Back in the late Sixties, Thomas Reed and Karl Hess produced a book
titled "The End of the Draft," which was less about conscription than it
was about certain ulterior motives acted upon through federal policies
(including, of course, the draft). One of the principal themes of the
book was that the Selective Service System and the various deferments
and exemptions it made available constituted a mechanism by which young
American men could be steered toward particular involvements (e.g.,
college educations) and occupations (e.g., in the defense-related
industries). One appendix of the book reproduced an apparently genuine
DoD memo that described this mechanism's purpose as "channeling" young
men according to federal preferences.
The Selective Service System barely survives today: the draft boards no
longer sit, and the administration of the system is in "deep standby,"
though it has never been formally repealed. Young men are still required
to register with it upon turning eighteen, but nothing else is demanded
of them at this time. Needless to say, that could change, but for the
moment, America doesn't conscript its troops; it entices them into
(Please don't misunderstand me: entering military service is one of the
best choices a young American can make upon attaining his majority. Few
things can complete the maturation process the way a passage at arms
does. Nevertheless, if it were entirely about accepting several years of
hardship and being sporadically exposed to lethal danger, few would
volunteer. The services must attempt to emphasize the benefits while
downplaying the burdens and the hazards.)
"Channeling" as the Selective Service System practiced it is no longer
with us. That doesn't mean our young persons aren't channeled.
* * * * * * * * * *
A recent column in Forbes --
-- attempted to cast some doubt on "Nine Dangerous Things You Were
Taught In School." Among those were several statements that one could
view in more than one way. The ones that particularly drew my interest
"The best and brightest follow the rules."
"The purpose of your education is your future career."
Forbes columnist Jessica Hagy pours scorn on both notions. In a sort of
a "reply column," noted legal blogger Eugene Volokh attempts to shore up
the foundation beneath those statements:
"As to the purpose of education, schools rarely teach that the only
purpose of your education is your future career (especially since many
literature and history teachers realize that such an argument will go
only so far with their students). But throughout your life you'll want
access to goods and services, and unless you try to force people to give
them to you, you'll need to offer something in return; in our society,
many of the things you offer require specialized knowledge, which a good
education will help give you. And while college is certainly not a very
clear, single path to success, and it won't get you to "the top 1%," for
many people it's a pretty important part of the path to careers that are
both more financially and intellectually rewarding.
Likewise, the best and brightest follow the rules the great majority of
the time, and we take it for granted because it's "just following the
rules." They follow rules about how to do good science, how to write
well, how to craft effective arguments, how to operate within
organizations, how to deal with other people's understandings of what is
their property or institutional bailiwick, and so on. Of course, they
realize that to succeed in really big and innovative ways they need to
do more than follow the rules. "Always follow the rules, and nothing
more" would be lousy advice. But "learn the rules well, because they are
the repository of important wisdom accumulated through the efforts of
many smart people, and then think creatively about how to go beyond the
rules or even break some rules" is good advice."
Volokh comes closer to a true appreciation of the relevant aphoristic
statements than does Hagy, but neither actually touches upon the
ulterior effect of such pronouncements: The channeling of great numbers
of young persons, and the resources nominally dedicated to them, into
courses of life and uses of those resources approved by The
(Two tangents here: 1. How long has it been since you saw the word
"ulterior" used in any way other than to modify "motives?" 2. "The
Establishment" probably -- indeed, almost certainly -- isn't what you
think it is, so be cautious and slow to form conclusions.)
To grasp this point, it's necessary to answer a few questions that will
allow us to expand on what it means to "follow the rules" or acquire an
* * * * * * * * * *
"The rules" in this context are about a lot more than the legislated
laws of the land. They embrace a great many conventions about what's
expected, proper, decent, appropriate, and so forth in a slew of
circumstances. And indeed, it would be a wild and woolly world were all
conventions about such things to be ignored en masse. But that doesn't
mean their authority should go always and everywhere unchallenged.
Consider the "rule" that an able-bodied adult should "work for his
living." Granted that most of us must do so, if only because so many
welfare clients are depending on us. Some don't: those wealthy by
accident of birth; well-set-up retirees; the spouses of capable
breadwinners; and others. While the absence of meaningful work from a
man's life often causes him to spin out of control, the absence of
**remunerative** work is a different subject. Meaningful work need not
pay a salary; ask anyone who's dedicated his time to a cause he believes
Then there's the "rule" that one should "defer to authority." This one
leaves out some important information. Who decides who has authority,
and over what? What are the proper qualifications for wielding this or
that sort of authority? What if "the authorities" trespass beyond their
writ? Given that the notion of automatically "deferring to authority" is
promoted mainly by the "authorities" and thus is clearly self-serving,
these questions deserve a lot more attention than Americans this century
past have given them.
Rules, like institutions, exist to serve particular purposes. If those
purposes are not yours, then those who emphasize "the rules" are
attempting to channel you: to guide you into habits of thought and
patterns of conduct others have decided are "for the best." If you're
certain of the moral validity and practical value of your purposes,
challenging and surmounting "the rules" is among the most pro-social
acts you could perform.
Of course, the most important word in that last sentence is "if." But
then, isn't it always?
* * * * * * * * * *
Why does one pursue an education, anyway? Is it strictly utilitarian,
such that it only has value if it gives a good "return on investment?"
Or does the purpose of education go beyond that of a trade school?
It would be hard to answer that last question positively from the
evidence of the postwar years. Starting with the G.I. Bill, the notion
that all high school graduates should attend college, specifically as
preparation for their "future careers," has taken a ferocious grip on
Americans' minds. Our colleges and universities have come to resemble
trade schools in many ways, though the "trades" for which they purport
to prepare us bear little resemblance to the ones BOCES alumni practice.
American grammar and high schools exhibit that orientation in their
obsessive insistence upon **preparing for college.** Breathes there a
"guidance counselor" anywhere in this land whose first question upon
meeting a new student isn't some variation on "What would you like to do
for a career?" Testing for "aptitudes" has completely displaced
intelligence tests in our high schools. (This might be for the best,
considering how many American teenagers possess the intelligence of an
earthworm.) The whole edifice appears designed to get young Americans
aimed toward an office occupation of some sort, such that non-office
alternatives -- e.g., entrepreneurship; the clergy, the blue-collar
trades; a military career -- are effaced from consideration.
To make the channeling effect any more overt, it would be necessary to
proclaim it on highway billboards and giant signs hung over the doors of
* * * * * * * * * *
Those who would channel us nearly always have the very best intentions.
(Just ask them.) Benevolence is much more common than venality. That
doesn't mean they know better than those whom they seek to channel, or
that following their guidance will always lead to a good outcome.
Yes, the major pre-existent channels of our society embody a good deal
of information. Some of it is about our expectations for one another,
and some is about our desire for security. Established channels always
incorporate the suggestion of security; it's just not always the
security of the persons being herded into the channels.
The great majority of us would do well to accept such guidance. There
aren't many thinkers out there who are both original and accurate,
especially among teenagers and young adults. But to promulgate a slavish
adherence to the existing channels, as if there were no other paths
through life and no possibility of beating a new one, is a disservice to
them...and ultimately, to ourselves as well.