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Thursday, March 1, 2001

The Graves of Academe by Richard Mitchell

A Devastating, Clear-Eyed Attack on America's Pompous Education Establishment

The Akadine Press • 1999 • 229 pages • $15.95 paperback

Richard Mitchell is back in print!

This is a new printing of Richard Mitchell’s 1981 book, one that I found irresistible back then and still regard as one of the most devastating, clear-eyed attacks on America’s pompous education establishment ever written. Mitchell, still alive and teaching at Rowan University in New Jersey (formerly Glassboro State), deflates the pretentious blather of the “education professionals” with Menckenesque wit and satire. I’d relish his style even if he were writing about some meaningless subject; to turn all that ability against the mind-ruining education blob is nirvana.

Mitchell begins with the audacious insight that governments prefer weak-minded citizens who will be easy to manipulate. The following quotation gives the reader a good taste for the author’s style:

Imagine that you are one of those functionaries in government in whom there has grown a propensity to command, in however oblique a fashion and for whatever supposedly good purpose, the liberty and property of your constituents. Which would you prefer, educated constituents or ignorant ones? Which would you rather face—citizens with or without the power of informed discretion? Citizens having that power will require of you a laborious and detailed justification of your intentions and expectations and may, even having that, adduce other information and exercise further discretion to the contrary of your propensities. On the other hand, the ill-informed and undiscriminating can be easily persuaded by recitation of slogans and the appeal to self-interest, however spurious.

Exactly. There is no stronger argument for the separation of education and state than the fact that government officials face an irresistible temptation to use the education system to shape a gullible, obedient population predisposed to look with favor on their attacks on liberty and property. Keep that temptation in mind and all the idiocy that Mitchell lampoons, and all that we observe today in the fever swamps of educational theory, make sense.

The main target of the book is the means by which we train teachers. Those who aspire to teach young people must, with but a few exceptions, spend years of their lives in government-approved teacher-training academies. “Teacher training,” Mitchell writes, “is a colossal and terribly serious enterprise,” calling for “larger and larger faculties and counselors and facilitators and support service and more and more money.” The result, however, is the manufacturing of eager young teachers who have imbibed copious amounts of education “theory” but haven’t themselves mastered (or perhaps even studied at all) the subjects they are to teach. (But that doesn’t trouble the educationistas, who don’t think that teachers should impart knowledge, but instead act as “facilitators” so students can “find their own knowledge.”)

How bad are things out there in Education Land? Mitchell gives us plenty of evidence. Consider, for example, the following course description of an offering in the education department at the University of Tennessee.

Aim is to introduce the students in an informal situation to the major themes of existentialism and humanism; to make them aware of their basic inner freedom to lead an authentic life, to sing their own song, to dance their way through life, to relate themselves to themselves through self-understanding, to relate themselves to others through non-ego love, to accept their complete academic responsibility to their own growth . . . .

Mitchell’s commentary is priceless. “The ordinary citizen, contemplating such a juvenile parody of scholarship, is inclined to protect his sanity by assuming that such a course is a freakish anomaly. That, alas, cannot be so. This instructor, after all, is not an independent entrepreneur peddling self-help and uplift down at the Community Center . . . . This course is offered with the approval and connivance of his colleagues and coconspirators in that Department of Educational Curriculum and Instruction and the entire administrative apparatus of the University of Tennessee.”

Mitchell also attacks, among many others, the educationistic idea that any and every problem that someone might have needs to be addressed by some new course offered in school. “We are told,” he writes, “that we need consumer education because people are easily duped by misleading advertising, cannot figure out the per-ounce price of ketchup, and imagine that they can live on Twinkies and Coca-Cola . . . . The consumer who is duped by misleading advertising does not need consumer education; he needs to know how to read. The housewife who can’t figure out what ketchup costs does not need consumer education; she needs to know how to cipher. And as for those who want to live on Twinkies and Coca-Cola, frankly that’s their own damn business and we ought to leave them alone.”

Thanks to the Akadine Press for bringing back this marvelous book (and also Mitchell’s other three fine books). Read (or reread) The Graves of Academe and savor the work of an implacable foe of what we now call “education.”

George Leef is the book review editor of Ideas on Liberty.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.