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7_Weapons of Mass Instruction
Only 31 percent of college-educated Americans can fully comprehend a newspaper story, down from 40 percent a decade ago.
- National Commission on the Future of Higher Education, August 2006.
35 percent of the young regret their university experience and don’t consider the time and money invested worth it more than half said they learned nothing of use.
- Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2006
######A Moral Odor
At the age of sixteen, a blind French teenager named Jacques Lusseyran became head of an underground resistance group of 600 during WWII. Lusseyran arranged dynamiting, assassinations, and other violent forms of sabotage to free his country from the Germans, a story told in his autobiography, And Then There Was Light. In chapter four, he talked about his early schooling, calling the classroom experience a moral disaster:
There is such a thing as moral odor and that was the case at school. A group of human beings that stay in one room by compulsion begins to smell. That is literally the case, and with children, it happens even faster. Just think how much suppressed anger, humiliated independence, frustrated vagrancy, and impotent curiosity can be accumulated by boys between the ages of ten and fourteen …
Lusseyran was able to murder large numbers often just a few months after he left school “where the world of reality with all its real moral questions was entirely lacking. “ We become what we behold. It’s something to remember, Columbine.
######School As A Weapon
Most historical accounts of schooling are so negative you have to wonder how this exercise of pedagogy ever passed the test of time with its original parts nearly unchanged. It must yield some benefits, but what those are and for whom isn’t so clear.
It seems obvious that school weakens family and indeed all relationships, but perhaps some valuable trade-off occurs which, on balance, rewards people so radically disconnected from one another and from themselves. School elevates winning so far above its ostensible goal of learning that periodically public scandals occur when investigation reveals that even elite students know very little. A century of lending our children to perfect strangers from an early age - to be instructed in what we aren’t quite sure - has made an important statement about modern culture which deserves to be mused upon.
One famous ode of Horace contemplates the torments of schooling. Mosaics at Pompeii illustrate painful episodes of school discipline. Washington Irving’s story of the headless horseman celebrates turning the tables big-time on an insufferable schoolmaster. The immortal WWI era song, “Schooldays, schooldays, dear old golden rule days;’ describes with affection a relationship between school learning and the”tune of the hickory stick:’ A recent Hollywood film, Teaching Miss Tingle, is about a schoolteacher kidnapped by her students who torture her physically and psychologically. Numerous websites exist which specialize in ways to disrupt school routines. On the other side, we rarely hear anyone attributing their success to school time.
The notion of school as a dangerous place is well established then, even if the troubling metaphor of weaponry deliberately brought to bear to cause student harm isn’t yet widespread. That school can and does inflict damage is no longer surprising although precisely how that happens is only impressionistically understood. And “why” not at all.
This chapter will seek to nail down some specific aspects of the punitive machinery. It won’t be comprehensive - you will have weapons of your own to add - nor will I try to rank the ones I give you in any formal order of importance, much of that will depend upon the nature of your own kids, but I feel compelled to plant this flag firmly while I have time left - school is not a good place for your kids. If they are swarmed by friends and win every award the place can offer it changes nothing. From the first month of my teaching career of 30 years, I realized that intellectual power, creative insight, and good character was being diminished in my classroom and that indeed I had been hired for precisely that purpose. I was a clerk in a vast penitentiary; the rules and procedures were the guards.
######A Personal Formula
In a short time, I became determined to sabotage the system as Lusseyran had sabotaged the Nazi system, peacefully in most instances, but as time passed and my contempt deepened, by small acts of violence as well. In the course of continuous trial and error experimentation (behind the fa~ade of being an “English” teacher), I stumbled upon a formula to change the destiny of students, one at a time, the way beached starfish have to be rescued. It required assembling a fairly accurate biography of every individual student from birth onward, all the key people, relationships, experiences, places, opinions, accomplishments, and failures. School records and memories weren’t good enough, though sometimes there was no alternative. The best data came from parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends, and enemies - anyone who could provide intimate information to the emerging personal narrative.
With a rich profile in hand, a personal course could be custom-tailored for each kid, put together in partnership with the student, flexible enough to allow constant feedback to change the design, something schools could not do (nor would they if they could).
When you believe in determinism - biological, psychological, sociological, or theological (and schools believe in all of those in various times and places), the very idea of feedback leading to growth must be held at arm’s length. For all its legends of social mobility and intellectual growth, school operates out of a belief in social order - that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
Once a profile was created, the second step was to add a personalized Wishes and Weaknesses component. I asked each student to list three things each wanted to be knowledgeable about by the end of the year - that was the wishes part - and three weaknesses he or she wished to overcome, deficiencies which led to humiliation (I get beat up all the time) or failures of opportunity (I want to do modeling work but only the rich kids know how to present themselves to get that) - that was the weaknesses part. I exercised virtually no censorship and whatever the individual kid’s priorities were become mine. I didn’t consult with a single school administrator to put this program in place, nor with any other teacher - only with parents from whom I extracted promises of silence.
I know this sounds like a hideous amount of effort, and politically impossible in a large urban school, but it was neither: it required only will, imagination, resourcefulness, and a determination to scrap any rules which stood in the way - just as Shen Wenrong had done in moving Phoenix. Acting in my favor was the fact that with this new curriculum each kid was motivated, worked much harder than I legally could have asked him or her to do, and recruited outside assistance with resources no classroom teacher could match. And now for the first time each had a personal reason to work hard, one that was self-grading.
As for myself I became determined to figure out where this bizarre institution had actually come from, why it had taken the shape it did all around the world in the same century, why it was able to turn away intense criticism and grow larger, more expensive, and more intrusive into personal lives. If you allow imagination to work on the institution, it is much more a piece of utopian science fiction, oblivious to human needs, than it is a response to popular demand. Right from the early days of my teaching life, I began a project of research which involved reading and arguing with thousands of books, many dreadfully written and some quite obscure, travelling (by now) three million miles around the country and the world to observe, argue, and discuss schools and which resulted a few years ago in a monster book, still in print, called The Underground History of American Education.
A major publisher paid me an enormous amount of money to write it (enormous for a schoolteacher) and then refused to publish it after holding it off the market for over a year. “It would embarrass friends of the house;’ I was told. If you wonder what that might mean, consider this was one of the top three textbook publishing houses too, apart from their trade division.
In this way my schoolteaching practices were directed by intense research on the one hand, and equally intensive and daring field exercises around the city of New York - at times up to sixty different studies in sixty different locations! Simultaneously! Either singly, in small teams, or en masse, “Gatto’s Guerrillas;’ as we called ourselves, infiltrated without notice (or permission either), into public meetings, exhibitions, scheduled hearings, auctions, courthouses, workplaces - anywhere opportunity presented itself. We took public opinion polls on every subject under the sun - often competing with professional news organizations. Traveling dramatic troupes (always more than one) gave shows in elementary schools, in acting studios, and everyplace verbal engagement was possible.
The general targets were many: independence, self-reliance, strategic planning, a good command of the active literacies of speaking and writing, courage, curiosity, an ability to write a script for one’s own life.
A major goal was examining barriers schooling creates which restrict intellectual and behavioral superiority to a relative handful of its clientele. Producing a clear inventory of school practices which act to interdict normal development - like involuntary confinement, involuntary associations, bells, bathrooms passes, continuous competitions complete with petty prizes, testing, and all the rest, and discussing the genesis of each, proved useful in changing the way kids approached the school experience. They grew willing to assume full responsibility for educating themselves, in spite of school - rather than trusting an army of strangers to do the job for them. It was a revolution in outlook.
I had been hired as an English teacher, but since absolutely nothing was rationally prescribed under a mandate to increase facility with the English language, and since nobody paid close attention to what was happening, if my classes weren’t unduly disruptive and parents didn’t complain, I put an examination of the public assumptions of schooling at the heart of what I taught. Without ever actually asserting that school was a place of bad intentions I set out to demonstrate to students and their families that the poor results of schooling - with language proficiency, for instance - weren’t inevitable, but the results of procedures enshrined in regulation and law.
The system was principally at fault, a conclusion many had reached before me, but not so commonly available was the insight that systems incorporate ways to defend internal integrity. No system will allow deviant behavior. All elements obey central directives or the logic of systematization vanishes. Course correction by unmediated feedback is powerfully discouraged in any system, even made illegal. By destroying possibilities of internal dialectic, and by concealing the operations of management from public scrutiny, schools render themselves virtually immune to change.
It’s not my intention to conjure up dark conspiracies; men and women who staff institutional schooling are very like those in other complex institutions - if they exercise significant free will they become outlaws who must be sanctioned and things which improve performance are hardly more welcome than things which impair it.
Deviations from a steady state jeopardize the system mission. Medieval craft guilds in precious metals, stained glass, candle-making, etc. were very much like this: innovation was powerfully resisted, independent practitioners were sanctioned - ostracized if they persisted.
Robert Michel, the French social thinker, investigated bureaucracies more than a century ago and concluded that, without exception, their nominal missions - defending the country, delivering the mail, collecting garbage, etc.-were always secondary to the primary mission: preserving the bureaucracy.
In this regard school is only one of many institutions in American society patterned after a scheme to confuse the pu~lic, one first put in place in ancient Sparta - management by cleverly contrived illusions.
Our economy has become rooted in financial trickery. It moves from bubble to bubble in ways which gladden the hearts of speculators privy to the formula - boom and bust the public calls it. When creating bubbles is temporarily ill-advised, wars are invented to fill the temporary bubble-vacuum, although wholesale destruction of property and life occasioned by warfare may be seen as a bubble itself like our world-famous dream industries; motion picture, television and pop music, just another entertainment to fill up the emptiness of modern life and give it savor. In a nation whose economy depends on bubble illusions, why should the school institution assigned to train · the young be any different~
In his immortal book, Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith - the Scottish philosopher we regard as the father of capital “e” capitalism made the distinction between education and schooling very clear.
At no time did Smith claim education had anything at all to do with national prosperity, only free trade (competition unfettered by excessive rules) and a division of labor contributed to that.
The role of education, said Smith, was needed to compensate for mutilations inflicted as by-products of those same processes which produce wealth. We need to understand that artificial environments produced by free trade and constant competition cause psychological damage in four ways: I) they make workers cowardly 2) stupid 3) sluggish 4) and indifferent to everything but animal needs. Only education (he called it “educational schooling”) will heal the wounds to community and individuality caused by capitalism.
According to the father of capitalism, the only differences between children of philosophers and those of street sweepers lies in the training they receive. All children, he asserts, have the talents we associate with elite families, all, that is, until the majority of young are deliberately deprived of”subject(s) for thought and speculation:’ Those so deprived become “deformed;’ unable to bear hard thinking. They lose “power of judgment, even as regards ordinary matters:’ He could have been describing public school kids in 2009.
The new curriculum I devised toward the end of the 1960s was intended as a counterattack on cowardice, stupidity, sluggishness, and indifference. It had nothing to do with test scores. The best work I did as a teacher always consisted of the same priorities: entering a personal partnership with anybody who showed a determination to become educated, then working inside that partnership to help meet specific targets the student set. Those too broken to want an education, I schooled. Over time a fraction of those were inspired by the example of more enterprising classmates and wanted out of the school routines, too; others were unable to recover. Those I consoled by schooling them as elite children are schooled, by drill long and strong.
Adam Smith was right. Between children identified as bright by schools and those identified as stupid, hardly a difference exists but those created by deliberate deprivation.
######The House of Mirrors
In one of the strange ironies of history, Adam Smith’s own publisher, William Playfair, chided Smith for his innocence. The social order to which he and Smith belonged was held together by deliberately depriving most people of information they needed to maximize opportunities. If secrets were promiscuously distributed, the ladders of privilege would collapse, their own children would be plunged back into the common stew. It was unthinkable. The familiar expression, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” was Playfair’s invention.”Proper” schooling teaches “negatively;’ it never allows the working classes or the poor” to read sufficiently well to understand what they do read.
Set down clearly over 200 years ago here is the recipe for the schools we commonly experience. Playfair argued that public instruction would ruin national prosperity, not enhance it. And who is to say he is wrong as long as prosperity is reckoned in dollars and cents.”The education of the middling and lower ranks” has to be put aside, to be replaced with psychological conditioning in habits and attitudes of deference, envy, appetite, and mistrust of self, if the system of capitalism is to survive with all the benefits it provides.
“A smattering of learning is a very dangerous thing;’ he said, not because ordinary people are too dumb to learn; just the opposite, they are too smart to be allowed to learn. People become dangerous when too many see through the illusions which hold society together.
Long ago in China, Playfair’s philosophy had been given a name by the emperors in pre-history. It was called “The Policy of Keeping People Dumb:’ The only change the passage of millennia brought in this leadership perspective was in the form of a change in style - in the modern era leaders no longer spoke openly about this great secret of management.
######The Lincoln Elective Program
Lincoln Academy, New York City, 1985. A public junior high school, despite its fancy name, located next door to a housing project for the poor, far from the center of Manhattan’s dynamic Upper West Side.
The West Side of Manhattan is world-famous, a zone of substantial accomplishment, wealth, and power. Home to Columbia University; Fordham; Julliard; Barnard; the Jewish Theological Seminary; Columbia Teachers College; Riverside Church; The Lincoln Center: The Metropolitan Opera; The Symphony; The Museum of Natural History; and the Historical Society. Bounded on the east by Central Park, on the west by Riverside Park - one of the great intellectual centers of the earth, housing twenty-odd public schools.
If government schooling were intended to succeed anywhere, it would have to be here, inside this micro-environment of wealth, talent, taste, enlightenment, and European liberal tradition. Yet inside Intermediate School 44 on West 77th Street where I taught for 16 years, bands of marauders roamed the corridors (like my own shown in the photograph on the back cover); three rapes took place inside a single week; and bandit gangs from a nearby high school beat and robbed other students at will.
No dangerous event was ever reported to police, no general caution to parents that safety could not be guaranteed was ever issued, the moral odor of institutional bureaucracy reeked like a dead fish in School District Three, a place many believed the moral center of progressivism in the United States. District Three was a bedroom community for television, theatre, and the arts, yet giant firecrackers went off randomly inside the quietly surreal school building on West 77th Street, while opposite the school, not a hundred feet from it, rents climbed beyond a thousand dollars a room per month and kept climbing to double (and nearly triple) that for a one-room studio.
By the 1980s, when I transferred to Lincoln Academy, central management in District Three was employing aggressive reform rhetoric.
New programs were regularly announced: partnerships with Columbia, Fordham, the Ford Foundation, the mayor’s office, and various federal agencies, and an elective program, intended we were told to bring students into the management loop by giving them apart in decisionmaking was launched. Like 700 other teachers in the district, I was ordered to prepare curriculum for an elective of my own design. It was to be a study of epic poetry from Homer through Milton to Tennyson.
On the first day I met my elective, faces were visibly unhappy; on the second revolt reared its head - my offering clearly wasn’t congenial to anyone except myself Why had they chosen to be there?
I asked for written explanations:
Tonya-I had no choice. They chose it for me.
Gloria - They said to come in here. I didn’t even know what it
meant. That’s why I’m here.
Eddie - I wanted soccer. The only reason I have this is because Dean picked it for me.
Francisco - I am here because Dean said I had to be.
Jane - Dean said this was the only elective I could pick.
Tanisha- I picked this because Dean picked it for me.
Tamura - I am here because Dean ordered me.
Jose - Dean put me here.
George - I didn’t pick it. Dean picked it for me.
Bonnie - The principal picked it.
Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentum mortalia tangent
In March of 2005, Indiana University released a study of school-based anti-smoking programs - which cost taxpayers huge sums of money every year. California alone has invested over a half-billion dollars on this effort. Is the money well-spent?
According to the abstract of the report printed in the International Herald Tribune for March 24, 2005, the principal author, Dr. Sarah Wiehe, said that all such programs have one common characteristic - they all fail. “It may be;’ said Dr. Wiehe, “that any program conducted in schools induces contempt in students:’ You’ll want to digest that conclusion slowly, ruminating on its invisible consequences. As long as school is the delivery vehicle, any undertaking is held in contempt. But for most of us school exists as the principal forge of intellectual development. Is study itself then brought into contempt?
As that university study was being reported in the European press, Janet and I were in a unique French village near Limoges called Oradour Sur Glane, a town without a single inhabitant, all its buildings intact except the ruined church which had been burned to the ground on June 10, 1944, by retreating German military forces in WWIL On that day every single citizen was murdered save one - an eight-year-old boy, Roger Godfrin, who disobeyed his schoolteachers when they obeyed German orders to bring their classes to the town square and church. “Hurry! Hurry!” Roger remembers them saying, “Don’t keep them waiting!” Without his contempt for school, which led him to run away and hide instead, Roger would have burned to ashes with the rest.
Why has schooling acquired such a bad odor? Part of the answer lies in the political nature of mass schooling - a characteristic inherent in any bureaucracy. It’s not so much kids think in these abstract terms, it’s the widespread understanding among the young that school isn’t about them (and their interests, curiosities and futures), but exclusively about the wishes of other people. School is built around the self-interest of others. What’s the point of taking this test or that one? Is there any point at all that any young person with real priorities, real anxieties, and real questions which need to be answered would be likely to accept? How would you personally deal with the assertion, “I don’t need to know anything about the Leaning
Tower of Pisa!” What would you say? Is it possible the complaint is well-founded?
What of the political nature of schooling which allows any group in political control and all its important political rivals to edit out any teaching which might call its own privileges, practices, or beliefs into question? School has no choice but to limit free thought and speech to such a profound degree a gulf is opened between the sanctimonious homilies of pedagogy (‘searching for truth; ‘leveling the playing field; etc.) and the ugly reality of its practices. Will you require me to prove that? I hope so. I shall do it with a stark example from Australia in the expectation you will have no trouble transferring the principle learned to America.
######The Australian Example
Australia has an ecosystem so delicately balanced that its health or sickness is quickly transferred to every student in every school. Because of that inescapable, ever-present reality, you might imagine government policy toward the environment would provide compelling analytical matter for curriculum in every academic specialty, but if you thought so you would be dead wrong.
One instance will show you why. For years the government there supported a project to eliminate deeply rooted grasses, replacing them with shallowly rooted British grasses which provide food for sheep in a land unsuited to sheep, but where a sheep industry is politically powerful. Sheep chew grass far down; that causes salt to rise from subsoil and concentrate in topsoil- a significant problem for farmers. But something just as bad or worse happens, too: huge quantities of soil blow away and contaminate rivers. Soil-laden water kills fish populations and pollutes the tidal margins where land meets ocean.
All over the world, this tidal margin is the great producer of fish, but in Australia, with the longest coastline on earth, the tidal zone is the least productive anywhere, in part a result of sheep farming in an environment ill-matched to sheep.
There’s more. Tourism, not sheep, is the nation’s big money-maker.
Among its unique sights is the Great Barrier Reef, a vast mountain of coral harboring a rich collection of sea life. As soil in rivers which flow to the reef has increased, large sections of coral have died, losing their characteristic brilliant red hues which in death change to ugly grey.
Tourism which benefits every corner of the country has been placed in jeopardy to please the sheep lobby. Jared Diamond’s Collapse, about historical patterns of social collapse, has a long chapter on Australia, including a discussion of the impact of sheep.
But what, you say, does this ongoing tragedy have to do with school affairs well, if the degradation of the economy the young must work in isn’t considered a suitable subject for study, it’s hard to see why the Leaning Tower of Pisa is. The simple truth is that Australian schools will never be allowed to study and debate vital matters, even though they are sentenced to inherit the mess. Now prepare a list of things your own local schools would only take seriously at their own peril.
Go ahead, it isn’t difficult. Is fast food a major taxpayer in your area?
Check and see if Fast Food Nation is in the school library, or Super Size Me in the film collection. In the history department, what coverage exists of the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants or Christians and Muslims? Does any of it deal with the specifics of doctrinal differences without which essential aspects of human nature are flushed down the toilet even though they bear heavily on America’s situation in the world today.
Anyone who reflects on personal experience will acknowledge that ease and sophistication with spoken language is substantially more important in life than reading. What percentage of class time in your school’s language classes is set aside for that? Don’t bother to answer any of these questions, I know the situation in your school already.
Alfred North Whitehead, one of the best-known mathematicians of the twentieth century, contended in his book, The Aims of Education, that the most essential form of advanced math apart from arithmetic in modern society is statistical prediction. It’s in use on an everyday basis in thousands of practical applications, from political predictions to advising clothing manufacturers what colors will be preferred in the months ahead. The math required to hold this power in one’s hands is hardly taxing for people of junior high school age.
For ordinary lives, nothing in the world of number beyond arithmetic is remotely as useful; if statistics were the mathematical idea taught, past long division, most students would become more effective for the simple ability to predict with numbers. Check what percentage of your school’s math curriculum is devoted to statistics.
Enough said about irrelevance, almost every kid understands that political considerations dictate school time be filled with irrelevance; they just don’t understand why, because schools wouldn’t dare stress the realities of social class and social engineering. Social Engineering Thanks to a 24-year-old college dropout named Mark Zuckerberg who created Facebook, and others like him who founded YouTube,
MySpace and other social networks still unmonitored by political authorities or academics, thanks to the World-Wide Web and the Internet as platforms for individually generated connections, the power of school as a great dis-connector has been weakened.
These vehicles enable people without any particular status, to hook up with one another; they even allow mixtures of nobodies and somebodies to exchange ideas and plans; they provide a fountain of information which replenishes itself constantly; they encourage creativity among masses consigned by schooling to become reliable consumers. Even though this new force is still in early childhood, already it has caused governments to surrender a great deal of power over their own currencies. It has emboldened accumulations of capital to move at the speed of light from one country to another, destabilizing conventional markets, making national loyalties conditional and patriotism questionable. Thanks to the vast new ball of connections, official truth in every conceivable area is subject to verification by a promiscuous collection of uncertified critics armed with the tools to back up their contrarian critiques.
Thanks to the Internet, the concept of mass schooling by experts is nearly exhausted.
Lying by Omission
Bruno is a college student in Portugal who wrote to me on May I7, 2008 asking for my take on several matters for which his school holds official positions and monitors compliance with its stances through testing. It’s a common situation everywhere. These unstated biases presented as gospel truth makes official schooling dangerously antieducational, yet this phenomenon in action is difficult to detect, and among the young, virtually impossible.
Sometimes these pernicious biases are managed simply by omitting some key piece of information. Such was the case that bothered Bruno, in a graduate school program purporting to explain the mechanism through which evolution is presumed to work. The letter which follows represents my attempt to introduce Bruno to one of the best-concealed weapons of mass instruction: lying by omission: Dear Bruno,
You ask my opinion on Darwin’s supposition vs. Wallace’s, Darwin contending that biological advance occurs through deadly competitions which over time eliminate the weak from success in reproduction, and Wallace arguing that adaptation and cooperation are the important elements. , I would have no opinion on the relative merits of either, but my guess is that what really interests you is how Darwin became the figure historically remembered and Wallace the one forgotten. On that issue I know a great deal.
The politics of science is a matter which hardly ever takes center stage in academic presentations intended for ordinary students, but since Darwin’s ascendency was almost exclusively a matter of who he was and who he knew, while Wallace’s decline could have been predicted long before it occurred by knowing his background, let me engage your question through that particular aspect of big science, since it is always present and almost always a matter of the greatest importance. Two excellent critical takes on this which you might want to read are Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Robert Scott Root-Bernsteins’s Discovering.
Back to the Darwin victory. I’m certain you were never told in school that Darwin was supremely wealthy and hung around with the circle around the powerful and influential in many countries. And I’m equally certain you don’t know that he was trained as a Church of England priest, not as a scientist. In a short while I’ll get to the significance of this data, but for the moment you should reflect on the possible reason your teachers would have in keeping this information from you.
Your school and colleges will also have kept from you that Wallace was from a lowly background; all his best sympathies were with people who worked hard for subsistence wages. Those sympathies might have been dismissed as an eccentricity in a fine scientist except that he carried his convictions into the political arena - enraging the very social classes in which Darwin enjoyed membership.
For example, he was prominent in the land reform movement which asked that ownership be turned over to the tiller. He disdained the British scientific establishment as more a private club for rich dilettantes like Darwin than a workshop for science. Is it far-fetched to think some of this biographical record - in both cases - might have made a difference in their respective receptions?
Push this a bit further. Free trade was a passionate issue in the 19th century among so-called champions of the liberal persuasion. But Wallace wrote passionately against free trade, claiming it inflicted hideous hardships on working people. He advocated female suffrage when that idea was anathema to the elites. He was the Ralph Nader of his day - and yet he was totally dependent on the classes he criticized for a fair hearing among his judges.
All this is vital to a clear consideration of your original question, yet an invisible committee charged with helping you gain education saw fit to move these interesting narratives out of your reach. Some flesh and blood individuals had to make this decision on several levels of your schooling. What I haven’t gotten to yet is how seditious Wallace’s theory really was to the controlling interests of the British Empire, versus Darwin’s which fit squarely on top of the government’s plans and justified them.
The sad truth is Wallace was worse than hated by Britain’s managerial classes. His talk of”peaceful adaptation” as the way to species improvement ran directly counter to the violent means necessary to create and maintain the British Empire. Darwin’s explanation, on the other hand, that continuous competition of a life and death variety was nature’s way, put the voice of Science squarely in the camp of imperialism, globalism, racism, colonialism, free trade economics, and much else of moment to the powerful in 19th century Britain. But if life were found to be inherently better where cooperation rules, as Wallace said, the privileged world would turn upside down.
By Darwin’s day, among the powerful, Christianity had become merely ceremonial, a dangerous relic of the past to be kept under State control as it was in the Anglican order.
But Wallace, although not arguing his case from any theological perspective, still marshaled his theory in a way which led to the age-old Christian conclusion: we are our brother’s keeper; patience, not violent action, is the wisest course in the face of the inevitable.
The revolutionary ability of the Christian message to stir up the masses and put them maddeningly out of reach of carrot/stick control machinery was regarded with horror by the British upper classes. When people build the meaning of their days out of relationships, love, piety, loyalty, and frugal self-sufficiency, the notion of happiness through an accumulation of stuff suffers. But what were the ramifications of that for a commercial civilization? On the other hand, when competition is seen as essential to a good life when winning against one’s neighbors is put at the heart of society, business thrives. To win, others have to lose: the more losers, the better winning feels.
My dear Bruno, you could build a bridge to the moon and back on the corpses which accrued from Darwin’s contentious work and the work of his first cousin, Francis Galton, in initiating out the politics of his biological suppositions. He provided policymakers already disposed to regard the mass population as”human resources;’ with justification for disregarding the silly idea of human rights. Most people were evolutionary dead-ends, Darwin had spoken, just as had Fichte, Spinoza, Calvin, and Plato before him when they said much the same thing. Or the Anglican theory of a Divine Order, for that matter. Apologists today will protest that the damage has been caused by”Social Darwinists” who hammered his ideas into practical directives for the management of society but don’t let them fool you.
You need only read Descent ofMan to see that Darwin himself was the master Social Darwinist, even if it was his cousin who invented the new science of”eugenics” to provide the same options with human beings for social leaders as they already had in plant and animal breeding.
I hope this sheds some light on Wallace’s eclipse. His public attacks on military spending alone would have been enough to doom him to obscurity. I’m surprised he gets the footnote in scientific history he does, but I expect that will vanish, too, at some not too distant moment in the future.
Take this single example as a specimen of the illusions which control the public imagination.
Ninety-eight years ago as I write, anybody who had access to the Encyclopedia Britannica (lIth edition) could have learned how to produce powerful explosives cheaply and with ordinary materials - from combustible dust explosives whose power is derived from finely ground corn in gaseous form, or table sugar, to even more powerful fertilizer bombs, based on ammonium nitrate and diesel oil. The truck bomb which destroyed the government building in Oklahoma City is in the encyclopedia, and others as well.
But no small farmer would have needed to read it there because, for everyone who wanted to know about such things, the information was widely available.
Even today, such information isn’t hard to come by if you want it. The formula for the TATP bomb which closed the London Underground in 2005 was soon afterwards publicly available (unwittingly, I ‘suppose) in the influential Financial Times - on its editorial page! The only significant information missing from the FT account
was supplied a little while later on the New York Times editorial page, in the form of a display advertisement from an Israeli company selling bomb-detection machines. You could hardly deprive the public of bomb-making materials, even if you wanted to:
The material originally appearing here has been blocked on the advice of legal counsel, to protect the publisher and the author from legal consequences.
Why would anyone with decent motives want such information? Only a population broken to its own insignificance would ask such a slavish question. For anyone who understands what the miracle of America once was (and is no more), that it was a forge to convert slaves, serfs, peasants, and proletarians into free men and women, explosives were an important part of self-reliance and liberty. They were important tools in clearing land, digging foundations, constructing ponds, building roads, moving stones, digging gold mines - perhaps in the gravest extreme even defending your family’s liberty from agents of the political state. Isn’t that how we got the United States in the first placer Because the common population was armed Has the possibility of a tyranny here miraculously vanished But violent conflict aside, and melodrama with it, the tool aspect alone ought to be the common right of free citizens. And whether you agree or not isn’t as important as realizing that less than a hundred years ago, perfectly ordinary people were trusted to handle power like this with responsibility.
What has changed in the intervening century? Have ordinary people become more dangerous, or have governments demanded exclusive ownership of things which might unseat them? Carroll Quigley, professor of international relations at Georgetown and former personal tutor of president Clinton’s when Clinton attended that school, wrote in Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time that the rights of ordinary people thrive at those times when common citizens are well armed against the incursions of their own government - and that liberty declines precipitously when arms are denied the commonality. Adolf Hitler’s first act in office was to ban possession of firearms among citizens.
Once again you’ll want to know what information like this has to
do with schooling and at the risk of insulting you I’ll reply that only a man or woman whose imagination has been ruined, only someone who traded self-respect for security long ago, would need an explanation. These are among the hundreds, perhaps thousands of ideas without which education is impossible - you needn’t accept one side of the argument or the other to become educated, but you do have to accept that argument about these things is at the core of the matter. You can’t win liberty by memorizing what you’re told to memorize. “Nullius in Verba” is the motto of the Royal Scientific Society, founded in 1620, which I translate as “Don’t take anybody’s word for the truth; think for yourself!” The watchword of school is “Let others think for you:’
######The Decisive Ratio
The new revolution made possible by factory schooling returned citizenship in libertarian America to a deadly ratio which once existed in classical Greece, Tudor England, and Prussia of the Fredericks - a large number of puppets, a small group of puppet masters. Kids don’t understand why it’s happening, but they sense themselves being put to death in school. That’s why they hate it so much.
You never hear among the common complaints against schooling that it acts as a workshop to create physical and psychological ugliness, but that’s exactly what I’m going to say - the habits it inculcates lead to ugliness in a culture where beauty and grace is much more important than school allows you to know.
One great secret which you always suspected I’ll confirm for you right now: the physical appearance of human bodies is an important sorting device at elite universities - if you’re ugly, ungainly, unathletic, ungraceful, your chances of admission at Yale or Stanford drop almost to zero. Your physical appearance tells a sophisticated observer a great deal about you and whether you might be worthy to carry the institution’s flag. Here is one of those hundreds of thousands of ideas which school might spend its time examining, but as with much else, it avoids treating entirely. In this case, merely omitting discussion of the ideas involved doesn’t do the major damage, much more direct methods are employed to tag you with the stigmata of failure which ugliness signifies.
If you wanted general health and vigor in an oncoming generation, would you enforce immobility on it for twelve to twenty years?
Would you tie that immobility to constant stresses created by bells and various threats? Would you add to these handicaps the fat and sugar-rich diet of school lunches or allow snack wagons and soda pop vendors inside the school orbit? Don’t these provide a direct road to overweight and obesity, ill health, weakness, gracelessness, vulgarity and timidity?
It has long been acknowledged that the most powerful prejudice in America is our national hatred of fat people. This, even though more citizens (and students) are fat here than anywhere else on earth.
The epidemic nature of this phenomenon robs a significant chunk of graduates of our 12-year training programs in ugliness of dignity, friends, opportunity, romance - it is among the most vicious weapons of mass instruction. Your associates through life will forgive you for being ignorant of quadratic questions - or the Leaning Tower Vof Pisa, but they will not overlook the sin of your low vitality or your fatness.
Being fat and ugly lowers your chances for admission to any elite university like Stanford. Evaluation protocols at top colleges preference good looks, a slender body, and an outgoing personality because they know that those characteristics - together with membership on sports teams - enlarges chances of success in whatever field a graduate chooses to enter. Including the sciences. But if Stanford knows this, why shouldn’t you? I don’t mean that to be a rhetorical question.
Every year, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other elites turn away thousands of applicants with perfect SAT scores and thousands with perfect 4.0 GPAs. Harvard turns down four out of every five valedictorians who apply. But shapely, well-dressed, physically vital candidates are given a substantial head start -as if elite college was some sort of eugenics project. Why did your high school never talk about this? Is college in part eugenically driven, part of the great Bionomics project begun in turn of the century America which led to the sterilization of tens of thousands of biological defectives;’ and earned our academic fraternity medals from the Nazi government? What? You never heard of that? Didn’t your school teach American history?
The most interesting part of this for me is that ugliness is hardly ever predestined by biology - you have to work to be ugly; it emerges as a byproduct of the”negative” education demanded by Adam Smith’s publisher several hundred years ago.
Are you aware that the epidemic of diabetes in America, which now claims children down to the age of five, is caused directly by excessive immobility and a diet heavy in fats and sugars; are you aware that diabetes is our leading cause of amputations and blindness? In light of those facts, why would the largest middle-class occupation in America make its living imposing such unwholesome behaviors? If you hide from this question you might as well throw away this book.
Why are school people immune from lawsuits for physically damaging the incarcerated population? The answer has much to do with the supposed independence of the courts in the pragmatic era, inspired by Oliver Wendell Holmes. “Justice” was too crucial an element in 20th-century management to take its demands seriously.
To what degree are the curricula of schools and colleges besides the point, mere padding to fill long hours of confinement until the trapped lives, exhausted of their vitality, broken to the traces, can safely be released?
An MIT professor, Langdon Winner, provides an answer in his book, Autonomous Technology, which carries the ominous sub-title:
Technics Out-of-Control, intimating what Lewis Lapham said openly in the Summer 2008 number of Lapham’s Quarterly: “The arithmetic suggests we have no way of avoiding calamity…”
In the following citation from Autonomous Technology, Winner inventories deficiencies of the best-schooled generations in American history. Be careful as you read not to fall into the trap schooling will have conditioned in your mind - that people are dumb by nature and we can’t expect school to turn pigs into swans:
Society is composed of persons who cannot design, build, repair, or even operate most of the devices upon which their lives depend … people are confronted with extraordinary events and functions that are literally unintelligible to them.
They are unable to give an adequate explanation of man-made phenomena in their immediate experience. They are unable to form a coherent, rational picture of the whole… all persons do, and indeed must, accept a great number of things on faith …their way of understanding is basically religious, rather than scientific …The plight of members of the technological society can be compared to that of a newborn child … [but] Citizens of the modern age in this respect are less fortunate than children. They never escape fundamental bewilderment in the face of the complex world their senses report … In a complex society, flexible people survive best, but school - think of the word itself- rewards rigid, miserable rule-followers. To be effective and remain independent we need to know how to find things out, how to manage our own learning, but the day prison model school discourages learning for its own sake. Actual learning leads directly to low test scores. Whatever education happens in school happens despite school, not because of it. Learning isn’t the point of school, winning is; attention is never placed on quality of thought or performance, but on something entirely different; reaching the winner’s circle.
Listen to a couple of random observations made long ago by two products of the best schooling, the first a famous writer, the second a successful stockbroker who ran away to the South Seas to become an
How infuriating not to know! All those years at Eton …Why didn’t they teach me anything sensible?
- Aldous Huxley
By the second day, I had exhausted my provisions. What to do? I had imagined that with money I would be able to find all that was necessary. I was deceived. Once beyond the threshold of the city… one must know how to climb the tall trees, how to go into the mountains in order to return weighed down with heavy booty. One must know how to catch fish, and how to dive to tear loose the shellfish … One must know how one must be able to do things.
- Paul Gauguin, Noa Noa
Neither Huxley nor Gauguin were taught anything useful by their school time; both found themselves frustrated in later life, imperfectly anchored in reality because of all the time wasted in school in low-grade abstractions memorized, which lacked any utility; administered in a climate of intimidation.
Seymour Papert (of the MIT Artificial Intelligency Laboratory) said in his book Mindstorms that all learning can be learned ‘as the child learns to talk, painlessly, successfully, and without organized instruction. [emphasis added) … schools, as we know them today, will have no place in the future:’ Papert offered two possible destinies for institutional schooling - transformation “into something new” or “wither away and be replaced:’ In the decades since that was written, nearly three million homeschoolers have emerged and well over a million people drop out of school as of 2009. In urban schools it’s an open secret that after lunch, classroom attendance is difficult to maintain and attention virtually impossible.
######The Dark World of Compulsory Schooling
The minute you are willing to acknowledge how radically irrelevant school offerings actually are, the question of intent rears its disturbing head. Is this irrelevance an accident of incompetence? Is it possible the managers of institutional schooling don’t know themselves what to do, but having inherited command of a dangerously unstable vessel, must sail it somehow to a destination unknown? For an army of local superintendents and principals, this is surely true - the job is too good to abandon, its perks too rich to give up; they might like to change and adapt but the command/control structure won’t allow any strong deviations from system logic.
Yet even having granted professional frontline confusion, the specter of some darker intent at the level of policy won’t go away. Schooling in the short and intermediate run is so unmistakably beneficial to some of the orders of society who possess power to plan for the whole that the possibility of these surrendering to the temptation to use institutional schooling for social engineering can’t be dismissed. And once that filter is activated in your critical consciousness, evidence presents itself constantly that indeed this is so. Consider this excerpt from a speech delivered in 1940 to the Association for the Advancement ofScience by the legendary political philosopher and journalist, Walter Lippmann:
During the past forty or fifty years those who are responsible for education have progressively removed from the curriculum the Western culture which produced the modern democratic state…the schools and colleges have therefore been sending out into the world men who no longer understand the creative principle of the society in which they must live…deprived of their cultural tradition, the newly educated Western men no longer possess in the form and substance of their own minds and spirits and ideas, the premises, the rationale, the logic, the method, the values of the deposited wisdom which are the genius of the development of Western civilization…the prevailing education is destined, if it continues, to destroy Western civilization and is, in fact, destroying it. I realize quite well that this thesis constitutes a sweeping indictment of modern education. But I believe the indictment is justified and there is a prima facie case for entering this indictment.
The details, events, and dramatis personae of the project to set aside Western culture - and their motives - have been exhaustively explored by a major scholar from Georgetown University, Dr. Carroll Quigley, in a phenomenal work of syntheses published in I966, entitled Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time.
Tragedy and Hope was so profoundly eye-opening a treatise that its New York publisher destroyed the plates after the first printing and when that small edition (2000 copies) was gone, declined to reprint it, although thousands of backorders were at hand. Dr. Quigley was deceived with the story his book had met with public indifference. Since that moment, tens of thousands of bootleg copies have issued from wildcat presses, so a Google search will put a copy in your hands. One caution: some of the most recent printings may have been altered to omit certain key passages. It would be such a shame to come right to the gates of life-changing revelation and then fall into the clutches of the disinformation crowd yet again, that I strongly recommend you buy one of the older versions available on Amazon or better yet, consult one of the first editions if you can find one in the rare book room of your public library, or the closed stacks of the local university library.
Quigley, incidentally, was President Clinton’s personal tutor at Georgetown and is mentioned with respect at the end of Clinton’s acceptance speech for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. You needn’t fear falling into the hands of some reckless conspiracy nut whose eyes glow in the dark. Do the work, I promise you’ll never see our schools or our world the same way again.
######Scientific Management? (No! No! No!)
The first goal of scientific Management - the high-level cult created by efficiency engineer Frederick Taylor and formalized in his book Principles of Scientific Management (I9II), which became the driving force in American business, government, schooling, religion, social work, and much else - is perfect subordination. The concept of hierarchy is especially important in bureaucracies where the notion of productivity is always amorphous - there everything is secondary to subordination.
Better the ship should be blown to pieces than allow a common sailor to give the orders because he knows more than the captain.
Subordination is a religious principle, like transubstantiation; it involves a ladder system of functional boxes into which employees are confined; as long as they remain as placed, surrendering volition, they become predictable: interdependent human resources to be utilized as needed by management.
Educated people, or people with principles, represent rogue elements in a scheme of scientific management; the former suspect because they have been trained to argue effectively and to think for themselves, the latter too inflexible in any area touching their morality to remain reliably dependent. At any’moment they may announce;’
This is wrong. I won’t do it:’ Overly creative people have similar deficiencies from a systems point of view.
Scientific management is always on guard against people who don’t fit securely into boxes, whether because of too much competency, too much creativity, too much popularity, or what have you. Although often hired, it is with the understanding they must be kept on a short leash and regarded warily. The ideal hireling is reflexively obedient, cheerfully enthusiastic about following orders, ever eager to please. Training for this position begins in the first grade with the word, “don’t:’
In primary school, when all the endless possibilities of self-development and the varieties of good life should be explored, the principal element taken up is limitation, signaled by the word, “done’
Don’t run; don’t talk; don’t climb trees; don’t play rough; don’t talk unless you raise your hand; don’t fidget; don’t get out of your seat; don’t stare out the window; don’t take your shoes off; don’t eat or drink in class; don’t laugh; don’t take too long; don’t read ahead; don’t go off the path; don’t say ‘I’m bored’; don’t mix with older kids; don’t complain; don’t bring toys, etc. together with the implied don’ts: don’t have your own ideas; don’t show initiative; don’t be independent; don’t make your own choices; don’t take responsibility for your own learning.
There are more don’ts than days in the calendar, a tattoo without end. This non-stop negativity, so reminiscent of William Playfair’s prescription for schooling in Scotland, breaks many a spirit. The most enduring legacy of the DON’T drill is indifference to everything except narcotic anodynes like violence, rudeness, cruelty, alcohol, and actual drugs with which the negativity can be escaped.
How do I know? I spent 30 years in classrooms with nearly 4000 teenagers, many of whom I spoke with personally; another 20 in classrooms as a student myself, and 20 more studying the school business and talking about it all over the world.
A school trip permission form sent in September 2005, to parents of eighth-grade pupils at the Queen Elizabeth Junior and Senior High School in Calgary, Canada will give you a good idea how schools discourage direct experience among parents as well as kids, as an important component of the negativity program:
POTENTIAL HAZARDS MAY INCLUDE BUT ARE NOT
LIMITED TO THE FOLLOWING:
Bus travel to and from site: Motion sickness, injury from other person’s motion sickness, injury from being thrown during sudden massive negative or positive acceleration, tripping hazard when entering or exiting vehicle or moving down the aisle, overheating during transit, objects coming through open windows, injury from student putting head or limbs out of window, injury caused by own or other student’s inappropriate behavior.
Entire trip: slipping or tripping getting on or off the bus, slipping while climbing stairs or pathway on the trail, exposure to pollens, food, dust, or other materials that might induce allergic reaction, dehydration, exposure to environmental conditions including cold, damp, warm, dry, hot, and sunny, tripping on sidewalk or paved pathways, attack or injury from wild animals, food-borne organisms in own or other students’ lunches, snacks, or drinks, electrical storms including lightning strikes, landslides on hills.
Viewing indoor exhibits at site: tripping hazard on stairs, bumping hazard from other viewers, pinching, hazard form doors, slipping hazard on wet floor or pavements, injury from collapsing exhibits.
Unless you sign off on this catalog and hold the school harmless for its part in exposing your hothouse flower of a kid to these pitfalls which exist every minute of every day in normal ordinary lives, your kid can’t go to the museum but must stay behind in school where these perils also exist, but from which the courts have lightened school culpability significantly.
And what psychological effect does this grisly enumeration carry, repeated as it is on every excursion outside school walls? Is it designed to add value to the adventurous risk-taking without which the mass of the young are doomed to become and remain clerks lifelong? Forgive my sarcasm.
######Connections and Disconnections Revisited
Following the Prussian prescription of our first national school czar, William Torrey Harris - to alienate individual children from themselves in order to have their identities merge into a group identity - contemporary school planners treat children as categories: black, white, Hispanic, other; gifted and talented, special progress, mainstream, special education; rich, middle-class, poor, and with multiple subdivisions of each imaginable category, rather than as specific individuals with specific intellectual, social, psychological and physical needs.
The rhetoric of collectivization leads quickly to treating groups and sub-groups as averages. This makes managerial labor much easier, but guarantees bad results no matter how many resources are devoted to improving a lot of the group. As with the well-funded Head Start program out of Washington, whatever small gains show statistically dissipate with time. The logic of collectivization seeks to disconnect each child from his or her own unique constellation, particular circumstances, traditions, aspirations, past experiences, families, and to treat each as the representative of a type. By a process as inexorable as that with which the collapsing walls of a prison room force the prisoner toward a pit and death in Poes story, The Pit and the Pendulum, a collectively viewed classroom must aim for the lowest common denominator - a fatal decision from the start.
When the mayor of New York City, an excellent manager in every other regard, was given control of the city schools in 2002 (heretofore in control of system bureaucrats and state-level politicians), instead of raising academic standards for all, he took bad advice and sought to deal with system-wide failure - particularly among students of color - by lowering the bar for everyone. Between 2002 and 2008 he increased dollar spending on schools 79 percent, he added 5000 teachers to the payroll (even though the attendance rolls had lost 60,000 students over this time) and the result as such things are measured was zero.
All the while the current approach, embedding each student in a personalized curriculum whose aim would be to multiply the number of connections - to ideas, to experiences, to other people - was ignored. It would be shocking if it was even considered.
The educated mind is the connected mi~d, connected to all manner of different human styles (not the sterile equivalencies of a classroom), connected to all sorts of complex experiences, some of them fraught with psychological and physical peril (not the barren experiences of school bells in a prison of measured time); connected to a dizzying profusion of intellectual ideas which interconnect with one another, and in time, set the pulses racing with the sheer transcendence possible in the human prospect - a feeling like no other and sufficient to be its own reward without the candy prison’ of praise, gold stars, or the promise of future reward.
Most of all, the educated mind is connected to itsel£ There is not a major philosopher of Western history since Socrates who didn’t discover that knowing yourself is the foundation for everything else.
To do that you must examine every influence which became a part of you, as Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius begins to do in the opening of his Meditations. Without self-knowledge, you can hardly think of yourself as human at all. And yet we have the first National Commissioner of Education, right at the start of things, declaring that self-alienation is the goal of schooling.
School disconnects, as it was charged to do. It is Caesar’s “divide and conquers” strategy brought to peak efficiency. Children are divided from their families, their traditions, their communities, their religions, their natural allies - other children - their interests and on ad infinitum. They are, as Walter Lippman deplored, disconnected from the entire Western intellectual tradition which gave societies the greatest gift of personal liberties they had ever seen, disconnected from the experiences of risk-taking and adventure in which the grand discoveries of history have been fashioned; young men and women emerge from school unable to do much of anything, as Langdon Winner testified.
######The Talking Choo-Choo Syndrome
On the 19th of February, 2007, I testified for a bill before the Montana legislature-Rick Jore’s HR404-to abolish compulsory school attendance. Just that simple act of trust in ordinary people would, by itself, I think, act over time to topple the house of cards erected in the 20th century to prevent education from spreading. Whatever the _truth of that proposition, on the airplane back to New York I took up the task of critiquing a bit of curriculum created for a chain of private schools on the West Coast.
I had visited one of these schools near Los Angeles in the company of the curriculum director and in the brief time there was impressed by the good manners and easy-going civility of teacher-student relations and by the spirit of good will which visibly attended student efforts to participate in their own education. But two things bothered me a little. The first was this: in a meeting of school officials and myself, to chat about school matters, several older students were asked to sit in and though the discussion bore exclusively on their own school lives, they had nothing to say and weren’t encouraged to participate. When I was invited to ask some questions, I directed the first to the students in the room, “If you could change some things, say one thing about this school, what would it be?” I sensed a certain unease, even mild shock, among everyone there, including the students.
What could kids possibly know, or care, about the management of their studies?!
Nobody actually said that it was simply a feeling I had that, except ceremonially, kids were in one compartment, professional staff in another, administration and curriculum experts in a third. Thus the powerful energy which would have been released by connecting all these parts to exchange information and insights was lost.
The second thing that bothered me was that upon leaving when I paused to examine a shelf of eighth-grade textbooks, my eye hit on Homer’s Odyssey, a book which along with Homer’s Iliad had once provided the beating heart of classical Greek education. Committed to memory by many thousands, recited from memory, these tales of the Trojan War and its aftermath were no simple stories with which to kill time, but a series of particular moral dilemmas which in one form or another would afflict everyone in the course of a lifetime. Debating the proper course of action in these provided a rich mental diet.
I was delighted to find The Odyssey as a part of the eighth-grade curriculum until I opened the cover to find it was a bowdlerized version - rewritten and simplified for 13 and 14-year-old California students from prosperous families. As if the “meaning” could be abstracted from the language and presented in a livelier fashion than Homer. One thing is certain: if Homer had written the version I was. holding, nobody except an “1’ student anxious for a good grade would have ever read the book to its end, and the only way it would have survived to bore a second generation of reader would have been as a textbook in a compulsory school scheme.
But I was on my way out the door and these people not only had a school infinitely superior to the Los Angeles standard, but they were intelligent, caring folks nobody would have been reluctant to entrust their children to, so I made a casual comment that kids had been reading the original for a couple thousand years without protest, and left to catch my plane. The curriculum director asked if I’d look over a new workbook they were putting together for the elementary division, as we drove to LAX, and I said I would.
At 35,000 feet I opened the book and found myself face to face with a talking choo-choo as my guide through the workbook. Although it’s a bare 18 months later as I’m writing, the only detail of the text I can remember is the talking choo-choo. Everything else has faded; indeed, it faded as I read. Back home I wrote to the curriculum director at once:
26 February 2007
All that follows bears on the talking choo-choo your book is built around. I’m going to be candid because I like you so much and enjoyed our talks in the brief time we’ve known one another. The talking choo-choo of child development theory is only one form of a German disease which insinuated itself into school development around the turn of the 20th century. The first invasion of this disease was in the kindergarten movement of the 19th century, but that never took sufficiently to satisfy its managers, so inserting cartoons into children’s heads instead of real-world ideas became the vogue as part of a great project to artificially extend childhood and childishness. The project started in earnest at the beginning of the century and was acknowledged and even boasted about - by the dean of Teacher Education at Stanford University, who played a hand in its inception.
As a weapon of mass instruction, it’s superior in its destructive effect to all the others, the master weapon as it were.
It’s a principal cause of the intense and growing childishness of Americans in every social class, an indictment I hear from every corner of the world as I travel- and increasingly from domestic commentators, too.
I know this is a heavy trip to lay at the doorstep of your choo-choo, but since this is just me talking to you I wanted to bypass the public relations aspect of things and strike at what troubles me about every sequential curriculum - simple to complex-I’ve ever seen. It’s a strategy which has traveled under many names throughout history as leadership groups have worked to make their ordinary populations manageable. The project was brought to its scientific pinnacle in the early decades of the 19th century in Prussia and exported all around the world in the last half of that century.
That’s why I call it the German disease - the artificial extension of childhood. Make no mistake, it works. Once sufficiently infected with the virus the disease is progressive.
Its victims become inadequate to the challenges of their existence without help, and that relative helplessness makes them manageable.
Remember, I’m using your talking choo-choo metaphorically, there are many ways to interdict the growth of competence, of clear thinking, of forceful purpose, and each is a talking choo-choo in different guise: think of slasher flicks, think of pornography, think of Big Macs or tabloid/network news - each is easy to take, each seemingly an inconsequential time-killer. But ah! The ensemble of them playing their mindless tunes - the Death of a Thousand Cuts!
The genius lies in setting up a perverse hunger which defies eradication later on as the victim struggles to grow up.
This implanted need for simplifications in everything makes self-discipline difficult, and for most of us, only indifferently possible. We can’t grow up after the disease has taken over - think of the blockbuster Hollywood films not in cartoon form, think of Peter Pan, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears shaving her head bald and sucking her thumb, think of the incessant commercial, “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a ToysR-Us kid! I read in the L.A. times that upscale mothers try to dress and act like their nine-year-old daughters, I read in The Nation that the level of economic understanding is so minimal, so primitive, that it’s difficult to conduct a discussion on any level beyond fairytale simplification of things.
The formula for talking choo-choo social control is set down in Calvin’s Institutes (1535), refined impressively in Spinoza’s Tractate (1670), and brought to institutional life by Fichte in the second decade of the 19th century. Since then it’s been off to the races. The dark side of the Welfare State midwived by Beatrice Webb and the Fabian socialists is not its superficial purpose of being kind, but its intention of killing with kindness, and thus protecting the interests of the better people, non-violently. The talking choo-choo is the tip of the tip of the iceberg on which the damned are consigned to be frozen intellectually, psychologically, and socially.
And now for a different way to see talking choo-choos from the customary perspective (besides my own, that is). Consider Miss Beatrix Potter, subject of a movie about her life in 2007 and a biography by St. Martin’s Press. In 1912 at the pinnacle of her success she excoriated her publisher for being afraid to print her new book unaltered, a tale of the kidnapping and near death of a sack of baby rabbits.
“I am tired of making goody-goody books;’ she wrote, “You are a great deal too much afraid:’ Potter saw correctly that what set her apart from the general run of children’s tale-tellers was that she employed an “attitude of mind” full of darkness, violence, unsentimentality, and realism - exactly in the qualities which human life displays and which must be confronted directly if one is ever to become master of oneself. Children understand this, both implicitly and explicitly, and unlike schooling, Potter speaks to the need to think about these things. Her work is tart and crisp, dwelling frequently on death.
In The Tale ofBenjamin Bunny, an owl picks up a squirrel,” intending to skin him:’
The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck traffics in transcendental evil as the fox asks Jemima to pick out the seasonings in which she is to be cooked.
Fee Fie Foe Fum
I smell the blood of an Englishman
Be he live or be he dead
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread
Nothing is more interesting to young children than evil, cruelty, and malice; they are cognizant of these things before they can speak with any fluency. The hypocrisy of sweet animal tales and images in a culture which murders animals wholesale and eats them with lip-smacking gusto is lost on most desensitized adults, but almost never lost on their children. And this ugly skew from reality is only one of many such contradictions our talking choo choo culture traffics in wholesale.
The effect of these amoral exercises is severe on children, despite apologetics practiced by child development experts who justify the practice.
There are talking animals in Potter, but none are cute. “Thank goodness my education was neglected;’ Potter wrote, but what she meant was talking choo-choo schooling. Potter’s learning was of a high standard: she read Homer in the best translations, spoke fluent German, and wrote frequently that she did not like children. She despised those spirits ruined by theories inflicted upon them in longterm forced confinement, especially the ones who produced childish responses long after they had developed an inner life, because it was expected of them. The fact that children are still strongly attracted to Potter is a triumph of truth over the official illusions of institutional schooling.
#####Detach the Training Wheels!
According to The New York Times of December 15, 2006, Elena Delle Donne is the best female basketball player in the country, with “the potential to alter the game for women in the same way Michael Jordan did for men:’ She’s off to a major college without it costing her a nickel and she is destined to make millions in endorsements. I’m telling you about her, however, because of something she did at age three without any thought of basketball.
She picked up a wrench and without any guidance detached the training wheels from her bike! At three she freed herself from the curse of childhood, that exquisitely German invention. Freed herself of its damaging assumptions about what is possible and what is not. Try to imagine the internal organization that requires in a three year -old: the close observation of wrenches, structure, processes; the planning that had to take place inside this thousand day old creature to even conceive such a plan, let alone execute it. To ensure more EIenas, school would have to abandon the convenience of treating large groups in the aggregate - as “classes:’ Insist on classes and most Elenas will be ruined in the egg. Think of Branson, think of Ben Franklin or George Washington, think of Octavia Walker and David Farragut described elsewhere in this book.
When, as happens with some frequency, I’m asked by parents for a single suggestion for changing the relationship between them and their kids for the better, I don’t hesitate to recommend this:
Don’t think of them as kids. Childhood exists, but it’s over long before we allow it to be. I’d start to worry if my kid were noticeably childish past the age of seven and if by twelve you aren’t dealing with young men and women anxious to take their turn, disgusted with training wheels on anything, able to walk about London, do hundred mile bike trips, and add enough value to the neighborhood that they have an independent income; if you don’t see this, you’re doing something seriously wrong.
Even at seven don’t edit the truth out of things. If the family has an income kids need to know to the penny what it is and how it’s spent. Assume they are human beings with the same basic nature and
aptitudes that you have; what you have superior in terms of experience and mature understanding should be exchanged for their natural resilience, quick intelligence, imagination, fresh insight, and eagerness to become self-directing.
Don’t buy into the calculated illusion of extended childhood. It’s a great secret key to power - power for your kids if you turn the tables on their handlers. And adolescence is a total fraud, a pure concoction of social engineers barely a century old. It’s a paradox, constantly threatening to solve itself as the young beat against the school jail in which we’ve confined them. Sometimes as I read obituaries - far and away the most valuable department in a good newspaper-I stumble across a new piece of evidence that what I’ve told you is true.
On the 18th of April, 2003, for instance, my newspaper carried the obit of the world’s IOlst richest man, John Latsis. If that name sounds vaguely familiar it’s because his grandson Paris Latsis was for a brief time engaged to Paris Hilton, the celebrity heiress and beloved cut-up whose fornication video has been a staple of the American male imagination since its release to the world.
John Latsis’ yacht had been a familiar sight in the harbors of the planet for a long time before his death, having been loaned to Prince Charles, President Bush, Marlon Brando, Colin Powell and many other awe-inspiring somebodies. But nothing inspires my own awe more than Mr. Latsis’ personal story.
Born to a poor Greek family in a Greek fishing village, childhood was a luxury his family couldn’t afford. He had no schooling to speak of and began work as a laborer at the age of twelve. Latsis was ambitious for something more, however; eventually he hooked on as deckhand on a rusty tramp freighter. After World War II, rusty freighters were a drag on the international freight market; almost valueless there were so many, built to haul war supplies and soldiers.
At the age of 28 this poor boy, Latsis, took his savings and all the money he could borrow and put a down payment on one of the rusty freighters. Over the next 30 years, he parlayed that single ship into a mighty fleet. Without any prompting from business school mentors (of which he had none), he gradually branched out from shipping into construction, oil, banking and other enterprises. His growing sophistication was a natural by-product of being fully connected to the world of affairs.
Seventy-five years ago, schools routinely spoke of alternative roads to success like Latsis; they don’t do that anymore. Eighty percent of the young today - even more - are prepared (in theory at least) for
“good jobs;’ as specialized employees of one sort or another. Attention is never focused on lives like that taken by John Latsis; who made it without benefit of any formal education at all.
Tania Aebi and George Meghan
Twenty years ago in 1989 a teenage girl named Tania Aebi sailed into New York Harbor after two years at sea alone, having circumnavigated the world - the first woman in history known to have performed this remarkable feat. She has no background in seamanship, no particular calling or aptitude for it, and only a vague knowledge of navigation when she set out, having failed Celestial Navigation on the Coast Guard exam. No matter. She taught herself the subject on board her vessel. And sailed her way into adulthood, the record books, and history.
Tania had such difficulties at Brooklyn Tech High School that she gradually stopped attending, as you can discover by reading her book, Maiden Voyage; her father, disgusted with her rudeness and general demeanor, wanted her out of the house and offered to .buy her a 26 foot boat if she would sail it around the world alone. As a way to spite him, she accepted the challenge, dropped out, and did it.
Thirty years ago, a poor young man from England conceived the idea of making the longest walk in human history. George Meghan had no college degree, no specialized training, no state of the art equipment, no money, and no schooling beyond the third grade - he was a lowly deckhand on a nondescript steamer headed for the tip of South America. Leaving the ship there he made his way to Tierra del Fuego, faced north, and started to walk. His entire kit was towed behind him in one of those flimsy shopping carts people take to the market to roll . their purchases home. The wheels kept coming off. It was like a joke.
It took George Meghan seven years to cross the Andes, negotiate dangerous mountain nations, cross the trackless Darien Gap, and enter the United States. Once in Texas, he decided to make a side trip to see Washington, D.C.-on foot of course - then turned northwest to Point Barrow, Alaska, to complete the longest walk in human history. The bare outlineI’ve given you doesn’t do George’s saga (or Tania’s) justice. I urge you to read his book, The Longest Walk, to discover what unschooled human beings are capable of. Recently, George’s young daughter, Ayumi, walked the entire length of Japan from south to north.
Two dropouts, two triumphs of the human spirit. No school on earth would dream of teaching what they learned, to write their own scripts, to be self-sufficient and purposeful. The longest walk in human history (check the Guinness Book for George), the longest solo sail (check the Guinness Book for Tania)-if two young people without much help or special equipment could do this in the 1970S and 1980s on sheer willpower, can you ever believe again the hypothetical academic hypotheses of human migration? If Tania and George did it with nothing, then anonymous others have done it before, too. “Academic” once referred to Akademos, the garden where Plato taught; it was a term of great respect for nearly two millennia, but by the late 19th century, it had come to mean “of slight human interest”; irrelevant.
Now contrast the lives of Tania and George with the lives of25,000 intensely schooled young people who work in Washington, D.C. and let their hair down on weekends in Dewey Beach, Delaware:
Dewey Beach, Delaware, July 5, 2001 - In Corinthians, Paul preaches that adults put away childish things. Clearly, the apostle never summered in this mile-long stretch of beach town. It is Friday afternoon, and 25,000 single professionals … are pouring into this village of 500 for their weekly ritual of regression .. .lobbyists, House and Senate aides, computer network developers and management consultants, ranging in age from 23-3]. There will be a $420 bar tab at the Starboard tonight - A Saturday afternoon sexual escapade will occur in plain view of neighbors. A punch will be thrown on the dance floor… [this] ritual of hard-working singles shedding power suits for beach house escapism each
Friday is in full swing.
The Trapped Flea Principle
What accounts for the eerie inhuman passivity of school children toward matters the grown-up world has traditionally considered important? And the even weirder seeming indifference poor children display toward their ominous and onrushing futures? I had theories about this as a teacher, but never one I actually believed until an IIyear-old Taiwanese immigrant boy named Andrew Hsu explained how you break the spirit of fleas to they can be trained. His explanation was printed in an autobiographical sketch he wrote for the ceremony in which he and I received the same award, but the material recognition for me paled in comparison to what I learned from Andrew that day.
In the first place, he was fresh from winning the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair, for his sequencing of a gene held in common between man and mouse: COL20IA. At II, Andrew was a champion swimmer with many trophies. He spoke Chinese, French, and English, all fluently. He worked in his spare time as an assistant on professional documentary films. And he was homeschooled.
When asked to describe the most important lesson of his life, the one which held the most influence over his choices, he said it was a story told to him by his father about the method used to train fleas to swing on trapezes, drive little chariots, (or pull them) and all the other wonderful things fleas lear~ed to do to amuse kings and courts in world history. The story his father told goes like this:
If you put fleas in a shallow container they jump out. But if you put a lid on the container for just a short time, they hit the lid trying to escape and learn quickly not to jump so high. They give up their quest for freedom. After the lid is removed, the fleas remain imprisoned by their own self-policing. So it is with life. Most of us let our own fears or the impositions of others imprison us in a world of low expectations.
Reading that, my whole life as a schoolteacher flashed before my eyes. I had been hired to be the lid on the petri dish which the kids would butt their heads trying to follow their own path until one day, exhausted, they would quit trying. At that point they would be fit subjects to be trained.
######How to Drive A Horse Slightly Insane
The time we spend trapped in schooling and its humbug renders most of us passive, incompletely human, unable to function as sovereign spirits. But other tools exist to clip our wings, just to be safe.
Those who break out of the school doors or hang out in bathrooms and stairwells aren’t the biggest problem - after all, where can they run? The biggest danger to the social order comes from those who retreat into the secret recesses of their inner lives where no snoop can penetrate.
For this hardcore contingent, an insight of horse breeders provides another strategy. By taking known dangers to a horses sanity, things to be avoided if you want your thoroughbred to be productive, and instead of avoiding them you impose these conditions, it’s possible to drive young people to work against their own best interests, seeking connections, and send them deep into the prison of self to play “Dungeons and Dragons’; computer games, or endlessly surf the web instead of taking risks or learning how to be effective.
Some years back I saw with some surprise my school experience mirrored in the pages of a highly specialized journal, a publication of the Equine Mental Health Association. The relevant article was paper-clipped and mailed from Frankfurt, Kentucky, by a Mr. and Mrs. Howard, horse enthusiasts like my wife, Janet. It considers damage done to quality horseflesh when the scope of their daily experience is over-simplified:
Tick off the conditions which cause a horse to go slightly crazy as you read and compare them to the familiar discipline of an average school: … Keep them predominantly idle, keep them apart from other horses, and you will create an animal that interacts with the world in ways clearly un-natural…timid, crazy, undependable, bolting, bucking, avoidant, shying, etc. Keep a horse from accessing the wisdom of the herd and the wisdom of its own nature and you get a horse that doesn’t know where it belongs in the world. Under such conditions, wellbred horses with tremendous potentials end up living their lives as … consumers instead of contributors.
Consumers rather than contributors. Of course, that’s the point, which you already understand if you’ve followed the meandering argument of my book closely - mass-market corporate capitalism and the financial capitalism which has been replacing it for some time, both need consumers who define the value of their lives by consumption; both understand that only a small fraction of people need to know how to produce - and anything beyond that small fraction is a deadly poison to the system because the specter of overproduction will frighten capital into hiding.
Overproduction has to be stopped is the policy belief. Schools are the principal factory in which that is done; consumption, on the other hand, has to be enhanced - and no condition stimulates consumption like boredom, especially when the imagination and the inner life have been paralyzed by endless memory drills, the synthetic crises of continual testing, and a thorough conditioning in rewards and punishments, the game of winners and losers. Do people actually think this way~ If you ask me that question, I’d have to reply with some sorrow: Yes.
######The Cauldron of Broken Time
When time is tightly scheduled, we are compelled to attend more to the appearances of attention and concern than to the reality of those qualities; without uninterrupted time you haven’t a prayer of synthesizing the fact bits thrown at you. It’s possible to memorize the official meaning of those bits, but in the time available no possibility remains of arriving at your own careful conclusions. After years of study, we know that uninterrupted sleep time is essential for precision in thought, but as Claire Wolfe, a west coast writer once taught me, uninterrupted waking time is similarly essential. When you can’t concentrate, it’s hard to make sense of things. Rather than persist in trying, it’s easier just to quit.
The destruction of uninterrupted time is a major weapon of mass instruction. Schools are a rat’s maze of frantic activity, bells, loudspeakers, messengers pounding on classroom doors, shrieks from the playground, official visitors, unofficial visitors, toilet interruptions coming and going, catcalls, bullyings and £lirtings - you never know when the next interruption will appear. Try to reckon the psychological effect of being plunged into a cauldron of broken time, in Miss Wolfe’s phrase, again and again for 12 years (in the student’s case) and even longer in the teacher’s.
Personal time is the only time we have in which to build theories, test hypotheses of our own, and speculate how the bits of information our senses gather might be connected. Time allows us to add quality to our undertakings. It took only one knock at the door to ruin Coleridge’s mighty poem, Kubla Khan. I wasn’t that sensitive as a classroom teacher, but after three interruptions - and my years in harness averaged seven per class hour - my brains were so scrambled I faked the rest of the lesson.
I hope this has been enough to continue weapon-hunting on your own. Writing this has made me so sad and angry. I can’t continue.