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An American Affidavit

Sunday, June 28, 2015

100. Plato's Guardians: The Underground HIstory of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Plato's Guardians 

Coal made common citizens dangerous for the first time. The Coal Age put inordinate 
physical power within the reach of common people. The power to destroy through coal- 
derived explosive products was an obvious dramatization of a cosmic leveling foreseen 
only by religious fanatics, but much more dangerous as power became the power coal 
unleashed to create and to produce — available to all. 

The dangerous flip side of the power to produce isn't mere destruction, but 
overproduction, a condition which could degrade or even ruin the basis for the new 
financial system. The superficial economic advantage that overproduction seems to 
confer — increasing sales by reducing the unit price of products through savings realized 
by positivistic gains in machinery, labor, and energy utilization — is more than offset by 
the squeezing of profits in industry, commerce, and finance. If profit could not be 
virtually guaranteed, capitalists would not and could not gamble on the huge and 
continuous investments that a positivistic science-based business system demands. 

Now you can see the danger of competition. Competition pushed manufacturers to 
overproduction in self-defense. And for double jeopardy, the unique American 
entrepreneurial tradition encouraged an overproduction of manufacturers. This 
guaranteed periodic crises all along the line. Before the modern age could regard itself as 
mature, ways had to be found to control overproduction. In business, that was begun by 
the Morgan interests who developed a system of cooperative trusts among important 
business leaders. It was also furthered through the conversion of government from 
servant of the republic to servant of industry. To that end, the British government 
provided a clear model; Britain's military and foreign policy functioned as the right arm 
of her manufacturing interests. 

But of what lasting value could controlling topical overproduction be — addressing it 
where and when it threatened to break out — when the ultimate source of overproduction 
in products and services was the overproduction of minds by American libertarian 
schooling and the overproduction of characters capable of the feat of production in the 
first place? As long as such a pump existed to spew limitless numbers of independent, 
self-reliant, resourceful, and ambitious minds onto the scene, who could predict what risk 
to capital might strike next? To minds capable of thinking cosmically like Carnegie's, 
Rockefeller's, Rothschild's, Morgan's, or Cecil Rhodes', real scientific control of 
overproduction must rest ultimately on the power to constrain the production of intellect. 
Here was a task worthy of immortals. Coal provided capital to finance it. 

If the Coal Age promised anything thrilling to the kind of mind which thrives on 
managing the behavior of others, that promise would best be realized by placing control 
of everything important — food, clothing, shelter, recreation, the tools of war — in 
relatively few hands, creating a new race of benevolent, godlike managers, not for their 
own good but the good of all. Plato had called such benevolent despots "guardians." Why 
these men would necessarily be benevolent nobody ever bothered to explain. 

Abundant supplies of coal, and later oil, cried out for machinery which would tirelessly 
convert a stream of low- value raw materials into a cornucopia of things which everyone 
would covet. Through the dependence of the all on the few, an instrument of management 
and of elite association would be created far beyond anything ever seen in the past. This 
powerful promise was, however, fragilely balanced atop the need to homogenize the 
population and all its descendant generations. 1 A mass production economy can neither 
be created nor sustained without a leveled population, one conditioned to mass habits, 
mass tastes, mass enthusiasms, predictable mass behaviors. The will of both maker and 
purchaser had to give way to the predestinated output of machinery with a one-track 

Nothing posed a more formidable obstacle than the American family. Traditionally, a 
self-sufficient production unit for which the marketplace played only an incidental role, 
the American family grew and produced its own food, cooked and served it; made its 
own soap and clothing. And provided its own transportation, entertainment, health care, 
and old age assistance. It entered freely into cooperative associations with neighbors, not 

with corporations. If that way of life had continued successfully — as it has for the modern 
Amish — it would have spelled curtains for corporate society. 

Another factor which made ordinary citizens dangerous in a Coal Age was that coal gave 
rise to heavy industries whose importance for war-making made it imperative to have a 
workforce docile, dependable, and compliant. Too much was at stake to tolerate 
democracy. Coal-fired industry had such a complex organization it could be seriously 
disrupted by worker sabotage, and strikes could be fomented at any moment by a few 
dissident working men with some training in rhetoric and a little education. The 
heightened importance to high-speed industry of calculating mass labor as a predictable 
quality rendered nonconformity a serious matter. 

The danger from ordinary people is greatly magnified by the positive philosophy which 
drives a mass production, corporate management epoch. While it was necessary to 
sensitize ordinary people to the primacy of scientific needs, and to do this partially by 
making the study of biology, chemistry, physics, and so forth formal school lessons, to go 
further and reveal the insights of Bacon and Comte about how easily and inevitably 
Nature surrenders her secrets to anybody in possession of a simple, almost moronic 
method, was to open Pandora's box. The revolutionary character of scientific discovery 
discussed earlier — that it requires neither genius nor expensive equipment and is within 
reach of anyone — had to be concealed. 

It was through schooling that this revolutionary aspect of science (once known or at least 
suspected by tens of thousands of small, subsistence farming families and miscalled 
"Yankee ingenuity") was hidden right out in the open. From the start, science teaching 
was what it remains today: for the ordinary student, a simplified history of scientific 
discovery, and for the better classes, a simple instilling of knowledge and procedures. In 
this transmission of factual data and chronicles, the positive method remains unseen, 
unsuspected, and untaught. 

Taught correctly, science would allow large numbers of young people to find and practice 
the most effective techniques of discovery. The real gift science confers is teaching how 
to reach potent conclusions by common powers of observation and reasoning. But if 
incidental overproduction was already a crisis item in the minds of the new social 
planners, you can imagine what hysteria any attempt to broadcast the secrets of discovery 
would have occasioned. 

The General Education Board said it best when it said children had to be organized and 
taught in a way that would not make them "men of science." 2 To that end, science was 
presented in as authoritarian a form as Latin grammar, involving vast tracts of 
memorization. Children were taught that technical competence is bought and sold as a 
commodity; it does not presume to direct activities, or even to inquire into their purpose. 
When people are brought together to build a shopping mall, a dam, or an atomic bomb, 
nothing in the contract gives them latitude to question what they have been paid to do, or 
to stir up trouble with co-workers. Recruitment into the dangerous sciences was mostly 

limited to those whose family background made them safe. For the rest, science was 
taught in a fashion to make it harmless, ineffective, and even dull. 

Now my job is to open a window for you into that age of economic transformation whose 
needs and opportunities gave us the schools we got and still have. Thorstein Veblen said 
back in 1904, just a year or two before the forced schooling project began to take itself 
seriously, that "any theoretical inquiry into cultural life as it is running into the future 
must take into account the central importance of the businessman and his work." Insofar 
as any theorist aims to explain aspects of modern life like schools, the line of approach 
has to be from the businessman's standpoint, for it is business that drives the course of 

And while I urge the reader to remember that no notion of single causes can possibly 
account for schooling, yet the model of modern medicine — where the notion of single 
causes has been brilliantly productive — can teach us something. When medicine became 
"modern" at the end of the nineteenth century, it did so by embracing germ theory, a 
conception much less "factual" than it appears. The idea in germ theory is to trace 
specific pathologies to single instigators. Whatever its shortcomings, this narrowing of 
vision frequently revealed the direction in which successful treatment lay. 

Just so, the important thing in viewing the development of the modern economy is not to 
find in it a conspiracy against children, but to remain detached enough to ask ourselves 
how the development of forced schooling could have been any different than it was. To 
understand the modern economy and modern schooling, we need to see how they grow 
organically from coal and oil. 

Coal explains a part of the curious fact that modern Mexico is still not a mass society in spite of its authoritarian governing class and 
traditional ways, while the wealthy neighboring United States is. Mexico had no coal, and while it has recently acquired oil (and NAFTA 
linkage to the mass economy of North America) which will level its citizenry into a mass in time, centuries of individuation must first be 

"See epigTaph, Chapter Eleven, Page 221, which states the vital proposition even more clearly. 

Far-Sighted Businessmen 


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