Day After Mencken Day 2021

When little Felix comes home to his patriotic and Christian home with the news that the Fathers of 1776 were a gang of smugglers and profiteers, and when his sister Flora follows with the news that Moses did not write his own obituary and that the baby, Gustave, was but recently indistinguishable from a tadpole, and later on from a nascent gorilla—when such subversive and astounding doctrines are brought home from the groves of learning there ensues inevitably a ringing of fire- bells, with a posse on the march against some poor pedagogue.

What I maintain is simply that the vigilantes are right and the pedagogue wrong. His error lies in assuming that taxpayers lay out their hard-earned money for the breeding of traitors and atheists; taxpayers actually lay out their money for the breeding of more taxpayers like themselves. And their natural desire that this program be followed strictly is supported by the overwhelming force of the state, which loses strength and authority in direct ratio as its citizens become heretics. What holds it up is not primarily brute force, as so many theorists argue; what holds it up is the fact that, on all really essential questions, the vast majority of its citizens think exactly alike—that there is never any general doubt of the fundamental communal superstitions. Once those superstitions are seriously challenged, the whole fabric of the state begins to crumble. The true function of the pedagogue is not to attack them, but to propagate them. His is a sort of priestly office. He is not paid to marshal doubts and weigh probabilities; he is paid to expound revelation. If he finds himself temperamentally unable to discharge that solemn and awful duty, then he should quit pedagogy and go into bootlegging or some other free craft. So long as he is publicly consecrated to the birch, he can no more depart from his text-book with seemliness than a Christian clergyman could depart from his sworn belief in witches.

It is these sick and wounded of the army of learning, I suspect, who are responsible for most of the academic Bolshevism that now fills the newspapers. Having been purged, by their superior education, of the fundamental communal superstitions—or, at all events, of a few of them—they get revenge upon the society that ill-uses them by inoculating the children of honest Rotarians with their own odd and often nonsensical heresies. These are the fellows who, at frequent intervals, commit scandalum magnatum by teaching that the American patriot infantry, at Bunker Hill, ran all the way down the hill, or that General Grant was a heavy lusher, or that the Bolsheviki have not really nationalized women, or that the world is older than the Bible says, or that the Nordic Blond, biologically, is no more than a bald chimpanzee. And these are the fellows who yell that they are undone when indignant trustees give them the gate.

It seems to me that those who protest against their thus getting the gate fall into the elemental error of assuming, only too often, that an American college is the exact equivalent of a European university. It is called a university, and so they accept it as one in fact. But it is really nothing of the kind. There has been but one genuine university in the United States in our time—the Johns Hopkins under Gilman—and it turned itself into a college with frantic haste the moment he died. The college student differs from a university student in a most important way: his formal education, when he matriculates, is not completed, but simply entering upon its last stage. That is to say, he has not yet taken in the whole of that body of correct and respectable ideas which all of us must somehow absorb before we are competent to think for ourselves—at all events, to any rational purpose and effect.

Only too often the fact is overlooked that even the most bold and talented of philosophers must suffer that stuffing before he is ready to go it alone. Aristotle, you may be sure, had the Greek alphabet rammed into him like any other Greek of his time, and studied the multiplication table, and learned the elements of Greek civics, and all that was then accepted about the nature of the Persians, the functions of the liver, and the aorist. Kant was grounded in Prussian history, the humoral pathology, and the Leibnitzian law of preestablished harmony. Even Nietzsche had to master the grammar-book, the catechism and the Lutheran psalm-book, that he might be a good German and keep out of jail. Such training takes time, for children naturally resist it; it takes more time in America than elsewhere because our elementary-schools, in late years, devote themselves mainly to fol-de-rols borrowed from the Boy Scouts, Greenwich Village and Bernarr Macfadden. Thus the young American, when he enters college, is still only half-educated in the conventional sense. At least three of his four years are consumed in completing the lowly business of making him fit to vote, keep a checkbook accurately, and understand what is in his newspaper. Every now and then some humorist subjects a class of freshmen to what is called a general information test. Four-fifths of them invariably turn out to be as ignorant as so many European schoolboys of ten or eleven.

Obviously, it is as imprudent to parade political heresies before such infants as it would be to lecture on obstetrics before girls of thirteen. When they are graduated at last, they are perhaps ripe for it, but when they are graduated they commonly depart the halls of learning for the bond business. The relatively few who remain seem to suffer no damage from such ideas as they encounter in the graduate-schools. At all events, there is never any complaint that they are being ruined, nor do they themselves complain that the notions of the salient anarchists are being withheld from them. Most of them, having no desire save to get their Ph. D.’s and settle down as pedagogues, are probably anaesthetic to whatever play of ideas goes on about them. A few, taking fire, afterward lecture scandalously in the prairie “universities” to which they are doomed, stir up the students to revolt against their colleagues, and so get themselves cashiered. But not many. Nor is the practical damage serious. There is always room enough for the minority of genuinely intelligent fellows in the graduate-schools whence they came. The spotlights of Babbitt do not bathe these schools, for his sons are not in them; thus they are quite free to monkey with ideas all they please, even with red-hot ones. (H. L. Mencken, “In the Rolling Mills,” Prejudices, Sixth Series, 1927)