Breaking Out of the Trap

Chapter 18 of The Underground History of American Public Education

We have a choice to make once and for all: between the empire and the spiritual and physical salvation of our people. No road for the people will ever be open unless the government completely gives up control over us or any aspect of our lives. It has led the country into an abyss and it does not know the way out.

~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, as quoted by Pravda (1986)

To hell with the cheese, let’s get out of this trap!

~ A mouse

Silicon Valley

To reform our treatment of the young, we must force the center of gravity of the school world to change. In this chapter I’ll try to show you what I mean, but my method will be largely indirect. To fashion the beginnings of a solution from these materials will require your active engagement in an imaginative partnership with me, one that shall commence in Silicon Valley.

I went to Silicon Valley in the middle of 1999 to speak to some computer executives at Cypress Semiconductor on the general topic of school reform. The fifty or sixty who showed up to my talk directly from work were dressed so informally they might easily have been mistaken for pizza delivery men or taxicab drivers. The CEO of the corporation, its founder T.J. Rodgers, was similarly turned out. I didn’t recognize him as the same famous man portrayed on a large photo mural mounted on the wall outside until he introduced me to the audience and the audience to me.

To let me know who my auditors were, Rodgers said that everyone there was a millionaire, none needed to work for him because all were self-sufficient and could find work all over the place simply by walking into a different company. They worked for Cypress because they wanted to, just as he did himself and, like him, they were usually hard at it from very early morning until long after five o’clock. Because they wanted to.

The thesis of my talk was that the history of forced schooling in America, as elsewhere, is the history of the requirements of business. School can’t be satisfactorily explained by studying the careers of ideologues like Horace Mann or anyone else. The problem of American education from a personal or a family perspective isn’t really a problem at all from the vantage point of big business, big finance, and big government. What’s a problem to me is a solution for them. An insufficient incentive exists to change things much, otherwise things would change. I learned that from Adam Smith; Smith turns out to be a much different sensibility than the priesthood of corporate apologists thinks he is.

Regard it this way: in our present system, those abstract bignesses are saddled with the endless responsibility of finding a place for hundreds of millions of people, and the even more daunting challenge of creating demand for products and services which, historically viewed, few of us need or want. Because of this anomaly, a Procrustean discipline emerges in which the entire population must continually be cut or stretched to fit the momentary convenience of the economy. This is a free market only in fantasy; it seems free because ceaseless behind-the-scenes efforts maintain the illusion, but its reality is much different. Prodigies of psychological and political insight and wisdom gathered painfully over the centuries are refined into principles, taught in elite colleges, and consecrated in the service of this colossal tour de force of appearances.

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Let me illustrate. People love to work, but they must be convinced that work is a kind of curse, that they must arrange the maximum of leisure and labor-saving devices in their lives upon which belief many corporations depend; people love to invent solutions, to be resourceful, to make do with what they have, but resourcefulness and frugality are criminal behaviors to a mass production economy, such examples threaten to infect others with the same fatal sedition; similarly, people love to attach themselves to favored possessions, even to grow old and die with them, but such indulgence is dangerous lunacy in a machine economy whose costly tools are continually renewed by enormous borrowings; people like to stay put but must be convinced they lead pinched and barren existences without travel; people love to walk but the built world is now laid out so they have to drive. Worst of all are those who yearn for productive, independent livelihoods like the Amish have, and nearly all free Americans once had. If that vision spreads, a consumer economy is sunk. For all these and other reasons, the form of schooling we get is largely a kind of consumer and employee training. This isn’t just incidentally true. Common sense should tell you it’s necessarily so if the economy is to survive in any recognizable form.

Every principal institution in our culture is a partner with the particular form of corporatism which has began to dominate America at the end of WWII. Call it paternal corporatism, wise elites can be trained to provide for the rest of us, who will be kept as children. Unlike Plato’s Guardians whom they otherwise resemble, this meritorious elite is not kept poor but is guaranteed prosperity and status in exchange for its oversight. An essential feature of this kind of central management is that the population remain mystified, specialized dependent, and childish.

The school institution is clearly a key partner in this arrangement: it suppresses the productive impulse in favor of consumption; it redefines "work" as a job someone eventually gives you if you behave; it habituates a large clientele to sloth, envy, and boredom; and it 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.

We have evolved a subtly architected, delicately balanced command economy and class-based society upon which huge efforts are lavished to make it appear like something else. The illusion has been wearing thin for years; that’s a principal reason why so many people don’t bother to vote. In such a bargain, the quality of schooling is distinctly secondary; other values are uppermost. A great many children see through the fraud in elementary school but lack the language and education to come to proper terms with their feelings. In this system, a fraction of the kids are slowly over time let in on a part of this managerial reality because they are intended to eventually be made into Guardians themselves, or Guardian’s assistants.

School is a place where a comprehensive social vision is learned. Without a contrary vision to offer, the term "school reform" is only a misnomer describing trivial changes. Any large alteration of forced schooling, which might jeopardize the continuity of workers and customers that the corporate economy depends upon, is unthinkable without some radical change in popular perception preceding it. Business/School partnerships and School-to-Work legislation aren’t positive developments, but they represent the end of any pretense that ordinary children should be educated. That, in any case, was the burden of my talk at Cypress.

Deregulating Opportunity

When I finished, Mr. Rodgers briefly took me to task for having seemed to include in the indictment the high-tech group at Cypress. Later I learned that he had challenged Washington to stop government subsidies to the Valley on the grounds that such tampering destroyed the very principle that provided it with energy — open competition and risk-taking. Thinking about his criticism on the road home, I accepted the justice of his complaint against me and, as penance, thought about the significance of what he had said.

A century ago mass production began to stifle the individualism which was the real American Dream. Big business, big government, and big labor couldn’t deal with individuals but only with people in bulk. Now computers seem to be shifting the balance of power from collective entities like corporations back to people. The cult of individual effort is found all over Silicon Valley, standing in sharp contrast to leadership practices based on high SAT scores, elite college degrees, and sponsorship by prominent patrons.

The Valley judges people on their tangible contributions rather than on sex, seniority, old-school ties, club memberships, or family. About half the millionaires in my Cypress audience had been foreign-born, not rich at all just a few years earlier. Many new Internet firms are headed by people in their mid-twenties who never wear a suit except to costume parties. Six thousand high- tech firms exist there in a nonstop entrepreneurial environment, the world’s best example of Adam Smith’s competitive capitalism. Companies are mostly small, personal, and fast on their feet. Traditional organization men are nowhere to be seen; they are a luxury none can afford and still remain competitive. Company mortality is high but so is the startup rate for new firms; when unsuccessful companies die their people and resources are recycled somewhere else.

Information technology people seek to create an economy close to the model capitalism in Adam Smith’s mind, a model which assumes the world to be composed not of childish and incompetent masses, but of individuals who can be trusted to pursue their own interests competently — if they are first given access to accurate information and then left relatively free of interference to make something of it. The Internet advances Smith’s case dramatically1. Computerization is pushing political debate in a libertarian direction, linking markets to the necessary personal freedoms which markets need to work, threatening countries that fail to follow this course of streamlining government with disaster. At least this was true before the great tech-wreck of 2001—2002.

It can only be a matter of time before America rides on the back of the computer age into a new form of educational schooling once called for by Adam Smith, that and a general reincorporation of children back into the greater social body from which they were excised a century and more ago will cure the problem of modern schooling. We can’t afford to waste the resources young lives represent much longer. Nobody’s that rich. Nor is anybody smart enough to marshal those resources and use them most efficiently. Individuals have to do that for themselves.

On October 30, 1999, The Economist printed a warning that decision-making was being dispersed around global networks of individuals that fall beyond the control of national governments and nothing could be done about it. "Innovation is now so fast and furious that big organizations increasingly look like dinosaurs while wired individuals race past them." That critique encompasses the problem of modern schooling, which cannot educate for fear the social order will explode. Yet the Siliconizing of the industrial world is up-ending hierarchies based on a few knowing inside information and a mass knowing relatively less in descending layers, right on down to schoolchildren given propaganda and fairy tales in place of knowledge.

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The full significance of what Adam Smith saw several centuries ago is hardly well understood today, even among those who claim to be his descendants. He saw that human potential, once educated, was beyond the reach of any system of analysis to comprehend or predict, or of any system of regulation to enhance. Fixed orders of social hierarchy and economic destiny are barricades put up to stem the surprising human inventiveness which would surely turn the world inside out if unleashed; they secure privilege by holding individuals in place.

Smith saw that over time wealth would follow the release of constraints on human inventiveness and imagination. The larger the group invited to play, the more spectacular the results. For all the ignorance and untrustworthiness in the world, he correctly perceived that the overwhelming majority of human beings could indeed be trusted to act in a way that over time is good for all. The only kind of education this system needs to be efficient is intellectual schooling for all, schooling to enlarge the imagination and strengthen the natural abilities to analyze, experiment, and communicate. Bringing the young up in somebody else’s grand socialization scheme, or bringing them up to play a fixed role in the existing economy and society, and nothing more, is like setting fire to a fortune and burning it up because you don’t understand money.

Smith would recognize our current public schools as the same kind of indoctrination project for the masses, albeit infinitely subtler, that the Hindus employed for centuries, a project whose attention is directed to the stability of the social order through constraint of opportunity. What a hideous waste! he might exclaim.

The great achievement of Wealth of Nations resides in its conviction and demonstration that people individually do best for everyone when they do best for themselves, when they aren’t commanded too much or protected against the consequences of their own folly. As long as we have a free market and a free society, Smith trusts us to be able to manage any problems that appear. It’s only when we vest authority and the problem-solving ability in a few that we become caught in a trap of our own making. The wild world of Silicon Valley mavericks and their outriggers is a hint of a dynamic America to come where responsibility, trust, and great expectations are once again given to the young as they were in Ben Franklin’s day. That is how we will break out of the school trap. Ask yourself where and how these Silicon kids really learned what they know. The answer isn’t found in memorizing a script.

Selling From Your Truck

In the northeast corner of an island a long way from here, a woman sells plates of cooked shrimp and rice from out of an old white truck. Her truck is worth $5,000 at most. She sells only that one thing plus hot dogs for the kids and canned soda. The license to do this costs $500 a year, or $43.25 a month, a little over a dollar a day. The shrimp lady is fifty-nine years old. She has a high school diploma and a nice smile. Her truck parks on a gravel pull-off from the main highway in a nondescript location. No one else is around, not because the shrimp lady has a protected location but because no one else wants to be there. A hand-lettered sign advertises, "$9.95 Shrimp and Rice. Soda $1.00. Hot Dogs $1.25."

The day I stood in line for a shrimp plate, five customers were in front of me. They bought fourteen plates among them and fourteen sodas. I bought two and two when it came my turn, and by that time five new customers had arrived behind me. I was intrigued.

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The next day Janet and I returned. We parked across the road where we could watch the truck but not make the shrimp lady nervous. In two hours, forty-one plates and forty-one sodas were handed out of the old truck, and maybe ten hot dogs. A week later we came back and watched again as nearly the same thing happened. Janet, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, estimated that $7 of the $10.95 for shrimp and soda was profit, after all costs.

Later we chatted with the lady in a quiet moment. The truck sits there eight hours a day, seven days a week, 364 days a year (the island is warm year round). It averages 100 to 150 shrimp sales a day, but has sold as many as 300. When the owner-proprietress isn’t there, one of her three daughters takes over. Each is only a high school graduate. For all I know, the only thing saleable any of them knows how to do is cook shrimp and rice, but they do that very well. The family earns in excess of a quarter million dollars a year selling shrimp plates out of an old truck. They have no interest in expanding or franchising the business. Another thing I noticed: all the customers seemed pleased; many were friendly and joked with the lady, myself included. She looked happy to be alive.

Mudsill Theory

A prophetic article entitled "The Laboring Classes" appeared in The Boston Quarterly Review in 1840 at the very moment Horace Mann’s crowd was beating the drum loudest for compulsion schooling. Its author, Orestes Brownson, charged that Horace Mann was trying to establish a state church in America like the one England had and to impose a merchant/industrialist worldview as its gospel. "A system of education [so constituted] may as well be a religion established by law," said Brownson. Mann’s business backers were trying, he thought, to set up a new division of labor giving licensed professional specialists a monopoly to teach, weakening people’s capacity to educate themselves, making them childlike.

Teaching in a democracy belongs to the whole community, not to any centralized monopoly,2 said Brownson, and children were far better educated by "the general pursuits, habits, and moral tone of the community" than by a privileged class. The mission of this country, according to Brownson, was "to raise up the laboring classes, and make every man really free and independent." Whatever schooling should be admitted to society under the auspices of government should be dedicated to the principle of independent livelihoods and close self-reliant families. Brownson’s freedom and independence are still the goals that represent a consensus of working-class opinion in America, although they have receded out of reach for all but a small fraction, like the shrimp lady. How close was the nation in 1840 to realizing such a dream of equality before forced schooling converted our working classes into "human resources" or a "workforce" for the convenience of the industrial order? The answer is very close, as significant clues testify.

A century and a half after "The Laboring Classes" was published, Cornell labor scholar Chris Clark investigated and corroborated the reality of Brownson’s world. In his book Roots of Rural Capitalism, Clark found that the general labor market in the Connecticut Valley was highly undependable in the 1840s by employer standards because it was shaped by family concerns. Outside work could only be fitted into what available free time farming allowed (for farming took priority), and work was adapted to the homespun character of rural manufacture in a system we find alive even today among the Amish. Wage labor was not dependent on a boss’ whim. It had a mind of its own and was always only a supplement to a broad strategy of household economy.

A successful tradition of self-reliance requires an optimistic theory of human nature to bolster it. Revolutionary America had a belief in common people never seen anywhere in the past. Before such an independent economy could be broken apart and scavenged for its labor units, people had to be brought to believe in a different, more pessimistic appraisal of human possibility. Abe Lincoln once called this contempt for ordinary people "mudsill theory," an attitude that the education of working men and women was useless and dangerous. It was the same argument, not incidentally, that the British state and church made and enforced for centuries, German principalities and their official church, too.

Lincoln said in a speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society in September 1859 that the goal of government planning should be independent livelihoods. He thought everyone capable of reaching that goal, as it is reached in Amish households today. Lincoln characterized mudsill theory as a distortion of human nature, cynical and self-serving in its central contention that:

Nobody labors, unless someone else, owning capital, by the use of that capital, induces him to it. Having assumed this, they proceed to consider whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent; or buy them, and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, they naturally conclude that all laborers are necessarily either hired laborers, or slaves. They further assume that whoever is once a hired laborer is fatally fixed in the condition for life, and thence again that his condition is as bad as or worse than that of a slave. This is the mudsill theory. (emphasis added)

This notion was contradicted, said Lincoln, by an inconvenient fact: a large majority in the free states were "neither hirers nor hired," and wage labor served only as a temporary condition leading to small proprietorship. This was Abraham Lincoln’s perception of the matter. Even more important, it was his affirmation. He testified to the rightness of this policy as a national mission, and the evidence that he thought himself onto something important was that he repeated this mudsill analysis in his first State of the Union speech to Congress in December 1861.

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Here in the twenty-first century it hardly seems possible, this conceit of Lincoln’s. Yet there is the baffling example of the Amish experiment, its families holding nearly universal proprietorship in farms or small enterprises, a fact which looms larger and larger in my own thinking about schools, school curricula, and the national mission of pedagogy as I grow old. That Amish prosperity wasn’t handed to them but achieved in the face of daunting odds, against active enmity from the states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere, and hordes of government agencies seeking to de-Amish them. That the Amish have survived and prevailed against high odds puts a base of realistic possibility under Lincoln and Brownson’s small-market perspective as the proper goal for schooling. An anti-mudsill curriculum once again, one worthy of another civil war if need be.

It takes no great intellect to see that such a curriculum taught in today’s economic environment would directly attack the dominant economy. Not intentionally, but lack of malice would be poor compensation for those whose businesses would inevitably wither and die as the idea spread. How many microbreweries would it take to ruin Budweiser? How many solar cells and methane-gas home generators to bring Exxon to its knees? This is one reason, I think, that many alternative school ideas which work, and are cheap and easy to administer, fizzle rather than that catch fire in the public imagination. The incentive to support projects wholeheartedly when they would incidentally eliminate your livelihood, or indeed eliminate the familiar society and relationships you hold dear, just isn’t there. Nor is it easy to see how it could ever be.

Why would anyone who makes a living selling goods or services be enthusiastic about schools that teach "less is more"? Or teach that television, even PBS, alters the mind for the worse? When I see the dense concentration of big business names associated with school reform I get a little crazy, not because they are bad people — most are no worse than you are or I — but because humanity’s best interests and corporate interests cannot really ever be a good fit except by accident.

The souls of free and independent men and women are mutilated by the necessary soullessness of corporate organization and decision-making. Think of cigarettes as a classic case in point. The truth is that even if all corporate production were pure and faultless, it is still an excess of organization — where the few make decisions for the many — that is choking us to death. Strength, joy, wisdom are only available to those who produce their own lives; never to those who merely consume the production of others. Nothing good can come from inviting global corporations to design our schools, any more than leaving a hungry dog to guard ham sandwiches is a good way to protect lunch.

All training except the most basic either secures or disestablishes things as they are. The familiar government school curriculum represents enshrined mudsill theory telling us people would do nothing if they weren’t tricked, bribed, or intimidated, proving scientifically that workers are for the most part biologically incompetent, strung out along a bell curve. Mudsill theory has become institutionalized with buzzers, routines, standardized assessments, and terminal rankings interleaved with an interminable presentation of carrots and sticks, the positive and negative reinforcement schedules of behavioral psychology, screening children for a corporate order.

Mudsillism is deeply ingrained in the whole work/school/media constellation. Getting rid of it will be a devilish task with no painless transition formula. This is going to hurt when it happens. And it will happen. The current order is too far off the track of human nature, too dis-spirited, to survive. Any economy in which the most common tasks are the shuffling of paper, the punching of buttons, and the running of mouths isn’t an order into which we should be pushing kids as if such jobs there were the avenue to a good life.

At the heart of any school reforms that aren’t simply tuning the mudsill mechanism lie two beliefs: 1) That talent, intelligence, grace, and high accomplishment are within the reach of every kid, and 2) That we are better off working for ourselves than for a boss.3 But how on earth can you believe these things in the face of a century of institution-shaping/economy-shaping monopoly schooling which claims something different? Or in the face of a constant stream of media menace that jobs are vanishing, that the workplace demands more regulation and discipline, that "foreign competition" will bury us if we don’t comply with expert prescriptions in the years ahead? One powerful antidote to such propaganda comes from looking at evidence which contradicts official propaganda — like women who earn as much as doctors by selling shrimp from old white trucks parked beside the road, or thirteen-year-old boys who don’t have time to waste in school because they expect to be independent businessmen before most kids are out of college. Meet Stanley:

I once had a thirteen-year-old Greek boy named Stanley who only came to school one day a month and got away with it because I was his homeroom teacher and doctored the records. I did it because Stanley explained to me where he spent the time instead. It seems Stanley had five aunts and uncles, all in business for themselves before they were twenty-one. A florist, an unfinished furniture builder, a delicatessen owner, a small restaurateur, and a delivery service operator. Stanley was passed from store to store doing free labor in exchange for an opportunity to learn the business. "This way I decide which business I like well enough to set up for myself," he told me. "You tell me what books to read and I’ll read them, but I don’t have time to waste in school unless I want to end up like the rest of these people, working for somebody else." After I heard that I couldn’t in good conscience keep him locked up. Could you? If you say yes, tell me why.

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Look at those 150,000 Old Order Amish in twenty-two states and several foreign countries: nearly crime-free, prosperous, employed almost totally at independent livelihoods; proprietors with only a 5 percent rate of failure compared to 85 percent for businesses in non-Amish hands. I hope that makes you think a little. Amish success isn’t even possible according to mudsill theory. They couldn’t have happened and yet they did. While they are still around they give the lie to everything you think you know about the inevitability of anything. Focus on the Amish the next time you hear some jerk say your children better shape up and toe the corporate line if they hope to be among the lucky survivors in the coming world economy. Why do they need to be hired hands at all, you should ask yourself. Indeed, why do you?

Autonomous Technology

The simple truth is there is no way to control this massive corporate/school thing from the human end. It has to be broken up. It has become a piece of autonomous technology. Its leadership is bankrupt in ideas. Merchants are merchants, not moral leaders or political ones. It surely is a sign of retrogression, not advance, that we have forgotten what the world’s peoples knew forever. A merchant has the same right to offer his opinion as I do, but it makes little sense for people who buy and sell soap and cigarettes to tell you how to raise your kid or what to believe in. No more sense than it does for a pedagogue to do the same. How would a huckster who pushes toothpaste, a joker who vends cigarettes, or a video dream peddler know anything about leading nations or raising children correctly? Are these to be the Washingtons, Jacksons, and Lincolns of the twenty-first century?

The timeless core of Western tradition, which only the cowardly and corrupt would wish to surrender, shows that we can’t grow into the truth of our own nature without local traditions and values at the center of things. We do not do well as human beings in those abstract associations for material advantage favored by merchants called networks, or in megalithic systems, whether governmental, institutional, or corporate. In his book An Open Life, Joseph Campbell put his finger on the heart of the matter:

[It is] an Oriental model. One of the typical things of the Orient is that any criticism disqualifies you for the guru’s instruction. Well in heaven’s name, is that appropriate for a Western mind? It’s simply a transferring of your submission to a childhood father onto a father for your adulthood. Which means you’re not growing up…. The thing about the guru in the West is that he represents an alien principle, namely, that you don’t follow your own path, you follow a given path. And that’s totally contrary to the Western spirit! Our spirituality is of the individual quest, individual realization — authenticity in your own life out of your own center. (emphasis added)

Mario Savio, the 1960s campus radical, stood once on the steps of Sproul Hall, Berkeley, and screamed:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who own it that unless you are free the machine will be prevented from working at all.

Limiting the power of government, in order to liberate the individual, was the great American revolutionary insight. Too much cooperation, avoiding conflict from ordinary people, these things aren’t acceptable in America although they may suit China, Indonesia, Britain, or Germany just fine. In America the absence of conflict is a sign of regression toward a global mean, hardly progress by our lights if you’ve seen much of the governance of the rest of the world where common people are crushed like annoying insects if they argue.

Carl Schurz, the German immigrant, said upon seeing America for the first time in 1848, "Here you can see how slightly a people needs to be governed." What it will take to break collectively out of this trap is a change in the nature of forced schooling, one which alters the balance of power between societies and systems in favor of societies again. We need once more to debate angrily the purpose of public education. The power of elites to set the agenda for public schooling has to be challenged, an agenda which includes totalitarian labeling of the ordinary population, unwarranted official prerogatives, and near total control of work. Until such a change happens, we need to individually withhold excessive allegiance from any and all forms of abstract, remotely displaced, political and economic leadership; we need to trust ourselves and our children to remake the future locally, demand that intellectual and character development once again be the mission of schools; we need to smash the government monopoly over the upbringing of our young by forcing it to compete for funds whose commitments should rest largely on the judgment of parents and local associations. Where argument, court action, foot-dragging, and polite subversion can’t derail this judgment, then we must find the courage to be saboteurs, as the maquis did in occupied France during WWII.

It isn’t difficult, someone once said, to imagine young Bill Clinton sitting at the feet of his favorite old professor, Dr. Carroll Quigley of Georgetown. As Quigley approached death, he came back to Georgetown one last time in 1976 to deliver the Oscar Iden Lecture Series. The Quigley of the Iden lectures said many things which anticipate the argument of my own book. His words often turn to the modern predicament, the sense of impending doom many of us feel:

The fundamental, all-pervasive cause of world instability is the destruction of communities by the commercialization of all human relationships and the resulting neuroses and psychoses…another cause of today’s instability is that we now have a society….which is totally dominated by the two elements of sovereignty that are not included in the state structure: control of credit and banking, and the corporation. These are free to political controls and social responsibility, …The only element of production they are concerned with is the one they can control: capital.

Quigley alludes to a startling ultimate solution to our problems with school and with much else in our now state-obsessed lives, a drawing of critical awareness:

…out of the Dark Age that followed the collapse of the Carolingian Empire came the most magnificent thing…the recognition that people can have a society without having a state. In other words, this experience wiped out the assumption that is found throughout Classical Antiquity, except among unorthodox and heretical thinkers, that the state and the society are identical, and therefore you can desire nothing more than to be a citizen. (emphasis added)

A society without a state. If the only value hard reading had was to be able to tune in on minds like Quigley’s, minds free of fetters, sharp axes with which to strike off chains, that alone would be reason enough to put such reading at the heart of a new kind of schooling which might strongly resemble the education America offered 150 years ago — a movement to ennoble common people, freeing them from the clutches of masters, experts, and those terrifying true believers whose eyes gleam in the dark. Quigley thought such a transformation was inevitable:

Now I come to my last statement…I’m not personally pessimistic. The final result will be that the American people will ultimately…opt out of the system. Today everything is a bureaucratic structure, and brainwashed people who are not personalities are trained to fit into this bureaucratic structure and say it is a great life — although I would assume that many on their death beds must feel otherwise. The process of copping out will take a long time, but notice: we are already copping out of military service on a wholesale basis; we are already copping out of voting on a large scale basis…. People are also copping out by refusing to pay any attention to newspapers or to what’s going on in the world, and by increasing emphasis on the growth of localism, what is happening in their own neighborhoods…. When Rome fell, the Christian answer was, "Create our own communities."

We shall do that again. When we want better families, better neighbors, better friends, and better schools we shall turn our backs on national and global systems, on expert experts and specialist specialties and begin to make our own schools one by one, far from the reach of systems.

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Did you know that Lear of LearJet fame was a dropout? Pierre Cardin, Liz Claiborne, the founder of McDonald’s, the founder of Wendy’s, Ben Franklin, one in every fifteen American millionaires?

The Bell Curve

We still have to face the propaganda barrier set up by statistical psychology — I mean the scam which demonstrates mathematically that most people don’t have the stuff to do it. This is the rocket driving School at breakneck speed across the barren land it traverses as a mobile hospital for the detritus of evolution. Could it be that all the pedagogical scientists have gotten it wrong? Are ordinary people better than they think?

I found a telling clue in Charles Murray’s best seller, The Bell Curve, at the spot when Murray pauses to politely denounce black schoolteacher Marva Collins’ fantastic claim that ghetto black children had real enthusiasm for difficult intellectual work. Oddly enough that was exactly my own experience as a white schoolteacher with black thirteen-year-olds from Harlem. I was curious why Dr. Murray or Dr. Herrnstein, or both, became so exercised, since Marva Collins otherwise doesn’t figure in the book. So certain were the authors that Collins couldn’t be telling the truth, that they dismissed her data while admitting they hadn’t examined the situation firsthand. That is contempt of a very high order, however decorously phrased.

The anomaly struck me even as I lay in the idyllic setting of a beach on the northern coast of Oahu, watched over by sea turtles, where I had gone to do research for this book in America’s most far-flung corporate colony, Hawaii. Bell-curve theory has been around since Methuselah under different names, just as theories of multiple intelligence have; why get out of sorts because a woman of color argued from her practice a dissent? Finally the light went on: bell-curve mudsill theory loses its credibility if Marva Collins is telling the truth. Trillions of dollars and the whole social order are at stake. Marva Collins has to be lying.

Is Marva telling the truth? Thirty years of public school teaching whisper to me that she is.

George Meegan

George Meegan was twenty-five years old and an elementary school dropout, a British merchant seaman when he decided to take the longest walk in human history, without any special equipment, foundation bankroll, or backing of any kind. Leaving his ship in South America he made his way to Tierra del Fuego alone and just began to walk. Seven years later after crossing the Andes, making his way through the trackless Darien Gap, and after taking a long detour on foot to see Washington, D.C., he arrived at the Arctic Ocean with a wife he met and married along the way, and their two children. In that instant, part of the high academic story of human migrations received its death blow from a dropout. His book was published in 1982.

Necking In The Guardhouse

About an hour out of Philadelphia there was once (and may still be) a large U.S. Air Force base from which officers being sent overseas to Germany, Crete, and elsewhere, were transshipped like California cabbages. During the early 1980s I drove a relative there, a freshly minted lieutenant, late on the night before she flew to Europe for her first assignment and the first real job of her life. She was young, tense, bursting with Air Force protocols. Who could blame her for taking the rulebook as the final authority?

By happenstance I took a civilian highway outside the eastern perimeter of the base when her billet was on the western side. Irritated, I checked a map and discovered to my disgust that the only public connection to the right road on the far side of the base (where the motel sat) was miles away. It was late, I was tired. To make matters worse, I knew this prim young lady would need to be sharp in the morning so guilt prodded me. There was just one way to avoid the long detour and that was to take the military road through the center of the base leading directly to where we wanted to be. Well then, we would take it! But the lieutenant was aghast. It was not possible. I wasn’t authorized, had no tag, had no permit, had no rank. No! No! Not permitted! Listen to me, the young woman demanded, security is maniacal on SAC bases; we will have to take the long way around. What she said was perfectly reasonable, but quite wrong.

One of the genuine advantages of living as long as I have is that you eventually come to see the gaps between man-made systems and human reality. Even in a perfect system, functions must be assigned to people, and people find a way to sabotage their system functions even if they don’t want to. Systems violate some profound inner equilibrium, call it the soul if you like. Systems are inhuman, people are not. On the principle nothing ventured, nothing gained, I drove toward the guard post sitting astride the transverse road, all the while listening to my passenger, increasingly nervous, shrilly informing me there was "No way" I would be "allowed" to pass. "And don’t play games," she further told me ominously, "MPs have instructions to shoot people acting suspiciously."

We pulled up to the guard booth. No one was in sight so I proceeded down the transverse like a justified sinner smiling, but the lieutenant beside me was so agitated, I stopped and I backed up quite a long way to the lighted hut again and blew the horn. This time a guard emerged, his tie askew, lipstick all over his face. Before he could fully collect himself I shouted out the window, "Okay if I drive through to the motel? The lieutenant here is leaving for Germany tomorrow. I’d like to get her to bed."

"Sure, go ahead," he waved and went back to whatever paramilitary pursuit he was engaged in, repopulating the world or whatever. The temptation to gloat over my officious kinswoman was strong but I fought it down in light of her tender age.

Just outside the far gate across the base was the ghastly two-story cinder-block motel, a type favored by military personnel in transit, where a reservation waited in the young woman’s name. As we pulled into the front parking lot a terrible sight greeted my young relative, a sight that reminded me of nothing so much as Monongahela on a bad Saturday night around New Year’s Eve. At least two dozen men, some half in uniform, some bare-chested and bloody, were fistfighting all over the first floor walkway and on the little balcony that paralleled the second floor. Dozens more watched, hooting and howling, beer cans in hand. Grunts and the sounds of fists smacking heads and bodies filled the air. They were all enlisted men, apparently indifferent to official disapproval, for all the world as if they had been Chechens or Hmong instead of obedient American soldiers.

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At first I couldn’t believe my eyes. The combat clearly had been raging for a while, but no Air Force or local police had moved to stop it. Suddenly to my dismay, from the new officer’s uniform beside me with a girl inside came something like these words: "I’ll stop this, let me out of the car. When they see an officer’s uniform they’ll take off running."

"Don’t do it," I begged. "They should take off running, but what if they don’t? What if that pack of fighting drunks goes for you because they like to fight and think it’s none of your business? Why don’t we just find another place for you to sleep? You’ve got a plane to Germany in the morning. Let’s keep our eye on the ball." Driving to another motel, I said cautiously, "You know, what they write in rule books and how things really work are never the same. We all learn that as we get older." She was too angry to hear, I think.

It’s fairly clear to me by now that we engage in our endless foreign adventures, launching military forces against tiny islands like Grenada, or tiny nations like Panama, bombing the vast deserts of Iraq, a country of 22 million people, or engage in our reckless social adventures, too, patenting human genes, forcing kids to be dumb, because our leadership classes are worn out from the long strain of organizing everything over the centuries. Our leadership has degenerated dramatically, just as British leadership did after Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking. Recently I read of an American newsman who walked unchallenged into a nuclear weapons storage facility near Moscow watched over by a single guard without a weapon. It tends to make me skeptical about any orderly scientific future. Is it possible that those who sit atop the social bell curve represent the worst of evolution’s products, not its best? Have the fools among us who just don’t get it risen up and taken command?

Think of the valent symbols of our time: Coca-Cola, the Marlboro Man, disposable diapers, disposable children, Dolly the cloned sheep, Verdun, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the national highway system, My Lai, fiat money, the space program, Chernobyl, Waco, the Highway of Death, welfare, Bhopal, hordes of homeless, psychopathic kids filling the corridors of the schools put out of sight and mind until their morale is deteriorated; think of Princess Di and the Ponzi scheme we call Social Security, the missile attack on the Sudan, the naval blockade of Haiti. The naval blockade of Haiti? Is any of this real? People who walk the dogs and kiss the grandchildren are all so tired of grandiose schemes and restless utopians I doubt if too many would really care if the planet exploded tomorrow.

Think of the never-ending stream of manufactured crises like the invasion of Panama or the cremation of Iraq, principal products of a spent leadership trying to buy itself time while the grail search for a destiny worth having goes on in laboratories and conference rooms instead of in homes and villages where it belongs. Did the people who arrange this sorry soap opera ever take note how green the world really is, how worthwhile the minds and hearts of average men and women, how particular the hue of each blade of grass? It’s the terrible idleness of the social engineering classes that drives them mad, I think. They have nothing worthwhile to do, so they do us.

Tania Aebi

Tania Aebi was a seventeen-year-old New York City school dropout bicycle messenger in 1987 when she decided to become the first American woman to sail around the world alone. She had a twenty-six-foot boat and no nautical tradition when she set out. She admits to cheating on her Coast Guard navigation exam. In a hurricane off Bermuda, generator gone, her life in peril, she taught herself navigation in a hurry by flashlight and made port. Two years later her record-making circuit of Planet Earth was complete.

A Fool’s Bargain

A recent analysis of American diet by the Harvard School of Public Health disclosed the curious fact that the extremely poor eat healthier diets than upper-middle-class Americans. If that doesn’t break you up, consider the lesson of the 232-year-old aristocratic merchant bank of Barings, destroyed in the wink of an eye through the wild speculations of an executive who turned out to have been the son of a plasterer bereft of any college degree! The poor man’s schemes were too impenetrable for company management to understand, but they needed his vitality badly so they were afraid to challenge his decisions.

"They never dared ask any basic questions," said the young felon who gambled away $1.3 billion on parlays so fanciful you might think only a rube would attempt them. "They were afraid of looking stupid about not understanding futures and options. They knew nothing at all." Quis custodiet ipsios custodes?

You can’t help but smile at the justice of it. Having procured a Leviathan state finally, its architects and their children seem certain to be flattened by it, too, soon after the rest of us become linoleum. No walled or gated compound is safe from the whirring systems rationalizing everything, squeezing children of social engineers just as readily as yours and mine. "They knew nothing," said the criminal. Nothing. That’s the feeling I frequently got while tracking the leaders of American schooling at every stage of the game while they mutilated their own lives as fantastically as they did the lives of others. All that sneaking, scheming, plotting, lying. It ruined the grand designers as it ruined their victims. The Big Schoolhouse testifies more to the folly of human arrogance, what the Greeks called hubris. Our leaders, one after another, have been childish men.

So many of the builders of School were churchmen or the sons of churchmen. We need to grasp the irony that they ruined the churches as well, the official churches anyway. That probably explains the mighty religious hunger loose in the land as I write; having slipped the bonds of establishment churches as it became clear those vassal bodies were only subsystems of something quite unholy, the drive to contemplate things beyond the reach of technology or accountants is far from extinct as the social engineers thought it was going to be. Such an important part of the mystery of coal-nation schooling is locked up in the assassination of religion and the attempted conversion of its principles of faith into serviceable secular wisdom and twelve-step programs that we will never understand our failure with schools if we become impatient when religion is discussed, because School is the civil religion meant to replace Faith.

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American Protestantism, once our national genius, left its pulpit behind, began to barter and trade in the marketplace, refashioning God and gospel to sustain a social service vision of life. In doing so it ruined itself while betraying us all, Protestants and non-Protestants alike. A legacy of this is the fiefdom of Hawaii, saddest American territory of all, an occupied nation we pretend is an American state, its land area and economy owned to an astonishing degree by the descendants of a few missionary families, managed by government agencies. The original population has been wiped away. Under the veneer of a vacation paradise, which wears thin almost at once, one finds the saddest congregations on earth, parishioners held prisoner by barren ministers without any rejuvenating sermons to preach. Hawaiian society is the Chautauqua forced schooling aims toward.

The privileges of leadership shouldn’t rest on the shaky foundation of wealth, property, and armed guards but on the allegiance, respect, and love of those led. Leadership involves providing some purpose for getting out of bed in the morning, some reason to lay about with the claymore or drop seeds in the dirt. Wealth is a fair trade to grant to leaders in exchange for a purpose, but the leaders’ end of the bargain and must be kept. In the United States the pledge has been broken, and the break flaunted for an entire century through the mass-schooling institution.

Here is the crux of the dilemma: modern schooling has no lasting value to exchange for the spectacular chunk of living time it wastes or the possibilities it destroys. The kids know it, their parents know it, you know it, I know it, and the folks who administer the medicine know it. School is a fool’s bargain, we are fools for accepting its dry beans in exchange for our children.

Roland Legiardi-Laura

In 1966 I taught the novel Moby-Dick, film theory, and versification to a thirteen-year-old kid named Roland Legiardi-Laura, at JHS 44 in Manhattan. Roland was memorable in many ways, but two I remember best were him reeking of garlic at nine in the morning, every morning, and his determination never to work at a "job" but to be a poet. Before he had even graduated from college, both his parents died, leaving him nearly penniless. Forced to become completely self-supporting, he still remained focused on poetry, and a little over a decade later, while living on a shoestring, organized a mobile band of poet-terrorists who raced around the state in a candy-striped truck, delivering poetry spontaneously in bars and on street corners. Shortly afterwards, while living in a building without secure stairs or an intact roof, he flew to Nicaragua where poetry is the national sport and convinced the government to allow him to make a poetry documentary. When I advanced him $50 out of the 300 grand he would need, I told him he was nuts. But somehow he raised the money, made the film, and won nine international film awards. Meanwhile he had learned to support himself doing carpentry and odd jobs, the oddest of which was to help to rehabilitate a shambles of a building near Hell’s Angels headquarters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and convert it into a poetry nightclub, where he would later become the director and an impresario. Who would go to a poetry nightclub? It turns out a lot of people, and as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe expanded to include Roland’s unique creation — a live reading of original film scripts using top professional actors — I saw the unfolding of a life that’s touched the lives of thousands of people, helping foster their talent, not a corporate agenda. Rooted in his local community, full of distinction, thoroughly "scholarly," Roland’s career as a poet and critically acclaimed filmmaker simply would not have been possible or even foreseeable to a School-to-Work program.

The Squeeze

Of course when you cheat people good you start to worry about your victims getting even. David Gordon’s 1996 book Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial Downsizing catches the spirit of the national guilty conscience this way:

Can’t trust your workers when left to their own devices? Peer over their shoulders. Watch behind their backs. Record their movements. Monitor them. Supervise them. Boss them. Above all else, don’t leave them alone. As one recent study observed, "American companies tend, fundamentally, to mistrust workers, whether they are salaried employees or blue collar workers."

And American schools tend, fundamentally, to mistrust students. One way to deal with danger from the middle and bottom of the evolutionary order is to buy off the people’s natural leaders. Instead of killing Zapata, smart money deals Zapata in for his share. We’ve seen this principle as it downloaded into "gifted and talented" classrooms from the lofty abstractions of Pareto and Mosca. Now it’s time to regard those de-fanged "gifted" children grown up, waiting at the trough like the others. What do they in their turn have to teach anyone?

David Gordon says 13 percent of U.S. nonfarm workers are managerial and administrative. That’s one boss for every seven and a half workers! And the percentage of nonteaching school personnel is twice that. Compare those numbers to a manager/worker ratio of 4.2 percent in Japan, 3.9 percent in Germany, 2.6 percent in Sweden. Since 1947, when the employment-hierarchy egg laid during the American Civil War finally hatched after incubating for a century, the number of managers and supervisors in America has exploded 360 percent (if only titled ones are counted) and at least twice that if de facto administrators — like teachers without teaching programs — are added in. All this entails a massive income shift from men and women who produce things to managers and supervisors who do not.

What does this add up to in human terms? Well, for one thing, if our managerial burden was held to the Japanese ratio, somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million production level jobs could be paid for. That would mean the end of unemployment. Totally. An economy arranged as ours is could not tolerate such a condition, I understand. Let me disabuse you next of any silly notion the pain of downsizing is being spread out by an even-handed political management, touching comfortable and hard-pressed alike. While it is true, as James Fallows says, that the media pay disproportionate attention to downsizing toward the top rungs of the occupational hierarchy, the sobering facts are these: from 1991 to 1996 the percentage of managers among nonfarm employees rose about 12 percent. For each fat cat kicked off the gravy train, 1.12 new ones climbed aboard. All this is evidence not of generosity, I think, but of a growing fear of ordinary people.

Is this all just more of the same scare talk you’ve heard until you’re sick of it? I don’t know; what do you make of these figures? From 1790 until 1930 America incarcerated 50 people for every 100,000 in the population; for 140 years the ratio held steady. Then suddenly the figure doubled between 1930 and 1940. The Depression, you say? Maybe, but there had been depressions before, and anyway, by 1960 it doubled again to 200 per 100,000. The shock of WWII could have caused that, but there had been wars before. Between 1960 and 1970 the figure jogged higher once again to 300 per 100,000. And 400 per 100,000 by 1980. And near 500 per 100,000 where it hovers at the new century’s beginning.

Has this escalation anything to do in a family way with the odd remark attributed by a national magazine to Marine Major Craig Tucker, of Ft. Leavenworth’s Battle Command Training Program, that "a time may come when the military may have to go domestic"? I guess that’s what he was taught at Ft. Leavenworth.

Wendy Zeigler/Amy Halpern

How would pedagogical theory explain Wendy Zeigler — my prize student out of Roland’s class at thirteen but fairly anonymous (as most of us are) ever after — springing into action in her fifth decade, converting her flat in the funky Bernal Heights section of San Francisco to the day school code through her own labor, and suddenly opening a magnificently creative place for kids, two and one-half to six, called "Wendy Z’s Room to Grow," which did land-office business from the first. How would it explain Amy Halpern devoting a substantial chunk of her life to fine-tuning a personal film, "Falling Lessons," which she knew in advance would never earn a penny and might not even be shown? What drives an artist like Amy to strive for a noncommercial masterpiece? We have no business imposing a simplistic template on the human spirit. That makes a mockery of Smith’s brilliant free market.

A Magnificent Memory

When I get most gloomy about this I summon up a picture of a noble British general with powdered hair and pipe-clay leggings sitting astride a white stallion directing troop movements across the green river Monongahela, his brilliant columns all in red stretching far behind him. "The most magnificent sight I ever saw," said George Washington many years later when he remembered it. Who could blame all those ordinary men for betting their lives on an invincible military machine, all glittering and disciplined? All they had to do was to ride down naked American savages from the Stone Age; all they had to do was take their orders and obey them.

General Braddock and British tradition dictated common soldiers should be treated like dumb children, as a tough, unsentimental shepherd treats sheep. It isn’t even very hard to imagine these lowly soldiers, so well gotten up, feeling proud to submerge their little destinies in the awesome collective will of the British empire.

But as things turned out, a day of reckoning was at hand for the empire. Exposed in full pretension, the collapse of the British expedition under Braddock sent a shock of wild surmise through the minds of other common men in the colonies and their leaders. If Braddock didn’t know what he was doing, was it possible German King George back in London could be taken, too?

Prince Charles Visits Steel Valley High

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An important counter-revolutionary event with a bearing on the changes going on in our schools happened quietly not so long ago, just a stone’s throw from where Braddock fell. Bill Serrin tells of it in his book Homestead. By 1988 the Monongahela Valley had been stripped bare of its mines and mills by Pittsburgh financial interests and their hired experts who had no place in profit/loss equations for people and communities, whatever rhetoric said to the contrary.

As a consequence, Monongahela, Charleroi, Donora, Homestead, Monessen, all were dying, places that had "been on fire once, had possessed vibrancy and life." Now they were falling into the aimless emptiness of the unemployed after a century as the world’s steelmakers. Not idle of their own choice, not even unproductive — the mills still made a profit — yet not a profit large enough to please important financial interests.

In the bleak winter of 1988 Charles of the blood royal came to visit Steel Valley High in Homestead nominally to talk about turning dead steel mills into arboretums. Why Charles? He was "the world’s leading architecture buff," so why not? His Highness’ fleet of two dozen Chinese red Jaguars crossed the Homestead High Bridge only minutes from the spot where Braddock died on the Monongahela. Perhaps the prince had been informed of this, perhaps he was making a statement for history.

In a motorcade of scarlet he roared over the bridge. Residents who had gathered to wave at the prince and his entourage "saw only a whir of scarlet as he whizzed into Homestead." Charles was too preoccupied with his own agenda to wave back at the offspring of Europe’s industrial proletariat, thrice removed. Victory as always comes to those who abide. We had only one Washington, only one Jackson, only one Lincoln to lead us against the Imperial Mind. After they were gone, only the people remembered what America was about.

Serrin writes, "A handful of activist ministers gathered along Charles’ way holding tomatoes, and Police Chief Kelley assumed, not without reason, they were going to throw them at the prince. Or in Monongahela vernacular, ‘tomato him.’ " The motive for this bad hospitality was a growing anger at the text of the prince’s speech to a group of architects assembled in Pittsburgh for a "Remaking Cities Conference." The conference had been co-sponsored by the Royal Institute of British Architects. Andrew Carnegie’s dream of reuniting with the mother country was coming true in the very town most associated with Carnegie’s name. The British have a grand sense of history, they do.

The assembled architects had been studying the settlements of my valley and recommending replacement uses for its mills. They proposed conversion of empty steel plants into exhibition halls for flower shows. At the public hearing, valley residents shouted, "We don’t want flowers, we want jobs. We want the valley back. This was the steel center of the world." Prince Charles spoke to the crowd as one might speak to children, just as he might have spoken had Braddock won and the Revolution never taken place. The upshot was a grand coalition of elites formed to revitalize the valley. I see a parallel in the formation of the New American Schools Committee — whose eighteen members counted fifteen corporate CEOs, including the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company’s descendant form, RJR Nabisco — announcing revitalization of our schools.

The effort to save Homestead looked like this through the eyes of New York Times labor reporter Bill Serrin:

In its tragedy Homestead became fashionable…. Homestead was the rage. There were study groups and committees, historical exhibits, film proposals, lectures, brown-bag lunches, dinners, economic analyses, historical surveys, oral histories, a case study of disinvestment and redevelopment plans in the Monongahela Valley done by the Harvard Business School, architects, city planners, historians, economists, anthropologists, sociologists, social workers, foundation experts — all these and others became involved.

An echo of the great transformational days when we got factory schooling, the same buzz and hubbub, fashionable people with their shirt sleeves metaphorically rolled up. Then suddenly the attention was over. All the paraphernalia of concern resulted in:

Little effort on Homestead or the other steel towns. There never was a plan to redevelop Homestead. The goal had been to ensure there were no more protests like the ones earlier in the decade. If there was a master plan it was death and highways. Homestead would be gone. A highway through the valley would eliminate even the houses, perhaps obliterate Homestead and the other steel towns. One more thing…the training programs. They were bullshit.

So here we are. In order to clean the social canvas, a reduction in the maximum levels of maturity to be allowed grown men and women has been ordered from somewhere. We are to be made and kept as nervous, whining adolescents. This is a job best begun and ended while we are little children, hence the kind of schools we have — a governor put on our growth through which we are denied the understandings needed to escape childhood. Don’t blame schools. Schools only follow orders. Schoolmen are as grateful as grenadiers to wear a pretty paycheck and be part of Braddock’s invincible army. Theirs not to reason why…if they know what’s good for them.

Empty Children

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Not far to go now. Here is my recipe for empty children. If you want to cook whole children, as I suspect we all do, just contradict these stages in the formula:

  1. Remove children from the business of the world until time has passed for them to learn how to self-teach.

  2. Age-grade them so that past and future both are muted and become irrelevant.

  3. Take all religion out of their lives except the hidden civil religion of appetite, and positive/negative reinforcement schedules.

  4. Remove all significant functions from home and family life except its role as dormitory and casual companionship. Make parents unpaid agents of the State; recruit them into partnerships to monitor the conformity of children to an official agenda.

  5. Keep children under surveillance every minute from dawn to dusk. Give no private space or time. Fill time with collective activities. Record behavior quantitatively.

  6. Addict the young to machinery and electronic displays. Teach that these are desirable to recreation and learning both.

  7. Use designed games and commercial entertainment to teach preplanned habits, attitudes, and language usage.

  8. Pair the selling of merchandise with attractive females in their prime childbearing years so that the valences of lovemaking and mothering can be transferred intact to the goods vended.

  9. Remove as much private ritual as possible from young lives, such as the rituals of food preparation and family dining.

  10. Keep both parents employed with the business of strangers. Discourage independent livelihoods with low start-up costs. Make labor for others and outside obligations first priority, self-development second.

  11. Grade, evaluate, and assess children constantly and publicly. Begin early. Make sure everyone knows his or her rank.

  12. Honor the highly graded. Keep grading and real world accomplishment as strictly separate as possible so that a false meritocracy, dependent on the support of authority to continue, is created. Push the most independent kids to the margin; do not tolerate real argument.

  13. Forbid the efficient transmission of useful knowledge, such as how to build a house, repair a car, make a dress.

  14. Reward dependency in many forms. Call it "teamwork."

  15. Establish visually degraded group environments called "schools" and arrange mass movements through these environments at regular intervals. Encourage a level of fluctuating noise (aperiodic negative reinforcement) so that concentration, habits of civil discourse, and intellectual investigation are gradually extinguished from the behavioral repertoire.


Until his death in an accident a few years ago, the president of Macmillan Publishing company, one of the largest school material suppliers in the world, was a third-grade dropout. Actually, like other children in his (Russian) village, he received seven years of schooling. He was also president of Berlitz Language Schools.

Almost The End

And so we arrive at the end of our journey together. You have seen the trap conceived, the trap built, the trap sprung, and its quarry turning in panic within until the bright light of living spirit goes dull behind its eyes and it grows indifferent to its banal fate in a comprehensively planned society and economy without any hope of escape. You have watched the trap grow like Arch Oboler’s demonic chicken heart,4 maintained by an army of behaviorally adjusted functionaries reproducing its own mechanistic encoding in the lives of schoolchildren. You have watched the listless creatures caught in the trap pressing a bar to get their food while they await instructions to their final meaningless destiny. How the trap was conceived hardly makes much difference at this point, except to warn us we are not dealing with any ordinary mistake; this trap was intended to be as it is. It is a work of great human genius.

Mass schooling cannot be altered or reformed because any palliative from its killing religion will only be short-lived as long as the massification machinery it represents remains in place. That’s why all the well-publicized "this-time-we-have-it-right" alternatives to factory schooling fizzle out a decade after launch. Most sooner.

Nothing in human history gives us any reason to be optimistic that powerful social machinery, through its very existence, doesn’t lead to gross forms of oppression. If engines of mass control exist, the wrong hands will find the switches sooner or later. That’s why standing armies, like the enormous one we now maintain, are an invitation to serfdom. They will always, sooner or later, go domestic. The more rationally engineered the machinery, the more certain its eventual corruption; that’s a bitter pill rationalists still haven’t learned to swallow.

We are, I think, at one of those great points of choice in the human record where society gets to select from among widely divergent futures. It’s customary to say there will be no turning back from our choice, but that is wrong. It would be more accurate to say that we will not be able to turn back from our next choice without a great and dreadful grief. It is best to heed the Amish counsel not to jump until you know where you’re going to land.

Not jumping at this moment in time means rejecting further centralization of children in government schooling. It means rejecting every attempt to nationalize the religious enterprise of institutional schooling. If centralizers prevail, the connection between schooling and work will become total; if decentralizers prevail it will be diffuse, irregular, and for many kinds of work, as utterly insignificant as it should be. Experts have consistently misdiagnosed and misdefined the problem of schooling. The problem is not that children don’t learn to read, write, and do arithmetic well — the problem is that kids hardly learn at all from the way schools insist on teaching. Schools desperately need a vision of their own purpose. It was never factually true that all young people learn to read or do arithmetic by being "taught" these things — though for many decades that has been the masquerade.

When children are stripped of a primary experience base as confinement schooling must do to justify its existence, the natural sequence of learning is destroyed, a sequence which puts experience first. Only much later, after a long bath in experience, does the thin gruel of abstraction mean very much. We haven’t "forgotten" this; there is just no profit in remembering it for the businesses and people who make their bread and butter from monopoly schooling.

The relentless rationalization of the school world has left the modern student a prisoner of low-grade vocational activities. He lives in a disenchanted world without meaning. Our cultural dilemma here in the United States has little to do with children who don’t read, but lies instead in finding a way to restore meaning and purpose to modern life. Any system of values that accepts the transformation of the world into machinery and the construction of pens for the young called schools, necessarily rejects this search for meaning.

Schools at present are the occupation of children; children have become employees, pensioners of the government at an early age. But government jobs are frequently not really jobs at all — that certainly is the case in the matter of being a schoolchild. There is nothing or very little to do in school, but one thing is demanded — that children must attend, condemned to hours of desperation, pretending to do a job that doesn’t exist. At the end of the day, tired, fed up, full of aggression, their families feel the accumulated tedium of their pinched lives. Government jobs for children have broken the spirit of our people. They don’t know their own history, nor would they care to.

In a short time such a system becomes addictive. Even when efforts are made to find real work for children to do, they often drift back to meaningless busywork. Anyone who has ever tried to lead students into generating lines of meaning in their own lives will have felt the resistance, the hostility even, with which broken children fight to be left alone. They prefer the illness they have become accustomed to. As the school day and year enlarge, students may be seen as people forbidden to leave their offices, as people hemmed in by an invisible fence, complaining but timid. Schools thus consume most of the people they incarcerate.

School curricula are like unwholesome economies. They don’t deal in basic industries of mind, but instead try to be "popular," dealing in the light stuff in an effort to hold down rebellion. That’s why we can’t read Paine’s Common Sense anymore, often can’t read at all. Only one person in every sixteen, I’m told, reads more than one book a year after graduation from high school. Kids and teachers live day by day. That’s all you can do when you have a runaway inflation of expectations fueled by false promissory notes on the future issued by teachers and television and other mythmakers in our culture. In the inflationary economy of mass schooling — with its "A’s" and gold stars and handshakes and trophies tied to nothing real — you cease to plan. You’re just happy to make it to the weekend.

Once the inflation of dishonesty is perceived, the curriculum can only be imposed by intimidation, by a dizzapie of bells and horns, by confusion. With inflation of the school variety, a gun is held to your head by the State, demanding you acknowledge that school time is valuable; otherwise everyone would leave except the teachers who are being paid.

I Would Prefer Not To

What to do?

Take Melville’s insight "I would prefer not to," from Bartleby, the Scrivener and make it your own watchword. Read Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych for a shock of inspiration about what really matters. Breaking the hold of fear on your life is the necessary first step. If you can keep your kid out of any part of the school sequence at all, keep him or her out of kindergarten, then first, second, and maybe third grade. Homeschool them at least that far through the zone where most of the damage is done. If you can manage that, they’ll be okay.

Don’t let a world of funny animals, dancing alphabet letters, pastel colors, and treacly music suffocate your little boy or girl’s consciousness at exactly the moment when big questions about the world beckon. Funny animals were invented by North German social engineers; they knew something important about fantasy and social engineering that you should teach yourself.

Your four-year-old wants to play? Let him help you cook dinner for real, fix the toilet, clean the house, build a wall, sing "Eine Feste Burg." Give her a map, a mirror, and a wristwatch, let her chart the world in which she really lives. You will be able to tell from the joy she displays that becoming strong and useful is the best play of all. Pure games are okay, too, but not day in, day out. Not a prison of games. There isn’t a single formula for breaking out of the trap, only a general one you tailor to your own specifications.

No two escape routes are exactly alike. Stanley, my absentee pupil, found one. Two magnificent American teenagers, Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan, who enchanted the world with a display of physical artistry and mental discipline on ice skates in the Olympic games in Japan, found another. Neither went to school and both gained wealth and prominence for their accomplishments. For me they show again what stories might be written out of ordinary lives if our time to learn wasn’t so lavishly wasted. Are your children less than these?

At least nine major assumptions about the importance of government schooling must be acknowledged as false before you can get beyond the fog of ideology into the clear air of education. Here they are:

  1. Universal government schooling is the essential force for social cohesion. There is no other way. A heavily bureaucratized public order is our defense against chaos and anarchy. Right, and if you don’t wipe your bum properly, the toilet monster will rise out of the bowl and get you.

  2. The socialization of children in age-graded groups monitored by State agents is essential to learn to get along with others in a pluralistic society. The actual truth is that the rigid compartmentalizations of schooling teach a crippling form of social relation: wait passively until you are told what to do, never judge your own work or confer with associates, have contempt for those younger than yourself and fear of those older. Behave according to the meaning assigned to your class label. These are the rules of a nuthouse. No wonder kids cry and become fretful after first grade.

  3. Children from different backgrounds and from families with different beliefs must be mixed together. The unexamined inference here is that in this fashion they enlarge their understanding, but the actual management of classrooms everywhere makes only the most superficial obeisance to human difference — from the first, a radical turn toward some unitarian golden mean is taken, along the way of which different backgrounds and different beliefs are subtly but steadily discredited.

  4. The certified expertise of official schoolteachers is superior in its knowledge of children to the accomplishments of lay people, including parents. Protecting children from the uncertified is a compelling public concern. Actually, the enforced long-term segregation of children from the working world does them great damage, and the general body of men and women certified by the State as fit to teach is nearly the least fit occupational body in the entire economy if college performance is the standard.

  5. Coercion in the name of education is a valid use of State power: compelling assemblies of children into specified groupings for prescribed intervals and sequences with appointed overseers does not interfere with academic learning. Were you born yesterday? Plato said, "Nothing of value to the individual happens by coercion."

  6. Children will inevitably grow apart from their parents in belief, and this process must be encouraged by diluting parental influence and disabusing children of the idea their parents are sovereign in mind or morality. That prescription alone has been enough to cripple the American family. The effects of forced disloyalty on family are hideously destructive, removing the only certain support the growing spirit has to refer to. In place of family the school offers phantoms like "ambition," "advancement," and "fun," nightmare harbingers of the hollow life ahead.

  7. An overriding concern of schooling is to protect children from bad parents. No wonder G. Stanley Hall, the father of school administration, invited Sigmund Freud to the United States in 1909 — it was urgent business to establish a "scientific" basis upon which to justify the anti-family stance of State schooling, and the programmatic State in general.

  8. It is not appropriate for any family to unduly concern itself with the education of its own children, although it is appropriate to sacrifice for the general education of everyone in the hands of State experts. This is the standard formula for all forms of socialism and the universal foundation of utopian promises.

  9. The State is the proper parent and has predominant responsibility for training, morals, and beliefs. This is the parens patriae doctrine of Louis XIV, king of France, a tale unsuited to a republic.

Nuts And Bolts

Let me end this book, my testament, with a warning: only the fresh air from millions upon millions of freely made choices will create the educational climate we need to realize a better destiny. No team of experts can possibly possess the wisdom to impose a successful solution to the problem inherent in a philosophy of centralized social management; solutions that endure are always local, always personal. Universal prescriptions are the problem of modern schooling, academic research which pursues the will-o-the-wisp of average children and average stages of development makes for destructive social policy, it is a sea anchor dragging against advancement, creating the problems it begs for money to solve. But here is a warning: should we ever agree to honor the singularity of children which forced schooling contravenes, if we ever agree to set the minds of children free, we should understand they would make a world that would create and re-create itself exponentially, a world complex beyond the power of any group of managers to manage. Such free beings would have to be self-managing. And the future would never again be easily predictable.

Here might be a first step toward such a great leap forward for human beings. Not a comprehensive formula, remember, but a first step:

If we closed all government schools, made free libraries universal, encouraged public discussion groups everywhere, sponsored apprenticeships for every young person who wanted one, let any person or group who asked to open a school do so — without government oversight — paid parents (if we have to pay anyone) to school their kids at home using the money we currently spend to confine them in school factories, and launched a national crash program in family revival and local economies, Amish and Mondragon style, the American school nightmare would recede.

That isn’t going to happen, I know.

The next best thing, then, is to deconstruct forced schooling, minimizing its school aspect, indoctrination, and maximizing its potential to educate through access to tools, models, and mentors. To go down this path requires the courage to challenge deeply rooted assumptions. We need to kill the poison plant we created. School reform is not enough. The notion of schooling itself must be challenged. Do this as an individual if your group won’t go along.

Here is a preliminary list of strategies to change the schools we have. I intend to develop the theme of change further in a future book, The Guerrilla Curriculum: How To Get An Education In Spite Of School, but I’m out of time and breath, so the brief agenda which follows will have to suffice for the moment. As you read my ideas maintain a lively awareness of the implicit irony that to impose them as a counter system would require as dictatorial a central management like the current dismal reality. The trick, then, is not to impose them. My own belief based on long experience is that people given a degree of choice arrive without coercion at arrangements somewhat like these, and even improve upon them with ideas beyond my own imagination to conceive. Such is the genius of liberty.

Dismiss the army of reading and arithmetic specialists and the commercial empire they represent. Allow all contracts with colleges, publishers, consultants, and materials suppliers in these areas to lapse. Reading and arithmetic are easy things to learn, although nearly impossible to "teach." By the use of common sense, and proven methods that don’t cost much, we can solve a problem which is artificially induced and wholly imaginary. Take the profit out of these things and the disease will cure itself.

Let no school exceed a few hundred in size. Even that’s far too big. And make them local. End all unnecessary transportation of students at once; transportation is what the British used to do with hardened criminals. We don’t need it, we need neighborhood schools. Time to shut the school factories, profitable to the building and maintenance industries and to bus companies, but disaster for children. Neighborhoods need their own children and vice versa; it’s a reciprocating good, providing surprising service to both. The factory school doesn’t work anywhere — not in Harlem and not in Hollywood Hills, either. Education is always individualized, and individualization requires absolute trust and split-second flexibility. This should save taxpayers a bundle, too.

Make everybody teach. Don’t let anybody get paid for schooling kids without actually spending time with them. The industrial model, with pyramidal management and plenty of horizontal featherbedding niches, is based on ignorance of how things get done, or indifference to results. The administrative racket that gave New York City more administrators than all the nations of Europe combined in 1991, has got to die. It wastes billions, demoralizes teachers, parents, and students, and corrupts the common enterprise.

Measure performance with individualized instruments. Standardized tests, like schools themselves, have lost their moral legitimacy. They correlate with nothing of human value and their very existence perverts curriculum into a preparation for these extravagant rituals. Indeed, all paper and pencil tests are a waste of time, useless as predictors of anything important unless the competition is rigged. As a casual guide they are probably harmless, but as a sorting tool they are corrupt and deceitful. A test of whether you can drive is driving. Performance testing is where genuine evaluation will always be found. There surely can’t be a normal parent on earth who doesn’t judge his or her child’s progress by performance.

Shut down district school boards. Families need control over the professionals in their lives. Decentralize schooling down to the neighborhood school building level, each school with its own citizen managing board. School corruption, like the national school milk price-rigging scandal of the 1990s, will cease when the temptations of bulk purchasing, job giveaways, and remote decision-making are ended.

Install permanent parent facilities in every school with appropriate equipment to allow parent partnerships with their own kids and others. Frequently take kids out of school to work with their own parents. School policies must deliberately aim to strengthen families.

Restore the primary experience base we stole from childhood by a slavish adherence to a utopian school diet of steady abstraction, or an equally slavish adherence to play as the exclusive obligation of children. Define primary experience as the essential core of early education, secondary data processing a supplement of substantial importance. But be sure the concepts of work, duty, obligation, loyalty, and service are strong components of the mix. Let them stand shoulder to shoulder with "fun." Let children engage in real tasks as Amish children do, not synthetic games and simulations that set them up for commercial variants of more-of-the-same for the rest of their lives.

Recognize that total schooling is psychologically and procedurally unsound. Wasteful and horrendously expensive. Give children some private time and space, some choice of subjects, methods, and associations, and freedom from constant surveillance. A strong element of volition, of choice, of anti-compulsion, is essential to education. That doesn’t mean granting a license to do anything. Anyway, whatever is chosen as "curriculum," the vital assistance that old can grant young is to demand that personal second or third best will not do — the favor you can bestow on your children is to show by your own example that hard, painstaking work is the toll an independent spirit charges itself for self-respect. Our colleges work somewhat better than our other schools because they understand this better.

Admit there is no one right way to grow up successfully. One-system schooling has had a century and a half to prove itself. It is a ghastly failure. Children need the widest possible range of roads in order to find the right one to accommodate themselves. The premise upon which mass compulsion schooling is based is dead wrong. It tries to shoehorn every style, culture, and personality into one ugly boot that fits nobody. Tax credits, vouchers, and other more sophisticated means are necessary to encourage a diverse mix of different school logics of growing up. Only sharp competition can reform the present mess; this needs to be an overriding goal of public policy. Neither national nor state government oversight is necessary to make a voucher/tax credit plan work: a modicum of local control, a disclosure law with teeth, and a policy of client satisfaction or else is all the citizen protection needed. It works for supermarkets and doctors. It will work for schools, too, without national testing.

Teach children to think dialectically so they can challenge the hidden assumptions of the world about them, including school assumptions, so they can eventually generate much of their own personal curriculum and oversight. But teach them, too, that dialectical thinking is unsuited to many important things like love and family. Dialectical analysis is radically inappropriate outside its purview.

Arrange much of schooling around complex themes instead of subjects. "Subjects" have a real value, too, but subject study as an exclusive diet was a Prussian secret weapon to produce social stratification. Substantial amounts of interdisciplinary work are needed as a corrective.

Force the school structure to provide flex-time, flex-space, flex-sequencing, and flex-content so that every study can be personalized to fit the whole range of individual styles and performance.

Break the teacher certification monopoly so anyone with something valuable to teach can teach it. Nothing is more important than this.

Our form of schooling has turned us into dependent, emotionally needy, excessively childish people who wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. Our national dilemma is that too many of us are now homeless and mindless in the deepest sense — at the mercy of strangers.

The beginning of answers will come only when people force government to return educational choice to everyone. But choice is meaningless without an absolute right to have progress monitored locally, too, not by an agency of the central government. Solzhenitsyn was right. The American founding documents didn’t mention school because the authors foresaw the path school would inevitably set us upon, and rejected it.

The best way to start offering some choice immediately is to give each public school the independence that private schools have. De-systematize them, grant each private, parochial, and homeschool equal access to public funds through vouchers administered as a loan program, along with tax credits. In time the need for even this would diminish, but my warning stands — if these keys to choice are tied to intrusive government oversight, as some would argue they must be, they will only hasten the end of the American libertarian experiment. Vouchers are only a transition to what is really called for: an economy of independent livelihoods, a resurrection of principles over pragmatism, and restoration of the private obligation, self-imposed, to provide a living wage to all who work for you.

School can never deal with really important things. Only education can teach us that quests don’t always work, that even worthy lives most often end in tragedy, that money can’t prevent this; that failure is a regular part of the human condition; that you will never understand evil; that serious pursuits are almost always lonely; that you can’t negotiate love; that money can’t buy much that really matters; that happiness is free.

A twenty-five-year-old school dropout walked the length of the planet without help, a seventeen-year-old school dropout worked a twenty-six-foot sailboat all by herself around the girdle of the globe. What else does it take to realize the horrifying limitations we have inflicted on our children? School is a liar’s world. Let us be done with it.


  1. I say this in the face of the technology disasters in global stock markets which have wiped out trillions of dollars of capital, pension funds, and peoples’ savings. Promoters and manipulators of stock prices live in a world only tenuously connected to the dynamics of invention, a world whose attitude is drawn from the ruthless pragmatism of the Old Norse religion strained through the ethical vacuum of Darwinism. The tech bust should teach us something about the dark side of the human spirit, but it can say little about the positive aspects of flesh-and-blood technical enterprise or the innate democracy of the working societies it generates.

  2. By "community" Brownson meant a confederation of individual families who knew one another; he would have been outraged by a federation of welfare agencies masquerading as a human settlement, as described in Hillary Clinton’s It Takes A Village, in which the village in question is suspiciously devoid of butcher, baker, and candlestick maker joining their voices in deciding child-care policies.

  3. The Boston Globe for September 8, 1999, carried this dismal information: if all the households in the United States are divided into five equal fractions, and the household incomes in each fifth averaged together, the economic classes of the country look like this compared to one another: the bottom fifth earns $8,800 a year, the second fifth $20,000 a year, the third fifth $31,400 a year, and the fourth fifth $45,100 a year. The balance of the fruits of our managed society have been reserved for the upper 20 percent of its households, and even there the lion’s share drops on the plate of a relatively small fraction of the fat cats. If this is the structure our centrally controlled corporate economy has imposed after a century in close partnership with science, government, religion, and schools, it argues loudly that trusting any large employer not to be indifferent, or even hostile, to American social tradition and dreams is misplaced trust. Of course, it’s always a good idea to treat such data with caution because marshaling numbers to prove anything is remarkably easy to do (indeed, teaching a reverence for numbers may be the most significant blindness of modern times). And yet my own intuition tells me that profound social insecurity is the direct legacy of our economic management and its quantitative values.

  4. My reference is to the greatest of the old "Lights Out" radio shows I heard long ago in Monongahela, in which university scientists messing around with a chicken heart find a way to make it grow indefinitely, sort of like what schools are doing. It bursts from the laboratory and extends across the entire planet, suffocating every other living thing. The show is purportedly broadcast from an airplane flying over the global chicken heart until it runs out of fuel, crashes into the throbbing organ and is devoured with a giant sucking sound.

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.