Jewish World Review Sept. 2, 2003 / 5 Elul, 5763
Ex-teacher lambastes our schools
John Taylor Gatto doesn't give easy multiple-choice tests.
In "Against School: How Public School Cripples Our Kids, and Why," his piece in the September Harper's, the former New York State Teacher of the Year asks tough essay questions about our system of public schooling that few parents ever have time to ask.
Big, important questions like "Do we really need school?" And "What exactly is the purpose of our public schools?"
Gatto, who grew up in the Washington County river town of Monongahela and is the author of "The Underground History of American Education," has spent the past decade subverting the philosophical underpinnings of the education industrial complex and encouraging parents to home-school, start charter schools and seek alternatives to public schooling.
As he reminds us in Harper's, too few people realize that our current system of compulsory public schooling is a copy of the one set up in the 1820s by the rulers of the fun-loving state of Prussia.
Prussia's system, he says, was "deliberately designed to produce mediocre students, to hamstring the inner life, to deny students appreciable leadership skills, and to ensure docile and incomplete citizens -- all in order to make the populace 'manageable.'"
The elites who set up our modern, industrialized system of education in the early 1900s wanted it to have the same social "benefits" on America's swelling immigrant masses, says Gatto, using damning quotes from textbooks from the likes of Harvard guru Alexander Inglis.
Referring to Inglis' 1918 thriller, "Principles of Secondary Education," Gatto catalogs what he says was "the actual purpose" of modern schooling.
According to Inglis, Gatto says, it includes teaching obedience and conformity, determining a student's social status, dumbing down the general populace, nurturing an elite group of future leaders-caretakers and creating "not only a harmless electorate and a servile labor force but also a virtual herd of mindless consumers."
Mr. Inglis was no lone crank, Gatto says. Many other elite social engineers, from Horace Mann to Andrew Carnegie, were on the same team and shared what Gatto would call the same diabolical playbook.
Gatto offers hope and a few tricks to those who understand him and want to save their kids from being ruined by "the logic behind modern schooling."
For instance, he says, "School trains children to be employees and consumers," so "teach your own to be leaders and adventurers." And "School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently."
Based on a long life and 30 years' teaching in New York City's best and worst public schools, Gatto thinks kids can accomplish almost anything if given the chance, and he believes "genius is common as dirt."
As a society, he says, we "suppress our genius only because we haven't yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women." But the solution to that "problem," he says, "is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves."
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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald