Do you think class size, teacher compensation, and school revenue have much to do with education quality? If so, the conclusion is inescapable that we are living in a golden age. From 1955 to 1991 the U.S. pupil/teacher ratio dropped 40 percent, the average salary of teachers rose 50 percent (in real terms) and the annual expense per pupil, inflation adjusted, soared 350 percent. What other hypothesis, then, might fit the strange data I’m about to present?
Forget the 10 percent drop in SAT and Achievement Test scores the press beats to death with regularity; how do you explain the 37 percent decline since 1972 in students who score above 600 on the SAT? This is an absolute decline, not a relative one. It is not affected by an increase in unsuitable minds taking the test or by an increase in the numbers. The absolute body count of smart students is down drastically with a test not more difficult than yesterday’s but considerably less so.
What should be made of a 50 percent decline among the most rarefied group of test-takers, those who score above 750? In 1972, there were 2,817 American students who reached this pinnacle; only 1,438 did in 1994—when kids took a much easier test. Can a 50 percent decline occur in twenty-two years without signaling that some massive leveling in the public school mind is underway?1
In a real sense where your own child is concerned you might best forget scores on these tests entirely as a reliable measure of what they purport to assess. I wouldn’t deny that mass movements in these scores in one direction or another indicate something is going on, and since the correlation between success in schooling and success on these tests is close, then significant score shifts are certainly measuring changes in understanding. This is a difficult matter for anyone to sort out, since many desirable occupational categories (and desirable university seats even before that) are reserved for those who score well. The resultant linkage of adult income with test scores then creates the illusion these tests are separating cream from milk, but the results are rigged in advance by foreclosing opportunity to those screened out by the test! In a humble illustration, if you only let students with high scores on the language component of the SATs cut hair, eventually it would appear that verbal facility and grooming of tresses had some vital link with each other. Between 1960 and 1998 the nonteaching bureaucracy of public schools grew 500 percent, but oversight was concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. The 40,520 school districts with elected boards this nation had in 1960 shriveled to 15,000 by 1998.
On the college rung of the school ladder something queer was occurring, too. Between 1960 and 1984 the quality of undergraduate education at America’s fifty best-known colleges and universities altered substantially. According to a 1996 report by the National Association of Scholars, these schools stopped providing “broad and rigorous exposure to major areas of knowledge” for the average student, even at decidedly un-average universities like Yale and Stanford.
In 1964, more than half of these institutions required a thesis or comprehensive for the bachelor’s degree; by 1993, 12 percent did; over the same period, the average number of classroom days fell 16 percent, and requirements in math, natural science, philosophy, literature, composition, and history almost vanished. Rhetoric, most potent of the active literacies, completely vanished, and a foreign language, once required at 96 percent of the great colleges, fell to 64 percent.
According to The Journal of the American Medical Association (December 1995), 33 percent of all patients cannot read and understand instructions on how often to take medication, notices about doctor’s appointments, consent forms, labels on prescription bottles, insurance forms, and other simple parts of self-care. They are rendered helpless by inability to read. Concerning those behind the nation’s prison walls (a population that has tripled since 1980), the National Center for Education Statistics stated in a 1996 report that 80 percent of all prisoners could not interpret a bus schedule, understand a news article or warranty instructions, or read maps, schedules, or payroll forms. Nor could they balance a checkbook. Forty percent could not calculate the cost of a purchase.
Once upon a time we were a new nation that allowed ordinary citizens to learn how to read well and encouraged them to read anything they thought would be useful. Close reading of tough-minded writing is still the best, cheapest, and quickest method known for learning to think for yourself. This invitation to commoners extended by America was the most revolutionary pedagogy of all.
Reading, and rigorous discussion of that reading in a way that obliges you to formulate a position and support it against objections, is an operational definition of education in its most fundamental civilized sense. No one can do this very well without learning ways of paying attention: from a knowledge of diction and syntax, figures of speech, etymology, and so on, to a sharp ability to separate the primary from the subordinate, understand allusion, master a range of modes of presentation, test truth, and penetrate beyond the obvious to the profound messages of text. Reading, analysis, and discussion are the way we develop reliable judgment, the principal way we come to penetrate covert movements behind the facade of public appearances. Without the ability to read and argue we’re just geese to be plucked.
Just as experience is necessary to understand abstraction, so the reverse is true. Experience can only be mastered by extracting general principles out of the mass of details. In the absence of a perfect universal mentor, books and other texts are the best and cheapest stand-ins, always available to those who know where to look. Watching details of an assembly line or a local election unfold isn’t very educational unless you have been led in careful ways to analyze the experience. Reading is the skeleton key for all who lack a personal tutor of quality.2
Reading teaches nothing more important than the state of mind in which you find yourself absolutely alone with the thoughts of another mind, a matchless form of intimate rapport available only to those with the ability to block out distraction and concentrate. Hence the urgency of reading well if you read for power.
Once you trust yourself to go mind-to-mind with great intellects, artists, scientists, warriors, and philosophers, you are finally free. In America, before we had forced schooling, an astonishing range of unlikely people knew reading was like Samson’s locks—something that could help make them formidable, that could teach them their rights and how to defend those rights, could lead them toward self-determination, free from intimidation by experts. These same unlikely people knew that the power bestowed through reading could give them insight into the ways of the human heart, so they would not be cheated or fooled so easily, and that it could provide an inexhaustible store of useful knowledge—advice on how to do just about anything.
By 1812, Pierre DuPont was claiming that barely four in a thousand Americans were unable to read well and that the young had skill in argumentation thanks to daily debates at the common breakfast table. By 1820, there was even more evidence of Americans’ avid reading habits, when 5 million copies of James Fenimore Cooper’s complex and allusive novels were sold, along with an equal number of Noah Webster’s didactic Speller—to a population of dirt farmers under 20 million in size.
In 1835, Richard Cobden announced there was six times as much newspaper reading in the United States as in England, and the census figures of 1840 gave fairly exact evidence that a sensational reading revolution had taken place without any exhortation on the part of public moralists and social workers, but because common people had the initiative and freedom to learn. In North Carolina, the worst situation of any state surveyed, eight out of nine could still read and write.
In 1853, Per Siljestromm, a Swedish visitor, wrote, “In no country in the world is the taste for reading so diffuse as among the common people in America.” The American Almanac observed grandly, “Periodical publications, especially newspapers, disseminate knowledge throughout all classes of society and exert an amazing influence in forming and giving effect to public opinion.” It noted the existence of over a thousand newspapers. In this nation of common readers, the spiritual longings of ordinary people shaped the public discourse. Ordinary people who could read, though not privileged by wealth, power, or position, could see through the fraud of social class or the even grander fraud of official expertise. That was the trouble.
In his book The New Illiterates, author Sam Blumenfeld gives us the best introduction to what went wrong with reading in the United States. He also gives us insight into why learning to read needn’t be frustrating or futile. A typical letter from one of his readers boasts of her success in imparting the alphabet code to four children under the age of five by the simple method of practice with letter sounds. One day she found her three-year-old working his way through a lesson alone at the kitchen table, reading S-am, Sam, m-an, man, and so on. Her verdict on the process: “I had just taught him his letter sounds. He picked [the rest] up and did it himself. That’s how simple it is.”
1 The critics of schooling who concentrate on fluctuations in standardized test scores to ground their case against the institution are committing a gross strategic mistake for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that in doing so they must first implicitly acknowledge the accuracy of such instruments in ranking every member of the youth population against every other member, hence the justice of using such measures to allocate privileges and rewards. An even larger folly occurs because the implicit validation of these tests by the attention of school critics cedes the entire terrain of scientific pedagogy, armoring it against strong counter-measures by recruiting the opposition, in effect, to support teaching to the test. The final folly lies in the ease with which these measures can be rigged to produce whatever public effects are wanted.
2 In a fascinating current illustration of the power of books, black female tennis star Venus Williams’ father acknowledged in a press interview for the Toronto Globe that he had, indeed, set out to create a tennis millionaire from his infant daughter even before her birth. Mr. Williams, who had no knowledge whatsoever of the game of tennis, and who was reared in a poor home in the South by his single mother, had his ambition piqued by witnessing a young woman on television receiving a $48,000 check for playing tennis successfully. At that moment he proposed to his wife that they set out to make their unborn children tennis millionaires. How did he learn the game? By reading books, he says, and renting videos. That, and common sense discipline, was all that Venus and sister Serena needed to become millionaire teenagers.
Taken from Chapter 3 in The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto
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In 1876, before setting off from America to Germany to study, William H. Welch, an ambitious young Bostonian, told his sister: “If by absorbing German lore I can get a little start of a few thousand rivals and thereby reduce my competition to a few hundred more or less it is a good point to tally.” Welch did go off to Germany for the coveted Ph.D., a degree which at the time had its actual existence in any practical sense only there, and in due course his ambition was satisfied. Welch became first dean of Johns Hopkins Medical School and, later, chief advisor to the Rockefeller Foundation on medical projects. Welch was one of thousands who found the German Ph.D. a blessing without parallel in late-nineteenth-century America. German Ph.D.’s ruled the academic scene by then.
Prussia itself was a curious place, not an ordinary country unless you consider ordinary a land which by 1776 required women to register each onset of their monthly menses with the police. North America had been interested in Prussian developments since long before the American Revolution, its social controls being a favorite subject of discussion among Ben Franklin’s1 exclusive private discussion group, the Junta. When the phony Prussian baron Von Steuben directed bayonet drills for the colonial army, interest rose even higher. Prussia was a place to watch, an experimental state totally synthetic like our own, having been assembled out of lands conquered in the last crusade. For a full century Prussia acted as our mirror, showing elite America what we might become with discipline.
In 1839, thirteen years before the first successful school compulsion law was passed in the United States, a perpetual critic of Boston Whig (Mann’s own party) leadership charged that pro-posals to erect German-style teacher seminaries in this country were a thinly disguised attack on local and popular autonomy. The critic Brownson2 allowed that state regulation of teaching licenses was a necessary preliminary only if school were intended to serve as a psychological control mechanism for the state and as a screen for a controlled economy. If that was the game truly afoot, said Brownson, it should be reckoned an act of treason.
“Where the whole tendency of education is to create obedience,” Brownson said, “all teachers must be pliant tools of government. Such a system of education is not inconsistent with the theory of Prussian society but the thing is wholly inadmissible here.” He further argued that “according to our theory the people are wiser than the government. Here the people do not look to the government for light, for instruction, but the government looks to the people. The people give law to the government.” He concluded that “to entrust government with the power of determining education which our children shall receive is entrusting our servant with the power of the master. The fundamental difference between the United States and Prussia has been overlooked by the board of education and its supporters.”3
This same notion of German influence on American institutions occurred recently to a historian from Georgetown, Dr. Carroll Quigley. Quigley’s analysis of elements in German character which were exported to us occurs in his book Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time. Quigley traced what he called “the German thirst for the coziness of a totalitarian way of life” to the breakup of German tribes in the great migrations fifteen hundred years ago. When pagan Germany finally transferred its loyalty to the even better totalitarian system of Diocletian in post-Constantine Rome, that system was soon shattered, too, a second tragic loss of security for the Germans. According to Quigley, they refused to accept this loss. For the next one thousand years, Germans made every effort to reconstruct the universal system, from Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire right up to the aftermath of Jena in 1806. During that thousand-year interval, other nations of the West developed individual liberty as the ultimate center of society and its principal philosophical reality. But while Germany was dragged along in the same process, it was never convinced that individual sovereignty was the right way to organize society.
Germans, said Quigley, wanted freedom from the need to make decisions, the negative freedom that comes from a universal totalitarian structure which gives security and meaning to life. The German is most at home in military, ecclesiastical, or educational organizations, ill at ease with equality, democracy, individualism, or freedom. This was the spirit that gave the West forced schooling in the early nineteenth century, so spare a little patience while I tell you about Prussia and Prussianized Germany whose original mission was expressly religious but in time became something else.
During the thirteenth century, the Order of Teutonic Knights set about creating a new state of their own. After fifty turbulent years of combat, the Order successfully Christianized Prussia by the efficient method of exterminating the entire native population and replacing it with Germans. By 1281, the Order’s hold on lands once owned by the heathen Slavs was secure. Then something of vital importance to the future occurred—the system of administration selected to be set up over these territories was not one patterned on the customary European model of dispersed authority, but instead was built on the logic of Saracen centralized administration, an Asiatic form first described by crusaders returned from the Holy Land. For an example of these modes of administration in conflict, we have Herodotus’ account of the Persian attempt to force the pass at Thermopylae— Persia with its huge bureaucratically subordinated army arrayed against self-directed Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans. This romantic image of personal initiative, however misleading, in conflict with a highly trained and specialized military bureaucracy, was passed down to sixty generations of citizens in Western lands as an inspiration and model. Now Prussia had established an Asiatic beachhead on the northern fringe of Europe, one guided by a different inspiration.
Between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Order of Teutonic Knights evolved by gradual stages into a highly efficient, secular civil service. In 1525, Albert of Brandenberg declared Prussia a secular kingdom. By the eighteenth century, under Frederick the Great, Prussia had become a major European power in spite of its striking material disadvantages. From 1740 onwards, it was feared throughout Europe for its large, well-equipped, and deadly standing army, comprising a formulaic 1 percent of the population. After centuries of debate, the 1 percent formula became the lot of the United States military, too, a gift of Prussian strategist von Clausewitz to America. By 1740, the mature Prussian state-structure was almost complete. During the reigns of Frederick I and his son Frederick II, Frederick the Great, the modern absolute state was fashioned there by means of immense sacrifices imposed on the citizenry to sustain permanent mobilization.
The historian Thomas Macauley wrote of Prussia during these years: “The King carried on warfare as no European power ever had, he governed his own kingdom as he would govern a besieged town, not caring to what extent private property was destroyed or civil life suspended. The coin was debased, civil functionaries unpaid, but as long as means for destroying life remained, Frederick was determined to fight to the last.” Goethe said Frederick “saw Prussia as a concept, the root cause of a process of abstraction consisting of norms, attitudes and characteristics which acquired a life of their own. It was a unique process, supra-individual, an attitude depersonalized, motivated only by the individual’s duty to the State.” Today it’s easy for us to recognize Frederick as a systems theorist of genius, one with a real country to practice upon.
Under Frederick William II, Frederick the Great’s nephew and successor, from the end of the eighteenth century on into the nineteenth, Prussian citizens were deprived of all rights and privileges. Every existence was comprehensively subordinated to the purposes of the State, and in exchange the State agreed to act as a good father, giving food, work, and wages suited to the people’s capacity, welfare for the poor and elderly, and universal schooling for children. The early nineteenth century saw Prussian state socialism arrive full-blown as the most dynamic force in world affairs, a powerful rival to industrial capitalism, with antagonisms sensed but not yet clearly identified. It was the moment of schooling, never to surrender its grip on the throat of society once achieved.
1Franklin’s great-grandson, Alexander Dallas Bache became the leading American proponent of Prussianism in 1839. After a European school inspection tour lasting several years, his Report on Education in Europe, promoted heavily by Quakers, devoted hundreds of pages to glowing description of Pestalozzian method and to the German gymnasium.
2Brownson is the main figure in Christopher Lasch’s bravura study of Progressivism, The True and Only Heaven, being offered there as the best fruit of American democratic orchards, a man who, having seemingly tried every major scheme of meaning the new nation had to offer, settled on trusting ordinary people as the best course into the future.
3In Opposition to Centralization (1839).
4Quigley holds the distinction of being the only college professor ever to be publicly honored by a major party presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, in his formal acceptance speech for the presidential nomination.
Taken from Chapter 17 in The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto
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A lower middle class which has received secondary or even university education without being given any corresponding outlet for its trained abilities was the backbone of the twentieth century Fascist Party in Italy and the National Socialist Party in Germany. The demoniac driving force which carried Mussolini and Hitler to power was generated out of this intellectual proletariat’s exasperation at finding its painful efforts at self-improvement were not sufficient
— Arnold Toynbee, MA Study of History
Two Social Revolutions Become One
Solve this problem and school will heal itself: children know that schooling is not fair, not honest, not driven by integrity. They know they are devalued in classes and grades,1 that the institution is indifferent to them as individuals. The rhetoric of caring contradicts what school procedure and content say, that many children have no tolerable future and most have a sharply proscribed one. The problem is structural. School has been built to serve a society of associations: corporations, institutions, and agencies. Kids know this instinctively. How should they feel about it? How should we?
As soon as you break free of the orbit of received wisdom you have little trouble figuring out why, in the nature of things, government schools and those private schools which imitate the government model have to make most children dumb, allowing only a few to escape the trap. The problem stems from the structure of our economy and social organization. When you start with such pyramid-shaped givens and then ask yourself what kind of schooling they would require to maintain themselves, any mystery dissipates—these things are inhuman conspiracies all right, but not conspiracies of people against people, although circumstances make them appear so. School is a conflict pitting the needs of social machinery against the needs of the human spirit. It is a war of mechanism against flesh and blood, self-maintaining social mechanisms that only require human architects to get launched.
I’ll bring this down to earth. Try to see that an intricately subordinated industrial/commercial system has only limited use for hundreds of millions of self-reliant, resourceful readers and critical thinkers. In an egalitarian, entrepreneurially based economy of confederated families like the one the Amish have or the Mondragon folk in the Basque region of Spain, any number of self-reliant people can be accommodated usefully, but not in a concentrated command-type economy like our own. Where on earth would they fit? In a great fanfare of moral fervor some years back, the Ford Motor Company opened the world’s most productive auto engine plant in Chihuahua, Mexico. It insisted on hiring employees with 50 percent more school training than the Mexican norm of six years, but as time passed Ford removed its requirements and began to hire school dropouts, training them quite well in four to twelve weeks. The hype that education is essential to robot-like work was quietly abandoned. Our economy has no adequate outlet of expression for its artists, dancers, poets, painters, farmers, filmmakers, wildcat business people, handcraft workers, whiskey makers, intellectuals, or a thousand other useful human enterprises—no outlet except corporate work or fringe slots on the periphery of things. Unless you do “creative” work the company way, you run afoul of a host of laws and regulations put on the books to control the dangerous products of imagination which can never be safely tolerated by a centralized command system.
Before you can reach a point of effectiveness in defending your own children or your principles against the assault of blind social machinery, you have to stop conspiring against yourself by attempting to negotiate with a set of abstract principles and rules which, by its nature, cannot respond. Under all its disguises, that is what institutional schooling is, an abstraction which has escaped its handlers. Nobody can reform it. First you have to realize that human values are the stuff of madness to a system; in systems-logic the schools we have are already the schools the system needs; the only way they could be much improved is to have kids eat, sleep, live, and die there.
Schools got the way they were at the start of the twentieth century as part of a vast, intensely engineered social revolution in which all major institutions were overhauled to work together in harmonious managerial efficiency. Ours was to be an improvement on the British system, which once depended on a shared upper-class culture for its coherence. Ours would be subject to a rational framework of science, law, instruction, and mathematically derived merit. When Morgan reorganized the American marketplace into a world of cooperating trusts at the end of the nineteenth century, he created a business and financial subsystem to interlink with the subsystem of government, the subsystem of schooling, and other subsystems to regulate every other aspect of national life. None of this was conspiratorial. Each increment was rationally defensible. But the net effect was the destruction of small-town, small-government America, strong families, individual liberty, and a lot of other things people weren’t aware they were trading for a regular corporate paycheck.
A huge price had to be paid for business and government efficiency, a price we still pay in the quality of our existence. Part of what kids gave up was the prospect of being able to read very well, a historic part of the American genius. Instead, school had to train them for their role in the new overarching social system. But spare yourself the agony of thinking of this as a conspiracy. It was and is a fully rational transaction, the very epitome of rationalization engendered by a group of honorable men, all honorable men—but with decisive help from ordinary citizens, from almost all of us as we gradually lost touch with the fact that being followers instead of leaders, becoming consumers in place of producers, rendered us incompletely human. It was a naturally occurring conspiracy, one which required no criminal genius. The real conspirators were ourselves. When we sold our liberty for the promise of automatic security, we became like children in a conspiracy against growing up, sad children who conspire against their own children, consigning them over and over to the denaturing vats of compulsory state factory schooling.
1The labels, themselves, are an affront to decency. Who besides a degraded rabble would voluntarily present itself to be graded and classified like meat? No wonder school is compulsory.
Taken from Chapter 16 in The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto
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