The Twelve-Year Sentence: “Sociological and Political Ruminations”
“A new system of education should no longer function as a midwife to the state and to its concept of the citizen.”
William F. Rickenbacker, The Twelve-Year Sentence: Radical Views of Compulsory Schooling, San Francisco: Fox & Wilkes, 1974, 133-154.
Sociological and Political Ruminations
By Joel H. Spring
Compulsory education perforce breeds a certain conformity to the bourgeois values of the school boards and communities. Dr. Joel Henry Spring discovers in state compulsion forces that impair the freedom of minorities, such as the blacks, and which entrench the values and economic status of the privileged classes. [—William F. Rickenbacker]
It is not by accident that mass compulsory schooling has become the midwife of both modern democracy and modern totalitarianism. Its role is to bring forth the citizen who will support the ideology and structure of the state in word and deed. Schooling means more than teaching reading and writing or a trade. It means shaping the total character of the individual to meet the political and economic demands of the state. This was the purpose of schooling that wove its way through the dialogue of Plato’s Republic and found itself stamped into the first major system of mass compulsory schooling (Prussia in the early nineteenth century). It was with this purpose in mind that America’s schoolmaster Horace Mann left the arena of law to wage a campaign for the common school. And in the twentieth century both fascism and totalitarian communism found a warm ally in the process of schooling.
Every state develops the process of schooling within the context of belief that it is the possessor of some ideological truth. It is within this framework that schooling is often viewed as the foundation stone of freedom. Freedom, for the modern state, means the right to obey and conform to its laws and ideology. Schooling prepares the individual for freedom by implanting an ideology and fitting individual character to a particular social and political system. David Tyack has shown in a brilliant article that early leaders of the American Revolution promoted schooling out of a basic fear that freedom would mean social chaos and mobocracy. The school was viewed as a means of shaping the right character and implanting the right morals for the responsible exercise of freedom—in other words, to produce citizens of the state.
The school as an instrument of the modern state produces the type of citizen who is free to act as his conscience dictates. This assumes that his conscience conforms to the dictates of his schooling. The actual range of action can vary according to the nature of each political system. In one system censorship of written materials can be considered politically justified in terms of maintaining ideological truth. Today in the Soviet Union dissident authors are persecuted for writing poems and novels that are considered destructive of the Soviet way of life. These Soviet writers certainly are not considered as examples of superior products of the system of schooling. On the contrary, they are viewed as failures because their consciences were not correctly molded to the purity of socialist ideals. In the United States, democratic ideology calls for freedom from the pen of the censor, but even here, we are warned that that freedom must be used “responsibly.” One is taught not to endanger the morals of a population by allowing a free market in pornography. One is taught that free political journalism can only be maintained if it is used “responsibly.” This, of course, means it should not go far enough to rock the ship of state so hard that it capsizes.
What freedom, schooling, and responsibility mean in the United States has been shown by recent public and political reactions to the process of schooling. When students in the 1960s began to act for civil rights and against the war and plutocracy, there was immediate public outcry that the schools were failing to produce good citizens. It was claimed that students were not using their political rights in a responsible manner and it was the job of the school to teach this responsibility. What this meant was that the schools were to teach that democracy meant freedom but not so much freedom that established power was attacked. In state after state in the United States money was withdrawn from the schools. In California a reactionary governor found his way to the capital on a wave of protest against the political actions of students. What has been made quite clear in the last several years is that the schools are the bastions of democratic freedom as long as that freedom does not threaten the position of existing elites.
Schooling must be viewed as a tool by which the state solidifies its power and creates a citizenry. That citizens sometimes rebel is never considered an achievement of mass compulsory schooling but rather its failure. This does not mean schools themselves are conspiracies nor that the teaching of reading and writing is a political plot. Schools, as the term is being used in this essay, mean an institution that consciously attempts to turn men into something. This could be a Communist, a Democrat, a Methodist, or an Amishman. In other words, those who control the schools control a character-producing institution. The real danger of schooling is that it becomes an instrument of power for a ruling elite to maintain and enhance their power over the social system. In a totalitarian system this is precisely the purpose to which the system of schooling directs its attention.
In a democracy schooling endangers the very heart of the political process. Democratic government as it has developed in the United States is based on the idea of the majority electing their representatives, that is, the controllers of the state. One of the virtues of democracy is supposedly the inability of a political and economic elite to gain power and use the state for its own advantage and not the advantage of the majority of the people. In theory the controlling elites in a democracy are accountable to the majority of the population. Elites are displaced as the desires of the electorate change.
The real danger to a democratic process is the establishment of a system of mass, compulsory, and state-regulated schooling. This does not mean that learning, knowledge, and intellectual skills are not beneficial to a democratic system. What is dangerous is a compulsory regulated institution whose purpose is to create something called democratic character. It is through this institution that an elite in a democracy can bend the character of the population to accept the status quo and the power of the ruling institutions, that citizens are led to believe that they should serve their government and not that their government should serve them, that the citizen is led to place the flag above his own conscience and reason, that the poor and the rich learn to accept their respective places in the social system as right and just, that economic leaders can channel the manpower of the nation into selected occupations as if they were dealing with so many pieces of lumber or tons of coal, that man is turned into a thing to be worked upon in the interests of the state.
That the school can be used in this manner is not accidental. If one briefly scans the history of arguments in support of schooling, one finds these results were intended. If one briefly looks at present and past schooling in the United States, one can find concrete examples. Take some of the reasons given for support of compulsory schooling in Prussia in the early nineteenth century. One of the more famous and interesting statements was by Johann Gottlieb Fichte in his Addresses to the German Nation in 1808. Fichte argued that resistance to the full-scale institution of compulsory schooling would only last for one generation. The first generation affected by compulsory schooling would be schooled into accepting it as a natural part of the process of growing up in Prussia. Fichte also argued that the cost of schooling would be compensated for in terms of the cost of national defense. The schools would produce a citizen who was more willing and able to participate in the army. One could draw many parallels between Fichte’s argument in the nineteenth century and the role of schooling in the United States in the twentieth. In the nineteenth century, Prussian teachers were exempted from military service. In the twentieth century the United States government passed a bill with the interesting title of National Defense Education Act. The schools became the front-liners of defense and the teacher was equated with the soldier in serving the needs of the state.
Fichte’s important argument was that it won the allegiance and obedience of the citizen to the state. On the one hand this was to be accomplished through the teaching of German history and patriotic exercises. On the other hand, Fichte saw the actual organization of the school and its community of students as the prime producer of citizens for the state. In the twentieth century we would call this the process of political socialization. Fichte argued that the child in learning to obey the laws and constitution of the school was being prepared to obey the laws and constitution of the state. The school was a miniature community in which the child learned to adjust his own individuality to the requirements of the community. The real work of the school, Fichte argued, was in shaping this adjustment. The well ordered state required that the citizen go beyond mere obedience to the written constitution and laws. The individual must see the state as something greater than himself and must learn to sacrifice himself for the good of the whole.
Fichte’s argument must be considered in terms of recent findings on political socialization and the schools and in terms of democratic ideals. In the United States today the school is the first major public institution encountered in the life of every citizen. It is through one’s relationship to the school that one begins to formulate attitudes and modes of action towards other public institutions. Political socialization studies have found that children learned in elementary school that good citizenship meant obeying the law. In other words, the children rejected an active citizenship for one that was passive and obedient. This was a direct result of the very nature of the organization of the elementary school which depended on masses of students obeying the rules of the school and participating in orderly lockstep marches to the playground. Edgar Freidenberg’s classic study, Coming of Age in America, found that American high school students viewed the government as a benign institution that one should obey because it was working for the benefit of all people. Freidenberg found that this attitude was fostered by the benign and controlling atmosphere of the school. Students were taught that they had privileges but were without rights. This was fostered within the school by an administration which granted privileges with the attached reminder that if they were not sued responsibly they would be withdrawn. Students were socialized to accept that in the United States people did not have irrevocable civil rights but had privileges granted through the good will of a benign government. Their attitudes were like a woman I once heard who suggested that all people should be fingerprinted by the government. After all, she stated, if you are good and obey the law, it won’t matter.
Fichte’s arguments favoring the political socialization of mass schooling received added support and elaboration in the United States. In this country the argument was interwoven with the somewhat contradictory idea that a democracy could only survive if there was an institution that produced democratic men and a democratic culture with a consensus of values and beliefs. The great spokesman for the common school, Horace Mann, argued that a republican government required the sharing of a common set of republican values and moral principles. The common school, by bringing the rich and the poor together, would melt away the animosity between social classes. The rich and the poor together within the four walls of the classroom would be taught the common republican principles on which our political system rested. From the great Christian tradition would be taught those moral principles with which all religions could agree. The common school was to produce the common man with the common culture and ideology. Social, economic, and political strife was to be eliminated through the institution of common schooling.
To a certain extent Mann’s dream of the common school has been fulfilled. With a slow, crushing grind the school has attempted to obliterate the cultural differences existing within the United States. Catholics have attempted to keep their heads above water by maintaining their own schools. The Amish have recently won a reprieve in their battle against compulsory schooling. But with many Americans the school has achieved its objective.
Mann envisioned the school as not only creating the democratic consensus but also preventing social transgressions. The school would become the enforcer of the law. It would be the experiment in government that would succeed beyond the scope of previous social organizations. Within the school the law and morality of society would be internalized so that criminal transgression throughout the land would be eliminated. Men would no longer commit criminal acts or lead immoral lives because within the schoolroom they would learn to be righteous. The law of the land and society would be internalized in every citizen through the mechanism of the schoolsmaster and the schoolhouse.
Now the important question that must be asked of both the political socialization of Fichte and the common school idea of Horace Mann is whose political society, whose political and moral consensus, and whose social laws will the school reflect? In other words, after the machinery of political and social control is established, who will give substance to the ideals? In the United States the source of interpretation and direction is the local boards of education. But who controls these local boards? From the beginning of the century to the present, studies of the social composition of school boards show that they are dominated by upper-class business and professional people. This is truer in small town and urban areas than in farm areas. In urban areas it is not accidental. Urban school reform at the beginning of the century was consciously directed towards eliminating local ward control in favor of centralized school boards. It was believed reasonable and beneficial to the process of schooling to assure its domination by elites.
The social composition of school boards in the United States has assured that the political and social ideals of the public schools would reflect conservative and reactionary ideals. The schools are made the market place for the Chamber of Commerce, American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution, Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, and other such organizations to peddle their wares. Before World War II it was even difficult to get conservative labor union material into the school. Because of this type of control the schools have naturally become havens for Bank Day, Junior Achievement, ROTC, Junior Kiwanis Clubs, and Chamber of Commerce celebrations.
Now it should be reiterated that the problem is not one of refining the methods of control of compulsory, state-regulated schooling. It is inevitable that compulsory, state-regulated schooling will reflect the political philosophy of the status quo. It is after all those who have political and social power who gain the most benefit from the existing political climate and depend on its continuation. It seems illogical to think of a group with a particular political philosophy supporting a system of schooling that instilled its opposite. It is inevitable that the process of political socialization and the development of a political and moral consensus should reflect the organization of the existing state and those who control that state.
It is also inevitable that when the school attempts to serve the economic ends of the state it reinforces and perpetuates the existing class structure. Following the political and social arguments of Fichte and Mann came the economic arguments for mass schooling. By the end of the nineteenth century it was felt that schools were needed for the production of workers to meet the needs of the developing corporate state. Workers had to be trained and sorted for their particular places in the industrial system. The educational methods developed for this social selection included intelligence tests, vocational guidance, differentiation of courses of study, ability grouping, and the comprehensive high school. In the twentieth century it was the comprehensive high school that would be the great creator of the democratic consensus and the social sorting machine for the corporate state. Trapped in the rhetoric of meeting individual differences, the school would use intelligence tests to separate students according to abilities. Achievement tests, interest tests, and career counseling would be sued to help the student choose a future vocation and related educational track in the school.
What has been the result of this social sorting? Study after study has shown this process of differentiation resulting in the school reflecting the class structure of the surrounding society. When students are separated according to the ability by either teachers or intelligence tests, the upper ability groups are inevitably populated by children from upper social and economic groups, and the lower ability groups by children from lower social and economic classes. The same results are found when tracking systems are investigated. Those in the college preparatory tracks are primarily from upper social and economic groups and those in the vocational track are from lower social and economic classes.
As the school reflects the social class structure of the surrounding community, it also reinforces that class structure. Students are schooled into their social place. The school becomes the first arena of social competition. It is the first indicator of the winners in the social race. Except for the few who slip through to the higher areas of the school structure, most of the poor are taught by the process of school differentiation that they should accept their station in life. Except for the few who slip to the bottom of the school structure, most of the children of affluence learn that it is right and just that they should be at the top of the social pile.
No amount of psychological gimmickry will change this situation. The search for the golden egg of a culturally free indicator of native intelligence is a hopeless quest. What is defined and prized as intelligence is dependent on the nature of the existing society and the type of individual characteristics required to succeed within that type of society. These behavioral characteristics are generated within the environment that surrounds the child during his early years. Inherited abilities are shaped and given direction by these forces. To create equal conditions for upbringing might require forms of communal child-rearing such as the Israeli kibbutz. But day care centers and communal child-rearing proposals take one back to the problem of who will determine the behavioral characteristics that will be nurtured within these communal environments. Day care centers and communal child-rearing might contribute greatly to the cause of female emancipation, but their value in creating an equal social race is tempered by their openness to abuse by becoming instruments of political and economic control.
One example of all these various shades of control and the power of the school is the history of schooling in the southern states of the United States. Here is a clear example of the use of the school as a means of economic power and as a means of maintaining a particular form of social stratification. The development of a segregated system of schooling in the South in the late nineteenth century was not accidental but was the result of conscious plans by industrial leaders to segregate the black population and educate them as an inexpensive labor force for the new industrial South. Henry Allen Bullock’s fine History of Negro Education in the South carefully documents industrial involvement in the creation and development of segregated schools. The work of historian James Anderson shows the prominent role industrial leaders played in developing Booker T. Washington’s ideas on the industrial education of the black man and spreading those ideas throughout the South.
Segregated mass schooling maintained and assured the continuation of a segregated society in the South. The school institutionalized a whole process of cultural segregation and assured that it would play a major part in shaping the character of blacks and whites. The Supreme Court decision that ended segregated schooling was based on a recognition of the extreme social power of the school. What was overlooked was that integration of the schools would not necessarily close the gap. Southern schools have armed themselves with the weapons used by schools in the North. Segregation can be carried out within the school with the refined weapons of grouping, meeting, individual differences, intelligence tests, tracking, special education, classes for “behavior problems” and other forms of differentiation. The desegregation of the schools will not destroy the power of the school to continue its segregation.
Now the problems of political control, consensus ideology, and social stratification are not just leaks in the roof of the American schoolhouse. The problem is with the very foundation of the structure. We must build a new foundation and structure which will assure that no particular social or political ideology can dominate and control the socialization process of a whole society of children. We need an educational system that will assure that schools cannot serve as the bulwarks of the status quo and reinforce social and economic inequalities; a system men can use, not a system that uses men; a system that does not have the purpose of producing citizens who exist for the maintenance of the state.
A system of education should also be built on a foundation that does not pretend that schooling will eliminate or cure the problems of crime, poverty, or social injustice. To say that schooling will solve these problems is to say that the structure of society is sound and that it is the individual who must change to fit that society. To use schooling to solve these problems is to maintain the status quo by avoiding the examination and change of the social structure that caused these problems. To tell the poor that poverty will end with their completion of schooling is to place the blame for their poverty on their shoulders and not on the structure of society. All the process of schooling accomplishes is to condemn the majority of poor who lose in the schooling race and teach them that society is correct and they are the problems.
A new system of education should no longer function as a midwife to the state and to its concept of the citizen. The changes must be basic. Educational discussions that center around things like open classroom, pass-fail, school without failure, and other gimmicks, are talking only about band-aid treatments. Changes must be made at the basic levels of funding, educational requirements, certification, and the family.
Now I would like to mention some areas where change is needed. One area is the concept of certification. Issuance of diplomas and degrees is one of the most important means by which mass schooling maintains its social power. With the complete triumph of compulsory schooling in the twentieth century the school as a social sorting machine has become the central certification system for entrance into different occupational levels. High school and college diplomas became standard requirements on job applications. In many cases, the diplomas, as has been pointed out many times, have little direct connection to the actual requirements in many occupational areas. What is the difference between a person who does not take a required English course of physical education course and consequently fails to receive a high school diploma, and one who does take the course and receives the diploma? Why should the one with the degree be considered a superior candidate for a job as mail clerk or stock boy? The diploma madness has infected students and schools with a constant concern for getting the correct number of credits in the required areas of schooling. Diplomas turn schooling into working for grades in required courses to achieve a piece of paper for entrance into the job market.
Eliminating the traditional concept of the diploma and its control of certification would be an important step in changing the nature of schooling. Internally it would create immediate changes. Grades would lose meaning and required courses would disappear. One would take a course of study in order to learn something. Learning would no longer be attached to running the race for a diploma. No longer would people think in terms of organizing a curriculum to produce able citizens. Also changes in attitudes and organization would result if one went to something called a high school or college and there was no diploma to be earned. The power to demand certain outcomes from learning would be removed and with it part of the political and social power of the school.
The elimination of the diploma system would lead to a whole reconsideration of the process of certification. Certainly there are areas where it is important that there exist public recognition of knowledge; for example, medicine. One certainly needs to know that a surgeon knows surgery before he operates on you. With this situation one could still have professional schools designed to produce certain types such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers. But even here a diploma does not guarantee competence. In the case of medicine there must be some community involvement in the certification process and public knowledge of actual ability. For instance, one could even consider the publication of a local medical kill rate. The whole area of alternative methods of certification for professions is one of the important things that must be considered in terms of the future of our social system.
Coupled with the elimination of the traditional diploma must be the limitation of most state control of education. This would mean the elimination of compulsory schooling and the limitation of governmental educational requirements. The objective of this goal would be to decrease the possibility of education being used by an elite group to form a particular political and social character and to reinforce an existing social class structure. To achieve this end it is desirable to minimize government requirements and control over educational institutions. In the United States, school shave attained a bland sameness because of curriculum requirements and requirements for certification of teachers. Probably the worst thing that ever happened to education was governmental control of teacher certification. Not only have certification requirements populated the school staffs with intellectual mediocrity but they have also contributed to the controlling elements of a consensus ideology and culture in the United States. Schools and government school bureaus have tended to operate on the principle espoused by Horace Mann in the nineteenth century—that we can tolerate some eccentricities in our neighbors but we cannot tolerate them in our teachers who are to be social mirrors for all children.
What might be considered and should be discussed as national educational requirements are levels of competence in reading, writing, and arithmetic. This would minimize the government’s involvement in education to the level of teaching skills and not producing citizens. Thomas Jefferson believed that the mass requirements for schooling could be limited to three years. During this period the future citizens of the Republic were taught how to read and write. Jefferson trusted the reason and the common sense of the people to develop their own opinions within the arena of a free press. He did not consider using the schools to shape all men into democrats but to provide the tools by which men could democratize themselves. Any discussion of educational requirements must consider the difference between schooling that moulds men into something, and education that men acquire for their own private purposes.
The issue of compulsory schooling must be approached from several directions. In the first place, the concept of compulsory schooling as an instrument by which the state assures itself of a loyal citizenry is repugnant and harmful to the democratic process. It is in this area that Americans must rethink the relationship between the individual and the state. Men should not exist to be trained and shaped to serve the state but should have the state serving them. In the second place the concept of compulsory education as a cure for the economic displacement caused by technology must be reconsidered. One reason for compulsory education was the shift from a rural, agricultural economy to an urban industrial state. With this shift arose arguments that the exploitation of children could only be overcome by the establishment of child labor laws and forced attendance at school. It was also argued that urban children, as compared to rural children who played important roles around the farm, were socially and economically without a meaningful function in the city. Increased juvenile delinquency at the turn of the century was often linked to the idea that children and youth in the modern urban and industrial world got into trouble because of boredom and a lack of activities. Compulsory schooling was to create a holding institution that kept children and youth occupied and off the labor market.
The argument for the expansion of schooling as a solution for technological displacement has been increasingly used in the twentieth century. As productivity has increased, a lower percentage of the population has been required in the work force. In other words, in the United States in the twentieth century there has been an actual decrease in the percentage of the population involved in production. This, of course, is one of the promises of technology. More leisure is supposedly the goal of our industrial civilization. The first group that this affected was youth. During the 1920s high school became a mass institution that assured a whole age group’s removal from the labor market, and after World War II the general extension of schooling through the college years increased the percentage of the population removed from the labor force. Also after World War II there was a general increase in retirement for people over 65, further reducing the percentage of population involved in production. It is interesting that this development has led to the expansion of schooling and demands for increased schooling for the retired. In the nineteenth century, schooling was supported because of a fear of the masses’ experiencing freedom and in the twentieth century because of a fear of the masses’ experiencing leisure.
Compulsory schooling as a means of institutionalizing non-productive segments of the population is not a creative solution to one of the major problems resulting from increased technology. In fact, it avoids direct confrontation with the problem of an increasingly dehumanized society with man becoming a mere consuming appendage to technology. The elimination of compulsory schooling must take place in an environment that is willing to see the nature of modern technology as one of the important issues that must be discussed. The school now fills a void of empty time created by modern industrialism. Before technology continues on its present path, we must begin to discuss the possibility of creating a technology that men can use as a means of self-expression in creating their own worlds. We need a technological society in which all men have an integrated and creative role.
The elimination of compulsory mass schooling must also be considered in terms of the nature of the family and role of women in society. Schooling in the nineteenth century always contained an internal contradiction with regard to women and the family. On the one hand, the school prepared women to assume a direct role in the commercial and business world of society. On the other hand, the school depended on the basic family of husband as bread-winner and woman as housewife. The economic support of children flows through this basic institution of the family. It should be recognized that the school has not weakened the family but has strengthened it. In fact, increased schooling in the twentieth century has lengthened the number of years that children are economically dependent on the family structure. Women have felt the frustration of their school training coming into conflict with the demand for maintenance of the family. Equality for women will not take place until this family structure is changed.
The elimination of compulsory schooling and the integration of children and youth into a creative technological society would make possible the liberation of women from this structure of family. It would also make possible the elimination of marriage. This would require a reconsideration of the problem of financial support of education and children. One possibility is a voucher system where at birth all children are granted some set sum. The danger of some of the present voucher proposals is that they reinforce the existing family structure by giving that unit the responsibility for use of the voucher. One way of avoiding this might be to give control of the voucher directly to the child with some brief period of parental control.
The effect of the elimination of compulsory mass schooling on the family highlights the meaning of the school as a central institution of modern society. Any basic changes in the foundation of the school will affect all aspects of our society. In fact, while we may discuss the issues, there may be little we can do, because the problem is broad and interrelated with all aspects of society. The situation is similar to that of a medical doctor who recognized that his patient has an incurable case of cancer. He can study and talk about the cancer but he cannot cure it. At this point we can study mass compulsory schooling as a primary instrument of political and social control and recognize its power in segregating and strengthening social classes; but, because the school is so intimately related to all social problems, any cure requires a total transformation of society. Changing the modern state, technology, and the family is a very broad and sweeping order. But discussion of these issues is not academic, just as it is not academic for the medical doctor to discuss the problems of and possible cures for cancer.
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