The Positive Method

Most of the anti-intellectual shift in schooling the young was determined by the attitudes and needs of prominent businessmen. The first exhibit for your perusal is the U.S. Bureau of Education’s Circular of Information for April 1872, which centers around what it calls the "problem of educational schooling." With whose interests in mind did the bureau view education as a problem? The amazing answer is: from a big business perspective. By 1872, this still feeble arm of the federal government is seen filled with concern for large industrial employers at a time when those were still a modest fraction of the total economy.

According to this Circular of Information, "inculcating knowledge" teaches workers to be able to "perceive and calculate their grievances," thus making them "more redoubtable foes" in labor struggles. Indeed, this was one important reason for Thomas Jefferson’s own tentative support of a system of universal schooling, but something had been lost between Monticello and the Capital. "Such an enabling is bound to retard the growth of industry," continues the Circular. There is nothing ambiguous about that statement at all, and the writer is correct, of course.

Sixteen years later (1888), we can trace the growth in this attitude from the much more candid language in the Report of the Senate Committee on Education. Its gigantic bulk might be summarized in this single sentence taken from page 1,382:

We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes.

Once we acknowledge that planned economies of nation or corporation are systems with their own operating integrity, quite sensibly antagonistic to the risks educated minds pose, much of formal schooling’s role in the transformation that came is predictable. If education is indeed "one of the principal causes of discontent," it performs that subversive function innocently by developing intellect and character in such a way as to resist absorption into impersonal systems: Here is the crux of the difference between education and schooling— the former turns on independence, knowledge, ability, comprehension, and integrity; the latter upon obedience.

In The Empire of Business (1902), Andrew Carnegie, author of the Homestead siege which destroyed the steelworkers union, inveighs against "teachings which serve to imbue [children] with false ideas." From a transatlantic business perspective, education taught what was socially and economically useless, transmitting bad attitudes which turned students against the ripening scheme of centralized national management. Carnegie’s new empire demanded that old-fashioned character be schooled out of children in a hurry. It would be a large mistake to assume this new empire of business of which Carnegie boasts was only a new face on old style greed. While it did take away liberty and sovereignty, it put forth serious intellectual arguments for doing so. Ordinary people were promised what Walter Greene’s outraged letter quoted earlier at the beginning of this chapter tells you they got: the best space program, the best high-tech medicine, the strongest military, the highest material standard of living. These things could not have been accomplished without a kind of forced schooling that terminated most independent livelihoods. That was the price paid for a gusher of easy prosperity.

To understand this paradox better requires some insight into what inspired such certainty among the architects of modern schooling that this disruption would work to produce material prosperity. Their faith that wealth would inevitably follow the social mechanization of the population is founded on a magnificent insight of Francis Bacon’s, set down in startlingly clear prose back in the early seventeenth century. Thanks to the patronage of John Stuart Mill, by the mid-nineteenth century, the seeds that Bacon planted grew into the cult of scientific positivism, a movement we associate today with the name of a Frenchman, Auguste Comte. It’s hard to overestimate the influence positivism had on the formation of mass schooling and on the shaping of an international corporate economy made possible by coal.

Positivism holds that if proper procedures are honored, then scientific marvels and inventions follow automatically. If you weigh and measure and count and categorize slowly and patiently, retaining the microscopic bits of data which can be confirmed, rejecting those that cannot, on and on and on and on, then genius and talent are almost irrelevant—improvements will present themselves regularly in an endless progression despite any fall-off in creative power. Advances in power and control are mainly a function of the amount of money spent, the quantity of manpower employed, and correct methodology.

Mankind can be freed from the tyranny of intelligence by faithful obedience to system! This is a shattering pronouncement, one made all the more difficult to resist because it seems to work. Even today, its full significance isn’t widely understood, nor is the implacable enmity it demands toward any spiritual view of humanity.

In the positivist method, the managerial classes of the late nineteenth century, including their Progressive progeny in the social management game, knew they had a mill to grind perpetual profits—financial, intellectual, and social. Since innovations in production and organization are a principal engine of social change, and since positive science has the power to produce such innovations without end, then even during the launch of our era of scientific management it had to be clear to its architects that nonstop social turbulence would be a daily companion of exercising this power. This is what the closet philosophy of bionomics was there to explain. It preached that the evolutionarily advanced would alone be able to tolerate the psychic chaos—as for the rest, the fate of Cro-Magnon man and the Neanderthal were history’s answer. And the circularity of this convenient proposition was lost on its authors.

Faced with the problem of dangerous educated adults, what could be more natural than a factory to produce safely stupefied children? You’ve already seen that the positive system has only limited regard for brainy people, so nothing is lost productively in dumbing down and leveling the mass population, even providing a dose of the same for "gifted and talented" children. And much can be gained in social efficiency. What motive could be more "humane" than the wish to defuse the social dynamite positive science was endlessly casting off as a byproduct of its success?

To understand all this you have to be willing to see there is no known way to stop the social mutilation positive science leaves in its wake. Society must forcibly be adapted to accept its own continuing disintegration as a natural and inevitable thing, and taught to recognize its own resistance as a form of pathology to be expunged. Once an economic system becomes dependent on positive science, it can’t allow any form of education to take root which might interrupt the constant accumulation of observations which produce the next scientific advance.

In simple terms, what ordinary people call religious truth, liberty, free will, family values, the idea that life is not centrally about consumption or good physical health or getting rich—all these have to be strangled in the cause of progress. What inures the positivistic soul to the agony it inflicts on others is its righteous certainty that these bad times will pass. Evolution will breed out of existence unfortunates who can’t tolerate this discipline.

This is the sacred narrative of modernity, its substitute for the message of the Nazarene. History will end in Chautauqua. School is a means to this end.