In Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond Mark Ames seeks to contextualize workplace and school massacres through a well-researched depiction of slavery and, particularly, slave rebellions and the incredulous reactions to them. He also provides an important chronicle of the aftermath of Reaganomics: no raise of the minimum wage, skyrocketing executive compensation, slashed social services; the big sqeeze. At least, it is important if you care about the poor or the dispossessed. These are the people, much like rebel slaves, Ames says, who were bullied and belittled past their breaking points. He says we must look at our institutions and understand today’s rebellions in the same way we understand—what people then called “evil”— slave rebellions from before. I am with him all the way except I want more.
He says that schools need to be profiled for bullying and that is fine, but I want him to take a much closer look at American public education as a whole. I do not blame him for taking it for granted. American public education feels eternal, essential; as if the imagination simply cannot conceive of its non-existence. However, that was not always the case. The coincidence of the rise of American public education and the end of slavery is—if you are willing to open your imagination to the possibility—not so coincidental after all.
The first thing to consider is that Horace Mann—called “the father of American public education”—brought the Prussian education system to Massachusetts in 1852. That fact is unassailable. It spread relatively quickly thereafter. Mann spent years attempting to craft an education system. He eventually visited Prussia and liked what he saw. I think he considered his work as something of a higher calling and he wanted to ensure it did not go to waste. Mann once said, “We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.”
Now, I am willing to bet that Horace Mann was a Good Person. I think most teachers are Good People. And I believe teachers are important. I am not here to disparage teachers. However, I think it is wrong for teachers to take children as hostages. I also wish Horace Mann had waited until Maria Montessori came along. Unfortunately, he died in 1859. Coincidentally, there was a significant influx of Irish Catholics in the northeast at the time due to potato blight. Not coincidentally, they were not down for the WASP-y goodness sure to be offered by the public schools which precipitated the rise of the Catholic education system in the United States.
Anyway, the seed of the Prussian system was planted when Napoleon kicked Prussian ass in 1806. Apparently the Germans did not like French occupation much. I guess it took some heroic speeches on the part of Johann Gottlieb Fichte to get Prussia motivated again. Fichte said Germans were really great, like the Greeks, because their language was cool. He also said—and this is what is important, in my mind—Prussia needed to embrace the New Education. He called for an end to education that catered to individualistic self-seeking. Fichte said the state’s purposes should take precedence to a degree that the citizenry is forged “into a corporate body, which shall be stimulated and animated in all its individual members by a common interest.”
Fichte justified the German people’s “primordial” place among cultures because of its dynamic, living language—with only the Greeks comparable. The dead Latinized language of the French was only indicative of their inferiority. Only someone thinking in the German language could have a “true philosophy.” A strict educational adherence to the idea of German superiority would be “exalted to the ideal.” If not, “legislation should consequently maintain a high standard of severity.”
It is not coincidental that Johann Gottlieb Fichte sounds like a proto-National Socialist. I can pull out quotes by guys you have never heard of that say so. And if you wanted to go so far as to say that the Prussian education system helped create a populace that practiced blind acquiescence to the Kingdom of Prussia, allowing it to balloon with military and industrial might and instigate World War I, I would not disagree. And if you wanted to go so far as to say that the same system helped create a populace that practiced blind acquiescence to Nazi Germany, allowing it to balloon with military and industrial might and instigate World War II, I would not disagree with that either. Horace Mann did not know any of that.
For an in-depth history and analysis of American public education, I recommend John Taylor Gatto. Weapons of Mass Instruction or The Underground History of American Education will do the trick. I think his writing is superb. Unfortunately, he bears an uncanny resemblance to my uncle who talks to himself on the toilet…in public restrooms. I love my uncle. Gatto will bring out examples—first full Admiral of the Navy David Farragut joining the service at the age of 9 in 1809, for example—that show children have the ability to achieve great things given enough support and freedom. This runs counter to the official orthodoxy which views “childhood” as a sacred right. Original documents are useful for further analysis in this domain. Certainly, Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation are out there. There is another document called Occasional Letter Number One.
The larger social benefits of American public education cannot be ignored. Without it, we would be uncivilized; not unlike baboons…with guns. We would not be able to read. Or color within lines. We would not know how to organize ourselves in cliques along such shared values as our grades or athletic prowess or material possessions and then develop contempt for those without. We would not be so good at knowing our Constitutional rights—I mean, not that I think kids in American public education really have any, but that unit in high school civics can be illuminating. We would not be so good at public speaking or speaking up for ourselves given that teachers are so good at telling us when we can speak and, particularly, what to say. We would not know what science is or what creation science is. Clearly, it offers so much for everyone’s benefit.
The Oligarchs and Plutocrats of yesteryear understood the wider social implications of the system very well. Occasional Letter Number One from the General Education Board is an excellent stepping off point for this research. The ton-of-bricks realization here is that very wealthy, private hands have been guiding American public education since shortly after its inception and still do today.
As I understand it, the General Education Board is Rockefeller money taking over for Peabody money in the southern schools reconstruction effort. Frederick Taylor Gates was the first chair of the board and a right-hand-man of John D. Rockefeller. Gates directed many of Rockefeller’s philanthropic efforts. For example, Gates was also instrumental in the establishment of the University of Chicago. One of the first documents produced by Gates and the Board was Occasional Letter Number One, from 1906. Here’s an excerpt:
In our dreams…people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [intellectual and character education – Ed. Gatto] fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive 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, educators, 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 ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple…we will organize children…and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.
Anyone who has read Howard Zinn knows there was rampant labor unrest and even armed battle in the early twentieth century. Andrew Carnegie was allegedly so distraught over one of these labor confrontations that he sold off his steel company to J.P. Morgan and started a campaign to give away his money—primarily to fund philanthropic educational organizations. One such organization, lives on today as Educational Testing Service. They do the SAT and the GRE. They supply the State of California with their STAR Tests as well as the California High School Exit Exam.
ETS is one of just a few companies that steward the testing market in the United States. There is also the College Board and ACT. The other monopolistic piece of the puzzle are textbook publishers who have a lot to say about curriculum which naturally feeds into and from standards and testing. Thankfully, the blatant political transparency of Texas’ Board of Education hearings means that no one has to have any illusions about how “facts” make it into textbooks.
Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Reed Elsevier, and Houghton Mifflin are the four major players in textbook publishing. They have created a powerful lobby arm—the Association of American Publishers—to secure and extend their interests. Textbooks represent 1/7th of the American market. However, their interests extend beyond textbooks. I can only assume all have synergistic views on the importance of ensuring existing markets in American public education and opening new ones. McGraw-Hill owns Standard & Poor’s and Business Week. Pearson owns Penguin/Putnam, Financial Times, and The Economist. Prentice Hall and Scott Foresman are also imprints. Reed Elsevier owns Harcourt Education and myriad other publications including Publishers Weekly and Variety.
But, you know, the children come first. Next is the corporate behavioral layer. If the children do not adhere to acceptable practices of “character building” and “socialization” then it is time to blame the parents.
It does not have to be like this. There are thousands of ways to learn and grow. We have become so inured to American public education that we mistake it for real education, learning, skill mastery, and accomplishment. Early in Going Postal, Mark Ames cites historian Kenneth Stampp’s six key slaveholder tactics for creating a good slave:
- Strict discipline to develop “unconditional submission”
- Develop a sense of personal inferiority
- Development of raw fear
- Establish notion that the master’s interests are the same as the slave’s
- Make slaves accept master’s standards of conduct as his own
- Develop “habit of perfect dependence”
Ames recognizes these tactics as familiar to the modern workplace. I recognize these tactics as familiar to American public education through what is known as The Hidden Curriculum. For John Taylor Gatto, this is the 7-Lesson Schoolteacher: the un-relating of subjects, knowing class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and a sense that, no matter what, a child cannot hide from any of it. For me, the Hidden Curriculum is about inculcating children with the idea of what it means to be an ideal industrial-age factory worker: show up every day, be on time, do what you are told as you are told, and do not question authority.
However, the rhetoric of American public education is different: How well you perform in school will affect the kind of job you get. But what if the jobs are not there? What if all current students in high school went to college? What if they all received Bachelor’s Degrees? What if they went on and got advanced degrees too? Would there be more jobs available? Would more wealth be generated—for them, at least?
The rhetoric leads to expectations—essences which the mind clings to; magical thought, even. Sometimes our experiences match our expectations and we are happy. However, that is rare. Mostly, our expectations are thwarted and a perpetual Existential Crisis ensues: Perception is Reality. A person has to be strong—an authority in their own lives—to exist in a world where the meritocratic structure of the public education experience is at odds with the real world. Many are faced with two basic options: fight or flight. Most choose the flight strategies of sublimation and medication. Some, now and again, choose to fight. Unfortunately, few know what they are really fighting against.
Mark Ames knows what he is fighting against. I just want him to know more.