The Procrustean Threat to Student Learning

Does anyone in the hollowed halls of the public schools remember the demon Procrustes? Forgetfulness weighs heavy on the decaying pillars of Western civilization. We ought to reacquaint ourselves with Procrustes, a crafty villain who used to lie in wait for unsuspecting journeyers traveling the Sacred Way between Athens and Eleusis. This bent soul was known for his rogue skills as a smith. He had a cottage just off the beaten path and with cunning and contrived kindness he would invite weary travelers to join him for a home cooked meal and a glorious night’s sleep in his “magic” bed. When asked what was so special about this “magic” bed, Procrustes would sweetly lie, “this bed is ‘one size fits all’ and it will magically fit any traveler who lies in it.” After his guest was plied with food and drink, and yearning for rest, this thieving scoundrel, also called the “stretcher,” would lead the unsuspecting victim to the “magic” bed.

At dusk, Procrustes’ pretense as a Good Samaritan would be revealed false and his true nature as a tortuous artificer emerged. Underneath the decorative appearance of comfort, this bed was not a “one size fits all” restful night’s sleep, but a rigid iron torture device. When inevitably his guests did not fit the exact size of the bed, he would go to work on them with his tools to stretch them out to the proper dimensions. He would then amputate any extended extremities, thereby completing the toil to make his victims fit precisely into his unnatural contraption.

This horrifying myth portrays the dismal end of far too many innocent souls sent down to the house of death, lured in by the false promises of a swindler determined to force innocents to conform to his “one size fits all” standard. Nevertheless, this story has a happy ending. Theseus, the heroic Athenian son of King Aegeus, captured Procrustes and forced him into his own bed, thus the Sacred Way was freed from the dreadful demon, at least for a time.

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The Nature of Myth
The word “myth” has been tortured beyond recognition in modern times. Its meaning has been sterilized and reduced to a caricature of its original significance by the secular wordsmiths, prompting the modern student to disregard it as an artifact of a barbaric age. The word “myth” is now synonymous with “lie.” The perennial references to the transcendent and metaphysical, from which myth derives its explanatory power, are typically dismissed as brutish fantasies of dark-agers deprived of the illumination possessed by an army of “enlightened professori” that occupy our schools.

The language of myth has been reduced to quaint parochialism by these demythologizing sophists. They have worked diligently to remove the great myths from the schools and even from the public ethos. So effectively have they deracinated mythological terms and references from the intellectual landscape that the mere mention of the truths contained in classical mythology is enough to discredit anyone who seeks an academic career.

Myth is a multivalent word with senses that transcend the easy reductions common to our times. Myth is not merely a superstitious explanation of an unexplained scientific anomaly, but a translation of that nexus point between the natural and supernatural realms. Part of its genius is that it can render intelligible certain mysteries the sophisticated secular humanists can only doubt. The language of myth holds an explanatory power that far exceeds the best prosaic, didactic and expository texts disseminated in contemporary public schools.

Myths are a complement to philosophy and provide vehicles to examine such transcendent issues as the meaning of eternity, the origin of the world, our relationship to the Creator, and the purpose and destiny of human life. C.S. Lewis comments on the importance of mythological language in understanding Christ:

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things.”

The Meaning behind the Myth of Procrustes
If we return to a respect for the power of mythological language to intelligibly inform us of the truth about human nature and the cosmos, we may benefit greatly from the myths that have been forgotten by this “enlightened” age. Myths are particularly useful in recovering precious artifacts of the human condition from the distant past. The myth of Procrustes in particular can elucidate the nature of the ills that plague our public schools if we draw reasonable parallels to our reality.

Procrustes himself is the spirit that animates our public education’s methods, practices and curriculum. Like the spirit of Carthage rising up to challenge the Roman West, Procrustes’ spirit has reawakened in the public schools and is waylaying unsuspecting journeyers by the millions. Procrustes has enchanted the profession of public education and his lies cross the lips of almost every teacher in the land as they coax countless innocents into the Procrustean bed laid out by the public schools.

The travelers are the students who attend public schools. These are our children to whom we are primarily responsible for educating. All must travel along the Sacred Way for as Aristotle said “all men desire to know.” And if a traveler tries to avoid the journey, it is only a less profitable journey for the effort.

The Sacred Way is an apt image for the road that leads to knowledge. It is that arduous trek through the inner landscape from the lowlands of the appetites to the foot hills of the mind, to the Alps of character and finally to the vast plains of the intellect where the orchards of right thinking are to be cultivated. The schools were intended to assist families along the Sacred Way, but instead they confiscate our children. The journey is fraught with difficulty and danger in the best of circumstances and especially now that Procrustes and his minions terrorize the trails. What madness has seized us that we let our children walk the Sacred Way alone? Or worse, with the sycophants of Procrustes?

The torture device Procrustes calls a “bed,” is a parallel to “Outcomes Based Education.” The curriculum is rigid, nonnegotiable, and it fits no human because it is based on ideology that is severed from considerations of moral and divine agency. Instead, it reduces humans to a scientific algorithm. Standards based education is as ill a fit to human learning as Procrustes’ bed is to human rest.

Procrustes’ cottage has been multiplied into countless replicas taking the form of the classroom. It has an inviting appearance until the traveler finds himself strapped down to that rigid standard by which he will be judged, and the more effort he makes to meet that arbitrary standard, the more torturous the outcome.

Just like Procrustes amputates parts and stretches his victims, so do those who stand in for the bent artificer and force innocents into this bed of torture known as “Outcomes Based Education.” Because no human fits into this torturous curriculum, both stretching and amputation must take place with all its victims.

The ideology that undergirds the bed requires an abnormal stretching of the lower appetites. The artificers have been trying to “conquer nature” since Francis Bacon and in education that makes the vices of pride, gluttony, envy and greed intrinsic necessities to achieve the desired outcome. The lower appetites are so stretched that the victims become insatiable, and begin to take on animal qualities.

The most diabolical torture necessary to force victims to fit into the “one size fits all” is no less than the amputation of the soul. The Procrustean Standards Based Curriculums long ago amputated moral and divine attributes of the human person. The virtues of the soul hinder the utilitarian outcomes desired by Procrustes and his underlings.

Theseus, our hero is simply the good teacher who has safely traveled the Sacred Way himself and has returned to keep the road safe for other travelers. To get rid of Procrustes’ minions, he simply makes them lie in their own bed which renders them mute.

Procrustes’ reanimation began in America under the watch of John Dewey who insured that the “new education” would be undergirded by the iron rods of utilitarian ideology and the anti-human creeds he inculcated. It may be that Procrustes has overplayed his hand. The latest, most exacting and overarching model of the Procrustean bed is the Common Core Standards curriculum. This enormous “one size fits all” Procrustean bed is designed to stretch the lower appetites of this entire nation and amputate its soul, and it will either be our wakeup call or our demise.

Real Rest
Consider the symbolism of the bed as rest. The nature of a true education does not include bed rest. That would be considered idleness, an antithesis to an endeavor that ought to be arduous labor until such time as leisure can be properly spent. The good teachers know that often times learning and true education are lifelong labors. The erroneous consensus amongst university graduates, inspired by Procrustes, is that the diploma signals the completion of learning and the beginning of a much deserved rest.

In a discussion on the meaning of the Sabbath as the promise of eventual rest in heaven, the good teacher Sean Innerst of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary characterizes the human summum bonum as beatitude. He explains that “we are made for happiness and happiness is the fullest development of the highest human powers over a life time. To possess God in full in the beatific vision is to have our powers fully realized, fully perfected, and to find them at rest, in perfect happiness for all eternity.”

The distinction must be made that the end of an education is not our ultimate human end described by Professor Innerst. A true education makes no such promises of eternal beatitude or even rest of the kind Procrustes promises. Procrustes makes the extravagant promise of heavenly rest while delivering hellish torture. The Procrustean bed offered to our children makes extravagant promises of material utopia but has already produced an intractable path to a utilitarian dystopia. Think of the increasing number of citizens at rest before their time, requiring assistance from a government aiding and abetting Procrustes.

For our children’s sake, we ought to recover the language of mythology. We ought not to be fooled by the extravagant promises of the Procrustean Common Core Standards. We owe it to our children to accompany them along the Sacred Way and to protect them from predators like Procrustes and his minions. We must play the role of Theseus for our children and not let them lie in the Common Core bed. This is not the time to fall for false promises of comfort, ease and rest, but the time for laborious cultivation and vigilant renewal. Procrustes is rising, let us turn away from him and put our backs into the labor required in the vineyard.

Editor’s note: The above image titled “Russian Schoolroom” was painted by Norman Rockwell in 1967.


  • Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg

    Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Catholic convert and a teacher with over twenty years experience in the public education system. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a degree in History in 1991. He is also a husband and father of 3 children and a catechist at his parish in Bakersfield, California.

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