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The Book the Elites Hope You're too Illiterate to Read


Debbie W. Wilson


(M)odern schooling has no lasting value to exchange for the spectacular chunk of living time it wastes or the possibilities it destroys (375), John Taylor Gatto, former New York Teacher of the Year, writes in The Underground History of American Education(New York: Oxford Village Press, 2000/2001, 413 pages, $30, index and book list included).

Gatto traces the roots of the modern school back to Hinduism's attempt to maintain caste. I found the idea absurd until I saw his documentation. Also the results of American "factory schooling" and the Hindu caste schools are the same, a society of social classes cast nearly in stone.

Gatto begins with early education in America, the education that brought us George Washington, Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln, Noah Webster.

During America's early years, Connecticut and Massachusetts boasted over 95% literacy. It also boasted a Judeo-Christian work ethic, a belief that hard work and bettering oneself went together, close communities and little formal training, and children involved in those communities.

This education produced a people who valued freedom, who accepted the challenges of life instead of hiding in line, waiting for the government to take care of them. These people explored the land. They invented. They built homes and businesses, farms and laboratories. So what happened?

According to Gatto and his sources, American education produced too much independence. If workers didn't like what the boss offered, they went elsewhere or started their own business. The nation went through a number of financial ups and downs that interfered with the development of large scale businesses and profits which needed stable money and a dependable workforce.

As always happens, those on the top of the social heap wanted to stay there, but they had to keep others from pulling them down, so they had to change American education. Theories of evolution, social gospel, racial superiority and psychology, coming into vogue after the Civil War, provided them tools and socially approved motivations.

To them, Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest meant that the social and economic leaders were at the head of the evolutionary process. If they failed to direct the evolution of the species through education, the whole species would regress.

The Puritans and other fundamental Christian groups began to find their doctrines about God's holiness, original sin and judgment too harsh. They softened the hard parts by ignoring or rejecting them and emphasized good works to the exclusion of standards of holiness. (Don't get me wrong. We are "created unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." Ephesians 2:10)

Darwinism increased a sense of racial and ethnic superiority felt by northern Europeans who considered themselves the apex of evolution. Breeding with the "lower" races, such as Jews, Italians or blacks, would produce "monsters," at least if blond girls bred with these "lower" sorts.

Psychology produced the "empty child" philosophy, the blank slate theory of Locke revisited. If all children were born totally empty, then all could be filled the same way and their filling measured with psychological tools.

Hence, the elites rejected the small schools with their strong emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic for your children. (How many elite private schools have reading problems?) Instead, they pushed for large schools with large bureaucracies that crowded parental involvement and criticism out.

They devalued intellectual classes for the masses. They instituted highly structured, tested and age-segregated social classes for the masses. They promoted psychological testing and analysis without parental involvement. They promoted stupid theories, such as new math and whole language, in the teachers' colleges.

I used to think that the public school's methods were at fault; now, I think it's their total philosophy. Ask ten adults on the street what school should be for and you will probably get answers about learning basic subjects, being prepared for jobs and work, maybe learning to get along with others. Ask ten teachers' college instructors the same question.

Well-meaning, dedicated teachers trained by these instructors will tell you that the only way children learn now is in little groups that learn cooperatively. How did Abe Lincoln ever learn to read with less than one year of formal training in a blab school? Maybe he didn't know about those little groups.

Gatto intends to discuss his ideas for improvement in a future book, How to Get an Education in Spite of School. His suggestions include:

         small neighborhood schools heavily influenced and controlled by parents,

         individualized evaluations,

         dialectical thinking (logical reasoning),

         children's involvement in community,

         an emphasis on character which includes duty, loyalty, work, obligation and service,

         themes to explore rather than subjects,

         flexible time, sequence, space and content,

         and eliminate teacher licensing.

The size of the book discourages reading, in spite of the importance of the subject. Gatto covers challenging material that makes you think. It is not easy reading. From one chapter to another, many of the same villains crop up and ideas so interrelated that you feel you have read it before.

However, his ideas stimulate thinking. His documentation tends to persuade. His personal examples delight and fascinate as he takes us into the world of his youth or introduces us to the students he loves in spite of the school institution that he loathes.

Gatto writes:

"The school institution is clearly a key partner in this arrangement (paternal corporatism): it suppresses the productive impulse in favor of consumption; redefines Work as a job someone will eventually give you if you behave(,) habituates a large clientele to sloth, envy, and boredom; and accustoms individuals to think of themselves as members of a class with various distinguishing features. More than anything else, school is about class consciousness. In addition, it makes intellectual work and creative thinking appear like distasteful or difficult labor to most of us. None of this is done to oppress, but because the economy would dissolve into something else if those attitudes didn't become ingrained in childhood." (362)

Serious charges. Read it a little at a time to see if you think he proves his case.

You can order this book from The Odysseus Group, 295 E. 8th Street, Suite 3W, New York, New York 10009, phone (212) 529-9397.

Copyright 2001
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