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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

215. Natural Selection: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Natural Selection 

In 1895, the National Education Association announced that school science courses 
should be reorganized to teach evolution not as theory but as fact. Biology textbooks 



began to present evolution to secondary schools and colleges with an extraordinary 
aggressiveness: 

We do not know of any competent naturalist who has any hesitation in accepting the 
general doctrine. (Yale University Press, 1895) 

There is no rival hypothesis to evolution, except the out-worn and completely refuted one 
of special creation, now retained only by the ignorant, dogmatic, and the prejudiced. 
(Macmillan Publishers, 1895) 

What evolution has to do with the macropolitics of schooling becomes clear if you 
consider that both are concerned with what should be encouraged to thrive, and what 
should be helped to perish. Evolutionary theory made all the difference in how systematic 
schooling was internally arranged. Too much effort wasn't wasted on hopeless trash, and 
the good stock was separated from the common. With justification. 

Global entrepreneurs such as John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Andrew Carnegie found natural 
selection to be a perfect explanation for their laissez-faire economic principles. To 
Rockefeller, for instance, "the growth of large business is merely survival of the fittest"; 
savage business practices aren 't evil, "merely the working out of a law of nature and a 
law of God." According to Herbert Spencer, nothing escaped evolution's power: "every 
single organism" or institution evolved, religions evolved, economies evolved; evolution 
exposed democratic theory for the childish fantasy it really was. 

But among common men and women in America who still believed in special creation 
and democracy, the perception spread that a new political order was strip-mining their 
uniquely American common rights and liberties like so much coal. In the waning years of 
the nineteenth century, social unrest was the most crucial problem confronting the 
security of ambitious new industrial elites. When the myths of George Washington and 
Tom Paine were flushed down the memory hole of schooling, and the personal call to 
duty of Christianity was — to use Macmillan's word — "refuted," a long-range dilemma 
emerged with no easy solution: no attractive social narrative remained from which to 
draw meaning. Hedonism, so essential to business success, had a social downside whose 
dimensions were difficult to predict. And the scientific story, in spite of prodigious labor 
expended in its behalf, left the unfortunate impression that life was only a goofy accident 
devoid of any greater significance. 

The Darwinian/Galtonian evolutionary script wrote the everyday citizen completely out 
of the story. It had to be faced that there was no room at the policy table for common 
citizens, yet thanks to the dangerous power vested in the American electorate through its 
national founding documents, the full bite of a democratic society stood as a latent threat 
to the would-be scientific ruling classes. Into this late nineteenth-century 
industrialization, immigrant confusion of national strikes and violence, breakaway 
urbanization, proletarianized labor, and political corruption, two ideas surfaced to offer 
an apparently sensible path through the maze. Each was a highly sophisticated social 
technology. 



One was the movement called Fabian socialism and its various fellow-traveling 
outriggers. The other was a kind of academic echo of Fabianism called "the theory of 
democratic elites" — offering a strange kind of democracy-lite which operated 
"democratically" without needing any direct popular authorization. Democratic elitism 
had, in fact, been the mock representational model of ancient Sparta. Its modern analogue 
retained the husk of democratic institutions while stifling the real voice of the people by 
depriving its elected spokesmen of any effective power, reducing the role of legislatures 
to a choice between competing expert conceptions. 

In its modern form, the theory of democratic elitism comes partly from John Stuart Mill, 
partly from the work of Italian intellectuals Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca, 
especially from the latter's essay of 1896, translated into English as The Ruling Class: 
Elements of a Science of Politics,'' a book vital to understanding twentieth-century 
schooling. The way to make a political regime stable across the centuries had eluded 
every wise man of history, but Mosca found the key: elites must deliberately and 
selectively feed on the brains and vitality of the lesser classes. 

Identified early enough inside the laboratory of government schooling, the best leadership 
of these classes could be uprooted and transplanted into ruling class society, 
reinvigorating the blood stock of the overclass: Count Dracula in education department 
drag. This genetic harvesting would deliver the best formula for social harmony. Potential 
future leaders among the underclasses would be targeted early in schooling, then weaned 
from any misguided loyalty to their own group, using incentives. Far from prying eyes, 
their minds would be conditioned in special "gifted" classes. 

While this process of vetting went on, school would also be used to train most of us in 
our role in traditional status hierarchies. Class rankings, specialized tracking, daily 
habituation to payoffs and punishments, and other means would accomplish the trick. 
Those elected for advancement would be drawn bit by bit into identification with the 
upper crust and with its ways of dress, speech, expectation, etc. They would come in this 
fashion to look upon their group of origin as evolutionarily retarded — a brilliant 
imaginative coup. 

It was profound advice, providing a social justification for the expense and trouble of the 
mass confinement schooling experiment, which had still not been fully launched at the 
time Mosca wrote his essay. While it was one thing to suggest, as Darwin did, that 
natural selection would improve the breed, one thing to say with Sir Henry Maine that the 
destiny of the Great Race would be advanced, one thing to say with the episcopal 
religions that God's will would thereby be done; some more down-to-earth surety had to 
be offered to an emerging superclass of industrialists and international bankers. Now 
such a surety was at hand in Mosca's guarantee of social stability. 

The theory of democratic elites, together with the promising new German mind sciences, 
provided all the tools needed to press ahead with the school experiment. Mosca's ideas 
were an academic hit across the recently Germanized university spectrum of America, a 
watchword in Germanized corporate boardrooms and private men's clubs. By the start of 



WWI, the familiar Common School idea survived only in the imagination of America's 
middle and working classes. In actual school practice it had given way to thoroughly 
regulated and tracked assemblages geared tightly to the clock, managed by layered 
hierarchies and all schematized into rigid class rankings. Class-reproduction was 
"scientifically" locked in place by standardized test scores, calibrated to the decimal. 
Objections were overridden by pointing to the "facts" of the matter. From its inception, 
evolutionary racism guided the forced-schooling car, test scores its communiques offered 
to the public as evidence of obedience to a higher. 

The theory of democratic elites provided a way for plutocracy hide inside the skin of 
democracy, to have ordinary people represented by the best selected by the best. Here 
was Orwellian Newspeak of a very high order. Since the commons could not be trusted to 
select the best from amongst itself, the community of quality would have to do it for 
them, backstage, concealing (in the interests of social efficiency but also from humane 
motives) the full reality of the radical political transformation. America was whisked off 
stage and replaced by a political imposter, anglicized in its attitudes. 

Walter Lippmann, among many, picked up these notes sounded by Mosca and augmented 
by the important American Fabian Herbert Croly in his book The Promise of American 
Life (1909). Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive platform of 1912 was heavily larded with 
Croly/Mosca substance, an outlook demanding the public step back and let experts make 
the important decisions so the promise of American life could be realized. With these 
precepts in mind, Lippmann produced his own pair of influential books, Public Opinion 
(1922), followed by The Phantom Public (1925). 

Public Opinion called for severe restrictions on public debate. The historic American 
argument was "a defect of democracy." It was impossible, said Lippmann, for the public 
even to know what its own best interests were. The public was hopelessly childish; it had 
to be cared for. Schools would have to teach children that the old ideal of active, 
participatory citizenship was biologically impossible. Decisions in complex industrial 
society had to be made by "invisible experts acting through government officials" for the 
good of all. 

The proper thing to do, said Lippmann, was give the public a "fairy tale" explanation, 
something to sustain it emotionally, as we tell a bedtime story to infants. Later, as he saw 
the effects of his advice unfold, Lippmann would repudiate them, but that's another story. 
The common public would have to be neutralized in the name of democracy for this 
expert society, this new republic based on sciences of human behavior to work. In this 
new world it wouldn't do to have shoemakers and hairdressers mucking about while 
important people built the future. In the state institution of forced schooling it would be 
better in the long run if children learned little or nothing in the short run. America was 
coming full circle to its British/Germanic and episcopal beginnings. 

In the Mosca/Croly/Lippmann redefinition of democracy, common people traded their 
right to be heard on policy matters in exchange for being taken care of. It was the 
mother's bargain with her infants. The enormous training project called School, 



proceeding in deliberate stages across the twentieth century as opportunity presented 
itself and traveling at the speed of electronics as the century ended, had as its purpose 
creation of an automatic social order which could be managed by unreachable national 
and international elites. It was a new type of flexible social organization capable of being 
driven in any direction at any time without the need to overcome interference. 

By the end of WWI, the labor market and much state/municipal contracting in America 
was effectively controlled by Fabian-minded administrators, selected by Fabian-minded 
university placement rings, all nourished by rich contracts garnered with the assistance of 
political clubs. Whether any of these actually had any connection to the Fabian brain trust 
(few did) was irrelevant. The atmosphere of schooling was saturated with its disciplined 
notions of Utopia. 

Another natural force was at work as well. With each passing decade, there accumulated 
more reasons to defend schools exactly as they were, not on ideological grounds at all but 
as a jobs project and a contract-distribution station. Millions had a financial stake in 
keeping schools as they were. The true philosophical and economic focus of the thing 
needed be known only to a handful of well-positioned social engineers in universities, 
foundations, and private associations. The thing ran on momentum now. The reach of 
schooling grew longer without any special effort. Secondary school enrollment went from 
15 percent of the population in 1910 to 40 percent in 1930, to 90 percent in 1960, and to 
blanket coverage by 1970. Almost every alternative to a well-schooled destiny was 
squeezed out, show business careers being a notable exception for the thoughtful to 
contemplate. 

With this development, the job pool established by institutional schooling became the 
leading single source of work in the United States, the very heart of the economy in small 
cities, towns, and villages. In this way school became a major foundation for local elites, 
directly and indirectly, through contract and hiring powers. All over America school 
became the core of local economies while, ironically, at the same time local minds and 
local customs were being rigorously barred from the policy table of American life. The 
money served as an effective incentive to self-destruct. 

Local schools and school boards began to behave as foreign intelligence bodies implanted 
in the cells of a host creature, parasitic growths on local life, remote-controlled from state 
and federal offices which dissolved local integrity by overriding its imperatives. 
Managers of this simulated "local" schooling descended on towns out of Stanford, 
Chicago, or Columbia Teachers almost on a status and income level with the ranking 
local leadership. As the century wore on, even the lowliest pedagogues were surprised to 
find themselves near the top of local wage scales. 

By the 1970s, schools were plunged headlong into a political campaign to redefine 
national purpose as international purpose, and to formally redefine Democracy as the 
ritual democracy allowed by democratic elites. Control of schooling by then was so 
dispersed that power could hardly be located at all in the hands of local administrators 
and school boards. The world designed by Plato and Thomas Hobbes had become reality. 



If you could not locate power you could not tamper with it. Local control passed into the 
realm of fiction as distantly prepared instruction entered schooling from state and federal 
agencies; the inner reality was that it had not been prepared even there but in colleges, 
foundations, corporations, and also — a noteworthy new development — in the offices of 
various United Nations agencies. 



Mosca's answer to the problem of political stability can be read clearly in the blatantly anti-democratic first edition of this often revised and 
reprinted classic. (Later editions are subtler with the central message concealed somewhat in metaphor. ) The rarely encountered 1 923 edition 
had great influence on Walter Lippmann's post-WWI generation, and the triumphant final version of 1939, which is easiest to locate, on 
Roosevelt's. 

The Great Transformation 

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