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Home Education Magazine

March-April 2002 - Articles and Columns

The Success of Public Education - David Albert

A Tribute to John Taylor Gatto on the Publication of the 10th Anniversary Edition of Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (New Society Publishers, 2002)

As its editor and former publisher, I would have liked to flatter myself into believing that John Taylor Gatto's book Dumbing Us Down was both his first book and his most popular. Unfortunately, and by a long stretch, neither turns out to be true. That will come as a surprise to many, who are most familiar with Dumbing Us Down in its earlier green-and-black cover incarnation, or with John's two more recent books The Underground History of American Education (that's the big, fat one) or A Different Kind of Teacher (a blue hardcover).

John's first work was a set of Monarch Notes. Some of you may remember these from high school, a way to get by in English class without doing the required reading! At any rate, Gatto's first book was first published in 1975, a Monarch Notes guide to the late Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

John related to me once, after affixing his signature on my copy -- with handwriting only a hair more legible than my own (we must both have had Mr. Lewis in the 6th grade and still not recovered from the experience) that the Monarch Notes guide, still in print after 26 years, has actually sold hundreds of thousands of copies, making it by far his most widely read work. But all John ever got out of it was a Burmese cat. If you ever get the opportunity to attend one of his talks, make sure to ask him about it.

Anyway, this Monarch Notes guide - the only book of Gatto's likely to be read by students undergoing their slow death in what passes for "educational institutions" these days - is an incendiary work. And not only because of its black-and-red cover.

Kesey's magnificent novel, as well as the excellent movie featuring a young Jack Nicholson (not recommended until you've read the book!), is the story of a rebel - one Randall Patrick McMurphy -- who finds himself (or rather finds a way to get himself) inside a state psychiatric institution in the 1960s. Once within, he discovers himself bound by a web of rules, procedures, and protocols - really, kid gloves -- behind which stands an iron fist of violence and repression, all designed of course for "the patient's own good." In scene after scene, McMurphy probes against the boundaries of the forces that stand behind the institution - "the Combine" -- which comes to be symbolized by "The Big Nurse" who controls the ward, and ultimately holds the fate of each of the patients in her hands. Let me not ruin the book for you. I suggest you go out and read it, alongside your teenager if you have one, or, if you've read it once before, read it again, with new eyes.

Kesey's novel takes place against a backdrop of relentless institutional conditioning. While meetings on the ward may seem to be democratically organized -- and while inmates - no, here they are called "patients - are urged toward accountability - one quickly realizes that there is no democracy at work in the asylum, and that accountability is a sham. Inmates are tracked, without their consent, into well-demarcated groups as acutes and chronics - and further subdivided into walkers, wheelers, and vegetables (we all do remember Bluebirds and Robins from first grade, don't we?) The highest value to the Combine is neither democracy nor accountability, but compliance, pure and simple, and its favorite strategem is divide and conquer. And if that doesn't work, there are always drugs. Hmm.

I doubt that a set of Monarch Notes has ever been heaped with literary praise before, but Gatto's are much deserving. His description of the Keseyan institutional world contained in this incendiary set of crib notes, (he even quotes Che Guevara - "Educate your enemy, don't kill him, for he is worth more to you alive than dead"), is as compelling as the novel itself. He describes the Combine that controls this little world as "an all-powerful, earth-girdling, brain-destroying association of technocrats...intent on building a world of precision, efficiency, and tidiness...a place where the schedule is unbreakable." "In such a world," writes John, "there is neither grief nor happiness; nobody dies - they only burn out and are recycled; actually, it is a rather safe place, everything is planned - there are neither risks nor surprises." Gatto continues that within this little world, "Words and meaningless routines insulate people from life itself, blind them to what is happening around them, and deaden the moral faculties." The defense to this charge, ironic of course as John notes, is that the Big Nurse delivers charity baskets to the poor. Pivotal to Kesey's novel, according to Gatto, "is the cataclysmic revelation that the inmates of the asylum are not committed but are there of their own free will." And the way they are controlled, ultimately, is through guilt, shame, fear, and belittlement. Double hmmm.

And now, Gatto, in telescoping the next 25 years of his own career, tells us the way out. "The way out of the asylum," he writes, "is literally to throw out the control panel, on a physical level smashing the reinforced windows, on a symbolic spiritual level becoming independent of rules, orders, and other people's urgencies." "Self-reliance," concludes John, "is the antidote to institutional stupidity."

We should all express our gratitude that John took his own advice, and beginning with Dumbing Us Down, has undertaken to tell us what life is really about 'on the inside', as if, in our heart of hearts, we didn't already know. Like Chief Bromden - the supposedly deaf-and-dumb Indian in the novel who finally finds his own voice - he managed to steal away.

Well, perhaps that's not the best possible description, for John has made rather a big splash! And I have been privileged to have helped the resultant wave along.

* * * * *

When I first read what was to become Dumbing Us Down in manuscript back in late 1989, it provided an almost unique answer to a conundrum I had not been able to figure out for myself. My older daughter was two at the time - long before my own book And the Skylark Sings with Me was even a glint in my eye. I was beginning to read up on education writers, both those who occupied the deep left end of the pond (that's where to this day you'll usually find me) and those who swam in a "less sinister" direction.

What was most striking to me at the time, and remains so to this day, was how much they both occupy the same pond. Their descriptions of the world of public education closely parallel each other, even if they view underlying causes differently. They all emphasize what seem to them to be the obvious deficiencies of public education. More often than not, though with different points of emphasis, they note the boredom, the mindless competition, enforced social and economic stratification, the lack of real engagement - academic or otherwise, the brutality and violence, the "soul-less-ness" that characterizes what passes for education these days. From Alfie Kohn (liberal) to Thomas Sowell (conservative), they wax poetic about the shortcomings of modern schooling, though their antidotes are often worlds apart. And all my friends had stories they could remember as inmates - oh, sorry, I meant "students" -- of being shamed, embarrassed, harassed, brutalized, drugged, inflicted with boredom, or just plain ignored - and they remembered these experiences far more vividly than anything they were ever ostensibly taught.

And yet the idea that schools are failing didn't make any sense to me. After all, the schools are run by highly paid and educated public servants, hired by local elected school boards - my neighbors, staffed by people prepared in our graduate schools of education where they were, in turn, taught by faculty trained at our elite private universities such as Yale or the University of Chicago. Teachers are honored, school administrators with salaries well in excess of $100,000 receive merit-pay raises, the school boards continue to get elected, the electorate continues to vote to give the schools more money, the graduate schools of education get bigger. If these are failing institutions, they sure have a funny way of showing it!

John provided, and continues to provide the key to understanding this conundrum. Central to this understanding is the fact that schools are not failing. On the contrary, they are spectacularly successful in doing precisely what they are intended to do, and what they have been intended to do since their inception. The system, perfected at places like the University of Chicago, Columbia Teachers College, Carnegie-Mellon, and Harvard, and funded by the captains of industry, was explicitly set up to ensure a docile, malleable workforce to meet the growing, changing demands of corporate capitalism -- "to meet the new demands of the 20th century," they would have said back then. The Combine (whoops, slipped again!) ensures a workforce that will not rebel (the greatest fear at the turn of the 20th century), and that will be physically, intellectually, and emotionally dependent upon corporate institutions for their incomes, self-esteem, and stimulation, and will learn to find social meaning in their lives solely in the production and consumption of material goods. We all grew up in these institutions and we know they work. They haven't changed much since the 1890s because they don't need to - they perform precisely as they are intended.

What do the captains of industry really care about? That public education be public. In other words, that we (and not they) pay for it. Corporate institutions have unloaded their basic training needs on to us, and we voluntarily pay to forge the chains of our own servitude.

So far, so good. But the obvious question that follows from this is, if educational institutions are so demonstrably successful, why are we always hearing about their failures? And here John might have provided the answer, for in his aborted career before becoming a New York City schoolteacher, with Monarch Notes a decade away and this edition of Dumbing Us Down almost four, Gatto was an advertising copyrighter, "a young fellow," (he writes in "The Green Monongahela"), "with a knack for writing thirty-second television commercials." The copywriter knows that to sell a product or service, one must create the perception of need, and the palpable feeling that this need can only be filled exclusively through the purchase of the product or service being sold. The simplistic notion that "our schools are failing" easily translates into a limitless demand for more resources for the institution and its supports -- for books, for teachers, for computers, for real estate (and hence book publishers, graduate schools of education, computer manufacturers, and real estate developers) -- and for more time -- more pre-school, more homework, longer school years, the end of recess, and semi- (and soon fully) compulsory summer schools. And to the copywriter's delight, it is a zero-sum game. Not only is there an endless stream of consumers with little or no institutional memory and absolutely insatiable demand, but the truth is that no matter how much is expended in the educational marketplace, 50% of the schools will remain "below average", with those branded as poor performers changing from year to year, and those above the mid-point fearing, above all, that they will fall into the abyss. And the copywriter has done his job for, it is universally believed, the only response to a fall into sub-mediocrity is to buy one's way out.

This strategem is extraordinarily elegant but so transparent that it always ran the risk of being seen for the confidence game that, at bottom, it is, except that it gets translated down to individual children. In other words, the Combine preys upon our maternal and paternal instincts. And so the latest iteration of "education reform" (the fifth such set of reforms in my brief lifespan) comes with new (actually old) testing strategies where it can be ensured that large majorities of children will regularly "fail", either in comparison with each other, with those in another school, or with children living in the much more productive economies of Tunisia or Slovenia. The "answer" to those deficits, and the perpetual dissatisfaction they engender, is simply more of the same, rather like 'the hair of the dog that bit you'.

The reforms are never completed. To do would require admitting failure, or worse, that the failure is not failure at all, only a continuing round in the socialized enforcement of intellectual and emotional dependency, of which John writes so eloquently. In the meantime, it is like requiring our children to live in buildings that are never finished, and never to be, and being forced to breathe in the noxious fumes and dirt and dust from the never-ending construction.

Our children deserve the opportunity to come up for a breath of fresh air.

* * * * *

Fresh air is going to be difficult to find.

Dan Greenberg, founder of the Sudbury Valley School -- a successful, 30-year-old learning community based on the principles of self-initiated learning and democratic self-government ( has written that leading educators, business leaders, and government officials share a virtually unanimous agreement regarding the essential features of an education that would meet the needs of society in the 21st century. He sees consensus on seven points:

? As society rapidly changes, individuals will have to be able to function comfortably in a world that is always in flux. Knowledge will continue to increase at a dizzying rate. This means that a content-based curriculum, with a set body of information to be imparted to students, is entirely inappropriate as a means of preparing children for their adult roles.

? People will be faced with greater individual responsibility to direct their own lives. Children must grow up in an environment that stresses self-motivation and self assessment. Schools that focus on external motivating factors, such as rewards and punishments for meeting goals set by others, are denying children the tools they need most to survive.

? The ability to communicate with others, to share experiences, collaborate, and exchange information is critical. Conversation, the ultimate means of communication, must be a central part of a sound education.

? As the world moves toward universal recognition of individual rights within a democratic society, people must be empowered to participate as equal partners in whatever enterprise in which they are engaged. Students (and teachers) require full participation in running educational institutions, including the right to radically change them when needed.

? Technology now makes it possible for individuals to learn whatever they wish, whenever they wish, and in the manner they wish. Students should be empowered with both the technology and the responsibility for their own learning and educational timetable.

? Children have an immense capacity for concentration and hard work when they are passionate about what they are doing, and the skills they acquire in any area of interest are readily transferable to other fields. Schools must thus become far more tolerant of individual variation, and far more reliant on self-initiated activities.

Gatto shares Greenberg's vision of what education should be like (and is supportive of all ventures that would bring it to fruition, even for the few), but having spent the better part of three decades in the trenches, he has a far more realistic, if darker, view of the purposes to which education is put. He views school (as he writes in the The Underground History of American Education) "as a conflict pitting the needs of social machinery against those of the human spirit, a war of mechanisms against flesh and blood that only require a human architect to get launched."

Let's put it plainly: in Gatto's view, the Combine needs dumb adults, and so it ensures the supply by making the kids dumb. Seen from this perspective, it is clear that Dan Greenberg is wrong. While there is always a need for a highly circumscribed number of technocrats to replace themselves, the Combine has only limited use for hundreds of millions of self-reliant, critical thinking individuals who engage in conversation, and who determine their own needs as individuals and communities free of the Combine's enticements and commands. And when such individuals exist, the Combine fears them. It may occasionally pay lip-service to their value, but it ultimately has no real use for artists, dancers, poets, self-sufficient farmers, tree lovers, devoted followers of what it views as non-materialist cults -- Christian or otherwise, handicraft workers, makers of their own beer, or, for that matter, stay-at-home moms and dads, all of whom, when they endure at all, do so at the margins and on the periphery of the social economy. What the Combine needs, most of all, is Wal-Mart clerks and burger flippers, and dedicated but low-paid government-employed "foreign service officers", proud of their titles as teachers, who prevent the restless natives from rebelling while the extraction of resources and capital, human and otherwise, continues unabated. And, in the final analysis, while it employs the most extraordinary of spin-doctors and apologists, the Combine makes no compromises and takes no prisoners, not until it has colonized every nerve ending - every inch, every habit of mind - as much as it has swarmed over every square centimeter of this good earth.

But the strategy doesn't work entirely. For every McMurphy who has had his brain fried, there is the possibility of a Chief Bromden who escapes. There are weeds growing in the cracks in the highway that will not be stamped out. We are here - the weeds -- you, I, Dan Greenberg, and the author of our incendiary book. There are now a million homeschoolers, and there will soon be another million homeschool alumni. And with us, maybe, just maybe, and unlike any of the other abortive alternative school movements of the past century, will come the power -- with enough weeds grown up into tall trees -- to block the highway as the Combine with engines blazing moves down our path.

John implies through his writing, his life, and his witness, that he does not believe individual solutions are likely to be the answer to larger societal-wide problems - they may not by themselves destroy the Combine. But he has also demonstrated, and the new 10th Anniversary Edition of Dumbing Us Down celebrates, that we can only stand to gain by protecting and enlarging those meager zones of freedom for ourselves to inhabit - to widen the cracks in the pavement -- and to begin to recapture that common energy, creativity, and imagination with which we are endowed by Great Nature as children, and which holds out the promise of better times to come.

2002 David H. Albert


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