IPFS Menckens Ghost

More About: Education: Government Schools

Political debates before and after public education


By Mencken’s Ghost

June 16, 2011


In 1858, about the same time that the public education movement was beginning, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were held in seven Illinois congressional districts, following earlier debates in Springfield and Chicago.


In June of 2011, long after the government had attained a near-monopoly over K-12 education, Republican presidential candidates performed in a staged beauty pageant that was mislabeled as a debate.


In the 153 years since the Lincoln-Douglas debates, annual government spending on K-12 education has skyrocketed from almost nothing per pupil to over $10,000 per pupil, on average, and as much as $14,000 per pupil in some inner-city districts.  During the same period, the intelligence and depth of political debates and media coverage have declined. 


To see how much they have declined, let’s go back to 1858.  In the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, the format was for one candidate to speak for 60 minutes, then for the other to speak for 90 minutes, and then for the first speaker to give a 30-minute rejoinder. 


The candidates were not asked if they drink Pepsi or Coke by a fool of a moderator from CNN, as was the case with the recent “debate.”  And if they had been asked such an inane question, both Lincoln and Douglas would have had the wisdom, authenticity, and backbone to tell the moderator in a polite, gentlemanly way to jump in the hole of an outhouse--assuming that the audience didn’t beat them to it and throw the idiot in the hole.  After all, unlike today, the large audiences often had to stand in the elements to listen to the debates, after traveling to the venues by foot, horseback, buggy, or steam train.  They wouldn’t have been in the mood to tolerate idiocy, and, although they hadn’t attended public school, they knew the difference between intelligent and idiotic commentary.


So did newspapers at the time.  Many published transcripts of the entire debates, just as New York newspapers had published the Federalist Papers in 1787.  This wasn’t easy reading, unlike the “See Spot run” writing of today’s newspapers and TV news scripts, which are geared to an eighth-grade level of comprehension and thinking, which, sadly, is the level of comprehension and thinking attained by too many graduates of public high schools.


Newspapers were also honest about their politics back then, identifying which party they supported, thus alerting readers to the likelihood of political spin in that direction.  Today, most of the spin is to the left, but newspapers (and most other media) deny that they have a partisan bias, and most readers are too indoctrinated in left-liberalism in government schools to know or care.


Another difference between now and then is that Lincoln and Douglas were not contestants in a beauty contest--fortunately for them, since neither of them was a handsome man.  Of course they ran for office before women had the right to vote, and long before the majority of women would vote for a handsome, photogenic, metro-sexual male like Obama, whose looks were much more impressive than his political resume.


Self-educated, Lincoln never set foot in a free public school.  Another future president, and Lincoln’s favorite general in the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant, never set foot in one, either.  Grant attended a subscription school that was a long horseback ride from the family farm.  Before entering West Point, he taught himself algebra.  Much later, during his dying days, he wrote his 800-page Personal Memoirs, which would become a best-seller and which, in addition to being a fascinating chronicle of the Civil War, was an unintended testament to the intelligence and common sense of common folk prior to public education.


It’s telling that a thick book like Grant’s could be a best-seller even though the populace was far less formally educated than today.  Today, paradoxically, with record numbers of Americans having attended college, there is an incessant barrage of canards, distortions, sophisms, propaganda, pap, claptrap and inanities in the news media, in TV shows and movies, in commercials and print advertising, and, especially, in the political theater that passes for government in this country.  If such drivel were not effective, it wouldn’t be so widespread; and if Americans were truly educated, it wouldn’t be effective.


Examples of the drivel are endless, but before closing, let me give you two.  The first appeared on the Travel cable channel in a segment on large motor homes and campers.  A commentator pointed to one of the behemoths and said, “It’s made out of composite materials and is good for the Earth.”  Think of how stupid a viewer would have to be to believe that towing a 40-ft. camper is good for the Earth, whatever materials were used in its construction. 


Along these lines, it seems that most product commercials nowadays don’t mention the product, and, instead, tell a gullible audience about the “good” works of the company in terms of caring for the environment and giving back to the community, as if the company has stolen something from the community.  The worst of a bad lot is a Bridgestone commercial.  It includes the company’s slogan “One team, one planet,” and claims that the company is “making a better Earth for all of us.”


Such horse manure!  One of the main ingredients in tires is carbon black, which is produced by heating natural gas to an extreme temperature.  The end product resembles furnace soot, but in much smaller particles, almost molecular in size.  Before carbon-black plants were required to install scrubbers, people living downwind were covered in the stuff if they ventured outside.  It would even penetrate their outer garments and underwear.  Then there is the huge worldwide problem of how to dispose of old tires.  And it’s not as if the production of another main ingredient, rubber, is done by elves at the North Pole.   In fact, the early history of rubber plantations was marked by the worst aspects of colonialism, which would be one of the precipitating factors for communist revolutions in Indochina, which, in turn, would lead to the deaths of 50,000 Americans in Vietnam.  


Those who believe Bridgestone’s environmental claims probably also believe that the recent Republican beauty pageant was a real debate.  They can thank their public school for what they don’t know. 



“Mencken’s Ghost” is the nom de plume of an Arizona writer who can be reached at ghost@menckensghost.com.


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