Each of us has a design problem to solve: to create from the raw material around us the curriculum for a good life.
Copyright © John Taylor Gatto, 1992
Call me Mr. Gatto, please. Twenty-six years ago, having nothing better to do at the time, I tried my hand at schoolteaching. The license I hold certifies that I am an instructor of English language and English literature, but that isn't what I do at all. I don't teach English, I teach school - and I win awards doing it.
Teaching means different things in different places, but seven lessons are universally taught Harlem to Hollywood Hills. They constitute a national curriculum you pay more for in more ways than you can imagine, so you might as well know what it is. You are at liberty, of course, to regard these lessons any way you like, but believe me when I say I intend no irony in this presentation. These are the things I teach, these are the things you pay me to teach. Make of them what you will:
A lady named Kathy wrote this to me from Dubois, Indiana the other day:
"What big ideas are important to little kids? Well, the biggest idea I think they need is that what they are learning isn't idiosyncratic - that this is some system to it all and it's not just raining down on them as they helplessly absorb. That's the task, to understand, to make coherent."
Kathy has it wrong. The first lesson I teach is confusion. Everything I teach is out of context... I teach the unrelating of everything. I teach disconnections. I teach too much: the orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests, fire drills, computer languages, parent's nights, staff-development days, pull-out programs, guidance with strangers you may never see again, standardized tests, age-segregation unlike anything seen in the outside world... what do any of these things have to do with each other?
Even in the best schools a close examination of curriculum and its sequences turns up a lack of coherence, full of internal contradictions. Fortunately the children have no words to define the panic and anger they feel at constant violations of natural order and sequence fobbed off on them as quality in education. The logic of the school-mind is that it is better to leave school with a tool kit of superficial jargon derived from economics, sociology, natural science and so on than to leave with one genuine enthusiasm. But quality in education entails learning about something in depth. Confusion is thrust upon kids by too many strange adults, each working alone with only the thinnest relationship with each other, pretending for the most part, to an expertise they do not possess.
Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek, and education is a set of codes for processing raw facts into meaning. Behind the patchwork quilt of school sequences, and the school obsession with facts and theories the age-old human search lies well concealed. This is harder to see in elementary school where the hierarchy of school experience seems to make better sense because the good-natured simple relationship of "let's do this" and "let's do that now" is just assumed to mean something and the clientele has not yet consciously discerned how little substance is behind the play and pretense.
Think of all the great natural sequences like learning to walk and learning to talk, following the progression of light from sunrise to sunset, witnessing the ancient procedures of a farm, a smithy, or a shoemaker, watching your mother prepare a Thanksgiving feast - all of the parts are in perfect harmony with each other, each action justifies itself and illuminates the past and future. School sequences aren't like that, not inside a single class and not among the total menu of daily classes. School sequences are crazy. There is no particular reason for any of them, nothing that bears close scrutiny. Few teachers would dare to teach the tools whereby dogmas of a school or a teacher could be criticized since everything must be accepted. School subjects are learned, if they can be learned, like children learn the catechism or memorize the 39 articles of Anglicanism. I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion; what I do is more related to television programming than to making a scheme of order. In a world where home is only a ghost because both parents work or because too many moves or too many job changes or too much ambition or something else has left everybody too confused to stay in a family relation I teach you how to accept confusion as your destiny. That's the first lesson I teach.
The second lesson I teach is your class position. I teach that you must stay in class where you belong. I don't know who decides that my kids belong there but that's not my business. The children are numbered so that if any get away they can be returned to the right class. Over the years the variety of ways children are numbered has increased dramatically, until it is hard to see the human being plainly under the burden of numbers he carries. Numbering children is a big and very profitable business, though what the strategy is designed to accomplish is elusive. I don't even know why parents would allow it to be done to their kid without a fight.
In any case, again, that's not my business. My job is to make them like it, being locked in together with children who bear numbers like their own. Or at the least endure it like good sports. If I do my job well, the kids can't even imagine themselves somewhere else because I've shown how to envy and fear the better classes and how to have contempt for the dumb classes. Under this efficient discipline the class mostly polices itself into good marching order. That's the real lesson of any rigged competition like school. You come to know your place.
In spite of the overall class blueprint which assume that 99 percent of the kids are in their class to stay, I nevertheless make a public effort to exhort children to higher levels of test success, hinting at eventual transfer from the lower class as a reward. I frequently insinuate that the day will come when an employer will hire them on the basis of test scores and grades, even though my own experience is that employers are rightly indifferent to such things. I never lie outright, but I've come to see that truth and schoolteaching are, at bottom, incompatible just as Socrates said they were thousands of years ago. The lesson of numbered classes is that everyone has a proper place in they pyramid and that there is no way out of your class except by number magic. Until that happens you must stay where you are put.
The third lesson I teach kids is indifference. I teach children not to care about anything too much, even though they want to make it appear that they do. How I do this is very subtle. I do it by demanding that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation, competing vigorously with each other for my favor. It's heartwarming when they do that, it impresses everyone, even me. When I'm at my best I plan lessons very carefully in order to produce this show of enthusiasm. But when the bell rings I insist that they stop whatever it is that we've been working on and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch. Nothing important is ever finished in my class, nor in any other class I know of. Students never have a complete experience except on the installment plan.
Indeed, the lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Years of bells will condition all but the strongest to a world that can no longer offer important work to do. Bells are the secret logic of schooltime; their argument is inexorable. Bells destroy the past and future, converting every interval into a sameness, as an abstract map makes every living mountain and river the same even though they are not. Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.
The fourth lesson I teach is emotional dependency. By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach you to surrender your will to the predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld by any authority, without appeal because rights do not exist inside a school, not even the right of free speech, the Supreme Court has so ruled, unless school authorities say they do. As a schoolteacher I intervene in many personal decisions, issuing a Pass for those I deem legitimate, or initiating a disciplinary confrontation for behavior that threatens my control. Individuality is constantly trying to assert itself among children and teenagers so my judgments come thick and fast. Individuality is a contradiction of class theory, a curse to all systems of classification. Here are some common ways it shows up: children sneak away for a private moment in the toilet on the pretext of moving their bowels; they trick me out of a private instant in the hallway on the grounds that they need water. I know they don't but I allow them to deceive me because this conditions they to depend on my favors. Sometimes free will appears right in front of me in children angry, depressed or happy by things outside my ken; rights in such things cannot be recognized by schoolteachers, only privileges which can be withdrawn, hostages to good behavior.
The fifth lesson I teach is intellectual dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices; only I can determine what you must study, or rather, only the people who pay me can make those decisions which I enforce. If I'm told that evolution is fact instead of a theory I transmit that as ordered, punishing deviants who resist what I have been to think.
This power to control what children will think lets me separate successful students from failures very easily. Successful children do the thinking I appoint them with a minimum of resistance and decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for, or it is decided by my faceless employer. The choices are his, why should I argue? Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.
Bad kids fight this, of course, even though they lack the concepts to know what they are fighting, struggling to make decisions for themselves about what they will learn and when they will learn it. How can we allow that and survive as schoolteachers? Fortunately there are procedures to break the will of those who resist; it is more difficult, naturally, if the kid has respectable parents who come to his aid, but that happens less and less in spite of the bad reputation of schools. Nobody in the middle class I ever met actually believes that their kid's school is one of the bad ones. Not a single parent in 26 years of teaching. That's amazing and probably the best testimony to what happens to families when mother and father have been well-schooled themselves, learning the seven lessons.
Good people wait for an expert to tell them what to do. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that our entire economy depends upon this lesson being learned. Think of what would fall apart if kids weren't trained to be dependent:
The social-service businesses could hardly survive, they would vanish I think, into the recent historical limbo out of which they arose. Counselors and therapists would look on in horror as the supply of psychic invalids vanished. Commercial entertainment of all sorts, including television, would wither as people learned again how to make their own fun. Restaurants, prepared-food and a whole host of other assorted food services would be drastically down-sized if people returned to making their own meals rather than depending on strangers to plant, pick, chop and cook for them. Much of modern law, medicine, and engineering would go, too, the clothing business and schoolteaching as well, unless a guaranteed supply of helpless people poured out of our schools each year.
The sixth lesson I teach is provisional self-esteem. If you've ever tried to wrestle a kid into line whose parents have convinced him to believe they'll love him in spite of anything, you know how impossible it is to make self-confident spirits conform. Our world wouldn't survive a flood of confident people very long so I teach that your self-respect should depend on expert opinion. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged. A monthly report, impressive in its precision, is sent into students' homes to signal approval or to mark exactly down to a single percentage point how dissatisfied with their children parents should be. The ecology of good schooling depends upon perpetuating dissatisfaction just as much as commercial economy depends on the same fertilizer. Although some people might be surprised how little time or reflection goes into making up these mathematical records, the cumulative weight of the objective-seeming documents establishes a profile of defect which compels a child to arrive at certain decisions about himself and his future based on the casual judgment of strangers.
Self-evaluation, the staple of every major philosophical system that ever appeared on the planet, is never a factor in these things. The lesson of report cards, grades, and tests is that children should not trust themselves or their parents, but need to rely on the evaluation of certified officials. People need to be told what they are worth.
The seventh lesson I teach is that you can't hide. I teach children they are always watched by keeping each student under constant surveillance as do my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children, there is no private time. Class change lasts 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other, even to tattle on their parents. Of course I encourage parents to file their own child's waywardness, too. A family trained to snitch on each other isn't likely to be able to conceal any dangerous secrets. I assign a type of extended schooling called "homework", too, so that the surveillance travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood. Disloyalty to the idea of schooling is a Devil always ready to find work for idle hands. The meaning of constant surveillance and denial of privacy is that no one can be trusted, that privacy is not legitimate. Surveillance is an ancient urgency among certain influential thinkers, a central prescription set down Republic, in City of God, in Institutes of the Christian Religion, in New Atlantis, in Leviathan and many other places. All these childless men who wrote these books discovered the same thing: children must be closely watched if you want to keep a society under tight central control. Children will follow a private drummer if you can't get them into a uniformed marching band.
It is the great triumph of compulsory government monopoly mass-schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among the best of my student's parents, only a small number can imagine a different way to do things. "The kids have to know how to read and write, don't they?" "They have to know how to add and subtract, don't they?" "They have to learn to follow orders if they ever expect to keep a job."
Only a few lifetimes ago things were very different in the United States; originality and variety were common currency; our freedom from regimentation made us the miracle of the world, social class boundaries were relatively easy to cross, our citizenry was marvelously confident, inventive, and able to do many things independently, to think for themselves. We were something, we Americans, all by ourselves, without government sticking its nose into our lives, without institutions and social agencies telling us how to think and feel; no, all by ourselves we were something, as individuals.
We've had a society increasingly under central control in the United States since just before the Civil War and such a society requires compulsory schooling, government monopoly schooling to maintain itself. Before the society changed, schooling wasn't very important anywhere. We had it, but not too much of it and only as much as an individual wanted. People learned to read, write, and do arithmetic just fine anyway, there are some studies which show literacy at the time of the American Revolution, at least on the Eastern seaboard, as close to total. Tom Paine's Common Sense sold 600,000 copies to a population of 2,500,000, 20 percent of which was slave and another 50 percent indentured.
Were the colonists geniuses? No, the truth is that reading, writing and arithmetic only take about 100 hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn. The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on him. Millions of people teach themselves these things; it really isn't very hard. Pick up a fifth grad textbook in math or rhetoric from 1850 and you'll see that the texts were pitched then on what would today be college level. The continuing cry for "basic skills" practice is a smoke screen behind which schools preempt the time of children for 12 years and teach them the seven lessons I've just taught you.
We've had a society increasingly under central control in the United States since just before the Civil War: the lives we lead, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the green highway signs we drive by from coast to coast are the products of this central control. So, too, I think, are the epidemics of drugs, suicide, divorce, violence, cruelty, and the hardening of class into caste in the U.S., products of the dehumanization of our lives, the lessening of individual and family importance that central control imposes. The character of large compulsory institutions is inevitable, they want more and until there isn't any more to give. School takes our children away from any possibility of an active role in community life - in fact it destroys communities by reserving the training of children to the hands of certified experts - and by doing so it ensures that they cannot grow up fully human. Aristotle taught that without a fully active role in community life you could not hope to become a healthy human being. Surely he was right. Look around you the next time you are near a school or an old people's reservation, that will be the demonstration.
School as it was built is an essential support system for a vision of social engineering that condemns most people to be subordinate stones in a pyramid that narrows as it ascends to a terminal of control. School is an artifice which makes such a pyramidal social order seem inevitable, although such a premise is a fundamental betrayal of the American Revolution. In colonial days right through the period of the early Republic we had no schools to speak of - read Franklin's Autobiography for a man who had no time to waste in school - and yet the promise of Democracy was beginning to be realized. We turned our backs on this promise by bringing to life the ancient dream of Egypt - compulsory subordination for all. That was the secret Plato reluctantly transmitted in The Republics when Glaucon and Adeimantus exhorted from Socrates the plan for total state control of human life that would be necessary to maintain a society where some people took more than their share. "I will show you," said Socrates, "how to bring about such a feverish city, but you will not like what I am going to say." And so the blueprint of the seven lesson school was first sketched.
The current debate about whether we should have a national curriculum is phony - we already have one, locked up in the seven lessons I just taught you and a few more I decided to spare you. Such a curriculum produces physical, moral, and intellectual paralysis and no curriculum of content will be sufficient to reverse its hideous effects. What is currently under discussion in our national school hysteria about failing academic performance is a great irrelevancy that misses the point. Schools teach exactly what they are intended to teach and they do it well - How to be a good Egyptian and where your place is in the pyramid.
None of this is inevitable, you know. None of it is impossible to overthrow. We do have a choice in how we bring up young people and there is no one right way; if we broke the power of Egyptian illusion we would see that. There is no life and death international competition threatening our national existence, difficult as that is to even think about, let alone believe, in the face of a constant media barrage of myth to the contrary. In every important material respect our nation is self-sufficient, including energy. I realize that runs counter to the most fashionable thinking of political economists, but the "profound transformation" of our economy these people talk about is neither inevitable nor irreversible. Global economics does not speak to the public need for jobs, affordable homes, adequate schools and medical care, a clean environment, honest and accountable government, social and cultural renewal, or simple justice. All global ambitions are based on a definition of productivity and the good life so alienated from common human reality that I am convinced it is wrong and that most people would agree with me if they had a choice. We might be able to see that if we regained a hold on a philosophy that locates meaning where meaning is genuinely to be found - in families, in friends, the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and service to others, in a decent independence and privacy, in all the free and inexpensive things out of which real families, real friends and real communities are built. Then we would be truly self-sufficient.
How did these awful places, these "schools", come about? Well, casual schooling has always been with us in a variety of forms, a mildly useful adjunct to growing up. But total-schooling as we know it is a byproduct of the two "Red Scares" of 1848 and 1919, when powerful interests feared a revolution among our own industrial poor. Partly, too, total schooling came about because old-line American families were revolted by the home cultures of Celtic, Slavic, and Latin immigrants - and revolted by the Catholic religion they brought with them. Certainly a third contributing cause to making a jail for children called school must be located in the prospect with which these same families regarded the free movement of Africans through the society after the Civil War.
Look again at the seven lessons of schoolteaching: confusion, class assignment, dulled responses, emotional and intellectual dependency, conditional self-esteem, surveillance - all of these things are good training for permanent underclasses, people derived forever of finding the center of their own special genius. And in later years it became the training shaken loose from even its own original logic - to regulate the poor; since the 1920s the growth of the school bureaucracy and the less visible growth of a horde of industries that profit from schooling just exactly as it is, has enlarged this institution's original grasp to where it began to seize the sons and daughters of the middle classes.
Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation that he took money to teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable direction the professionalization of teaching would take, preempting the teaching function that belongs to everybody in a healthy community. Professional teaching tends to another serious error: It makes things that are inherently easy to learn, like reading, writing, and arithmetic, seem difficult by insisting they be taught through pedagogical procedures. With lessons like the ones I teach day after day, it should be little wonder we have a national crisis the nature of the one we have today, young people indifferent to the adult world and to the future, indifferent to almost everything except the diversion of toys and violence. Rich or poor, schoolchildren who face the 21st century cannot concentrate on anything for very long, they have a poor sense of time past and to come,they are mistrustful of intimacy like the children of divorce they really are (for we have divorced them from significant parental attention); they hate solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction.
All the peripheral tendencies of childhood are nourished and magnified to a grotesque extent by schooling, which prevents effective personality development by its hidden curriculum. Indeed, without exploiting the fearfulness, selfishness, and inexperience of children our schools could not survive at all, nor could I as a certified schoolteacher. No common school that actually dared to teach the use of dialectic, the heuristic, or other devices that free minds should employ would last very long without being torn to pieces. School has become a replacement for church in our secular society, and like church its teachings must be taken on faith.
It is time that we faced the fact squarely that institutional schoolteaching is destructive to children. Nobody survives the 7-Lesson Curriculum unscathed, not even the instructors. The method is deeply and profoundly anti-educational. No tinkering will fix it. In one of the great ironies of human affairs, the massive rethinking schools require would cost so much less than we are spending now that powerful interests cannot afford to let it happen. You must understand that first and foremost, the business I am in is a jobs project and an agency for letting contracts. We cannot afford to save money by reducing the scope of our operation or by diversifying the product we offer, even to help children grow up right. That is the Iron Law of institutional schooling - it is a business neither subject to normal accounting procedures nor to the rational scalpel of competition.
Some form of free-market system in public schooling is the likeliest place to look for answers, a free market where family schools and small entrepreneurial schools and religious schools and crafts schools and farm schools exist in profusion to compete with government education. I'm trying to describe a free market in schooling just exactly like the one the country had right up until the Civil War, one in which students volunteer for the kind of education that suits them, even if that means self-education. It didn't hurt Benjamin Franklin that I can see.
These options now exist in miniature, wonderful survivals of a strong and vigorous past, but they are unavailable only to the resourceful, the courageous, the lucky, or the rich. The near impossibility of one of these better roads opening for the shattered families of the poor or the bewildered host camped on the fringes of the urban middle class foretells the disaster of 7-Lesson Schools is going to grow unless we do something bold and decisive with the mess of government monopoly schooling.
After an adult lifetime spent teaching school I believe the method of mass-schooling is the only real content it has, don't be fooled into thinking that good curriculum or good equipment or good teachers are the critical determinants of your son and daughter's schooltime. All the pathologies we've considered come about in large measure because the lessons of school prevent children from keeping important appointments with themselves and with their families, to learn lessons in self-motivation, perseverance, self-reliance, courage, dignity and love and lessons in service to others, which are among the key lessons of home life.
Thirty years ago these things could still be learned in the time left after school. But television has eaten up most of that time, and a combination of television and the stresses peculiar to two-income or single-parent families have swallowed up most of what used to be family time. Our kids have no time left to grow up fully human, and only thin-soil wastelands to do it in. A future is rushing down upon our culture which will insist that all of us learn the wisdom of non-material experience; a future which will demand as the price of survival that we follow a pace of natural life economical in material cost. These lessons cannot be learned in schools as they are. School is like starting life with a 12-year jail sentence in which bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it.
I should know.
Copyright © 1991, John Taylor Gatto. Originally published in the Op-Ed page of The Wall Street Journal.
Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents. The whole blueprint of school procedure is Egyptian, not Greek or Roman. It grows from the theological idea that human value is a scarce thing, represented symbolically by the narrow peak of a pyramid.
That idea passed into American history through the Puritans. It found its "scientific" presentation in the bell curve, along which talent supposedly apportions itself by some Iron Law of Biology. It’s a religious notion, School is its church. I offer rituals to keep heresy at bay. I provide documentation to justify the heavenly pyramid.
Socrates foresaw if teaching became a formal profession, something like this would happen. Professional interest is served by making what is easy to do seem hard; by subordinating the laity to the priesthood. School is too vital a jobs-project, contract giver and protector of the social order to allow itself to be "re-formed." It has political allies to guard its marches, that’s why reforms come and go without changing much. Even reformers can’t imagine school much different.
David learns to read at age four; Rachel, at age nine: In normal development, when both are 13, you can’t tell which one learned first—the five-year spread means nothing at all. But in school I label Rachel "learning disabled" and slow David down a bit, too. For a paycheck, I adjust David to depend on me to tell him when to go and stop. He won’t outgrow that dependency. I identify Rachel as discount merchandise, "special education" fodder. She’ll be locked in her place forever.
In 30 years of teaching kids rich and poor I almost never met a learning disabled child; hardly ever met a gifted and talented one either. Like all school categories, these are sacred myths, created by human imagination. They derive from questionable values we never examine because they preserve the temple of schooling.
That’s the secret behind short-answer tests, bells, uniform time blocks, age grading, standardization, and all the rest of the school religion punishing our nation. There isn’t a right way to become educated; there are as many ways as fingerprints. We don’t need state-certified teachers to make education happen—that probably guarantees it won’t.
How much more evidence is necessary? Good schools don’t need more money or a longer year; they need real free-market choices, variety that speaks to every need and runs risks. We don’t need a national curriculum or national testing either. Both initiatives arise from ignorance of how people learn or deliberate indifference to it. I can’t teach this way any longer. If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living, let me know. Come fall I’ll be looking for work.
Copyright © 1992, John Taylor Gatto
Don't let your schooling interfere with your education.
I taught for 30 years in some of the worst schools in New York City, and in some of the best, and during that time I became an expert in boredom. Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: The work was stupid, it made no sense, they already knew it. They wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. Teachers didn’t seem to know much about their subjects and weren’t interested in learning more. And the kids were right: The teachers were every bit as bored as they were.
Boredom is the common condition of schoolteachers, and anyone who has spent time in a teachers’ lounge can vouch for the low energy, the whining, the dispirited attitudes found there. When asked why they’re bored, teachers tend to blame the kids. Who wouldn’t get bored teaching students who are rude and interested only in grades? If even that. Of course, teachers are themselves products of the same 12-year school programs that so thoroughly bore their students, and as school personnel, they’re trapped inside structures even more rigid than those imposed on the kids. Who, then, is to blame?
We all are. My grandfather taught me that. One afternoon when I was 7, I complained to him of boredom, and he batted me hard on the head. He told me I was never to use that term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else’s. The obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, he said, and those who didn’t know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible.
That episode cured me of boredom forever, and here and there over the years I was able to pass on the lesson to some remarkable students. For the most part, however, I found it futile to challenge the official notion that boredom and childishness were the natural state of affairs in the classroom. Often I had to defy custom, and even bend the law, to help kids break out of this trap.
By the time I retired in 1991, I’d had more than enough reason to think of our schools—with their long-term, cell-block-style forced confinement of both students and teachers—as virtual factories of childishness. Yet I honestly couldn’t see why they had to be that way. My own experience had revealed to me what many other teachers must learn along the way, too, yet keep to themselves for fear of reprisal: If we wanted, we could easily and inexpensively jettison the old, stupid structures and help kids take an education rather than merely receive schooling. We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness—curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight—by being more flexible about time, texts and tests, introducing kids to truly competent adults, and giving each student the autonomy he or she needs to take risks.
We’ve been taught (that is, schooled) to think of “success” as synonymous with, or at least dependent on, “schooling,” but historically that isn’t true in either a financial or intellectual sense. Plenty of people throughout the world find ways to educate themselves without resorting to a system of standard school programs that all too often resembles prisons. Why then do we confuse education with such a system? What exactly is the purpose of our schools?
Mass schooling of a compulsory nature was conceived and advocated throughout most of the 19th century. The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold: to make good people, to make good citizens, to make each person his or her personal best.
These goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them as a decent definition of public education’s mission, however short schools fall in achieving them. But we’re dead wrong. We’d better look at Alexander Inglis’ 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education.
In it, Inglis makes it clear that compulsory schooling in the U.S. was intended to be a fifth column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give peasants and proletarians a voice at the bargaining table. Modern, industrialized compulsory schooling was to make a surgical incision into the prospective unity of these underclasses. Divide children by subject, by age, by constant test rankings and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever re-integrate into a dangerous whole.
Inglis breaks down the actual purpose of modern schooling into six basic functions, any one of which is enough to curl the hair of those innocent enough to believe the three traditional goals of education listed earlier:
(Download scans of the whole chapter from Inglis' Principles of Secondary Education in this 10Mb ZIP file.)
That, unfortunately, is the purpose of mandatory public education.
Vast fortunes stood to be made in an economy based on mass production and organized to favour the large corporation rather than the small business or the family farm. But mass production required mass consumption, and at the turn of the 20th century most Americans considered it both unnatural and unwise to buy things they didn’t need. Mandatory schooling was a godsend on that count. School didn’t have to train kids in any direct sense to think they should consume nonstop, because it did something even better: It encouraged them not to think at all. That left them sitting ducks for another great invention of the modern era: marketing.
Now you needn’t have studied marketing to know that two groups of people can always be convinced to consume more than they need: addicts and children. School has done a pretty good job of turning our children into addicts, but it has done a spectacular job of turning our children into children. Again, this is no accident. Theorists from Plato to Rousseau to our own Dr. Inglis knew that if children could be cloistered with other children, stripped of responsibility and independence, encouraged to develop only the trivializing emotions of greed, envy, jealousy and fear, they would grow older but never grow up.
Maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work at relationships; easy credit has removed the need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment has removed the need to learn to entertain oneself; easy answers have removed the need to ask questions. We’ve become a nation of children, happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy televisions, and then we buy the things we see on the television. We buy $150 sneakers whether we need them or not, and when they fall apart too soon we buy another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie that they constitute a kind of life insurance, even when we’re upside-down in them.
Now for the good news. Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so they’ll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology—all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so they learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cellphone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.
First, though, we must wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centres for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants. Don’t let your own have their childhoods extended, not even for a day.
There’s no telling what your own kids could do. After a long life and 30 years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.
Copyright © 1997, John Taylor Gatto
The current system of government factory schooling is based on a belief that ordinary children cannot accomplish much, will not work hard unless coerced, tricked, or bribed, and will inevitably work for the balance of their post-school lives - if they work at all - in large government, corporate, or institutional employment pyramids managed by a professional élite.
As axiomatic as these usually unstated beliefs have become they would once have been considered outrageous. For the first two hundred and fifty years of American history, from Plymouth to Darwin's second bombshell, The Descent of Man (1871) the nation operated on a much different set of premises about human nature. Though recognizing a generic flaw which prevented even the best people from achieving perfection, it was widely held that great improvement, competency, dignity and self-respect were available to everyone who worked for it.
The three postulates that replaced this hard-nosed optimistic view had always characterized the outlook of the British nobility and the British state religion created by that nobility, but it was a position so violently unacceptable to Americans that we fought a war to rid ourselves of it. By the middle of the l9th century, however, with the growth of international trade and an increasing reliance on British bankers to finance American westward expansion, the poisonous outlook began to creep back into drawing room conversations. One British bloodline of intellectuals in particular supplied a major line of argument against a libertarian interpretation of human possibility, three cousins: Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin and Francis Galton.
Malthus' essay on population growth inevitably outstripping food supply sent chills through the entire European/American élite establishment at the beginning of the l9th century. He said nothing could halt the inexorable march of mathematics - people grew geometrically, food grew arithmetically - and so it was better to be cruel, work people to death and whatever else you did, by all means don't "educate" them. In the middle of the century cousin number two said people were descended from protozoic particles through an endless living chain which had no other meaning than to kill off its weak links and allow the stronger to reproduce themselves. The word "education" in such a reality would have absolutely no meaning. A little over a decade later cousin two, Charles Darwin, wrote a second book even more shocking than the first. In book two, cousin two established a very complex revolutionary ladder made up of "the races of man," the label "race" having many more levels than we think of in our latter-day usage. Darwin said that unless steps were taken to keep the lower orders from breeding with the higher orders the human race would go crashing backwards down the ladder of evolution into the primordial slime from which it had come.
This second book had such pointed advice for public policy makers and wealthy special interests that while it cannot be said to have been "suppressed," you never hear mention of it today. Not because its advice has been ignored but for just the opposite reason. When the most powerful men in America held a dinner for Darwin's authoritative publicist, Herbert Spencer, in 1882 at Delmonico's restaurant in New York, and presented him with $400,000 in gold as a tribute of their affection for what he had taught them about "survival of the fittest," at that minute the future of American mass compulsion schooling was settled. It would be the first line of defense against an evolutionary catastrophe. Nothing could be done to help the "lesser" races anyway. Keeping them in total ignorance was the most merciful thing to do until a more final solution would be worked out.
Cousin number three, Francis Galton, for all practical purposes the creator and distributor of all the statistical numbers games that infest American and global scholarship, commerce and government thinking these days, worked out a variety of tools and techniques to assure the best would breed with the best and the worst would, step by step, be bred out of existence. Galton wrote the definitive book on the inheritance of intelligence (and conversely the inheritance of stupidity), created forced sterilization legislation to be used on the "unfit," which was tested all over the U.S. by 1906 and which became the pilot for Nazi Germany's forced sterilization policy and invented single handedly the "science" of eugenics.
So from 1800 to 1900 one British family provided scientific and mathematical reasons why the dumb should stay dumb, and couldn't do anything else. Ordinary children cannot accomplish much, they cannot accomplish anything unless coerced, tricked or bribed (that's of course behavioral psychology in a nutshell), and they must be taken care of like children for all their days.
These three postulates were dubbed "Mudsill theory" by none other than Abraham Lincoln, who set out to contest them in the 1850s when they were still in an embryonic state. "Mudsill" refers to the simple earthen entryway to cabins and rude homes and hence was a shorthand for dismissing the people who lived in these places as hopeless. Mudsill theory became the reigning school philosophy, though not, for a longer time, its practice, by the beginning of the 20th century. To understand mudsill theory better I want to take you back to Abe Lincoln's day and Andrew Jackson's - and to an article called "the Working Classes" which appeared in the famous Boston Quarterly Review in 1840.
The author of "The Working Classes" was a famous 19th century man of affairs whose name would have been recognizable everywhere then, Orestes Brownson. Brownson's attention had been drawn by the drumbeating of Horace Mann and his crowd for legislation creating an institution of mass state compulsion schooling. Brownson looked behind the public rhetoric and felt compelled to speak out against the idea.
Horace Mann, said Brownson, was the front man for a syndicate trying to impose British merchant/banker/industrialist world-view as the gospel of a new religion. "A system of education so constituted," he said, "may as well be a religion established by law." Mann's heavy financial backing was coming from railroad builders, coal-mining interests, real-estate developers and commercial/industrial promoters of national and global business schemes.
There was nothing popular, local or personal about this artificial conceit of forced schooling; its purpose was to weaken people's capacity to educate themselves, to break their loyalty to family, church and land in order to release customers and workforce for élite schemes of economics and social ordering. Brownson said the teaching function belonged in a democracy to the whole community, not to a controlled monopoly, and we had already become the best educated people in history on our own hook. "Children," he said, "were far better off educated by the general pursuits, habits and moral tone of the community" than by a privileged class of corporate or government agents.
The mission of the United States, its justification for existence according to Brownson, was to "raise up the ordinary and make every man really free and independent." Whatever schooling should be allowed in this kind of society under government auspices should be dedicated to the principle of independent livelihoods and close, self-reliant families.
Now whether you agree with Brownson or not, the point is that this historic reaction to the coming of forced schooling raises a serious question we are still asking today: If schools cannot teach us to read, write and count, why do we have them? What agenda are these places really running and who authorized it? Think of it this way: If there are high-level undiscussed agendas in public schooling enacted without public awareness or debate, then school becomes a kind of behavioral conditioning laboratory serving those who superintend its real mission - which most of us are unaware of - against those who do not.
However we can ignore this larger question for the moment and spend some time productively on whether Brownson's faith in ordinary people was justified - was there any evidence in the time from which he wrote that common people were much more than Malthus, Darwin, Galton, Mann & Co. thought they were? In 1990 the labor scholar Chris Clarke published a book entitled The Roots of Rural Capitalism in which he explored the labor economy of the 1840s in the U.S. In it he reported the general labor market in that period was highly undependable because it was shaped by family concerns, personal farming took priority, then family duty - any hired work outside of that had to adapt. So rural manufacture had a homespun, chatty character. Wage labor was only a supplement to a broad strategy of household economy, one in which most households aimed at self-sufficiency in food, clothing, construction, furnishings, candles, entertainment, medical care, old-age assistance, everything. Marriages were partnerships of home-centered work. By age five children were active participants in the work of the household. The normal family was a production unit, spinning out a large part of the meaning and substance of its own life - the era of consumption for wages had hardly begun and the era of government as father and mother wasn't even dreamed of.
Of course people worked for each other and even worked for wages full-time when they were young, but the ideal and expectation was that this was for the purpose of assembling a stake to strike out on one's own. Christopher Lasch tells the story of Sam Goodrich of Ridgefield, Connecticut who remembered in his diary a time when servants, "were of the neighborhood, generally daughters of respectable farmers and mechanics" and "servitude implied no degradation."
Any successful tradition of self-reliance like we once had requires a theory of human nature to sustain it which allows for self-improvement; before an economy of independent livelihoods can be broken apart and scavenged for its labor units, people first have to be brought to believe in a pessimistic appraisal of human potential, something that once bore the label, "mudsill theory."
I learned about Abraham Lincoln's rebuttal of mudsill theory from Richard Hofstadter's 1948 book, The American Political Tradition. Lincoln had become aware that an opinion was circulating in the U.S. out of England that it is useless and dangerous to educate working people very far; he attacked mudsill theory as a distortion of real human nature because as he looked around him most of the people he saw had independent livelihoods or were working toward them. The notion that nobody would work unless they were pushed or tricked particularly bothered him. Here are his actual words from a speech made in September, 1959 to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society:
Having assumed [that nobody would work unless forced to] they proceed to consider whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent; or buy them, and drive them to it without their consent.
Having proceeded so far they naturally conclude that all laborers are necessarily either hired laborers or slaves, one or the other. They further assume that whoever is once a hired laborer is fatally fixed in that condition for life; and thence again that his condition is as bad as or worse than that of a slave. This is the mudsill theory.
What contradicted mudsillism for Lincoln was the "inconvenient fact" that a large majority of Americans were "neither hirers nor hired." Now whether you believe a common economy of small proprietorship is possible or not it's clear that Abe Lincoln thought he was describing one as an American reality in 1859.
Where you and I are, perched on the cusp of the 2lst century, Lincoln's independent social reality seems a daydream, yet we need some way to explain the baffling example of the Mondragon Cooperative in the Basque Region of Spain where every one of 120,000 families is indeed an independent producer, which has existed through depressions and recessions for 70 years without a single year of negative growth. And we have to explain away 150,000 Old Order Amish who enjoy nearly universal proprietorship in farms and small enterprises. For both these groups, one American, one Spanish, it is as if giant socialistic governments, giant international corporations and colossal hospitals, social work establishments, colleges and institutional schools have been irrelevant for the entire 20th century. It suggests a third way - which I confess has loomed larger and larger in my own thinking for quite some time now.
Amish prosperity, strong family, strong faith, strong community, is something I'll speak of in more detail in a little while, but in thinking of it - in contrast to a mudsill society - we need to remember the good things weren't handed to them, but achieved in the face of daunting odds, often against the active enmity of the state and its agencies which have long sought to de-Amish the Amish. The Amish survived and even prevailed against odds. Doesn't that put a base of credibility under Lincoln's or Brownson's assertion that we once operated under a realistic national goal of independence for all. I mean if the Amish have pulled it off when such an aim contradicted the hidden national agenda, surely the rest of us were doing it when it accorded with our national mission.
Now it takes no great intellect to see that anti-mudsill curriculum taught broadly in today's economic environment would directly attack the dominant economy and might provoke a disaster. This wouldn't happen intentionally, but the lack of malice would be poor compensation for those whose businesses were destroyed because they could neither attract employees or more importantly, attract customers, because people were doing for themselves what had heretofore been done by governments, corporations and institutions. Assuming what Lincoln and Brownson say actually happened is still possible - and to assume that you have to discard bell-curve assertions - to tailor schooling to an independent livelihood perspective would, no matter how gently you approached it, wreck the current economy and political state.
This is why many alternative schooling ideas fizzle out quickly. However inadvertently, most of them breed an independence of mind which inevitably gets people thinking about self-sufficiency. From the point of view of big government, big corporation, big institution the incentive to support educational practices whose graduates would not fit easily into your own plans just isn't there. To me it seems inconceivable that it would ever be. Why would anyone who makes a living selling certain goods, say cigarettes or processed cheese, or services, say welfare inspections or school teaching, be enthusiastic about schools that taught, even indirectly, that those things weren't necessary? What about schools that taught "less is more?" How could that be good for business? What about schools that taught that television-viewing, even of PBS, alters the structure of the mind for the worse? Can you imagine that being encouraged?
When I see the dense concentration of big business names associated with school reform I get crazy, not because they are bad people - most aren't any worse than you or me - but because the best interests of a developing mind and corporate interests can't possibly be a good fit; and frequently they are violently antagonistic. Think of cigarettes, whisky, fast cars and foxy young women as icons of the marketing-promulgated good life. Morality aside, the mental conditioning it takes to accommodate such things as the goals of work don't live easily with home, hearth, family, intimate friendships or thoughts of any transcendent reality.
All school curricula except the most basic will either secure or disestablish things as they are; it's not a polar thing, of course, but the cumulative effect of centralized curriculum tends in one or another direction: consumption...or production. Mudsill theory prepares the ground for an outlook on ordinary people as "masses," simplified consumption units biologically incompetent for much other than to be held in a low-level narcotized state until public policy decides what to do with them in a micro-chip age. It doesn't require much imagination to figure out what eventually the answer has to be.
You'll have figured out by now that I think we have to scrap mudsill theory before mudsill theory scraps us. Getting rid of it is a necessity, but unfortunately there is no painless transition formula. The thing is institutionalized in every school - with buzzers, routines, standardized assessments, comprehensive lifelong rankings intermingled with an interminable presentation of carrot and stick. The positive and negative reinforcement schedules of behavioral psychology are only possible to think of as tools if you subscribe to mudsillism. It is deeply ingrained in the whole work/school/media constellation.
At the heart of any school reform that isn't simply tuning the mudsill mechanism lie two hypotheses:
But how on earth can you believe these things in the face of a century of institution-shaping/economy-shaping that claims something different? And in the face of a constant stream of media threats that jobs are vanishing, that the workplace demands more regulation and discipline, and that "foreign competition" will bury us if we don't comply with expert prescriptions in the years ahead? One powerful antidote to such propaganda is looking at evidence which contradicts official propaganda - like women who earn as much as doctors selling fresh-cooked shrimp from old white trucks parked beside the road, or 13-year-old Greek boys who don't have time to waste going to school because they expect to be independent businessmen before most kids are out of college.
I hope at least a few of you did a double-take on my last non sequitur but I promise to tell you about both of these anti-mudsill phenomena because I had personal experience with both not very long ago. First the Greek-American boy who we shall call
Not very long ago I had a 13 year-old Greek boy named Stanley as one of my students. Stanley was big, very bright, hard as a rock and only came to school about one day a month. It seems Stanley had five aunts and uncles, all in business for themselves before they were 21: a florist, an unfinished furniture builder, a delicatessen owner, a taxicab owner and a dry cleaner/laundry. When Stanley cut school he passed from store to store where in exchange for free labor he got to learn the business. "This way I decide which business I like well enough to set up for myself," he told me when I was ordered to put the heat on him for absenteeism. "Listen. You tell me what books to read and I'll read them, but I don't have time to waste in school if I don't want to end up like the rest of these jerks working for someone else." After I heard that I couldn't in good conscience lean on him to stay in school. Could you? Why? So he could be "socialized"?
In 1896 there were 5000 Old Order Amish in the United States, now there are 150,000 of them in 19 states and several foreign countries. 85% of their grown children freely chose the Amish way of life even though nobody holds a gun to their heads. You might compare that to the grandsons and granddaughters of the Puritans who left the church in such great numbers it had to continually rewrite its own rules just to stay in business. And after 200 years had virtually collapsed into secular forms. Of course the Amish need to prove themselves a little longer, but a 3000% growth in numbers in the most secular of all centuries isn't doing too bad so far. Consider that virtually 100% of these people are engaged in an independent livelihood though none go beyond eighth grade - and wouldn't even go that far except the law forced them to. Almost 50% of the Lancaster Amish operate small businesses, not farms although not one of them uses a computer, electricity, or drives a motorcar. The community is crime-free, prosperous and has a 5% business failure rate compared to a non-Amish rate of 85% among computer-using, electricity dependent, motorcar-mad un-Amish competitors.
Isn't that a puzzle? According to mudsill, bell-curve theory it isn't strange, it's impossible. The next time you hear your children better shape up if they hope to survive in the global economy, remember the Amish. Why should you raise children to be hired hands anyway? The Amish don't.
Well, I promised to tell you about a Shrimp lady who makes as much as a doctor, so here she is.
In the northeast corner of an island a long way from here an older woman sells plates of cooked shrimp and rice from out of an old white truck in a remote corner of the island. Nobody is around the truck. A lot of people pass, however, because the road she's on goes to a famous surfing beach which attracts crowds year round.
She sells only shrimp and rice plus hot dogs for the kids and cold soda. The license to do this costs $500 a year, $43.25 a month, less than a dollar-and-a-half a day.
Anyone could do what this lady is doing who would get together about $15 thousand in seed capital. She's 59, has a high-school diploma, a nice smile and cooks good shrimp. A hand-lettered sign advertises the wares beside the road.
The day I stood in line five customers were in front of me. They bought 14 plates between them and 14 sodas. I bought two and two. By the time I got to the window 5 new customers had arrived behind me. I was intrigued enough to sit across the road for two hours and count the sales: 41 plates, l5 hot-dogs, 50 sodas. The plates were $9.95, the dogs $1.25, the sodas $1.00. She had taken in close to $500 in two hours and her sign informed me she was open eight hours, seven days a week. Was it possible this truck was grossing nearly three-quarters of a million dollars a year?
I was curious enough to come back the next day and go through the same observation and the next and the next. My wife Janet is a graduate of the famous Culinary Institute of America. She estimated the net after all expenses on the shrimp was $7.00; on the hot dog, 80 cents, and on the soda 60¢. Over the next few weeks we got to know the lady casually. She was delighted to tell us she averaged l00 -150 shrimp sales a day, but on special days up to 300. She worked the stand part of the time and when she wasn't there one of her three daughters did. All were grown and had families, and all were supported by that old white truck! It was a revelation. None of the daughters had gone beyond high school, nor felt a need to; all were intelligent, fun to talk to, happy people. And why not?
Halfway around the world in Manhattan, on the north side of the Metropolitan Museum where only one hot dog Wagon is allowed, and the rights to the spot are sold at auction yearly, the winning bid for 1997 cost $316,200. I don't know the degree of schooling the cart operator possesses but I do know he pays nearly $900 a day for the right to sell hot-dogs. Come to think of it he looked pretty happy himself.
Studying Chris Clarke, the Amish, my Stanley, the shrimp lady, or the hot dog peddler at the Metropolitan wouldn't be enough to float school reform aimed at small proprietorship because we would still face the propaganda barrier erected by the claims of statistical behaviorism. Its preposterous argument that it can demonstrate mathematically most kids don't have the right stuff. This, of course, is the ill-disguised Darwinistic argument that school is a kind of ambulance institution carrying the detritus of evolution for treatment. Could all the pedagogical scientists have gotten it wrong? Are ordinary people better than they think?
I found an important clue in Charles Murray's recent bestseller, "The Bell Curve", where Murray denounces Marva Collins' description of completely literate black ghetto preteens. Oddly enough that was my own experience with black ghetto 13-year-olds but I was curious to see Dr. Murray so exercised. So certain was Murray that Collins was "mistaken" he dismissed her narrative while admitting he had no first-hand evidence contradicting it. The light went on when I realized bell curve mudsillism would not be credible if Marva Collins was telling the truth.
A student I had named Barbara cut school for weeks to set up a business on the streets of Manhattan selling handmade scarf/glove/hat sets knitted for her by women in old-age homes. With each set the purchaser received a picture of the knitter and her biography prepared by the entrepreneur. Barbara made a small fortune in six weeks at the age of 13, like Stanley, enough to take her mother with her to Paris that summer.
Is Marva Collins telling the truth? I think so.
Back in Orestes Brownson's day the central promise of American life was democratization of intelligence and winning an independent competency upon which to exercise that intelligence. In America every one got the chance to develop intelligence, not just the elites. Beyond the narrow uses of intelligence for work it found many private uses inside home and family circles. Public argument was the great incentive to master knowledge. But after Darwin a horde of voices said argument was a waste of time for the stupid masses. Mudsill theory became scientized with Charles Darwin, with the rise of the German research university in America, and with the religion of numbers and bell-curve statistics.
The wholesale denial that ordinary people could be intellectually competent which took place between 1890 and 1920 was always framed in the language of laboratory and university. It caused a decisive deconstruction of schooling for intelligence to take place around the turn of the last century, a deconstruction which accelerated rapidly after WW II and raced ahead after the cleverly contrived Sputnik hysteria of the late 1950s.
A kid named Bryan Bantry made page two of the New York Daily News in 1968 for earning $26,000 a year as a dog-walker. Inflation adjusted that would be over $100,000 at present. Bantry walked dogs, bunches at a time and employed dozens of classmates to walk dogs, too, taking a rake-off. His dad was a postal clerk. Bryan was 13.
The best antidote to mudsill poison is the embarrassing story of Jaime Escalante, an overage Peruvian immigrant math teacher who wears a golf cap and looks like an angry truck driver. When I caught up to Escalante he had already been made famous by the film Stand and Deliver. Unbeknownst to the average filmgoer, Escalante was driven out of the scene of his triumphs, Garfield High, by a steady barrage of harassment, sabotage and vilification on the part of his co-workers and administration. Was he just another liar as Murray accused Marva Collins of being? Because if he wasn't he was just as deadly a threat to bell-curve mudsillism as Collins ever was.
Fortunately numbers are the voice of God in our pedagogical sub-religion and numbers are available through which the performance of Escalante's ignorant clientele, sons and daughters of Mexican immigrant parents, can be compared with offspring of high-tech. Silicon Valley families&emdash;or with kids rich and poor across the nation for that matter. When Jaime came to Garfield in 1974 the Western Association of Schools had threatened to revoke its accreditation. Keep that in mind as the baseline.
By 1987 only three public schools in the nation were producing more Advanced Placement calculus students than Garfield, and the school was setting standards in algebra and trigonometry, too. His percentage of poverty-stricken Hispanic students passing the difficult second year advanced placement calculus tests was the highest in the state. Few groups of privileged white students even came close. The full implications of this data are fairly shocking because they tend to suggest - not that Escalante is a great teacher (which I'm sure he is) - the real role of orthodox government schooling as a screen to control the rate and extent of learning, or to prevent it entirely in many cases.
Escalante's methodology is astonishingly old-fashioned, dirt cheap, and independent of star teaching for its success. Its simplicity makes it fully revolutionary since anybody could apply the same principles easily and cheaply. Its more a matter of attitude than brilliance. But widespread application would cost materials producers a bundle, and there would be a loss of jobs for remedial teachers and many ripple effects in the civil service economy.
Picture a classroom crammed with signs, posters, banners, all hand lettered. One reads, "Stand and Deliver," another "Students who say it can't be done should not interrupt students who are doing it," another "Calculus need not be made easy, it is easy already," and another, "Ganas is all you need" (a Spanish word for "wanting it badly enough"). Escalante's lessons are punctuated with an endless stream of personal philosophy and moralisms, all delivered with high energy as though he meant what he said. Every student signs a contract outlining what is expected, the highest standards of effort, the toughest challenges tackled, the highest quality of individual attention owed from the instructor.
What you and I have just talked about is the Darwinian attitude that most of us are hopeless anyway, and useless in any case. Stated more scientifically and less bluntly, this is the attitude which has driven the managers of government school for a century, and drives them at this minute. What Abraham Lincoln called "mudsill theory" is alive and well all over the policy circles of America, you might look at it as the necessary attitude to underwrite the end of national sovereignty (what's the point, the people can't handle the rights extended them by the Constitution?), and the advent of a global order where Americans are leveled into a global mass , dumbed down for their own good, stripped of useful knowledge by schooling, and narcotized by endless rivers of mass entertainment, low-level public spectacles, and trivialized sexuality.
The richest and most bitter irony is that what is happening unless we stop it is precisely what British class theory has always held must happen, and the British state religion - which holds that social class is divinely ordained and must not be challenged - has always taught in its schools. Stay in your place, listen to the paternal/maternal state, don't question your betters. This is exactly the reason we threw off the yoke of England just three long lifetimes ago.
I'm well aware that each one of us here has been trained to look at Russia as the enemy or China as the enemy or Japan as the enemy or - give me a break - the tiny island of Cuba as the enemy, but I ask you consider in the days ahead that the real enemy is an ancient one we know in our bones, the British idea of a Royal Mind that brooks no opposition, thinks globally, is endlessly ambitious, and can only survive amidst a dumbed down population.
From reading and thinking about American history for more than half a century, from looking at kids like Stanley, people like the Lancaster Amish, teachers like Jaime Escalante and Marva Collins, strangers like the Shrimp Lady I'm utterly convinced of a bad thing and a good: the bad is that we have been utterly euchred and our country stolen from us, the good is that there is a tremendous untouched genius locked up in ordinary people that could still turn this mess around in a generation. Children inspired to initiate their own lines of economic meaning, who come to see themselves as able to handle the leadership demands of an independent livelihood will have a fighting chance to do well for themselves by conventional standards and in the things that really count which we appear embarrassed to even talk about any more, so far are they from what public life is about.
But a warning: the reverse is not true. If you allow your child to be "loved" by ranks of paid strangers and to be trained as a hired hand - which is all mudsill pedagogy allows - you will foreclose the palette of human possibility. You will become the enemy within, narrowing your children's focus to what the boss wants, and instilling enough fear in them a lifetime won't get rid of it. To any chiefs and bigshots who might come across this old schoolteacher's words I leave them with this appeal and warning: training children to be cogs in a state/corporation machine is not sound public policy for a nation with the historical character of the United States. If you sow these seeds you will reap the whirlwind.
Copyright © 2008, Paul Graham
Technology tends to separate normal from natural. Our bodies weren't designed to eat the foods that people in rich countries eat, or to get so little exercise. There may be a similar problem with the way we work: a normal job may be as bad for us intellectually as white flour or sugar is for us physically.
I began to suspect this after spending several years working with startup founders. I've now worked with over 200 of them, and I've noticed a definite difference between programmers working on their own startups and those working for large organizations. I wouldn't say founders seem happier, necessarily; starting a startup can be very stressful. Maybe the best way to put it is to say that they're happier in the sense that your body is happier during a long run than sitting on a sofa eating doughnuts.
Though they're statistically abnormal, startup founders seem to be working in a way that's more natural for humans.
I was in Africa last year and saw a lot of animals in the wild that I'd only seen in zoos before. It was remarkable how different they seemed. Particularly lions. Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive. They're like different animals. I suspect that working for oneself feels better to humans in much the same way that living in the wild must feel better to a wide-ranging predator like a lion. Life in a zoo is easier, but it isn't the life they were designed for.
What's so unnatural about working for a big company? The root of the problem is that humans weren't meant to work in such large groups.
Another thing you notice when you see animals in the wild is that each species thrives in groups of a certain size. A herd of impalas might have 100 adults; baboons maybe 20; lions rarely 10. Humans also seem designed to work in groups, and what I've read about hunter-gatherers accords with research on organizations and my own experience to suggest roughly what the ideal size is: groups of 8 work well; by 20 they're getting hard to manage; and a group of 50 is really unwieldy. (When I talk about humans being meant or designed to live a certain way, I mean by evolution.)
Whatever the upper limit is, we are clearly not meant to work in groups of several hundred. And yet—for reasons having more to do with technology than human nature—a great many people work for companies with hundreds or thousands of employees.
Companies know groups that large wouldn't work, so they divide themselves into units small enough to work together. But to coordinate these they have to introduce something new: bosses.
These smaller groups are always arranged in a tree structure. Your boss is the point where your group attaches to the tree. But when you use this trick for dividing a large group into smaller ones, something strange happens that I've never heard anyone mention explicitly. In the group one level up from yours, your boss represents your entire group. A group of 10 managers is not merely a group of 10 people working together in the usual way. It's really a group of groups. Which means for a group of 10 managers to work together as if they were simply a group of 10 individuals, the group working for each manager would have to work as if they were a single person—the workers and manager would each share only one person's worth of freedom between them.
In practice a group of people are never able to act as if they were one person. But in a large organization divided into groups in this way, the pressure is always in that direction. Each group tries its best to work as if it were the small group of individuals that humans were designed to work in. That was the point of creating it. And when you propagate that constraint, the result is that each person gets freedom of action in inverse proportion to the size of the entire tree. (It's not only the leaves who suffer. The constraint propagates up as well as down. So managers are constrained too; instead of just doing things, they have to act through subordinates.)
Anyone who's worked for a large organization has felt this. You can feel the difference between working for a company with 100 employees and one with 10,000, even if your group has only 10 people.
A group of 10 people within a large organization is a kind of fake tribe. The number of people you interact with is about right. But something is missing: individual initiative. Tribes of hunter-gatherers have much more freedom. The leaders have a little more power than other members of the tribe, but they don't generally tell them what to do and when the way a boss can.
It's not your boss's fault. The real problem is that in the group above you in the hierarchy, your entire group is one virtual person. Your boss is just the way that constraint is imparted to you.
So working in a group of 10 people within a large organization feels both right and wrong at the same time. On the surface it feels like the kind of group you're meant to work in, but something major is missing. A job at a big company is like high fructose corn syrup: it has some of the qualities of things you're meant to like, but is disastrously lacking in others.
Indeed, food is an excellent metaphor to explain what's wrong with the usual sort of job.
For example, working for a big company is the default thing to do, at least for programmers. How bad could it be? Well, food shows that pretty clearly. If you were dropped at a random point in America today, nearly all the food around you would be bad for you. Humans were not designed to eat white flour, refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and hydrogenated vegetable oil. And yet if you analyzed the contents of the average grocery store you'd probably find these four ingredients accounted for most of the calories. "Normal" food is terribly bad for you. The only people who eat what humans were actually designed to eat are a few Birkenstock-wearing weirdos in Berkeley.
If "normal" food is so bad for us, why is it so common? There are two main reasons. One is that it has more immediate appeal. You may feel lousy an hour after eating that pizza, but eating the first couple bites feels great. The other is economies of scale. Producing junk food scales; producing fresh vegetables doesn't. Which means (a) junk food can be very cheap, and (b) it's worth spending a lot to market it.
If people have to choose between something that's cheap, heavily marketed, and appealing in the short term, and something that's expensive, obscure, and appealing in the long term, which do you think most will choose?
It's the same with work. The average MIT graduate wants to work at Google or Microsoft, because it's a recognized brand, it's safe, and they'll get paid a good salary right away. It's the job equivalent of the pizza they had for lunch. The drawbacks will only become apparent later, and then only in a vague sense of malaise.
And founders and early employees of startups, meanwhile, are like the Birkenstock-wearing weirdos of Berkeley: though a tiny minority of the population, they're the ones living as humans are meant to. In an artificial world, only extremists live naturally.
The restrictiveness of big company jobs is particularly hard on programmers, because the essence of programming is to build new things. Sales people make much the same pitches every day; support people answer much the same questions; but once you've written a piece of code you don't need to write it again. So a programmer working as programmers are meant to is always making new things. And when you're part of an organization whose structure gives each person freedom in inverse proportion to the size of the tree, you're going to face resistance when you do something new.
This seems an inevitable consequence of bigness. It's true even in the smartest companies. I was talking recently to a founder who considered starting a startup right out of college, but went to work for Google instead because he thought he'd learn more there. He didn't learn as much as he expected. Programmers learn by doing, and most of the things he wanted to do, he couldn't—sometimes because the company wouldn't let him, but often because the company's code wouldn't let him. Between the drag of legacy code, the overhead of doing development in such a large organization, and the restrictions imposed by interfaces owned by other groups, he could only try a fraction of the things he would have liked to. He said he has learned much more in his own startup, despite the fact that he has to do all the company's errands as well as programming, because at least when he's programming he can do whatever he wants.
An obstacle downstream propagates upstream. If you're not allowed to implement new ideas, you stop having them. And vice versa: when you can do whatever you want, you have more ideas about what to do. So working for yourself makes your brain more powerful in the same way a low-restriction exhaust system makes an engine more powerful.
Working for yourself doesn't have to mean starting a startup, of course. But a programmer deciding between a regular job at a big company and their own startup is probably going to learn more doing the startup.
You can adjust the amount of freedom you get by scaling the size of company you work for. If you start the company, you'll have the most freedom. If you become one of the first 10 employees you'll have almost as much freedom as the founders. Even a company with 100 people will feel different from one with 1000.
Working for a small company doesn't ensure freedom. The tree structure of large organizations sets an upper bound on freedom, not a lower bound. The head of a small company may still choose to be a tyrant. The point is that a large organization is compelled by its structure to be one.
That has real consequences for both organizations and individuals. One is that companies will inevitably slow down as they grow larger, no matter how hard they try to keep their startup mojo. It's a consequence of the tree structure that every large organization is forced to adopt.
Or rather, a large organization could only avoid slowing down if they avoided tree structure. And since human nature limits the size of group that can work together, the only way I can imagine for larger groups to avoid tree structure would be to have no structure: to have each group actually be independent, and to work together the way components of a market economy do.
That might be worth exploring. I suspect there are already some highly partitionable businesses that lean this way. But I don't know any technology companies that have done it.
There is one thing companies can do short of structuring themselves as sponges: they can stay small. If I'm right, then it really pays to keep a company as small as it can be at every stage. Particularly a technology company. Which means it's doubly important to hire the best people. Mediocre hires hurt you twice: they get less done, but they also make you big, because you need more of them to solve a given problem.
For individuals the upshot is the same: aim small. It will always suck to work for large organizations, and the larger the organization, the more it will suck.
In an essay I wrote a couple years ago I advised graduating seniors to work for a couple years for another company before starting their own. I'd modify that now. Work for another company if you want to, but only for a small one, and if you want to start your own startup, go ahead.
The reason I suggested college graduates not start startups immediately was that I felt most would fail. And they will. But ambitious programmers are better off doing their own thing and failing than going to work at a big company. Certainly they'll learn more. They might even be better off financially. A lot of people in their early twenties get into debt, because their expenses grow even faster than the salary that seemed so high when they left school. At least if you start a startup and fail your net worth will be zero rather than negative. (Do not finance your startup with credit cards. Financing a startup with debt is usually a stupid move, and credit card debt stupidest of all. Credit card debt is a bad idea, period. It is a trap set by evil companies for the desperate and the foolish.)
We've now funded so many different types of founders that we have enough data to see patterns, and there seems to be no benefit from working for a big company. The people who've worked for a few years do seem better than the ones straight out of college, but only because they're that much older.
The people who come to us from big companies often seem kind of conservative. It's hard to say how much is because big companies made them that way, and how much is the natural conservatism that made them work for the big companies in the first place. But certainly a large part of it is learned. I know because I've seen it burn off.
Having seen that happen so many times is one of the things that convinces me that working for oneself, or at least for a small group, is the natural way for programmers to live. Founders arriving at Y Combinator often have the downtrodden air of refugees. Three months later they're transformed: they have so much more confidence that they seem as if they've grown several inches taller. (The founders we fund used to be younger (initially we encouraged undergrads to apply), and the first couple times I saw this I used to wonder if they were actually getting physically taller.) Strange as this sounds, they seem both more worried and happier at the same time. Which is exactly how I'd describe the way lions seem in the wild.
Watching employees get transformed into founders makes it clear that the difference between the two is due mostly to environment—and in particular that the environment in big companies is toxic to programmers. In the first couple weeks of working on their own startup they seem to come to life, because finally they're working the way people are meant to.
If you read this to the end, you'll discover that I'm inviting you to join a real conspiracy, call it an open conspiracy, with real consequences on millions of real lives. I know that sounds megalomaniacal, but be patient. If we pull this off, a great many will bless us, although the school industry few will curse us. This is about a project to destroy the standardized testing industry, one in which you, personally, will be an independent unit commander. This adventure is called "The Bartleby Project, for reasons you'll learn in just a little while. And keep in mind as you read, this has nothing to do with test reform. It's about test destruction.
We've all taken these tests. After graduation few of us think back on this ugly phenomenon unless we have little ones of our own being tested, and have to live through the agony of watching them stumble. We lose touch with the rituals of testing because, upon entering adult life, we inevitably discover that the information these glorified jigsaw puzzles generates is unreliable, and very misleading -- absolutely nobody ever asks after the data. We see that those who test well are more often circus dogs than leaders of the future.
Nothing inside the little red schoolhouse does more personal and social damage than the numbers and rank order these tests hang around the necks of the young. Although the scores correlate with absolutely nothing of real value, the harm they cause is real enough: such assessments are a crowning glory of the social engineers who seized final control of institutional schooling during the presidency o Franklin Roosevelt. They constitute a matchless weapon of social control, wreaking havoc on winners and losers alike. Standardized testing is the tail wagging the entire monster of forced institutional schooling.
The frequent ceremonies of useless testing -- preparation, administration, recovery - convert forced schooling into a travesty of what education should be; they drain hundreds of millions of days yearly from what might otherwise be productive pursuits; they divert tens of billions of cash resources into private pockets. The next effect of standardized testing is to reduce our national wealth in future generations, by suffocating imagination and intellect, while enhancing wealth for a few in the present. This occurs as a byproduct of "scientifically" ranking the tested so they can be, supposedly, classified efficiently as human resources. I hope the chapters of this book have done some damage to these assumptions, enough to recruit you as a leader in The Bartleby Project. If you show the way, others will follow.
We've reached a point in North America where it isn't enough to claim moral loftiness by merely denouncing them or muttering about them in books and essays which only true believers read. Standardized testing, which has always been about standardization and never about quality standards, must no longer be debated, but brutally and finally destroyed if schooling is ever again to take up a mission of intellect and character enhancement. And so, as I told you earlier, you'll be invited to lead - not join, but lead - a plan to cut the testing empire off at the knees; a plan to rip its heart out swiftly and cheaply. An incidental byproduct of the Bartleby Project will be to turn the men and women who create and supervise these murderous exercises into pariahs, but that isn't the point.
No organization will be required to oversee This simple plan - or, rather, thousands of organizations will be; all local, all uncoordinated. Otherwise , we will be certain to be co-opted, marginalized, corrupted - as all reform organizations become in time: and one as powerful as the Bartleby concept would be quickly subjected to sabotage were it centralized. To make this work - and soon you'll know what it looks like specifically - requires exactly the kind of courage it took to sledgehammer the first chunks out of the Berlin Wall, a currency in ready abundance among teenagers - the rightful leaders. I'll briefly mount a case why such a project is needed and then introduce you to its spiritual godfather, Bartleby the Scrivener.
On May 8, 2008, the New York Sunreported that despite legal mandates which require physical education be offered every school day, only one kid out of every twenty-five received even the legal minimum of 24 minutes a day. The New York City comptroller was quoted by the Sun, saying that physical training was a major concern of parents. But then, parents have had no significant voice in school for over a century. The story gets even darker than you realize.
Quietly, over the past decade, a national epidemic of obesity and diabetes has appeared in children as young as five. The connections between food, lack of exercise, and these twin plagues have been recognized for a long time. Diabetes is the principal cause of blindness and amputations in the US, and obesity is the leading cause of heart disease and self-loathing. That the non-fat are revolted by the fat, and discriminate heavily against them should not be a mystery, even to the stupid. Fat kids are punished cruelly in classrooms and on the playground.
In the face of these sobering facts, that thousands of schools still serve familiar fast food - and also non-proprietary fatty foods like liverwurst and bologna as nutrition - should have already caused you to realize that school is literally a risk to the mental and physical health of the young. Coupled with the curious legal tradition which makes serious lawsuits against school-generated human damage impossible, I hope you will try to convince yourself that behind the daily noise and squalor, a game is afoot in this institution which has little to do with popular myth. Standardizing minds is a big part of that game.
In the news story cited, a representative of New York City's Board of Education declares, "We're beginning to realize student health is a real core subject area." Think about that The city has had a hundred year near-monopoly over children's daily lives and it's only beginning to realize that health is important? Where is evidence of that realization? Don't all schools still demand physical confinement in chairs as a necessary concomitant of learning?
When lack of exercise has clearly been figured as a main road to diabetes and obesity, and both conditions are well-understood to lead to blindness, amputations, heart disease, and self-hatred, how can law only provide 24 minutes of exercise a day, and be so poorly enforced that only one in twenty-five gets even that? Doesn't that tell you something essential about the managers of schooling? At the very least, that 96 percent of all schools in New York City break the law with impunity in a matter threatening the health of students. What makes it even more ominous is that school officials are known for and wide for lacking independent judgment and courage in the face of bureaucratic superiors; but something in this particular matter must give them confidence that they won't be held personally liable.
You must face the fact that an outlaw ethic runs throughout institutional schooling. It's well-hidden inside ugly buildings, masked by dull people, mindless drills, and the boring nature of almost everything associated with schools, but make no mistake - under orders from somewhere, this institution is perfectly capable of lying about life-and-death matters, so how much more readily about standardized testing?
If the bizarre agenda of official schooling allows its representatives to tell the press that after a hundred years they're beginning to learn what Plato and Aristotle wrote eloquently about thousands of years ago, and that privileged sanctuaries like Eton, Harrow, Groton, and St. Pauls have practiced since their inception, that physical health depends upon movement, you should be reluctant to assign credibility to any school declaration. Under the right pressure from somewhere, schools can easily be brought to act against the best interests of students or faculty.
This is what has happened with standardized testing, post WWII. Some teachers know, and most all teachers feel it in their bones, that the testing rituals cause damage. But human nature being what it is, only a few dare resist, and these are always eventually discovered and punished.
I began my own schooling in 1940 in the gritty industrial section of Pittsburgh ironically named "Swiss-vale," continued it for the most part in the equally gritty industrial exurb, Monongahela, during WWII and its aftermath, and concluded my time, served forcibly, in the green hills of western Pennsylvania, very near where Colonel Washington's late-night killing of French officer Jumonville precipitated the French and Indian War (Washington didn't do the killing himself, but he took the heat).
As compensation for confinement, schools in those days were generally places of visible morality, powerfully egalitarian, and often strongly intellectual under the rough manners of the classroom. Faculties were always local, which meant among other things that each school employee had a local reputation as a neighbor and citizen; they existed as people as well as abstract functions. Curriculum prepared far away, and standardized testing, was hardly in evidence even at the end of the school sequence for me, in the 1950s. Each classroom at my high school, Uniontown High, was personalized to a degree which would be considered dangerously eccentric today, and hardly tolerable.
And yet, boys and girls schooled that way had just finished ruining the tightly schooled dictatorships of the planet. We boasted often to ourselves, teenagers of the 1940s and 1950s, that unlike those unfortunate enough to live outside the US, we carried no identification papers, feared no secret police. Compared to the exotic liberty of those days of my boyhood, American society of sixty years later smacks a bit too much of a police state for comfort. To imagine old ladies being patted down for explosives at airports, or the IRS invasion of one's home, or the constant test rankings and dossiers of behavior managed through schooling; to imagine machinery purchased for home use spying on intimate choices and reporting those choices to stranger, would have been inconceivable in 1950.
A river of prosperity was lifting all boats in the US as I finished my own public schooling in 1953. My father was a cookie sales man for Nabisco, a man with no inheritance or trust fund, yet could cover my tuition at Cornell, own a new car, send my sister to college, pay for clarinet lessons for me and painting lessons for my sister, and put something aside for retirement. Schooling was considered important in those days, but never as very important. Too many unschooled people like my father and mother carried important responsibilities too well for pedagogical propaganda to end the reign of America's egalitarian ethic.
The downward spiral in school quality began in the 1950s with changes which went unnoticed. Schools were "rationalized" after the German fashion' increment by increment they were standardized from coast to coast. By 1963, standardized tests were a fixture, although very few extended them any credibility; they were thought of as a curious break from classroom routine, a break imposed for what reason nobody knew, or cared. Even in the 1950s, curriculum was being dumbed down, though not to the levels reached in later years. Teachers were increasingly carpet-baggers, from somewhere outside the community in which they taught. Once it had actually been a legal requirement to live within the political boundaries of the school district, just as it was for police, fire fighters, and other civil servants, but gradually families came to be seen as potential enemies of the "professional" staff; better to live far enough away they could be kept at arm's length.
Morality in schools was replaced with cold-blooded pragmatism. As Graham Greene has his police chief say, in Our Man in Havana, "We only torture people who expect to be torture." Ghetto kids were flunked and nearly flunked because that was their expectation; middle-class/upper-middle-class kids were given Cs, Bs and even As, because they and their parents wouldn't tolerate anything else.
School order came to depend upon maintaining good relations with the toughest bullies, covertly affirming their right to prey upon whiners and cry-babies (though never cry-babies from politically potent families). The intellectual dimension was removed from almost all classrooms as a matter of unwritten policy, and since test scores are independent of intellect, those teachers who tried to hold onto mental development as a goal, rather than rote memorization, actually penalized their students and themselves where test scores were the standard of accomplishment.
Horace Mann's ideal of common schooling was put to death after WWII; students were sharply divided from one another in rigid class divisions justified by standardized testing. Separation into winners and losers became the ruling dynamic.
By 1973, schools were big business. In small towns and cities across the land schoolteaching was now a lucrative occupation - with short hours, long vacations, paid medical care, and safe pensions; administrators earned the equivalent of local doctors, lawyers, and judges.
Eccentricity in classrooms was steeply on the wane, persecuted wherever it survived. Tracking was the order of the day, students being steered into narrower and narrower classifications supposedly based on standardized test scores. Plentiful exceptions existed, however, in the highest classifications of "gifted and talented," to accommodate the children of parents who might otherwise have disrupted the smooth operation of the bureaucracy.
But even in these top classifications, the curriculum was profoundly diminished from standards of the past. What was asked of prosperous children in the 1970s would have been standard for children of coal miners and steel workers in the 1940s and 1950s. Many theories abound for why this was so, but only one rings true to me: From WWII onwards it is extremely easy to trace the spread of a general belief in the upper realms of management and academy that most of the population was incurably feeble-minded, permanently stuck at a mental level of twelve or under. Since efforts to change this were doomed to be futile, why undergo the expense of trying? Or to put a humane cast on the argument, which I once heard a junior high school principal expound at a public school board meeting: Why worry kids and parents with the stress of trying to do something they are biologically unable to achieve?
This was precisely the outlook Abraham Lincoln had ridiculed in 1859 (see Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life); precisely the outlook of Edward Thorndike, inventor of "educational psychology" at Columbia Teachers College; precisely the outlook of H. H. Goddard, chairman of the psychology department at Princeton; precisely the outlook of great private corporate foundations like Rockefeller and Carnegie; precisely the outlook of Charles Darwin and his first cousin, Francis Galton. You can find this point of view active in Plato, in John Calvin, in Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza, in Johann Fichte, and in so many other places it would take a long book to do justice to them.
As long as ordinary Americans like Ben Franklin's dad were in charge of educating their young, America escaped domination from the deadly assumptions of permanent inferiority - whether spiritual, intellectual, or biological - which provide the foundation for rigid social classes, by justifying them. As long as the crazy quilt of libertarian impulses found in the American bazaar prevailed, a period which takes us to the Civil War, America was a place of miracles for ordinary people through self-education. To a fractional degree it still is, thanks to tradition owing nothing to post-WWII government action; but only for those lucky enough to have families which dismiss the assumptions of forced schooling - and hence avoid damage by the weapons of mass instruction.
As the German Method, intended to convert independent Bartleby spirits into human resources, choked off easy escape routs, it wasn't only children who were hurt, but our national prospects. Our founding documents endowed common Americans with rights no government action could alienate, liberty foremost among them. The very label "school" makes a mockery of these rights. We are a worse nation for this radical betrayal visited upon us by generations of political managers masquerading as leaders. And we are a materially poorer nation, as well.
School's structure and algorithms constitute an engine like the little mill that ground salt in the famous fable - long ago it slipped away from anyone's conscious control. It is immune to reform. That's why it must be destroyed. But how?
We will start at the weakest link in the German school chain, the standardized tests which are despised by everyone, school personnel included. The recent past has given us two astonishing accomplishments of citizen action - no, make that three - which should lift your spirits as you prepare to ruin the testing empire - instances of impregnable social fortresses blown to pieces by disorganized, unbudgeted decisions of ordinary people. Call these examples "Bartleby Moments." Think of the ending of the Vietnam War, when young people filled the streets; think of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall; think of the swift dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The Bartleby Project
By the end of WWII, schooling had replaced education in the US, and shortly afterwards, standardized testing became the steel band holding the entire enterprise together. Test scores rather than accomplishment became the mark of excellence as early as 1960, and step by step the public was brought, through various forms of coercion including journalism, to believe that marks on a piece of paper were a fair and accurate proxy for human quality. As Alexander Solzhenitzyn, the Nobel Prize winning Russian author, said, in a Pravda article on September 18, 1988, entitled "How to Revitalize Russia:"
No road for the people [to recover from Communism] will ever be open unless the government completely gives up control over us or any aspect of our lives. It has led the country into an abyss and it does not know the way out.
Break the grip of official testing on students, parents and teachers, and we will have taken the logical first step in revitalizing education. But nobody should believe this step can be taken politically - too much money and power is involved to allow the necessary legislative action; the dynamics of our society tend toward the creation of public opinion, not any response to it. There is only one major exception to that rule: Taking to the streets. In the past half-century the US has witnessed successful citizen action many times: In the overthrow of the Jim Crow laws and attitudes; in the violent conclusion to the military action in Vietnam; in the dismissal of a sitting American president from office. In each of these instances the people led, and the government reluctantly followed. So it will be with standardized testing. The key to its elimination is buried inside a maddening short story published in 1853 by Herman Melville: "Bartleby the Scrivener."
I first encountered "Bartleby" as a senior at Uniontown High School, where I was unable to understand what it might possibly signify. As a freshman at Cornell I read it again, surrounded by friendly associates doing the same. None of us could figure out what the story meant to communicate, not even the class instructor.
Bartleby is a human photocopy machine in the days before electro-mechanical duplication, a low-paid, low-status position in law offices and businesses. One day, without warning or explanation, Bartleby begins to exercise free will - he decides which orders he will obey and which he will not. If not, he replies, "I would prefer not to." To an order to participate in a team-proofreading of a copy he's just made, he announces without dramatics, "I would prefer not to." To an order to pop around the corner to pick up mail at the post office, the same: "I would prefer not to." He offers no emotion, no enlargement on any refusal; he prefers not to explain himself. Otherwise, he works hard at copying.
That is, until one day he prefers not to do that, either. Ever again. Bartleby is done with copying. But not done with the office which employed him to copy! You see, without the boss' knowledge, he lives in the office, sleeping in it after others go home. He has no income sufficient for lodging. When asked to leave that office, and given what amounts to a generous severance pay for that age, he prefers not to leave - and not to take the severance. Eventually, Bartleby is taken to jail, where he prefers not to eat. In time, he sickens from starvation, and is buried in a pauper's grave.
The simple exercise of free will, without any hysterics, denunciations, or bombast, throws consternation into social machinery - free will contradicts the management principle. Refusing to allow yourself to be regarded as a "human resource" is more revolutionary than any revolution on record. After years of struggling with Bartleby, he finally taught me how to break the chains of German Method schooling. It took a half-century for me to understand the awesome instrument each of us has through free will to defeat Germanic schooling, and to destroy the adhesive which holds it together - standardized testing.
Signposts pointing our attention toward the Bartleby power within us are more common than we realize in the global imagination, as Joseph Campbell's splendid works on myth richly demonstrate (as do both Testaments of the Bible), but we needn't reach back very far to discover Thoreau's cornerstone essay on civil disobedience as a living spring in the American imagination, or Gandhi's spectacular defeat of the British Empire through "passive resistance" as bold evidence that as Graham Greene should have taught us by now, "they" would prefer to torture those who expect to be tortured.
Mass abstract testing, anonymously scored, is the torture centrifuge whirling away precious resources of time and money from productive use and routing it into the hands of testing magicians. It happens only because the tormented allow it. Here is the divide-and-conquer mechanism par excellence, the wizard-wand which establishes a bogus rank order among the schooled, inflicts prodigies of stress upon the unwary, causes suicides, family breakups, and grossly perverts the learning process - while producing no information of any genuine worth. Testing can't predict who will become the best surgeon, college professor, or taxicab driver; it predicts nothing which would impel any sane human being to enquire after these scores. Standardized testing is very good evidence our national leadership is bankrupt and has been so for a very long time. The two-party system has been unable to give us reliable leadership, its system of campaign finance almost guarantees we get managers, not leaders; I think Ralph Nader has correctly identified it as a single party with two heads - itself bankrupt.
I don't know what do do about that, but I do know how to bring the testing empire to an end, to rip out its heart and make its inventors, proponents, and practitioners into pariahs whose political allies will abandon them.
Let a group of young men and women, one fully aware that these tests add no value to individual lives or the social life of the majority, use the power of the internet to recruit other young people to refuse, quietly, to take these tests. No demonstrations, no mud-slinging, no adversarial politics - to simply write across the face of the tests placed in front of them, "I would prefer not to take this test." Let no hierarchy of anti-test management form; many should advise the project, but nobody should wrap themselves in the mantle of leadership. The best execution would not be uniform, but would take dozens of different shapes around the country. Like the congregational Church, there should be no attempt to organize national meetings, although national chatrooms, blogs, and mission-enhancing advisors of all political and philosophical stripes will be welcome. To the extent this project stays unorganized, it cannot help but succeed; to the extent "expert" leadership pre-empts it, it can be counted on to corrupt itself. Think Linux, not Microsoft. Everyone who signs on should get an equal credit, latecomers as well as pioneers. Unto this last should be the watchword.
I prefer not to. Let the statement be heard, at first erratically and then in an irresistible tide, in classrooms across the country. If only one in ten prefer not to, the press will scent an evergreen story and pick up the trail; the group preferring not to will grow like the snow ball anticipating the avalanche.
What of the ferocious campaign of intimidation which will be waged against the refuseniks? Retribution Trust me, think Alice in Wonderland; the opposition will be a house of cards, the retribution an illusion. Will the refusers be denied admission to colleges? Don't be naive. College is a business before it's anything else; already a business starving for customers.
The Bartleby Project begins by inviting 60,000,000 American students, one by one, to peacefully refuse to take standardized tests or to participate in any preparation for these tests; it asks them to act because adults chained to institutions and corporations are unable to; because these tests pervert education, are disgracefully inaccurate, impose brutal stresses without reason, and actively encourage a class system which is poisoning the future of the nation.
The Bartleby Project should allow no compromise. That will be the second line of defense for management, a standard trick taught in political science seminars. Don't fall for it. Reject compromise. No need to explain why. No need to shout. May the spirit of the scrivener put steel in your backbone. Just say:
I would prefer not to take your test.
An old man's prayers will be with you.
Copyright © 2008, John Taylor Gatto. This piece may be circulated without cost on the Internet, but only if used uncut and cost-free. The Bartleby Project is taken from Mr. Gatto's book, Weapons of Mass Instruction, New Society Publishers 2008.
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