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An American Affidavit

Sunday, June 21, 2015

92. Finding Work For Intellectuals: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Finding Work For Intellectuals 

The little North German state of Prussia had been described as "an army with a country," 
"a perpetual armed camp," "a gigantic penal institution." Even the built environment in 
Prussia was closely regimented: streets were made to run straight, town buildings and 
traffic were state-approved and regulated. Attempts were made to cleanse society of 
irregular elements like beggars, vagrants, and Gypsies, all this intended to turn Prussian 
society into "a huge human automaton" in the words of Hans Rosenberg. It was a state 
where scientific farming alternated with military drilling and with state-ordered 
meaningless tasks intended for no purpose but to subject the entire community to the 
experience of collective discipline — like fire drills in a modern junior high school or 
enforced silence during the interval between class periods. Prussia had become a 
comprehensive administrative Utopia. It was Sparta reborn. 

Administrative Utopias spring out of the psychological emptiness which happens where 
firmly established communities are nonexistent and what social cohesion there is is weak 
and undependable. Utopias lurch into being when Utopia happens best where there is no 
other social and political life around which seems attractive or even safe. The dream of 
state power refashioning countryside and people is powerful, especially compelling in 
times of insecurity where local leadership is inadequate to create a satisfying social order, 
as must have seemed the case in the waning decades of the nineteenth century. In 
particular, the growing intellectual classes began to resent their bondage to wealthy 
patrons, their lack of any truly meaningful function, their seeming overeducation for what 
responsibilities were available, their feelings of superfluousness. The larger national 
production grew on wheels and belts of steam power. The more it produced 
unprecedented surpluses, the greater became the number of intellectuals condemned to a 
parasitic role, and the more certain it became that some Utopian experiment must come 
along to make work for these idle hands. 

In such a climate it could not have seemed out of line to the new army of homeless men 
whose work was only endless thinking, to reorganize the entire world and to believe such 
a thing not impossible to attain. It was only a short step before associations of 
intellectuals began to consider it their duty to reorganize the world. It was then the clamor 
for universal forced schooling became strong. Such a need coincided with a 
corresponding need on the part of business to train the population as consumers rather 
than independent producers. 

In the last third of the nineteenth century, a loud call for popular education arose from 
princes of industry, from comfortable clergy, professional humanists and academic 

scientists, those who saw schooling as an instrument to achieve state and corporate 
purposes. Prior to 1870, the only countries where everybody was literate were Prussia, its 
tiny adjacent neighbor states in Nordic Scandinavia, and the United States. Despite all 
projects of the Enlightenment, of Napoleon, of the parliaments of England and Belgium 
and of revolutionaries like Cavour, the vast majority of Europeans could neither read nor 
write. It was not, of course, because they were stupid but because circumstances of their 
lives and cultures made literacy a luxury, sometimes even impossible. 

Steam and coal provided the necessary funds for establishing and maintaining great 
national systems of elementary schooling. Another influence was the progressivism of the 
liberal impulse, never more evident than in the presence of truly unprecedented 
abundance. Yes, it was true that to create that abundance it became necessary to uproot 
millions from their traditional habitats and habits, but one's conscience could be salved 
by saying that popular schooling would offer, in time, compensations for the proletariat. 
In any case, no one doubted Francois Guizot's epigram: "The opening of every 
schoolhouse closes a jail." 

For the enlightened classes, popular education after Prussia became a sacred cause, one 
meriting crusading zeal. In 1868, Hungary announced compulsion schooling; in 1869, 
Austria; in 1872, the famous Prussian system was nationalized to all the Germanies; 
1874, Switzerland; 1877, Italy; 1878, Holland; 1879, Belgium. Between 1878 and 1882, 
it became France's turn. School was made compulsory for British children in 1880. No 
serious voice except Tolstoy's questioned what was happening, and that Russian 
nobleman-novelist-mystic was easily ignored. Best known to the modern reader for War 
and Peace, Tolstoy is equally penetrating in The Kingdom of God Is Within You, in 
which he viewed such problems through the lens of Christianity. 

The school movement was strongest in Western and Northern Europe, the ancient lands 
of the Protestant Reformation, much weaker in Catholic Central and Southern Europe, 
virtually nonexistent at first in the Orthodox East. Enthusiasm for schooling is closely 
correlated with a nation's intensity in mechanical industry, and that closely correlated 
with its natural heritage of coal. One result passed over too quickly in historical accounts 
of school beginnings is the provision for a quasi-military noncommissioned officer corps 
of teachers, and a staff-grade corps of administrators to oversee the mobilized children. 
One consequence unexpected by middle classes (though perhaps not so unexpected to 
intellectual elites) was a striking increase in gullibility among well-schooled masses. 
Jacques Ellul is the most compelling analyst of this awful phenomenon, in his canonical 
essay Propaganda. He fingers schooling as an unparalleled propaganda instrument; if a 
schoolbook prints it and a teacher affirms it, who is so bold as to demur? 

The Technology Of Subjection 

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