Managerial Utopia

In an angry letter to the Atlantic Monthly (January 1998), Walter Greene, of Hatboro, Pennsylvania, protested the "myth of our failing schools," as he called it, on these grounds:

We just happen to have the world’s most productive work force, the largest economy, the highest material standard of living, more Nobel prizes than the rest of the world combined, the best system of higher education, the best high-tech medicine, and the strongest military. These things could not have been accomplished with second-rate systems of education.

On the contrary, the surprising truth is they could not have been accomplished to the degree they have been without second-rate systems of education. But here it is, writ plain, the crux of an unbearable paradox posed by scientifically efficient schooling. It works. School, as we have it, does build national wealth, it does lead to endless scientific advances. Where is Greene’s misstep? It lies in the equation of material prosperity and power with education when our affluence is built on schooling (and on entrepreneurial freedom, too, of course, for those libertarian enough to seize it). A century of relentless agit-prop has thrown us off the scent. The truth is that America’s unprecedented global power and spectacular material wealth are a direct product of a third-rate educational system, upon whose inefficiency in developing intellect and character they depend. If we educated better we could not sustain the corporate utopia we have made. Schools build national wealth by tearing down personal sovereignty, morality, and family life. It was a trade-off.

This contradiction is not unknown at the top, but it is never spoken aloud as part of the national school debate. Unacknowledged, it has been able to make its way among us undisturbed by protest. E.P. Thompson’s classic, The Making of the English Working Class, is an eye-opening introduction to this bittersweet truth about "productive" workforces and national riches. When a Colorado coalminer testified before authorities in 1871 that eight hours underground was long enough for any man because "he has no time to improve his intellect if he works more," the coaldigger could hardly have realized his very deficiency was value added to the market equation.

What the nineteenth century in the coal-rich nations pointed toward was building infrastructure for managerial utopia, a kind of society in which unelected functional specialists make all the decisions that matter. Formal periods of indoctrination and canonical books of instruction limit these specialists in their choices. The idea of managerial science is to embed managers so securely in abstract regulation and procedure that the fixed purpose of the endeavor becomes manager-proof.

Managerial utopias take tremendous effort to build. England’s version of this political form was a millennium in the building. Such governance is costly to maintain because it wastes huge amounts of human time on a principle akin to the old warning that the Devil finds work for idle hands; it employs large numbers of incompetent and indifferent managers in positions of responsibility on the theory that loyalty is more important than ability to do the job. I watched this philosophy in action in public schools for thirty years.

Ordinary people have a nasty habit of consciously and unconsciously sabotaging managerial utopias, quietly trashing in whole or part the wishes of managers. To thwart these tendencies, expensive vigilance is the watchword of large systems, and the security aspect of managerial utopia has to be paid for. Where did this money originally come from? The answer was from a surplus provided by coal, steam, steel, chemicals, and conquest. It was more than sufficient to pay for a mass school experiment. Society didn’t slowly evolve to make way for a coal-based economy. It was forcibly made over in double time like Prussians marching to battle Napoleon at Waterloo. An entirely successful way of life was forcibly ushered out.

Before anything could be modern, the damnable past had to be uprooted with its village culture, tight families, pious population, and independent livelihoods. Only a state religion had the power to do this—England and Germany were evidence of that—but America lacked one. A military establishment had power to do it, too. France, under the Directorate and Napoleon, was the most recent example of what physical force could accomplish in remaking the social order, but military power was still too dispersed and unreliable in America to employ it consistently against citizens.

As the established Protestant religion schismed and broke apart, however, America came into possession of something that would serve in its place—a kaleidoscope of utopian cults and a tradition of utopian exhortation, a full palette of roving experts and teachers, Sunday schools, lyceums, pulpits, and Chautauquas. It was a propitious time and place in which to aim for long-range management of public opinion through the utopian schooling vehicle Plato had described and that modern Prussia was actually using.

It takes no great insight or intelligence to see that the health of a centralized economy built around dense concentrations of economic power and a close business alliance with government can’t tolerate any considerable degree of intellectual schooling. This is no vain hypothesis. The recent French Revolution was widely regarded as the work of a horde of underemployed intellectuals, the American uprising more of the same. As the nineteenth century wore on, the Hungarian and Italian revolutions were both financed and partially planned from the United States using cells of marginal intellectuals, third sons, and other malcontents as a volunteer fifth column in advance of the revolutionary moment back home. Ample precedent to fear the educated was there; it was recognized that historical precedent identified thoughtful schooling as a dangerous blessing.