Wednesday, September 16, 2015

"The Underground History of American Education, Chapter Eight"

This article is from 2001 and yet is still relevant today.

I didn't much like public school and for all practical purposes I could have dropped out of school after the first grade. High school was fun but that was because I partied on the weekends. Middle school (which used to be called jr. high), on the other hand, was a horror. Especially seventh grade.

I remember I was required to take two shop classes in middle school because I am from a steel-mill town and the school administration assumed I was going to get a job at the steel mill, which was clearly never going to happen.

When I was 12 I sneaked a look at my file and found out my IQ was 126. No genius but did they really think I was going to work at a steel mill?

Today computers are offered but that is not for the benefit of the students. It's training for jobs.

Public school is not for benefiting students' characters. It's for creating workers - and it's not even doing a good job of that, considering the drop-out rate.

Public schools are massive bureaucracies - and the purpose of any bureaucracy is to protect the bureaucracy at the expense of those it supposedly serves.

If I had my way I'd close down most of the public schools. We need apprenticeships for many students; others need mentors.

I was never offered a class that suited my character or interests. And I was shoved into classes with students with whom I had nothing in common and out of school I was never involved with.

I found this article on my hard drive and I have no idea who wrote it and where it's from.

An angry letter to the Atlantic Monthly in its January 1998 issue by Walter Greene of Hatboro, Pennsylvania, protested the “myth of our failing schools,” as he called it, on these grounds: We just happen to have the world’s most productive work force[sic], the largest standard of living, more Nobel [P]rizes than the rest of the world combined, the best system of higher education, the best high-tech medicine, and the strongest military. These things could not have been accomplished with second-rate systems of education.

On the contrary, the surprising truth is they could not have been accomplished to the degree they have been without second-rate systems of education. But here it is, writ plain, the crux of an unbearable paradox posed by scientifically efficient schooling. It works.

School, as we have it, does build national wealth, it does lead to endless scientific advances. Where is Greene’s misstep? It lies in the equation of material prosperity and power with education when our affluence is built on schooling (and on entrepreneurial freedom, too, of course, for those libertarian enough to seize it). A century of relentless agit-prop has thrown us off the scent. The truth is that America’s unprecedented global power and spectacular material wealth is a direct product of a third-rate educational system, upon whose inefficiency in developing intellect and character it depends. If we educated better we could not sustain the corporate utopia we have made. Schools build national wealth by tearing down personal sovereignty, morality, and family life. It’s a trade-off.

This contradiction is not unknown at the top, but it is never spoken aloud as part of the national school debate. Unacknowledged, it has been able to make its way among us untroubled by protest. E.P. Thompson’s classic, The Making of the English Working Class, is an eye-opening introduction to this bittersweet truth about “productive” work forces and national riches. When a Colorado coal miner testified before authorities in 1871 that eight hours underground was long enough for any man because “he has no time to improve his intellect if he works more,” the coal digger could hardly have realized his very deficiency was value added to the market equation.

What the nineteenth century in the coal-rich nations pointed toward was building [the] infrastructure for managerial utopia, a kind of society in which unelected functional specialists make all decisions that matter. [Gatto has previously developed the idea that it was the coal industry that set in motion the imperatives of the mass-production worldview that came to dominate present-day society.]

Formal periods of indoctrination and canonical books of instruction limit these specialists in their choices. The idea of managerial science is to embed managers so securely in abstract regulation and procedure that the fixed purpose of the endeavor becomes manager-proof. Managerial utopias take tremendous effort to build. England’s version of this political form was a millennium in the building. Such governance is costly to maintain because it wastes huge amounts of human time on a principle akin to the old warning that the devil finds work for idle hands; it employs large numbers of incompetent and indifferent managers in positions of responsibility on the theory that loyalty is more important than the ability to do the job. I watched this philosophy in action in the public schools for 30 years. Ordinary people have a nasty habit of consciously and unconsciously sabotaging managerial utopias, quietly trashing in whole or [in] part the wishes of managers. To thwart these tendencies, expensive vigilance is the watchword of large systems, and the security aspect of managerial utopia has to be paid for. Where did this money originally come from? The answer was from a surplus provided by coal, steam, chemicals, and conquest. It was more than sufficient to pay for a mass school experiment. Society didn’t slowly evolve to make way for a coal-based economy. It was forcibly made over in double time like Prussians marching to battle Napoleon at Waterloo. An entirely successful way of life was forcibly ushered out [as Gatto will elaborate upon in the next paragraph. IMO, Gatto is saying modern schooling arose as a means to inaugurate the social transformations needed to sustain socioeconomic massification.] Before anything could be modern, the damnable past had to be uprooted with its village culture, tight families, pious population, and independent livelihoods. Only a state religion had the power to do this ... but America lacked one...As the established Protestant religion schismed and broke apart, however, America came into possession of something that would serve in its place — a kaleidoscope of utopian cults and a tradition of utopian exhortation, a full palette of roving experts and teachers, Sunday schools, lyceums, pulpits ... It was a propitious time and place in which to aim for long-range management of public opinion through the utopian schooling vehicle Plato had described and that modern Prussia was actually using.

It takes no great insight or intelligence to see that the health of a centralized economy built around dense concentrations of economic power and a close business alliance with government can’t tolerate any considerable degree of intellectual schooling. This is no vain hypothesis. The recent French Revolution was widely regarded as the work of a horde of underemployed intellectuals, the American uprising more of the same. [One is driven to compare employment to the more general notion of subordination for any purpose, and to observe that employment is but one kind of useful labor.] As the nineteenth century wore on, the Hungarian and Italian revolutions were both financed and partially planned from the United States using cells of marginal intellectuals, third sons, and other malcontents as a volunteer fifth column in advance of the revolutionary movement back home. Ample precedent to fear the educated was there; it was recognized that historical precedent identified thoughtful schooling as a dangerous blessing.[Ah, but dangerous to whom?]

This piece reads well as it is extracted from a much longer narrative the author had already been developing in previous chapters. Furthermore, this excerpt comes from a “Special Author’s Edition” that had not been combed over by a professional editor.

Nonetheless, taken in context, Gatto’s achievement—discerning why school has become what it is today by tracing historical threads and investigating the key players — has made monumental discoveries about the origins and problems of modern life. What was America like 200 years ago, and what have we gained or lost since then? Why have the age-old American civic ideals appear to have retreated to the status of mere mythology? How does schooling re-shape the contours of a person’s character, ambition, foresight, and historical perspective?

In this piece Gatto is developing the idea that American schooling was overhauled about a century ago by academics, industrial tycoons, behaviorists, and utopian true believers for the purpose of building a society to suit their various economic/existential/political visions (for example, Andrew Carnegie’s dream of an Anglophilic political/industrial world empire, and today’s quasi-religion of transnational multicultural consciousness that it helped to spawn [or revitalize?]) Elsewhere Gatto illustrates how these visions opposed the ambient society more often and not and how many of the dreamers were acutely aware of this.

IMO it’s worth giving Gatto’s book a try just to see how well his message about the hidden purpose of schooling lines up with the subtle object lessons and the bizarre protocol you can remember from your own schooling.


Brian said...

God bless John Taylor Gatto

Quartermain said...

I believe in the same book, it said that under the previous school system many who left or graduated from school, became entrepreneurs or self employed. That concerned certain people who wanted to put a stop to that.

My father who used to teach school a long while back told that many algebra text books lacked crucial steps in how to solve equations making the teaching worthless and frustrating to the students. And no, he had no say in what textbooks were ordered. He was the only one that could tell me what none of my algebra teachers could teach me. What algebra was used for.

Quartermain said...

Christopher Lasch also went into the history behind the formation of the modern school system in "The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy":