19th Century Blueprints for 20th Century Tragedies: Is a Repeat Pending in the 21st?

I would be willing to bet virtually everyone reading this post is familiar with Harriett Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The little lady who started that big war is I believe how Lincoln described her and the book. Yet the second biggest bestseller in the US in the 19th Century, Edward Bellamy’s influential and chilling utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 is virtually unknown now to most of us. That’s a problem as we evaluate where education is really going and what it hopes to accomplish now because virtually everyone I have ever written about on this blog from Professor Fecho in the last post to the Best Practices book detailing the Standards for Teaching and Learning to Bill Ayers or Nel Noddings or John Goodlad or Ralph Tyler and his 8 Year Study all agree on one thing across the decades. They are implementing John Dewey’s vision for using education to transform the nature of American society.

So what drove Dewey and influenced his vision matters as his work is still being cited as the inspiration for what is being pushed in 2013. What if we know many things now that Dewey did not know when he wrote in the late 19th and early 20th century? Shouldn’t those things matter to whether his education vision is likely to produce a toxic society and economy in the 21st Century? Can’t we learn from history? The Bolsheviks in 1918 in Russia spent precious hard currency having Dewey’s works translated into Russian before Lenin had even prevailed in his Revolution. Should the other things they wanted that were so harmful give us pause that they viewed Dewey as an ideological comrade? Or that Mao in the 1920s cited Dewey as hid favorite philosopher? Shouldn’t that make us uncomfortable in 2013 on whether we should be blindly implementing his vision?

In 1935 John Dewey put Looking Backward second to Marx’s Capital on a list of the most influential books of the past 50 years. Two Dewey biographers, Robert B Westbrook and Alan Ryan, write about how much Dewey was influenced by Bellamy’s vision of the future. Please remember when both Bellamy and Dewey were writing, the US and Europe were going through the “coming of technological, urban society” which I believe can accurately be described as the “most deep-seated and sweeping transformation of human affairs in all of recorded history.” That sounds dramatic but these were hugely uprooting, unprecedented changes that must have been bewildering and alienating to live through. Dewey and Bellamy’s writings reflect that. But we now know much that they did not. Shouldn’t our knowledge of what happened in the 20th century chasing after collectivist ideas matter in the 21st? Especially since what is sought is so strikingly similar?

Economist Brink Lindsay describes these 19th and 20th Century movements as the Industrial Counterrevolution. He wrote of Bellamy’s role. I remembered how much Bellamy influenced Dewey and decided to include him as well. He fits. In explaining what drove this counterrevolution of an anti-individual sweeping reorganization of society and economic life, I think Lindsay nails the driving rationale with this quote:

“Amidst the spiritual turmoil and disorientation, collectivism promised deliverance–a return to the age-old verities of village life and the sense of community and rootedness that had been lost in industrialization. The agent of deliverance would be the centralizing state; its means, the nationalization of economic life.”

Looking Backward (I am using Ryan’s description of the book as an admirer of Dewey to be fair) involves a well-to-do man put into a hypnotic trance in 1887 who awakens in 2000. “In this Boston poverty has been abolished, and absolute equality established. ” The book envisioned a 2000 where there is “no politics, no money, no free market, and no social disorder.” Every citizen of the country, regardless of age or occupation receives the same income and all commerce has been replaced by a system of direct distribution of goods and services. Looking Backward sells the idea that economic competition is wasteful and central planning allows for vastly superior productivity.

From our 21st century vantage point we know from the miseries of the 20th that central planning is not more productive. It is hugely wasteful because so much critical information never makes it through. And that’s apart from the political capture by crony favorites that is inevitable in such a system.

By the way, when I talk about free markets working better than government planning, that’s the historian in me. I think the 20th Century facts make it abundantly clear that the competitive system Marx and Bellamy and Dewey rejected back in the 19th and early 20th was in fact a “marvelously subtle and sophisticated social order whose greatest virtues are in its fertility in developing and facility in applying useful knowledge.”

That marvelously creative and innovative fertility and facility, plus a tremendous amount of useful knowledge that will no longer be transmitted via schoo,l is what is being jettisoned in 2013. By professors and politicians and Supers and Principals trying to still implement Dewey’s dream and collectivization and central planning. For them, it is either that the 20th Century’s tragedies never occurred or a belief that supercomputers and an ignorance among the masses on what is being changed via the schools will make all the difference this time.

Capitalism is actually a term created to be a pejorative. An insult. Propaganda. I like the idea of economic historian Deirdre McCloskey of substituting phrases like “continuously emergent novelty” or the “explosion of consensual creativity” to describe what makes free markets so conducive to prosperity. If we make the rules regarding contracts and property law fixed instead of trying to fix outcomes and then get out of peoples way, history shows a natural tendency for human betterment that benefits everyone to some degree. We really should think twice or more about the determination to shut this all down in the name of Equity and democracy and social justice and fairness.

Instead of Social Justice, why not explain the Bourgeois Deal to students? How much of what they take for granted now was produced by this dynamic:

“the poor have been the chief beneficiaries of modern capitalism. It is an irrefutable historical finding, obscured by the logical truth that the profits from innovation go in the first act mostly to the bourgeois rich. But in the second act, and in massively documented historical fact, other bourgeois rush forward at the smell of profit. Prices fall relative to wages, which is to say that goods and services expand per person–they have again and again and again–and the poor get better off in real terms.”

Marx and Bellamy and Dewey could not know that. But it is part of the historic facts available to us in 2013. Yet these ed reforms and the economic and social vision that goes with it ignore these facts.

We ended up in World War I, which all sides initially rejoiced in, because of widespread fallacies like German Prof Gustav Schmoller who said:

“We are convinced that the unchecked reign of partially antagonistic and unequal individual interests cannot guarantee the common welfare.”

Or Adolf Wagner who taught that the progress of civilization “necessitated ever-expanding state control over economic life.” This Wagner Law pushed something akin to today’s College and Career Ready Communitarianism by insisting on the need for expanding government controls “not for the sake of the individual or individuals, but for the sake of the whole, the sake of the nation.”

Wagner and Schmoller were tragically wrong but we still seem to be pushing comparable ideas today.

Why are we ignoring so much historical and economic fact as we once again chase after impossible utopias?