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An American Affidavit

Saturday, December 26, 2015

37. Bionomics: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org


The crude power and resources to make twentieth-century forced schooling happen as it 
did came from large corporations and the federal government, from powerful, lone- 
established families, and from the universities, now swollen with recruits from the 
declining Protestant ministry and from once-clerical families. All this is easy enough to 
trace once you know it's there. But the soul of the thing was far more complex, an 
amalgam of ancient religious doctrine, Utopian philosophy, and European/Asiatic strong- 
state politics mixed together and distilled. The great facade behind which this was 
happening was a new enlightenment: scientific scholarship in league with German 
research values brought to America in the last half of the nineteenth century. Modern 
German tradition always assigned universities the primary task of directly serving 
industry and the political state, but that was a radical contradiction of American tradition 
to serve the individual and the family. 

Indiana University provides a sharp insight into the kind of science-fictional 
consciousness developing outside the mostly irrelevant debate conducted in the press 
about schooling, a debate proceeding on early nineteenth century lines. By 1900, a 
special discipline existed at Indiana for elite students, Bionomics. Invitees were hand- 
picked by college president David Starr Jordan, who created and taught the course. It 
dealt with the why and how of producing a new evolutionary ruling class, although that 
characterization, suggesting as it does kings, dukes, and princes, is somewhat misleading. 
In the new scientific era dawning, the ruling class were those managers trained in the 
goals and procedures of new systems. Jordan did so well at Bionomics he was soon 
invited into the major leagues of university existence, (an invitation extended personally 
by rail tycoon Leland Stanford) to become first president of Stanford University, a school 
inspired by Andrew Carnegie's famous "Gospel of Wealth" essay. Jordan remained 
president of Stanford for thirty years. 

Bionomics acquired its direct link with forced schooling in a fortuitous fashion. When he 
left Indiana, Jordan eventually reached back to get his star Bionomics protege, Ellwood 
P. Cubberley, to become dean of Teacher Education at Stanford. In this heady position, 
young Cubberley made himself a reigning aristocrat of the new institution. He wrote a 
history of American schooling which became the standard of the school business for the 
next fifty years; he assembled a national syndicate which controlled administrative posts 

from coast to coast. Cubberley was the man to see, the kingmaker in American school life 
until its pattern was set in stone. 

Did the abstract and rather arcane discipline of Bionomics have any effect on real life? 
Well, consider this: the first formal legislation making forced sterilization a legal act on 
planet Earth was passed, not in Germany or Japan, but in the American state of Indiana, a 
law which became official in the famous 1927 Supreme Court test case Buck vs. Bell. 
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the majority opinion allowing seventeen-year-old 
Carrie Buck to be sterilized against her will to prevent her "degenerate offspring," in 
Holmes' words, from being born. Twenty years after the momentous decision, in the trial 
of German doctors at Nuremberg, Nazi physicians testified that their precedents were 
American — aimed at combating racial degeneracy. The German name for forced 
sterilization was "the Indiana Procedure." 

To say this bionomical spirit infected public schooling is only to say birds fly. Once you 
know it's there, the principle jumps out at you from behind every school bush. It suffused 
public discourse in many areas where it had claimed superior insight. Walter Lippmann, 
in 1922, demanded "severe restrictions on public debate," in light of the allegedly 
enormous number of feeble-minded Americans. The old ideal of participatory democracy 
was insane, according to Lippmann. 

The theme of scientifically controlled breeding interacted in a complex way with the old 
Prussian ideal of a logical society run by experts loyal to the state. It also echoed the idea 
of British state religion and political society that God Himself had appointed the social 
classes. What gradually began to emerge from this was a Darwinian caste-based 
American version of institutional schooling remote-controlled at long distance, 
administered through a growing army of hired hands, layered into intricate pedagogical 
hierarchies on the old Roman principle of divide and conquer. Meanwhile, in the larger 
world, assisted mightily by intense concentration of ownership in the new electronic 
media, developments moved swiftly also. 

In 1928, Edward L. Bernays, godfather of the new craft of spin control we call "public 
relations," told the readers of his book Crystallizing Public Opinion that "invisible 
power" was now in control of every aspect of American life. Democracy, said Bernays, 
was only a front for skillful wire-pulling. The necessary know-how to pull these crucial 
wires was available for sale to businessmen and policy people. Public imagination was 
controlled by shaping the minds of schoolchildren. 

By 1944, a repudiation of Jefferson's idea that mankind had natural rights was resonating 
in every corner of academic life. Any professor who expected free money from 
foundations, corporations, or government agencies had to play the scientific management 
string on his lute. In 1961, the concept of the political state as the sovereign principle 
surfaced dramatically in John F. Kennedy's famous inaugural address in which his 
national audience was lectured, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you 
can do for your country." 

Thirty-five years later, Kennedy's lofty Romanized rhetoric and metaphor were replaced 
by the tough-talking wise guy idiom of Time, instructing its readers in a 1996 cover story 
that "Democracy is in the worst interest of national goals." As Time reporters put it, "The 
modern world is too complex to allow the man or woman in the street to interfere in its 
management." Democracy was deemed a system for losers. 

To a public desensitized to its rights and possibilities, frozen out of the national debate, to 
a public whose fate was in the hands of experts, the secret was in the open for those who 
could read entrails: the original American ideals had been repudiated by their guardians. 
School was best seen from this new perspective as the critical terminal on a production 
line to create a Utopia resembling EPCOT Center, but with one important bionomical 
limitation: it wasn't intended for everyone, at least not for very long, this Utopia. 

Out of Johns Hopkins in 1996 came this chilling news: 

The American economy has grown massively since the mid 1960s, but workers' real 
spendable wages are no higher than they were 30 years ago. 

That from a book called Fat and Mean, about the significance of corporate downsizing. 
During the boom economy of the 1980s and 1990s, purchasing power rose for 20 percent 
of the population and actually declined 13 percent for the other four-fifths. Indeed, after 
inflation was factored in, purchasing power of a working couple in 1995 was only 8 
percent greater than for a single working man in 1905; this steep decline in common 
prosperity over ninety years forced both parents from home and deposited kids in the 
management systems of daycare, extended schooling, and commercial entertainment. 
Despite the century-long harangue that schooling was the cure for unevenly spread 
wealth, exactly the reverse occurred — wealth was 250 percent more concentrated at 
century's end than at its beginning. 

I don't mean to be inflammatory, but it's as if government schooling made people 
dumber, not brighter; made families weaker, not stronger; ruined formal religion with its 
hard-sell exclusion of God; set the class structure in stone by dividing children into 
classes and setting them against one another; and has been midwife to an alarming 
concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a fraction of the national community. 

Waking Up Angry 

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