The Hall of Mirrors
|“Nearly all work in our society has been centralized. To pull this transformation off, children in bulk had to be taught to think of their futures in terms of jobs, instead ofindependent livelihoods. Parents had to be taught to accept lifelong subordination as a freedom from burdensome responsibility, and to turn their children over to anonymous agents of the political state as a further freedom from responsibility. No wonder our nation is so profoundly childish.”|
A New World Order
By 1910, signs abounded that a massive project was underway to change the nature of America from a place of independent livelihoods and self-reliant, argumentative people into an administrative utopia, one inspired by Prussian Germany, by Edward Bellamy’s prophetic utopia Looking Backwards and by Frederick W. Taylor, inventor of “time and motion studies” and the slip-on loafer.
According to philosopher John Dewey, America was being converted by its most powerful people into a centrally managed village. In this new world order, the marketplace of ideas would be monopolized by corporations and institutions – individuals and local interests were now quaint and irrelevant. Dewey thought this an advance in civilization and, in any case, irreversible. He called this transformation, “the new individualism” with not a trace of irony. School training must adapt.
More than a hundred years have passed since Dewey put the bell on this cat. By 2000, common people were frozen out of policy debates, treated as functions if considered at all, and public opinion, so-called, was almost never spontaneous, but most often manufactured.
Get Your Filthy Fingers Off My Brain
The colonization of one’s private inner life by strangers is so inherently pornographic an undertaking that no monarch or nation historically was ever able to compel its entire people to accept it for long – not, that is, until Prussia succeeded during the second decade of the nineteenth century, justifying its system of universal schooling by force by citing national necessity and the highly negative opinions of ordinary people held by philosophers from Plato to Spinoza.
As the nineteenth century crossed its midpoint, even Science came to agree. Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) spoke of “favored” and “ dis-favored” races, and in his Descent of Man (1871), he pronounced the majority of humankind biologically inferior, without hope of improvement, and a clear and deadly menace to advanced evolutionary stock. Protective barriers were required to preserve racial purity.
Horace Mann’s own writings partially overlap Darwin’s and hint at darker aspects of the school project. Merle Curti, the historian, tells us in Social Ideas of American Educators that Mann sold compulsion schooling to his wealthy backers as “the best police” they could buy, a much different message than ordinary householders heard. Mann’s biographer, Jonathan Messerli, remarks than Mann once jotted a revealing note to himself while watching a workingman’s parade in Boston during the early 1840s. The note read: “We must find a way to break the bonds of association among the working classes.”
His high praise of Prussian schooling, which he claimed eye-witness experience with, played an important part in bringing the compulsion system to Massachusetts, but the claim of first-hand knowledge was a lie. Nor was it Mann’s only lie. Forced schooling turned out from the first to be a breeding ground for crime and public outrage, not the “best police” as promised.
As a philosophical notion, mass child indoctrination by force keeps popping up through history, yet as I told you before, nobody could make it work. But the groundwork for profound change in school fortunes was laid during the British takeover of India in the late eighteenth century. During that time, the secrets of institutional school management were disclosed through examination of eight constituents employed by the Hindu aristocracy to manage its common population through a voluntary form of mass schooling. The eight secrets looked like this:
1) In place of skills training, rote memory drills.
2) In place of exercise to develop independent judgment, habit and attitude training.
3) Strict limits on student questioning.
4) Strict limits on student-to-student association.
5) Silent testing of material previously assigned for memorization, followed by publicly announced rankings of student test results. This done regularly.
6) Denial of student rights to initiate curriculum based on personal interests.
7) Long-term confinement in conditions of near-immobility and enforced silence, extended over a term of years.
8) Removal of students from familiar surroundings, routines, and people; placement under direction of strangers who discourage attempts to build personal student-teacher relationships.
This recipe was written down by a British military chaplain, Alexander Bell, who published a version of it in London in 1797 as the methodology in use by Hindu elites to manage their huge population. He thought such a discipline might prove useful to Britain’s own class-driven social order. Seldom has a single short essay had such lasting influence on world history. In a short time, Bell’s words were being read in governing circles across the world.
Lancaster Versus the Anglicans
Upon reading Bell, a twenty-year-old Quaker, Joseph Lancaster, took his suggestions to heart and began training a thousand poor children to read – virtually all by himself – in an alley next to his London home. The Hindu method allowed a single teacher to instruct a great many pupils by dividing the total group into student-led teams. The leaders were known as “monitors,” and the world was to learn of this fashion in teaching as “the monitorial method.”
Except for the breathtaking student-teacher ratio, it was a fairly
close cousin to the system at work in one-room schools in North America.
But that vast scale difference, and its mind-deadening formula, by extending the gulf between student subjects and authority in the form of official teachers, made mental colonization almost a certainty.
As Hindus employed it, the monitorial system created reliable subordinates, psychologically and behaviorally conditioned to remain subordinate. Argumentation was non-existent. The active literacies of persuasive speech and writing were rigorously avoided. Napoleon’s ideal that every common soldier should be able to think like a field marshal was antithetical to the purposes of monitorial schooling.
Youthful Mr. Lancaster knew nothing of these ulterior motives; driven by desire to do good while winning fame and fortune, he concentrated on the pure mechanics of reading well, rather than memorization; he personalized training as much as circumstances allowed. Because he did these things, his rapidly spreading system threatened for a time to upset the applecart of state-sponsored mass training, which always aims at ordering society through an elaborate scheme of divide-and-conquer subordinations.
Something had to be done, and the official state church of Britain did it. In response to Lancaster’s do-goodism, the Anglicans opened a competing chain of Hindu schools – schools which aimed to indoctrinate, not educate, just like the Hindu originals. Their prestige drove Lancaster’s rough-edged competition from the field, to the point where he fled to America in 1818. There, under the patronage of powerful men like DeWitt Clinton, he opened Lancaster schools in virtually every large city east of the Mississippi.
But under the stewardship of pragmatic entrepreneurs who were of necessity heavily influenced by local elites, American monitorials regressed to the mean very quickly. They adopted the original Hindu control design because that pleased local families of substance much more than the alternative – actually teaching common children to acquire formidable skills.
|“Nobody with an ounce of commonsense asks for, or makes use of, test scores when hiring. You don’t ask your barber, your grass cutter, or your babysitter, doctor, or architect for their own test numbers because on some level you know the data is worthless, however many tens of billions of dollars it took to produce.”|
One important by-product of the Lancaster phenomenon was that it offered practical evidence that mass indoctrination of the young through school schemes could work. The first nation to follow this promising trail to its end was the military state of Prussia. By 1820, Prussia had an institutionalized, universal forced schooling system up and running. Its purpose: to render the young into “human resources,” useful to important interests. Powers of expression were suppressed through schooling, information needed to think in contexts was denied, the time and associations of common children were closely controlled, and the young were forced daily to compete with one another for status and dignity.
This was the system which Horace Mann asked America to imitate.
School as a Civil Religion
And imitate it we did, although not with the same zeal for another half-century. Whig movers and shakers like Mann and his influential Unitarian backers, were able to impose their will on only two states – Massachusetts and New York in the 1850s. To that short list, however, a fatal third jurisdiction must be added: the national government center, Washington, D.C., the District of Columbia. Washington was the straw which broke the camel’s back.
It is certain the school institution we finally got would look much different were it not for Washington offering “incentives” behind the scenes to convince individual state decision-makers to play ball. It’s fairly easy to demonstrate that centralized compulsion schooling was never part of the democratic American Dream (or, for that matter, its republican counterpart). Not a word to that end appears in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration, or in any of the nation-building debates.
Jefferson had heard of a movement to do this in Europe, a movement which drew its inspiration from Spinoza’s Tractatus Religico-Politicus of l690, which denounced ordinary people as murderously irrational and sought to establish forced schooling in order to replace faith-based religion, which he despised. But Jefferson rejected this idea to bamboozle common men and women as “a mere civil religion,” – precisely the expression Spinoza had employed.
Nor was there popular clamor for institutional schooling after the Revolution. It took a full sixty-five years before the first two states fell, and another sixty-five before the last one did.
You’ve heard a few of the philosophical rationales to defend what happened, but now it’s time to hear some hard-nosed economic ones. The most obvious one is easy to understand: This novel institution offered a rich new field of personal opportunity. As one of the largest hiring agencies in history – and one which could bestow lucrative contracts – it was a quietly spectacular economic engine from the start, a jobs project with no civilian parallel.
And school performed subtler services as well. By offering a break from motherhood, it allowed millions of women to be drawn into the labor pool – an immense windfall for management because it cut the value of a labor unit in half. In conjunction with a new requirement for state-issued pedagogical licenses, it created a wholly new sub-industry called “teacher- training,” and in many other ways, feathered collegiate nests.
From the outset, this economic aspect of institutional schooling became the tail that wagged the dog. It guaranteed that school training of the young would be forever political. Nobody who benefits materially from politicized education, whether left, right, or center, would be crazy enough to allow schools to be de-politicized. The tidal flow of money through school corridors – in good times and in bad – is in the last analysis much more important than philosophy as an ultimate determinant of school affairs.
Other economic reasons to push forced schooling exist, but they are remote from general understanding. By a sort of gentleman’s agreement, they aren’t discussed in places where the public is likely to be listening. For example, institutional schooling provides a partial remedy for two deadly diseases corporate capitalism is prone to contract: overproduction and hyperdemocracy.
I’ll take overproduction first. The history of North America is one in which families and individuals were taught to produce for themselves to the greatest extent possible: to produce food, shelter, clothing, medical care, entertainment, education, and more.
But under corporatized governance and economy, self-sufficiency, and personal enterprise frustrate the will of companies and agencies to provide for the whole population. It’s a tribute to the power of mass schooling to misdirect attention that this clear truth isn’t recognized by everyone. If schools taught us to connect the dots instead of memorizing them, it would be. Independent minds are toxic to our social order and no qualities are so poisonous to corporate health as self-reliance and active imagination.
To understand this you need to see that imagination is a necessary prerequisite for personal production – a condition which entrepreneurial societies must encourage. Yet, when too many imaginative individuals produce for the market – and are allowed to do so – excessive amounts of goods and services become available. Prices collapse, banks take a beating, and the lifeblood of high-stakes capitalism – concentrating investment capital – becomes difficult because profits have been put at risk.
As bizarre as it sounds, under corporate capitalism and governance, ways must be found to make the general public less productive, less self-reliant. The great financial panics of the nineteenth century grew on the soil of overproduction, and the disruption of Asian economies in the 1990s, a century and more later, stemmed from overproduction, too, as Japanese banks, seeking to enlarge their own profits, stimulated too much production.
Policy leaders have been privy to this daunting secret for centuries. Early on, they erected defenses against overproduction: licensing laws, subsidies to favored producers, sweetheart contracts, and so on.
Sabotaging Democracy For Cause
A second disease menacing corporate capitalism was dubbed “hyperdemocracy” by the Trilateral Commission in 1975. In our hall of mirrors society, a crisis occurs every time the collective will of the public seeks to contradict the official will of the political state.
You need only remember the consternation in official circles when street demonstrations by the young led to a premature end of American military involvement in Vietnam. You need only revisit the disgust in federal circles when a reckless outsider, Ross Perot, attempted a political takeover of government through the ballot box. And nearly succeeded in doing that in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Should a hyperdemocratic revolution ever come to pass, countless comfortable arrangements would be profoundly disturbed. The new managers would be unpredictable, owing no loyalty to the old order. But the dangers of hyperdemocracy only become real in an environment when large numbers of ordinary people like one another well enough, and trust one another well enough, to be able to cooperate in a collective expression of public will.
Now suppose, for the sake of argument, you wanted to prevent such trust from ever forming? How would you go about doing that? Remember, cooperation had been the norm in America’s one-room school period – they couldn’t work without it.
But what if an institution could be fashioned where continuous high-stakes competitions could be imposed on the confined, and where some participants would be publicly honored by the results, some would be labeled “mediocre,” and some would be humiliated? What if Thomas Hobbes’ war of all against all was deliberately reenacted in classrooms daily, with full approval of school authorities? Wouldn’t the involuntary competitors eventually become incapable of productive cooperation?
|“As the twenty-first century begins its second decade, mass schooling is much as it was in 1910, at least for the poor and the ordinary. It is test- driven, bell-driven, pedagogue- dominated, and thoroughly dumbed down.”|
And what if you physically divided the young from one another: by age, by social class, by neighborhood, by endless segregations into groups of winners and losers? Wouldn’t all these do the trick of discouraging a cooperative outlook, thus side-stepping the prospect of hyperdemocracy?
Does this sound crazy to you? Would it sound so crazy if you fervently believed what Charles Darwin wrote in Descent of Man (1871), that ordinary people were evolutionarily retarded and posed a threat to the “favored races” as he called them. Suppose you believed such things – as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller did? If you were a responsible civic leader, wouldn’t you move mountains to insure protection for the best against the worst? Could institutional schooling be that protection?
Winning As Everything
School conditions its subjects so thoroughly in games of winning and losing that the deeper purpose of learning something becomes peripheral. Winning is the point of the enterprise, not gaining enlightenment, not developing skill, not gaining insight.
But winning in absence of any narrative context besides the prospect of personal advantage over the people around you is a trivial, ultimately meaningless achievement, like taking snuff in order to sneeze. What’s that about? Under a regimen sorting boys and girls into winners and losers, what you win never stays won; your victories must be repeated over and over until you wear out and another winner takes your place. Nor does it take into account that winners at school tests are very frequently losers at life.
Saying these things isn’t intended to dismiss all forms of competition. Indeed, one form of competition is an essential part of a good life: competition against yourself. When you learn to love competing against yourself, you learn to refuse your own mediocrity at the same time. Your victories are permanent and progressive.
But attempting to win against faceless others inevitably leads to gaming the system – a moral disease, which in time destroys your soul. Why should students of winning follow Warren Buffet’s hard road to wealth when Bernie Madoff’s is so much easier? Why strive to emulate Babe Ruth when Barry Bonds chemical success is more reliable? The classroom version of performance-enhancing drugs – cheating and sucking up to the instructor – teaches you nothing. Just so, competing for grades and praise forecloses long-lasting life-altering rewards, which only learning for its own sake can bestow.
Competition was selected by the canniest Prussian school designers to divide the young against one another. Divided people are easiest to manage. Caesar’s Gallic Wars was once a standard secondary school textbook which illustrated this principle, but although well-written and very interesting to teenagers, and still a staple of elite private schooling, it has vanished from public schools.
As A Vampire Fears Garlic, The Marketplace Fears Wisdom
Well-schooled populations are usually trained to pay lip-service to democracy at the same time they are being conditioned to avoid the attitudes and behaviors it requires. It’s a dilemma without an easy answer because, while our national consciousness honors the idea of democratic society, our national economy and government would wither and die under anything less than a command and control reality.
Would you teach critical judgment and moral behavior to all? How could an economy grounded in the global sale of war machinery, industrially produced meat, fruit, and vegetables, financial trickery, and the mass sale of cradle to grave schooling peddled as education endure in a climate of critical intelligence and morality?
When I was growing up during WWII in a coal-mining town near Pittsburgh, the general ability to debate abstract concepts such as overproduction, hyperdemocracy, and divide and conquer politics was much more widespread among ordinary people than it is today.
A vivid memory I carry from sixty-five years ago is of the band of ragamuffin poor kids I ran with huddling near the open doors of the town saloon so we could overhear conversations of miners and mill workers drinking at the bar. Their discussions, sometimes shouting matches, were richly laced with ideas in conflict. Just as they were on the bocce courts at the Italian Club, or in the bowling alley where I set pins for a dime a game.
That might fall as hyperbole on modern ears, so your first assignment is to read E.P. Thompson’s classic account of working class men and women in nineteenth century Britain passionately striving for a life of the mind, and for the tools necessary to express ideas. An appetite, I should add, which the better classes took vigorous steps to shut down. The book is entitled The Making of the English Working Class (Vintage, 1966).
Remember those ten-year-old boys building racing yachts and cutting new entrances for their homes? I never did those things, but I did make several soapbox racers from similar plans in 1945. And a rubber-band driven P-51 Mustang that could fly four city blocks at respectable altitudes. Every ten-year-old I knew did things like that in working-class Monongahela, Pennsylvania before modern pedagogical principles were applied to its schools.
At Xavier Academy, the Jesuit boarding school where I was sequestered for a year in 1943/1944, we learned fundamental algebra in third grade, studied dialectic in fourth. Then, returning to public school, I read Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, John Milton, and Shakespeare in a common seventh grade class, and had an option in ninth to read the Latin writers in Latin.
Today, all that stuff, including the building projects, would be looked upon a child abuse — but no working class kid I knew would have agreed. It was so exciting to grow a powerful mind that nobody had to browbeat us much to do it.
If this sounds too radical for you to swallow, I prescribe two autobiographies to cure your skepticism: the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill and the Autobiography of Norbert Weiner. Weiner is regarded as the grandfather of the computer revolution and Mill, I hope, needs no introduction. At birth, their fathers deliberately set out to make their sons geniuses – without benefit of school instruction. Both succeeded. Precise details and blueprints are in the books.
The ancient Chinese Imperial strategy known as “The Policy of Keeping the People Dumb” was adopted by Hindu India and Prussia, and from there spread far and wide, eventually reaching North America. In 1922, the then nationally famous New York City mayor John Hylan said in a speech that the schools of his city had been seized “as an octopus would seize its prey.” The schools were wrapped in the “tentacles” of an invisible creature acting through the great private foundations of Carnegie and Rockefeller.
|"The fact that Google and Twitter and Microsoft and Apple and Dell and Oracle are the products of college dropouts or never-registereds, as well as CNN, Avis Rent A Car, Whole Foods Markets, Ikea, and all the fast food and entertainment empires, is an anomaly politicians and pedagogues would rather not discuss."|
You could still say things like that in 1922 but, by the end of WWII, nobody who worried about a career would dare say a word seriously critical of the powers who manage institutional schooling. Dumping on politicians and school administrators was always allowed – they were, after all, only flunkies, front men in the school game – but woe betide any reckless traitor who invited the public behind the scenery to see how the school illusion was being manufactured.
Subjects, Not Skills
Early schooling in colonial America aimed at creating desirable skills like concentration, imagination, cooperation, good manners, the potent active literacies of persuasive speaking and writing. The descendant form, however, stressed memorizing detached bits of information said to be necessary to learn abstract categories of intellect called “subjects.” What subjects were actually for, few teachers ever even tried to explain. Subjects are what schools “teach,” not skills.
Notice that skills-training can only be evaluated by requiring performance demonstrations, but subject-training demands passive tests of memory. Whether these memories can be applied to something useful in a utilitarian sense is never an issue that matters to schools.
Nobody with an ounce of commonsense asks for, or makes use of, test scores when hiring. You don’t ask your barber, your grass cutter, or your babysitter, doctor, or architect for their own test numbers because, on some level, you know the data is worthless, however many tens of billions of dollars it took to produce.
The Great Dis-connector
As the twenty-first century begins its second decade, mass schooling is much as it was in 1910, at least for the poor and the ordinary. It is test-driven, bell-driven, pedagogue-dominated, and thoroughly dumbed down. The terms “pedagogue/pedagogy” are labels borrowed from the ancient Mediterranean world where they designated a specialized form of slave and slavery respectively. Do you find these survivals curious? Do you think they endure by accident?
School is the great dis-connector. It disconnects children from the working community where a variety of styles and techniques are constantly on display for study; it disconnects them from family relationships and valuable neighborhood associations, disconnects them from one another, and distances them from their own inner lives.
America’s first national commissioner of schooling, William Torrey Harris, wrote in his Philosophy of Education, published in 1906, that school must give training in “selfalienation,” a task best undertaken in “dark, airless corridors,” in preference to cheerful surroundings.
Everything You Know Is Wrong
Standardized schooling by force isn’t even remotely about education; it’s about the same things here — political and economic and philosophical things — that it was about in ancient China, Hindu India, and Prussia. The Germanized version of the instrument focuses on converting individuals into a mass population for ease of management. When we had an entrepreneurial culture, personal sovereignty was an absolute blessing, but in our corporate culture it’s only a curse. The corporate logic demands that the young be rendered radically incomplete, to the end of converting them into human resources…converting them into means, rather than seeing them as ends in themselves.
Nearly all work in our society has been centralized. To pull this transformation off, children in bulk had to be taught to think of their futures in terms of jobs, instead of independent livelihoods. Parents had to be taught to accept lifelong subordination as a freedom from burdensome responsibility, and to turn their children over to anonymous agents of the political state as a further freedom from responsibility. No wonder our nation is so profoundly childish
Deschooling and the New Society
Challenging Assumptions in Education
The Curriculum of Play
A Letter to My Granddaughter
Personal Solutions, Family Solutions
The new American economy built by Astor, Vanderbilt, Harriman, Carnegie, and Rockefeller drenched America with pro-school propaganda. These men bought every newspaper and journal of importance to assist in colonizing the public mind. In short order, they convinced the public that seat-time in school was equivalent to education. But their own lives showed no commitment to school confinement at all; as young people, some of the principal names behind the scenes preferred factory work for themselves rather than school confinement. Today, we are witnessing another expansion of the school empire and an energetic propaganda campaign designed to impose universal college schooling on the population.
The fact that Google and Twitter and Microsoft and Apple and Dell and Oracle are the products of college dropouts or never-registereds, as well as CNN, Avis Rent A Car, Whole Foods Markets, Ikea, and all the fast food and entertainment empires, is an anomaly politicians and pedagogues would rather not discuss.
There is another anomaly: All the top performing nations in international math and science competitions send their kids to school for far fewer hours than we do. In Singapore – often the best nation in math – they attend for a full 247 hours less. The same is true of Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Finland, and others. An inconvenient truth concealed by attending more days, but for many less hours.
“I Would Prefer Not To”
What a long century of forced schooling has done in a positive sense for all of us is to expose the myth of expertise and the myth of hierarchy as co-residents in our hall of mirrors. “A” students do not do better at life than “c” students like George Bush, John Kerry, or Al Gore, not unless the game is rigged. Your life is not ruined if school pronounces you “hopeless” or “dyslexic” as it did Thomas Edison or Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, who became a bicycle peddler of fish when he dropped out. The “C” averages of FDR and JFK didn’t hurt their prospects.
To reform this business demands that it be rigorously de-professionalized, its cozy guild system scrapped. Standardized schooling cannot meet the challenges of our time. Promising solutions lie in the direction of hyperdemocracy and the Internet; away from professional expertise and toward the wisdom of the bazaar, not the cathedral.
We need a revolt without guns. Polite individual refusals should be our shield, not pointless further negotiations with the flunkies paid to protect the status quo. The short declarative: “I would prefer not to” should be our battle-standard. You might recognize Herman Melville’s inspirational refusal, as he put it in the mouth of his immortal office drudge, Bartleby, the Scrivener.
If they have to attend school, kids can write across the face of standardized tests, “I would prefer not to take this test.” No curses or defiant explanations, just that.
Make well-mannered refusings your common practice:
“I would prefer not to ask permission to use the toilet.”
“I would prefer not to memorize textbook explanations of historically alleged truths as if they actually were truths at all.”
“I would prefer not to attend school.”
The only way out of this suffocating trap we find ourselves in – a trap maintained by forced, standardized, institutional schooling – is by throwing sand into the gears of the machine – just as the colonists sabotaged the mighty British Empire, by the death of a thousand cuts.
Let us break the glass in our hall of mirrors and dispose of it once
and for all, shard by shard, before it cuts us up.
© John Taylor Gatto. John Taylor Gatto was New York State Teacher of the Year prior to resigning from teaching because he didn’t want to do any more harm to children. He is the author of the best-selling Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, The Underground History of American Education and Weapons of Mass Instruction.