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ROBERT SCHUETTINGER, Modern Education vs. Democracy - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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Modern Education vs. Democracy
“Observe that there is a certain flavor of totalitarianism about [progressive education]: it is just the form our totalitarianism would take—kindly, humane, fussy, bureaucratic, flat, insipid, like a minor civil servant’s dream, without energy or power, hazard or enterprise, the standards set by people who cannot write English, who have no poetry or vision or daring, without the capacity to love or hate.”—Professor A. L. Rowse, Oxford University.
IN THIS Year One of the New Frontier, there are few, if any, objective observers who will deny that whatever else the Deweyites did to America’s schools, they did not turn them into centers of learning. It has, unfortunately become a commonplace that the sort of person who would commend the intellectual ability of the average education professor is precisely the sort who would have arisen, in another time, to praise the good intentions of Hitler or Stalin or, indeed, to defend the chastity of Messalina.
What the advocates of “modern” or “progressive” education will claim is that, while their students may not necessarily be able to read or write1 , they are all well-indoctrinated in certain “understandings and attitudes” which are far more vital to the educated man than mere literacy. That is, they have all been pumped full of the Standard Brand of “Democracy” . . . as approved by Teachers College, Columbia.
The fact of the matter is, however, that the educationists, as a profession, are doing more than any other organized group to destroy equality of opportunity in the United States today. Far from being apostles of democracy, they have, in reality, become its most effective enemies.
It is true, of course, that the educational bureaucrats who control most of our schools, talk and write a good deal about “our democratic way of life.” Sometimes, it seems as though they talk about nothing else. They love to attend “workshops” where they can sit around in their shirtsleeves (what could be more democratic?) and devise “new and attractive” courses for the re-moulding of “our wonderful boys and girls”; courses with such grandiose titles as: “Eleventh and Twelfth Grade: Growth in Effective Living through Problem-Centered Experiences Directed Toward Achieving the Highest Possible Quality of Human Experience through Striving for Social, Political and Economic Democracy in Its Local, State and National Setting, and for Peace and Co-operation on the International Scene.”2
On the surface, I suppose it is difficult to believe that these naive people, whatever short-comings they may have, are not sincere advocates of democracy. Yet I am convinced that, knowingly or unknowingly, they are doing great harm to the cause of democracy; in this essay I want to demonstrate precisely how and why this has come about.
If the word democracy has any meaning in relation to education (outside of its strict political use) it must stand for equality of opportunity for all students regardless of their racial, reigious or economic background. I believe that it can be demonstrated that most educationists (though they themselves are probably not fully aware of the implications of their own ideas) are working to deny equality of opportunity to many of their students—on the basis of their racial, religious or economic origins.
The largest lobby in Washington, the National Education Association, has been spending its members’ dues on a lavish scale for many years in order to persuade Congress to pass a federal-aid-to-education bill. Apparently, the NEA leaders do not realize (or do not care) that such federal action would discriminate against students who prefer to attend religious or other non-public schools. The parents of private and parochial school students, in addition to paying their own tuitions, as well as their share of their community’s school taxes, will be forced to pay higher federal taxes in order to provide more expensive facilities (not necessarily better education) for those children who choose to attend public schools. None of this money would go to any private or parochial school—which is as it should be. The point is, however, that many parents will be deprived of funds that they might have used to improve the non-public school attended by their own children. The result will be that private school students will be pressured into enrolling in the state system if they wish to share in the extra facilities which will be available to the public school student.
This withering away of the private schools is, of course, the eventual goal of such educators as Dr. Conant, who regards private schools as “divisive” and would like to see all children forced to attend the same school system so that they might all have the same opportunity to learn the officially-approved meaning of democracy.
It is true that the parents of many (though by no means all) private school students are wealthy and will be able to contribute sufficient funds to keep their schools in operation. This does not apply, however, in the case of church-related schools, whose students will suffer most, since few of their parents are well-to-do. In addition to many Catholics, Jews and Protestants, who may no longer be able to give their children an education of their own choosing, many Negroes in the South will also be set back several steps.
Since no federal education program is likely to be legislated over the opposition of Southern congressmen, a good part of the funds appropriated will be spent in strengthening the system of segregated schools in the South, many of which were becoming economically unfeasible even before the Supreme Court decision. I need hardly add that few, if any, of the State Education Departments in the South would be willing to divide federal money equally between white and Negro schools.3 In the light of this, no one, unless he believed in the kind of totalitarian “democracy” preached by the Fascists and Communists, would call such government enforced discrimination democratic.
Perhaps the most widespread and most dangerous form of discrimination, however, is that directed against students from culturally deprived or lower-income families. Dr. George D. Spache, head of the Reading Laboratory and Professor of Education at the University of Florida, recently expressed4 a point of view on this subject which is shared by many leading educationists.
“Reading,” according to Dr. Spache, “is as much a sociological process as it is a psychological or personal one. Therefore, before we can expect to help the poor reader perform at what we consider a normal level, we must consider what is normal for his environmental setting. What part does reading play in the family’s leisure time? What are the parental attitudes toward his reading? We should certainly attempt to improve the status symbols of breadth of reading, verbal fluency, reading tastes and interests. But we must recognize that these must be realistically related to the probable uses of reading for this child now and in the future in his environmental setting.”
It would seem, then, that Dr. Spache is advocating a kind of educational and cultural determinism. He and others like him, who proclaim that they alone know what is best for the student, appear to be interested only in preserving the status quo. One report5 , which was received by most educationists as gospel truth, declared bluntly that 85% of our students are not capable of absorbing a genuine education and can only be given vocational training which will make them into “useful members of society.” As Mortimer Smith remarked, those would-be “social-engineers” are saying in effect: “Bow, bow, ye lower middle casses, accept what is normal for your environmental setting—and continue to read comics and the tabloids.”
It should not be supposed, moreover, that such anti-democratic attitudes are confined to a small minority of our educational philosophers. A widely used education text, The High School Curriculum, observes that “English teachers have suddenly discovered that many is the boy who says ‘I ain’t got no’ because his parents say it, his friends say it and his community says it. Furthermore,” say the educationists, “these parents see no reason why they should change or why their sons should change.” (Italics mine)6 . If I had not been informed to the contrary by so many experts, I would have thought (in my untutored simplicity) that it would be a rare parent indeed who did not want his children to have a better education and a better start in life that he. Abraham Lincoln’s illiterate father could never have known about the findings of such scholars as Dr. Spache; else he would never have permitted his son to read books which were clearly “not normal for his enviornmental setting.”
It would be a serious mistake to write off such nincompoopery as the harmless prancing of would-be scholars who will never quite be recognized as such by the academic profession. Incredible as it may sometimes seem it is these people who are firmly in control of the great majority of the public schools in the United States today. If the present trend continues, only those students whose parents can afford to send them to a private school will know that the sentence “A great heap of books are on the table” is incorrect7 . The very men who are talking most about democracy in education are also laying it down as dogma all over the country that no one has a right to speak like a cultivated person who was not born to parents who were themselves fortunate enough to have received a good education. It will not be too difficult to predict what will happen to the bright student who is poor but who is also presumptious enough to think that he might be able to raise his station in life. He will probably apply to a good college; however, in the entrance examinations and interviews he will be competing with boys who may be less gifted than he but who do know not to say “ain’t” when talking to a Dean. Under these circumstances, there is no need to ask what chance he will have. If he is lucky he may still be admitted to an inferior college. There he may be trained to perform some second-rate task under the supervision of a gentleman’s son who speaks English instead of the vulgate and is, therefore, always called “Sir.”
IT WOULD be interesting to know what motivates these educationists in their zeal for keeping their students on as low a level as possible. Laziness cannot be the answer since it surely requires far more effort to think up elaborate new reasons for not teaching reading and writing (to say nothing of history and science) than it would to simply respond to their students’ natural desire to learn. If the prodigious energy which is diverted into making up gargantuan lists of the “aims and purposes of democratic education”8 were devoted to teaching we would probably see a significant increase in the number of high school graduates who are able to fill out their driver’s licenses without assistance.
I think that we may find a clue in Emile Faguet’s perceptive book on the ills of democracy, The Cult of Incompetence. In his last chapter, M. Faguet asks himself why it was that the French public school teachers were so unanimous in taking a paternal attitude toward the lower economic classes. Despite their mediocre capacities, these teachers enjoyed considering themselves “Liberal intellectuals”; they eagerly aped the ideas of the latter-day philosophes and flitted from one fashionable brand of socialism to the next as they dutifully (and always self-righteously) espoused the “cause” of the workers. They affected a great contempt for the middle-class (from which most of them had sprung) and naturally held a bitter hatred for the upper classes, who possessed all the advantages and power that they thought should have been given to themselves. After the Revolution, of course, genuine merit would receive its just due!
Eric Hoffer in his analysis of fanaticism, The True Believer, points out that the “non-creative man of words” (the would-be intellectual who will never produce the great work that he secretly believes himself capable of writing) very often finds an outlet for his frustrations in joining a cause which promises to shape the world into his own image of righteousness. M. Faguet’s explanation for the monolithic Liberalism of the public school teachers is similar to Mr. Hoffer’s and, I think, is, in the main, correct. These teachers, he notes, were clearly an inferior lot: not able enough to direct a business and not scholarly enough to become professors, they were denied the recognition that their egos so deeply carved.
They gained a deep satisfaction, therefore, in championing the aspirations of the lower classes but, at the same time, they never let the workers forget that they, their natural superiors, were performing an act of noblesse oblige by watching over their interests. A bright workingman’s son would not fit into the picture; he must be kept at his own level and not be allowed to challenge the jealously guarded preeminence of the teacher in his own classroom. Most public school teachers in the United States now come from the lowest percentiles of university graduates, usually ranking below agriculture students. It should not be too surprising that such people fear, above all else, being “shown up” by a student of superior intelligence. To avoid this, therefore, bright students must be kept at the level of the slow learner, and all, so far as is possible, must be exposed to the bare minimum of education.
There is no shortage of evidence to substantiate the fact that most of our public school teachers denigrate competition and the pursuit of excellence in the classroom. Their own sense of mediocracy is so great, in fact, that the lengths to which they will go to avoid any comparison with their colleagues can only be described as desperate. A typical example of this passion for anonymity occurred recently in Racine, Wisconsin, where a group of 577 public school teachers rejected a proposed merit pay plan by a vote of 466 to 111. Instead, they adopted a plan whereby all teachers with the same length of service in a classification received the same pay regardless of individual ability.
Is it any wonder that such people are unlikely to encourage a bright but poor boy to improve himself and his family? Their watchword is “normality”; they heave a sigh of relief whenever they see it. The write “works and plays well with others” and reflect with satisfaction that one more American boy can be counted on never to do anything original.
I do not think it possible to exaggerate the dangers to our society emanating from our teachers’ colleges and the NEA. I hope I have made it clear that if their policies are not checked the result will be the creation of what Disraeli called “two nations”: one a nation of aristocrats forever set apart from the other, a nation of the poor, burdened by so many class distinctions, including language, that they will have little hope of ever changing their status for the better. No matter what their reasons may be, the inheritors of the mantle of Dewey are, in fact, building a static society which will end by enthroning the worst kind of reacton.
A SUMMER SCHOOL FOR LIBERTARIAN-CONSERVATIVE COLLEGE STUDENTS . . .
. . . will be held in New York City during the months of July and August. Lectures by noted speakers and discussion courses and seminars in economics, political theory, current affairs, history and philosophy will be offered.
The summer school will be conducted in up to eight sections of one week each. Tuition will be approximately $10 a week.
Students may attend any combination of sections (from one to eight weeks; each week will be different). If there is sufficient interest from employed students, additional courses may be offered in the evenings at reduced tuition.
Prospective students should write to Education Department, NEW INDIVIDUALIST REVIEW, P.O. Box 4309, Chicago 80, Illinois, stating their background, dates they would want to attend and courses they would like to see offered. Although the summer school will be primarily for college students a few high school students may be considered.
[* ] Robert Schuettinger, a graduate of Queens College, studied history at Columbia University before coming to the Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago.
[1 ] On the occasion of her appointment to the Educational Policies Commission of the NEA, Mrs. Rachel Royston Knutson, counselor at Sharples Junior High School, Seattle, made this contribution to educational thought: “Who’s to say that everybody can read? Or write, or play the piano? Personally, I’m barely able to swim across a pool and I doubt if all the teaching in the world would make me a good swimmer.” See Council for Basic Education Bulletin, September, 1959, p. 4. Mrs. Knutson’s views are by no means unique among educationists.
[2 ] Douglas, Harl R., editor, The High School Curriculum, New York, 1956, p. 285.
[3 ] The federal government is already a “silent partner” in the perpetuation of unequal schooling in the South. Federal funds now provide about 15 per cent of the revenues for state budgets for college education in the Deep South. State legislatures divert nearly all this money to white schools. See Edward P. Morgan’s column in The New York Post, January 21, 1961.
[4 ]Education Digest, November, 1960.
[5 ] Conant, James, The American High School Today, New York, 1958.
[6 ] Douglas, op. cit., p. 392.
[7 ] The Iowa Department of Public Instruction lists, in a handbook for English, a number of examples of poor usage (such as these kind of letters are scarce, a great heap of books are on the table, etc.) and then states: “Teaching corrections for these . . . is a waste of time and a source of confusion to the students. . . . Only in formal literary writing and in formal speech are finer distinctions made.” See CBE Bulletin, September, 1958, p. 6.
[8 ] In one education text the desirable “behavioral outcomes” of an ideal high school education are listed in a monumental classification extending for one hundred and twenty pages; the list is a prize example of what Stephen Leacock called “oceans of piffle.” Outcome No. 1.122a is “writes and speaks with sufficient clarity and in good enough form to communicate with others.” No. 1.241g is “helps when necessary to eliminate insects and vermin which carry germs.” The ideal American student “wears (if a girl) with growing self-assurance, appropriate foundation garments and clothing properly styled for the maturing figure.” (1.133i). See Will French and Associates, Behavioral Goals of General Education in High School, New York 1957.