The Psychopathology of Everyday Schooling

Chapter 15 of The Underground History of American Public Education

In 1909 a factory inspector did an informal survey of 500 working children in 20 factories. She found that 412 of them would rather work in the terrible conditions of the factories than return to school. ~ Helen Todd, "Why Children Work," McClure’s Magazine (April 1913)

In one experiment in Milwaukee, for example, 8,000 youth…were asked if they would return full-time to school if they were paid about the same wages as they earned at work; only 16 said they would. ~ David Tyack, Managers of Virtue (1982)

An Arena Of Dishonesty

I remember clearly the last school where I worked, on the wealthy Upper West Side of Manhattan. An attractive atmosphere of good-natured dishonesty was the lingua franca of corridor and classroom, a grace caused oddly enough by the school’s unwritten policy of cutting unruly children all the slack they could use.

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Student terrorists, muggers, sexual predators, and thieves, including two of my own pupils who had just robbed a neighborhood grocery of $300 and had been apprehended coming back to class, were regularly returned to their lessons after a brief lecture from the principal. All received the same mercy. There was no such thing as being held to account at my school. This behavioral strategy — leveling good, bad, ugly into one undifferentiated lumpenproletariat1 — may seem odd or morally repugnant in conventional terms, but it constituted masterful psychological management from the perspective of enlightened pedagogy. What this policy served and served well was to prioritize order and harmony above justice or academic development.

Once you know the code, the procedure is an old one. It can hardly be called radical politics except by the terminally innocent. If you spend a few hours with Erving Goffman’s work on the management of institutions, you discover that the strongest inmates in an asylum and the asylum’s management have a bond; they need each other. This isn’t cynical. It’s a price that must be paid for the benefits of mega-institutions. The vast Civil War prison camp of Andersonville couldn’t have operated without active cooperation from its more dangerous inmates; so too, Dachau; so it is in school. Erving Goffman taught us all we need to know about the real grease which makes institutional wheels turn.

A tacit hands-off policy pays impressive dividends. In the case of my school, those dividends were reflected in the neighborhood newspaper’s customary reference to the place as "The West Side’s Best-Kept Secret." This was supposed to mean that private school conditions obtained inside the building, civility was honored, the battlefield aspect of other schools with large minority populations was missing. And it was true. The tone of the place was as good as could be found in Community School District 3. It was as if by withdrawing every expectation from the rowdy, their affability rose in inverse proportion.

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Not long after my transfer into this school I came into home room one morning to discover Jack, a handsome young fellow of thirteen, running a crap game in the back of the room, a funny looking cigarette in his mouth. "Hey, Jack, knock it off," I snapped, and like the surprisingly courteous boy he was, he did. But a little while later there was Jack undressing a girl fairly conspicuously in the same corner, and this time when I intervened harshly he was slow to comply. A second order got no better results. "If I have to waste time on this junk again, Jack, you can cool your heels in the principal’s office," I said

Jack looked disappointed in me. He spoke frankly as if we were both men of the same world, "Look, Gatto," he told me in a low, pleasant voice so as not to embarrass me, "it won’t do any good. Save yourself the trouble. That lady will wink at me, hold me there for eight minutes — I’ve timed her before — and dump me back here. Why make trouble for yourself?" He was right. Eight minutes.

How could such a policy produce hallway decorum and relative quiet in classrooms, you may ask? Well, look at it this way: it’s tailor-made to be nonconfrontational with dangerous kids. True, it spreads terror and bewilderment among their victims, but, happy or unhappy, the weak are no problem for school managers; long experience with natural selection at my school had caused unfortunates to adapt, in Darwinian fashion, to their role as prey. Like edible animals they continued to the water hole in spite of every indignity awaiting. That hands-off modus vivendi extended to every operation. Only once in four years did I hear any teacher make an indirect reference to what was happening. One day I heard a lady remark offhandedly to a friend, "It’s like we signed the last Indian treaty here: you leave us alone; we leave you alone."

It’s not hard to see that, besides its beneficial immediate effect, this pragmatic policy has a powerful training function, too. Through it an army of young witnesses to officially sanctioned bad conduct learn how little value good conduct has. They learn pragmatism. Part of its silent testimony is that the strong will always successfully suppress the weak, so the weak learn to endure. They learn that appeals to authority are full of risk, so they don’t make them often. They learn what they need in order to be foot soldiers in a mass army.

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Psychopathic. An overheated word to characterize successful, pragmatic solutions to the control of institutional chaos. Isn’t this process a cheap and effective way to keep student entropy in check at the cost of no more than a little grief on the part of some dumb animals? Is it really psychopathic or only strategic sophistication? My principal, let’s call her Lulu to protect the guilty, once explained at a public meeting there was little she could do about the unfortunate past and present of these kids, and she acknowledged they probably didn’t have bright prospects for the future — but while they were here they would know she cared about them, no one would be unduly hassled. Nobody in the audience took what she said to be insincere, nor do I think it was. She believed what she said.

Psychopathic. The word summons up flashing eyes and floating hair, men hiding gasoline bombs under their coats in crowded subway cars on the way to Merrill Lynch for revenge. But set aside any lurid pictures you may associate with the term. I’m using it as a label to describe people without consciences, nothing more. Psychopaths and sociopaths are often our charming and intelligent roommates in corporations and institutions. They mimic perfectly the necessary protective coloration of compassion and concern, they mimic human discourse. Yet underneath that surface disguise they are circuit boards of scientific rationality, pure expressions of pragmatism.

All large bureaucracies, public or private, are psychopathic to the degree they are well-managed. It’s a genuine paradox, but time to face the truth of it. Corporate policies like downsizing and environmental degradation, which reduce the quality of life for enormous numbers of people, make perfectly rational sense as devices to reach profitability. Even could it be proven that the theory of homo economicus has a long-range moral component in which, as is sometimes argued in policy circles, the pain of the moment leads inevitably to a better tomorrow for those who survive — the thing would still be psychopathic. An older America would have had little hesitation labeling it as Evil. I’ve reached for the term psychopathic in place of Evil in deference to modern antipathies. The whole matter is in harmony with classic evolutionary theory and theological notions of limited salvation. I find that congruence interesting.

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The sensationalistic charge that all large corporations, including school corporations, are psychopathic becomes less inflammatory if you admit the obvious first, that all such entities are nonhuman. Forget the human beings who populate corporate structures. Sure, some of them sabotage corporate integrity from time to time and behave like human beings, but never consistently, and never for long, for if that were the story, corporate coherence would be impossible, as it often is in Third World countries. Now at least you see where I’m coming from in categorizing the institutional corporation of school as psychopathic. Moral codes don’t drive school decision-making. That means School sometimes decides to ignore your wimpy kid being beaten up for his lunch money in order to oil some greater wheels. School has no tear ducts with which to weep.

The Game Is Crooked

Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the remarkable banality of Nazi-era organizational character calls attention to its excessive orderliness, unfailing courtesy, neat files, schedules for everything, efficient supply procedures, and the dullness and emotional poverty of Adolf Eichmann, who supervised the destruction of many lives without any particular malice. He even liked Jews. That he was part of a company dedicated to the conversion of animate into inanimate on a wholesale basis wasn’t his fault. It was just a job. His rational duty was to do his best at it. Unless mankind is allowed to possess some peculiar godlike dignity, a soul perhaps, Eichmann had a right to say to his critics — what difference between what I do and the slaughter of British beef to prevent mad cow disease? Nothing personal. Is it a shortage of people that makes you so angry?

That’s the real point, isn’t it? Once a mission is defined with pure objectivity, psychopathic procedure makes perfect sense. If men and women can think about genocide that way, you can understand why merely screwing up children wouldn’t trouble the sleep of school administrators. Their job isn’t about children; it’s about systems maintenance. The school institution has always had a strong shadow mission to refute the irrefutable fact that all kids want to learn to be their best and strongest selves. They don’t need to be forced to do this.

School is a tour de force designed to recreate human nature around a different premise, constructing proof that most kids don’t want to learn because they are biologically defective. School succeeds in this private aim only by failing in its public mission; that’s the knuckle-ball school critics always miss. Only a delicate blend of abject failures, midrange failures, and minor failures mixed together with a topping of success guarantees the ongoing health of the school enterprise. School is as good an illustration of the work of natural selection in institutional life as we have. The only drawback is, the game is crooked. Like an undertaker who murders to boost business or a glazier who breaks glass in the stillness of the night2 to stimulate trade, schools create the problems they seem to exist to solve.

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Psychopathic Programming

I could regale you with mountains of statistics to illustrate the damage schools cause. I could bring before your attention a line of case studies to illustrate the mutilation of specific individuals — even those who have been apparently privileged as its "gifted and talented."3 What would that prove? You’ve heard those stories, read these figures before until you went numb from the assault on common sense. School can’t be that bad, you say. You survived, didn’t you? Or did you? Review what you learned there. Has it made a crucial difference for good in your life? Don’t answer. I know it hasn’t. You surrendered twelve years of your life because you had no choice. You paid your dues, I paid mine. But who collected those dues?

In 1911, a prominent German sociologist, Robert Michel, warned in his book Political Parties that the size and prosperity of modern bureaucracies had given them unprecedented ability to buy friends. In this way they shield themselves against internal reform and make themselves impervious to outside reform. Across this great epoch of bureaucracy, Michel’s warning has been strikingly borne out. Where school is concerned we have lived through six major periods of crisis since its beginning, zones of social turmoil where outsiders have demanded the state change the way it provides for the schooling of children.4 Each crisis can be used as a stepping-stone leading us back to the original wrong path we took at the beginnings.

All alleged reforms have left schooling exactly in the shape they found it, except bigger, richer, politically stronger. And morally and intellectually worse by the standards of the common American village of yesteryear which still lives in our hearts. Many people of conscience only defend institutional schooling because they can’t imagine what would happen without any schools, especially what might happen to the poor. This compassionate and articulate contingent has consistently been fronted by the real engineers of schooling, skillfully used as shock troops to support the cumulative destruction of American working-class and peasant culture, a destruction largely effected through schooling.

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Psychopathic programming is incapable of change. It lacks moral dimension or ethical mind beyond the pragmatic. Institutional morality is always public relations; once institutional machinery of sufficient size and complexity is built, a logical movement commences that is internally aimed toward subordination and eventual elimination of all ethical mandates. Even if quality personnel are stationed on the parapets in the first generation of new institutional existence, that original vigilance will flag as pioneers give way to time-servers. The only reliable defense against this is to keep institutions weak and dispersed, even if that means sacrificing efficiency and holding them on a very short leash.

Michel wrote in Political Parties that the primary mission of all institutional managers (including school managers) is to cause their institution to grow in power, in number of employees, in autonomy from public oversight, and in rewards for key personnel. The primary mission is never, of course, the publicly announced one. Whether we are talking about bureaucracies assigned to wage war, deliver mail, or educate children, there is no difference.

In the course of things, this rationalization isn’t a straight-line matter. There can be pullbacks in the face of criticism, for example. But examined over time, movement toward rationalizing operations is always unidirectional, public outrage against the immoral effects of this is buffered by purchased political friendships, by seemingly neutral public authorities who always find it prudent to argue for delay, in confidence the heat will cool. In this way momentum is spent, public attention diverted, until the next upwelling of outrage. These strategies of opinion management are taught calmly through elite graduate university training in the best schools here, as was true in Prussia. Corporate bureaucracies, including those in the so-called public sphere, know how to wear out critics. There is no malicious intent, only a striving for efficiency.

Something has been happening in America since the end of WWII, accelerating since the flight of Sputnik and the invasion of Vietnam. A massive effort is underway to link centrally organized control of jobs with centrally organized administration of schooling. This would be an American equivalent of the Chinese "Dangan" — linking a personal file begun in kindergarten (recording academic performance, attitudes, behavioral characteristics, medical records, and other personal data) with all work opportunities. In China the Dangan can’t be escaped. It is part of a web of social controls that ensures stability of the social order; justice has nothing to do with it. The Dangan is coming to the United States under cover of skillfully engineered changes in medicine, employment, education, social service, etc., seemingly remote from one another. In fact, the pieces are being coordinated through an interlink between foundations, grant-making government departments, corporate public relations, key universities, and similar agencies out of public view.

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This American Dangan will begin with longer school days and years, with more public resources devoted to institutional schooling, with more job opportunities in the school field, more emphasis on standardized testing, more national examinations, plus hitherto unheard of developments like national teaching licenses, national curricula, national goals, national standards, and with the great dream of corporate America since 1900, School-to-Work legislation organizing the youth of America into precocious work battalions. A Dangan by its nature is always psychopathic. It buries its mistakes.

What Really Goes On

School wreaks havoc on human foundations in at least eight substantive ways so deeply buried few notice them, and fewer still can imagine any other way for children to grow up:

1) The first lesson schools teach is forgetfulness; forcing children to forget how they taught themselves important things like walking and talking. This is done so pleasantly and painlessly that the one area of schooling most of us would agree has few problems is elementary school — even though it is there that the massive damage to language-making occurs. Jerry Farber captured the truth over thirty years ago in his lapidary metaphor "Student as Nigger" and developed it in the beautiful essay of the same name. If we forced children to learn to walk with the same methods we use to force them to read, a few would learn to walk well in spite of us, most would walk indifferently, without pleasure, and a portion of the remainder would not become ambulatory at all. The push to extend "day care" further and further into currently unschooled time importantly assists the formal twelve-year sequence, ensuring utmost tractability among first graders.

2) The second lesson schools teach is bewilderment and confusion. Virtually nothing selected by schools as basic is basic, all curriculum is subordinate to standards imposed by behavioral psychology, and to a lesser extent Freudian precepts compounded into a hash with "third force" psychology (centering on the writings of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow). None of these systems accurately describes human reality, but their lodgement in university/business seven-step mythologies makes them dangerously invulnerable to common-sense criticism.

None of the allegedly scientific school sequences is empirically defensible. All lack evidence of being much more than superstition cleverly hybridized with a body of borrowed fact. Pestalozzi’s basic "simple to complex" formulation, for instance, is a prescription for disaster in the classroom since no two minds have the same "simple" starting point, and in the more advanced schedules, children are frequently more knowledgeable than their overseers — witness the wretched record of public school computer instruction when compared to self-discovery programs undertaken informally. Similarly, endless sequences of so-called "subjects" delivered by men and women who, however well-meaning, have only superficial knowledge of the things whereof they speak, is the introduction most kids get to the liar’s world of institutional life. Ignorant mentors cannot manage larger meanings, only facts. In this way schools teach the disconnection of everything.

3) The third lesson schools teach is that children are assigned by experts to a social class and must stay in the class to which they have been assigned. This is an Egyptian outlook, but its Oriental message only begins to suggest the bad fit it produces in America. The natural genius of the United States as explored and set down in covenants over the first two-thirds of our history has now been radically degraded and overthrown. The class system is reawakened through schooling. So rigid have American classifications become that our society has taken on the aspect of caste, which teaches unwarranted self-esteem and its converse — envy, self-hatred, and surrender. In class systems, the state assigns your place in a class, and if you know what’s good for you, you come to know it, too.

4) The fourth lesson schools teach is indifference. By bells and other concentration-destroying technology, schools teach that nothing is worth finishing because some arbitrary power intervenes both periodically and aperiodically. If nothing is worth finishing, nothing is worth starting. Don’t you see how one follows the other? Love of learning can’t survive this steady drill. Students are taught to work for little favors and ceremonial grades which correlate poorly with their actual ability. By addicting children to outside approval and nonsense rewards, schools make them indifferent to the real power and potential that inheres in self-discovery. Schools alienate the winners as well as the losers.

5) The fifth lesson schools teach is emotional dependency. By stars, checks, smiles, frowns, prizes, honors, and disgraces, schools condition children to lifelong emotional dependency. It’s like training a dog. The reward/punishment cycle, known to animal trainers from antiquity, is the heart of a human psychology distilled in late nineteenth-century Leipzig and incorporated thoroughly into the scientific management revolution of the early twentieth century in America. Half a century later, by 1968, it had infected every school system in the United States, so all-pervasive at century’s end that few people can imagine a different way to go about management. And indeed, there isn’t a better one if the goal of managed lives in a managed economy and a managed social order is what you’re after.

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Each day, schools reinforce how absolute and arbitrary power really is by granting and denying access to fundamental needs for toilets, water, privacy, and movement. In this way, basic human rights which usually require only individual volition, are transformed into privileges not to be taken for granted.

6) The sixth lesson schools teach is intellectual dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. Good people do it the way the teacher wants it done. Good teachers in their turn wait for the curriculum supervisor or textbook to tell them what to do. Principals are evaluated according to an ability to make these groups conform to expectations; superintendents upon their ability to make principals conform; state education departments on their ability to efficiently direct and control the thinking of superintendents according to instructions which originate with foundations, universities, and politicians sensitive to the quietly expressed wishes of powerful corporations, and other interests.

For all its clumsy execution, school is a textbook illustration of how the bureaucratic chain of command is supposed to work. Once the thing is running, virtually nobody can alter its direction who doesn’t understand the complex code for making it work, a code that never stops trying to complicate itself further in order to make human control impossible. The sixth lesson of schooling teaches that experts make all-important choices, but it is useless to remonstrate with the expert nearest you because he is as helpless as you are to change the system.

7) The seventh lesson schools teach is provisional self-esteem. Self-respect in children must be made contingent on the certification of experts through rituals of number magic. It must not be self-generated as it was for Benjamin Franklin, the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, or Henry Ford. The role of grades, report cards, standardized tests, prizes, scholarships, and other awards in effecting this process is too obvious to belabor, but it’s the daily encounter with hundreds of verbal and nonverbal cues sent by teachers that shapes the quality of self-doubt most effectively.

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8) The last lesson school teaches I’ll call the glass house effect: It teaches how hopeless it is to resist because you are always watched. There is no place to hide. Nor should you want to. Your avoidance behavior is actually a signal you should be watched even more closely than the others. Privacy is a thought crime. School sees to it that there is no private time, no private space, no minute uncommanded, no desk free from search, no bruise not inspected by medical policing or the counseling arm of thought patrols.

The most sensitive children I had each year knew on some level what was really going on. But we choked the treacherous breath out of them until they acknowledged they depended on us for their futures. Hard-core cases were remanded to adjustment agencies where they converted themselves into manageable cynics.

Pathology As A Natural Byproduct

With these eight lessons in hand you should have less trouble seeing that the social pathologies we associate with modern children are natural byproducts of our modern system of schooling which produces:

  • Children indifferent to the adult world of values and accomplishment, defying the universal human experience laid down over thousands of years that a close study of grown-ups is always the most exciting and one of the most necessary occupations of youth. Have you noticed how very few people, adults included, want to grow up anymore? Toys are the lingua franca of American society for the masses and the classes.
  • Children with almost no curiosity. Children who can’t even concentrate for long on things they themselves choose to do. Children taught to channel-change by a pedagogy employing the strategy "and now for something different," but kids who also realize dimly that the same damn show is on every channel.
  • Children with a poor sense of the future, of how tomorrow is linked to today. Children who live in a continuous present. Conversely, children with no sense of the past and of how the past has shaped and limited the present, shaped and limited their own choices, predetermined their values and destinies to an overwhelming degree.
  • Children who lack compassion for misfortune, who laugh at weakness, who betray their friends and families, who show contempt for people whose need for help shows too plainly. Children condemned to be alone, to age with bitterness, to die in fear.
  • Children who can’t stand intimacy or frankness. Children who masquerade behind personalities hastily fabricated from watching television and from other distorted gauges of human nature. Behind the masks lurk crippled souls. Aware of this, they avoid the close scrutiny intimate relationships demand because it will expose their shallowness of which they have some awareness.
  • Materialistic children who assign a price to everything and who avoid spending too much time with people who promise no immediate payback — a group which often includes their own parents. Children who follow the lead of schoolteachers, grading and ranking everything: "the best," "the biggest," "the finest," "the worst." Everything simplified into simple-minded categories by the implied judgment of a cash price, deemed an infallible guide to value.
  • Dependent children who grow up to be whining, treacherous, terrified, dependent adults, passive and timid in the face of new challenges. And yet this crippling condition is often hidden under a patina of bravado, anger, aggressiveness.

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A Critical Appraisal

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, as the new school institution slowly took root after the Civil War in big cities and the defeated South, some of the best minds in the land, people fit by their social rank to comment publicly, spoke out as they watched its first phalanx of graduates take their place in the traditional American world. All these speakers had been trained themselves in the older, a-systematic, noninstitutional schools. At the beginning of another new century, it is eerie to hear what these great-grandfathers of ours had to say about the mass schooling phenomenon as they approached their own fateful new century.

In 1867, world-famous American physician and academic Vincent Youmans lectured the London College of Preceptors about the school institution just coming into being:

School produces mental perversion and absolute stupidity. It produces bodily disease. It produces these things by measures which operate to the prejudice of the growing brain. It is not to be doubted that dullness, indocility, and viciousness are frequently aggravated by the lessons of school.

Thirteen years later, Francis Parkman (of Oregon Trail fame) delivered a similar judgment. The year was 1880, at the very moment Wundt was founding his laboratory of scientific psychology in Germany:

Many had hoped that by giving a partial teaching to great numbers of persons, a thirst for knowledge might be awakened. Thus far, the results have not equaled expectations. Schools have not borne any fruit on which we have cause to congratulate ourselves. (emphasis added)

In 1885, the president of Columbia University said:

The results actually attained under our present system of instruction are neither very flattering nor very encouraging.

In 1895, the president of Harvard said:

Ordinary schooling produces dullness. A young man whose intellectual powers are worth cultivating cannot be willing to cultivate them by pursuing phantoms as the schools now insist upon.

When he said this, compulsion schooling in its first manifestation was approaching its forty-fifth year of operations in Massachusetts, and running at high efficiency in the city of Cambridge, home to Harvard.

Then, in the early years of the twentieth century, pedagogy underwent another metamorphosis that resulted in an even more efficient scientific form of schooling. Four years before WWI broke out, a well-known European thinker and schoolman, Paul Geheeb, whom Einstein, Hermann Hesse, and Albert Schweitzer all were to claim as a friend, made this commentary on English and German types of forced schooling:

The dissatisfaction with public schools is widely felt. Countless attempts to reform them have failed. People complain about the "overburdening" of schools; educators argue about which parts of curriculum should be cut; but school cannot be reformed with a pair of scissors. The solution is not to be found in educational institutions. (emphasis added)

In 1930, the yearly Inglis Lecturer at Harvard made the same case:

We have absolutely nothing to show for our colossal investment in common schooling after 80 years of trying.

Thirty years passed before John Gardner’s "Annual Report to the Carnegie Corporation," in 1960, added this:

Too many young people gain nothing [from school] except the conviction they are misfits.

The record after 1960 is no different. It is hardly unfair to say that the stupidity of 1867, the fruitlessness of 1880, the dullness of 1895, the cannot be reformed of 1910, the absolutely nothing of 1930, and the nothing of 1960 have continued into the schools of today. We pay four times more in real dollars than we did in 1930 and thus we buy even more of what mass schooling dollars always bought.

Vox Populi

Just under eighteen hundred people wrote letters to me in the year I was New York State Teacher of the Year, in response to a series of essays I wrote about what I had witnessed as a schoolteacher, essays which have now become part of this book. In a strange way, those different letters were eighteen hundred versions of the same letter, a spontaneous outcry against the violation that so many feel in being compelled to be a character in someone else’s fantasy of how to grow up. Listen to a few of these voices:

Huntington, West Virginia "Homeschooling may be stressful but it’s nothing compared to the stress I experienced watching my daughter’s self-respect and creative energy drain away within the first few weeks of third grade."

Toronto, Canada "Little has changed since I was asked to sit in straight rows and memorize an irrelevant curriculum. Recently my wife quit her job because we fear losing contact with our children as they enter a school system we cannot understand and are unable to change."

Frankfurt, Illinois "I had a rich personal inquiry going on in many things. School was for me a tedious interruption of my otherwise interesting life."

Yelm, Washington "My passion is that my daughter be allowed to grow up being completely who she is. Right now she is a happy, enthusiastic, self-taught child of eight and a half. She taught herself to read at four, reads everything. School to me has always felt sick at the core of its concept."

Madison, Wisconsin "I’m desperate what to do. Three bright and lively children but everyday I see a closing down of enthusiasm as they grind their way through a predetermined school program."

Reno, Nevada "My wife and I came to the end of the rope with public education four years ago. I was tired of seeing my once happy child constantly in tears."

Santa Barbara, California "I just took my eight-year-old daughter from school. Bit by bit she was becoming silent, even fearful. From her anxiety to reach the school bus on time to the times she was visibly shaken from criticism of her homework. Day by day she was changing for the worse. But the absolute end was the destructive effect the culture of schoolchildren’s values had on her behavior. Now she laughs again. I have my laughing girl back."

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania "School started to destroy my family by dividing us from one another instead of joining us. It created separatism among the kids, among the classes, among ages, among parents and children. After I took my second grader from school she began to blossom. She loves her time now, the time is the gift."

Huntersville, North Carolina "I defined myself as a child by my accomplishments at school just as I had been taught to. I was a National Merit Scholar and a Presidential Scholar but I couldn’t even make it through two years of college because my own authoritarian schooling had left me completely unprepared to make my own decisions."

St. Louis, Missouri "Mr. Gatto, you are describing my daughter when you name the pathological symptoms our children display as a result of their schooling. And you are describing me — which pains me almost unbearably to recognize and admit."

Haverhill, Massachusetts "I have no certificates of great accomplishment, no titles, no diploma except a high school one, no degree except when I have a fever. Yet I do have experience gained while raising three daughters. I’d like to paint a picture for you. I had to take my daughter out of kindergarten after five weeks. This happy, self-regulating child I was raising showed great signs of stress in that short of a time. I remembered the rebellion of my two angry teenagers, suddenly made the connection, and took her from school. And so the last girl I raised as a free child. There have been no signs of anger or rebellion since then. That was seventeen years ago."

The Systems Idea In Action

In Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-Of-Control (1989), Langdon Winner takes a sobering look at modern predicament:

Society is composed of persons who cannot design, build, repair, or even operate most of the devices upon which their lives depend…. In the complexity of this world people are confronted with extraordinary events and functions that are literally unintelligible to them. They are unable to give an adequate explanation of man-made phenomena in their immediate experience. They are unable to form a coherent, rational picture of the whole. Under the circumstances, all persons do, and indeed must, accept a great number of things on faith…. Their way of understanding is basically religious, rather than scientific; only a small portion of one’s everyday experience in the technological society can be made scientific…. The plight of members of the technological society can be compared to that of a newborn child. Much of the data that enters its sense does not form coherent wholes. There are many things the child cannot understand or, after it has learned to speak, cannot successfully explain to anyone…. Citizens of the modern age in this respect are less fortunate than children. They never escape a fundamental bewilderment in the face of the complex world that their senses report. They are not able to organize all or even very much of this into sensible wholes…. An objection might be raised that difficulties of the sort I have mentioned soon will have remedies. Systems theory, artificial intelligence, or some new modern way of knowing will alleviate the burdens…. Soon there will exist tools of intellectual synthesis. I must report I found no such tools in practice. I have surveyed the various candidates for this honor — systems theory and systems analysis, computer sciences and artificial intelligence, new methods of coding great masses of information, the strategy of disjointed incrementalism and so forth. As relief for the difficulties raised here none of these offers much help…. The systems idea is another — and indeed the ultimate — technique to shape man and society.

By allowing the existence of large bureaucratic systems under centralized control, whether corporate, governmental, or institutional, we unwittingly enter into a hideous conspiracy against ourselves, one in which we resolutely work to limit the growth of our minds and spirits. The only conceivable answer is to break the power of these things, through grit, courage, indomitability and resolution if possible, through acts of personal sabotage and disloyalty if not.


  1. Except for a small fraction of Gifted and Talented Honors kids sequestered in a remote corner of the third floor, who followed different protocols, although a good deal less different than they knew.
  2. This particular form of rational psychopathy has been an epidemic in the Northeast for decades, and it has struck my own life more than once. Some think that auto-glass installers send agents through lines of parked cars late at night to crack their windshields on the sensible supposition that in a trade without many practitioners, a decent proportion of new work will go to the creators of the need. Or perhaps the entire guild underwrites the trade, who knows?
  3. What I would never do is to argue that the damage to human potential is adequately caught in the rise or fall of SAT scores or any other standardized measure because these markers are too unreliable — besides being far too prone to strategic manipulation. The New York Times of March 9, 2003, reported in an article by Sara Rimer that Harvard rejects four valedictorians out of every five, quoting that school’s director of admissions as saying: “To get in [Harvard], you have to present some real distinction…” A distinction which, apparently, 80 percent of “top” students lack.
  4. Different addictive readers of school histories might tally eight crises or five, so the stab at specificity shouldn’t be taken too seriously by any reader. What it is meant to indicate is that careful immersion in pedagogical history will reveal, even to the most skeptical, that mass schooling has been in nearly constant crisis since its inception. There never was a golden age of mass schooling, nor can there ever be.

Chapters of The Underground History of American Public Education:

John Taylor Gatto is available for speaking engagements and consulting. Write him at P.O. Box 562, Oxford, NY 13830 or call him at 607-843-8418 or 212-874-3631.