The Pedagogue’s Utopia Theme of Mencken

H.L. Mencken

Chicago Tribune/May 1, 1927

Schoolmaster, Once Lowly Individual, Has Gone Up the Ladder in Dignity and Emoluments, According to Writer–Teaching Operations Reduced to Mathematical Formulae

THE historians of the future will probably tell their customers that in the second decade of the twentieth century the furor pedagogicus reached its climax in the United States and then began to decline. The very worst manifestations of that frenzy, I daresay, are still ahead of us, though maybe not far off.

Half the towns and villages of the country are going bankrupt building new public schools and the endowments of the great rolling mills of the so called higher learning are increasing steadily and immensely. What the total annual cost of education has come to among us I don’t know precisely and neither does anyone else, for there are large expenses that do not enter into the official figures, but certainly it must be colossal. It goes far beyond the annual cost of the army and navy or of the police or of the churches, perhaps it even surpasses the annual bootlegging bill.

The schoolmaster, in the days of my nonage, was still a lowly and modest fellow. He operated in a bare and forbidding room, his garb was that of an evangelist in hard luck and his sole professional equipment equipment consisted of chalk and a rattan, The theory then was that he was a spiritual force, and hence needed no elaborate paraphernalia. His prototype was a mangy philosopher sitting on a log and passing the hat at the end of his lecture. But now he works in palaces that cover whole blocks and are fitted up with all the voluptuous lavishness of movie parlors. The average schoolhouse in America used to cost three hundred dollars. Now it costs 500 thousand dollars and it will cost one million dollars tomorrow.

Meanwhile the schoolmaster himself has gone up the ladder. His emolument was once that of a diligent bookkeeper or drug clerk; it is now that of a trust company vice-president. His sister, the school ma’m, used to get $15 a month and her board and lodging; her loftiest dream was to buy one good store dress a year and catch a husband in it. But now she goes to work in such gauds as Solomon’s wives might have envied and her pay and allowances approximate those of a chorus girl.

EDUCATIONAL theory has kept pace with educational equipment and honoraria. Down to the end of the nineteenth century at least in America it was very simple and even austere. The notion was that anyone who knew anything could teach it and that the better he knew it — and especially the better he loved it — the better he could teach it. The candidate for the birch had no need to perfect himself in the higher branches of human knowledge if he could spell accurately. and parse with fluency, and bound Afghanistan without hesitation, he was considered fit for his office.

But now even the most modest and obscure of schoolma’ms must take on such a load of intellectual baggage as would have bent the back of Sir Isaac Newton. In order to insert even the elements of the new enlightenment into the cerebrums of her pupils she must be hep to all the secrets of psychology — a difficult subject at best, and since Dr. Freud horned into it, often vaguely pornographic.

Her mathematical gifts in the old days were considered sufficient if she had mastered the rule of three but now even the differential calculus is scarcely enough to get her through her maze of graphs, curves. and statistical questionnaires She must know faunal biology and parliamentary law. She must be an ethnologist, a psychiatrist, and an expert in criminal jurisprudence.

Her purely technical equipment has kept pace with the improvement in the general culture The pedagogical journals used to be full of pleasant poetry and edifying fairy tales; they are no so heavy with scientific jargon that no layman can hope to read them at all. All the operations of teaching have been reduced to complicated mathematical formulae, full of Greek letters, modululi, derivatives, anti-derivatives, infinitesimals, and solidi. Grammar is translated into curves, sinuous and mysterious. The flag drill becomes an equation, bristling with x’s, equals, and o’s.

SUCH is human progress in these last gaudy sunset days of Homo sapiens. The lowly pedagogue, once a drudge on the level of a milkman or a church organist, is now lifted to professional parity with an orchestral conductor, a horse doctor, or an osteopath. His trade, once so simple, has become occult, and as it has become occult it has naturally increased in dignity. It was formerly regarded as so easy that any literate person could practice it just as any literate person could run a newspaper. But now it is so recondite that it lies wholly beyond the ken of the general and even the pedagogues themselves to judge by their professional papers seem to be convinced that at least two-thirds of their number are unfit to pursue it.

Well what is the net result of all this improvement? Is pedagogy, as it is now encountered in the republic, any more efficient than it was a generation ago, before graphs and formulae lifted it from a trade to a science? The pedagogues, I daresay, will instantly answer yes and in proof thereof they will point to many impressive facts.

Many a child of 10 whose father at the same age was scarcely able to bound Rhode Island is now an expert in solfeggio and competent to act as chairman of a mass meeting. The little girls whose mothers ran aground upon long division know all about calories and vitamins. Their brothers have learned the principles of rotary and how to tie knots. All alike have mastered the hardest words in the tabloids.

But what of their general sense and information? What of their basic fitness to live in the world? Has it improved or has it not improved? I doubt that many fair observers would answer that it has. The new pedagogy has crammed the poor kids with showy knowledge, but it has plainly failed to make them any better as human beings than their fathers.

At the high tide of its golden age, and in the country of its loftiest triumphs, the net product of all its sorceries is a proletariat distinguished mainly for its credulity, its fear of ideas, and its inability to think, and made of individuals who tend to be as alike as peas in a can.

HERE perhaps we have asked too much of the pedagogues. But what has been asked of them is surely no greater than what they have offered. The excuse for the immense expenditures that they demand is that by some mysterious magic they can turn the populace into something that it is not— that is, that they can turn sows’ ears into purses. But can they really? All the evidence seems to show that they cannot. The American people, taking them in the mass, reveal not the slightest sign of growing more intelligent than they used to be. On the contrary, they reveal every sign of growing dumber and dumber as year chases year.

The public schools in truth have probably helped along that process a great deal more than they have hindered it. There was a time when, encountering a pupil whose capacity for taking in knowledge was obviously nil, they turned him out at once and let him go to work on an ash cart. But now they hold him and struggle with him and the result is disastrous to the whole educational scheme.

It is not that pupils of actual intelligence are held back to accommodate the dolts — for that difficulty is being surmounted — but that the struggle with the dolts consumes a large part of the energy of the general machine and that its hopelessness promotes the concoction of high sounding but meaningless formulae fatal to all honest grappling with the problems of teaching.

These formulae naturally tend to proceed from the lower strata to the higher. That which conceals the inevitable failure of pedagogy when it deals with morons is also useful in giving it a false profundity when it deals with children who are not morons. Here, perhaps, are the origins of the dreadful hocus- pocus which now fills all the pedagogical journals and textbooks.

The old art of the schoolma’am, so simple and so effectives, has become transformed into a complicated and largely unintelligible necromancy, at which quacks are more apt and plausible than honest men. The first result is a vast and idiotic dissipation of the public funds. The second is the complete failure of the process to give help to those children who most need it and can best make use of it.

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