The Procrustean Threat to Student Learning

Russian Schoolroom 1967 Norman Rockwell

Does anyone in the hollowed halls of the public schools remember the demon Procrustes? Forgetfulness weighs heavy on the decaying pillars of Western civilization. We ought to reacquaint ourselves with Procrustes, a crafty villain who used to lie in wait for unsuspecting journeyers traveling the Sacred Way between Athens and Eleusis. This bent soul was known for his rogue skills as a smith. He had a cottage just off the beaten path and with cunning and contrived kindness he would invite weary travelers to join him for a home cooked meal and a glorious night’s sleep in his “magic” bed. When asked what was so special about this “magic” bed, Procrustes would sweetly lie, “this bed is ‘one size fits all’ and it will magically fit any traveler who lies in it.” After his guest was plied with food and drink, and yearning for rest, this thieving scoundrel, also called the “stretcher,” would lead the unsuspecting victim to the “magic” bed.

At dusk, Procrustes’ pretense as a Good Samaritan would be revealed false and his true nature as a tortuous artificer emerged. Underneath the decorative appearance of comfort, this bed was not a “one size fits all” restful night’s sleep, but a rigid iron torture device. When inevitably his guests did not fit the exact size of the bed, he would go to work on them with his tools to stretch them out to the proper dimensions. He would then amputate any extended extremities, thereby completing the toil to make his victims fit precisely into his unnatural contraption.

This horrifying myth portrays the dismal end of far too many innocent souls sent down to the house of death, lured in by the false promises of a swindler determined to force innocents to conform to his “one size fits all” standard. Nevertheless, this story has a happy ending. Theseus, the heroic Athenian son of King Aegeus, captured Procrustes and forced him into his own bed, thus the Sacred Way was freed from the dreadful demon, at least for a time.

The Nature of Myth
The word “myth” has been tortured beyond recognition in modern times. Its meaning has been sterilized and reduced to a caricature of its original significance by the secular wordsmiths, prompting the modern student to disregard it as an artifact of a barbaric age. The word “myth” is now synonymous with “lie.” The perennial references to the transcendent and metaphysical, from which myth derives its explanatory power, are typically dismissed as brutish fantasies of dark-agers deprived of the illumination possessed by an army of “enlightened professori” that occupy our schools.

The language of myth has been reduced to quaint parochialism by these demythologizing sophists. They have worked diligently to remove the great myths from the schools and even from the public ethos. So effectively have they deracinated mythological terms and references from the intellectual landscape that the mere mention of the truths contained in classical mythology is enough to discredit anyone who seeks an academic career.

Myth is a multivalent word with senses that transcend the easy reductions common to our times. Myth is not merely a superstitious explanation of an unexplained scientific anomaly, but a translation of that nexus point between the natural and supernatural realms. Part of its genius is that it can render intelligible certain mysteries the sophisticated secular humanists can only doubt. The language of myth holds an explanatory power that far exceeds the best prosaic, didactic and expository texts disseminated in contemporary public schools.

Myths are a complement to philosophy and provide vehicles to examine such transcendent issues as the meaning of eternity, the origin of the world, our relationship to the Creator, and the purpose and destiny of human life. C.S. Lewis comments on the importance of mythological language in understanding Christ:

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things.”

The Meaning behind the Myth of Procrustes
If we return to a respect for the power of mythological language to intelligibly inform us of the truth about human nature and the cosmos, we may benefit greatly from the myths that have been forgotten by this “enlightened” age. Myths are particularly useful in recovering precious artifacts of the human condition from the distant past. The myth of Procrustes in particular can elucidate the nature of the ills that plague our public schools if we draw reasonable parallels to our reality.

Procrustes himself is the spirit that animates our public education’s methods, practices and curriculum. Like the spirit of Carthage rising up to challenge the Roman West, Procrustes’ spirit has reawakened in the public schools and is waylaying unsuspecting journeyers by the millions. Procrustes has enchanted the profession of public education and his lies cross the lips of almost every teacher in the land as they coax countless innocents into the Procrustean bed laid out by the public schools.

The travelers are the students who attend public schools. These are our children to whom we are primarily responsible for educating. All must travel along the Sacred Way for as Aristotle said “all men desire to know.” And if a traveler tries to avoid the journey, it is only a less profitable journey for the effort.

The Sacred Way is an apt image for the road that leads to knowledge. It is that arduous trek through the inner landscape from the lowlands of the appetites to the foot hills of the mind, to the Alps of character and finally to the vast plains of the intellect where the orchards of right thinking are to be cultivated. The schools were intended to assist families along the Sacred Way, but instead they confiscate our children. The journey is fraught with difficulty and danger in the best of circumstances and especially now that Procrustes and his minions terrorize the trails. What madness has seized us that we let our children walk the Sacred Way alone? Or worse, with the sycophants of Procrustes?

The torture device Procrustes calls a “bed,” is a parallel to “Outcomes Based Education.” The curriculum is rigid, nonnegotiable, and it fits no human because it is based on ideology that is severed from considerations of moral and divine agency. Instead, it reduces humans to a scientific algorithm. Standards based education is as ill a fit to human learning as Procrustes’ bed is to human rest.

Procrustes’ cottage has been multiplied into countless replicas taking the form of the classroom. It has an inviting appearance until the traveler finds himself strapped down to that rigid standard by which he will be judged, and the more effort he makes to meet that arbitrary standard, the more torturous the outcome.

Just like Procrustes amputates parts and stretches his victims, so do those who stand in for the bent artificer and force innocents into this bed of torture known as “Outcomes Based Education.” Because no human fits into this torturous curriculum, both stretching and amputation must take place with all its victims.

The ideology that undergirds the bed requires an abnormal stretching of the lower appetites. The artificers have been trying to “conquer nature” since Francis Bacon and in education that makes the vices of pride, gluttony, envy and greed intrinsic necessities to achieve the desired outcome. The lower appetites are so stretched that the victims become insatiable, and begin to take on animal qualities.

The most diabolical torture necessary to force victims to fit into the “one size fits all” is no less than the amputation of the soul. The Procrustean Standards Based Curriculums long ago amputated moral and divine attributes of the human person. The virtues of the soul hinder the utilitarian outcomes desired by Procrustes and his underlings.

Theseus, our hero is simply the good teacher who has safely traveled the Sacred Way himself and has returned to keep the road safe for other travelers. To get rid of Procrustes’ minions, he simply makes them lie in their own bed which renders them mute.

Procrustes’ reanimation began in America under the watch of John Dewey who insured that the “new education” would be undergirded by the iron rods of utilitarian ideology and the anti-human creeds he inculcated. It may be that Procrustes has overplayed his hand. The latest, most exacting and overarching model of the Procrustean bed is the Common Core Standards curriculum. This enormous “one size fits all” Procrustean bed is designed to stretch the lower appetites of this entire nation and amputate its soul, and it will either be our wakeup call or our demise.

Real Rest
Consider the symbolism of the bed as rest. The nature of a true education does not include bed rest. That would be considered idleness, an antithesis to an endeavor that ought to be arduous labor until such time as leisure can be properly spent. The good teachers know that often times learning and true education are lifelong labors. The erroneous consensus amongst university graduates, inspired by Procrustes, is that the diploma signals the completion of learning and the beginning of a much deserved rest.

In a discussion on the meaning of the Sabbath as the promise of eventual rest in heaven, the good teacher Sean Innerst of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary characterizes the human summum bonum as beatitude. He explains that “we are made for happiness and happiness is the fullest development of the highest human powers over a life time. To possess God in full in the beatific vision is to have our powers fully realized, fully perfected, and to find them at rest, in perfect happiness for all eternity.”

The distinction must be made that the end of an education is not our ultimate human end described by Professor Innerst. A true education makes no such promises of eternal beatitude or even rest of the kind Procrustes promises. Procrustes makes the extravagant promise of heavenly rest while delivering hellish torture. The Procrustean bed offered to our children makes extravagant promises of material utopia but has already produced an intractable path to a utilitarian dystopia. Think of the increasing number of citizens at rest before their time, requiring assistance from a government aiding and abetting Procrustes.

For our children’s sake, we ought to recover the language of mythology. We ought not to be fooled by the extravagant promises of the Procrustean Common Core Standards. We owe it to our children to accompany them along the Sacred Way and to protect them from predators like Procrustes and his minions. We must play the role of Theseus for our children and not let them lie in the Common Core bed. This is not the time to fall for false promises of comfort, ease and rest, but the time for laborious cultivation and vigilant renewal. Procrustes is rising, let us turn away from him and put our backs into the labor required in the vineyard.

Editor’s note: The above image titled “Russian Schoolroom” was painted by Norman Rockwell in 1967.

Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg

By

Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Catholic convert and a teacher with over twenty years experience in the public education system. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a degree in History in 1991. He is also a husband and father of 3 children and a catechist at his parish in Bakersfield, California.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Jules Ferry, the founder of the modern French educational system, imitated all over Europe, was simply franker than most, when he said the purpose of public education was to cast the nation’s youth in the same mould and to stamp them, like the coinage, with the image of the republic.

    • Adam Baum

      Horace Mann said much the same thing stateside.

    • WSquared

      This is fascinating. I don’t know much about Jules Ferry, but did he say anything about “national character” in claiming that the purpose of education is to stamp the nation’s youth in the image of the republic?

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Ferry is principally remembered for the Jules Ferry laws (1881 & 1882) that established public instruction as “obligatory, free and lay.” Charles Péguy famously (and sarcastically) called his newly-trained schoolmasters “the black hussars of the Republic.” Any number of schools bear his name.

        He was a man of the Right – He was the minister of Thiers during the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871 and the architect of colonialism in Algeria, Tunisia, Madagascar &c. He was also a violent anti-clerical.

        I do not recall anything about “national character,” but, regarding his colonial plans, he told the National Assembly, “It is a right for the superior races, because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races.” Hardly politically correct, but the Left revere him – because he was anti-clerical.

  • disqus_TvoTw0wy2j

    “a crafty villain who used to lay in wait”

    “it will magically fit any traveler who lays in it”

    I stopped reading there. I expect better from Crisis.

    “Lay” is a transitive verb. It takes an object. I can “lay down my tools”; I can pray, ‘Now I lay me down to sleep.” “my tools” and “me” are the objects of the verb, “to lay”.

    “Lie” is an intransitive verb. It does not take an object. Thus “a crafty villain used to lie in wait”; “a traveler who lies in it.” Or: “Here lies public education in America. Dead from decades of the semi-literate leading the illiterate.”

    Public schools… sheesh.

  • mpav

    This brought to mind 15 year-old Caroline Glyn’s “Don’t Knock the Corners Off” (1964). As I recall @50 years later, the student was very much against being conformed to the school’s ideal well-rounded student, hence, wanted her “corners” left on. Well done.

  • John O’Neill

    As a retired public school teacher I enjoyed this article very much because it does tell the truth of the present evil of the public school system. I survived teaching in the public schools because I taught Latin and was left alone as if I were the odd man out. The administrators could hardly master the English language so they were not to be feared. I had hanging in my public school classroom the Pater Noster, the Our Father in Latin, for the entire year and no administrator ever noticed it; the students knew what it was but they were much to clever to complain. However the milieu outside the classroom was toxic and they were just beginning to bring in the gay pride day under the guise of tolerate our differences day. The rot has thoroughly infested the entire education system by now. Obiter dicta, the administrators did not care what the curriculum called for or did not call for, their entire interest in public education was the big salaries and payouts it provided.

    • Steven Jonathan

      John, Thanks for all that. I am glad you were left alone. I am able to operate with some sort of cover I can’t explain, but I am quite sure my teaching career in the public schools will not end well. It sounds like you got out just in time. What I am seeing now, I have never imagined seeing before. I am in intensive training for Common Core and it is astounding, I wish I could effectively articulate it. It is almost pure lies coming out of every leaders’ mouth, but sadly, these misguided souls are sincere. They are able to sit with cognitive dissonance, and to pass on the culture of death with a smile on their face because everybody keeps repeating the lie that “it is good for the children.” Any dissent brands you a self-serving “fundamentalist.” I kid you not, that is a term they are slinging around for anyone who would like to actually be a teacher. Going into teaching ought not to be taken lightly.

      John, I always appreciate your comments. May Christ’s peace be with you and all men of good will!

  • tamsin

    Beautiful myth. I admit this is the first time I had heard it. It very helpfully describes (so that we may remember) the dangers of stretching appetites while amputating spirit, all in the name of education (to material rest).

  • little joe

    To offer something positive to ponder related to this excellent article – As you all know, we are called to conform ourselves to Christ. Several years back the head of my religious formation program stated to all the men in the program: “Picture a mold of Christ on the floor. Your job through the course of formation, and throughout your entire life, is to twist, push, prod and force yourself to fit into that mold. It is very difficult and will take much struggle and pain at times, but it is what we are all called to.” … I wonder if he was aware of Procrustes?

    • Steven Jonathan

      Little Joe,

      Thank you for your excellent insight! It seems to me that what you are talking about is the difference between the culture of life and the culture of death. When it comes to conforming to Christ, there are few things to which we are more resistant. To pick up our cross is at cross purposes with our appetites. It is the narrow road to conform to Christ, and we must amputate our appetites and stretch our souls. To jump into the procrustean bed is much easier, the road is wide and like I mentioned we have to stretch our appetites and amputate our souls. However the wide way has devastating long term consequences.

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