Authoritarianism at School…and Trump.

Authoritarianism and Status-ism – these are the enemies. My attacks on public schooling are not against education, they are against compulsion, and the prison of authoritarianism and status-ism that compulsion has locked us into.

My family has spent a good deal of time watching the Republican and Democratic National Conventions during the last several weeks. I am one of those people who has concerns with both sides – one side is too authoritarian, and the other is too elitist. I know which side I will support, but I will support it with misgivings. Trump’s tendency toward authoritarianism is too dangerous for me to even flirt with.

I found it validating that Matthew MacWilliams found an authoritarian disposition to be the most significant predictor of a person’s support for Trump. What is surprising is the extent to which Americans are disposed to authoritarian outlooks. It would seem, if we looked at the ideals of our country, that a more egalitarian outlook should prevail, but a pretty big percentage of Americans tend toward an authoritarian outlook.

Actually, that doesn’t really surprise me. I see the popular support of Trump as a direct manifestation of a population raised through compulsory schooling, public and private. School is an authoritarian institution, and all of us, or at least the approximately 97% of us who attended accredited schools, spent our entire childhoods being trained to crave its approval. We’ve been trained to gain our status and our sense of self-worth from the approval of authorities, even if the content of our lessons on the American ideal of individual freedom of belief says otherwise.

I think it was someone on one of Colin McEnroe’s Wheelhouse discussions (WNPR 90.5) who recently described Trump supporters as “Status-ists” (if not Colin McEnroe another daytime program on WNPR – sorry if I got it wrong). Status-ism, as it was described, occurs when people who have traditionally been secure in their status lose that security, and it has led to bad things, Fascism and Communism in the early 1900’s, for example.

A basic insecurity of status seems impossible to avoid in a population socialized to function under an authoritarian system of ranked status. Americans have all been raised this way.

I’m talking about school, especially public school.

Despite being pushed as a vehicle of knowledge and opportunity, our schools were largely designed for socialization. I don’t believe this was done maliciously, but I also don’t think it’s an accident. A lot of people who find themselves dissenting from the public policies of compulsory school point to its strong links to Prussian schooling as evidence of spurious goals, and it’s true that Prussian schools served as a model for Horace Mann, who may have done more than anyone else to persuade our country to adopt compulsory schooling.

So what?

That Prussian school model was very much influenced by a German philosopher named Johann Fichte.

Fichte conceived of a “new education” that would be the salvation of the German people. The means for this salvation was a very specific model of compulsory schooling. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Fichte believed “the new education must consist essentially in this, that it completely destroys freedom of will

He didn’t mean this in a diabolical way. He meant to replace self-seeking free will with a more pure morality. It was an idealistic concept meant to raise people to their natural moral perfection. So his end wasn’t evil, but his means were questionable. “It is essential …that from the very beginning the pupil should be continuously and completely under the influence of this education”

This new education would mold children through a process of socialization to ensure they were not able to consider any other way of being. “Therefore, in place of that love of self, with which nothing for our good can be connected any longer, we must set up and establish in the hearts of all those whom we wish to reckon among our nation that other kind of love, which is concerned directly with the good, simply as such, for its own sake.

Its pupil goes forth at the proper time as a fixed and unchangeable machine produced by this art, which indeed could not go otherwise than as it has been regulated by the art

In other words, education would mold the entire race in the likeness of the philosopher’s concept of morality, such that those molded would not be able to conceive of any other truth. Fichte also meant this education to be only for the “German race”. We all know what this led to.

One of the spin-offs of Fichte’s philosophy was National Socialism, a.k.a. the Nazis. Okay, I know that’s a pretty big assumption, but it’s a link that others have made too, and it’s important to remember that Nazi – ism was born from a kind of idealism, not from clearly recognizable evil intentions. It’s also important to remember that it arose in the most highly educated nation of its time.

Compulsory education, along with its socialization, was arguably one of the elements that prepared the country to fall into step with the Nazi regime. Prussia was the first to make education compulsory, but the system adopted in the U.S. followed the same model.

It is ironic to think that this same system teaches our children about inalienable rights, including the freedom of belief, and that “”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” True, Fichte never spoke of his concept of the new education as a religion, but he spoke of it as a means of salvation, filled with concepts of  morality, sin, evil, and God. He saw it as a system that made religious education unnecessary.

The socializing effects of school are well recognized. Framed by our mythology of universal education as the great savior of humanity, socialization is seen as beneficial.

My son stepped out of accredited schooling for a single year. He’d always done well in school, but he, and I, wanted to try something different. He wasn’t exactly homeschooled that year, but he also wasn’t enrolled in an accredited school, so we fell under that alternate banner. As a result, I heard the same fearful response from people around me that homeschoolers have always heard: “what about his socialization?”

School’s socialization, both public and private, is exactly what I wanted to free him from. I want him to belong to his community, but not under duress. When he decided to return to the high school my neighbor commented that it was probably a good decision, “because of the socialization”.  I disagreed. I mean, the decision is fine, and it is my son’s decision to make, but my worries about that socialization haven’t gone away.

Our American education system can trace at least one long strong root back to Fichte. As a result, we have a population of well-socialized Americans. We don’t seem to realize, though, how much that socialization includes a dependency on authoritarian control and a need for approval. We don’t seem to realize that children submitted to constant judgment and grading become adults who hunger for status recognition. We don’t realize how deeply this acculturation effects our subconscious attitudes and assumptions, or how hard it has become to conceive of other truths. We take its authority for granted. We see our own worth reflected in its judgments.

The fact that the lessons of democracy being taught at school contradict the behavioral training only serves to confuse the two. The fact that our white middle class society was favored at school, and got very used to having its status affirmed by it, made it easy to accept. The fact that it eventually promised to raise oppressed people to the status of their oppressors hitched it to the aspirations of the rest of us.

Combine this with basic insecurity about income and safety that has spread right up through the middle class and we should not be surprised that a large population of people who feel insecure in their status are looking for a strong authority figure to just “fix it!” Insecurity in status, in combination with the habit of looking to authority for direction and approval, creates a nation primed to fall behind an authoritarian leader.  Trump appears to be filling that niche.

If we really want our schools to prepare us for able citizenship in a democratic state, which is the argument the Supreme Court has fallen back on as its constitutional justification for its compulsion, then the day to day training of school should train us in democracy – not just with words, but with actions. School needs to accommodate actual freedom of speech, and actual freedom of association.

The effects of school socialization became clear to me years ago. One major insight came when I saw how carefully my son fashioned his homework responses to mollify his teachers, and how much he hated doing it. He was sure that saying what he really thought would mark him as a problem. It would cause unwanted negative attention and get him sent to the principal’s office. After watching and thinking about it, I realized he was right, and I realized how damaging it is for a child to know that his honest responses weren’t acceptable. I also knew that his honest responses were pretty much on target. I didn’t really want him to feel ashamed of his insights. I didn’t want him to be pressured to constantly put on a false face in order to please his teachers.

Our children should be free to listen to their own voices, even when their teachers don’t like what they’re hearing. Basic respect of the individual is missing from the equation, while its touted as one of the main ideals.  Children aren’t just graded on the answers to their math tests, they are graded on their thoughts.They are graded on their attitudes. They are graded on their selves. It isn’t just their schoolwork that is constantly  judged. It is their entire worth.

The constant stream of reform initiatives are irrelevant. Reforms that are installed from above and then measured from above will never put authority over self worth back where it belongs. Compulsory school alienates us from our “inalienable” authority to our own values and beliefs. The lives of both the child and the parent are conscripted. The only reform that could eventually fix this misalignment of authority is the removal of compulsion. School is a government service, but the way I see it, entire families are forced into service at school.

I don’t believe that teachers and school administrators are evil, but I do think they deceive themselves. Universal schooling should exist, but participation needs to be by choice, and participation needs to actually practice the democratic ideals of freedom and equality, not just hold them up as empty icons. Required submission negates the benefits. (This is, by the way, quite different from the kind of school reform currently called “School Choice”.)

We don’t need to tear down the system we have, and we don’t need to forsake the goal of universally available education. We just need to reintroduce freedom, and then allow the institution to evolve from the ground up.

Unfortunately, removing that one element requires that we believe that other people, those people we’ve come to see as beneath us, must be trusted with freedom. The instinct to control people “for their own good”, and for our own security, needs to be rebuked.

The signs of its damage are all around us. We may end with a status obsessed authoritarian as our president.



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