Please note: this post is the continuation of ‘Weapons of Mass Instruction – Part 1’. The posts are part of my homeschool radio segments on the Richard Syrett Show on Nov. 1st, Nov 8th, and Nov 15th, 2022 which you can listen to here.
One can get utterly absorbed in John Taylor Gatto’s writings, and some, such as his Underground History of American Education, can seem like information overflow if you are merely curious. I thus tried to highlight key issues that struck me as relevant to understanding the origins of our current school system, as this in turn provides insight into some of the reasons families choose to leave the system. If you are interested in reading the Underground History of American Education yourself you can access the complete book here.
John Taylor Gatto maintained that open-source education is feasible and produces superior outcomes to ‘standardized’ schooling. If this is the case why do schools not employ it?
This was exactly Gatto’s initial question when he started teaching. He could not understand why schools had to be ‘cell-block style forced confinement for both students and teachers’. Through his experience as a teacher within the system, he knew open source education was feasible and even cost effective. He knew that it would be possible to encourage the best qualities of youth – curiosity, adventure, resilience, insight – simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests. While he had been trying to figure out what was ‘wrong’ with the system, just as en engineer would try and figure out a problem that has a solution, it suddenly struck him: what if there was no ‘problem’ with schools? What if they were doing something ‘right’ and following their intended purpose? What if they were succeeding in their goal to create conformists and a ‘manageable population?
Gatto’s was determined to figure out where ‘this bizarre institution’ had come from and had taken the shape it did all around the world all in the same century. His extensive research involved reading thousands of books, travelling three million miles around the country and the world to observe, argue, discuss schools all of which culminated in a behemoth book called the Underground History of American Education. He explains that a major publisher paid him an ‘enormous’ amount of money to write it, but refused to publish it after holding it off the market for a year because it ‘would embarrass friends of the house’.
Although the origins of the current school system date back almost two centuries, it is essential in understanding how we arrived at the broken system we have today.
What are some of the main take-aways of this educational tome?
Our form of compulsory schooling is an invention of the state of Massachusetts around 1850. Before then, children were generally educated at home. There was no ‘six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Children did not attend high school but instead joined in adult life. When schooling became compulsory it was not welcomed with joy and relief. It was not popular and was resisted -sometimes with guns – by an estimated 80 % of the population. The last outpost in Cape Cod did not surrender its children until 1880s when area was seized by militia and children marched to school under guard. It took a full fifteen years before a second state followed Massachusetts.
While there were several relevant actors setting the tracks for compulsory schooling, it was Horace Mann who brought the Prussian school model to the Boston School Committee which soon led to the first successful school law in US history. Long before the Prussian model was adopted around 1852, the move toward this foreign Germanic model was countered and denounced by some as ‘a monumental conspiracy on the part of important men to subvert the Constitution’.
Why did educators bring in a Prussian model of schooling? Why did they not develop their own American model?
It was not terribly surprising that Prussian culture played a major role, given the amount of German-speaking settlers. What Gatto notes is shocking, is that
‘we eagerly adopted one of the very worst aspects of Prussian culture”. He explains that the Prussian model was deliberately designed to produce:
- mediocre intellects
- hamstring the inner life
- ensure docile and incomplete citizens
all in order to ‘render the populace manageable’.
Schools train individuals to respond as a mass. Boys and girls are drilled in being bored, frightened, envious, emotionally needy, generally incomplete. A successful mass production economy requires such a clientele. A small business, small farm economy like that of the Amish requires individual competence, thoughtfulness, compassion, and universal participation; our own requires a managed mass of leveled, spiritless, anxious, familyless, friendless, godless, and obedient people who believe the difference between Cheers and Seinfeld is a subject worth arguing about.”― John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education: An Intimate Investigation Into the Prison of Modern Schooling
In his 1918 book Principles of Secondary Education, Alexander Inglis (for whom an honour lecture in education at Harvard is named), makes it clear that compulsory schooling in America was intended to be just what it had been for Prussia in the 1820s. It was to be a ‘surgical intervention to prevent the peasants and proletarians from gaining a democratic voice’.
The goal of the school system was to prevent the underclasses from unifying by dividing them into classes, age-grading, and constant rankings on tests. School was to train fixed habits of reaction to authority. It served a ‘conformity function’ as it was to make children as alike as possible. Its aim was not, as one would hope, to fill children with knowledge and intelligence, but to:
- reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level
- to breed and train standard citizens
- produce formulaic human beings whose behaviour could be predicted and controlled
“School is about creating loyalty to certain goals and habits, a vision of life, support for a class structure, an intricate system of human relationships cleverly designed to manufacture the continuous low level of discontent upon which mass production and finance rely.”John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education: An Intimate Investigation Into the Prison of Modern Schooling