Public Education: Progressivism's Unbeatable Advantage

(The following is adapted from the introduction to the author's new book, The Case Against Public Education. More information below.)

During an 1839 debate in Britain's House of Commons regarding the establishment of government schools, the young Benjamin Disraeli objected:

Wherever is found what is called paternal government, there is found state education. It has been discovered that the best way to insure implicit obedience is to commence tyranny in the nursery.

Though Disraeli's pithy remark may seem startling in our age of universal public schooling, in fact he was merely stating the obvious. Government-controlled schooling, in all its variations, is essentially a tool of paternalism, i.e., of the tyrannical impulse. Such schooling was conceived and developed with a compliant and uniform citizenry, rather than an educated one, as its primary goal. Our civilization's moral and intellectual decline is primarily the product of the world’s two-hundred-year experiment in state child-rearing. It is time to face this reality squarely.

Education is nothing less than civilization itself considered from the developmental point of view. It is the process of becoming civilized, which for centuries of so-called Western humanity was grounded in variations on a few related themes: The rational individual, a natural microcosm who is therefore capable in principle of understanding his immediate surroundings within a comprehensive view of the whole, must live by his own will, which requires cultivating practical knowledge, intellectual self-reliance, and moral independence. To undermine self-reliance, to deny independence, and to diminish or curtail the desire for knowledge, is thus to denature men, in the sense of turning us against ourselves. And that is what modern public schooling was and is designed to accomplish.

We are living through the final stages of progressivism’s two-hundred-year ascendancy. The expansion of practical liberty and material prosperity in the nineteenth century was rooted in the ideas and sensibilities of the preceding centuries. Already in the early 1800s, however, seeds of modernity’s invasive weed had germinated, and were sending up shoots throughout the West. Progressivism, the idea that History itself is a kind of animate being seeking its goal in a deified Future, and hence that humanity, History’s chariot, is essentially a collective entity with a collective purpose, was an impossible fit in a civilization supported by the intellectual pillars of rational self-discovery, individual sovereignty, and the moral and metaphysical primacy of the personal soul -- "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," as Thomas Jefferson, adapting Locke, so deftly crystallized our nature.

Initially, this anti-modern, anti-rational, and anti-individual philosophy exerted its most profound effects primarily in its native soil, Germany, although it was gradually invading Western academia and the arts. The practical problem for the original progressives, the German idealists, was that the pursuit of happiness, which is to say of private knowledge, private virtue, and a private glimpse of eternity, seemed to answer to a basic human impulse, or at least one basic to the Western tradition. There could therefore be no hope of realizing their new religion of the progress of collective humanity, i.e., History, short of a radical separation of mankind from the social conditions that both derived from and fostered the older moral perspective which they despised.

This radical separation would require the strategic application of coercive authority to snap nature’s thread linking men’s hearts to their own lives, their own needs, and their own futures. As such a strategy, pursued against adults, would immediately be identified and resisted as a form of enslavement, its proper targets would have to be children. It would have to displace the private family as the locus of authority and emotional dependency in the children’s formative years. And it would have to exploit the children’s natural desires, fears, and pleasures to break them to the will of the collective, which means the will of the state.

German thought had been edging toward a systematic rejection of the traditional understanding of human nature for some years before anyone had manifested the combination of profound intellect and profound megalomania needed to conceive of an effective way of bringing these radical ideas down from the ivory tower, and into the practical life of a nation. The man who finally rose to the occasion was one of the four great figures of German idealism, Hegel's precursor, Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In Addresses to the German Nation (1808), he explains his vision of compulsory, government-controlled schooling, designed explicitly to subvert and undo the entire rational and religious heritage of the West in favor of a neo-mysticism with its own new trinity -- the future, the state, and the collective. This was both progressivism’s first comprehensive mission statement and the blueprint for what in the twentieth century came to be known as re-education camps.

It was this bold new idea that the West’s leading education reformers, from France and Britain to America and Canada, flocked to Prussia to study and to adapt for application at home. Though facing great resistance in nations with traditions of freedom, in the end, by persistence, obfuscation, and stealth, these admirers of Fichte’s blueprint won the day throughout the civilized world. Compulsory schooling found its voice over the nineteenth century, its chorus joined by statesmen, bureaucrats, business titans, and academics -- anyone desirous of coercively entrenching a social status quo with himself in an elite position; anyone swept up in the early waves of progressive theory or activism, whether of the idealist-mystical or the materialist-socialist sort; and, in principle, simply anyone with the instinct to impose where he is unable to persuade.

As a result of this progressive educational insurgency, compulsory schooling, tyranny commenced in the nursery, gradually became the norm throughout the advanced world -- a world, we would do well to recall, that had become advanced without such schooling. The schools may not yet have been all that a progressive could hope for, but the ratchet mechanism of ever-expanding government control within the private spiritual realm, i.e., the mind, had been set in irreversible motion. The most vital, or rather fatal, step, namely state compulsion itself, had been taken.

And what is compulsory or "universal" schooling, in a nutshell? It is the legally enforced diluting of parental authority over the raising of children, with intellectual and moral lessons, goals, and methods regulated by the government. It is usually undertaken in government buildings away from the family home, and under the supervision of various levels of government agents trained in accordance with government standards to represent and administer government policy regarding the proper rank-ordering of society, the attitudes and skills deemed by the government to be most socially useful, and the pre-emptive extinguishing or subduing of beliefs, attitudes, and behavior judged to be undesirable to the government for any reason. It weakens the natural attachments to family and familial associations in favor of cultivating alternative attachments to government officers, and to the artificial, government-designed social order of the school. Broadly, it encourages feelings of submissiveness to, and dependence upon, the opinions and judgments of an abstract collective, thus effectively discouraging independent thought, thwarting the development of self-reliance, and in general ensuring that no one ever actualizes his full intellectual and practical potential.

At this point, no doubt, progressive readers are rising to object that the preceding description completely misrepresents the purpose and value of public education, while many conservatives, I imagine, may be ready to accuse me of weakening my case with hyperbole. To those critics, or to those among them prepared to engage honestly with this subject matter, I issue a friendly challenge: Go back and reread the offending paragraph, this time without the presuppositions we have all had drilled into us about the supposed necessity of public schools. Find in that paragraph one sentence, one phrase, one adjective that may properly be said to exaggerate anything, or indeed to say anything at all apart from a simple matter-of-fact description of public school.

Furthermore, I ask you to find one statement or description in that paragraph that has not also been offered, in similar words, in defense of public education, by any number of the institution’s most influential advocates, from Fichte to Horace Mann to John Dewey to Mao Tse-tung on down. Admittedly, you will find that most of the public school proponents who spoke this honestly about their methods and intentions were men of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before progressivism, as part of its assault on the final pockets of civilized resistance, invented the dainty linguistic duplicity that we call political correctness.

Consider, again, the last part of Disraeli’s critique of government schooling: "It has been discovered that the best way to insure implicit obedience is to commence tyranny in the nursery." I draw your attention to the main verb, "discovered." Disraeli’s important observation is that the superlative value of state education as a tool of tyranny is a discovery that tyrannical men have made. That is, men with a desire for illegitimate power will find their way to this most ingenious and effective method of control if it is made accessible to them.

All that has changed since the young Disraeli and others made their cautionary stands is that we have now witnessed the full poisonous fruit of the subversion they foresaw. Public education now exerts universal social control to a degree that might have seemed unthinkable to its early critics. By retarding spiritual growth in the name of entrenching state compliance and dependency as inescapable norms, progressivism has added a final twist to Disraeli’s ironic stab. For he warned of "tyranny in the nursery," whereas today’s educational establishments have taken this one step further, seeking, by means of the maturation-stunting effects of public school, to establish nothing less than tyranny as a nursery.

In short, the susceptibility of government schools to exploitation as tools of oppressive social manipulation -- the Prussian model in a nutshell -- was once understood by many to be a risk too great to be borne. Today it is a reality too manifest to be denied. The promise of modernity -- the promise of liberty and a civil order grounded in practical reason and virtue -- remains now only as a dim shadow of its true self, maintained merely to pacify the masses with a chimerical representation of freedom and morality in place of the real things.

If there is to be a renewal of our morally and politically exhausted civilization in the foreseeable future, it will of necessity begin with an educational emancipation. The effort is already long overdue.

The author invites you to visit his new website, darenjonescu.com, where you will find his book, The Case Against Public Education, and much more.

(The following is adapted from the introduction to the author's new book, The Case Against Public Education. More information below.)

During an 1839 debate in Britain's House of Commons regarding the establishment of government schools, the young Benjamin Disraeli objected:

Wherever is found what is called paternal government, there is found state education. It has been discovered that the best way to insure implicit obedience is to commence tyranny in the nursery.

Though Disraeli's pithy remark may seem startling in our age of universal public schooling, in fact he was merely stating the obvious. Government-controlled schooling, in all its variations, is essentially a tool of paternalism, i.e., of the tyrannical impulse. Such schooling was conceived and developed with a compliant and uniform citizenry, rather than an educated one, as its primary goal. Our civilization's moral and intellectual decline is primarily the product of the world’s two-hundred-year experiment in state child-rearing. It is time to face this reality squarely.

Education is nothing less than civilization itself considered from the developmental point of view. It is the process of becoming civilized, which for centuries of so-called Western humanity was grounded in variations on a few related themes: The rational individual, a natural microcosm who is therefore capable in principle of understanding his immediate surroundings within a comprehensive view of the whole, must live by his own will, which requires cultivating practical knowledge, intellectual self-reliance, and moral independence. To undermine self-reliance, to deny independence, and to diminish or curtail the desire for knowledge, is thus to denature men, in the sense of turning us against ourselves. And that is what modern public schooling was and is designed to accomplish.

We are living through the final stages of progressivism’s two-hundred-year ascendancy. The expansion of practical liberty and material prosperity in the nineteenth century was rooted in the ideas and sensibilities of the preceding centuries. Already in the early 1800s, however, seeds of modernity’s invasive weed had germinated, and were sending up shoots throughout the West. Progressivism, the idea that History itself is a kind of animate being seeking its goal in a deified Future, and hence that humanity, History’s chariot, is essentially a collective entity with a collective purpose, was an impossible fit in a civilization supported by the intellectual pillars of rational self-discovery, individual sovereignty, and the moral and metaphysical primacy of the personal soul -- "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," as Thomas Jefferson, adapting Locke, so deftly crystallized our nature.

Initially, this anti-modern, anti-rational, and anti-individual philosophy exerted its most profound effects primarily in its native soil, Germany, although it was gradually invading Western academia and the arts. The practical problem for the original progressives, the German idealists, was that the pursuit of happiness, which is to say of private knowledge, private virtue, and a private glimpse of eternity, seemed to answer to a basic human impulse, or at least one basic to the Western tradition. There could therefore be no hope of realizing their new religion of the progress of collective humanity, i.e., History, short of a radical separation of mankind from the social conditions that both derived from and fostered the older moral perspective which they despised.

This radical separation would require the strategic application of coercive authority to snap nature’s thread linking men’s hearts to their own lives, their own needs, and their own futures. As such a strategy, pursued against adults, would immediately be identified and resisted as a form of enslavement, its proper targets would have to be children. It would have to displace the private family as the locus of authority and emotional dependency in the children’s formative years. And it would have to exploit the children’s natural desires, fears, and pleasures to break them to the will of the collective, which means the will of the state.

German thought had been edging toward a systematic rejection of the traditional understanding of human nature for some years before anyone had manifested the combination of profound intellect and profound megalomania needed to conceive of an effective way of bringing these radical ideas down from the ivory tower, and into the practical life of a nation. The man who finally rose to the occasion was one of the four great figures of German idealism, Hegel's precursor, Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In Addresses to the German Nation (1808), he explains his vision of compulsory, government-controlled schooling, designed explicitly to subvert and undo the entire rational and religious heritage of the West in favor of a neo-mysticism with its own new trinity -- the future, the state, and the collective. This was both progressivism’s first comprehensive mission statement and the blueprint for what in the twentieth century came to be known as re-education camps.

It was this bold new idea that the West’s leading education reformers, from France and Britain to America and Canada, flocked to Prussia to study and to adapt for application at home. Though facing great resistance in nations with traditions of freedom, in the end, by persistence, obfuscation, and stealth, these admirers of Fichte’s blueprint won the day throughout the civilized world. Compulsory schooling found its voice over the nineteenth century, its chorus joined by statesmen, bureaucrats, business titans, and academics -- anyone desirous of coercively entrenching a social status quo with himself in an elite position; anyone swept up in the early waves of progressive theory or activism, whether of the idealist-mystical or the materialist-socialist sort; and, in principle, simply anyone with the instinct to impose where he is unable to persuade.

As a result of this progressive educational insurgency, compulsory schooling, tyranny commenced in the nursery, gradually became the norm throughout the advanced world -- a world, we would do well to recall, that had become advanced without such schooling. The schools may not yet have been all that a progressive could hope for, but the ratchet mechanism of ever-expanding government control within the private spiritual realm, i.e., the mind, had been set in irreversible motion. The most vital, or rather fatal, step, namely state compulsion itself, had been taken.

And what is compulsory or "universal" schooling, in a nutshell? It is the legally enforced diluting of parental authority over the raising of children, with intellectual and moral lessons, goals, and methods regulated by the government. It is usually undertaken in government buildings away from the family home, and under the supervision of various levels of government agents trained in accordance with government standards to represent and administer government policy regarding the proper rank-ordering of society, the attitudes and skills deemed by the government to be most socially useful, and the pre-emptive extinguishing or subduing of beliefs, attitudes, and behavior judged to be undesirable to the government for any reason. It weakens the natural attachments to family and familial associations in favor of cultivating alternative attachments to government officers, and to the artificial, government-designed social order of the school. Broadly, it encourages feelings of submissiveness to, and dependence upon, the opinions and judgments of an abstract collective, thus effectively discouraging independent thought, thwarting the development of self-reliance, and in general ensuring that no one ever actualizes his full intellectual and practical potential.

At this point, no doubt, progressive readers are rising to object that the preceding description completely misrepresents the purpose and value of public education, while many conservatives, I imagine, may be ready to accuse me of weakening my case with hyperbole. To those critics, or to those among them prepared to engage honestly with this subject matter, I issue a friendly challenge: Go back and reread the offending paragraph, this time without the presuppositions we have all had drilled into us about the supposed necessity of public schools. Find in that paragraph one sentence, one phrase, one adjective that may properly be said to exaggerate anything, or indeed to say anything at all apart from a simple matter-of-fact description of public school.

Furthermore, I ask you to find one statement or description in that paragraph that has not also been offered, in similar words, in defense of public education, by any number of the institution’s most influential advocates, from Fichte to Horace Mann to John Dewey to Mao Tse-tung on down. Admittedly, you will find that most of the public school proponents who spoke this honestly about their methods and intentions were men of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before progressivism, as part of its assault on the final pockets of civilized resistance, invented the dainty linguistic duplicity that we call political correctness.

Consider, again, the last part of Disraeli’s critique of government schooling: "It has been discovered that the best way to insure implicit obedience is to commence tyranny in the nursery." I draw your attention to the main verb, "discovered." Disraeli’s important observation is that the superlative value of state education as a tool of tyranny is a discovery that tyrannical men have made. That is, men with a desire for illegitimate power will find their way to this most ingenious and effective method of control if it is made accessible to them.

All that has changed since the young Disraeli and others made their cautionary stands is that we have now witnessed the full poisonous fruit of the subversion they foresaw. Public education now exerts universal social control to a degree that might have seemed unthinkable to its early critics. By retarding spiritual growth in the name of entrenching state compliance and dependency as inescapable norms, progressivism has added a final twist to Disraeli’s ironic stab. For he warned of "tyranny in the nursery," whereas today’s educational establishments have taken this one step further, seeking, by means of the maturation-stunting effects of public school, to establish nothing less than tyranny as a nursery.

In short, the susceptibility of government schools to exploitation as tools of oppressive social manipulation -- the Prussian model in a nutshell -- was once understood by many to be a risk too great to be borne. Today it is a reality too manifest to be denied. The promise of modernity -- the promise of liberty and a civil order grounded in practical reason and virtue -- remains now only as a dim shadow of its true self, maintained merely to pacify the masses with a chimerical representation of freedom and morality in place of the real things.

If there is to be a renewal of our morally and politically exhausted civilization in the foreseeable future, it will of necessity begin with an educational emancipation. The effort is already long overdue.

The author invites you to visit his new website, darenjonescu.com, where you will find his book, The Case Against Public Education, and much more.