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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Book Review: The Underground History of American Education



Just finished Gatto's Underground History of American Education. At 400 8.5" x 11" pages, there is a lot of stuff packed into this book, so much that I think that doing the "60 Second Review" treatment wouldn't be sufficient to capture its essence. Even with the expanded review format, I fear that it will be quite a job to accurately summarize what Gatto has said, and will probably fail. Despite this, I'll give it a go.

With this book, Gatto attempts to illuminate the political and social framework that led to the establishment of forced compulsory schooling. According to Gatto, and the sources that he cites, including such industrial luminaries such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford, the interests of industrialists combined with the elitist theories of social Darwinism to implement a system of compulsory schooling at the turn of the previous century. Many of the early pioneers of compulsory schooling borrowed largely from the schooling system of what was arguably the leading philosophical culture of the time, Germany, which itself had seized upon the successes of Spartan and Indian Hindu educational models. Using these models, German elites shaped the recently unified German diaspora into a coherent economic and scientific and philosophical powerhouse. It was this success that led American thinkers to bring the Prussian model of schooling to America, and with it a re-imposition of the pernicious class system thrown off by Americans a scant 100 years earlier.

Gatto makes clear many times in his book that the purpose of compulsory schooling was not to educate; it was to ensure the stability of the social order by turning out stupified, compliant, dependent masses to labor in Taylorized factories and by selecting a few of the masses to watch over them. Thus, in keeping with social Darwininsm, those that rose to the top in public school were prepared to enter the workforce in administrative positions in the government bureaucracy and in the professions. They would serve the elites by guarding and looking after the masses who aren't viewed as being capable of looking after themselves. Also in keeping with social Darwinism, the true elites weren't schooled at all in the new system; rather, they were educated in private or parochial academies where classical, liberal education--that is, one designed to "liberate the judgement from prejudice and ignorance"--still occurred. Gatto provides examples of just how pervasive this notion was among the elites of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the notion that only the elites should be properly educated, with the remainder consigned to low-wattage menial tasks. Even Woodrow Wilson is quoted as being in enthusiastic support.

I was surprised to learn from Gatto's text what the word "pedagogue" meant. Etymologically, it refers to a specialized class of slave that walked a student to school. But the word was more euphemism than an accurate description; in actuality, the pedagogue was more like a sadistic drill instructor from old war movies: the master instructed, the pedagogue literally pounded it in by beating the student until he learned his lessons. Today, the word is used to refer to the science of modern schooling, but the same form of instruction still prevails: an unseen master prescribes the course of instruction, the teacher or administrator beats the lesson into the hapless student by the tools that are available to them. These days, we have gone beyond beatings, but maim our children in other ways with such Skinnerian tools such as embarrassment, ridicule, manipulation, the ranking of children, and creating psychological dependency.

It was also interesting to observe just how much compulsory schooling resembles an assembly-line style factory in Gatto's characterization. Indeed, schools are meant to turn out "products", the manufacturing process by which student widgets are produced is informed by metrics, namely testing, which determines the "track" that the student shall be placed in, whether or not they'll be recycled a grade, or if they'll be permitted to continue on in the school manufacturing process into college. Quality control is also implemented by standardized testing. Moreover, the teacher's job has been Taylorized--he only teaches his subject for a limited time, after which the students move on to the next station, regardless of whether or not they have comprehended the lesson. However, education cannot be had through the hierarchical organization that is a school factory, it takes a community (a real community, with family and friends, not HRC's nanny-state wet dream of a 'village') to properly train up a child in the way they should go...by the child's observation of adults in action, not by the passive absorption of information dispensed by a government agent.

In addition, Gatto spends some time discussing his time working within the PS bureaucracy. From his description, and from my own readings about bureaucracy, namely James Wilson's definitive text on the subject, the purpose of a bureaucracy is to defend itself and acquire more power and influence (which explains the dire predictions of calamity from PS officials if this-or-that school levy is not passed come polling time). Only after that is secure will it then attempt to perform its function, whatever that function is. Thus the public school bureaucracy enforces loyalty to the system first, to the students second, and those folks idealistic enough to think that the system is supposed to educate students will find themselves both surprised and unemployed. He also discusses the wasteful inefficiency of the PS hierarchy, how the proliferation of non-value-added non-teaching administrators and supervisors doubles, even triples the cost of educating a student. If there were ever a bureaucracy that cried out to be privatized, the schooling bureaucracy is it.

Another one of Gatto's theses is that compulsory schooling has utterly destroyed participatory democracy in our country and has fostered rule by a modern version of the Spartan ephors, a small elite who made all the real decisions despite democratic institutions like a presidency and a legislature. By instilling dependency and stupidity in future citizens, by foisting ignorance of serious literature, philosophy, rhetoric, any reasonable historical narrative (replaced by social studies and a litany of unconnected 'facts'), by undermining the family, by convincing students that their peers are both cruel and in dire need of close management, forced schooling has set the notion in most Americans' minds that the society cannot exist without a large State to keep the troublemakers in line and the idiots from hurting themselves. Individual independence is traded to the State for security, for keeping one safe from everyone else; even other parents are regarded with suspicion viz their children since they are were at one time the cruel classmate that tormented another student in school. The state then grows and grows on all this additional power, to the point that the State is larger now than it ever has been in America's history, and is increasingly flexing its parens patriae muscles where children are concerned in place of parents.

Gatto ties compulsory schooling to the extension of adolescence among children; where children were once near adults at the age of 15, adulthood now extends well into the twenties and sometimes beyond. Gatto ties this to the ever-enlarging school day and school year, which blots out time that would otherwise be used to acquire useful knowledge for independent livelihoods outside of the industrial machine. He claims that this was done at the bidding of both labor unions and industry; for the former, in their effort to hike wages, and for the latter, in order to create the sort of mental subordination necessary to work at a 'job' for a 'boss' and be grateful for their paycheck. He also cites the need for the industrialists to prevent "overproduction" by independent operators, which would upset the price schedules in their marketplaces. However, this overproduction was just shifted from one arena to another; now instead of an overabundance of goods, there is an overproduction of schooled people, who are increasingly finding that they cannot obtain lucrative work to pay off their very expensive degrees.

I found Gatto's book to be extremely informative and even more evidence that forced compulsory schooling is more than just plain bad economics--it's bad for people in general as well as being strongly corrosive to the cause of liberty. While I don't quite square with him in his disgust for Frederick Taylor and his management reforms that enabled huge gains in productivity over the last 150 years, I do agree that industrialization has dehumanized people and it's high time to get that humanity back. Which is why Gatto is correct to celebrate the advent of computers and other forms of IT; this technology renders confining children in prisons with other same-age children obsolete for purposes of education. IT, if it were to become and remain fully free, has the potential to re-democratize education and effect the decentralization of action exemplified by Albert in his seminal "Power to the Edge" work. Furthermore, if we as Americans are going to regain control of government, in terms of spending and government's infringements on liberties, we would do well with starting with a schooling system that inherited its parens patriae philosophy from King Louis the XIV.

In short, this book will totally change your outlook on American compulsory education. As a survivor of the public school system, I was already predisposed against compulsory schooling anyway. This book provided meat for my strong yet unarticulated sense of disdain for the prison of modern schooling. I heartily recommend obtaining a copy.

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