“We are easy prey” — Propositions Three and Seven by Richard Mitchell

Propositions Three and Seven from The Graves of Academe by Richard Mitchell

In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is, as we all know, king. And across the way, in the country of the witless, the half-wit is king. And why not? It’s only natural, and considering the circumstances, not really a bad system. We do the best we can.

But it is a system with some unhappy consequences. The one-eyed man knows that he could never be king in the land of the two-eyed, and the half-wit knows that he would be small potatoes indeed in a land where most people had all or most of their wits about them. These rulers, therefore, will be inordinately selective about their social programs, which will be designed not only to protect against the rise of the witful and the sighted, but, just as important, to ensure a never-failing supply of the witless and utterly blind. Even to the half-wit and the one-eyed man, it is clear that other half-wits and one-eyed men are potential competitors and supplanters, and they invert the ancient tale in which an anxious tyrant kept watch against a one-sandaled stranger by keeping watch against wanderers with both eyes and operating minds. Uneasy lies the head.

Unfortunately, most people are born with two eyes and even the propensity to think. If nothing is done about this, chaos, obviously, threatens the land. Even worse, unemployment threatens the one-eyed man and the half-wit. However, since they do in fact rule, those potentates have not much to fear, for they can command the construction and perpetuation of a state-supported and legally enforced system for the early detection and obliteration of antisocial traits, and thus arrange that witfulness and 20-20 vision will trouble the land as little as possible. The system is called "education."

Such is our case. Nor should that surprise anyone. Like living creatures, institutions intend primarily to live and do whatever else they do only to that end. Unlike some living creatures, however, who do in fact occasionally decide that there is something even more to be prized than their own survival, institutions are never capable of altruism, heroism, or even self-denial. If you imagine that they are, if, for instance, you fancy that the welfare system or the Federal Reserve exists and labors for "the good of the people," then you can be sure that the minions of the one-eyed man and the half-wit are pleased with you.

Furthermore, any institution that still stands must, by that very fact, be successful. When we say, as we seem to more and more these days, that education in America is "failing," it is because we don’t understand the institution. It is, in fact, succeeding enormously. It grows daily, hourly, in power and wealth, and that precisely because of our accusations of failure. The more we complain against it, the more it can lay claim to our power and wealth, in the name of curing those ills of which we complain. And, in our special case, in a land ostensibly committed to individual freedom and rights, it can and does make the ultimate claim–to be, that is, the free, universal system of public education that alone can raise up to a free land citizens who will understand and love and defend individual freedom and rights. Like any politician, the institution of education claims direct descent in apostolic succession from the Founding Fathers.

Jefferson was in favor of education, indubitably, but he meant the condition, not the word. He held that there was no expectation, "in a state of civilization," that we could be both free and ignorant. The modifier is important; it is to suggest that we might indeed be "free" and ignorant in savagery. Free at least from the conventional and mutually admitted restraints to which civilized people bind themselves.

Using Jefferson’s terms, we can derive exactly eight propositions to think about:

    1. We can be ignorant and free in savagery.

    2. We can be ignorant and free in civilization.

    3. We can be ignorant and unfree in civilization.

    4. We can be ignorant and unfree in savagery.

    5. We can be educated and free in savagery.

    6. We can be educated and free in civilization.

    7. We can be educated and unfree in civilization.

    8. We can be educated and unfree in savagery.

Jefferson asserts that the second is impossible, thereby implying the possibility of the first and the sixth. The fifth and the eighth seem unlikely, for if we are indeed educated it will be both a result of civilization and a cause of civilization. The fourth is just a quibble, for the "freedom" at issue is not freedom from natural exigencies, to which all are subject, but from the devised constraints possible only in a state of civilization. The truth of the third and the seventh, unhappily, is recommended by knowledge and experience.

Omitting those propositions that seem impossible or meaningless, we are left with:

    1. We can be ignorant and free in savagery.

    3. We can be ignorant and unfree in civilization.

    6. We can be educated and free in civilization.

    7. We can be educated and unfree in civilization.

And, of those four, Propositions 1 and 6 are explicitly Jefferson’s, while 3 and 7 are implicitly Jefferson’s. They describe conditions not only perfectly possible but perfectly real. Unfreedom, the forced submission to constraints beyond those mutually admitted by knowing and willing members of a civilization, is not unheard of. Indeed, it is, in greater or less degree, the current condition of all humanity.

Civilization is itself an institution and has, like all institutions, one paramount goal, its own perpetuation. It was Jefferson’s dream that that civilization could best perpetuate itself in which the citizens were "educated," whatever he meant by that, and we do have some clue as to what he meant. He wrote of the "informed discretion" of the people as the only acceptable depository of power in a republic. He knew very well that the people might be neither informed nor discreet, that is, able to make fine distinctions, but held that the remedy for that was not to be sought in depriving the people of their proper power but in better informing their discretion.

And to what end were the people to exercise the power of their informed discretion? The answer, of course, shouldn’t be surprising, but, because we have been taught to confuse government and its institutions with civilization in general, it often is. Jefferson saw the informed discretion of the people as one of those checks and balances for which our constitutional democracy is justly famous, for it was only with such a power that the people could defend themselves against government and its institutions. "The functionaries of every government," wrote Jefferson, although the italics are mine, "have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents." Jefferson knew–isn’t this the unique genius of American constitutionalism? that government was a dangerous master and a treacherous servant and that the first concern of free people was to keep their government on a leash, a pretty short one at that.

Consider again Propositions 3 and 7: 3. We can be ignorant and unfree in civilization, and 7. We can be educated and unfree in civilization. Imagine that you are one of those functionaries of government in whom there has grown, it seems inescapable, the propensity to command, in however oblique a fashion and for whatever supposedly good purpose, the liberty and property of your constituents. Which would you prefer, educated constituents or ignorant ones? Wait. Be sure to answer the question in Jefferson’s terms. Which would you rather face, even considering your own conviction that the cause in which you want to command liberty and property is just–citizens with or without the power of informed discretion? Citizens having that power will require of you a laborious and detailed justification of your intentions and expectations and may, even having that, adduce other information and exercise further discretion to the contrary of your propensities. On the other hand, the ill-informed and undiscriminating can easily be persuaded by the recitation of popular slogans and the appeal to self-interest, however spurious. It is only informed discretion that can detect such maneuvers.

And that’s how government works. There is nothing evil about it. It’s perfectly natural. You and I would do it the same way. In fact, the chances are good that we are doing things that way, since more and more of us are in fact functionaries of government in one way or another and dependent for our daily bread on some share of the property of our constituents, and sometimes (as in the public schools) upon the restriction of their liberty.

It was the genius of Jefferson to see that free people would rarely have to defend their freedom against principalities and powers and satanic enemies of the good, but that they would have to defend it daily against the perfectly natural and inevitable propensities of functionaries. Any fool, can see, eventually, the danger to freedom in a self-confessed military dictatorship, but it takes informed discretion to see the same danger in bland bureaucracies made up entirely of decent people who are just doing their jobs. But Jefferson was optimistic. As to the liberty and property of the people, he saw that "there is no safe deposit for them but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information." And he was convinced, alas, that the people could easily come by that information: "Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is secure."

That sounds so simple. A free press, and universal literacy. We have those things, don’t we? So all is secure, no? No.

Just as we cannot assume that what we call "education" is the same as Jefferson’s "informed discretion," we cannot assume that Jefferson meant what we mean by "press" and "able to read." In our time, the press, in spite of threats real or imagined, is in fact free. And, if we define "literacy" in a very special and limited way, almost everyone is able to read, more or less. But when Jefferson looked at "the press," what did he see? Or, more to the point, what did he not see? He did not see monthly periodicals devoted entirely to such things as hair care and motorcycling and the imagined intimate details of the lives of television stars and rock singers. He did not see a sports page, a fashion page, a household hints column, or an astrological forecast. He did not see a never-ending succession of breathless articles on low-budget decorating for the executive couple in the big city, career enhancement through creative haberdashery, and the achievement of orgasm through enlightened self-interest. He did not see a nationwide portrayal of "the important" as composed primarily of the doings and undoings of entertainers, athletes, politicians, and criminals.

He would not, I think, have been unduly dismayed by all that. Of course, he would have been dismayed, but not unduly. Such things are implicit in the freedom of the press, and if enough people want them, they’ll have them. (Jefferson would surely have wondered why so many people wanted such things, but that’s not to the point just now.) Jefferson did, naturally, see "the press" giving news and information, but, more than that, he also saw in it the very practice of informed discretion. In his time, after all, Common Sense and The Federalist Papers were simply parts of "the press." And "every man able to read" would have been, for Jefferson, every man able to read, weigh, and consider things like Common Sense and The Federalist Papers. He would have recognized at once our editorial pages and our journals of enquiry and opinion, but he would have found it ominous that hardly anyone reads those things, and positively portentous that this omission arises not so much from casual neglect as from a common and measurable inability to read such things with either comprehension or pleasure.

Thus Jefferson is cheated. The press is free and almost everyone can make out many words, but all is not secure. Wait. That’s not quite clear. Some things are secure. The agencies and institutions of government are secure. The functionaries whose propensity it is to command our liberty and property, they are secure. And, as the one-eyed man is the more secure in proportion to the number of citizens he can blind, our functionaries are the more secure in proportion to those of us who are strangers to the powers of informed discretion. It is possible, of course, to keep educated people unfree in a state of civilization, but it’s much easier to keep ignorant people unfree in a state of civilization. And it is easiest of all if you can convince the ignorant that they are educated, for you can thus make them collaborators in your disposition of their liberty and property. That is the institutionally assigned task, for all that it may be invisible to those who perform it, of American public education.

Public education does its work superbly, almost perfectly. It works in fairly strict accordance with its own implicit theory of "education," an elaborate ideology of which only some small details are generally known to the public. This is hardly surprising, for the rare citizen who actually wants to know something about educationistic theory, a dismal subject, finds that it is habitually expressed in tangled, ungrammatical jargon, penetrable, when it is at all, only to one who has nothing better to do. I hope, little by little, to dissect and elucidate that theory, for it is in fact even more frightening than it is dismal. For now, I can take only a first but essential step and urge you to consider this principle: The clouded language of educational theory is an evolved, protective adaptation that hinders thought and understanding. As such, it is no more the result of conscious intention than the markings of a moth. But it works. Thus, those who give themselves to the presumed study and the presumptuous promulgation of educational theory are usually both deceivers and deceived. The murky language

where their minds habitually dwell at once unminds them and gives them the power to unmind others.

We will, with appropriate examples, explore the evolution of that strange trait, especially in that portion of the educational establishment where it is most evident: that is, among the people to whom we have given the training of teachers and the formulation of educational theory. In the cumbersome and complicated contraption we call "public education," the trainers of teachers have special powers and privileges. Although in law they are governed by civilian boards and legislatures, they are in fact but little governed, for they have convinced the boards and legislatures that only teacher-trainers can judge the work of teacher-trainers. That wasn’t hard to do, for boards and legislatures are made up largely of people who have, in their time, already been blinded by the one-eyed man, having been given, as helpless children, what we call "education" rather than practice in informed discretion. The very language in which the teacher-trainers explain their labors will quickly discourage close scrutiny in even a thoughtful board member, perhaps especially in a thoughtful board member, who has after all, other and more important (he thinks) things to do.

It is not strictly true that the public schools are a state-supported monopoly. There are other schools. But the teacher-trainers are certainly a state-supported monopoly. There are no other teacher-trainers than the ones we have, and they are all in the business of teaching something they call "education." No one knows exactly what that is, and even among educationists there is some mild contention as to whether there actually exists some body of knowledge that can be called "education" as separate from other knowable subjects. You may want to make up your own mind as to that, for in later chapters you will see examples of what is actually done by those who teach "education." But for now we must consider the usually unnoticed effects of the monopoly they enjoy.

The laws of supply and demand work in the academic world just as they do in the marketplace, which is to say, of course, that what is natural and reasonable will not happen where government intervenes. Our schools can be usefully likened to a nationalized industrial system in which the production of goods is directed not by entrepreneurs looking to profit but by social planners intending to change the world. Thus it is the business of the schools, and the special task of the educationists who produce teachers, to generate both supply and demand, so that the nation will want exactly what it is they intend to provide.

Within the academic marketplace, there are many enterprises other than educationism, however. Historically, they have not seen themselves in competition with one another, although I’m sure that the faculties of the medieval universities were not reluctant to claim that their disciplines were more noble than the others. Individual professors, of course, must indeed have competed for students, by whom they were paid, but the students, many of whom were to become professors themselves, were free to devote themselves to whatever discipline seemed good. But between one discipline and another there seems to have been, rather than competition, sectarianism.

A similar sectarianism has been revivified by our current educational disorders. If you ask a professor of geography why we seem to be turning into a nation of ignorant rabble, he will not be able to refrain from pointing out that we don’t teach geography anymore and that high school graduates aren’t even sure of the name of the next state, never mind the climatic characteristics of the Great Plains or the rivers that drain the Ohio Valley. Professors of physics will allude to the all-too-inevitable consequences of ignorance of the laws of motion and thermodynamics. You can easily devise for yourself the comments of professors of mathematics, languages, history, literature, and indeed of any who teach those things we think of as traditional academic disciplines. Their views will be, of course, at least partly predictable expressions of self-interest; however, they will also be correct, and, if taken all together, will indeed tell us much about our present troubles.

The academic world is like any other group of related enterprises in which everybody can provide something but nobody can provide everything. For the building of houses, for instance, we need many different things, and they are not easily interchangeable. When we need copper tubing, we need copper tubing, and we can’t make do with wallboard instead. If houses are built, therefore, many people making many different things will be able to produce what is both useful and profitable. And, while the makers of copper tubing won’t have to worry about competition from the makers of wallboard, they will have to be mindful of other makers of copper tubing and also of the makers of plastic tubing. That will be good for the whole enterprise.

Suppose, though, that the copper-tubing people should, through quirk or cunning, secure for themselves some special legal privilege. First they persuade the state, which already has the power to license the building of houses, to prohibit the use of plastic tubing. That’s good, but so long as the state is willing to go that far, the copper-tubing makers seek and achieve a regulation requiring some absolute minimum quantity of copper tubing in every new house. Now you must suppose that the copper-tubing lobby has grown so rich and powerful that the law now requires that fifty percent of the mass of every new house must be made up of copper tubing.

Houses could still be built. Walls, floors, and ceilings could be made of coils and bundles of copper tubing smeared over with plaster or stucco. Copper tubing could be cleverly welded and twisted into everything from doorknobs to windowsills and produced in large sizes for heating ducts and chimneys. The houses would be dreadful, of course, and, should you ask why, you will discover that craftsmen in the building trades are more direct and outspoken than college professors. They’ll just tell you straight out that these are lousy houses because of all that damn copper tubing. If the professor of mathematics were equally frank, he’d tell you that our schools are full of supposed teachers of mathematics who have studied "education" when they should have studied mathematics.

This is, I admit, not an exact analogy. The manufacture of copper tubing actually does have some relationship to the building of houses, while the study of "education" has no relationship at all to the making of educated people. The analogy would perhaps have been better had I chosen, instead of the manufacturers of copper tubing, the manufacturers of gelatin desserts. To grasp the true nature of the place of educationism in the academic world, you have to imagine that houses are to be made mostly of Jell-O–each flavor equally represented–and that the builders must eat a bowl an hour.

(Well, that analogy fails, too. Jell-O is at least a colorful and entertaining treat with no known harmful side effects. The same cannot be said of the study of "education.")

Our public system of education, from Head Start to the graduate schools of the state universities, might also be called a government system. Those who teach in its primary and secondary schools are required by law to serve time, often as much as one half of their undergraduate program, in the classes of the teacher-trainers. Should they seek graduate degrees, which will bring them automatic raises, they will still have to spend about one half their time taking yet again courses devoted to things like interpersonal relations and the appreciation of alternative remediation enhancements. The educationistic monopoly is strong enough that in at least one state (there are probably others, but I’m afraid to find out), a high school mathematics teacher who is arrogant enough to take a master’s degree in mathematics will discover that he is no longer certified to teach that subject. If he wants to keep his job, he must take a degree in "mathematics education," which will, of course, permit him to spend some of his time studying his subject. Even where there is no such visibly monopolistic requirement, the laws and regulations of the public schools, which have been devised by educationists in the teachers’ colleges, provide an effective equivalent.

The intellectual climate of the public schools, which must inevitably become the intellectual climate of the nation, does not seem to be conducive to the spread of what Jefferson called informed discretion. The intellectual climate of the nation today came from the public schools, where almost every one of us was schooled in the work of the mind. We are a people who imagine that we are weighing important issues when we exchange generalizations and well-known opinions. We decide how to vote or what to buy according to whim or fancied self-interest, either of which is easily engendered in us by the manipulation of language, which we have neither the will nor the ability to analyze. We believe that we can reach conclusions without having the faintest idea of the difference between inferences and statements of fact, often without any suspicions that there are such things and that they are different. We are easily persuaded and repersuaded by what seems authoritative, without any notion of those attributes and abilities that characterize authority. We do not notice elementary fallacies in logic; it doesn’t even occur to us to look for them; few of us are even aware that such things exist. We make no regular distinctions between those kinds of things that can be known and objectively verified and those that can only be believed or not. Nor are we likely to examine, when we believe or not, the induced predispositions that may make us do the one or the other. We are easy prey.

That these seem to be the traits of the human condition always and everywhere is not to the point. They just won’t do for a free society. Jefferson and his friends made a revolution against ignorance and unreason, which would preclude freedom in any form of government whatsoever. If we cannot make ourselves a knowledgeable and thoughtful people–those are the requisites of informed discretion–then we cannot be free. But our revolutionists did at least provide us with that form of government which, unlike others, does grant the possibility of freedom, provided, of course, the public has the habit of informed discretion. That possibility is all we have just now.

Proposition 3 is in effect. We are largely a nation of ill-informed and casually thoughtless captives. Even when we are well-informed and thoughtful, however, we cannot be free where the character of the nation and its institutions must reflect the ignorance and unreason of the popular will. But if we are well-informed and thoughtful, we can take comfort in the fact that our form of government is carefully designed to preclude that condition described in Proposition 7. As long as we remain a constitutional republic, we cannot ever be both educated and unfree. It just won’t work, and that may be the single greatest insight of the makers of our revolution.

Therefore, whatever it is they do in the teachers’ colleges of America has had and will always have tremendous consequences. By comparison with the attitudes and intellectual habits and ideological predispositions inculcated in American teachers, the acts of Congress are trivial. Indeed, the latter proceed from the former. If, as a result of the labors of our educationists, we were obviously clear-sighted and thoughtful and thus able to enjoy the freedom promised in our constitutional system, then we would know something about those educationists. If, on the other hand, we are blind and witless, then we would know–if there are any of us who can know–something else about them. To know anything at all about those educationists, however, we must look at what they do, at what they say they do, and even at how they say what they do.

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