The Invention of New Diseases

The largest industrial complex in the country today is the combined educational, medical, pharmaceutical industry that, as we’ll see, works together to provide tools to assist a ruling academic elite. I want to discuss the invention of new diseases, which is what made it possible for that complex to be created basically out of nothing.

Many years ago, when I was still in the world of academia, I had a colleague who wrote a well-received doctoral dissertation that made some waves. He told me the subject was: Why people go to clinics. I looked at him and said, “You got a Ph.D. for doing a study of why people go to clinics? They go to clinics because they’re sick!” And he laughed. This was a great moment of enlightenment for me. He laughed and he said, “No, they go to clinics because they perceive themselves as being sick. People in different cultures, or at different times in the same culture, might have all the same symptoms as those people have, but these were just considered part of everyday life. But if you think you’re sick, that something is not right in your make-up, then you might try to find somebody who will help you “fix it”.

The realization that “being sick” is not an objective condition, but is a perception, is a key one, something that the medical profession understood until recent times. It was accepted that a human being is a system that tries to function effectively, and that as long as people feel they can carry on effectively, according to their own standards, there is no reason to intervene. If you begin to feel something is wrong with the way you’re functioning, that’s another story. Whereas the next person might feel exactly the same thing and say: I’m going to just go on in life.

How does this tie in with what I want to talk about? Well, here’s how I got to this notion of “inventing new diseases”. When I was going to school, in the middle of the 20th century, nobody had “learning disabilities”. Nobody had anything wrong with them (unless it was glaringly visible for the whole world to see). There were differences. There were people who were inclined to study what we would call today “academic subjects”, others who were interested in art, or music, or any of the various trades. There were all kinds of differences. It was a universally accepted observation that people were different. Nobody even thought about it much. Sometimes you were out of place if you were in a class that specialized in learning the history of the British Empire, and you weren’t interested in history; you could just blow it off and nothing bad would happen to you. Very few people went to college, because it didn’t serve any purpose in their plan for their lives. And a lot of people dropped out of high school and went to work.

If you think about it, most people throughout history did just that. They grew up and went to work. They were different from each other, but nobody commented much about it. In fact, nobody was surprised at anything that might happen to a human being. For example, in the Bible, you get story after story about people who were just plucked out of what seems like nowhere and assume positions of leadership. The Bible is full of stories where shepherds suddenly become the chosen of God. We are told that Moses, who is a felon fleeing Pharaoh’s palace because he’s committed a crime, suddenly encounters God, who commands him to lead the people of Israel out of slavery. Indeed, it was accepted in past times that people had very different destinies, and you never know who has genius or who had leadership qualities.

These days, everything is so different! How did this come about? And, more important, why did it come about? To understand why it came about, you have to go back to something that first made itself prominent in the world of thought, in ancient Greece: the burning desire of philosophers, of people who consider themselves superior thinkers, to rule the world.

The first great book on political philosophy was Plato’s Republic, which concluded that the ideal society is one ruled by “philosopher kings”. In that ideal world, the people who should rule are those who have deep thoughts about reality, and the rest of the people should just follow them because they’re smarter, they know what’s best for everybody. And that desire to take things over and to be at the helm of things has come to be an integral part of the world view of people in the academic elite.

They are not alone in that desire. Another group of people who thinks that they are entitled to rule other people are powerful leaders who can muster military power to support them in coercing people to do their wishes. And there’s a third group of people who want to call the shots: those who have a great deal of money. Indeed, history is one long account of how all these people that want to run everybody else’s lives compete for being the dominant ruling class. In short, throughout history people have vied for power. The people already in power have wanted to continue to rule; often, as a strategy to maintain power, they would join up with other people who wanted to rule, forming a de-facto ruling elite.

So how does this tie in with inventing diseases? That’s where things become particularly interesting. The middle of the 20th century saw several competing societies vying with each other to dominate the world, culminating in the mass slaughter called “The Second World War”. From the dawn of history, what generally happens when wars are over is that everybody goes home and tries to resume their lives again. The biggest war that ever happened before the second world war was the first world war, where tens of millions of people were under arms. When that war was over, all the soldiers who survived went back home and tried to reconstruct their lives. That’s not, however, what happened in America after the Second World War, where ten million people had been in the military. Here, the country’s leaders came up with a novel idea. They passed “The GI Bill” and everything changed.

The GI Bill looks innocent; it looks like a wonderful idea. It basically said that everybody who was under arms in the war would receive the support they needed to get “an advanced education” in some kind of school. It signaled, “You don’t have to look for work. We’ll give you tuition money, we’ll give you living expenses. With that, you can go and get an education that will train you for success in the world of the late 20th century.

All of a sudden you had millions of people with money in their pockets for tuition, and for living expenses. How can anybody turn that down? What a gift! In fact, what a gift to people who run, or want to establish, colleges, universities, or training centers. They had a ready-made student body of millions of people with all the funds needed to enroll. And in this way, the first rung of the ladder towards establishing superiority of the academic class was carefully put in place. From the 1950s on, the cry became: “finish high school”, “go to college”, go at the very least to get some, any, post high school training, in order to get the education you need to guarantee you success in life. Give people something free, and they will almost always grab it without thinking of the consequences.

That was just the first rung of the ladder. You’ve now gotten people used to the idea that the most important thing in the world is to get some kind of additional formal training—more than was ever commonplace throughout society. What happens now? What is the second important rung? What is it that will give a person the feeling that they ought to listen to what somebody else tells them to do? Let’s back up for a minute. Human beings in general do not like to be bossed around. Just look at kids. Kids are naturally “free-range”. Kids don’t want to be told what to do. Kids are constantly rebelling against authority. Human beings are animals that can think for themselves, have their own wishes, have their own lives. Their natural evolutionary tendency is to pursue their own path. What is it that will make it possible for others to control them? The key to that is breaking their self-confidence, breaking their sense of self-worth, breaking their sense that they can figure out their lives.

How do you do that? The easiest way is to say: “You think that you can make something out of yourselves? Don’t kid yourselves! You have some serious deficiencies, disabilities, that keep you from being whole, independently successful human beings like those of us who are in fact successful.” Once you take children, who are completely free and on their own and doing their thing, and tell them that they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing—not because they have other interests, certainly not because they’re entitled to do whatever they want to do, but rather because they have some basic defect in their make-up. They have a disability. Remember that the first step in the definition of a disease is to make people think that they have something wrong with them. And thus, in the mid-20th century, a giant movement developed in the field of medicine, in collusion with academicians and physicians, who came to realize that they have a whole new field to plow—the field of disabilities that had never even been defined before.

But more than that happened at the same time. There was a conjoining of powerful forces. You had academicians, an already dominating elite, who were now joined by large pharmaceutical corporations. How did they get into the picture? I myself played a minor role in that. As a historian of science, I was called upon in the early 1960s to become the moderator of a panel, which was organized by one of the large pharmaceutical companies. The panel consisted of leading researchers in new drugs that were mind-altering. The panel met in Puerto Rico, in a fancy hotel. The proceedings were filmed, and the film was used by this company, and others, as a marketing tool to push their products. This panel was devoted to explaining how a huge revolution has happened in medicine, where a group of new drugs have been developed that actually make it possible for people who have mental disorders to suddenly be a lot “better”. It was a fascinating panel. They all hated each other because they all wanted the Nobel Prize for discovering a breakthrough medicine, but they joined hands happily to promote their new approach.

So by the 1960s, academicians, educators, pharmaceutical companies, and the medical profession all focused on one thing: they have the key to taking people who previously would be characterized as “just regular people”, and if they deviate from what we want them to do, convince them that there’s something wrong with them, and break their self-confidence and sense of self-worth. I was first alerted to this in a shocking way, though I shouldn’t have been shocked at all. I remember talking to the parent of a child who had been “diagnosed” as having “ADD”, and who was a perfectly delightful student at our school. I was questioning the student’s “diagnosis”, saying: really? And this parent looked at me, and said, “Well, I’m also ADD, and I take drugs regularly, and that helps me work effectively.” I hadn’t realized what this had done to our culture. Our society has given a group of people the power to define new diseases, to label children with them, and to stigmatize those children for the rest of their lives as people who are not capable of existing independent of direction by others.

On a regular basis, a new manual is put out by the medical profession which outlines the most current list of “diseases” that affect people’s ability to function “normally”. Every time a new edition is put out, there are bunch of new “diseases”, many of which are not defined by something physiologically detectable, but by a list of “behavioral symptoms”. Then the pharmaceutical companies walk in and say: we have a cure. And special attention is given to children with these “diseases”. A cohort of special teachers are hired to help these people “do the right thing”, and drugs are administered as much as possible. It’s a huge industry, which has infiltrated the entire school system from kindergarten through college.

Evolution, as Darwin first wrote, is basically a struggle for survival, a constant competition among members of a species, who want to dominate that species. We’ve been used to thinking of it as involving brute force. What’s interesting about developments in recent times is that an elite subset has found a way to dominate human societies without the use of force at all, but by inventing diseases that break the confidence of other people in their own judgment, and by convincing them that members of that elite subset have the right to lead.

The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.