‘Terrified, dependent adults, timid in the face of new challenges’

Last week, in response to Coercion-Schooling Secretary Arne Duncan’s Aug. 8 announcement that he would encourage all 50 states to apply for waivers of testing requirements under “No Child Left Behind” — the Secretary asserting such testing serves as an “Impediment” and “disincentive” to what America’s professional educrats are really supposed to be doing — I promised to detail New York (city and state) Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto’s assessment of “What Really Goes On” in the government schools, from his great book “An Underground History of American Education.”

Mr. Gatto explains, based on his years in the New York City public schools, that reading, spelling and arithmetic are only the “cover” curricula of these schools. Their more basic curriculum — the one for which math and English tests form a mere distraction and “impediment” — is built into their structure, and the way they structure a child’s behavior.

“School wreaks havoc on human foundations in at least eight substantive ways so deeply buried few notice them, and fewer still can imagine any other way for children to grow up.”

Pressed for space, pardon me if for now I trim his list to five (all words that now follow are Mr. Gatto’s — read the whole text at www.johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/15d.htm):

“1) The first lesson schools teach is forgetfulness; forcing children to forget how they taught themselves important things like walking and talking. This is done so pleasantly and painlessly that the one area of schooling most of us would agree has few problems is elementary school — even though it is there that the massive damage to language-making occurs. …

“If we forced children to learn to walk with the same methods we use to force them to read, a few would learn to walk well in spite of us, most would walk indifferently, without pleasure, and a portion of the remainder would not become ambulatory at all. The push to extend “day care” further and further into currently unschooled time importantly assists the formal twelve-year sequence, ensuring utmost tractability among first graders.

“2) The second lesson schools teach is bewilderment and confusion. Virtually nothing selected by schools as basic is basic, all curriculum is subordinate to standards imposed by behavioral psychology, and to a lesser extent Freudian precepts. …

“None of the allegedly scientific school sequences is empirically defensible. All lack evidence of being much more than superstition cleverly hybridized with a body of borrowed fact. Pestalozzi’s basic ‘simple to complex’ formulation, for instance, is a prescription for disaster in the classroom since no two minds have the same ‘simple’ starting point, and in the more advanced schedules, children are frequently more knowledgeable than their overseers — witness the wretched record of public school computer instruction when compared to self-discovery programs undertaken informally.

“Similarly, endless sequences of so-called ‘subjects’ delivered by men and women who, however well-meaning, have only superficial knowledge of the things whereof they speak, is the introduction most kids get to the liar’s world of institutional life. Ignorant mentors cannot manage larger meanings, only facts. In this way schools teach the disconnection of everything. …

“4) The fourth lesson schools teach is indifference. By bells and other concentration-destroying technology, schools teach that nothing is worth finishing because some arbitrary power intervenes both periodically and aperiodically. If nothing is worth finishing, nothing is worth starting. Don’t you see how one follows the other? Love of learning can’t survive this steady drill. Students are taught to work for little favors and ceremonial grades which correlate poorly with their actual ability. …

“5) The fifth lesson schools teach is emotional dependency. By stars, checks, smiles, frowns, prizes, honors, and disgraces, schools condition children to lifelong emotional dependency. It’s like training a dog. The reward/punishment cycle, known to animal trainers from antiquity, is the heart of a human psychology distilled in late nineteenth-century Leipzig and incorporated thoroughly into the scientific management revolution of the early twentieth century in America. … Indeed, there isn’t a better one if the goal of managed lives in a managed economy and a managed social order is what you’re after.

“Each day, schools reinforce how absolute and arbitrary power really is by granting and denying access to fundamental needs for toilets, water, privacy, and movement. In this way, basic human rights which usually require only individual volition, are transformed into privileges not to be taken for granted.

“6) The sixth lesson schools teach is intellectual dependency. Good people wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. Good people do it the way the teacher wants it done. Good teachers in their turn wait for the curriculum supervisor or textbook to tell them what to do. …

“For all its clumsy execution, school is a textbook illustration of how the bureaucratic chain of command is supposed to work. Once the thing is running, virtually nobody can alter its direction who doesn’t understand the complex code for making it work, a code that never stops trying to complicate itself further in order to make human control impossible. The sixth lesson of schooling teaches that experts make all important choices, but it is useless to remonstrate with the expert nearest you because he is as helpless as you are to change the system. …


“With these eight lessons in hand you should have less trouble seeing that the social pathologies we associate with modern children are natural byproducts of our modern system of schooling which produces:

“– Children indifferent to the adult world of values and accomplishment, defying the universal human experience laid down over thousands of years that a close study of grown-ups is always the most exciting and one of the most necessary occupations of youth. Have you noticed how very few people, adults included, want to grow up anymore? Toys are the lingua franca of American society for the masses and the classes.

“– Children with almost no curiosity. Children who can’t even concentrate for long on things they themselves choose to do. Children taught to channel-change by a pedagogy employing the strategy “and now for something different,” but kids who also realize dimly that the same damn show is on every channel.

“– Children with a poor sense of the future, of how tomorrow is linked to today. Children who live in a continuous present. Conversely, children with no sense of the past and of how the past has shaped and limited the present, shaped and limited their own choices, predetermined their values and destinies to an overwhelming degree.

“– Children who lack compassion for misfortune, who laugh at weakness, who betray their friends and families, who show contempt for people whose need for help shows too plainly. Children condemned to be alone, to age with bitterness, to die in fear.

“– Children who can’t stand intimacy or frankness. Children who masquerade behind personalities hastily fabricated from watching television and from other distorted gauges of human nature. Behind the masks lurk crippled souls. Aware of this, they avoid the close scrutiny intimate relationships demand because it will expose their shallowness of which they have some awareness. …

“– Dependent children who grow up to be whining, treacherous, terrified, dependent adults, passive and timid in the face of new challenges. And yet this crippling condition is often hidden under a patina of bravado, anger, aggressiveness. …”

Does Mr. Gatto describe any young people you know? Any directionless young people rioting in England? Thus ends today’s reading from former New York government-school teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto.

5 Comments to “‘Terrified, dependent adults, timid in the face of new challenges’”

  1. MamaLiberty Says:

    Excellent, and very timely, Vin.

    From one who escaped…

  2. Steve Says:

    Thank goodness my time in the public schools was finished before the feds got into the game. At least my parents still had some say in those days. They got me out in time to find a better solution for teaching dyslexic kids. The local principal kept calling mom asking if I would be attending school and she was cagey then, her answer would always be “I am not sure about that yet” They had me in Montessori school for 2 years before moving 2 towns away for a better system. Now that does not mean the first school failed the general population of its town it only meant I needed a school that could teach me the way I needed taught. The second town’s schools also served their population reasonably well, just in a different way. One size does not fit all. The first thing needed is to get the feds out of local functions such as education. Then we can see some real input from the people who really care about the children, the local parents who are currently cut out of the loop.

  3. Steve Trinward Says:

    I will always be grateful that the small Maine town I grew up in had a top-level prep school as its de facto ‘public high school’ — under an arrangement with the trusteeship, town students got to go as day students, alongside an international and well-educated faculty (Sorbonne grad for French; Ph.D. for most of math dept., etc.) and a smalll student body from all over the world.

    The thing was, though, you had to pass a qualifying test to get in; as a result, the primary & middle school teachers had to do their best to bring as many of the local kids up to standards (VERY broad-based in all 3 of the “Rs”) as possible. So there was really no thought of trying to make good little Prussian factory-workers out of us …

    This was also some 40+ years ago, so I escaped a whole bunch of ‘revisionism’ …

    I also enjoy reading the Gatto words, since they echo a lot of what another educational maverick said to me about 30 years ago, while I was interviewing him for what was supposed to be a Reason article — but John Holt was considered ‘not libertarian enough’ …

  4. Jerry A. Pipes Says:

    An interesting thing about this story is how hard it is to find anything about it. Go to Google News and do a search for ‘No Child Left Behind waiver’ and you’ll see virtually nothing but local news coverage.

  5. Bill Says:

    My fourth grade teacher would never make it in today’s climate. Her classroom had all manner of objects of interest, including a short-wave radio that she allowed us to use. Her room was also lined with bookshelves which were well stocked.

    At a set time each day she simply stopped teaching, and allowed us to wander about the room to engage with any gadget or book of interest. I forget how long the break lasted as we’re talking mid-sixties here. I would almost always curl up right in front of her desk, nose buried in a book.

    At some point she’d call an end to this free time and get back to work. I would periodically pretend not to hear her. She pretended not to notice…


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