H.L. Mencken on Public Education

[Editor’s Note: The following excerpts are taken from Volume XXVIII, Number 110 of THE AMERICAN MERCURY (February 1933). They appeared in a column titled “What Is Going On In The World”. Mencken begins his comments by pointing out that government expenditures on the public schools had grown from about $ 5 per pupil in 1880 to $ 100 per pupil in 1933 (now in excess of $12,000). He then questions what these gun-run schools have accomplished. Contemporary critics of public schools present an ever more detailed view of their history and current effects. For example, see the work of Brett Veinotte; Richard Grove’s production of John Taylor Gatto’s “Ultimate History Lesson”, or John’s website. For John’s article, “Why Schools Don’t Educate,” see issue 53 of THE VOLUNTARYIST, page 8, voluntaryist.com ].

There is, indeed, very little evidence that they have ever actually earned the money they have demanded and got, either in 1914 or since. If their fundamental aim is to provide the country with an enlightened electorate, they have failed completely and miserably, for the electorate is no more enlightened today than it was before they were ever set up. On the contrary, there is plausible reason for believing that it has gone backward in intelligence, for it handles its business, not with increasing prudence, but with increasing imbecility. The American people of a hundred years ago, when public schools were still few and meager, might have been described plausibly as notably political-minded: they were ardently interested in public affairs, and intervened in them, on the whole, with quick understanding and sound judgment. But today they are so lethargic that it takes a calamity to arouse them at all, and so stupid that it becomes more nearly impossible every year for intelligent and self-respecting men to aspire to public office among them.

I believe that it would be rational to argue that the public school, far from combating this immense increase in stupidity, has been very largely responsible for it. For the true aim and purpose of the pedagogue, and especially of the pedagogue who is also a bureaucrat, is never to awaken his victims to independent and logical thought; it is simply to force them into a mold. And that mold is bound to be a cramped and dingy one, for the pedagogue is a cramped and dingy man himself. The office he fills, in its potentialities, is an immensely important one, but in its daily business it is puerile and uninspiring, and so it is seldom filled by a man (or woman) of any genuine force and originality. In all ages pedagogues have been the bitterest enemies of all genuine intellectual enterprise, and in no age have they warred upon it more violently or to sadder effect than in our own. More than any other class of blind leaders of the blind they are responsible for the degrading standardization which now afflicts the American people. They would have done even worse, I believe, if it had been in their power. They failed only because a sufficient number of their victims have always been too intelligent to succumb to them, and because even the stupid majority yet preserves a saving skepticism about their ridiculous arcane. …

The basic trouble with the public schools is that they have fallen into the hands of a well-organized and extremely ambitious bureaucracy, and that machinery for curbing its pretensions has yet to be devised. In every American municipality, though all of them are desperately hard up and many are hopelessly bankrupt, it has resisted every effort to cut down its demands on the public treasury, and in this black year of 1933 it will actually get a larger relative share of the public money than ever before. It has thrown the grotesque mantle of Service about its extortions, and convinced millions of the unthinking that they are essential to the public good. Let any rash fellow challenge it, and he is denounced at once as an enemy to the true, the good and the beautiful. Operating impudently and over a generation of time, it has deluded the great majority of Americans into accepting its brummagem values unquestioningly, and filled them with the superstition that if the public schools were shut down the country would at once go to pot. …

The first grand effect of universal free education in the United States was to turn the American people, once so independent and self-reliant, into a race of shameless mendicants, looking to the government, as to some cosmic Santa Claus, for all their needs. And its second effect, now more horribly visible every day, has been to ram them all into a single mold, and that a mold shaped by silly babus, so that the test of Americanism comes to be the extent to which every American thinks and feels, aspires and exults like every other American, and all approach as closely as possible to the ideas and emotions, aspirations and exultations of a jackass. …

The notion that they [the public schools] have done and are doing any ponderable good is mainly a delusion. What they have actually done is a lot of harm. They have taken the care and upbringing of children out of the hands of parents, where it belongs, and thrown it upon a gang of irresponsible and unintelligent quacks. They have filled multitudes of the uneducable with ideas that make them uncomfortable, and are useless to them, and unfit them for the inevitabilities of their lowly station. They have supported every sort of nonsense that has afflicted the country, from the hog-wallow imbecility of Prohibition to all the more florid and degrading varieties of patriotism. They are responsible, more than any other agency, for the present pathetic helplessness of the American people, stunned and made ridiculous by a common misfortune that other peoples tackle in a realistic and rational manner. Altogether, they have pretty well smeared the United States. It has been going downhill ever since the pedagogues grabbed their first billion [dollars].