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H.L. Mencken on Public Education

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What H.L. Mencken thought was the case in his day likely remains the case today: Public schools have “done more harm than good.” How could they not, Mencken asked. Having taken the “care and upbringing of children out of the hands of parents, where it belongs,” the politicians of his day had “thrown” the entire matter into the hands of “irresponsible and unintelligent quacks.”

Our current battles over public education, while very intense, are not necessarily new. The same might be said of the concerns expressed and questions raised by critics and skeptics of our public school system. Well, almost the same things might be said, but not quite.

Both “almost” and “not quite” must be emphasized when one of the critics/skeptics was none other than that ultimate wordsmith/curmudgeon, H. L. Mencken. Nearly a century ago Mencken let it be known that he had had it with what passed for education in our public schools.

At issue for Mr. Mencken was both the raid on the taxpayer and the content of the schooling. The “greatest hold up of them all” was the cost, which he estimated had been “$5 per capita per annum” in 1880, but which had skyrocketed to $100 as of 1933. In no other field of government, he railed, had “expenditures leaped ahead at such a rate.” The only possible explanation, was that “pedagogues” and their public schools had gone on a “joy ride.”

What was even worse was that the “true aim of the pedagogue” was to force their “victim into a mold,” rather than awaken in their charges anything approaching “independent and logical thought.”

Besides, every fall there arrives a “craze for some new solution to the teaching enigma.” Why? Because there is “no sure cure so idiotic that some superintendent of schools will not swallow it.” And the result? Teaching becomes a “thing in itself, a thing separable from and superior” what was to be taught.

And then what? Mastery of the teaching process becomes a “special business, a sort of transcendental high jumping.” The whole idea was to get a teacher so well-grounded in this business that he could teach any child anything, “just as any sound dentist can pull any tooth out of any jaw.”

In addition, what Mencken determined to have been a very sensible practice had long since been abandoned: “There was a time when pupils who proved to be too stupid to stand up under this machine process were simply dropped from the rolls—at which point they were either apprenticed to a hod-carrier or became a bartender.” But no more. The current practice was to “hang on” to every one of their charges for as long as possible.

Of course, this entire effort to “nullify the plain will of God,” otherwise defined by Mencken as “educating the uneducable,” was quite expensive. After all, it inevitably required a “great array of expensive buildings, a huge horde of expensive quacks, and an immeasurable ocean of buncombe.”

All of this “waste” had to be justified; hence the determination of those in charge to convert teaching into an “elaborate hocus-pocus.” This, in turn, led the “pedagogues” into thinking of themselves as “high-toned professionals, comparable to gynecologists and astrologers.”

And the student, here defined as the “victim” or the “prisoner”? There was a time when he received the “humane treatment accorded other prisoners.” But no more. Now they are treated as “guinea pigs in a low comedy laboratory.”

To add injury to insult, the youth of America were “thrown in” with adults they neither liked nor respected. The average boy of Mencken’s youth—and adulthood—would have much preferred to spend his time with a ballplayer or a boxer. In any case, the notion that students in school are happy was of a piece with the notion that the “lobster in the pot is happy.”

As far as Mr. Mencken was concerned, “cats and dogs do better by their young. So do savages.” Besides, everything taught in a grammar school could be imparted to an “intelligent child in two years”—and all without any “cruelty” worse than that involved in (guess what) “pulling a tooth.”

Did Mencken have a remedy in mind at a time when it had already become an “axiom” that public schools were “beyond challenge, beyond suspicion, and beyond reach of all fact and reason.” Actually, he did.

His solution, such as it was, was direct and draconian: simply declare that there was no money left in the treasury. This, he conceded, was a “desperate remedy,” but he could summon no other.

Is there a remedy today when the “axiom” of Mencken’s day no longer applies—and yet when our public schools are still what Mencken once declared them to be, namely “vast machines for grinding up money” while out to “ram” our young into very different, very damaging “molds” (to borrow once more from Mencken).

Rather than declare today’s governmental treasuries empty, why not offer vouchers to parents instead? Let state legislatures determine what it might cost to educate, say, a seventh grader, which likely will work out to be a good deal more than $5 or even $100, and then let parents choose where to apply that voucher. Who knows, they might even decide to teach their children at home, where they no doubt could cover the material in a lot less time, leaving more time for ballplayers and boxers.

Mencken, I doubt, would have objected. What he thought was the case in his day likely remains the case today: Public schools have “done more harm than good.” How could they not, Mencken asked. Having taken the “care and upbringing of children out of the hands of parents, where it belongs,” the politicians of his day had “thrown” the entire matter into the hands of “irresponsible and unintelligent quacks.” What, pray tell, might he add to that today?

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The featured image (detail) is a photograph of H. L. Mencken taken in 1928 and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This content was originally published here.

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