The Leviathan

The real reason why American education cannot be reformed

Richard Mitchell likens American education to a brooding monstrosity, a Leviathan living below the surface of black and oily waters, whose bumps, protuberances and tentacles are visible here and there above the surface, while the great bulk lies concealed, constantly growing. Until reading Mitchell's book, I was aware of many horrible aspects of American education, many of which I have experienced at first hand, but had no theory that tied them all together. Now he has made many things clear to me, and given cogent reasons and evidence for them.

Mitchell analyzed the writings of educationalists, and from them deduced the nature of the establishment that purports to supply "education" but in fact does not do so. Schooling is not education, and indoctrination is not learning. American (and other) schools are anti-intellectual and collective, focusing on the group and never on the individual. The educational establishment is hostile to solitude and thought, wishing to inculcate social values and produce a populace that will be led by suggestion and appetite, not by reason, incapable of informed discretion.

Schools are not failing; they succeed admirably in their real goals. I had thought that society was an evil influence on schools, responsible for the pressures that made them poor. Mitchell points out quite clearly that society is the result of past schooling, that students learn all the time, but it is what they learn that has had an effect. The appearance of "failure" in things like reading and writing induces the public to provide more money, and the system will accept any amount of money. Right-wing "guardians" of education simply want their values inculcated instead of others, but it is still collectivism. There are different values, but the same intellectualism. Standards are only collective conclusions, and their "solutions" are only more of the same. The new forms of schools are just as bad as the old ones. Basic competence is quite a long way from education.

Mitchell says:

The state of American government education is simply not a "problem" that can be solved. It is rather an enormous fact of life, a self-perpetuating institution elaborated from within by principle, not caprice, governed by collective assent, not individual talent. It easily absorbs the shock of every criticism by pretending to "reform" itself, only to transform and dilute whatever it claims to embrace into nothing but more of the same. It easily swallows and digests and incorporates into its substance everything in the world around it, popular fads and fancies just as readily as appropriately diluted new knowledge in genetics or psychology or in any of the disciplines that it will not teach. Whatever there is in our society--fast-food merchandizing, militant homosexualism, disco dancing, supply-side economics, weird religious cultism, futurology through computers, jogging, astrology, est, you name it--will find its analogue in the schools.

Schools are unusual in that the hardest work commands the lowest pay, and is assigned to the privates in that vast army, the teachers. Promotion results in higher pay and easier work for those who cannot teach, or find it an annoying burden. At the top, we have the highest pay for the least work, the duties consisting of jawboning and issuing fiats, consorting with politicians and promoters. Among the privates, the few who respect education and can hide their devotion to scholarship and reason are often remembered by their pupils and students as excellent teachers. The "excellent teachers" of the administration are those best reflecting the party line, and they get the added pay and prizes. This is only getting worse at present.

Those who command education are concerned with problem solving in the content area, bold innovative thrusts in basic minimum competencies, holistic grading, pre-service hands-on experential continua, and contemplation of the parameters of remediational strategies. There is much discussion of stepwise regression strategies, nonredundant interactive relationships, alternative remediational enhancements, and the fostering of personological variables. This nonsense has nothing to do with education, but only with providing work for the educationalists. The study of "education," as Mitchell remarks, has nothing to do with the making of educated people.

Abraham Lincoln is an example of a person who escaped public schooling, and was the better for it. He was the son of a farmer who owned his land, but this was not the reason he did not go to school. The United States did not care for free general education, except in a very few states. He was in the Indiana and Illinois of the early 19th century, and there were no schools, only traveling students who taught a few letters and numbers in vacation. His own self-education was far better than anything he would be likely to get in school, and this is still the case. There are many more examples of this, such as Michael Faraday, but it is clear that general public education does not produce excellence in any way, since it cannot. It must educate the mass, and pull down those who stick out, so that mediocrity is accepted as the peak of achievement. This is a disaster for the poor and underprivileged, not a benefit.

High schools were the fertile ground for the lush growth of the mind-rotting popular culture, but what was begun there has spread to the universities. Unlike in primary and secondary education, university instructors need have no educational qualifications. Indeed, they have none, other than knowledge and occasional understanding of the subject they profess. This has kept universities intellectually alive in many instances, protecting an elite of reasoning people who are capable of informed discretion. This will not long survive. Already university administrators are made up of people of low intellectual power indistinguishable from educationalists. The people who do the work are being made privates. A certain engineering department in a research university acquired an autocratic head who is neither an engineer nor a researcher nor a professional, who has mistaught one course, the same course, throughout his tenure. Since this course is a basic one, he has contributed to lowering the standards of graduates considerably. Another faculty member did not know how to use a transistor in the most elementary way. Another, supposedly an expert in solid state, had no understanding of the Haynes-Shockley experiment. The "clean room" was designed to suck air (and dust) in, not blow it out, and was equipped with useless, ill-matched surplus appliances. It seems strange to me that a faculty with no engineers can teach engineering, but that is a characteristic of American education, as emphasized by Mitchell.

Just as Mitchell was writing about the reform of "general education" at his college, mine was undergoing exactly the same degenerative process. General education has the same relation to education that general science has to science. At our colleges, the result was a Great Lurch Forward in the creation of innovative interdisciplinary studies, called Core Courses at my college. These courses focused on student outcomes, dropping all but the pretense to be education and knowledge. They guarantee that graduates will be uneducated, but at the same time can point to undeniable qualifications on their records. No longer do students take some narrow course in chemistry, say, or algebra, that might have some little positive effect, but are briefly exposed to an innovative, multimedia, wide-ranging, superficial interdisciplinary survey that is as painless and content-free as possible. I am constantly bemused by the quiet, empty state of our university library, empty of faculty as well as students, provided with ten times as many desks and study carrels as are actually used. What, me read?

Literacy is the most important quality that can be provided by an education, and what is meant is much more than bare competency to read and write. As a scientist and engineer, I assert this positively. Illiteracy is much more common in the United States than is commonly realized, even on the basic level that interferes with life in society. It is difficult to define illiteracy quantitatively, so the figures can be adjusted to suit the purposes of their quoter. Recognition of the letters of the alphabet, and the ability to read and write a few words when requested to do so, perhaps read some signs, and to sign one's name is one level. This is the level meant when the educational establishment or an encyclopedia says that literacy in the US is 97%. If you require the ability to understand a sentence, and to write a short sentence, or to read and use instructions for assembling a toy, and to read some of a newspaper or a driver's license manual, literacy probably drops to around 85%. When it comes to reading a book, or writing a letter, or filling out a form 1040EZ, or explaining how to do something in words, literacy may be only 70%. Kentucky recently estimated illiteracy at 40% there, but what level was not specified. The literacy necessary to make informed judgments is probably not possessed by 50% of Americans, a terrible result of the educational system, and one with political effects. One quantitative estimate of the level of effective illiteracy is the fraction of people who use income-tax preparers. Most people have little more than their wages or unemployment compensation, and no investments, so making out their returns is light on accountancy. If they could read, they could do it in 30 minutes and save some money that they desperately need.

There is great deal of talk just now about examinations, called "standardized examinations" by people who do not know what one is (they are examinations in which some effort is made to make scores at different times and places comparable). States are introducing easy examinations that have consequences only for the school, not the student, for the purpose of "accountability." The president of the University of California is calling for the elimination of the SAT I test for admissions. I am all for free and open admission to college, but the effect of measures like this is only to make admission depend more on privilege and influence. A poor person can do well on an examination, but cannot achieve the influence of the advantaged. There is no examination for achievement of those completing an educational curriculum. What is important in American education, top to bottom, are only formal credentials, the diploma or degree, for neither of which has the holder been examined (advanced degrees in the sciences and a few other fields have been an exception), but has only put in the time. What a difference it would make if the "products" of a school had to compete with others on a level field! If the brains were removed from undergraduates, as many degrees as ever would be awarded.

The Denver Post recently had an article on teacher quality that reinforces all that Mitchell has to say. The first of eight "performance-based" standards for Colorado teachers is "Ability to align instructional objectives with adopted student learning standards." The last is "Ability to demonstrate a high level of content area knowledge and professional competencies." All are Abilities To except for "Proficiency in measuring and monitoring each student's progress toward meeting learning standards." Think about this--there is no "content area knowledge" here at all, just the same old stuff repackaged in today's buzz words. There is no requirement that a teacher be educated, no requirement that the student be educated, only "meeting standards," the same old collective aim. The author, Billie Stanton, says "A person with a Ph.D. may know more about the subject, but without training in how to teach, in how to reach all students from the most lackadaisical to the most inquisitive, such knowledge is unlikely to translate into student learning." How knowledge "translates" is devoid of meaning, but it just expresses the usual contempt for understanding and scholarship. I'd like to see a teacher reach all those students with something substantial. What Ms Stanton means is that a teacher must be properly indoctrinated before being let loose. Ms Stanton, an editor, writes much more clearly than an educator, but seems fascinated by the lingo.

An intellgent person can easily rise above the education that is provided through a little reading and reflection, and many do. The real victims of the system are those of above-average intellegence who could learn and become educated, but are convinced not to by a very effective teaching program. Perhaps the current efforts to "improve" schools will finally result in a system so effective and so pervasive that even the most intelligent cannot escape. One can get more real education well away from teachers and classrooms, in the library or at home, simply reading and thinking. I note that the many educational books and booklets available for sale when I was young are no longer there. The only useful thing I can point to as learned in school is typing. Everything else, including reading, writing and arithmetic, I learned outside, only occasionally hindered by school. No educated person believes that learning is a response to the stimulus of teaching, and that it is best done in a collective. Mitchell, of course, backs this up. Education cannot be measured by an assessment of Basic Competencies. These are essential, but are not education. When talking about real education, it is not necessary to put so many words in quotes to show that they do not have their usual meaning, like "excellence."

School textbooks are not even books, as Mitchell explains. They are written by committees and subcommittees, by people with limited "content area knowledge" but deep acquaintance with mindless educational principles. When teachers attempt to introduce real books, the real books are rejected as unauthorized. English is turned into Communication, History into Social Studies, Mathematics is diluted to tastlessness. What high-school physics and chemistry become is best left to the imagination. Professor Iona of DU made quite a name for exposing the worst blunders in physics texts, and his shield has been taken up by others. "History" books probably suffer the most, however, being rewritten to suit every twist of current prejudice and fashion, and designed to present the official version of the past. They are mere propaganda, not history. Schools, like religions, foster the principle that all facts come from higher authority, and they are to be accepted and loved without question. Pupils can often see around this.

The References give several critiques of school textbooks. None of the authors shows any sign of having read Mitchell, but his theory is amply confirmed by what they write. Loewen is mainly interested in revising the treatment of Columbus, native Americans and slaves, but in doing so explores one of the lumps showing above the black, oily waters as if he were looking for evidence to support Mitchell. In the introduction alone, he states "Indeed, history is the only field in which the more courses students take, the stupider they become," and "Students exit history textbooks without having developed the ability to think coherently about social life," and "The history profession does not bother to review textbooks" [what good would it do anyway?], and "What would we think of a course in poetry in which students never read a poem?", and "History is furious debate informed by evidence and reason. Textbooks encourage students to believe that history is facts to be learned.", and, finally, "Using standard American history textbooks...actually make students stupid." Each statement quoted is easily understood if you have read and understood Mitchell. The final quote is an especially telling one, and perhaps true of more than history textbooks.

The Time box labeled E = MC3 illustrates some howlers from science texts. The writers of the texts do not understand what they are writing, even the factoids. The article in ASEE Prism says about science textbooks almost exactly what Loewen says about history textbooks. They do not teach thinking, do not contribute to education, but merely provide slogans for recitation. There is also the author's quaint conceit that teachers pick their textbooks, a sure sign of lack of familiarity with the practicalities of educationism. These references all appeared by chance just as this paper was being written, which is no surprise, since they occur constantly and without intermission. It is twenty years since Mitchell's book, and his warning of more of the same is evidently very true. Nothing has changed. As long as education is in the hands of the uneducated, nothing will ever change. One faction's barbaric values, and lies, are only replaced by those of another faction.

Adducing a statement by Thomas Jefferson, Mitchell sadly shows that the failure of education means that the illiterate cannot be free in a civilized society. This is becoming quite evident. In a recent election, there were only slogans to be recited, and appeals to self-interest (tax cuts, prescriptions for the elderly). There was no intelligent argument at all, only a desire to say as little as possible, and to present a smooth surface free of handholds. As in speaking of education, here the word "debate" must be put in quotes. Signs of restricted freedom are everywhere. We are told when we can burn wood, what we can grow in our gardens, what we can read. People see nothing wrong in employers' eavesdropping on computer use: this is the mentality of slaves. Of course the master should be able to oversee the slave. Of course the only thing to do with a life is to work for a corporation. Now, there is reason in all of these matters, but the thing to notice is the placid acceptance of collective authority without discrimination. Even the rebellious teenager rebels only in a conforming, collective way distinguished by violence and lack of skill. Look at them. They are all alike! And all products of the schools.

Read Mitchell, and you will find out what is behind it all, which I have not had the space to discuss here. As I write his name, I cannot but remember another Mitchell, a nasty educationist creature exactly opposite in nature, who ruled over my university for a few years, and provided much entertainment.

Post Script: Recently in the news (late February 2001) is the proposal in several universities to change the policy on retaking courses. The vice-president who was recommending this spoke of "learning the material" as reason for replacing the old grade by the new. This is remarkable evidence of viewing education as a kind of filling the tank which is encouraged by the American incremental system of university education. It might be useful to review the American method here. A "course" is a lecture sequence lasting one term, which adds a certain number of "credits" to the student's record. A credit represents one hour in class each week of the term, and students usually attempt about 15 credits in three to five courses. A "grade" is assigned to the student's performance, usually A, B, C, D or F. There may be pluses or minuses, but that is insignificant. Each grade corresponds to a certain number of "quality points," 4 for an A, down to 0 for an F. The student's record shows the number of credits earned, and the number of quality points earned, which is the number of credits times the quality points for the particular grade. That is, a B in a 4-credit course in Women's Studies earns 12 quality points. A student with a C knows twice as much as one with a D, but only half as much as someone who got an A, it would seem. The credits are accumulated in two principal bins, the "required courses" for the major, and the "electives." There is a third bin, "no credit towards degree," for F's. A "passing grade," usually C, must be achieved in required courses that "count toward the major." Electives are OK with a D. The "grade point average" is the total number of quality points divided by the total number of credits taken (all three bins). The grade point average for all courses must be above a certain level, usually 2.0, to graduate. Of course, each university has intricate, Byzantine ways of doing all this, but the general idea has been presented here. It should already be obvious how very far all this is from anything educational. There is no way to assure that a standard is maintained, and no effort is made towards this end.

What happens traditionally when a student retakes a course is that both old and new courses remain on the record, but the additional new credits cannot be used against any requirements. Both attempts figure in the overall grade point average, however. Should a student get a D in a required course, it must be retaken. If the new grade is a B, then this replaces the previous course so far as the major is concerned, and the old course moves into the no credit bin. I suppose the proposed new idea is that the retaken course replaces the old course entirely, so that it does not continue to blot the record. The student can then try and try again, hoping someday to get over the bar and show that the "material has been learned." There is really not much in this, but the controversy itself is interesting. What do they intend to do if the new grade is lower?

What actually happens these days is that the average grade is a B or even higher, and most students easily pass anyway. Grade inflation is publicly deplored, privately tolerated, and even encouraged if it keeps enrollments up. It is politically dangerous for an instructor to assign grades lower than those expected, or to maintain a standard. If the same procedures now being applied to public schools were applied to college instructors, pay would depend on student test grades. Since each instructor makes up and marks his own tests, the way to prosperity is clear. However you apply the goad, motion takes place in the suggested direction. A student who earns a C or less is truly sucking mud these days, and when a course is repeated, the result is usually no different. At one school with which I am familiar, students sometimes take the equivalent course in the summer at another local university they hope will have even lower standards, and use it as transfer credit. This usually is a vain hope, but it can work. Really, do you call this education? When everyone goes to university, the universities will come down to everyone's level. Policies are in place to ensure that this happens. Everyone should have a chance at university, but everyone cannot succeed at an acceptable level.


  1. R. Mitchell, The Graves of Academe (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1981).
  2. The Denver Post, 21 January 2001, p. H1, articles by Billie Stanton.
  3. J. W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me (New York: Touchstone, 1996). Criticism of history textbooks.
  4. Time Magazine, 29 January 2001, p. 20, "E = MC3". Science textbooks.
  5. ASEE Prism, February 2001, pp. 24-27: J. D. Budiansky, The Trouble With Textbooks. Science textbooks. They induce sleep, not thought.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 22 January 2001
Last revised 25 February 2001