Could they really have done it on purpose?

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted August 7, 2000

In a mere three centuries, America has written some of the most glowing chapters in the long history of man's struggle for freedom.

So how did we become -- in the space of only a few generations -- a nation of pathetic bed-wetters, mewling "Oh, please don't trust me and my neighbor to save for our own retirements; we might blow it" -- "Oh, please don't trust me and my neighbor to own military-style weapons; we'd probably shoot each other."

John Taylor Gatto, a former New York state (public) Teacher of the Year, thinks he's found the answer: the government schools.

Gatto's thesis is one of those "big ideas" that takes a little time to wrap the mind around. The public schools cannot be reformed because they're not failing, he argues. They're succeeding beyond all expectations at precisely what they're supposed to be -- not only a huge make-work jobs program, but also the incubators of a dependent class of conscienceless sociopaths, their emotional development purposely stunted, a generation (by now two or three) with little knowledge of "the narrative of American history connecting the arguments of the founding fathers to historical events, defining what makes Americans different from others besides wealth."

Oblivious to that heritage, our young people instead sulk about, whining for the modern Morlocks of our welfare/police state to do a better job feeding them and keeping them entertained.

Gatto started to develop this thesis in his slim but estimable 1992 volume "Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling." Now he's returned with a massive and far better-developed follow-up, the 400-page "Underground History of American Education," subtitled "A Schoolteacher's Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling" ($34 postpaid, Oxford Village Press, 725 McDonough Road, Oxford, N.Y. 13830.)

Gatto's historical research tells him none of this is an accident -- public school pioneers like Horace Mann found the regimented system they were looking for when they visited Prussia in the 1840s, importing wholesale a scheme to tame and regiment what they saw as America's dangerously anarchist new immigrant working class, training the young of this underclass to report to a central government facility as soon as they were old enough to use the latrine, there to be trained to all hold identical shallow, memorized opinions and to march around to the sound of bells.

Yes, some basic literacy and numeracy would be necessary for them to fill their intended roles in the army and in the factories ... but not too much, and certainly not the kind of critical and analytic skills which might lead them to question their new bosses.

"We want one class to have a liberal education," Gatto finds Woodrow Wilson telling a group of businessmen shortly before the First World War.

"We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."

Gatto challenges the whole underlying notion that the kind of academic disciplines taught in our schools are so complicated that they have to be divvied up into small mouth-sized bits and doled out over a period of years on a careful scientific schedule arranged by highly-trained experts.

Teachers should be adults over 40, Gatto argues, "people who've proven themselves at life by bearing its pain like free spirits. ... No one who hasn't known grief, challenge, success, failure, or sadness should be allowed anywhere near kids. ...

"Have you noticed nobody talks to children in schools? I mean nobody. All verbal exchanges in school are instrumental. Person-to-person stuff is contrary to policy. That's why popular teachers are disliked or fired. They talk to kids. It's unacceptable."

Americans are now trained to believe that no child is capable of assuming any responsibility till he or she is 18 or 21 -- and that even adults need a huge and permanent government "safety net" to protect them from their own childlike incompetence.

Yet Gatto reminds us of a young American who left school at an early age because he was judged "feeble-minded." Just before turning 12 he talked his mother into letting him go to work full time as an apprentice on the railroad, "a permission she gave which would put her in jail right now," in Gatto's phrase. Claiming some old type from a printer who was about to throw it away, the young lad begged a corner in the baggage car in which to set up a little four-page newspaper about the lives of the passengers and what could be seen from the train's window. At age 12 he had 500 subscribers, earning more than his former schoolteachers.

"When the Civil War broke out, the newspaper become a goldmine. ... He sold the war to crowds at the various stops. 'The Grand Trunk Herald' sold as many as 1,000 extra copies after a battle," amassing the young man a handsome stake for his next venture.

If he tried that at age 12 today, everyone involved would be arrested and put on trial for exploitation of "child labor" ... and we would likely never have heard of the young man who got the early start in question, Thomas Edison.


How does this giant jobs program known as "public schooling" work? Gatto tells the pathetic story of little Benson, Vermont, where citizens were happy with the single school that served their 137 schoolchildren.

But the state bureaucracy wasn't happy. Oh no. The state condemned the old school for lack of wheelchair ramps "and other features nobody ever considered an essential part of education before." A massively expensive new school was mandated, and into this new school the education bureaucracy piled a new non-teaching superintend, a new non-teaching assistant superintendent, a new non-teaching principal, a new non-teaching assistant principal, a new full-time nurse, a new full-time guidance counselor, a new full-time librarian, 11 full-time teachers where eight would have sufficed -- in all, a new cadre of poobahs and potentates costing an additional $250,000 per year -- or $2,000 per kid.

Property taxes in the little town went up 40 percent in one year, "quite a shock to local homeowners just hanging on by their fingernails."

In nearby Walden, a town happily getting along with four 19th-century one-room schoolhouses for its 120 kids -- with four teachers and no administrators -- Gatto visited and found the story was the same. Building condemned, and then the administrators started to arrive, like clowns piling out of that little car at the circus.

"Is there a soul who believes Benson's kids are better served in their new school with its mercenary army than Walden's 120 were in four rooms with four teachers?" Gatto asks. "What happened at Benson -- the use of forced schooling to impose career ladders of unnecessary work on a poor community -- has happened all over North America. School is a jobs project for a large class of people it would be difficult to find employment for otherwise. Forcible redistribution of income to others to provide work for pedagogues and for a support staff larger than the actual teaching corps is a pyramid scheme run at the expense of the children. The more 'make-work' has to be found for school employees, the worse for kids because their own enterprise is stifled by constant professional tinkering in order to justify this employment."

Public schooling hasn't even improved literacy, Gatto demonstrates -- it's considerably eroded it.

"By 1840" (more than a decade before the opening of the first tax-funded government schools on the modern model, in Massachusetts) "the incidence of complex literacy in the United States was between 93 and 100 percent. .

In Connecticut only one citizen out of every 579 was illiterate and you probably don't want to know, not really, what people in those days considered literate; it's too embarrassing. Popular novels of the period give a clue: 'Last of the Mohicans,' published in 1818, sold so well a contemporary equivalent would have to move 10 million copies to match it.

If you pick up an uncut version you find yourself in a dense thicket of philosophy, history, culture, politics, geography, astute analysis of human motives and actions, all conveyed in data-rich periodic sentences so formidable only a determined and well-educated reader can handle it nowadays. Yet in 1818 we were a small-farm nation without colleges or universities to speak of. Could those simple folk have had more complex minds than our own?

"By 1940 the literacy figure for all states stood at 96 percent for whites. 80 percent for blacks. Notice for all the disadvantages blacks labored under, four of five were still literate. Six decades later, at the end of the 20th century, the National Adult Literacy Survey and the National Assessment of Educational Progress say 40 percent of blacks and 17 percent of whites can't read at all. Put another way, black illiteracy doubled, white illiteracy quadrupled," despite the fact that "we spend three or four times as much real money on schooling as we did 60 years ago."

And Mr. Gatto knows why.


"During World War Two, American public schools massively converted to non-phonetic ways of teaching reading," Gatto explains. "According to the justice department, 80 percent of the incarcerated violent criminal population is illiterate or nearly so (as are 67 percent of all criminals locked up.) There seems to be a direct connection between the humiliation poor readers experience and the life of angry criminals. As reading ability plummeted in America after World War Two, crime soared, so did out-of-wedlock births, which doubled in the 1950s and doubled again in the '60s when bizarre violence for the first time became commonplace in daily life.

"When literacy was first abandoned as a primary goal by schools, white people were in a better position than black people because they inherited a 300-year-old American tradition of learning to read at home by matching spoken sounds with letters, thus home assistance was able to correct the deficiencies of dumbed-down schools for whites. But black people had been forbidden to learn to read during slavery, and as late as 1930 only averaged three to four years of schooling, so they were helpless when teachers suddenly stopped teaching children to read; they had no fall-back position."

In 1882, Gatto reminds us, fifth graders read in their "Appleton School Reader" the original prose of such authors as William Shakespeare, Henry Thoreau, George Washington, Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Daniel Webster, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Jefferson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1995, a student teacher of fifth graders in Minneapolis wrote to the local newspaper: "I was told children are not to be expected to spell the following words correctly: back, big, call, came, can, day, did, dog, down, get, good, if, in, is, it, have, he, home, like, little, man, morning, mother, my, night, off, out, over, people, play, ran, said, saw, she, some, soon, their, them, there, time, two, too, up, us, very, water, we, went, where, when, will, would, etc. Is this nuts?"

Again, all this was no accident. Gatto finds the 1888 "Report of the Senate Committee on Education" asserting "We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes. ..."

Within a few generations, working from such goals as "Destruction of the narrative of American history connecting the arguments of the founding fathers to historical events ..."; "radical dilution of the academic content of formal curriculum which familiarized students with serious literature, philosophy, theology, etc. -- having the effect of curtailing any serious inquiries into economics, politics or religion"; "enlargement of the school day and year to blot up outside opportunities to acquire useful knowledge leading to independent livelihoods ..."; and "relentless low-level hostility against religious interpretations of meaning," the public schools had taken care of that.

Mr. Gatto's book rambles. It took him an entire career to reach these counterintuitive conclusions ("They can't have done it all on purpose") and it shows.

Dipping into these pages is like allowing a still-hearty old man to take you on a walk through his home town, pointing out where the old barns used to stand. It swings from historical analysis to personal anecdote and reminiscence. The furthest thing from the kind of forbidding "rigorous" tomes generated by those seeking Ph.Ds in education, it invites the interested reader to sink down into it like a comfortable easy chair, to be stunned and amazed in turn by a 150-year history of the fully conscious and willful campaign to turn all but the offspring of the big banking and corporate families who would attend Hotchkiss, Choate, Kent and Groton (the last three endowed by the Mellons, the DuPonts, and J.P Morgan -- the first by the machine gun widow) into -- well, malleable morons.

Mr. Gatto's books -- he promises his next will be "How to Get an Education in Spite of School" are a wonder and a delight. It's only too bad they're true.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available at $24.95 postpaid by dialing 1-800-244-2224; or via web site http://www.thespiritof76.com/wacokillers.html.

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