public education cripples our kids, and why"
John Taylor Gatto is a former New York State and New York City
Teacher of the
Year and the author, most recently, of The Underground History
Education. He was a participant in the Harper's Magazine forum
"School on a Hill,"
which appeared in the September 2001 issue.
web page i got this from
taught for thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan,
and in some of the best, and during that time I became an expert in
boredom. Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids,
as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers:
They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already
knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just
sitting around. They said teachers didn't seem to know much about their
subjects and clearly weren't interested in learning more. And the kids
were right: their teachers were every bit as bored as they were.
Boredom is the common condition of schoolteachers, and anyone who
has spent time in a teachers' lounge can vouch for the low energy, the
whining, the dispirited attitudes, to be found there. When asked why
they feel bored, the teachers tend to blame the kids, as you might expect.
Who wouldn't get bored teaching students who are rude and interested
only in grades? If even that. Of course, teachers are themselves products
of the same twelve-year compulsory school programs that so thoroughly
bore their students, and as school personnel they are trapped inside
structures even more rigid than those imposed upon the children. Who,
then, is to blame?
We all are. My grandfather taught me that. One afternoon when
I was seven I complained to him of boredom, and he batted me hard on
the head. He told me that I was never to use that term in his presence
again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else's. The obligation
to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, and people who didn't
know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible. Certainty
not to be trusted. That episode cured me of boredom forever, and here
and there over the years I was able to pass on the lesson to some remarkable
student. For the most part, however, I found it futile to challenge
the official notion that boredom and childishness were the natural state
of affairs in the classroom. Often I had to defy custom, and even bend
the law, to help kids break out of this trap.
The empire struck back, of course; childish adults regularly conflate
opposition with disloyalty. I once returned from a medical leave to
discover t~at all evidence of my having been granted the leave had been
purposely destroyed, that my job had been terminated, and that I no
longer possessed even a teaching license. After nine months of tormented
effort I was able to retrieve the license when a school secretary testified
to witnessing the plot unfold. In the meantime my family suffered more
than I care to remember. By the time I finally retired in 1991, 1 had
more than enough reason to think of our schools-with their long-term,
cell-block-style, forced confinement of both students and teachers-as
virtual factories of childishness. Yet I honestly could not see why
they had to be that way. My own experience had revealed to me what many
other teachers must learn along the way, too, yet keep to themselves
for fear of reprisal: if we wanted to we could easily and inexpensively
jettison the old, stupid structures and help kids take an education
rather than merely receive a schooling. We could encourage the best
qualities of youthfulness-curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity
for surprising insightsimply by being more flexible about time, texts,
and tests, by introducing kids to truly competent adults, and by giving
each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every
now and then.
But we don't do that. And the more I asked why not, and persisted
in thinking about the "problem" of schooling as an engineer
might, the more I missed the point: What if there is no "problem"
with our schools? What if they are the way they are, so expensively
flying in the face of common sense and long experience in how children
learn things, not because they are doing something wrong but because
they are doing something right? Is it possible that George W. Bush accidentally
spoke the truth when he said we would "leave no child behind"?
Could it be that our schools are designed to make sure not one of them
ever really grows up?
Do we really need school? I don't mean education, just forced
schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year,
for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so,
for what? Don't hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale,
because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification
to rest. Even if they hadn't, a considerable number of well-known Americans
never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through,
and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin,
Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure,
but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was
ever "graduated" from a secondary school. Throughout most
of American history, kids generally didn't go to high school, yet the
unschooled rose to be admirals, like Farragut; inventors, like Edison;
captains of industry like Carnegie and Rockefeller; writers, like Melville
and Twain and Conrad; and even scholars, like Margaret Mead. In fact,
until pretty recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren't
looked upon as children at all. Ariel Durant, who co-wrote an enormous,
and very good, multivolume history of the world with her husband, Will,
was happily married at fifteen, and who could reasonably claim that
Ariel Durant was an uneducated person? Unschooled, perhaps, but not
We have been taught (that is, schooled) in this country to think
of "success" as synonymous with, or at least dependent upon,
"schooling," but historically that isn't true in either an
intellectual or a financial sense. And plenty of people throughout the
world today find a way to educate themselves without resorting to a
system of compulsory secondary schools that all too often resemble prisons.
Why, then, do Americans confuse education with just such a system? What
exactly is the purpose of our public schools?
Mass schooling of a compulsory nature really got its teeth into
the United States between 1905 and 1915, though it was conceived of
much earlier and pushed for throughout most of the nineteenth century.
The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural
traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold:
1) To make good people.
To make good citizens.
To make each person his or her personal best.
goals are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of
us accept them in one form or another as a decent definition of public
education's mission, however short schools actually fall in achieving
them. But we are dead wrong. Compounding our error is the fact that
the national literature holds numerous and surprisingly consistent statements
of compulsory schooling's true purpose.
have, for example, the great H. L. Mencken, who wrote in The American
Mercury for April 1924 "that the aim of public education is not
to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence.
... Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim ... is simply to
reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed
and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.
That is its aim in the United States... and that is its aim everywhere
Because of Mencken's reputation as a satirist, we might be tempted
to dismiss this passage as a bit of hyperbolic sarcasm. His article,
however, goes on to trace the template for our own educational system
back to the now vanished, though never to be forgotten, military state
of Prussia. And although he was certainly aware of the irony that we
had recently been at war with Germany, the heir to Prussian thought
and culture, Mencken was being perfectly serious here. Our educational
system really is Prussian in origin, and that really is cause for concern.
The odd fact of a Prussian provenance for our schools pops up again
and again once you know to look for it. William James alluded to it
many times at the turn of the century. Orestes Brownson, the hero of
Christopher Lasch's 1991 book, The True and Only Heaven, was publicly
denouncing the Prussianization of American schools back in the 1840s.
Horace Mann's "Seventh Annual Report" to the Massachusetts
State Board of Education in 1843 is essentially a paean to the land
of Frederick the Great and a call for its schooling to be brought here.
That Prussian culture loomed large in America is hardly surprising,
given our early association with that utopian state. A Prussian served
as Washington's aide during the Revolutionary War, and so many German-speaking
people had settled here by 1795 that Congress considered publishing
a German-language edition of the federal laws. But what shocks is that
we should so eagerly have adopted one of the very worst aspects of Prussian
culture: an educational system deliberately designed to produce mediocre
intellects, to hamstring the inner life, to deny students appreciable
leadership skills, and to ensure docile and incomplete citizens 11 in
order to render the populace "manageable."
It was from James Bryant Conant-president of Harvard for twenty
years, WWI poison-gas specialist, WWII executive on the atomic-bomb
project, high commissioner of the American zone in Germany after WWII,
and truly one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century-that
I first got wind of the real purposes of American schooling. Without
Conant, we would probably not have the same style and degree of standardized
testing that we enjoy today, nor would we be blessed with gargantuan
high schools that warehouse 2,000 to 4,000 students at a time, like
the famous Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. Shortly after I retired
from teaching I picked up Conant's 1959 book-length essay, The Child
the Parent and the State, and was more than a little intrigued to see
him mention in passing that the modem schools we attend were the result
of a "revolution" engineered between 1905 and 1930. A revolution?
He declines to elaborate, but he does direct the curious and the uninformed
to Alexander Inglis's 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education,
in which "one saw this revolution through the eyes of a revolutionary."
Inglis, for whom a lecture in education at Harvard is named,
makes it perfectly clear that compulsory schooling on this continent
was intended to be just what it had been for Prussia in the 1820s: a
fifth column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened
to give the peasants and the proletarians a voice at the bargaining
table. Modern, industrialized, compulsory schooling was to make a sort
of surgical incision into the prospective unity of these underclasses.
Divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant rankings on
tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that
the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever re-integrate
into a dangerous whole.
Inglis breaks down the purpose - the actual purpose - of modem schooling
into six basic functions, any one of which is enough to curl the hair
of those innocent enough to believe the three traditional goals listed
1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish
fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical
judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful
or interesting material should be taught, because you can't test for
reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn,
and do, foolish and boring things.
2) The integrating function. This might well be called "the
conformity function," because its intention is to make children
as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is
of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor
3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to
determine each student's proper social role. This is done by logging
evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in
"your permanent record." Yes, you do have one.
4) The differentiating function. Once their social role has been
"diagnosed," children are to be sorted by role and trained
only so far as their destination in the social machine merits - and
not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.
5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at
all but to Darwin's theory of natural selection as applied to what he
called "the favored races." In short, the idea is to help
things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock.
Schools are meant to tag the unfit - with poor grades, remedial placement,
and other punishments - clearly enough that their peers will accept
them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes.
That's what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were
intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.
6) The propaedeutic function. The societal system implied by
these rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end,
a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this
continuing project, how to watch over and control a population deliberately
dumbed down and declawed in order that government might proceed unchallenged
and corporations might never want for obedient labor.
That, unfortunately, is the purpose of mandatory public education
in this country. And lest you take Inglis for an isolated crank with
a rather too cynical take on the educational enterprise, you should
know that he was hardly alone in championing these ideas. Conant himself,
building on the ideas of Horace Mann and others, campaigned tirelessly
for an American school system designed along the same lines. Men like
George Peabody, who funded the cause of mandatory schooling throughout
the South, surely understood that the Prussian system was useful in
creating not only a harmless electorate and a servile labor force but
also a virtual herd of mindless consumers. In time a great number of
industrial titans came to recognize the enormous profits to be had by
cultivating and tending just such a herd via public education, among
them Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
There you have it. Now you know. We don't need Karl Marx's conception
of a grand warfare between the classes to see that it is in the interest
of complex management, economic or political, to dumb people down, to
demoralize them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them
if they don't conform. Class may frame the proposition, as when Woodrow
Wilson, then president of Princeton University, said the following to
the New York City School Teachers Association in 1909: "We want
one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another
class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society,
to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to
perform specific difficult manual tasks." But the motives behind
the disgusting decisions that bring about these ends need not be class-based
at all. They can stem purely from fear, or from the by now familiar
belief that "efficiency" is the paramount virtue, rather than
love, lib, erty, laughter, or hope. Above all, they can stem from simple
There were vast fortunes to be made, after all, in an economy
based on mass production and organized to favor the large corporation
rather than the small business or the family farm. But mass production
required mass consumption, and at the turn of the twentieth century
most Americans considered it both unnatural and unwise to buy things
they didn't actually need. Mandatory schooling was a godsend on that
count. School didn't have to train kids in any direct sense to think
they should consume nonstop, because it did something even better: it
encouraged them not to think at all. And that left them sitting ducks
for another great invention of the modem era - marketing.
Now, you needn't have studied marketing to know that there are two
groups of people who can always be convinced to consume more than they
need to: addicts and children. School has done a pretty good job of
turning our children into addicts, but it has done a spectacular job
of turning our children into children. Again, this is no accident. Theorists
from Plato to Rousseau to our own Dr. Inglis knew that if children could
be cloistered with other children, stripped of responsibility and independence,
encouraged to develop only the trivializing emotions of greed, envy,
jealousy, and fear, they would grow older but never truly grow up. In
the 1934 edition of his once well-known book Public Education in the
United States, Ellwood P. Cubberley detailed and praised the way the
strategy of successive school enlargements had extended childhood by
two to six years, and forced schooling was at that point still quite
new. This same Cubberley - who was dean of Stanford's School of Education,
a textbook editor at Houghton Mifflin, and Conant's friend and correspondent
at Harvard - had written the following in the 1922 edition of his book
Public School Administration: "Our schools are ... factories in
which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned ....
And it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to
the specifications laid down."
It's perfectly obvious from our society today what those specifications
were. Maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of
our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work at relationships;
easy credit has removed the need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment
has removed the need to learn to entertain oneself; easy answers have
removed the need to ask questions. We have become a nation of children,
happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations
and commercial blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy
televisions, and then we buy the things we see on the television. We
buy computers, and then we buy the things we see on the computer. We
buy $150 sneakers whether we need them or not, and when they fall apart
too soon we buy another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie that
they constitute a kind of life insurance, even when we're upside-down
in them. And, worst of all, we don't bat an eye when Ari Fleischer tells
us to "be careful what you say," even if we remember having
been told somewhere back in school that America is the land of the free.
We simply buy that one too. Our schooling, as intended, has seen to
Now for the good news. Once you understand the logic behind modern
schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School trains
children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders
and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your
own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a
low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so
that they'll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material,
the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art,
economics, theology - all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough
to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can
learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled
people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant
companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through
shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children
should have a more meaningful life, and they can.
First, though, we must wake up to what our schools really are:
laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the
habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education
serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them
into servants. Don't let your own have their childhoods extended, not
even for a day. If David Farragut could take command of a captured British
warship as a pre-teen, if Thomas Edison could publish a broadsheet at
the age of twelve, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer
at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would
choke a Yale senior today), there's no telling what your own kids could
do. After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches,
I've concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius
only because we haven't yet figured out how to manage a population of
educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious.
Let them manage themselves.