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An American Affidavit

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

102. Coal Gives The Coup De Grace: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Coal Gives The Coup De Grace 

The democracy which arises unprompted when people are on the same footing was 
finished with the coming of coal-fired steam locomotives. Before railroads, production 
was decentralized and dispersed among a myriad of local craftspeople. It was production 
on a small scale, mostly with local raw materials, by and for local people. Since horse- 
drawn vehicles couldn't reliably expect to make thirty miles a day, weather was always a 
vital reality in that kind of transport. Mud, snow, flooded creeks, dried-up watercourses 
in summer — all were forces turning people inward where they created lives of profound 

On the seacoast it was different. There, trading was international, and great trading 
families accumulated large stocks of capital, but still production wasn't centralized in 
factories. The pressure of idle capital, however, increasingly portended that something 
would come along to set this money in motion eventually. Meanwhile, it was a world in 
which everyone was a producer of some kind or a trader, entertainer, schoolteacher, 
logger, fisherman, butcher, baker, blacksmith, minister. Little producers made the 
economic decisions and determined the pace of work. The ultimate customers were 
friends and neighbors. 

As mass production evolved, the job of production was broken into small parts. Instead of 
finishing things, a worker would do the same task over and over. Fragmenting work this 
way allowed it to be mechanized, which involved an astonishing and unfamiliar control 
of time. Human beings now worked at the machine's pace, not the reverse, and the 
machine's pace was regulated by a manager who no longer shared the physical task. 
Could learning in school be regulated the same way? The idea was too promising not to 
have its trial. 

Workers in mass production work space are jammed closely together in a mockery of 
sociability, just as school kids were to be. Division of labor sharply reduced the meaning 
of work to employees. Only managers understood completely what was going on. Close 
supervision meant radical loss of freedom from what had been known before. Now 

knowledge of how to do important work passed out of local possession into the hands of 
a few owners and managers. 

Cheap manufactured goods ruined artisans. And as if in answer to a capitalist's prayers, 
population exploded in the coal-producing countries, guaranteeing cheaper and cheaper 
labor as the Coal Age progressed. The population of Britain increased only 15 percent 
from 1651 to 1800, but it grew thirteen times faster in the next coal century. The 
population of Germany rose 300 percent, the United States 1,700 percent. It was as if 
having other forms of personal significance stripped from them, people turned to family 
building for solace, evidence they were really alive. By 1913, coalmining afforded 
employment to one in every ten wage earners in the United States. 

Completion of the nation's railroad network allowed the rise of business and banking 
communities with ties to every whistle-stop and area of opportunity, increasing 
concentration of capital into pools and trusts. "The whole country has become a close 
neighborhood," said one businessman in 1888. Invention and harnessing of steam power 
precipitated the greatest economic revolution of modern times. New forms of power 
required large-scale organization and a degree of social coordination and centralized 
planning undreamed of in Western societies since the Egypt of Rameses. 

As the implications of coal penetrated the national imagination, it was seen more and 
more by employers that the English class system provided just the efficiency demanded 
by the logic of mechanization — everyone to his or her place in the order. The madness of 
Jacksonian democracy on the other hand, the irrationality of Southern sectionalism, the 
tradition of small entrepreneurialism, all these would have to be overcome. 

Realization of the end product of a managerial, mass production economic system and an 
orderly social system seemed to justify any grief, any suffering. In the 1 840s, British 
capitalists, pockets jingling with the royal profits of earlier industrial decades and 
reacting against social unrest in Britain and on the Continent, escalated their investments 
in the United States, bringing with their crowns, pounds, and shillings, a political 
consciousness and social philosophy some Americans thought had been banished forever 
from these shores. 

These new colonizers carried a message that there had to be social solidarity among the 
upper classes for capital to work. Financial capital was the master machine that activated 
all other machinery. Capital had to be amassed in a few hands to be used well, and 
amassing capital wasn't possible unless a great degree of trust permeated the society of 
capitalists. That meant living together, sharing the same philosophical beliefs on big 
questions, marrying into each other's families, maintaining a distance from ordinary 
people who would certainly have to be ill-treated from time to time out of the exigencies 
of liberal economics. The greatest service that Edith Wharton and Henry James, William 
Dean Howells and a few other writers did for history was to chronicle this withdrawal of 
capital into a private world as the linchpin of the new system. 

For the moment, however, it's only important to see how reciprocal the demands of 
industrialization and the demands of class snobbishness really are. It isn't so much that 
people gaining wealth began to disdain their ordinary neighbors as it is that such disdain 
is an integral part of the wealth-building process. In-group disdain of others builds team 
spirit among various wealth seekers. Without such spirit, capital could hardly exist in a 
stable form because great centralized businesses and bureaus couldn't survive without a 
mutual aid society of interlocking directorates which act effectively to restrain 

Whether this process of separation and refinement of human raw material had any 
important influence on the shape and purpose of forced schooling, I leave to your own 
judgment. It's for you to decide if what Engels termed the contradiction between the 
social character of production and its control by a few individuals was magnified in the 
United States by the creation of a national managerial class. That happened in a very 
short span of time in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. 

The Spectre Of Uncontrolled Breeding 

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