Sweatshops of the Mind: The American School Bureaucracy, Part I

This is a slightly revised version of a lecture delivered at a libertarian conference on bureaucracy held in 1991.  The speaker was lucky to get out of the hall with his skin intact.  Part I is a highly inflammatory introduction to the nightmare of American education and the attempts, always described as reform, to make matters even worse.

Bureaucracies can occasionally repair their mistakes.  In 1991, during the final stage of dissolution, the government of the Soviet Union declared that it was time to "fall back in the fall" by going off daylight savings time.  It seems that sixty years previously, comrade Stalin had decided to imitate the West's example of setting the clock ahead in the Spring.  This obviously gained an additional hour of daylight for work throughout the summer. 

Unfortunately, the great leader had other things on his mind in the 1940's--setting wages and prices, fighting the Germans, sending defeated armies to Siberia, murdering his enemies wherever he could find them, and snookering his feeble-minded competitor, Franklin Roosevelt.  With all that going on, Uncle Joe had no time to set the clocks back in the fall, and none of his successors had the initiative to break with the precedent set by the great man.  For sixty years, the Soviet people lived much of the year one hour out of step.  It’s a small price to pay for the happiness that is attained when men and women surrender control over their lives to a higher power.

     In the same week that the Russians announced their most decisive break with Stalinism, the National Education Goals Panel reported on the progress made toward realizing the six education goals drawn up by President Bush and 50 state  governors.  The goals were stated in that familiar bureaucratic language that allows neither proof nor refutation.  We all know the style.  Impossible ideals are stated in vague terms—wars on poverty and manmade climate change and success is reported as a victory for democracy, human fulfillment, and the American Dream.

By the year 2000, reads the first goal, all students in the United States  will start school "ready to learn.”  Since readiness depends on a combination of inherited intelligence traits and the quality of home life, the government cannot even attempt to insure readiness, without drastically intervening in the private and domestic lives of the citizens.  Morons would have to be sterilized, children would have to be snatched from the homes of illiterates and tv watchers, book-buying and reading would have to be subsidized.  

Instead of taking any positive steps, governments actively encourage their subjects to abandon the great books of earlier generations, many of which would wise up a few of the victims of public schooling, and from time to time prosecute home-schooling families for violating their role as child-tenders for the state.  

     Another goal is that every American school will be free of drugs and violence.  In a society like ours, this goal is simply impossible, and no one who has ever picked up a newspaper or heard gunshots in the night can doubt it.  What could be attempted is a serious drug-enforcement and disciplinary policy that expelled druggies, rapists, muggers, and would-be murderers from a school.  As it is, such students are practicing a reign of terror in inner city schools, because racial sensitivity and bureaucratic redtape make it difficult to expel hoodlums who threaten the lives of teachers.  

     A third goal is that high school graduation rates will rise to 90%.  We can do better than 90%, of course, simply by giving every eighteen year old a high school diploma.  But during a period in which performance is either dropping or has leveled off near the bottom, the trick would be to make high school graduation more, not less selective.  

     Of the three more or less legitimate goals--competency in math, science, history, and geography at key grade levels, adult literacy, and the basic skills necessary for competition in a world economy--little or no progress is being made.  Reports on math achievement seems to indicate American students remain, roughly where they have been for decades—near the bottom of a any list of academic performance in developed countries.  A simpler test is to go to try to buy a hamburger or a lightbulb, when the computers are down.  Just try explaining to the clerk how to calculate a 7% tax!      

The most significant conclusions of the Goals Panel was the familiar complaint: Further study is needed.  More data needs to be collected in every area, insisted the panel's chairman, Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, and most of the panel members agreed that the main emphasis in the ongoing crusade to improve our schools should be on assembling data and devising new instruments for testing and measuring progress.  This has been the burden of that same old song that was sung before John Dewey had ever corrupted the first mind of a student.

The house is on fire; children are trapped screaming in an upper bedroom.  With sirens blaring, the hook and ladder company arrives on the scene.  The firemen chop their way through the front door and enter dramatically.  After delivering their canned lecture on the need for smoke detectors, the firemen tip their hats and once again with sirens blaring, they return to the firehall and go back to their usual pastime of counting off the days to the next millennium. 

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    A few days ago I rediscovered my long lost copy of John Dewey’s “How We Think” (bought years ago, before I knew better). It is still unread, and I remain undecided on whether to read it or not. Is there any point?

  2. James D. says:

    Mr. Wilson,

    Do you have a wood stove or fireplace?

  3. Allen Wilson says:

    I wish I did, James D.

    Perhaps reading it might help me understand the enemy a little better?