Plato’s Guardians

Coal made common citizens dangerous for the first time. The Coal Age put inordinate physical power within the reach of common people. The power to destroy through coal-derived explosive products was an obvious dramatization of a cosmic leveling foreseen only by religious fanatics, but much more dangerous as power became the power coal unleashed to create and to produce—available to all.

The dangerous flip side of the power to produce isn’t mere destruction, but overproduction, a condition which could degrade or even ruin the basis for the new financial system. The superficial economic advantage that overproduction seems to confer—increasing sales by reducing the unit price of products through savings realized by positivistic gains in machinery, labor, and energy utilization—is more than offset by the squeezing of profits in industry, commerce, and finance. If profit could not be virtually guaranteed, capitalists would not and could not gamble on the huge and continuous investments that a positivistic science-based business system demands.

Now you can see the danger of competition. Competition pushed manufacturers to overproduction in self-defense. And for double jeopardy, the unique American entrepreneurial tradition encouraged an overproduction of manufacturers. This guaranteed periodic crises all along the line. Before the modern age could regard itself as mature, ways had to be found to control overproduction. In business, that was begun by the Morgan interests who developed a system of cooperative trusts among important business leaders. It was also furthered through the conversion of government from servant of the republic to servant of industry. To that end, the British government provided a clear model; Britain’s military and foreign policy functioned as the right arm of her manufacturing interests.

But of what lasting value could controlling topical overproduction be—addressing it where and when it threatened to break out—when the ultimate source of overproduction in products and services was the overproduction of minds by American libertarian schooling and the overproduction of characters capable of the feat of production in the first place? As long as such a pump existed to spew limitless numbers of independent, self-reliant, resourceful, and ambitious minds onto the scene, who could predict what risk to capital might strike next? To minds capable of thinking cosmically like Carnegie’s, Rockefeller’s, Rothschild’s, Morgan’s, or Cecil Rhodes’, real scientific control of overproduction must rest ultimately on the power to constrain the production of intellect. Here was a task worthy of immortals. Coal provided capital to finance it.

If the Coal Age promised anything thrilling to the kind of mind which thrives on managing the behavior of others, that promise would best be realized by placing control of everything important—food, clothing, shelter, recreation, the tools of war—in relatively few hands, creating a new race of benevolent, godlike managers, not for their own good but the good of all. Plato had called such benevolent despots "guardians." Why these men would necessarily be benevolent nobody ever bothered to explain.

Abundant supplies of coal, and later oil, cried out for machinery which would tirelessly convert a stream of low-value raw materials into a cornucopia of things which everyone would covet. Through the dependence of the all on the few, an instrument of management and of elite association would be created far beyond anything ever seen in the past. This powerful promise was, however, fragilely balanced atop the need to homogenize the population and all its descendant generations.1 A mass production economy can neither be created nor sustained without a leveled population, one conditioned to mass habits, mass tastes, mass enthusiasms, predictable mass behaviors. The will of both maker and purchaser had to give way to the predestinated output of machinery with a one-track mind.

Nothing posed a more formidable obstacle than the American family. Traditionally, a self-sufficient production unit for which the marketplace played only an incidental role, the American family grew and produced its own food, cooked and served it; made its own soap and clothing. And provided its own transportation, entertainment, health care, and old age assistance. It entered freely into cooperative associations with neighbors, not with corporations. If that way of life had continued successfully—as it has for the modern Amish—it would have spelled curtains for corporate society.

Another factor which made ordinary citizens dangerous in a Coal Age was that coal gave rise to heavy industries whose importance for war-making made it imperative to have a workforce docile, dependable, and compliant. Too much was at stake to tolerate democracy. Coal-fired industry had such a complex organization it could be seriously disrupted by worker sabotage, and strikes could be fomented at any moment by a few dissident working men with some training in rhetoric and a little education. The heightened importance to high-speed industry of calculating mass labor as a predictable quality rendered nonconformity a serious matter.

The danger from ordinary people is greatly magnified by the positive philosophy which drives a mass production, corporate management epoch. While it was necessary to sensitize ordinary people to the primacy of scientific needs, and to do this partially by making the study of biology, chemistry, physics, and so forth formal school lessons, to go further and reveal the insights of Bacon and Comte about how easily and inevitably Nature surrenders her secrets to anybody in possession of a simple, almost moronic method, was to open Pandora’s box. The revolutionary character of scientific discovery discussed earlier—that it requires neither genius nor expensive equipment and is within reach of anyone—had to be concealed.

It was through schooling that this revolutionary aspect of science (once known or at least suspected by tens of thousands of small, subsistence farming families and miscalled "Yankee ingenuity") was hidden right out in the open. From the start, science teaching was what it remains today: for the ordinary student, a simplified history of scientific discovery, and for the better classes, a simple instilling of knowledge and procedures. In this transmission of factual data and chronicles, the positive method remains unseen, unsuspected, and untaught.

Taught correctly, science would allow large numbers of young people to find and practice the most effective techniques of discovery. The real gift science confers is teaching how to reach potent conclusions by common powers of observation and reasoning. But if incidental overproduction was already a crisis item in the minds of the new social planners, you can imagine what hysteria any attempt to broadcast the secrets of discovery would have occasioned.

The General Education Board said it best when it said children had to be organized and taught in a way that would not make them "men of science."2 To that end, science was presented in as authoritarian a form as Latin grammar, involving vast tracts of memorization. Children were taught that technical competence is bought and sold as a commodity; it does not presume to direct activities, or even to inquire into their purpose. When people are brought together to build a shopping mall, a dam, or an atomic bomb, nothing in the contract gives them latitude to question what they have been paid to do, or to stir up trouble with co-workers. Recruitment into the dangerous sciences was mostly limited to those whose family background made them safe. For the rest, science was taught in a fashion to make it harmless, ineffective, and even dull.

Now my job is to open a window for you into that age of economic transformation whose needs and opportunities gave us the schools we got and still have. Thorstein Veblen said back in 1904, just a year or two before the forced schooling project began to take itself seriously, that "any theoretical inquiry into cultural life as it is running into the future must take into account the central importance of the businessman and his work." Insofar as any theorist aims to explain aspects of modern life like schools, the line of approach has to be from the businessman’s standpoint, for it is business that drives the course of events.

And while I urge the reader to remember that no notion of single causes can possibly account for schooling, yet the model of modern medicine—where the notion of single causes has been brilliantly productive—can teach us something. When medicine became "modern" at the end of the nineteenth century, it did so by embracing germ theory, a conception much less "factual" than it appears. The idea in germ theory is to trace specific pathologies to single instigators. Whatever its shortcomings, this narrowing of vision frequently revealed the direction in which successful treatment lay.

Just so, the important thing in viewing the development of the modern economy is not to find in it a conspiracy against children, but to remain detached enough to ask ourselves how the development of forced schooling could have been any different than it was. To understand the modern economy and modern schooling, we need to see how they grow organically from coal and oil.

1Coal explains a part of the curious fact that modern Mexico is still not a mass society in spite of its authoritarian governing class and traditional ways, while the wealthy neighboring United States is. Mexico had no coal, and while it has recently acquired oil (and NAFTA linkage to the mass economy of North America) which will level its citizenry into a mass in time, centuries of individuation must first be overcome.

2 See epigraph, Chapter Eleven, Page 221, which states the vital proposition even more clearly.