servants could be.
Not much has changed, except for the disappearance of any semblance of discipline. Sure wish I could spot any positive changes on the horizon....but I can't.

January 9, 2019 8:56 PM

Very thoughtful piece. I would love it if you explore the elite private schools that seem to produce most of our presidents. Democrat or Republican...they tell you that public education is for you, but MY kids go to a private school. Whether it is the Bushes ( Andover), Obama ( Puntaloa for him , Sidwell Friends for his kids), Kennedy's Choate or Roosevelt's Groton the leaders opt out of the public school system. What do these schools have that the " chosen" public schools don't have ? What does the "A" team have that the rest of the chumps don't ?

January 9, 2019 10:23 PM

Now that's a fascinating question. As it happens, I went to a private school, which provided a truly excellent quality education - BUT it was nothing like the sort of school that, say, the Bushes go to. It was a small, penniless religious school that just happened to have really excellent and dedicated teachers.

I haven't read very good things about the "elite" schools. We've all heard the stories about Brett Kavanaugh's school, and Lady Gaga is another alumnus of a similar sort of place. Yet they do seem to set them up for apparent success.

Interesting avenue of inquiry, that would be well worth an answer if we can figure out a way to effectively pursue it.

January 9, 2019 11:09 PM

Is it primarily the social connections made in private schools, rather than educational excellence, that lead to success?

January 10, 2019 1:38 PM

I'm guessing so. It's striking how often you hear about "this famous politician/businessman/entertainer was roommates with that other famous entertainer/politician/businessman." People with totally different career paths, and not related by family, but the common points are a) both super-successful and b) the same school. That can't be education - no school can be the best at teaching every possible subject. It can only be the connections - not what you know, but who you know. I read somewhere that the current purpose of our Ivies is as a place for our budding elites to "meet and mate."

But if that were all it is, then in effect our lives are predetermined by what college you get in to (doesn't so much matter whether you graduate or not, as Bill Gates and Michael Dell did not). Surely it's not all as deterministic as that?

January 10, 2019 5:20 PM

People can succeed without those connections, but they are the exceptions. I think the connections enable more ordinary people—intelligent, but far from brilliant—to enter and succeed in careers that would otherwise be open only to people of truly outstanding talent.

January 10, 2019 6:54 PM
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