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A voice from the past on education and its failings

Our current battles over public education, while very intense, are not really new. And the sometimes heated rhetoric of today’s critics and skeptics of our existing public school system is not really much less polite than the rhetoric of the critics and skeptics of the past — only less artful.

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

At issue for Mencken was both the “raid” on the taxpayer and the content of the schooling being funded. The “greatest hold up of them all” was the cost, which Mencken estimated to have been “$5 per capita per annum” in 1880 before “skyrocketing” to $100 per pupil as of 1933. In no other field of government, he railed, had “expenditures leaped ahead at such a rate.” Obviously, he concluded, the “pedagogues” of our public schools had gone on a “joy ride.”

(In case you’re wondering, after adjusting for inflation, today’s average per pupil spending for elementary and secondary education is roughly seven times higher than the 1933 joy-ride level.)

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

The molding itself might vary in nature from year to year, but that was because every fall brought some “new craze” for solving the “teaching enigma.” And why not? After all, there was “no sure cure so idiotic that some superintendent of schools will not swallow it.”

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

And then what? Mastery of the teaching process became a “special business, a sort of transcendental high jumping.” The whole idea was to get a teacher so well-grounded in this business that he could teach any child anything, “just as any sound dentist can pull any tooth out of any jaw.”

Of course, not every student could — or would — submit to this “special business.” What then? There had been a time, recalled Mencken, when those unable or unwilling to “stand up under this machine process were simply dropped from the rolls.” At that point they were either “apprenticed to a hod-carrier or became a bartender.”

But no more. The current practice had become for the schools to “hang on” to every one of their charges for as long as possible.

Of course, this entire effort to “nullify the plain will of God” — otherwise defined by Mencken as “educating the uneducable” — was quite expensive. As far as he could tell, the operation inevitably required a “great array of expensive buildings, a huge horde of expensive quacks, and an immeasurable ocean of buncombe.”

All of this “waste” had to be justified; hence the determination of those in charge to transform teaching into an “elaborate hocus-pocus.” And the teachers? They had gradually come to think of themselves as “high-toned professionals, comparable to gynecologists and astrologers.”

And what of the students? There had been a time, Mencken allowed, when they received the “humane treatment accorded other prisoners.” But now they were nothing more than “guinea pigs in a low comedy laboratory.”

Adding injury to insult, the children of America were “thrown in” with adults whom they “neither liked nor respected.” It seems the average boy of Mencken’s youth — or adulthood, for that matter — would much rather have spent his waking hours with a “ballplayer or a boxer.” In any case, the notion that students in school were happy was of a piece with the notion that the “lobster in the pot is happy.”

What to do, given that as early as the 1930s public schools had already become little more than “vast machines for grinding up money”? It might be an “axiom” that public schools were “beyond challenge, beyond suspicion, and beyond reach of all fact and reason,” Mencken recognized, but something had to be done.

Mencken’s solution was direct and draconian: Each state legislature should simply declare that its coffers were empty. This, he conceded, was a “desperate remedy,” but he could summon no other.

Is there a remedy today? Rather than claim cupboards are bare, why not offer vouchers to parents? Let state legislatures determine what it ought to cost to educate, say, a seventh-grader. Then let parents choose where to apply that sum. In other words, give parents the task of either directing or doing the molding of their offspring.

It’s not likely that Mencken would have 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 a result was virtually inevitable, he concluded.

Having taken the “care and upbringing of children out of the hands of parents, where it belongs,” the politicians of his day had “thrown” the entire matter into the hands of “irresponsible and unintelligent quacks.”

What do you suppose he might he add to that today?

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