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DOE-Funded Teddy Roosevelt Impersonator Hates Public Schools; Teddy Himself Wanted More Public Education for Rural America

Historical impersonator John “Chuck” Chalberg wrote in September 2002 that “Public schools have done ‘more harm than good.’” Chalberg cited H.L. Mecnken’s complaints about public schools to argue for draining the public coffers with school vouchers:

To add injury to insult, the youth of America were “thrown in” with adults they neither liked nor respected. The average boy of Mencken’s youth—and adulthood—would have much preferred to spend his time with a ballplayer or a boxer. In any case, the notion that students in school are happy was of a piece with the notion that the “lobster in the pot is happy.”

As far as Mr. Mencken was concerned, “cats and dogs do better by their young. So do savages.” Besides, everything taught in a grammar school could be imparted to an “intelligent child in two years”—and all without any “cruelty” worse than that involved in (guess what) “pulling a tooth.”

Did Mencken have a remedy in mind at a time when it had already become an “axiom” that public schools were “beyond challenge, beyond suspicion, and beyond reach of all fact and reason.” Actually, he did.

His solution, such as it was, was direct and draconian: simply declare that there was no money left in the treasury. This, he conceded, was a “desperate remedy,” but he could summon no other.

Is there a remedy today when the “axiom” of Mencken’s day no longer applies—and yet when our public schools are still what Mencken once declared them to be, namely “vast machines for grinding up money” while out to “ram” our young into very different, very damaging “molds” (to borrow once more from Mencken).

Rather than declare today’s governmental treasuries empty, why not offer vouchers to parents instead? Let state legislatures determine what it might cost to educate, say, a seventh grader, which likely will work out to be a good deal more than $5 or even $100, and then let parents choose where to apply that voucher. Who knows, they might even decide to teach their children at home, where they no doubt could cover the material in a lot less time, leaving more time for ballplayers and boxers.

Mencken, I doubt, would have objected. What he thought was the case in his day likely remains the case today: Public schools have “done more harm than good.” How could they not, Mencken asked. Having taken the “care and upbringing of children out of the hands of parents, where it belongs,” the politicians of his day had “thrown” the entire matter into the hands of “irresponsible and unintelligent quacks.” What, pray tell, might he add to that today? [Chuck Chalberg, “H.L. Mencken on Public Education,” The Imaginative Conservative, 2022.09.06]

The South Dakota Department of Education will divert some public education dollars to Chalberg’s pockets to educate the public school teachers whom Chalberg, like Hillsdale College, views as less effective than boxers and ballplayers and cats and dogs. At next month’s first training session on the new Hillsdale social studies standards, Chalberg will, for a handsome fee, impersonate Theodore Roosevelt.

To make his impersonation relevant to South Dakota (a relevance at which the generic right-wing fantasization of the Hillsdale standards fail quite miserably), Chalberg should perhaps turn to the January 1909 report of President Roosevelt’s Commission on Country Life. Roosevelt’s commission thought public education was vital to improving the social and economic welfare of rural communities. Recognizing the “lack of the proper kind of education” as “the main single deficiency” in country life, the commission recommended reform and expansion of the mission of public schools:

There must be not only a fuller scheme of public education, but a new kind of education adapted to the real needs of the farming people. The country schools are to be so redirected that they shall educate their pupils in terms of the daily life. Opportunities for training toward agricultural callings are to be multiplied and made broadly effective. Every person on the land, old or young, in school or out of school, educated or illiterate, must have a chance to receive the information necessary for a successful business, and for a healthful, comfortable, resourceful life, both in home and neighborhood. This means redoubled efforts for better country schools, and a vastly increased interest in the welfare of country boys and girls on the part of those who pay the school taxes. Education by means of agriculture is to be a part of our regular public school work. Special agricultural schools are to be organized. There is to be a well- developed plan of extension teaching conducted by the agricultural colleges, by means of the printed page, face-to-face talks, and demonstration or object lessons, designed to reach every farmer and his family, at or near their homes, with knowledge and stimulus in every department of country life [Commission on Country Life, report, 1909.01.23].

President Roosevelt’s commission called for expanded public education for rural grown-ups, too, in the form of “nationalized extension work”:

Each state college of agriculture should be empowered to organize as soon as practicable a complete department of college extension, so managed as to reach every person on the land in its State, with both information and inspiration. The work should include such forms of extension teaching as lectures, bulletins, reading courses, correspondence courses, demonstration, and other means of reaching the people at home and on their farms. It should be designed to forward not only the business of agriculture, but sanitation, education, home making, and all interests of country life [Commission on Country Life, 1909.01.23].

To coordinate all of this vital work to improve rural life, the commission recommended “enlargement of the United States Bureau of Education, to enable it to stimulate and coordinate the educational work of the nation”:

In order that all public educational work in the United States may be adequately studied and guided, we also recommend that the United States Bureau of Education be enlarged and supported in such a way that it will really represent the educational activities of the nation, becoming a clearing house, and a collecting, distributing, and investigating organization. It is now wholly inadequate to accomplish these ends. In a country in which education is said to be the national religion, this condition of our one expressly federal educational agency is pathetic. The good use already made of the small appropriations provided for the bureau shows clearly that it can render a most important service if sufficient funds are made available for its use [Commission on Country Life, 1909.01.23].

The commission does not mention funding private schools in its report. The commission says it “has no desire to give advice to the institutions of religion nor to attempt to dictate their policies.” However, the commission says country churches play an important role in working for the common good: “It is especially important that the country church recognize that it has a social responsibility to the entire community as well as a religious responsibility to its own group of people.”

President Roosevelt warmly endorsed his commission’s recommendations. In a September 10, 1913, letter to Frank Lathrop of the Cornell Countryman, Roosevelt called the commission “the most important commission of any kind that I appointed during my term as President, with one exception” (he does not name that exception). Contrary to Chalberg’s polemics, Roosevelt appears to have agreed with his commission that more public education was vital for raising the quality of rural life.

As a bonus to make right-wing Chalberg choke on his own impersonation, Roosevelt said farmers needed to socialize—i.e., unionize:

Those engaged in all other industrial and commercial callings have found it necessary, under modern economic conditions, to organize themselves for mutual advantage and for the protection of their own particular interests in relation to other interests. The farmers of every progressive European country have realized this essential fact and have found in the cooperative system exactly the form of business combination they need.

…Where farmers are organized cooperatively they not only avail themselves much more readily of business opportunities and improved methods, but it is found that the organizations which bring them together in the work of their lives are used also for social and intellectual advancement.

The cooperative plan is the best plan of organization wherever men have the right spirit to carry it out. Under this plan any business undertaking is managed by a committee; every man has one vote and only one vote; and everyone gets profits according to what he sells or buys or supplies. It develops individual responsibility and has a moral as well as a financial value over any other plan [President Theodore Roosevelt, Special Message to Congress, preface to Report of the Commission on Country Life, 1909.02.09].

Teachers may turn up their noses at sitting through an indoctrination session offered by a right-wing author who calls them incompetent racketeers and who takes public education dollars while denigrating public education. But teachers who read the recommendations of President Roosevelt’s Commission on Country Life and President Roosevelt’s whole-hearted endorsement thereof may ask Chalberg to discuss the importance of public schools to rural life and watch the impostor squirm.

Related Reading: Theodore Roosevelt also thought black Americans needed equal access to public education. In 1900, as Governor of New York, Roosevelt signed a law forbidding exclusion of any student from New York public schools “on the account of race or color.”


  1. P. Aitch 2023-05-04 09:59

    No Worries. America is controlled both politically and morally by Democrats and Unaffiliateds. Even though the “remaining” group controls South Dakota the rest of us (Dems & UA’s) won’t allow school vouchers. We won’t allow Hillsdale propaganda and we won’t allow another failed experiment in “elect a businessman” Presidential politics to happen.

  2. Arlo Blundt 2023-05-04 21:40

    Teddy went from being a typical, gilded age, privileged Conservative, if not Reactionary politician to grabbing the standard of the Progressives and the People’s Party to fundamentally change America. His bitterest failure was the Economic Disaster of 1905 which could have ended in a national bankruptcy had not J.P. Morgan, Roosevelt’s biggest foe, stepped forward and bailed out the treasury. Roosevelt, whose fortune came from the Chemical Bank and New York City Real Estate, became very aware of the vast concentration of wealth in the hands of a few people in the United States. From that point onward, he looked for economic solutions through government action.

  3. Mark Anderson 2023-05-04 21:44

    Don’t worry, Chuck will show up “stoned”, it is the Rushmore state after all.

  4. Arlo Blundt 2023-05-05 00:22

    If you want a riveting tale about Teddy, read Candice Millard’s River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s darkest Adventure. After losing the 1912 election Roosevelt grew restless and organized an expedition to explore a long tributary of the Amazon in Brazil. It turned into a nightmare. Three men died, Roosevelt was injured and become incapacitated. He urged the others with him to abandon him and save themselves. Roosevelt was saved by his son. When he returned from the expedition, from which he never recovered, he became more radical, espousing socialism in many areas of American life.

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