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An American Affidavit

Saturday, January 30, 2016

72. William Torrey Harris: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

William Torrey Harris 

If you have a hard time believing that this revolution in the contract ordinary Americans 
had with their political state was intentionally provoked, it's time for you to meet 
William Torrey Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906. No one, 
other than Cubberley, who rose out of the ranks of professional pedagogues ever had as 
much influence as Harris. Harris both standardized and Germanized our schools. Listen 
to his voice from The Philosophy of Education, published in 1906: 

Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, 
careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of 
substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual. 
—The Philosphy of Education (1906) 

Listen to Harris again, giant of American schooling, leading scholar of German 
philosophy in the Western hemisphere, editor and publisher of The Journal of Speculative 
Philosophy which trained a generation of American intellectuals in the ideas of the 
Prussian thinkers Kant and Hegel, the man who gave America scientifically age-graded 
classrooms to replace successful mixed-age school practice. Again, from The Philosophy 
of Education, Harris sets forth his gloomy vision: 

The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places.... It is to 
master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the 
power to withdraw from the external world. 
—The Philosphy of Education (1906) 

Nearly a hundred years ago, this schoolman thought self-alienation was the secret to 
successful industrial society. Surely he was right. When you stand at a machine or sit at a 
computer you need an ability to withdraw from life, to alienate yourself without a 
supervisor. How else could that be tolerated unless prepared in advance by simulated 

Birkenhead drills? School, thought Harris, was sensible preparation for a life of 
alienation. Can you say he was wrong? 

In exactly the years Cubberley of Stanford identified as the launching time for the school 
institution, Harris reigned supreme as the bull goose educator of America. His was the 
most influential voice teaching what school was to be in a modern, scientific state. School 
histories commonly treat Harris as an old-fashioned defender of high academic standards, 
but this analysis is grossly inadequate. Stemming from his philosophical alignment with 
Hegel, Harris believed that children were property and that the state had a compelling 
interest in disposing of them as it pleased. Some would receive intellectual training, most 
would not. Any distinction that can be made between Harris and later weak curriculum 
advocates (those interested in stupefaction for everybody) is far less important than 
substantial agreement in both camps that parents or local tradition could no longer 
determine the individual child's future. 

Unlike any official schoolman until Conant, Harris had social access to important salons 
of power in the United States. Over his long career he furnished inspiration to the 
ongoing obsessions of Andrew Carnegie, the steel man who first nourished the conceit of 
yoking our entire economy to cradle-to-grave schooling. If you can find copies of The 
Empire of Business (1902) or Triumphant Democracy (1886), you will find remarkable 
congruence between the world Carnegie urged and the one our society has achieved. 

Carnegie's "Gospel of Wealth" idea took his peers by storm at the very moment the great 
school transformation began — the idea that the wealthy owed society a duty to take over 
everything in the public interest, was an uncanny echo of Carnegie's experience as a boy 
watching the elite establishment of Britain and the teachings of its state religion. It would 
require perverse blindness not to acknowledge a connection between the Carnegie 
blueprint, hammered into shape in the Greenwich Village salon of Mrs. Botta after the 
Civil War, and the explosive developments which restored the Anglican worldview to our 

Chapter Six 

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