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An American Affidavit

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

63. Munsterberg And His Disciples: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

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 fundamental
social 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 

63. Munsterberg And His Disciples   
     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  

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