A voice from the past on education and its failings

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Our current battles over public education, while very intense, are hardly new. And the sometimes impassioned rhetoric of today’s critics and skeptics of our existing public school system isn’t really much less polite than the rhetoric of critics and skeptics of the past – only less astute.

Such qualification must be emphasized because one of the critics/skeptics of the past was that inimitable blacksmith and curmudgeon, HL Mencken. Nearly a century ago, Mencken, a prolific journalist, linguist, and literary critic, let it be known that he had had enough of what passed for education in America’s public schools.

What was at stake for Mencken was both the “raid” on the taxpayer and the content of the funded schooling. The “greatest lag of all” was cost, which Mencken estimated had been “$5 per capita per year” in 1880 before “skyrocketing” to $100 per student from 1933. In no other area of the government, he protested, had “spending had jumped at such a pace”. Obviously, he concluded, the “pedagogues” of our public schools had gone on a “joy ride”.

(In case you were wondering, after adjusting for inflation, today’s average spending per student for elementary and secondary education is about seven times higher than the 1933 level.)

But what was even worse than the cost, Mencken thought, was that the “true purpose of the pedagogue” was to force his “victims into a mold”, rather than to awaken in their charges something approaching “independent and logical thought”.

The casting itself could vary from year to year, but that was because each fall brought a “new craze” to solve the “teaching riddle”. And why not? After all, there was “no sure cure so silly a superintendent of schools won’t swallow it”.

As a result, teaching had become “a thing in itself, something separable from and superior to” what was meant to be taught.

And now what? Mastering the teaching process has become a “special affair, a kind of transcendental high jump.” The idea was to have a teacher so deeply rooted in the profession that he could teach anything to any child, “just like any good dentist can pull out any tooth from anyone’s any jaw”.

Of course, not all students could – or would – submit to this “special case”. Then what ? There was a time, Mencken recalls, when those who couldn’t or wouldn’t “stand upright under this mechanical process were just taken off the lists.” By then they were either “apprenticing to a hod carrier or becoming a bartender”.

But not more. The current practice had become for schools to “hold on” to each of their charges for as long as possible.

Of course, all this effort to “cancel the clear will of God” – otherwise defined by Mencken as “educating the uneducable” – was quite costly. As far as he knows, the operation inevitably required “a large number of expensive buildings, a huge horde of expensive charlatans, and an immeasurable ocean of buncombe”.

All this “waste” had to be justified; hence the will of those in charge to transform teaching into an “elaborate sleight of hand”. And the teachers? They had gradually come to see themselves as “high-level professionals, comparable to gynecologists and astrologers”.

And what about the students? There had been a time, Mencken admits, when they received the “humane treatment given to other prisoners.” But now they were nothing more than “guinea pigs in a low-comedy lab.”

Adding insult to injury, America’s children were “thrown around” with adults they “didn’t like or respect.” It seems the average boy of Mencken’s youth – or adulthood, for that matter – would have much preferred to spend his waking hours with a “ball player or boxer”. In any case, the idea that students at school were happy went hand in hand with the idea that “the lobster in the pot is happy”.

What to do, when by the 1930s public schools were already nothing more than “vast money-crushing machines”? It may have been an “axiom” that public schools were “beyond challenge, beyond suspicion, and beyond the reach of all fact and reason,” Mencken acknowledged, but something had to be done. Something.

Mencken’s solution was straightforward and draconian: each state legislature should simply declare that its coffers were empty. It was, he conceded, a “desperate remedy”, but he could invoke no other.

Is there a remedy today? Rather than pretending the cupboards are empty, why not offer vouchers to parents? Let state legislatures determine what it should cost to educate, say, a seventh grader. Then let the parents choose where to apply this amount. In other words, entrust the parents with the task of leading or molding their offspring.

It is unlikely that Mencken objected. As noted, he was as convinced as any of today’s critics that the public school system had “done more harm than good.” Such an outcome was virtually inevitable, he concluded.

Having taken “the care and upbringing of the children from the hands of the parents, where it belongs”, the politicians of his day had “thrown” the whole affair into the hands of “irresponsible and unintelligent charlatans”.

What do you think he could add to that today?

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Bloomington. He has performed a one-man show as HL Mencken since the 1980s.

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