A general State education is a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another, and the mold in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation. — John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)
For many years after immersion in Victorian novels during grad school, as much as I enjoyed them, I believed the world and the people they depicted were curiosities. I’d figuratively shake my head at their doings and beliefs, as well as their ponderous garb, furnishings, and architecture, happy to be living in a very different time. But that was delusion. Despite flush toilets, electric cars, and iPhones, we are recapitulating much of the political and economic essence of that era.
Take education. Here I was assuming that the words of Thomas Gradgrind to a classroom of children that open Charles Dickens’s 1854 novel Hard Times revealed the folly of a benighted time. “Now, what I want is Facts,” Gradgrind says. “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” The students are admonished to “discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it.”
But then I encountered the budget-cutting educational proposals of certain current governors, primarily Republican, and located the source of their thinking in the March 2011 report of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices titled “Degrees for What Jobs? Raising Expectations for Universities and Colleges in a Global Economy.”
The report praises governors and policymakers in “pioneering states [who] have taken the following steps to strengthen universities and colleges as agents of workforce preparation and sources of more opportunity, more growth, and more competitive advantage:
- Set clear expectations for higher education’s role in economic development;
- Emphasize rigorous use of labor market data and other sources to define goals and priorities;
- Encourage employers’ input in higher education;
- Require public higher education institutions to collect and publicly report impacts; and
- Emphasize performance as an essential factor in funding.”
If Thomas Gradgrind were governor of one of those states today, he would have to update his harangue to, “Now, what I want are Data. Teach these students nothing by Labor Market Data.”
Such an educational program would turn out graduates to fulfill roles as chips in the circuit boards of economic development. The present equivalent of the discarded “Fancy” would be study of a field in the liberal arts, such as one that encouraged the reading of Victorian novels.
North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory made his dismissal of liberal arts quite clear when he stated in a 2013 radio interview with former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, “If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”
Although Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker later recanted—or blamed staff members for misinterpreting him—he has inspired vigorous protests and angry editorials for apparently proposing to slash the University of Wisconsin’s budget and, more pointedly, recast its educational purpose by revising the mission statement. According to Alia Wong, writing in The Atlantic, “He apparently wanted to strip out its frills (stuff like ‘extended training,’ ‘public service,’ improving ‘the human condition,’ and ‘the search for truth’) and inject it with a more practical goal: meeting ‘the state’s workforce needs.’”
The smoking gun is a December 29, 2014 memo from Nathan Schwanz, Walker’s Executive Policy & Budget Analyst, which contains the hand-printed word “Attachment” and a photocopy of the university’s mission statement radically recast with crossed-out words and phrases:
36.01 Statement of purpose and mission. (1) The legislature finds it in the public interest to provide There is created [added words] a system of higher education which enables students of all ages, backgrounds and levels of income to participate in the search for knowledge and individual development; which stresses undergraduate teaching as its main priority; which offers selected professional graduate and research programs with emphasis on state and national needs; which fosters diversity of educational opportunity; which promotes service to the public; which makes effective and efficient use of human and physical resources; which functions cooperatively with other educational institutions and systems; and which promotes internal coordination and the wisest possible use of resources.
(2) The mission of the system is to develop human resources to meet the state’s workforce needs [added words], to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society by developing in students heightened intellectual, cultural and human sensitivities, scientific, professional and technological expertise and a sense of purpose.Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.
Giving attention to the human condition and truth might be considered the equivalents of Gradgrind’s Fancy. Though meeting workforce needs is underlined in the editing, heightened human sensitivities remain, albeit linked to “a sense of purpose.”
This potential, but not adopted—at least not officially—evisceration of higher education in Wisconsin can be considered a timid step when compared to the Texas GOP’s 2012 platform’s rejection of the introduction of critical thinking in the state’s public school curriculum:
Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
Instead the platform supports “a return to the traditional basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, and citizenship with sufficient discipline to ensure learning and quality educational assessment.” This plank harkens back to the emphasis on the same basics—with religion substituted for citizenship—in Victorian schools.
In Hard Times, Dickens attacks materialistic utilitarianism and its emphasis on rational practicality. As expected in a Dickens novel, Gradgrind ends up distraught and repentant when he discovers how his method—his fixed beliefs and his parental authority—has destroyed his children’s lives. He finally admits, “I had proved my—my system to myself, and I have rigidly administered it; and I must bear the responsibility of its failures.”
A real-life victim of a utilitarian education was John Stuart Mill (sketched at right). From his earliest years he was isolated from peers and drilled with Greek, Latin, algebra, geometry, and history, eventually having a breakdown at age twenty from the resulting emotional depravation. The poetry of William Wordsworth played an essential role in Mill’s revival as the poetry’s Romanticism fed Mill’s sensitivities and helped lead to the more flexible complexities of his social and political thinking. In short, he had discovered a place for Fancy. I think he would find that concept equivalent to what he calls “feelings”:
What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence.
I fear the National Governors Association will prove a tougher case to convince that inward joy matters as much as economic development.
— Walter Cummins, Zeteo Contributor
Credits and Links
Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854).
J.S. Mill, Autobiography (1873).
Kevin Kiley, Another Liberal Arts Critic, Inside Higher Ed, January 30, 2013.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Degrees for What Jobs: Raising Expectations for Universities and Colleges in a Global Economy, March 23, 2011.
Valerie Strauss, Texas GOP rejects ‘critical thinking’ skills. Really. The Washington Post, July 9, 2012.
Wisconsin Idea Drafting Notes, Madison.com — copy of December 29, 2014 memo from Nathan Schwanz.
Alia Wong, The Governor Who (Maybe) Tried to Kill Liberal-Arts Education, The Atlantic, February 11, 2015.
I’m thinking about my generally abysmal education in Dallas, from 1961 to 1965, seventh through tenth grades. In the tenth grade, I took biology, and now it occurs to me that not once did the teacher mention Darwin or evolution. This is entirely justifiable in terms of time: there are far too many facts about plants and animals to be crammed into students’ heads and too little time in which to do it. A half century later, I doubt that anything has changed, given the state’s unwillingness to encourage original thinking or to challenge parental authority.
But the same excuse of too little time was used, I think, to good purpose by my American history teacher that same year. We were assigned to read, as prescribed by Texas law, J. Edgar Hoover’s “Masters of Deceit,” a thoroughly stupid and stupefying book. Our teacher did not mention the book once. We stuck to the general textbook, which was doubtless stupid enough. The state of Texas pioneered the dumbing down of textbooks, with lamentable results because Texas is one of the biggest customers of textbooks. Books published nationwide were thus edited to Texans’ patriotic and spiritual specifications. Nothing critical of either church or state could be taught in public schools.
As Walter Cummins points out, very little has changed in public education since Victorian times. Indeed, very little can change. The debates about education are always over the best method for manufacturing sausages and never about whether schools should be sausage factories.