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Would It Be A ‘Speech Code’ To Ban Public Schools From Teaching Phrenology?

phrenology skull

The New York Times recently published an op-ed by four authors complaining that state legislatures moving to ban critical race theory are instituting illiberal “speech codes.” It appears they support the long tradition of taxpayers being forced to fund ridiculous, harmful, and anti-American speech through state universities, and want state lawmakers’ learned helplessness on this matter extended to K-12 public schooling.

But would they — or any reasonable person — insist it was an illiberal “speech code” for public schools not to adopt one of the pet theories of their major founder, Horace Mann? That pet theory is phrenology, the long-dismissed but formerly elite-favored pseudo-scientific practice of reading all sorts of things into the bumps on people’s heads.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines phrenology as: “The study of the shape and protuberances of the skull, based on the now discredited belief that they reveal character and mental capacity.” Yes, that sounds absurd, and it is, but like Margaret Sanger-style eugenics, it was a real and long-dominating thing among Progressives of the 20th century. That includes Mann, considered the “godfather” of America’s now-dominant form of public schooling, the Prussian-influenced, centrally controlled factory model aiming to turn children into what Progressives believed Americans should be.

Mann urged that the public education model he was a dominant force behind pushing onto Americans include phrenology instruction and be organized around phrenology-driven principles. In 1842, he wrote a significant chunk of his sixth report to the Massachusetts State Board of Education urging that his theories about physical fitness, including phrenology, drive public school curricula.

“[I]f you can direct the attention of the community to them, and induce them to introduce the study of these sciences into our Public Schools, you will confer a great blessing upon the present and future generations,” he writes. In his discourse on the subject, Mann deplores that parents and children are reading classic literature instead of turning their attention to personal and public “health.”

His elucidation of what supposedly makes for good health, which he writes is a key prerequisite to any learning, includes the following: “A large chest is synonymous with large lungs; for, if not interfered with, the lungs determine the size of the chest, as the brain determines the size of the cranium.” Mann recommends many things, including “retaining the food in the mouth for a long time,” preferably until it is ground into a “powder.”

Here’s another gem:

An ambitious student thinks little of an over-excitement of the brain, because, as he says, he is perfectly well in other respect, — his digestion is good, his lungs are sound, his muscles are strong. But when the over-working of the brain brings on inflammation, and this matures into insanity, of what avail then is his good digestion, or his sound lungs, or his strong muscles, only to render him a more formitable and destructive madman?

Of course, it’s not a “speech code” for the lawmakers who ostensibly oversee and control public funding to decide what those public dollars will and will not fund — including phrenology. Taking responsibility for where to direct public funds prohibits no one from saying anything. It merely decides what public funds will support. As I wrote on Wednesday:

Prohibiting government employees from pushing racism on naive children while on the public clock is not a “speech code,” just like banning Drag Queen Story Hour is not “illiberal.” It is an exercise of priorities: deciding that limited taxpayer resources will not fund antisocial filth. This doesn’t ban antisocial filth; it just requires antisocial filth to build its own infrastructure rather than parasiting everyone else’s.

It’s doubtful the New York Times op-ed coauthors Kmele Foster, David French, Jason Stanley, and Thomas Chatterton Williams would get out there to support the idea of phrenology being taught in public schools because prohibiting it would impose a “speech code.” Surely they wouldn’t support as “free speech” a white teacher conveying to children that “Nazis had a point,” or some other white supremacist-scented garbage, right? Would they call a ban on taxpayers funding that kind of speech an “illiberal” “speech code,” and complain about it in The New York Times? I don’t think so.

A position that would allow false ideologies like phrenology to be taught inside institutions all taxpayers are forced to fund is obviously a bad position. It’s long past time for those who style themselves intellectual leaders to show they’re capable of thinking their way out of these kinds of mental paper bags, and to lose respect, platforms, and audiences when they repeatedly prove they can’t.

The rest of us whose common sense hasn’t been buried underneath our egos should continue to boldly urge elected public officials to use every lever of power at their disposal to prevent public funds and institutions from being used to promote anti-Americanism and racism in every form. It shouldn’t be hard, therefore, for every public official to refuse to let critical race theorists have any public funds or access to any public institutions.

Yet, even in red states like Indiana, too many elected officials are still proving themselves cowards and refusing to even comment on taxpayer funds going to critical race-supporting institutions, and racism from being promoted within state universities. If lawmakers who should know better don’t listen to reason and morality on this issue, citizens should send better people to take their places.