Wednesday, July 4, 2018

HL Mencken on American Education

Daniel B. Klein just sent me this quote.  It pretty well sums up what is wrong with American education, except Mencken wrote it around 1920. (See Mencken, H.L. (1987) Smart Set Criticism. Regnery Gateway. Washington, DC, p. 222.)

Think of what the average American schoolboy is taught today, say of history or economics. Examine the specific orders to teachers issued from time to time by the School Board of New York City—a body fairly representative of the forces that must always control education at the cost of the state. Surely no sane man would argue that the assimilation of such a mess of evasions and mendacities will make the boy of today a well-informed and quick-minded citizen tomorrow, alert to error and wary of propaganda. The plain fact is that such an education is itself a form of propaganda—a deliberate scheme to outfit the pupil, not with the capacity to weigh ideas, but with a simple appetite for gulping ideas ready-made. The aim is to make “good” citizens, which is to say, docile and uninquisitive citizens. Let a teacher let fall the slightest hint to his pupils that there is a body of doctrine opposed to the doctrine he is officially ordered to teach, and at once he is robbed of his livelihood and exposed to slander and persecution. The tendency grows wider as the field of education is widened. The college professor of Emerson’s day was more or less a free agent, at all events in everything save theology; today his successor is a rubberstamp, with all the talent for trembling of his constituent gutta-percha. In the lower schools the thing goes even further. Here (at least in New York) the teachers are not only compelled to stick to their text-books, but also to pledge their professional honor to a vast and shifting mass of transient doctrines. Any teacher who sought to give his pupils a rational view of the late Woodrow at the time Woodrow was stalking the land in the purloined chemise of Moses would have been dismissed from his pulpit, and probably jailed. The effects of such education are already distressingly visible in the Republic; let Dr. Wells give an eye to them when he is among us. Americans, in the days when their education stopped with the three R’s, were a self-reliant, cynical, liberty-loving and extremely rambunctious people. Today, with pedagogy standardized and a school-house in every third block, they are the herd of sheep. (Ovis aries).

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