Paul Mattick 1946

Between two wars

Source: Western Socialist, Boston, USA, July 1946;
Transcribed: by Adam Buick;
Proofed: and corrected by Geoff Traugh, August 2005.

The failure of education. By Porter Sargent. Boston, Mass. (608pp.; $5.00).

Porter Sargent is an enthusiastic believer in the almost fetishistic “intense faith of the American people in education.” Like all other faiths, the faith in education is not universal but is restricted to those for whom it seems to have practical meaning. Others merely suffer education, as they suffer religion and nationalism. Some, like the underprivileged in the South, are even prevented from suffering it. Those, however, who are strong in the faith are bound to be disillusioned. In his comprehensive description of educational policy in the United States during the period between the two world wars, Porter Sargent, too, is compelled to speak of the “failure of education.”

Sargent’s voice is a voice of experience. As an educational adviser and compiler of handbooks of private schools, he is directly involved in the business of education. He knows the whole “market,” not only the reservations for children of the well-to-do. He knows the educational commodities that are offered, those that sell, those that are rationed and those that cannot be had at all. Like his yearly handbooks, the present volume provides the reader with an interesting cross-section of the institutions, teachers, methodologies, and ideas that determine the American educational system. All in all, he finds it a rather poor and deplorable business. In both the text and the notes to the text, which make up a kind of small encyclopedia of education, his disgust finds bitter and often forceful expression.

Sargent’s faith in education relates to education as it should be, not to what actually prevails. His enthusiasm is restricted to so-called “progressive” tendencies in education. But in spite of John Dewey’s philosophical fame and the energies of his disciples, among whom Sargent must be counted, “progressive education” is still in its infancy. The schools of America have been used not for the pupils, but as Sargent points out, as a “bulwark to preserve the status quo.” Formal education has been an “effort to perpetuate sets of ideas, for a political system, a religious sect, or a social clique.” And thus there has been small opportunity for applying the methods of the modern school movement which attempts to “utilize the pupil’s own energy ... though interest and to direct it.”

Sargent maintains that the most effective teaching today comes not from the schools, but “from the propaganda bureaus of nationalistic governments and great utility and holding corporations.” Education idealized the trend towards monopoly, concentration of power and imperialism; they have been, and are, “merely tools for groups in power.” Everywhere the drift towards war led to an organized reaction which fostered an “education for death.” Countless attempts have been made to falsify and “re-interpret” history to fit the demands of professional war-mongers and war profiteers. And as long as propaganda escapes control, perhaps “twenty million more, choked with lies, will die for lies before enough truth becomes known to save them.”

According to Sargent, society itself has failed just as its education has failed and largely because of the failure of education. He speaks of a “race” between a truly scientific education and disaster, with the latter the winner. During this race “the American mind was so altered that while it once held militarism in contempt it now becomes militaristic.” This, of course, is only another way of saying that America, once a second-rate power, has developed into a fist-class contender on the imperialistic scene. America’s weakness with regard to imperialistic possibilities prior to World War I, Sargent bewails as a lost virtue. But this virtue was always hypocritical.

That the war-mongers, economic royalists, and other reactionaries had such an easy time gaining their ends, Sargent explains by the general backwardness of thinking, due to superstitions of all sorts, and to the great lack of scientific attitude and training. “Science,” he says, is “merely knowledge systematically arranged.” It is opposed by the “widespread faith in ancient precepts,” by “tradition” and “harmful fetishes.” The rank and file of mankind, he says, “uses but a small fraction of their potential brain power. If the schools could turn their attention from their traditional books to inducing and helping youth to use more of its brain power there would be created a more intelligent world to live in, with fewer hatreds and fewer struggles.”

If science is merely knowledge systematically arranged, it cannot be counted on to defeat reaction, because reaction contains the systematically arranged knowledge of exploitation and control. It is not true, as Sargent appears to believe, that war appeals only to the uneducated mob. He contends that a “mob of Emersons, and Edisons, and Wendell Phillipses, would be no danger,” but the present state of society proves him wrong. The educated and the educators whom Sargent admires have shown themselves to be the most vicious war-mongers. Those “progressives” in psychology, anthropology, and sociology who are quoted with much approval by Sargent, were just as eager to serve American, English, and Russian imperialism as those whom he quotes unfavorably. And even such “real” scientists as Einstein rushed to Washington to urge the manufacture and use of the Atom-bomb to win the war.

There is no direct connection between science and human well-being. It is for this reason that one must speak not only of the “failure” of official education, but also point out the insufficiencies and ambiguities of the so-called progressive forces in the field. What Sargent sees as a ray of hope for the future may turn out to be a new and more efficient form of reaction. At times, Sargent, too, is compelled to recognize this sad state of affairs as, for instance, when he describes German and Italian fascism as a sort of youth-movement out “to take things in their own hands” in good pragmatic fashion.

It must also be said that the man without “opinions” but with multiple hypotheses, that is, the “scientific man” whom Sargent favors is able to flourish equally well in the reactionary state of today and in the reactionary state of tomorrow. Those who, like Sargent, oppose obscurantism, with particular reference to the Thomists, and generally oppose “crooked” thinking with “straight” thinking, must be reminded that most of the “straight” thinkers continue to do crooked things, and that at times even a “crooked” thinker can perform a “straight and honest act. The point is that the issues that agitate the educators and turn them into partisans for one or another form of education, for one or another philosophy, for one or another effective ideology, are issues which, when solved, or when remaining unsolved, do not affect the real problems that determine the character and behavior of society. They are side-issues, exaggerated to undue proportions by the educators, so that they may be able to lose themselves in empty chatter and be absolved from the responsibility of probing the fundamental exploitative relationships that tend to destroy the world. Sargent’s attack on the unsocial relations of contemporary society, too, remain vague, ambiguous, and totally non-committal throughout the book.

To be sure, Sargent speaks out against “great corporations and financial institutions,” and against “monopolies that sabotage technical advance.” Disregarding the possibility that he “might be called a reactionary,” he defends the “individual initiative” that brought us “through the murk of industrial revolution to a higher standard of living.” But he likewise disregards the fact that this same “individual initiative” led to monopolies, corporations, and financial institutions, and that the education he desires will destroy the kind of individualism he admires. He is happy that the “old prejudice of boards and trustees against sociology in schools is seemingly breaking down,” and that “the study of society is making progress towards the science that is to be.” He does not see, however, that this is so only because “sociology” has turned out to be a new weapon of control and exploitation.

But apparently even naked terror holds no terror for Sargent so long as it leads to the desired results, to “cheerful progress.” Sargent is out to give the ruling group, via the educational processes, a “social consciousness,” to temper their rule with an “ideal of cooperation which may so reduce profits that monopoly and even war will lose their actual appeal for those who defend or promote them.” The argument of the unchangeability of human nature, supposedly of a beastly egotistical character, Porter Sargent answers with the example of Soviet Russia which has so fully succeeded in changing human nature. “With modern mass methods,” he writes, “the Soviets have succeeded in changing a hundred and sixty million Russians, superstitiously religious, ignorant and lazy, into rationalistic, hardworking people, ardent for learning.” Sargent should tell this to the people of Berlin or of any other place where the Russian Army has asserted itself. He should tell this to the millions of inmates of Russian concentration camps and to all those who are punished for not believing with sufficiently religious zeal in Stalin and the Communist Party, for being too rationalistic to suffer totalitarianism without protest, or too lazy to work too many hours for too little pay. He should also inquire into the “modern mass methods” which led to the “change of Russian human nature.” He would discover that they have nothing whatsoever to do with the problems of education but everything to do with fear and terror.

It is not, however, possible to classify Sargent among the “fellow-travelers,” nor among those bewildered “progressive reactionaries” who try to combine an old-fashioned early capitalist ideology with the current need of exploitative society to cooperate and synthesize all its various activities in accordance with the progress made in the socio-economic progress of centralization and concentration of wealth and power. After reading his book one is rather inclined to speak of its author’s naivete which stands in the way of the full exercise of his critical capacities and his good will toward men. After all, the education which this society provides has to serve this society.

Meanwhile, however, and sustained by the illusion that society could tolerate and promote any educational activity antipathetic to its specific needs and interests, Sargent can continue to wage war without casualties upon an educational system that is as insane as the society from which it stems. By complaining about the failure of education while simultaneously remaining faithful to the society which produces it, Porter Sargent appears as an amusing if eccentric jester in the Court of American Education.