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An American Affidavit

Friday, January 29, 2016

71. De-Moralizing School Procedure: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

De-Moralizing School Procedure 

But a strange thing happened as more and more children were drawn into the net, a crisis 
of an unexpected sort. At first those primitive one-room and two-room compulsion 
schools — even the large new secondary schools like Philadelphia's Central High — 
poured out large numbers of trained, disciplined intellects. Government schoolteachers in 
those early days chose overwhelmingly to emulate standards of private academies, and to 
a remarkable degree they succeeded in unwittingly sabotaging the hierarchical plan being 
moved on line. Without a carefully trained administrative staff (and most American 
schools had no administrators), it proved impossible to impose the dumbing-down 
process 1 promised by the German prototype. In addition, right through the 1920s, a 
skilled apprenticeship alternative was active in the United States, traditional training that 
still honored our national mythology of success. 

Ironically, the first crisis provoked by the new school institution was taking its rhetorical 
mandate too seriously. From it poured an abundance of intellectually trained minds at 
exactly the moment when the national economy of independent livelihoods and 
democratic workplaces was giving way to professionally managed, accountant-driven 
hierarchical corporations which needed no such people. The typical graduate of a one- 
room school represented a force antithetical to the logic of corporate life, a cohort 
inclined to judge leadership on its merit, one reluctant to confer authority on mere titles. 2 

Immediate action was called for. Cubberley's celebratory history doesn't examine 
motives, but does uneasily record forceful steps taken just inside the new century to nip 
the career of intellectual schooling for the masses in the bud, replacing it with a different 
goal: the forging of "well-adjusted" citizens. 

Since 1900, and due more to the activity of persons concerned with social legislation and 
those interested in improving the moral welfare of children than to educators themselves, 
there has been a general revision of the compulsory education laws of our States and the 
enactment of much new child- welfare... and anti-child-labor legislation. ...These laws have 
brought into the schools not only the truant and the incorrigible, who under former 
conditions either left early or were expelled, but also many children... who have no 

aptitude for book learning and many children of inferior mental qualities who do not 
profit by ordinary classroom procedures. ...Our schools have come to contain many 
children who. ..become a nuisance in the school and tend to demoralize school procedure. 
[emphasis added] 

We're not going to get much closer to running face-to-face into the true believers and the 
self-interested parties who imposed forced schooling than in Cubberley's mysterious 
"persons concerned with social legislation." At about the time Cubberley refers to, Walter 
Jessup, president of the University of Iowa, was publicly complaining, "Now America 
demands we educate the whole.... It is a much more difficult problem to teach all children 
than to teach those who want to learn." 

Common sense should tell you it isn't "difficult" to teach children who don't want to 
learn. It's impossible. Common sense should tell you "America" was demanding nothing 
of the sort. But somebody most certainly was insisting on universal indoctrination in class 
subordination. The forced attendance of children who want to be elsewhere, learning in a 
different way, meant the short happy career of academic public schooling was 
deliberately foreclosed, with "democracy" used as the excuse. The new inclusive 
pedagogy effectively doomed the bulk of American children. 

What you should take away from this is the deliberate introduction of children who 
"demoralize school procedure," children who were accommodated prior to this legislation 
in a number of other productive (and by no means inferior) forms of training, just as 
Benjamin Franklin had been. Richard Hofstadter and other social historians have 
mistakenly accepted at face value official claims that "democratic tradition" — the will of 
the people — imposed this anti-intellectual diet on the classroom. Democracy had nothing 
to do with it. 

What we are up against is a strategic project supported by an uneasy coalition of elites, 
each with its own private goals in mind for the common institution. Among those goals 
was the urge to go to war against diversity, to impose orthodoxy on heterodox society. 
For an important clue to how this was accomplished we return to Cubberley: 

The school reorganized its teaching along lines dictated by the new psychology of 
instruction which had come to us from abroad.... Beginning about 1880 to 1885 our 
schools began to experience a new but steady change in purpose [though] it is only since 
about 1900 that any marked and rapid changes have set in. 

The new psychology of instruction cited here is the new experimental psychology of 
Wilhelm Wundt at Leipzig, which dismissed the very existence of mind as an 
epiphenomenon. Children were complex machines, capable of infinite "adjustments." 
Here was the beginning of that new and unexpected genus of schooling which Bailyn said 
"troubled well-disposed, high-minded people," and which elevated a new class of 
technocrat like Cubberley and Dewey to national prominence. The intention to sell 
schooling as a substitute for faith is caught clearly in Cubberley's observation: "However 
much we may have lost interest in the old problems of faith and religion, the American 

people have come to believe thoroughly in education." New subjects replaced "the old 
limited book subject curriculum, both elementary and secondary." 

This was done despite the objections of many teachers and citizens, and much ridicule 
from the public press. Many spoke sneeringly of the new subjects. 

Cubberley provides an accurate account of the prospective new City on the Hill for which 
"public education" was to be a prelude, a City which rose hurriedly after the failed 
populist revolt of 1896 frightened industrial leaders. I've selected six excerpts from 
Cubberley's celebrated History which allow you to see, through an insider's eyes, the 
game that was afoot a century ago as U.S. school training was being fitted for its German 
uniform. (All emphasis in the list that follows is my own): 

1 . The Spanish-American War of 1898 served to awaken us as a nation... It revealed 
to us something of the position we should be called on to occupy in world 

2. For the two decades following.... the specialization of labor and the introduction 
of labor-saving machinery tookplace to an extent before unknown.... The national 
and state government were called upon to do many things for the benefit of the 
people never attempted before. 

3. Since 1898, education has awakened a public interest before unknown.... 
Everywhere state educational commissions and city school surveys have 
evidenced a new critical attitude.... Much new educational legislation has been 
enacted; permission has been changed to obligation; minimum requirements have 
been laid down by the States in many new directions; and new subjects of 
instruction have been added by the law. Courses of study have been entirely made 

over and new types of textbooks have appeared A complete new system of 

industrial education, national in scope, has been developed. 

4. New normal schools have been founded and higher requirements have been 
ordered for those desiring to teach. College departments of education have 
increased from eleven in 1891 to something like five hundred today [1919] . 
Private gifts to colleges and universities have exceeded anything known before in 
any land. School taxes have been increased, old school funds more carefully 
guarded, and new constitutional provisions as to education have been added. 

5 . Compulsory education has begun to be a reality, and child-labor laws to be 

6. A new interest in child-welfare and child-hygiene has arisen, evidencing 
commendable desire to look after the bodies as well as the minds of children.... 

Here in a brief progression is one window on the problem of modern schooling. It set out 
to build a new social order at the beginning of the twentieth century (and by 1970 had 
succeeded beyond all expectations), but in the process it crippled the democratic 

experiment of America, disenfranchising ordinary people, dividing families, creating 
wholesale dependencies, grotesquely extending childhoods. It emptied people of full 
humanity in order to convert them into human resources. 

1 It was not really until the period around 1914 that sufficient teacher training facilities, regulated 
texts,controlled certification, uniform testing, stratified administrative cadres, and a sufficiently alienated 
public allowed the new age of schooling to tentatively begin. 

2 In conservative political theory dating back to Thucydides, meritocracy is seen as a box of trouble. It 
creates such a competitive flux that no society can remain orderly and loyal to its governors because the 
governors can't guarantee preferment in licensing, appointments, grants, etc., in return. Meritocratic 
successes, having earned their place, are notoriously disrespectful. The most infamous meritocrat of history 
was Alcibiades, who ruined Athens, a cautionary name known to every elite college class, debating society, 
lyceum, or official pulpit in America. 

William Torrey Harris 

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