The Creatures We "Assessinate": A Tale of "Mental Testing" as Science Fiction in Chicago Public High Schools in 1909 - 1924

By Funk, Clayton | The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education (Online), January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Creatures We "Assessinate": A Tale of "Mental Testing" as Science Fiction in Chicago Public High Schools in 1909 - 1924


Funk, Clayton, The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education (Online)


According to American gilded-age reformers like Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Superintendent Edwin G. Cooley (1857-1923), American civilization was headed for collapse in 1909. 1 Cooley's solution was to administrate the CPS according to principles of science and efficiency. Cooley eventually resigned, however, because of struggles over his administrative approach ("Expect Cooley," 1909). In that same year the noted author Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) 2 compiled a collection of his short stories to mark the close of his literary career. In this collection appeared a short story, "Moxon's Master," which first appeared in 1893. It was a tale about a reclusive student of science named Moxon. A narrator in conversation with Moxon, who speculated on the nature of life and the presence of it in all matter, tells most of the short story. Later, the narrator found Moxon playing chess with a robot in his machine shop. When Moxon achieved checkmate, the robot lost control and murdered his opponent, and the building burnt down. The narrator awakened in the hospital pondering if it all was real, or not (Bierce, 1893/2014).

These two men - Cooley and Moxon - both worked with systems of artificial intelligence and imposed them upon their subjects - Cooley's public school students and Moxon's robot - making them creatures of science. Cooley and other educators like him were out to ward off social collapse with a system wherein students were tested and sorted according to their mental capacity. Based on these mental tests, students considered less intelligent were placed in technical classes, while those considered advanced went to professional and academic classes (Wrigley, 1982). With everyone in their "place" social order would be restored. Bierce was known for his ability to manipulate the epistemological elements of time and space (Grenander, 1997) and in this article; Bierce's short story becomes an epistemological lens through which I treat historian Julia Wrigley's (1982) account of Cooley's educational bureaucracy, with tropes found in Bierce's science fiction.

Conversely, both Cooley and Moxon did not maintain control over intelligence. Cooley, in fact, encountered resistance to his reforms from mid-level superintendents, building principals, teachers, and organized labor (Rousmaniere 2007; Wrigley, 1982). This narrative also attempts to reveal parallels in Cooley's bureaucracy in relation art education in Chicago, in what I term the science fiction of intelligence. This narrative speaks to the theme of this volume of the Journal of Social Theory in Art Education: students' growth, learning, and assessment, which become acts of assessination - as barriers and limitations

The Machine and Science Fiction of Intelligence

The World English Dictionary defines the term "machine" in two ways - First, as an "an organized body of people that controls activities, policies, etc." (Machine, 2014, para. 8), as found in the CPS and its bureaucracy. The second definition is "an assembly of interconnected components arranged to transmit or modify force in order to perform useful work" (Machine, 2014, para. 1). Moxon gave a similar definition of a machine: "Any instrument or organization by which power is applied and made effective, or a desired effect produced" (Bierce, 1893/2014, para. 4). In fact he declares, "I do believe a machine thinks about the work it is doing" (para. 6). Cooley's test-driven efficiency was precisely such a bureaucratic machine that "thought" - it differentiated and sorted students according to their intelligence levels and then tracked them into art and industrial classes. Moxon's discussion of machines that "think," in robots programmed and automated for specific tasks, parallels the narrow focus of Cooley's technical high schools, where students learned to think in rhythm with factory machines (Bierce, 1893/2014; Callahan, 1962). Testing students' abilities to do tasks and programming a robot to also do tasks are arguably two ways to create forms of intelligence and they are both overlapping fictional representations of mental activity and constitute a science fiction of intelligence. …

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