Years ago I decided to try sprucing up my American history classes by becoming various figures in American history. One of my first sprucer-uppers was that American original, journalist H.L. Mencken. Now that I’m near the end of my teaching days, a soon-to-be retired “Mr. Mencken” will have to be content with sprucing me up.

I recently came across a Mencken essay from the 1920s that could have been written yesterday — or any number of times in between. The subject was “The Educational Process,” and, not surprisingly, Mr. Mencken was not a fan.

“Next to the minister, the fellow with the foulest job in the world is the school teacher … both wear their hearts out trying to perform the impossible. How much the world asks of them, and how little they can actually deliver.”

Fully warmed up, Mencken then tossed this zinger: “The clergyman’s business is trying to save his clients from hell, and if he manages to save one-eighth of one percent of his flock, he is doing magnificently.” And the teacher? His goal is getting the “great masses to think, [but] thinking is precisely the thing that the masses are congenitally and eternally incapable of doing.”

OK, Mencken stands revealed as the elitist snob that he was quite capable of being. But he was a good deal more than that. His real targets in this piece were other elitist snobs, specifically professional educators, who were always concocting some “new craze” for solving the “teaching enigma” and “school superintendents” who were sure to “swallow” the latest craze, no matter how “idiotic” it might be.

His additional concern was that substance was being sacrificed to technique.

Teaching, he observed, was threatening to become a “thing in itself.” Once a teacher was “well-versed” in the latest craze, then any teacher would be able to “teach any subject to any child, just as any dentist can pull any tooth from any jaw.” This ran against Mencken’s definition of a “true teacher,” namely, someone with a “passion for the importance of the thing being taught.”

To Mencken, the key ingredient was enthusiasm. A teacher “soaked in his subject has enthusiasm for his subject.” And while enthusiasm cannot be taught, “it can be contagious.”

Mencken’s example for teaching passion in action was, of all things, penmanship, if only because “legible handwriting could actually help students earn a living.” That might be a hard case to make today, but Mencken was out to make a larger point.

There was a time when penmanship was taught by “passionate penmen with curly patent-leather hair and faraway eyes.” They may have been “pathetic imbeciles,” but they believed in the “glory and beauty of penmanship. They were fanatics, almost martyrs for penmanship.”

It pleased Mencken to think that such crusaders could still be found in America’s schools. There were even a few isolated “zealots for long division, experts on the multiplication tables,” and “lunatic worshipers of the binomial theorem,” not to mention lonely “grammatomaniacs,” who, when faced with a split infinitive, “suffered as you and I would suffer with gastro-enteritis.”

The problem was that passionate teachers were up against the “system,” which had most teachers “tightly in its grasp,” no matter its latest “incarnation.” The result was instruction by “formulas as baffling to the student as they are paralyzing to the teacher.”

Snuffed out was enthusiasm, which Mencken deemed to be more important than anything, including intelligence. While Mencken didn’t say so, enthusiasm might even be more important than experience.

A libertarian to the core, Mencken deemed the cost of public schools to be the “greatest hold-up of them all.” They were simply “vast machines for grinding up money.” As far as Mencken could tell, this was a problem without a solution, save for the “desperate remedy” of declaring that the “treasury was empty.”

Today’s “desperate remedy” is a voucher system that sends money directly to the parents, not the schools. It is, in a sense, a Menckenian solution. The eventual result would no doubt be a great variety of schools from which parents might choose. And that variety would include both technique and curriculum. It might even include schools that would reward enthusiasm in unique ways. How about a heavily front-loaded salary schedule that gradually went down after a certain number of years? As enthusiasm wanes, so does the pay. This could have the double advantage of encouraging people into — and out of — teaching. It might also encourage people to think of teaching as something other than a lifetime career and something more akin to a temporary calling.

Then there is the matter of the curriculum. Or should that be curricula? Crazes there might be, but at least they wouldn’t be handed down from on high. (Oh, what Mr. Mencken might have written about a federal Department of Education!) There once was a time when the public school system was designed to Americanize students, immigrants and nonimmigrants alike. Those days are long gone. Instead we have expert-imposed worldviews and agendas that are often at odds with those of parents.

Mencken was highly suspicious of public schools as Americanizing agents. Born in America, he nonetheless thought of himself as a German immigrant to the end of his days. Still, he did defend the right of state legislatures to call the tune when it came to deciding what should — and should not — be taught. This included the Darwinian Mencken’s defense of a bill passed by the Tennessee legislature that banned the teaching of evolution, thereby triggering the Scopes “monkey trial” (and Mencken’s subsequent defense of John Scopes).

Who knows whether Mencken would approve of parents calling the educational tune? What is clear is that this is also a time for “desperate remedies.” The entire educational system needs a jolt. And the jolt provided by an infusion of choices, rather than an infusion of money, might be just desperate enough to win Mr. Mencken’s approval.

 

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg teaches at Normandale Community College and is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.