215. Natural Selection: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org
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 andcolleges 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.
6. 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.