The K-12 Conspiracy
John Dewey is often blamed (by me and many others) for being the cause of the long, relentless decline in American public education. In fairness, he is only the famous face of a bigger story.
In the early years of the 20th century, as the Victorian era moved toward the wasteland of World War I, anxiety and ferment rippled across America and Europe. Unions were rising; revolution was preached in every capital; assassinations were common. There was genuine fear that civilization would fly apart.
Edward A. Ross, a sociologist, published an influential book in 1901: Social Control: a survey of the foundations of order, a title that tells you what was on everybody’s mind.
Ask the people who then controlled American society, and they would tell you there were far too many ignorant immigrants coming from Europe. There were far too many unruly peasants of all kinds. The Civil War had ended 35 years earlier; millions of Southerners who participated in that war were still alive and still bitter. Many people feared – and others hoped – that the South would indeed rise again. The slaves had been freed – but where would that lead? The South was vastly torn up, and engaged in the process of rebuilding. Good schools were rare. In this shell-shocked semi-vacuum, well-organized do-gooders could make a huge difference. John D. Rockefeller wrote the book.
These currents and crosscurrents created a strange and shocking convergence. The far left and the far right somehow wanted the same things in public education:
Old money wanted to maintain the status quo by keeping the poor in their place. Ignorance was the tool of choice.
The Progressives (aka Socialists) said they wanted to transform the society. What was their method? Working through education, they would socially engineer children to be simpler and more cooperative. Remarkably, they ended up keeping the poor in their place. Ignorance was the tool of choice.
John D. Rockefeller, to improve his public image, poured millions into education. Around 1902, he funded yet another organization, the General Education Board, to influence education throughout the country, but especially in the South. The Board’s mentality is revealed in a letter from Frederick Taylor Gates, a Baptist minister and the GEB’s director, to the other members of the Board. As you read this, please savor the astonishing arrogance and paternalism. A century later, these traits still permeate our Education Establishment:
In our dreams, we have limitless resources and the people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding bands. The present education conventions fade from their minds, and unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive rural folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning, or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, editors, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have an ample supply.
The task we set before ourselves is very simple as well as a very beautiful one, to train these people as we find them to a perfectly ideal life just where they are. So we will organize our children and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way, in the homes, in the shops and on the farm.
So that’s what Rockefeller, Gates, and the GEB wanted – to keep the people barefoot and pregnant, as it were. The public, of course, heard nothing of this secret conspiracy. Nor do they now.
Meanwhile, John Dewey wrote book after book explaining a new approach to education, which would put less emphasis on facts, knowledge, scholarship, and so on, with more emphasis on children working and playing in perfect harmony. John Dewey did not like academic success. If one child knows what the Mississippi is and another child doesn’t, that opens up a social rift in the classroom. The best solution, apparently, is to make sure nobody knows what the Mississippi is. The tendency, which started then and continues now, is to teach less so that no one suffers low self-esteem.
So, around 1910, Rockefeller’s millions and Dewey’s brains converged on a single goal: simple-minded kids in dumbed down schools. (Henry Ford and the other industrialists needed reliable workers, who didn’t need to know what the Mississippi is.) The pressure coming from every direction was for less traditional education. Perfect docility would suffice.
Several events locked these unfortunate tendencies in place. The Russian Revolution was consolidated by 1920. Less than ten years later, the American economy went into depression. The left was ecstatic. Now they knew that Karl Marx was right. The U.S. was an evil failure. John Dewey's ideas were final truth.
The tendencies we have today were locked in place by 1930. The schools were not for academic excellence; they were for social engineering, which would keep people under control. The ghosts of Rockefeller and John Dewey turned out to be twins.
One result of this K-12 conspiracy is that the least appropriate people, obsessed with the least helpful ideas, educationally speaking, migrated to education. These were people who valued education not for its own sake, but for social schemes they had in mind. Whether a kid can read, do arithmetic, or knows very much is not a primary concern for these people.
So we have had almost a century of what Charlotte Iserbyt christened “the deliberate dumbing down of America.”
Bruce Deitrick Price explains education theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org.