Lots of people who study K-12 education end up looking for a metaphor, a parallel, to explain the unnecessary stupidity of our public schools. Don’t bother. Ayn Rand has run ahead and done the job.
In 1970, Rand published a very long essay titled “The Comprachicos” (which roughly translates to the child-buyers). It lovingly examines a bit of history mentioned in a Victor Hugo novel. He wrote about vicious exploiters who mutilate and transform children into all sorts of freaks, dwarfs, gymnasts, and novelties. The techniques are analogous to those used by bonsai masters. You cut, twist, break, deprive – you do whatever works to make a glorious anomaly.
Finding this history, Rand must have shouted, “Eureka.” She perceived that Progressive educators are the comprachicos of our time:
The production of monsters – helpless, twisted monsters whose normal development has been stunted – goes on all around us. But the modern heirs of the comprachicos are smarter and subtler. They do not hide, they practice their trade in the open, the results are invisible. In the past this horrible surgery left traces on a child’s face, not in his mind. Today it leaves traces in his mind, not on his face. In both cases the child is not aware of the mutilation he has suffered. Today’s comprachicos do not use narcotic powders. They take a child before he is fully aware of reality and never let him develop that awareness. Where nature put a normal brain, they put mental retardation.
I’m no Rand fan, but I have to acknowledge that she is super-smart. Her mind is startling; it’s like watching someone pick up the silverware at dinner and juggle it.
The thought of all the living species that train their young in the art of survival, the cats who teach their kittens to hunt, the birds who spend such strident effort on teaching their fledglings to fly – yet man, whose tool of survival is the mind, does not merely fail to teach a child to think, but devotes the child’s education to the purpose of destroying his brain, of convincing him that thought is futile and evil, before he has started to think[.] … Men would shudder … if they saw a mother bird plucking the feathers from the wings of her young, then pushing him out of the nest to struggle for survival – yet that was what they did to their children.”
This relentless critique is about what happens in Progressive schools from nurseries to colleges. Rand says children are deliberately destroyed. The essay is tightly focused on one subject, education, which serves her well. Rand has the kind of mind that is eager to go off in many directions. For example: “If you want to see hatred, do not look at wars or concentration camps – these are merely its consequences. Look at the writings of Kant, Dewey, Marcuse and their followers to see pure hatred[.]”
The comprachico technique starts at the base. The child’s great achievement in learning to speak is undercut and all but nullified by the method used to teach him to read. The ‘Look-Say’ method substitutes the concrete-bound memorization of the visual shapes of words for the phonetic method which taught a child to treat letters and sounds as abstractions. The senseless memorizing of such a vast amount of sensory material places an abnormal strain on a child’s mental capacity, a burden that cannot be fully retained, integrated or automatized. The result is a widespread ‘reading neurosis’ – the inability to learn to read – among children, including many of above average intelligence, a neurosis that did not exist prior to the introduction of the ‘Look-Say’ method. (If the enlightenment and welfare of children were the modern educators’ goal, the incidence of that neurosis would have made them check and revise their educational theories; it has not.)
Rand sees the big, big picture. For example:
It is ideas that determine the actions of all those people, and it is the Educational Establishment that determines the ideas of a nation. It is your professors’ ideas that have ruled the world for the past fifty years or longer, with a growing spread of devastation, not improvement – and today, in default of opposition, these ideas are destroying the world, as they destroyed your mind and self-esteem[.] … You are miserably helpless and want to rebel? Then rebel against the ideas of your teachers. You will never find a harder, nobler or more heroic form of rebellion. You have nothing to lose but your anxiety. You have your mind to win.
Want guidance on how to dumb down a country? Rand tells you exactly how our self-anointed experts have done it for decades:
The purposeful, disciplined use of his intelligence is the highest achievement possible to man: it is that which makes him human. The higher the skill, the earlier in life its learning should be started. The same holds true in reverse, for those who seek to stifle a human potential. To succeed in producing the atrophy of intelligence, a state of man-made stupidity, one must get hold of the victim early; a mental dwarf must be started when he is small. This is the art and science practiced by the comprachicos of the mind.
This essay is a concatenation of surprising insights. For example:
A small child is mildly curious about, but not greatly interested in, other children of his own age. In daily association, they merely bewilder him. He is not seeking equals, but cognitive superiors, people who know. Observe that young children prefer the company of older children or of adults, that they hero-worship and try to emulate an older brother or sister. A child needs to reach a certain development, a sense of his own identity, before he can enjoy the company of his ‘peers.’ But he is thrown into their midst and told to adjust.
Many people try to explain the failures of modern education by pointing to incompetence and good intentions gone awry. Rand will have none of that. She credits our Education Establishment with evil intent from start to finish.
The Progressive nurseries pleaded for a delay of the process of education, asserting that cognitive training is premature for a young child – and conditioned his mind to an anti-cognitive method of functioning. The grade and high schools reinforced the conditioning: struggling helplessly with random snatches of knowledge, the student learned to associate a sense of dread, resentment and self-doubt with the process of learning. College completes the job, declaring explicitly – to a receptive audience – that there is nothing to learn, that reality is unknowable, certainty is unattainable, the mind is an instrument of self-deception, and the sole function of reason is to find conclusive proof of its own impotence.
Rand concludes: “Ideas can be fought only by means of ideas. The educational establishment has to be fought – from bottom to top, from cause to consequences, from nursery schools to universities, from basic philosophy to campus riots, from without and from within.”