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An American Affidavit

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

68. Godless, But Not Irreligious: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Godless, But Not Irreligious 

True believers are only one component of American schooling, as a fraction probably a 
small one, but they constitute a tail that wags the dog because they possess a blueprint 
and access to policy machinery, while most of the rest of us do not. The true believers we 
call great educators — Komensky, Mather, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Mann, Dewey, Sears, 
Cubberley, Thorndike, et al. — were ideologues looking for a religion to replace one they 
never had or had lost faith in. As an abstract type, men like this have been analyzed by 
some of the finest minds in the history of modern thought — Machiavelli, Tocqueville, 
Renan, William James to name a few — but the clearest profile of the type was set down 
by Eric Hoffer, a one-time migrant farm worker who didn't learn to read until he was 
fifteen years old. In The True Believer, a luminous modern classic, Hoffer tells us: 

Though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious. The true believer is 
everywhere on the march, shaping the world in his own image. Whether we line up with 
him or against him, it is well we should know all we can concerning his nature and 

It looks to me as if the energy to run this train was released in America from the stricken 
body of New England Calvinism when its theocracy collapsed from indifference, 
ambition, and the hostility of its own children. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, 
shortly after we became a nation, this energy gave rise to what Allan Bloom dubbed "the 

new American religion," eventually combining elements of old Calvinism with flavors of 
Anabaptism, Ranting, Leveling, Quakerism, rationalism, positivism, and that peculiar 
Unitarian spice: scientism. 1 

Where the parent form of American Calvinism had preached the rigorous exclusion of all 
but a tiny handful deemed predestinated for salvation (the famous "Saints" or "justified 
sinners"), the descendant faith, beginning about the time of the Great Awakening of the 
1740s, demanded universal inclusion, recruitment of everyone into a universal, unitarian 
salvation — whether they would be so recruited or not. It was a monumental shift which in 
time infiltrated every American institution. In its demand for eventual planetary unity the 
operating logic of this hybrid religion, which derived from a medley of Protestant sects as 
well as from Judaism, in a cosmic irony was intensely Catholic right down to its core. 

After the Unitarian takeover of Harvard in 1805, orthodox Calvinism seemingly reached 
the end of its road, but so much explosive energy had been tightly bound into this intense 
form of sacred thought — an intensity which made every act, however small, brim with 
significance, every expression of personality proclaim an Election or Damnation — that in 
its structural collapse, a ferocious energy was released, a tornado that flashed across the 
Burned Over District of upstate New York, crossing the lakes to Michigan and other 
Germanized outposts of North America, where it split suddenly into two parts — one 
racing westward to California and the northwest territories, another turning southwest to 
the Mexican colony called Texas. Along the way, Calvin's by now much altered legacy 
deposited new religions like Mormonism and Seventh Day Adventism, raised colleges 
like the University of Michigan and Michigan State (which would later become fortresses 
of the new schooling religion) and left prisons, insane asylums, Indian reservations, and 
poorhouses in its wake as previews of the secularized global village it aimed to create. 

School was to be the temple of a new, all-inclusive civil religion. Calvinism had 
stumbled, finally, from being too self-contained. This new American form, learning from 
Calvinism's failure, aspired to become a multicultural super-system, world-girdling in the 
fullness of time. Our recent military invasions of Haiti, Panama, Iraq, the Balkans, and 
Afghanistan, redolent of the palmy days of British empire, cannot be understood from the 
superficial justifications offered. Yet, with an eye to Calvin's legacy, even foreign policy 
yields some of its secret springs. Calvinist origins armed school thinkers from the start 
with a utilitarian contempt for the notion of free will. 

Brain-control experiments being explored in the psychophysical labs of northern 
Germany in the last quarter of the nineteenth century attracted rich young men from 
thousands of prominent American families. Such mind science seemed to promise that 
tailor-made technologies could emerge to shape and control thought, technologies which 
had never existed before. Children, the new psychologies suggested, could be emptied, 
denatured, then reconstructed to more accommodating designs. H.G. Wells' Island of Dr. 
Moreau was an extrapolation-fable based on common university-inspired drawing room 
conversations of the day. 

David Hume's empirical philosophy, working together with John Locke's empiricism, 
had prepared the way for social thinkers to see children as blank slates — an opinion 
predominant among influentials long before the Civil War and implicit in Machiavelli, 
Bodin, and the Bacons. German psychophysics and physiological psychology seemed a 
wonderful manufactory of the tools a good political surgeon needed to remake the 
modern world. Methods for modifying society and all its inhabitants began to crystallize 
from the insights of the laboratory. A good living could be made by saying it was so, 
even if it weren't true. When we examine the new American teacher college movement at 
the turn of this century we discover a resurrection of the methodology of Prussian 
philosopher Herbart well underway. Although Herbart had been dead a long time by then, 
he had the right message for the new age. According to Herbart, "Children should be cut 
to fit." 

This essay is packed with references to Unitarians, Quakers, Anglicans, and other sects because without understanding something about their 
nature, and ambitions, it is utterly impossible to comprehend where school came from and why it took the shape it did. Nevertheless, it should 
be kept in mind that I am always referring to movements within these religions as they existed before the lifetime of any reader. Ideas set in 
motion long ago are still in motion because they took institutional form, but I have little knowledge of the modern versions of these sects, 
which for all I know are boiling a different kettle offish. 

Three groups descending from the seventeenth-century Puritan Reformation in England have been principal influences on American schooling, 
providing shape, infrastructure, ligatures, and intentions, although only one is popularly regarded as Puritan — the New England 
Congregationalists. The Congregational mind in situ, first around the Massachusetts coast, then by stages in the astonishing Connecticut Valley 
displacement (when Yale became its critical resonator), has been exhaustively studied. But Quakers, representing the left wing of Puritan 
thought, and Unitarians — that curious mirror obverse of Calvinism — are much easier to understand when seen as children of Calvinist energy, 
too. These three, together with the episcopacy in New York and Philadelphia, gathered in Columbia University and Penn, the Morgan Bank and 
elsewhere, have dominated the development of government schooling. Baptist Brown and Baptist Chicago are important to understand, too, 
and important bases of Dissenter variation like Presbyterian Princeton cannot be ignored, nor Baptist/Methodist centers at Dartmouth and 
Cornell, or centers of Freethought like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and New York University in New York City. But someone in a hurry to 
understand where schooling came from and why it took the shape it did would not go far wrong by concentrating attention on the machinations 
of Boston, Philadelphia, Hartford, and New York City in school affairs from 1800 to 1850, or by simply examining the theologies of 
Congregationalism, Unitarianism, Hicksite and Gurneyite Quakerism, and ultimately the Anglican Communion, to discover how these, in 
complex interaction, have given us the forced schooling which so well suits their theologies. 

An Insider's Insider 

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