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Don’t Worry About College:
A Letter
To My Granddaughter
B
y John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto letter to grandaughter about collegeDear Kristina;

You’ll be 17 in five months and that’s an age where unsolicited advice is as welcome as zits, so apologies for adding to the chatter. I heard you were on your way to Dartmouth College for an interview and suddenly realized that time is short before the world accepts you as a full-grown woman. You and I know that happened long ago but, in the blink of an eye, you’ll be “legal” as the expression goes.

The reason for this letter is to register a different point of view on the exquisite stress your elite high school, Bronx Science, puts on your shoulders in regard to college. I want to loan you a mantra to use when confusion rears its ugly head about the right thing to do:

College is nothing to worry about. Whether you take a college degree or not is only decisive for those unfortunate brainwashed people who’ve allowed themselves to be conditioned to think that.

There’s a flood of information contradicting that position and because I know that Bronx Science will do its best to keep that knowledge from you, I’m taking pen in hand – even though I’d rather watch the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In the decades since Sputnik – about five if I calculate correctly – college has been transformed into a kind of genteel racket, a place where young people like yourself go to memorize what to think, not how, and to have a pretty good time before the prison sentence of working for a corporation begins for most of us. That indictment goes double for those elite colleges where tenured professors spend four or five hours a week in class.

About a decade after WWII ended, college was transformed deliberately into something utilitarian, almost as if it were following the plan set down by Francis Bacon in his 17th century utopia The New Atlantis. “Deliberately” implies a deliberating mind and that mind was found in the project offices of a dozen or so great corporate foundations, led by the foundations of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

College is nothing to worry about. Whether you take a college degree or not is only decisive for those unfortunate brainwashed people who’ve allowed themselves to be conditioned to think that.

It was the realization of a spectacular management concept, a concept of total comprehensive social control, one that had thrilled important people since Solomon, but remained out of reach. The goals of this concept in action were, simplified a bit: 1) To create an army of specialists who would be licensed by the political state and its managers for service to the political state and its managers, not to the nation as ordinary citizens conceived it and 2) To instill a useful degree of surveillance, predictability and ordered subordination in the common population. Please don’t think of this as conspiratorial, but as a necessary precondition for the advent of an industrial/commercial utopia driven by an ideal of mechanical efficiency.

This utopia needed predictability so that people would buy whatever they were told to buy. This would ensure an efficient use of capital. It needed surveillance to weed out deviants who would resist the discipline of systems. And it needed orderly subordination so the common population would be self-regulating for the most part, thinking what they were directed to think and behaving as they were directed to behave. In a nutshell, accomplishing these purposes was the mandate of institutional schooling; that’s why it had to be made compulsory – otherwise this social organ, transplanted from the realms of managerial philosophy, would have been rejected by the body politic. If you want to pursue this further, a good place to start is my cover essay in Harper’s magazine of a few years back, “Against School.” Universal schooling was meant to create social efficiency – as a beehive or an anthill is socially efficient.

All of this is right on the surface of the primary writings of the original school architects, in America and elsewhere – assuming you take the trouble to read (and almost nobody does). When you do, all the seeming contradictions and stupidities cease to be a mystery. It’s actually a great triumph of the human imagination, even if something of a tragedy for individual lives.

Thomas Jefferson saw clearly that a compulsory school scheme, as proposed by the Dutch philosopher Spinoza, wasn’t intended to educate at all, but just the reverse, to remove the possibility of education from ordinary lives. Horace Mann told the wealthy he recruited as backers of the scheme that, if it could be brought to life, it would provide “the best police” for their interests.

Elsewhere I’ve written extensively about the great school legend (see my book The Underground History of American Education) but in this sermon for you, dear Kristina, I’ll focus exclusively on the college legend. Legends are wonderful in their ability to fix on certain lessons but they create dangers, too; by foreclosing independent thought, they make clear thinking impossible. Official legends are the worst because, far from being some natural expression of a culture’s values, they constitute deliberate attempts to recruit the innocent into a program of social engineering, into someone else’s agenda. The college legend is a part of this scheme.

In the intellectually numbed environment of Bronx Science and other special high schools, students hear again and again that a degree from a special college is such a powerful advantage in later life that the quarter-million dollar cost is fully justified…if you are one of the lucky ones who can afford it.

Skip over the morality of this contention. As a statement of fact, it’s a masterpiece of fabrication – scientifically speaking on par with the medieval theory of four humors. If it appears true, it’s a tribute to ceaseless propaganda because the employment game has been heavily rigged to make it seem so and because critics of the enchantment are marginalized as screwballs.

Don’t blame yourself for swallowing the bait. It would take a miracle for anyone as privileged as you have been to see the bars of the prison that holds you.

Heavily controlled societies (such as our own has become since the end of WWII) use myths and illusions just as Plato and many other social thinkers like Spinoza have long advised – to colonize the minds of the unwary. One of the principal functions of elite schools like your own is to encourage free expression of thought among young people highly susceptible to being suspicious of authority, in order to subvert dissension through the judicious application of carrots and sticks. You’d want to read Walter Lippman’s early books and those of Freud’s nephew Edward L. Bernays to find out how this is done from those who approved of doing it. Whatever damage Bronx Science may already have done to your sovereign spirit, the pernicious effect will be intensified if you approach college with your wits clouded by illusion.

Don’t blame yourself for swallowing the bait. It would take a miracle for anyone as privileged as you have been to see the bars of the prison that holds you.

I don’t mean an insult by saying that and I don’t mean to indulge an urge to romantic rhetoric, but whatever complacency you’ve acquired needs to be shocked a little. Repeat: A degree from a highly ranked school hardly matters at all in the real world; it only matters to people who believe the lie…and genuinely worthwhile people can’t afford to waste much time on lies. Those who believe lies implicitly are trapped by them and often suffer severely by having their enterprises fall apart because they were built on unreal expectations.

Once freed of this magical conditioning, however, anything is possible for you. The first evidence I have to offer comes from an unexpected quarter: the record of the famous imposters of recent times. Think of great imposter Ferdinand Demara who won the Navy’s highest honor, the Navy Cross, for successful surgery aboard a warship in heavy weather under combat conditions during the Korean War. Demara was the ship’s doctor. His officer’s commission and his medical degree were both phony but his surgery saved a life.

If somebody told you it was possible to pilot a huge modern aircraft with some precision with only rudimentary training, you might be skeptical, but then there’s the deconstruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 to show how you’ve been misled.

And here’s a story worth looking up on the Internet. Only a few years ago the legendary financial house of Baring’s was brought down by the imaginative fraud of an absolute rookie at the money game, a young fellow who charmed and hoodwinked the experienced policymakers on top of the management chain with records of spectacular profits he had made for the firm – all invented. He got around all the safeguards put in place by experts – without an MBA from Harvard or the London School of Economics. It’s reminiscent of related frauds on the part of executives at Enron, the nation’s seventh largest corporation, which resulted in the termination of its corporate existence.

The explanation for apparently unlikely happenings like these seems pretty obvious to me: The way you are taught that things happen is often not the way they happen at all. Intense self-teaching, strongly self-motivated, can open the locked vaults at Barings, collapse tall buildings and master medical secrets without any help from Harvard. As you’ll learn up ahead, you can build a private moon rocket and sell seats on it for huge amounts of money without even a high school diploma. In a while I’ll get to that.

I’m not maintaining that you can’t teach something. You can condition others to mechanical behaviors, you can prearrange by force or trickery their habits and attitudes. But in doing so you will have stolen an important piece from their lives – personal sovereignty. For example, it’s possible in only a few hours of directed habit-drills to show somebody how to take a combat rifle apart and to put it back together again, blindfolded. But creative work and critical thought, which produces new knowledge, can’t be conditioned; indeed, conditioning prevents these things from ever happening.

With rare exceptions, the connection between college training for most work and excellence in achievement isn’t proven in any acceptable way.

The October 8, 2007 issue of the New Yorker magazine has a long account of Kara Walker, a 37-year-old black woman’s rise to importance in the international art world, a career she only began to pursue 13 years ago at age 24. The account opens in a dimly lit Moroccan restaurant in Paris, France, with the artist’s nine-year-old daughter Octavia concentrating so intently on sketching her mother being interviewed that the writer of the piece is impressed with the little girl’s ability to set aside every distraction.

Octavia has serious aspirations to a career in fashion, not aspirations to earn an A+ or a pat on the back, but hard-edge ones. She is currently in Paris to help her mother set up a major retrospective of mother’s impolite, racially-charged work. In all this, Octavia is pressed into service to assist, to help fully as an adult would. In one of Walker’s short films shown at the exhibition a slave girl is being pursued by a white man as Octavia is heard to chant, “I wish I were white,” and “Maybe all of this will dream away and I will disappear.”

The most fascinating detail in the New Yorker article for me isn’t the artistic vision or the specifics of Kara Walker’s rise to fame and fortune. It’s the relationship of mother, daughter and aspects of significance, which allow me to see behind the scrim of artificially extended childhood into a different possibility for the human beings we call children – one in which children are fully encouraged not to be children at all, but people.

The article in question ends with Ms. Walker remembering an event that took place when Octavia was four and that seems to mark something important for her, for Octavia and for all of us, I think. It happened as Octavia was watching her mother being honored by a group of admirers. After putting up with this for a time, the four-year-old said to her mother in exasperation: “Kara Walker, Kara Walker. When is it going to be my turn?”

Oh, dear Kristina, that’s the trouble with all kinds of abstract schooling, even the best kinds, which you hope to encounter at elite colleges, whether that’s true or not: It keeps delaying your turn. And for most of us our turn is delayed so long that we end up never actually getting a turn at all. We spend the balance of our lives helping strangers take their turn, for a salary. Then we try to convince ourselves that a good job and a house in the suburbs is compensation for that. Well, it isn’t.

I wouldn’t be so raw and brutal in describing college’s questionable relationship with competency except that affording all the lives of leisure that institution offers robs many of financial security, wastes time at a critical stage of life and, by wasting so much time, wastes opportunity to find a worthwhile path, opportunity which may never return.

With rare exceptions, the connection between college training for most work and excellence in achievement isn’t proven in any acceptable way. Switzerland, a very wealthy society, has never relied on college training to continue its prosperity. The way college is urged in America – through assertion and bombast, not proof – has a name in logic. It’s called “begging the question.” Ignorant people and bullies beg the question; charlatans beg the question; decent people scorn the instrument.

Consider the revolution that instantly would be caused if students – from kindergarten to graduate school – were encouraged to frequently ask the question “Why are we doing this?” As a school teacher for 30 years, I held myself to the standard of always being able to field such a question, even though it was hardly ever asked. I urged my classes to ask it of me and of all their teachers. Politely, of course. But I told them if I couldn’t answer to anyone’s satisfaction that person had permission to study something of their own choosing, in a place of their own choice. And I would help them do it.

School affairs have reached the critical condition they are in at present because they preach a commitment to developing each student’s personal best. But they don’t make good on the promise. School is a liar’s world at present and an army of young people, growing every day, knows that.

Don’t think I am asking you to avoid college or to drop out when and if you get there; I’m asking you to search for the truth, to think for yourself and to avoid situations where independent thought isn’t welcome.

The rhetoric is too thin to sustain this institution. Hypotheses which actually fit the facts are so cynical they make you sick at heart. Here’s just one:

Suppose that instead of personal development, a major aspect of forced schooling is the creation of a huge jobs project, the biggest jobs project on earth. Whether these jobs produce work that needs doing is beside the point; only the busyness really matters because it keeps the mob occupied. One way to reach this end is through the creation of huge bureaucracies of boards and presidents, deans and assistant deans, public relations offices, sports establishments, degrees of professorship, journals, food service personnel and all the rest.

To pull this off, you’d need to convince people that learning only occurs efficiently in institutional settings laddered intricately from early childhood to early middle age. And that’s just nonsense.

You’re allowed to talk about these things in bull sessions, but if knowledge such as this enters the public presentation of yourself in any serious way, you mark yourself to be scorned and marginalized. At schools like Bronx Science, a dossier is built on your behavior and your attitudes; it constitutes a track record which enables knowledgeable managers to almost literally read your mind by reading past performance.

In these days of the Internet, what I’ve been saying ought to be self-evident. Institutional schooling isn’t necessary, including institutional college training. Wake up. Stay awake. Although most institutional employees mean well, the trouble is built into the institutional DNA, the genetic code of bureaucracy. It’s beyond the reach of minor authorities. Classrooms are teacher-proofed, partly by the use of standardized testing, partly by the assignment of textbooks instead of real books, partly by degrading routines.

You can’t start real education by fitting individual people into categorical boxes, but only through a powerful commitment to one-of-a-kind people like Octavia Walker – who was really speaking for all four-year-olds when she demanded to know when it will be her turn.

You’ll be skeptical about that so I urge you to get a copy of Richard Branson’s autobiography. He’s the founder of Virgin Atlantic Airlines, one of the 50 wealthiest men on earth and, as promised earlier, the builder of a private rocket ship for which he just sold the last seat, I believe, on a voyage to the moon, for $200,000, even though it isn’t yet built.

When Branson was four, just like Olivia, his mom drove him miles from home, let him out of the car, told him to find his way back on his own and drove off. He did. That was the making of him, he reports in his autobiography. He was given his turn and he pulled it off. Nothing would ever daunt him again. Later, he dropped out of high school, never went to college and had his first successful business at age 19. This is how you get private moon rockets built, by giving future builders a turn at four, not by frightening them into conformity by tales of the horrible lives which await the un-degreed.

Every year, Forbes magazine prints a list of the 400 richest Americans. The 2007 list identifies five of the top ten as college or high school dropouts. And none of them ever went back. Plenty of the remaining 390 are dropouts, too, a list that includes Steven Spielberg of Star Wars fame, who dropped out of Cal State Long Beach (not Harvard); Barry Diller, who founded Fox Broadcasting after dropping out of UCLA (not Yale); Ted Turner, a dropout who founded CNN; and all the many dropouts who gave the U.S. its computer dominance, including Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Mike Dell and Larry Ellison.

Don’t think I am asking you to avoid college or to drop out when and if you get there; I’m asking you to search for the truth, to think for yourself and to avoid situations where independent thought isn’t welcome.

I personally attended two Ivy League colleges: Cornell for two years and Columbia for the balance, from which I took a degree. I can’t remember a single class at either institution. To be honest, what I remember vividly are the non-stop parties, the promiscuous sex, the cult of alcohol worship, the can-do attitude toward narcotic drugs. I remember poker for very high stakes once a week in the Law School lounge and endless bull sessions around the topic of scheming for material advantage – how to game the system. That’s what my hard-working, middle class parents – your great grandparents – paid with their sweat and anxiety to buy for their son. It was fool’s gold. Worthless.

According to Alan Kreuger, a Princeton economist, and Stacy Dale of the Andrew Mellon Foundation, students who enter elite colleges, when evaluated 20 years after graduation, produce fascinating numbers for income and status when compared to a control group of students who were accepted at the same elite colleges but chose not to attend and took their degrees from lesser places. There isn’t any statistically significant difference between the groups!

My own education was self-administered after I woke up one day in my middle 30s to realize how ignorant I really was with my two college degrees and plenty of post degree study.

Try to connect the dots. If money and status are your goals for attending college, only fools would choose the famous places and pay a fortune for their services. And if wisdom is your goal, I hope you don’t think it enters the equation in the Ivy League or at places like Stanford and similar. Indeed, you’ll be lucky to survive as a decent human being after you fall into the culture of Dartmouth or wherever.

Now let me push this further. The numbers tell me that elite colleges don’t add value to their undergraduates. In a weird inversion of expectation, it’s the selection procedure which sifts out the young who’ve already produced a record of distinction for admission (and I don’t mean distinction taking tests at all, but distinctive accomplishments in the real world) who make the trick work. The students bring the value to the colleges with them; it isn’t added after they arrive. The elite colleges just claim credit for what they had no hand in bringing about.

How decisive is an elite college diploma? Well, you could ask your mother who has an expensive one from MIT, but why not use your own good judgment instead of believing the legends which circulate at Bronx Science and similar places (which are themselves legends).

You can make a lot of money betting smart alecks whether graduates of elite schools like Georgetown, Berkeley and Dartmouth have higher medical school aptitude test scores than those earned by graduates of Ohio Wesleyan, Muhlenberg and Carleton because – you guessed it – the second group of colleges wins! According to a recent University of Connecticut study of 16,000 college students measured first as entering freshmen and then as graduating seniors, Dartmouth is among 16 colleges studied where the seniors know less in five important academic areas than they did as freshmen. Ignore this at your own peril.

Naturally, your high school Bronx Science hasn’t told you any of this. The folks there probably don’t know it themselves. Why should they want to know the extent to which the distinctions they revere are an illusion? That isn’t evil, just ordinary human nature. I’ll bet they didn’t tell you either than the CEO of Wal-Mart is a graduate of tiny Pittsburgh State College in Kansas. Or that the founder of the Wal-Mart colossus didn’t go to college at all.

It isn’t fair that people your age are compelled to trust people my age on faith to tell them the truth about things when what you need to understand is how much it profits us to spin the plates before your eyes and hypnotize you. Try to learn this instantly for self-protection (I learned it myself from reading Thomas Jefferson): Experts are almost always hired guns; they make a living working for managers who always have an axe to grind. That’s why the classical Greeks had so much contempt for specialists. They figured anyone so unbalanced as to become a specialist displays very bad judgment.

For experts, the pursuit of truth always takes a back seat to that most special interest of them all – self-interest. That doesn’t mean experts don’t know anything or don’t tell the truth from time to time, it just means that you can never count on that; you must always follow the advice: Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

More Articles
by John Taylor Gatto

The Hall of Mirrors

What Really Matters

Deschooling and a New Society

Genuinely elite education is always grounded in dialectics and rhetoric, both vital tools to prevent the colonization of your mind by authorities far more sophisticated than yourself. Learn to think dialectically about everything except love and affection and loyalty to your family through thick and thin.

Do this and you’ll have a fighting chance to be free and sovereign. I know they don’t teach you that at Bronx Science and, to be fair: How could you school anybody efficiently who had skill with dialectics and understood the rules of presentation?

I’ve lectured in every American state and in a dozen other countries. This year I spoke in a half dozen Australian cities, did two talks and a workshop in Budapest and delivered the keynote speech in Seoul, Korea for its national education convention. In all those places, my hosts thought I must have had a pretty good education. And they are right. But if they thought the colleges I spent years inside had anything to do with that, they were wrong.

My own education was self-administered after I woke up one day in my middle 30s to realize how ignorant I really was with my two college degrees and plenty of post degree study. My ignorance frightened me. So for the past 35 years I’ve been on a personal quest, which continues to this day, to undo what school training did to me.

I will admit that famous colleges do one thing to perfection. They teach how to remain composed in spite of how you might really feel inside, how to keep a stiff upper lip. In other words, they teach how to think your feelings. Learning to fake composure is a trait the power club demands, so if you intend to play that game you need to learn it. But don’t be a jerk; it’s easy to learn for yourself without buying it – like most things.

John Taylor Gatto

© John Taylor Gatto. Gatto is the author of a number of books about homeschooling and the problems with school, including Dumbing Us Down, The Exhausted School, A Different Kind of Teacher, and The Underground History of American Education. Formerly a three-time New York City Teacher of the Year and New York State Teacher of the Year, he “dropped out” of teaching in 1991 via an article in the Wall Street Journal, claiming he was no longer willing to hurt children. He has been writing and talking about unschooling and homeschooling ever since.

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