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The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling

by John Taylor Gatto
The Oxford Village Press
Oxford, NY 2000/2001

Reviewed by David Harrison

“BIANCA, YOU ANIMAL, SHUT UP!” screamed an assistant principal at a six-year-old girl in front of a school assembly.

This quote from The Underground History of American Education is the visceral linchpin around which Mr. Gatto’s impressive narrative revolves, as he unfolds for us the complex development of what we now call “school.”

While History may appear to be the author’s focus, it is the fate of Bianca - and millions of compulsorily schooled children like her - that most concerns the author. He despises what he calls the “psychopathic” violence inflicted upon children by schools in this country. “Process kids like sardines,” he warns, “and don’t be surprised if they come out oily and dead.”

Don’t be fooled or discouraged by such bluntness. There is beauty, subtlety, complexity, and wisdom here, too. As you read through the introduction and start to absorb the gist of the author’s ideas, you quickly discover you are in the hands of a compassionate and skilled teacher. Mr. Gatto asks you to care. He warns you that it will not be easy. He freely states his biases and intentions. He asks you to trust him, to listen carefully, and then to draw your own conclusions.

I regret that this review can only briefly cover the many fascinating and important insights contained in what is one of the most frightening and revealing books I have ever read. As the title suggests, its main purpose is to reveal the little known details of the historical development of modern schooling.

Along the way, Mr. Gatto makes it increasingly clear that school’s primary goal is not the education of our children. The author builds his argument for this seemingly counter-intuitive claim with an incredible array of research that documents the interlocking development of big business and forced schooling. He painstakingly points out how the captains of industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - when the basic structures of the education system were being set down - influenced, guided, funded, and at times forced compulsory schooling into the mainstream of American society. Perhaps you’ll recognize their names: Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, to mention just a few.

Mr. Gatto argues that these emerging corporate titans knew they needed three things in order for their interests to thrive: 1) compliant employees; 2) a guaranteed and dependent population; and 3) a predictable business environment encompassed by a rigid, caste-like social hierarchy of haves and have-nots. It is toward these ends - and not education - that modern compulsory schooling was unleashed.

Mr. Gatto states that America at the time of the birth of modern schooling, however, was a place antithetical to the stated goals of big business. Business was largely conducted by individuals, on a small-scale, within the context of thriving villages or neighborhoods. Proprietors, employees, and customers shared their lives and fates, at least to some extent, with one another. There was no room for (nor inclination towards) the kind of manipulation and control imbedded in the intentions of big business outlined above.

The author places a strong emphasis in this equation on the individual, on the entrepreneur in control of himself and his livelihood. This is an important part of Mr. Gatto’s argument for why and how compulsory schooling was inflicted upon our society. By way of example, Mr. Gatto details the lives of archetypal Americans like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Edison, who were independent, free-thinking leaders, none of whom spent more than two years in any kind of school, and yet all were leading productive, fulfilled lives by the time they were in their teens. Mr. Gatto argues that big business knew that the development of these kinds of individuals needed to be hindered. They were too unpredictable and insufficiently pliable.

What better way to accomplish this shadowy goal than by removing children from the steadying influences of their families, and placing them instead in the hands of schools, where they could be easily molded into the kinds of people upon whom big business depended. Just in case parents were unwilling to comply, the powers that be committed school attendance into law.

The phenomenon we now call school did not unfold in a vacuum, however, or as neatly as described above. There were many other social and ideological influences that fed and accelerated the process of mandatory state schooling. For example, enforced government schooling represented the solution to another emerging impediment to the formation of a corporate consumer economy - the arrival of waves of immigrants who likewise needed to be cured of their unpredictable natures and homogenized into American life.

In addition, popular ideologies of the time such as Social Darwinism and the race-based science of eugenics were busy claiming that certain people were inherently better than others, thus providing an intellectual underpinning for the intervention into the lives of everyone. Such an intrusion like forced schooling could be justified because it was believed that the best should wield power over the rest, and lead the the caste-bound masses to happiness under the enlightened and benevolent guidance of the elite.

In unwinding the complex intricacies of issues such as these, Mr. Gatto shows us the gift of his unique intellect. He is adept throughout at making complex, well-argued connections, all the while warning against indulging in conspiracy thinking. Instead he shows us with a forceful diplomacy and unbending fairness that the founders of forced schooling were operating on false assumptions and incorrect theories of humanity and society. These social falsehoods by which we still live, knowingly or not, need to be exposed rationally and attacked head-on, tactics that would only be undermined by the resignation-tinged claims of conspiracy.

No review of this book would be complete without paying tribute to the ways in which we get to know Mr. Gatto through our reading. He tells us the wonderful success stories of some of his students, revealing how easily, with a little help and compassion, young people can overcome the worst circumstances. He also details the horrible ways he was persecuted for his creativity and ingenuity by the schools in which he taught. Finally, in one of the most touching sections, called “A Personal Interlude,” Mr. Gatto relives his childhood with us. Here the author’s storyline and characters are worthy of a first-rate novel, the writing at times bordering on poetry.

All of this reinforces the authenticity and integrity of Mr. Gatto. He is a living example of what he desires for all of our children. He asks only that they be given the opportunity to live and think freely, to grow organically and unhindered, and to thrive as powerful and eclectic examples of insight, knowledge, creativity, and fulfillment - goals that our modern government schools are actively working against and making increasingly less attainable.

In closing, Mr. Gatto leaves us with simple and practical options for weakening the hold schools have on our lives. First, he insists that we refuse to accept the idea of school reform - no amount of tinkering will get us out of this mess. Charter schools, higher standards, rigorous demands on teachers, and smaller class size are all diversions aimed at keeping us from striking at the real heart of the problem. In the end, he argues, the notion of school itself must be challenged.

Second, he urges us to “break the hold of fear” and resist the assumption that school is a necessary component in our lives. It isn’t. You can simply elect not to send your kids to school and join million of other American families that are practicing education at home. Or you can seek out one of the many truly alternative schools that are now in existence.

Thus Mr. Gatto arms us with the knowledge and the confidence to fight back. He shows us how, by staying close to their families, by having the freedom to find their own proficiency and purpose through meaningful play, honest interactions, and self-chosen activities, our children can develop the power to discover for themselves all that they could ever possibly need in order to lead happy, successful lives.

JFL

Published in the November 23, 2001 issue of Journal for Living
Copyright © 2001 Journal for Living.



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