A general state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation. In proportion as it is efficient, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body.
—John Stuart Mill
When I concluded once in the Underground Grammarian that the American government school system is exactly what Lenin ordered, certain readers imagined that I had gone too far. Later, when I concluded that religious schools are in no important way different from government schools, and that what Luther ordered was even more oppressive than what Lenin ordered, certain other readers imagined that I had gone too far.
In fact, however, I never have the space to go far enough. Of the inane pronouncements and the sentimental mantras of educationism, I ask one question, a question that should always be asked of any proposition, even the most familiar, especially the most familiar: If this is true, what else must be true? It is a little question with a big answer. It throws a wonderful ray of clear light into sunless stews of superstition all the way from astrology to the affective domain.
To answer that question, however, is usually an exasperating chore. It's difficult enough to puzzle out exactly what the educationists are saying; why they say it, is, therefore, all the harder to construe. Often, after having worked out the logical, and horrible, implications of their dicta, we don't know whether to indict them for vice or for folly. It is thus a rare pleasure to discover an educationist who does not leave us in doubt.
He is a certain William H. Seawell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia, a paragon of clarity, a plain speaker in whom there is no mealy-mouthing, no obliquity, no jargon at all. "Each child," says William H. Seawell, "belongs to the state." What could be clearer?
In saying that, Seawell, who is after all, a paid agent of the government of a state, was doing nothing more than what he is paid to do. That function is called, almost certainly by every government on the face of the Earth, "educating the people." But Seawell's forthrightness, in a matter that ordinarily puts educationists to pious pussy-footing, suggests that he is no mere time-server who is just following orders. He sounds like exactly the kind of agent that any government most prizes: a true believer.
And a brave one, too. For he also said, to an audience of mere citizens, gathered to "celebrate" the opening of yet another government schoolhouse in Fort Defiance, Virginia, that the purpose of "education" is "the training of citizens for the state so the state may be perpetuated."
Although Seawell probably holds to the orthodox educationist belief that truth and knowledge are only relative, he seems to have spoken as one who knew with absolute certainty that Jefferson had left Virginia forever and could not possibly be sitting quietly, horsewhip in hand, out in the dim back rows of the auditorium. It could only be out of some such certainty—although ignorance might serve as well—that a man would dare to admit that "public schools promote civic rather than individual pursuits" and to argue from that that "only public education can be used to gain a free society."
Fort Defiance, eh? Well, times have changed in Virginia. Our source, the Staunton Leader, a remarkably restrained newspaper, says nothing at all about the mere citizens' reaction to being educated by Seawell. We have to assume, however, that even the Leader would have made some brief mention of the fact if the man had been tarred and feathered and ridden out of Fort Defiance on a rail. So that probably didn't happen.
And that it didn't is witness to the efficacy of an "education" designed for the perpetuation of the state. Such an education must see to it that its victims are habitually inattentive to the meaning of the words and slogans in which they are educated. No one, it seems, muttered any tiny dissent when Seawell overruled the Constitution and appointed unto himself and his ilk the task that many Virginians might have deemed more suitable to other hands: "We must focus on creating citizens for the good of society."
So. We are now to hold these truths to be self-evident: That all citizens are encumbered by the state that creates them with certain inevitable burdens, and that among these burdens are a life of involuntary servitude for the perpetuation of the state, the liberty to be required by law to learn from their creators the worth of the civic and the nastiness of the individual, and the assiduous pursuit—and this is Seawell's parting shot—of only those pastimes deemed (by agents of government, we guess) "productive."
Were there, among the impositions of George III upon the colonies, provisions more heinous and tyrannical than William H. Seawell's grand design for educating the people? Some eminently reasonable and well-educated men found King George's intentions nothing less than a "Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism," as a delegate from Virginia put it. But the king never claimed that he was the creator—and owner—of his subjects or that their purpose was the perpetuation of the State. He did not require the children to attend schools in which his hired agents would persuade them as to his notions about the "good of society." Nevertheless, and it suddenly seems strangely unaccountable, those thoughtful men took up arms against the king. Was it for this that they delivered us from that?
Richard Mitchell is the author of Less Than Words Can Say and publisher of the Underground Grammarian, from which this column is adapted.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Children of the State".