The Public School Nightmare Why fix a system designed to destroy individual thought?

Email Print



I want you
to consider the frightening possibility that we are spending far
too much money on schooling, not too little. I want you to consider
that we have too many people employed in interfering with the way
children grow up – and that all this money and all these people,
all the time we take out of children’s lives and away from their
homes and families and neighborhoods and private explorations –
gets in the way of education.

That seems
radical, I know. Surely in modern technological society it is the
quantity of schooling and the amount of money you spend on it that
buys value. And yet last year in St. Louis, I heard a vice-president
of IBM tell an audience of people assembled to redesign the process
of teacher certification that in his opinion this country became
computer-literate by self-teaching, not through any action of schools.
He said 45 million people were comfortable with computers who had
learned through dozens of non-systematic strategies, none of them
very formal; if schools had pre-empted the right to teach computer
use we would be in a horrible mess right now instead of leading
the world in this literacy. Now think about Sweden, a beautiful,
healthy, prosperous and up-to-date country with a spectacular reputation
for quality in everything it produces. It makes sense to think their
schools must have something to do with that.

Then what do
you make of the fact that you can’t go to school in Sweden until
you are 7 years old? The reason the unsentimental Swedes have wiped
out what would be first and seconds grades here is that they don’t
want to pay the large social bill that quickly comes due when boys
and girls are ripped away from their best teachers at home too early.

It just isn’t
worth the price, say the Swedes, to provide jobs for teachers and
therapists if the result is sick, incomplete kids who can’t be put
back together again very easily. The entire Swedish school sequence
isn’t 12 years, either – it’s nine. Less schooling, not more.
The direct savings of such a step in the US would be $75–100
billion, a lot of unforeclosed home mortgages, a lot of time freed
up with which to seek an education.

Who was it
that decided to force your attention onto Japan instead of Sweden?
Japan with its long school year and state compulsion, instead of
Sweden with its short school year, short school sequence, and free
choice where your kid is schooled? Who decided you should know about
Japan and not Hong Kong, an Asian neighbor with a short school year
that outperforms Japan across the board in math and science? Whose
interests are served by hiding that from you?

One of the
principal reasons we got into the mess we’re in is that we allowed
schooling to become a very profitable monopoly, guaranteed its customers
by the police power of the state. Systematic schooling attracts
increased investment only when it does poorly, and since there are
no penalties at all for such performance, the temptation not to
do well is overwhelming. That’s because school staffs, both line
and management, are involved in a guild system; in that ancient
form of association no single member is allowed to outperform any
other member, is allowed to advertise or is allowed to introduce
new technology or improvise without the advance consent of the guild.
Violation of these precepts is severely sanctioned – as Marva
Collins, Jaime Escalante and a large number of once-brilliant teachers
found out.

The guild reality
cannot be broken without returning primary decision-making to parents,
letting them buy what they want to buy in schooling, and encouraging
the entrepreneurial reality that existed until 1852. That is why
I urge any business to think twice before entering a cooperative
relationship with the schools we currently have. Cooperating with
these places will only make them worse.

The structure
of American schooling, 20th-century style, began in 1806 when Napoleon’s
amateur soldiers beat the professional soldiers of Prussia at the
battle of Jena. When your business is selling soldiers, losing a
battle like that is serious. Almost immediately afterwards a German
philosopher named Fichte delivered his famous "Address to the
German Nation" which became one of the most influential documents
in modern history. In effect he told the Prussian people that the
party was over, that the nation would have to shape up through a
new Utopian institution of forced schooling in which everyone would
learn to take orders.

So the world
got compulsion schooling at the end of a state bayonet for the first
time in human history; modern forced schooling started in Prussia
in 1819 with a clear vision of what centralized schools could deliver:

Obedient soldiers
to the army; Obedient workers to the mines; Well subordinated civil
servants to government; Well subordinated clerks to industry; Citizens
who thought alike about major issues.

Schools should
create an artificial national consensus on matters that had been
worked out in advance by leading German families and the head of
institutions. Schools should create unity among all the German states,
eventually unifying them into Greater Prussia.

Prussian industry
boomed from the beginning. She was successful in warfare and her
reputation in international affairs was very high. Twenty-six years
after this form of schooling began, the King of Prussia was invited
to North America to determine the boundary between the United States
and Canada. Thirty-three years after that fateful invention of the
central school institution, at the behest of Horace Mann and many
other leading citizens, we borrowed the style of Prussian schooling
as our own.

You need to
know this because over the first 50 years of our school institution
Prussian purpose – which was to create a form of state socialism
– gradually forced out traditional American purpose, which
in most minds was to prepare the individual to be self-reliant.

In Prussia
the purpose of the Volksschule, which educated 92 percent of the
children, was not intellectual development at all, but socialization
in obedience and subordination. Thinking was left to the Real Schulen,
in which 8 percent of the kids participated. But for the great mass,
intellectual development was regarded with managerial horror, as
something that caused armies to lose battles.

Prussia concocted
a method based on complex fragmentations to ensure that its school
products would fit the grand social design. Some of this method
involved dividing whole ideas into school subjects, each further
divisible, some of it involved short periods punctuated by a horn
so that self-motivation in study would be muted by ceaseless interruptions.

There were
many more techniques of training, but all were built around the
premise that isolation from first-hand information, and fragmentation
of the abstract information presented by teachers, would result
in obedient and subordinate graduates, properly respectful of arbitrary
orders. "Lesser" men would be unable to interfere with
policy makers because, while they could still complain, they could
not manage sustained or comprehensive thought. Well-schooled children
cannot think critically, cannot argue effectively.

One of the
most interesting by-products of Prussian schooling turned out to
be the two most devastating wars of modern history. Erich Maria
Ramarque, in his classic "All Quiet on the Western Front"
tells us that the First World War was caused by the tricks of schoolmasters,
and the famous Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that
the Second World War was the inevitable product of good schooling.

It’s important
to underline that Bonhoeffer meant that literally, not metaphorically
– schooling after the Prussian fashion removes the ability
of the mind to think for itself. It teaches people to wait for a
teacher to tell them what to do and if what they have done is good
or bad. Prussian teaching paralyses the moral will as well as the
intellect. It’s true that sometimes well-schooled students sound
smart, because they memorize many opinions of great thinkers, but
they actually are badly damaged because their own ability to think
is left rudimentary and undeveloped. We got from the United States
to Prussia and back because a small number of very passionate ideological
leaders visited Prussia in the first half of the 19th century, and
fell in love with the order, obedience and efficiency of its system
and relentlessly proselytized for a translation of Prussian vision
onto these shores.

If Prussia’s
ultimate goal was the unification of Germany, our major goal, so
these men thought, was the unification of hordes of immigrant Catholics
into a national consensus based on a northern European cultural
model. To do that children would have to be removed from their parents
and from inappropriate cultural influence. In this fashion, compulsion
schooling, a bad idea that had been around at least since Plato’s
"Republic," a bad idea that New England had tried to enforce
in 1650 without any success, was finally rammed through the Massachusetts
legislature in 1852. It was, of course, the famous "Know-Nothing"
legislature that passed this law, a legislature that was the leading
edge of a famous secret society which flourished at that time known
as "The Order of the Star Spangled Banner," whose password
was the simple sentence, "I know nothing" – hence
the popular label attached to the secret society’s political arm,
"The American Party." Over the next 50 years state after
state followed suit, ending schools of choice and ceding the field
to a new government monopoly.

There was one
powerful exception to this – the children who could afford
to be privately educated. It’s important to note that the underlying
premise of Prussian schooling is that the government is the true
parent of children – the State is sovereign over the family.
At the most extreme pole of this notion is the idea that biological
parents are really the enemies of their own children, not to be
trusted. How did a Prussian system of dumbing children down take
hold in American schools?

Thousands and
thousands of young men from prominent American families journeyed
to Prussia and other parts of Germany during the 19th century and
brought home the Ph.D. degree to a nation in which such a credential
was unknown. These men pre-empted the top positions in the academic
world, in corporate research, and in government, to the point where
opportunity was almost closed to those who had not studied in Germany,
or who were not the direct disciples of a German Ph.D., as John
Dewey was the disciple of G. Stanley Hall at Johns Hopkins. Virtually
every single one of the founders of American schooling had made
the pilgrimage to Germany, and many of these men wrote widely circulated
reports praising the Teutonic methods. Horace Mann’s famous "7th
Report" of 1844, still available in large libraries, was perhaps
the most important of these.

By 1889, a
little more than 100 years ago, the crop was ready for harvest.
It that year the US Commissioner of Education, William Torrey Harris,
assured a railroad magnate, Collis Huntington, that American schools
were "scientifically designed" to prevent "over-education"
from happening. The average American would be content with his humble
role in life, said the commissioner, because he would not be tempted
to think about any other role. My guess is that Harris meant he
would not be able to think about any other role. In 1896 the famous
John Dewey, then at the University of Chicago, said that independent,
self-reliant people were a counter-productive anachronism in the
collective society of the future. In modern society, said Dewey,
people would be defined by their associations – not by their
own individual accomplishments.

It such a world
people who read too well or too early are dangerous because they
become privately empowered, they know too much, and know how to
find out what they don’t know by themselves, without consulting
experts. Dewey said the great mistake of traditional pedagogy was
to make reading and writing constitute the bulk of early schoolwork.
He advocated that the phonics method of teaching reading be abandoned
and replaced by the whole word method, not because the latter was
more efficient (he admitted that it was less efficient) but because
independent thinkers were produced by hard books, thinkers who cannot
be socialized very easily. By socialization Dewey meant a program
of social objectives administered by the best social thinkers in

This was a
giant step on the road to state socialism, the form pioneered in
Prussia, and it is a vision radically disconnected with the American
past, its historic hopes and dreams. Dewey’s former professor and
close friend, G. Stanley Hall, said this at about the same time,
"Reading should no longer be a fetish. Little attention should
be paid to reading." Hall was one of the three men most responsible
for building a gigantic administrative infrastructure over the classroom.
How enormous that structure really became can only be understood
by comparisons: New York State, for instance, employs more school
administrators than all of the European Economic Community nations

Once you think
that the control of conduct is what schools are about, the word
"reform" takes on a very particular meaning. It means
making adjustments to the machine so that young subjects will not
twist and turn so, while their minds and bodies are being scientifically
controlled. Helping kids to use their minds better is beside the
point. Bertrand Russell once observed that American schooling was
among the most radical experiments in human history, that America
was deliberately denying its children the tools of critical thinking.
When you want to teach children to think, you begin by treating
them seriously when they are little, giving them responsibilities,
talking to them candidly, providing privacy and solitude for them,
and making them readers and thinkers of significant thoughts from
the beginning. That’s if you want to teach them to think.

There is no
evidence that this has been a State purpose since the start of compulsion
schooling. When Frederich Frbel, the inventor of kindergarten in
19th-century Germany, fashioned his idea he did not have a "garden
for children" in mind, but a metaphor of teachers as gardeners
and children as the vegetables. Kindergarten was created to be a
way to break the influence of mothers on their children. I note
with interest the growth of daycare in the US and the repeated urgings
to extend school downward to include 4-year-olds.

The movement
toward state socialism is not some historical curiosity but a powerful
dynamic force in the world around us. It is fighting for its life
against those forces which would, through vouchers or tax credits,
deprive it of financial lifeblood, and it has countered this thrust
with a demand for even more control over children’s lives, and even
more money to pay for the extended school day and year that this
control requires.

A movement
as visibly destructive to individuality, family and community as
government-system schooling has been might be expected to collapse
in the face of its dismal record, coupled with an increasingly aggressive
shake down of the taxpayer, but this has not happened. The explanation
is largely found in the transformation of schooling from a simple
service to families and towns to an enormous, centralized corporate

While this
development has had a markedly adverse effect on people and on our
democratic traditions, it has made schooling the single largest
employer in the United States, and the largest grantor of contracts
next to the Defense Department. Both of these low-visibility phenomena
provide monopoly schooling with powerful political friends, publicists,
advocates and other useful allies. This is a large part of the explanation
why no amount of failure ever changes things in schools, or changes
them for very long. School people are in a position to outlast any
storm and to keep short-attention-span public scrutiny thoroughly

An overview
of the short history of this institution reveals a pattern marked
by intervals of public outrage, followed by enlargement of the monopoly
in every case.

After nearly
30 years spent inside a number of public schools, some considered
good, some bad, I feel certain that management cannot clean its
own house. It relentlessly marginalizes all significant change.
There are no incentives for the "owners" of the structure
to reform it, nor can there be without outside competition.

What is needed
for several decades is the kind of wildly-swinging free market we
had at the beginning of our national history. It cannot be overemphasized
that no body of theory exists to accurately define the way children
learn, or which learning is of most worth. By pretending the existence
of such we have cut ourselves off from the information and innovation
that only a real market can provide. Fortunately our national situation
has been so favorable, so dominant through most of our history,
that the margin of error afforded has been vast.

But the future
is not so clear. Violence, narcotic addictions, divorce, alcoholism,
loneliness…all these are but tangible measures of a poverty in
education. Surely schools, as the institutions monopolizing the
daytimes of childhood, can be called to account for this. In a democracy
the final judges cannot be experts, but only the people.

Trust the people,
give them choices, and the school nightmare will vanish in a generation.

22, 2010

Taylor Gatto is the author of Weapons
of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark
World of Compulsory Schooling
Underground History of American Education: A School Teacher’s Intimate
Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling
, and
Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
He was 1991 New York State Teacher of the Year.

Email Print