This fall in Belgrade, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization met to blather about the report of its commission on "the news media." That report suggests, among other outrages, that the press ought to promote, and perhaps ought to be required to promote, the "social, cultural, economic and political goals set by governments." We're not the least bit surprised. That's exactly the kind of idea you can expect from an outfit calling itself "educational."
"Education" once meant liberation, a condition available to those led forth (educati) out of some restraint or captivity. We once assumed that ignorance and unreason, although natural, were fetters that might be broken through the accumulation of knowledge and the practice of logical thought. We imagined that this trap of reflexive twitches might be transformed into the examined life.
Now it is otherwise, and "education" can be best understood as an inoculation, which, if it takes, will protect you from something much worse: reeducation. But it usually takes. Where once a tyrant had to wish that his subjects had but one common neck that he might strangle them all at once, all he has to do now is to "educate the people" so that they will have but one common mind to delude.
Even in its less malevolent forms, education has become a process intended not to increase knowledge and foster thought but to engender feelings. Sellers see no absurdity in claiming to "educate" buyers. Politicians are eager to "educate" voters. And our schools have taken up institutionalized apologetics in the cause of values clarification and social adjustment through consciousness raising. In short, American public education is exactly what UNESCO wants us to promote, one of those "social, cultural, economic and political goals set by government." We decline.
We hear noises from educationists, and especially from unionists in education, about the "duty" of the press to stop knocking and start boosting, by running, perhaps, some cheery articles about boldly innovative (relevant) bulletin boards and the latest test scores, which may suggest that many 11th graders are now only three years behind in reading. Now is the time, we hear, to "restore public confidence in the schools." That invitation is the same as UNESCO's, and, considering its source, nakedly self-serving as well as ominous. Again, we decline.
Public education, no less than the Marine Corps or the Internal Revenue Service, is a creature of government and an instrument of its policies. Its meager remnant of "civilian control," the elected school board, has been effectively disenfranchized by the mandates of government, which leave little uncontrolled. Public education serves one master, and that master is rich and powerful.
Those who clamor for the restoration of confidence in the public schools can, with the mighty resources at their disposal—and not money alone, but the power and prestige of officialdom—easily provide that for themselves. They can easily "educate the public" into warm feelings of respect for the schools, especially since those whose values stand in need of clarification are mostly victims of the schools, unskilled in thought and poor in knowledge. When they do that—indeed, as they do that, for they are always at it in one way or another—it is only the press that can put weights in the other pan of the scale, citing facts and exploring meanings.
"The functionaries of every government," wrote Jefferson, "have propensities to command at will—for the liberty and property of their constituents." Is that any less true when the "functionaries of government" just happen to be bureaucrats in some department of "education"? Have they not commanded our property, in countless billions, only to squander it on fads and gimmicks and nonsensical "research" and lucrative consultancies for others of their tribe? Have they not commanded our liberty and our very persons in the cause of ideological adjustment? How long would we bear such intrusive and manipulative behavior in other functionaries of government—in the Coast Guard, for example, or the Motor Vehicle Bureau?
How long? Only so long as we remain ignorant of what they are doing and thoughtlessly uncritical about its meaning. Jefferson went on: "There is no safe deposit for them [liberty and property] but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is secure." It is noteworthy that the people who want the press to promote the schools, thus mitigating the first of Jefferson's conditions for the security of all, are the very ones who have so egregiously failed to provide the second, universal literacy.
On the other hand, of course, Lenin opposed freedom of the press. Why, he asked, should government that is "doing what it believes is right allow itself to be criticized?" His values were clarified.
And here's the beast that lies in wait for those whose schools have become agents of the State and promoters of the "goals set by government." The generalissimos who run Argentina have banned the study of the new math. Extra, an Argentinian journal doing exactly what UNESCO would have us all do, explains that "modern mathematics introduces procedures distinct from those taught by Aristotle.…this encourages doubts about his logic and promotes a lack of confidence in the authority of traditional ruling figures, thus favoring subversion."
Extra also pointed out that certain words used in the new math—for example, vector, matrix, and set—are typical of Marxist ideology. How long do you suppose it will take those generalissimos to discern the Red Threat in air traffic control, type founding, and tennis?
All governments, and especially tyrannical governments, worry a lot about language. Not only must they "defend the indefensible," as Orwell put it, but they must also provide themselves with a citizenry in whom the skills of language are not good enough to penetrate that defense. When they can, as in Argentina, governments diminish the power of language by fiat; but when they can't their best hope is an established educational system in which it is a policy not to worry about language.
We are a long, long way from tyranny, but from here, on a clear day, you can see the path.
Richard Mitchell is the author of Less Than Words Can Say and the publisher of the Underground Grammarian, from which this column is adapted.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Necks and Minds of the People".