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Betsy DeVos’s Mudsill View of Public Education

My Talk to Action colleague Rachel Tabachnick has been doing yeoman’s work in explaining Betsy DeVos’s long-term strategy for decimating universal public education. If you haven’t I strongly urge you to read her work, here, here, and here. DeVos, President Trump’s choice for Secretary of the Department of Education, is not there to strengthen that governmental agency but essentially, to destroy it. Indeed, her motives have been clear for a long time. DeVos’s family related philanthropies are longtime funders of Christian Right projects, particularly in the area of school privatization. Politico reports that DeVos has said her work in education is intended to “advance God’s kingdom.”

DeVos’s approach is one of the contemporary mindset that mixes libertarianism with the Christian Right agenda that has become dogma for contemporary conservatism. To that end, they claim that their approach is “liberty.” But another great American had a different term for it: Mudsill.

In a stunningly awful performance at here confirmation hearing before a select U.S. Senate committee, DeVos displayed an incredible lack of familiarity with basic terminology of educational principles. As senator after senator cross-examined her she exposed herself as a person unfit for her position.

Normally, this would be grounds for a president to withdraw her nomination. But it may be that she may be precisely the type of department head desired by many modern conservatives. DeVos has no interest in strengthening public education but in eviscerating it.

As Rachel Tabachnick observed:

[Dick] DeVos and his wife Betsy had already spent millions promoting voucher initiatives that were soundly rejected by voters. Pro-privatization think tanks had concluded that vouchers were the most politically viable way to “dismantle” public schools; the DeVoses persevered. Dick DeVos introduced his 2002 Heritage Foundation audience to a covert strategy to provide “rewards or consequences” to state legislators, learning from the activities of the Great Lake Education Project (GLEP) initiated by Betsy DeVos. Vouchers should be promoted by local “grass roots” entities and could not be “viewed as only a conservative idea.” DeVos added, “This has got to be the battle. It will not be as visible.”

There may be more than just an outright hostility towards public education at play here. Indeed, this is nothing less than libertarianism on steroids. I would suggest that this belief in private education is part of a more hierarchical, oligarchic conservatism. Contrary to the popular notion that conservatism is about independence it is in actuality more about creating a less knowledgeable working class.

As I have written in an earlier post:

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a “mudsill” as 1. a supporting sill (as of a building or bridge) resting directly on a base and especially the earth; 2. a person of the lowest social level). The economic theory gets its name from an 1858 defense of slavery by South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond.

“In all societies that must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life,” Hammond declared. He further argued that this perennial underclass is necessary for the rest of society to move forward. He said that this class requires “a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites,” he said, “are vigor, docility, fidelity.” Hammond insisted that such a class is necessary to support “that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill.”

This view of economics and government brings us back to the origins of the Mudsill theory, which was primarily a justification of slavery that, in turn, is the root of modern libertarianism. “Mudsillism” allows for the select few to use other human beings to generate wealth without providing just compensation. And although we don’t call it that, Mudsillism is resurgent in America as wages are stagnant or in decline despite the increases in worker productivity. Increasingly, average Americans work longer and harder while shareholders and executives are rewarded far beyond their contributions. And personal indebtedness to financial institutions replaces wages that, in turn, replaces liberty with dependence. Indeed, if libertarian economics were to prevail, the result would be local theocracies, restricted education, and the hierarchical economic castes.

And restricted education is a cornerstone element of Mudsillism. This is so self-evident that in a speech given in September 1859 Abraham Lincoln identified this threat. In that address Lincoln got right to the point:

By the “mud-sill” theory it is assumed that labor and education are incompatible; and any practical combination of them impossible. According to that theory, a blind horse upon a treadmill, is a perfect illustration of what a laborer should be–all the better for being blind, that he could not kick understandingly. According to that theory, the education of laborers, is not only useless, but pernicious and dangerous. In fact, it is, in some sort, deemed a misfortune that laborers should have heads at all. Those same heads are regarded as explosive materials, only to be safely kept in damp places, as far as possible from that peculiar sort of fire which ignites them. A Yankee who could invent strong handed man without a head would receive the everlasting gratitude of the “mud-sill” advocates.

Lincoln went on to attack Hammond’s Mudsill-based opposition to universal education. He observed, “According to that theory, the education of laborers, is not only useless, but pernicious and dangerous.” But Lincoln did not fear an educated working class. Indeed, he boldly enunciated what would become a core belief of contemporary liberalism, stating, “In one word Free Labor insists on universal education.”

Lincoln knew that in the absence of universal education, access to better knowledge and skills is a privilege accorded to the few who can afford to buy it, and that the result was greater economic inequality. This means that a greater segment is suited to only the most menial tasks. Doing away with public education is one of the surest ways to ensure that most less-affluent Americans become that “blind horse upon a tread-mill.”

And indeed privatization does make for a more ignorant working class. It doles the ability to think critically and make complex decisions. As a recent post in Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler website indicated, DeVos’s methods have had catastrophic results. Her methods were applied in the state of Michigan. And since those methods were introduced in 2002 student performance results dropped like a rock.

Let us heed Lincoln’s warning. What Betsy DeVos advocates is neither liberty nor freedom. It is not even an improvement in delivering educational services. It is instead, Mudsill – a direct route to making the American worker be nothing more than “a blind horse upon a treadmill.” But more importantly, it is precisely why Betsy DeVos has no business being the Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education.

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