Saturday, December 16, 2017

Walter Weyl and the Escalation of American Mental Uniformity

In the late nineteenth century the standardization of parts contributed to American competitiveness. That idea was taken further by the Progressives, who incorrectly assumed that increasing scale and centralizing management would improve efficiency. The assumption of the historian Alfred Chandler (in his books The Visible Hand and Strategy and Structure) that increased scale means increased efficiency is not a rule at all. Toyota showed that nimble management technique can easily overcome inefficient manufacturers of the largest scale.

The current trend toward conformity of thought, standardization of consumption, and media-induced mass hysteria continues the incorrect, 130-year-old theory of the Progressives that standardization and scale are the most important sources of efficiency.

Centralized financial control via the Fed is central to this process. I wrote a piece that hasn't been published about how a similar process applied to higher education. You see the same thing with K-12 education. The Dept. of Education was a first step toward national centralization, but the process began in the first half of the 19th century with Horace Mann's advocacy of public education. Widespread adoption of teacher education in the mid-twentieth century standardized the ideological framework that infuses K-12. Diane Ravitch's Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform focuses on teaching methodology and progressive education, but there was ideological content affiliated with progressive education theory.

The result of a century of increasingly standardized training is increased standardization of thinking. The now-declining centralized mass media has also played an important role, and I suspect that the debate about Internet regulation is linked to the need to think strategically about homogenizing content by regulators in the Progressive tradition.

The argument for obtaining ever more education in the name of supposed higher wages of graduates is a tacit argument for uniformity of thinking. Relatively few grads study science or technology. The bulk study business, education, and psychology. They often learn little, but their behavior and thinking are standardized. (Christopher Loss discusses the emphasis on human resource management as an aim of higher education in the first chapter of his important book Between Citizen and State.)

The Progressives were the ones who instituted today's educational system. Horace Mann was the first advocate of public education, but the current approach with high school, elementary school, and college admission based on standardized testing was the creation of the early 1900s.

What we are witnessing is a playing out of the Progressive ideology of someone like Progressive ideologue Walter Weyl. (Weyl cofounded the New Republic magazine with two other central Progressive thinkers, Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly.) Weyl saw Progressivism as leading to socialism, and in this he was prescient. He did not anticipate the continued vibrancy of the free market economy, and its ability to innovate.

For instance, Weyl thought that Progressivism would lead to a perfectly planned national train system; he didn't realize that air travel would replace trains. Progressivism has no place for the kind of rapid innovation that took place under laissez faire capitalism. It requires a slow, limited rate of innovation, and it incorrectly assumes that scale and standardization increase efficiency and wealth. 

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