63. Munsterberg And His Disciples: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org
True Believers And The Unspeakable Chautauqua
A very small group of young psychologists around the turn of the century were able to create and market a system for measuring human talent that has permeated American institutions of learning and influenced such fundamentalsocial concepts as democracy, sanity, justice, welfare, reproductive rights, and economic progress. In creating, owning, and advertising this social technology the testers created themselves as professionals.
— Joanne Brown, The Definition of a Profession: The Authority of Metaphor in the History of Intelligence Testing
I have undertaken to get at the facts from the point of view of the business men — citizens of the community who, after all, pay the bills and, therefore, have a right to say what they shall have in their schools.
— Charles H. Thurber, from an address at the Annual Meeting of the National Education Association, July 9, 1897
The self-interested have had a large hand conceiving and executing twentieth-century schooling, yet once that's said, self-interest isn't enough to explain the zeal in confining other people's children in rooms, locked away from the world, the infernal zeal which, like a toadstool, keeps forcing its way to the surface in this business. Among millions of normal human beings professionally associated with the school adventure, a small band of true believers has been loose from the beginning, brothers and sisters whose eyes gleam in the dark, whose heartbeat quickens at the prospect of acting as "change agents" for a purpose beyond self-interest.
For true believers, children are test animals. The strongest belt in the engine of schooling is the strand of true belief. True believers can be located by their rhetoric; it reveals a scale of philosophical imagination which involves plans for you and me. All you need know about Mr. Laszlo, whose timeless faith song is cited in the front of this book (xiii), is that the "we" he joins himself to, the "masters who manipulate," doesn't really include the rest of us, except as objects of the exercise. Here is a true believer in full gallop. School history is crammed with wild-eyed orators, lurking just behind the lit stage. Like Hugo Munsterberg.
Munsterberg was one of the people who was in on the birth of twentieth-century mass schooling. In 1892, a recent emigre to America from Wilhelm Wundt's laboratory of physiological psychology at Leipzig, in Saxony, he was a Harvard Professor of Psychology. Munsterberg taught his students to look at schools as social laboratories suitable for testing theory, not as aggregates of young people pursuing their own purposes. The St. Louis Exposition of 1904 showcased his ideas for academicians all over the world, and the popular press made his notions familiar to upper middle classes horrified by the unfamiliar family ways of immigrants, eager to find ways to separate immigrant children from those alien practices of their parents.
Munsterberg's particular obsession lay in quantifying the mental and physical powers of the population for central government files, so policymakers could manage the nation's "human resources" efficiently. His students became leaders of the "standardization" crusade in America. Munsterberg was convinced that racial differences could be reduced to numbers, equally convinced it was his sacred duty to the Aryan race to do so. Aryanism crackled like static electricity across the surface of American university life in those days, its implications part of every corporate board game and government bureau initiative.
One of Munsterberg's favorite disciples, Lillian Wald, became a powerful advocate of medical incursions into public schools. The famous progressive social reformer wrote in 1905: "It is difficult to place a limit upon the service which medical inspection should perform," 1 continuing, "Is it not logical to conclude that physical development. ..should so far as possible be demanded?" One year later, immigrant public schools in Manhattan began performing tonsillectomies and adenoidectomies in school without notifying parents. The New York Times (June 29, 1906) reported that "Frantic Italians" — many armed with stilettos — "stormed" three schools, attacking teachers and dragging children from the clutches of the true believers into whose hands they had fallen. Think of the conscience which would ascribe to itself the right to operate on children at official discretion and you will know beyond a doubt what a true believer smells like.
Even a cursory study of the history of the school institution turns up true belief in rich abundance. In a famous book, The Proper Study of Mankind (1948), paid for by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Russell Sage Foundation, the favorite principle of true believers since Plato makes an appearance: "A society could be completely made over in something like 15 years, the time it takes to inculcate a new culture into a rising group of youngsters." Despite the spirit of profound violence hovering over such seemingly bloodless, abstract formulas, this is indeed the will-o-the- wisp pursued throughout the twentieth century in forced schooling — not intellectual development, not character development, but the inculcation of a new synthetic culture in children, one designed to condition its subjects to a continual adjusting of their lives by unseen authorities.
It's true that numerically, only a small fraction of those who direct institutional schooling are actively aware of its ideological bent, but we need to see that without consistent generalship from that knowledgeable group in guiding things, the evolution of schooling would long ago have lost its coherence, degenerating into battles between swarms of economic and political interests fighting over the treasure-house that hermetic pedagogy represents. One of the hardest things to understand is that true believers — dedicated ideologues — are useful to all interests in the school stew by providing a salutary continuity to the enterprise.
Because of the predictable greed embedded in this culture, some overarching "guardian" vision, one indifferent to material gain, seems necessary to prevent marketplace chaos. True believers referee the school game, establishing its goals, rules, penalties; they negotiate and compromise with other stakeholders. And strangely enough, above all else, they can be trusted to continue being their predictable, dedicated, selfless selves. Pragmatic stakeholders need them to keep the game alive; true believers need pragmatists as cover. Consider this impossibly melodramatic if you must. I know myself that parts of my story sound like leaves torn from Ragtime. But from start to finish this is a tale of true believers and how by playing on their pipes they took all the children away.
1 Forced medical inspection had been a prominent social theme in northern Germany since at least 1750. The Prototype Is A Schoolteacher