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

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    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.

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