This is Part IV of a series of essays. For previous installments of “Life Under Compulsion,” see Part IPart II, and Part III.

“Good morning, Mr. Jones,” says the man at the door.  “I see that the pipes in your house are five years old.  I’m from the State Commission for Refurbishing of Antique Pipes.  We’ll be working in your basement.”

“Actually, I think we could wait a year.  We may be going on a long tour in Europe, and – ”

“Mr. Jones, the law is the law.”  He writes something on his notepad.  “You wouldn’t want to challenge the law, would you?”

“Mr. Jones, we have noticed there’s a decided bias in the direction of your pipes.  They slope downward.”

“Yes, but isn’t that natural?  We do want the water to flow downward, to get it out of the house.”

A look of kindly patience.  “Natural.  What, Mr. Jones, is natural?  We must learn to question what is accepted as natural.  That is why we members of New Options in Plumbing Excellence are trained to think outside the box.”

“What box is that?”

“It’s a metaphor, Mr. Jones.  We will be encouraging the water in your house to flow upwards, or in whatever direction it wants to flow.”

“But that’s not why I hired you!”

“Hired, Mr. Jones?”


“I don’t mean to be a pest,” says Jones to the foreman.  There are twenty plumbers in the basement, tools on the floor, puddles everywhere.

“That plumber over there is having trouble with the pipe wrench.”

“Yes, Marissa, one of our finest.”

“But she can’t tighten the fittings.  See, her hands are too small.  Look at what happened to the last pipe she worked on.”

“I don’t see anything wrong with it.  It shows real artistry under difficult conditions.”

“It has a scrap of cotton cloth knotted over the gap!”


Jones pokes his head into the basement.  He hasn’t done that in two years.  He’s told himself again and again that they must know what they are doing, they are the experts and he isn’t, they are from the government, and he must mind his own business.  But the devil gets into him.

“What is that?”

“What is what?”

“That – that tangle of pipes!  Why so many?  It’s a maze!  It takes up half the room.  In some places you can’t stand up straight.  It’s like what happens to a hundred foot extension cord.  The whole contraption is in knots!”

“I fail to see what you are so concerned about.  Presumably you wanted us to do your plumbing.  Well, so we have.  We’ve done a great deal more than you expected.”

“But it’s leaking all over the place!  Why didn’t you just do the simple but necessary thing?  Why didn’t you do what I hired you to do?”

“Hired, Mr. Jones?”

One morning Jones leaves his house and notices lengths of foam rubber littering the yard.  He shakes his head and determines to believe that it can’t be so.  At work he finds he can’t concentrate.  The image of foam rubber pipes won’t let him be.  So when he returns home and meets the foreman drinking tea on the patio, he dares to ask the question.

“Sir, I hate to sound foolish, but please tell me you aren’t going to replace my metal pipes with foam rubber.”

“Oh, you’ve noticed!  Yes, it’s part of the new hydraulic theory.  Foam rubber is lighter and much more flexible than those rigid old things.  Our plumbers find them quite congenial to work with.”

“But they won’t serve the purpose!  Anybody can see that.”

“Mr. Jones, I have studied hydraulic theory for eight years.  I have studied Special Pipe Theory, Diverse Flow Theory, Pipes for a New Century, Progressive Piping, Plumbers in History, Democracy and Plumbing, Plumbing on the Margins, and Plumbing for a Pluralist Population.  Are you telling me I don’t know my job?  You are a truck driver, aren’t you, Mr. Jones?  A physician? Whatever.  You do your work, and I’ll do mine.  Good day.”


“And here, Johnny, is a very interesting picture.  See what the man is doing to the woman?”

“Not really.  Why is his thingy like that?”

Mr. Jones enters his study for a book, and sees his son with a plumber huddled in a corner, poring at a magazine.  “Excuse me, but what are you doing?”

“Good afternoon, Mr. Jones.  Here’s a copy of the new state regulation, giving to plumbers the responsibility to teach children about the hydraulics of the human body.  It was felt that all children need this information, the younger the better.”

“But what’s that have to do with directing the water out of my house?  And who appointed you to take my place?  Who do you think you are?  I’ve had you in my basement for four years and you still haven’t shown me that you can do a damned thing about plumbing, let alone this!”

The plumber’s eyes narrow.  He takes a cell phone from his pocket.  “Are you threatening me, Mr. Jones?”

“No, no, I didn’t mean that.  I’m sorry.  All I meant was – was –I never thought – this is sensitive material – my son is only eight – I never hired you to do this!”

“Hired, Mr. Jones?”

It’s ten years later.  The Jones family are allowed into the basement three times a year.  The pipes are festooned in streamers.  Bright banners are pasted on the walls.  Plastic grass and flowers have been fastened beside the puddles, in the style of a Japanese garden.  One quarter of the basement has been converted into a studio for the plumbers when they need to relax.  The tangle of pipes has been pushed up to the ceiling by main force and covered by a drop ceiling that tilts here and there.  Green and yellow lichen give the walls the air of rakish decadence.

“Mr. Jones, I’m so glad you are here.  This is the bill for our work.  Don’t be too disturbed by those zeroes – you see, the last two come after the decimal point.  But we haven’t been able to achieve all of our aims.  I’m afraid we’ll have to raise the fee.”

“You incompetent twits!  I’m sorry – I don’t know what got into me – but why, why do you need more money?  What did you do with all the money I paid you already?  The upstairs bathroom doesn’t work.  Johnny relieves himself behind the bushes out back.  My wife borrows pails of water from the neighbor.  The walls down here are rotting and vermin are getting into the house.  My daughter Jennie has developed an allergy to the mold and coughs in her sleep all night.  Johnny nearly got arrested for passing your magazine to the neighbor boy.  And then there’s the racket.  Why should I give you more money?”

“Mr. Jones, if you want quality, you have to expect to pay a premium.”

“But what if I just want a simple and important job done?  I don’t want your theory.  I don’t want your grand aims.  All I want is that the water will go in and out of the house.  My grandfather built his own place and laid the pipes himself, he and his buddies, and they never had these problems!”

“It’s a new world, Mr. Jones.  That might have been all right then, when people lived in dirt and consulted witch doctors, in the Dark Ages, in 1930.”


“All right, I’ve had it.  Who told my Jennie she couldn’t whistle a hymn in her own yard?”

“We did, Mr. Jones.  It offended one of our plumbers.  You may pray in private, but there must be no polluting our plumbing with your personal peculiarities.”

Jones wipes his eye.  “But I never hired you to dictate what we can say or sing or whistle!”

“Hired, Mr. Jones?”

I know, a pipe is not a child.  That makes the failure all the worse.  Which would you choose?  Indoor plumbing, and a child boarded up for thirteen years, taken from the people who love him best, bored to tears, his morals undermined, his parents taxed to the eyeballs for the benefit, and he still unable to write a grammatical sentence or calculate the interest on a simple loan or tell who Hannibal was or read a selection from Milton or even identify him?  Or a child learning as children have always learned, spending his time with his family or outdoors in fresh air, his innocence more or less preserved, yet he and his family having to use an outhouse?  I know which one I’d choose.  Just let’s everyone make sure there’s always a roll of tissue handy.


Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. I blame the Protestants. They turned their schools over to the State and then demanded that Catholic schools be crushed. Secularists were all to happy to jump on the bandwagon the Protestants started.

    It’s time to renew the separation of School and State.

  2. I think the key issue is that as long as we think of schools as culture machines run by the state, we are going to run into problems like this. The question isn’t just how to give kids skills but how to shape culture, and that’s the problem. When the state is trying to dictate culture, it is taking over what is fundamentally a family responsibility. This weakens the family, it weakens the culture, and eventually it weakens the state.

    This is one reason I think the home schooling movement, particularly when parents collectively come together to school their kids, has such promise. We haven’t done this yet with our kids in part because we are living overseas and it just isn’t practical due to language/cultural barriers.

    But perhaps this will change.

  3. We Protestants indeed carry much of the burden for the bad plumbing. One of the difficulties is that parents have come to expect and desire the bad plumbing: school is a place for the kids to go to get out of their hair or so they can work; school is a place for kids to go to make the grades necessary to get a scholarship, not letting academic rigor and the acquiring of character get in the way; school is a place for kids to socialize; or school is a place for kids to create knowledge. Far too many parents have struck the Faustian bargain and like it.

  4. I am a public school teacher, and I hope that I have not done the kind of damage to my students that Professor Esolen’s allegory suggests. Yes, my employer is the state (and the State), but that does not mean that I submit completely to the arid doctrines of the public-education regime. I teach high school English, and together my students read and and analyze John Donne (The Holy Sonnets), John Milton, the Other English Guy (of Hamlet and Henry V fame), Biblical passages to which these and other authors allude, and even Horatio Alger. We read modern titles, too, but I always tell my students that regardless of their faith tradition, one cannot adequately understand Western literature without at least some knowledge of Scripture, particularly as it comes to us through the King James translation. In our recent study of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, my sophomores and I studied readings from Isaiah, Leviticus, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all of which connect directly to the narrative thanks to Lee’s scrupulous rendering of Southern society during the Great Depression. (Incidentally, one of Mockingbird’s funniest chapters contains a scathing indictment of the poorly-applied good intentions of public education.) My purpose here is not to apologize to Professor Esolen and his home-schooling and private-schooling readers; rather, I want to let people know that despite the stereotype of the public-school teacher as a Godless, left-wing soldier of rationalism, many of us bring our religious and spiritual lives into the classroom to the extent that it enriches the learning. Some of us, including me, even vote Republican, trying ever-harder to overlook the party’s recent championing an almost Benthamite Utilitarianism with all of its talk of the greatness of STEM and the uselessness of the liberal arts. (Where are the Republican politicians who will speak publicly of great books?) In short, if the public is to be educated, then it must be done in part through government. The nation must provide certain services, and along with defense, energy, and transportation infrastructure, education requires the help of public revenue. We cannot return to the ancient days of purely parochial education when only a few percent of the population learned to read and count and everyone else farmed the countryside. I agree with Professor Esolen that the so-called gurus of the public schools have installed some lousy plumbing, as it were, but I urge he and others to trust that some of us listen to our consciences before we listen to our union and administrative leaders.

    By the way, I live in the town in which I teach, and we vote on the town budget every year. To a very small but potently symbolic extent, my taxes help to pay my salary.


    Kenneth A. Cote, Jr.
    English teacher
    Stonington, CT

  5. Dear Ken: Thank you for your soldierly work in the trenches; would that your tribe would increase tenfold!

    We do need teachers like you to do the best they can under bad circumstances. I must caution you, though, against assuming that before compulsory schooling, most of the populace in the United States was illiterate and unable to count. That simply is not true. Literacy in New York State, shortly after the revolution, was basically universal. If we turn, too, to what the adults were reading, we see works of great linguistic sophistication. They did not have many books — but everyone read the Bible, in the King James English, and everybody apparently was capable of reading the heated broadsides in the debates surrounding ratification of the Constitution, broadsides that are filled with allusions to Scripture, to history ancient and modern, and to great English poetry.

    I am willing to go so far as to agree that education is a legitimate local (municipal) matter, and I will even concede some loose role in oversight provided by the state. But I oppose, with every fibre in my being, any national meddling with education, and if I had my way I’d return authority over local schools to local parents, with the proviso that no one may sit on a school board who has worked in the school system or who is closely related to someone working in the system.

    It’s great that you are doing what you are doing in Stonington — just down the road from us. But I now keep meeting college students who cannot even identify the names of Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Milton (!), Swift, Virgil, or Dante. A former student of mine is now working part-time as a tutor to rich kids in New Haven. He tells me that the study of poetry has been all but abandoned. This, in supposedly the finest school district in the state.

    It was a horrible idea, consolidation — removing children from their communities, robbing rural communities of one of the few things that preserved their identities as communities, and thrusting children into an environment more fit for machines than for small human beings. I agree that no prominent pseudo-conservative politician is aware of the problem (well, I’ll bet that Santorum and Brownback are aware of it; all homeschoolers are aware of it). When you have enormous schools, you almost have to invite routinization and standardization, just to keep some bare semblance of order.

  6. Dear Professor Esolen,

    By “ancient,” I meant pre-Columbian. You are correct about American literacy before Dewey and the great public education project. I have read correspondence among members of my own family from 100 years ago, and their friendly letters are better composed than many books from today’s big-shot authors. You are also correct about the consolidation of local schools into giant centralized facilities. In Groton, Connecticut, just west of Stonington and the town in which I grew up, residents have been fighting a years-long battle against combining the district’s three middle-schools into a single holding pen, as I think of it. Imagine nearly 1,000 12-year-olds in one building. Abysmal. Ironically, the idea is local in origin and has viciously divided residents. People who support it point to the long-term savings of having to maintain only one building; opponents worry about the only issue that matters: the well-being of the children.

    Regarding boards of education, not one former teacher or administrator sits on Stonington’s board (Well, we do have a college professor), and it took a Herculean effort by residents to convince that body that the $50,000 Chinese-language program is superfluous when many of our students are reading their own English much below grade-level. Chinese is now being phased out.

    In my classes, poetry is alive. Incidentally, have you read Margaret Edson’s play Wit? It is about a professor of seventeenth-century English poetry with terminal ovarian cancer who relies in part on John Donne’s Holy Sonnets to face her impending judgment day. My AP Literature students love it.



  7. Thank you for this series. It resonates with our family’s experience of dysfunctional, corrupt, and abusive public schools. We’ve opted for a combination of parochial education and home schooling which is expensive and exhausting; we continue to pay high property taxes to fund the failing system. But after years of fighting the “powers that be,” we came to realize that withdrawal and retreat constituted the only way forward.

    I appreciate Mr. Cote’s comments and am glad that he’s out there contributing to the common good. It’s always heartening to hear a voice crying in the wilderness. But then I remember all of the stories public high school kids in my parish share about their atheist teachers who take every opportunity to deride and ridicule traditional faith. Then I remember how defenseless special ed students in our district were abused for years by teachers who fought any attempt at legislating guidelines on restraint and seclusion. And then I read the morning paper and remember that our state’s efforts to provide scholarships/vouchers for kids in failing schools are fought every step of the way by school boards intent on maintaining an abysmal status quo through cynical legal ploys:

    After all, regardless of whether kids are learning anything, we need to maintain those “court-ordered procedures for the recruitment and retention of black teachers and administrators.” And the trickle of kids into alternative, private settings threatens to undermine the “$2.5 million in state-mandated retirement contributions and health insurance costs” for public school employees.

    From my perspective, the system is broken and its primary beneficiaries are its employees and their attorneys – not the children it was intended to serve. We clearly need alternatives to Leviathan’s hegemony.

    This may be a place to start:

  8. “I was drunk all weakend.”

    That was the student’s essay, in its entirety, and I was told that I had to grade it and justify not giving it an “A.” And that’s not a typo, it was “weak” and not “week.”

    Parents are more of a problem than people realize….

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