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Frances Fitzgerald, in her superb study of American textbooks, America Revised, notes that schoolbooks are superficial and mindless, that they deliberately leave out important ideas, that they refuse to deal with conflictbut then she admits to bewilderment. What could the plan be behind such texts? Is the composition of these books accidental or deliberate?
Sidestepping an answer to her own question, Fitzgerald traces the changeover to a pair of influential NEA reports published in 1911 and 1918 which reversed the scholarly determinations of the blue-ribbon "Committee of Ten" report of 1893. That committee laid down a rigorous academic program for all schools and for all children, giving particular emphasis to history. It asserted, "The purpose of all education is to train the mind." The NEA reports of 1911 and 1918 denote a conscious abandonment of this intellectual imperative and the substitution of some very different guiding principles. These statements savagely attack "the bookish curricula" which are "responsible for leading tens of thousands of boys and girls away from pursuits for which they are adapted," toward pursuits for which they are notlike independent businesses, invention, white collar work, or the professions.
Books give children "false ideals of culture." These reports urged the same kinds of drill which lay at the core of Prussian commoner schools. An interim report of 1917 also proposes that emphasis be shifted away from history to something safer called "social studies"; the thrust was away from any careful consideration of the past so that attention might be focused on the future. That 1918 NEA Report, "Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education," for all its maddening banality, was to prove over time one of the most influential education documents of the twentieth century. It decreed that specified behaviors, health, and vocational training were the central goals of education, not mental development, not character, not godliness.
Fitzgerald wrote she could not find a name for "the ideology that lies behind these texts." The way they handle history, for instance, is not history at all, "but a catechism... of American socialist realism." More than once she notes "actual hostility to the notion of intellectual training." Passion, in partnership with impatience for debate, is one good sign of the presence of true belief.
The most visible clue to the degree true belief was at work in mass schooling in the early decades of this century is the National Education Associations 1918 policy document. Written entirely in the strangely narcotic diction and syntax of official pedagogy, which makes it almost impenetrable to outsiders, Cardinal Principles announced a new de-intellectualized curriculum to replace the famous recipe for high goals and standards laid out three decades earlier by the legendary Committee of Ten, which declared the purpose of all education to be the training of the mind.
This new document contradicted its predecessor. In a condemnation worth repeating, it accused that older testament of forcing impossible intellectual ambitions on common children, of turning their empty heads, giving them "false ideals of culture." The weight of such statements, full of assumptions and implications, cannot easily be felt through its abstract language, but if you recognize that its language conceals a mandate for the mass dumbing down of young Americans, then some understanding of the magnitude of the successful political coup which had occurred comes through to penetrate the fog. The repudiation of the Committee of Ten was reinforced by a companion report proposing that history, economics, and geography be dropped at once.
What Cardinal Principles gave proof of was that stage one of a silent revolution in American society was complete. Children could now be taught anything, or even taught nothing in the part-time prisons of schooling, and there was little any individual could do about it. Bland generalities in the document actually served as potent talismans to justify the engineering of stupefaction. Local challenges could be turned back, local challengers demonized and marginalized, just by waving the national standards of Cardinal Principles as proof of ones legitimacy.
Venal motives as well as ideological ones were served by the comprehensive makeover of schooling, and palms incidentally greased in the transition soon found themselves defending it for their own material advantage. Schools quickly became the largest jobs project in the country, an enormous contractor for goods and services, one always willing to pay top dollar for bottom-shelf merchandise in a dramatic reversal of economic theory. There are no necessary economies in large- scale purchasing;1 school is proof of that.
Cardinal Principles assured mass production technocrats they would not have to deal with intolerable numbers of independent thinkersthinkers stuffed with dangerous historical comparisons, who understood economics, who had insight into human nature through literary studies, who were made stoical or consensus-resistant by philosophy and religion, and given confidence and competence through liberal doses of duty, responsibility, and experience.
The appearance of Cardinal Principles signaled the triumph of forces which had been working since the 1890s to break the hold of complex reading, debate, and writing as the common heritage of children reared in America. Like the resourcefulness and rigors of character that small farming conveyed, complex and active literacy produces a kind of character antagonistic to hierarchical, expert-driven, class-based society. As the nature of American society was moved deliberately in this direction, forges upon which a different kind of American had been hammered were eliminated. We see this process nearly complete in the presentation of Cardinal Principles.
We always knew the truth in America, that almost everyone can learn almost anything or be almost anything. But the problem with that insight is that it cant co-exist with any known form of modern social ordering. Each species of true belief expresses some social vision or another, some holy way to arrange relationships, time, values, etc., in order to drive toward a settlement of the great question, "Why are we alive?" The trouble with a society which encourages argument, as Americas did until the mid-twentieth century, is that there is no foreseeable end to the argument. No way to lock the door and announce that your own side has finally won. No certainty.
Our most famous true believers, the Puritans, thought they could build a City on the Hill and keep the riffraff out. When it became obvious that exclusion wasnt going to work, their children and grandchildren did an about-face and began to move toward a totally inclusive society (though not a free one). It would be intricately layered into social classes like the old British system. This time Gods will wouldnt be offered as reason for the way things were arranged by men. This time Science and Mathematics would justify things, and children would be taught to accept the inevitability of their assigned fates in the greatest laboratory of true belief ever devised: the Compulsion Schoolhouse.
1 I remember the disbelief I felt the day I discovered that as a committee of one I could easily buy paper, milk, and any number of other school staples cheaper than my school district did.
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