Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people – H. L. Menken
As freedom grows, the need to coerce and control opinion also grows if you want to prevent the great beast from doing something with its freedom. – Noam Chomsky
Tens of millions of us are really dumb – or to be generous, profoundly misinformed – despite our educational system. Or, we have to ask, is it because of this system? In Chapter Five of my book I compare indigenous initiation traditions to mandatory – that is, forced – public education and refer to John Gatto’s classic book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, which asks, “Could it be that our schools are designed to make sure that not one (child) ever really grows up?”
The Social Darwinists and eugenicists who designed our educational system modeled it on the one used by the militaristic Prussian state. Since then, six generations of us have endured a routine carefully designed to restrain dissent, originality and critical thinking and reduce everyone to a uniform, standardized level. Gatto, once New York state’s Teacher of the Year, quotes from early texts and distills schooling’s intent into six functions:
1 – Adjusting: establishing fixed habits of reaction to authority to preclude critical judgment.
2 – Integrating: making people as alike as possible.
3 – Diagnosing: determining everyone’s proper social role.
4 – Differentiating: sorting children by role and training them “only so far as their destination in the social machine permits.”
5 – Selecting: identifying the unfit at an early age.
6 – Finally, the propaedeutic function: teaching a minority to manage the rest, who are “deliberately dumbed down and declawed…”
Regarding number 5: As Americans copied late 19th century German teaching methods, only a generation later the Nazis openly thanked American eugenicists for modeling the selection system whose terrible logic would eventually lead to Auschwitz. And the American system would return the favor. As I mentioned previously, a tenth of American adults have never heard of the Holocaust.
Gatto concludes that American public schooling was never intended to create citizens, but servile laborers and consumers. It teaches children that they can exchange obedience (including obedience to the military) for favors and advantages. It leaves them vulnerable to marketing, which ensures that they will grow older but never grow up.
From the indigenous perspective, it reverses the age-old tradition of identifying a child’s innate and unique gifts. Older cultures really did emphasize what the Romans called educare – to identify, lead out and welcome something important that already exists. America institutionalized something quite different: instruere (to build into, instruct). The Yiddish word is more effective: schooling assumes that children come into the world with nothing and then schtups them full of information.
The latest insult is standardized testing, which converts our natural curiosity into docility and narcissism and trains middle class students not in critical thinking but merely in how to take tests. For the rest, the cruel euphemism of “No Child Left Behind” relies on threats and punishment, imposes narrow agendas, overrules local control and punishes entire schools for the failures of the few. Finally, it completely ignores the impact of poverty, which leads to the vicious circle of inadequate funding.
New ways continually emerge for the sins of the fathers to fall upon the young. “Zero tolerance” policies allow school administrators no leeway for interpretation. Examples are endless, if tragic. A valedictorian is charged with a felony and banned from her graduation for mistakenly leaving a kitchen knife in her car. A thirteen-year-old who brings a model rocket to show in class is suspended. An eleven-year-old is jailed for bringing a plastic knife in her lunch box. A ten-year-old girl is charged with sexual harassment and suspended for asking a boy if he liked her. Mall police turn away girl scouts for being “similarly dressed.” A third of the students of a Chicago high school are expelled because of zero tolerance. It began not through political correctness, but because governments that cannot enact real gun control for adults divert the spotlight onto children. And youths convicted of any drug offense permanently lose federal financial aid (over 130,000 when I wrote my book ten years ago), even if possession laws are later overturned.
It gets crazier. We’re talking about public programs, but we’re also talking about those 25-35% of Americans who are evangelicals and who have strangleholds on state and federal budgets. Thirty-seven states require that when schools offer sex education, they must discuss abstinence, and 26 of them require that it be stressed, including censoring of textbooks. In 2017, a third of the $300 million federal funding for teen sexual health education programs was for abstinence education. All told, the feds have spent well over $2 billion on it. However, claims researcher Laura Lindberg, “…it leaves our young people without the information and skills that they need…We fail our young people when we don’t provide them with complete and medically accurate information.”
The government continues to throw money at these programs even though its own studies have shown that they have no effect on sexual behavior among youth. Worse, they generally withhold information about pregnancy and STD prevention. They don’t reduce pregnancy or STD rates, and they have no effect on adolescents delaying intercourse. However, when they do become active, many teens fail to use condoms, unlike their peers in other countries who have routine access to contraceptive education and counseling.
The final insult is that language used in abstinence-based curricula often reinforces gender stereotypes about female passivity and male aggressiveness – attitudes that often correlate with domestic violence. In Chapter Ten I assess the cumulative result:
It is likely in vast areas of the country for a girl who has been raped and impregnated by a relative to have no access to abortion (family rape is the source of 40% of teen pregnancies). She might run away with her child to escape the ongoing abuse, go on welfare (until the funds run out and the state takes the child) and become a homeless prostitute. She would be a sacrificial victim, no different in any respect from similar girls in the Middle East.
The Sacrifice of the Children: we are back in the depths of American mythology. Should we be surprised then that one result of this mad system of education has been an epidemic of illiteracy? In 1909, a century before we spoke of “white privilege”, the eugenicist and racist Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, told teachers, “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class…a very much larger class…to forgo the privilege…”
From precisely that point, just before World War I (when the system was installed universally), literacy declined from nearly 100% to a point when, in 1973, 27% of men were rejected from military service because of functional illiteracy. Now, 14% of adults, over 30 million – including nearly 20% of high school graduates – cannot comprehend texts that are appropriate for 10-year-olds, and almost half of us cannot read well enough to understand basic health information.
Forty-two percent of college graduates never read a book after they finish school.
The even poorer quality of inner-city education for students of color is part of a much larger discussion of race and segregation in America and the deliberately exclusionary policies pursued by generations at every level of government. Here are some of my relevant essays:
For now, though, we can explain why white, suburban students perform so much better on the tests with the simple fact that their school systems spend far more per pupil than urban systems can. The reason is that the U.S., nearly unique in the world, requires local jurisdictions to fund education through local property taxes. And our national obsession with scapegoating, punishment and blaming the youthful victims of capitalism has produced a situation in which most states spend more on prisons than they do on education. California is the worst, investing $65,000 per prisoner compared to $11,500 per student.
To ask why they do that – and why we allow them to do it – is to question the most fundamental aspects of American myth.
In certain respects, the situation in private, religious education is worse. Ten percent of the sixty million students in the country attend private schools, three-quarters of which are religious. Large numbers of these 4.5 million students learn in atmospheres that are strongly misogynist at best and racist at worst. Their parents are Trumpus’ base. According to Christian researcher Robert P. Jones,
…white Christians – including evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics – are nearly twice as likely as religiously unaffiliated whites to say the killings of Black men by police are isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans…White Christians are also about 20 percentage points more likely to disagree with this statement: “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”
What about higher education? Some studies have indicated that the more educated we are, the more likely we are to support America’s wars. To Chomsky, higher education is a system of imposed ignorance in which the most highly educated people are the most highly indoctrinated. At a certain level, the distinction between stupidity and ignorance slides into willful denial. For those privileged to attend the best universities and train to become the next generation of corporate, political – and especially media – leaders,
A good education instills in you the intuitive comprehension – it becomes unconscious and reflexive – that you just don’t think certain things…that are threatening to power interests.
This entire issue of how our institutions function to dumb us down is part of something even larger than the myth of American Innocence. The myth of the killing of the children is the most fundamental narrative upon which all of Western patriarchal culture is founded. In Chapters Six and Ten of my book I discuss the immensely long narrative – beginning with Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to impress his god – in which fathers learned to invert ancient male initiation practices into the literal sacrifice of male children in the cauldron of war. Beginning with mandatory public education and continuing with the spell of advertising and mass media, that process has resulted in conditions in which our innate intelligence – our ability to discriminate and think critically – has atrophied.
Indeed, even if we retain our belief in the value of public education, this process has produced a nasty feedback mechanism in which the most ethically-challenged and hyper-ambitious individuals rise to the highest corporate and political heights, and then we continue to elect them as they shamelessly, even proudly go about destroying that institution. Why? Because they work for people who know, as Aristotle and Jefferson agreed, that if the rest of us really learned how the world works, we’d rise up and throw them out.
Please note that nowhere in this essay do I blame teachers, thousands of whom understand exactly what I’m talking about and work within the system to actually educate — rather than instruct — their students. But in our demythologized world, that system, like all of our institutions, was designed to bring out the worst in us, not the best. We need to imagine something better.