As both my regular readers are aware, I’ve have occasionally described the rather grim history of factory schooling. I’ve asserted that, when our schools produce graduates who have been rendered not only ignorant and incapable of thought, but satisfied, even proud, of their total lack of intellectual tools, those schools are working exactly as designed. Further, I assert that this is, in fact, a conscious design, and quote such luminaries as Fichte, Horace Mann, and Woodrow Wilson to illustrate this point.
I’ve been making these assertions not only on this blog, but to various parents and friends over the years. As you can easily imagine, this has not only reduced the number of people who will willingly talk with me about such matters, but, as predictably, has lead to me being called a ‘conspiracy theorist’ on more than one occasion. The conspiracy, I suppose, is seen at work in the millions of people who execute and cooperate in factory schooling, not in the very clear and documentable statements by the intellectual lights behind the efforts. In other words, it should not be in question that Fichte, Mann and Wilson, among many others, intended to replace the education models in place at the time with a new model whose goal was the proper stratification of society into workers/soldiers, managers and rulers. If we are using the word ‘conspiracy’ to mean ‘a group of people who are on the record supporting a particular project’, then, well, I guess there is a conspiracy here. One that involves no closed doors or smokey rooms or, really, secrets, which seems to stretch the concept of conspiracy beyond the point of meaning anything.
So, we are not defending against the accusation of conspiracy the agreement between many leaders on the goal of using education to ‘grade’ people – like lumber or eggs are graded: for the purposes of the user of lumber or eggs. That is established in the public historical record. What might reasonably be in question is how it is that, over generations, millions of people have bought into this model. Do the millions of classroom teachers, administrators and their supporters need to be ‘in’ on this? Or are there other mechanisms which explain the appearances?
So, let me explain how the accusation that this whole ‘classroom schooling is designed to make us passive, stupid and self-satisfied’ is and is not a conspiracy.
Let’s start by generalizing Darwin’s chief claim, the basic insight of the theory of natural selection: features of the natural world can appear highly designed without having been consciously designed by anyone. (We’re sidestepping the Aristotle/Modern Science issues over causality for the moment.) Order can appear out of disorder by means of unconscious forces, corresponding to no plan or design. (Also, following tradition, we’ll whistle past the issue of what, exactly, these forces act *on* that generates such interesting results.)
Darwin claims, very convincingly, that even the most sophisticated and exquisitely refined aspects of animal and plant physiology have resulted from natural selection. The Theory of Natural Selection states that differences between individuals in a species may result in differentiated survival rates. When this happens, these differences between individuals are then expressed as ‘advantages’. If these advantages persist long enough in being advantageous in terms of more offspring for the advantaged relative to the disadvantaged, then the advantage ends up as a characteristic of the population. Rinse, lather, repeat long enough, and the great great grandchildren of protozoa get legs and eyeballs and seats in Congress.
(How these differences come about and how they are passed on from generation to generation is not relevant at the moment. It is enough to know that differences do arise, and some of them can be passed on to offspring.)
The characteristic of the environment that renders some trait ‘advantageous’ or ‘disadvantageous’ results in selection pressure. Who is ‘selected’ to survive and reproduce? Why, those who have ‘advantages’. Despite the heavy will-and-intellect language used, we are assured and we believe that, for the purposes of Natural Science, there is no Selector and no Generator of Advantages. It’s random, undirected chance all the way down. (This lack of conscious guidance, BTW, is not a conclusion – it is a premise upon which modern science has been based since the Middle Ages: however true it may be to say ‘God did it’, it is remarkably unhelpful to our understanding of the world of nature(s))
These advantages can be very small. Pressure, even very slight pressure, if consistently applied over a long enough time can effect dramatic change, and act as an organizing principle on living things. A dramatic example is human skin color – having light skin in high latitudes or dark skin in low latitudes provides about a 1% survival advantage in terms of number of offspring – about 101 light-skinned children of light skinned Norwegians will survive for every 100 dark skinned kids of a theoretical dark skinned Norwegian, but a light-skinned Nigerian would be similarly disadvantaged in Nigeria versus his dark skinned neighbors. This tiny 1% advantage is strong enough to produce, over time, the effect where native populations in the far north are nearly white, while native populations near the equator are nearly black. (Of course, people famously don’t stay put, so there’s always genetic material, so to speak, wandering in from elsewhere, meaning that there will always be exceptions and gradations. But the general pattern is pretty clear.)
Now, as any evolutionary biologist will tell you, behaviors are every bit as selected and ‘evolved’ as physical characteristics. The long neck of the giraffe and the teeth and claws of the tiger don’t help survival at all without the corresponding instinct to stretch into the branches to forage or to stalk and hunt prey. A behavior with a survival advantage is every bit as likely to spread through a population as a physical characteristic.
Under the theory of natural selection, both the organization of the body and the organization of behaviors are seen as having resulted from selection pressures acting over time (on matter with potential, in the philosophic sense). Neither the matter upon which selection acts nor the selection itself is indicative of an intelligent (formal) cause.
Human behavior is more complicated than animal behavior due to the presence of consciousnesses in humans and not in animals. This consciousness finds its expression in understanding and will, which are different in kind and not merely degree from animal thinking. That said, a remarkably high percentage of human activity seems to involve no conscious thought at all, and all human activity seems to involve a large degree of instinctive behaviors. I may choose, in a clear exercise of intellect and will, to ask a woman to marry me. But that choice will certainly have a LOT of biology behind it, and the core behavior – seeking a mate – is a basic unconscious drive shared with beasts. Nonetheless, humans are unlikely to behave as chimps or gorillas, to mate right there on the spot once appropriate triggers have occurred – for humans, conscious thought and an acts of wills are involved.
Or take a hunting party. Wolves and men both hunt in groups, and, in fact, often behave very similarly on the hunt – being silent, staying upwind, some running prey toward others in ambush. So, it is reasonable to think that these common behaviors have been selected – it’s easy to imagine that the noisy wolf or human fails more often and produces fewer offspring.
This is all just a recap, to make sure we’re on the same page.
To rephrase the core insight of Darwin in somewhat more general terms: In a natural environment, very sophisticated order and structure can arise through the consistent pressure of small biases. I contend that this is a more general rule than mere biological selection, that much of the universe is ordered in precisely this way. we look up into the night sky, and see order, often sublimely beautiful order. While on the one hand, men have always seen the hand of God in this order and beauty, from the perspective of Natural Philosophy, we search specifically for the rules – the natural laws – by which this order has been made manifest.
Men are actors in our environment. We can and do introduce biases, in the specific Darwinian sense of selection pressures. Certain ‘traits’ are favored, and enhance the chances of ‘survival’ within the biased environment. These human-caused selection pressures, even when small, can result in vast, highly organized structures – if consistently applied over time. They can be highly structured in a way that leads the observer to suspect that only a conspiracy – a conscious decision on the part of the people involved – could create such focus. Yet the people within the structures may have little or no awareness of what the biases were biased toward. The temptation is for the observer to reject what appears to be true – that the behaviors of the people in an environment are directed toward an end of which those people are only dimly aware – because they believe that only conscious decisions – only a conspiracy – could result in such directed actions.
So much for abstractions. In concrete terms, what we will look at in the next post is education, specifically, compulsory classroom education over the last couple centuries. When I assert that the goals of compulsory classroom education are to create stupid, docile, manageable people that are incapable of challenging the core assertions of their managers, this claim is most often rejected out of hand, because people believe that to pull it off would require a vast conspiracy over centuries. They know and even love teachers – or are teachers – and they know those people love their kids and wouldn’t dream of stunting their growth, making them stupid, and crippling them intellectually. Schools are good! Doing well in school is the best or only way to get ahead! Just look at me! *I* turned out just fine!
The whole point of this post is to say: no, what is required to pull this off is not a conspiracy involving the conscious participation of millions of people over decades. The goals can be achieved if that the environment is managed by people who can bias it toward those goals in such a way that the people in the environment need not be aware at all of what they’re doing. After a while, insofar as they themselves – the teachers, the administrators, the parents – are products of this very system, they will be incapable of noticing what’s going on, and in fact will be wedded to its ‘success’. This is the intelligible order that arises from what I’m calling selection pressures or environmental biases, regardless of level of awareness of the people involved. Teachers need be no more aware of it than a clam needed to want to grow a shell.
(Technical aside: this argument is not, strictly speaking, of that lurking horror called sociobiology. I’m not concerned here with how human behaviors and societies might have evolved via Darwinian mechanisms, but rather attempting to use what I’m calling the core concept of Darwinism to explain appearances in a world were men make choices. I’m assuming ‘human nature’ and human societies, not attempting to explain them.)