How the Public Education System Keeps Us Down
Alternative media is obviously crucial for us to inform ourselves but the most important tool for empowering ourselves is a solid grounding in critical and analytical thinking skills. There are several factors which have contributed to making us a citizenry so easily manipulated intellectually. The Christian fundamentalists assault on Secular Humanism, the anti-intellectualism strain throughout our history that Richard Hofstadter so eloquently detailed, the history of how our public educational system was formed, the betrayal of the U.S. public by our ‘mainstream media,’ and the ultimate culprit i.e. the global corporations. Because of the need for brevity, I can only give a thumbnail sketch and will restrict my focus to our public educational system to which I owe John Taylor Gatto a great debt of gratitude. I highly recommend his book The Underground History of American Education though I caution you that in my opinion, he is a closet Christian fundamentalist. I feel qualified to speak on educational matters because of my 15 years working in the field as tutor, substitute teacher, adult education teacher in ESL (English as a Second Language), teaching assistant in various multi-handicapped programs, etc. I took 14 years to earn my B.A. in English literature and I’ve been a voracious reader, collector, and note writer in the blank pages of my books. And I have traveled a fair amount in Europe and across America.
Okay, here is a simplistic overview of how we have arrived at this pathetic state of affairs in our public educational systems which I culled from Gatto’s book. By the way, I have dissected his book thoroughly and I’m now using quotes from it in a book I am writing. Just to let you know that this essay wasn’t written just off the cuff.
“The secret of American schooling is that it doesn’t teach the way children learn and it isn’t supposed to. It took seven years of reading and reflection to finally figure out that mass schooling of the young by force was a creation of the four great coal powers of the 19th century. Nearly 100 years later, on April 11, 1933, Max Mason, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, announced to insiders that a comprehensive national program was underway to allow, in Mason’s words, ‘the control of human behavior.’ (page xvi)
Here is a brief sketch of each of the four men who owned the great coal powers. “Andrew Carnegie. An enthusiastic Darwinist and early proponent of planned economy and society, reunion with Great Britain. Beatrice Webb, the Fabian, called him ‘a slimy little reptile: Carnegie Endowments. J.P. Morgan. The foremost Anglican layman in the world. Worked resolutely for the restoration of a class system in America, and Anglo-American sovereignty worldwide. John D. Rockefeller Sr. ‘Survival of the fittest is nature’s way of producing beauty, ‘ said Rockefeller. As a principal stockholder in U.S. Steel, he approved of school experiments in Gary, Indiana, to dumb down curriculum, seek more effective means of mind control. Rockefeller Foundation. Henry Ford. ‘I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration,’ Hitler told a Detroit newspaper in 1931. In July, 1938, automaker Ford received the Grand Cross of the Golden Eagle, highest award the German government could give a foreigner. Lenin acknowledged his debt to Ford’s genius. Ford Foundation.” (pg. 36)
Carnegie’s survival of the fittest philosophy is the rationalization the greedy and unethical corporate crooks use to justify their destruction of the environment and their exploitation of people around the world i.e. the law of the jungle. J.P. Morgan got his wish regarding establishing a class system in America which is evident in the perpetuation of poverty in inner city schools largely due to the grossly inferior public schools there as contrasted with the public schools in cities like Beverly Hills.
The Gary Plan which was approved by Rockefeller boiled down to …”school subjects were departmentalized; this required movement of students from room to room on a regular basis so that all building spaces were in constant use. Bells would ring and just as with Pavlov’s salivating dog, children would shift out of their seats and lurch toward yet another class.” (pg. 187)
The Gary Plan was a very sinister assault on our psyches as students. By arbitrarily dissecting the learning process, they replaced the focus of public schools from learning to the new priority of conformity to schedules by using bells to condition students for their future as wage slaves in the manufacturing sector. It also made it harder for students to see the interconnectedness of many academic subjects thereby dumbing students down and making the learning experience more dull and lifeless.
Of course Ford’s assembly line method of production can be seen in how our public schools are organized and how they just crank out students like inanimate objects with no regard for their uniqueness as individuals. In addition, this contributed to the emphasis on specialization which has greatly amplified the isolation of individuals and the breakdown of communication between professionals. This has not only been very costly in business terms but even more so in personal and social costs. It has led to our ability to create nuclear weapons but to divorce ourselves from the ethical ramifications of our inventions.
Next in this essay on the ‘dumbing down’ of America is the importation of the Prussian model of schooling with the work of Frederick W. Taylor who attended an aristocratic German academy and was greatly impressed because the Prussians had defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Jena. Here is a list of Taylor’s ‘Principles of Scientific Management’ which I’m sure you’ll recognize in our public schools: 1)A regimen of science, not rule of thumb. 2)An emphasis on harmony, not the discord of competition. 3)An insistence on cooperation, not individualism. 4)A fixation on maximum output. 5)The development of each man to his greatest productivity.” (pg. 172)
As a result of this Prussian system of conditioning we can see that science has been elevated over the humanities and hence our technological superiority but our general cultural ignorance. Also hypocritically these social engineers and lying manipulators of the masses indoctrinate us in public schools to cooperate so when we get out in the real world we’ll be more manageable or submissive to the ruling class. Furthermore, our individualism—our once proud national characteristic—is undermined and makes us more susceptible to the collective mindset i.e. nationalism and consumerism. Obviously the obsession with maximum output reflects our real value to the powers that be. They don’t care and in fact they seek to block us from realizing our full potentials.
This “adoption of business organization by schools” because “before 1900, school boards were large, clumsy organizations, with a seat available to represent every interest (they often had 30 to 50 members). A great transformation was engineered in the first decade of the 20th century, however, and after 1910 they were dominated by businessmen, lawyers, real estate men, and politicians….Carnegie ‘the demand of the age is for practical education.’ ” (pg. 174-75)
Though there are many layers in the educational bureaucracy, local school boards have a very significant influence on educational policies. And it is common wisdom how unethical and greedy businessmen, lawyers, and politicians are so, is it any wonder that schools have been designed to serve the needs of the Robber Barons and not the needs of the people? Moreover, is it any wonder that Americans prize practicality over intellectual talents when we started as a self-reliant people noted for our rugged individualism? And when such ‘successful’ businessmen as Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, & J.P. Morgan advise people that the practical skills and common sense are all they need to succeed in life, the gullible and naïve often fall for it.
Unfortunately, because so many Americans believed the propaganda of the powerful and specialized in their educational pursuits rather than generalized like true champions of mankind like Bucky Fuller advised, many people graduate college only to find there is a glut of graduates in their field and they are not able to find work. Richard Barnet gives us a glimpse of the truth behind the propaganda. “The problem is starkly simple. An astonishingly large and increasing number of human beings are not needed or wanted to make the goods or provide the services that the paying customers of the world can afford.” (pg. 260, Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporations, Richard J. Barnet & Ronald E. Muller)
This rather depressing statement portends of the future of globalization and I don’t believe for one minute their claims that the globalization of the world will even out the distribution of jobs, goods, and services. This is the grand scam on a global scale and is a disguise for a race to the bottom i.e. a push to reduce all the workers of the world to starvation wages. And the power elite are preparing us for their globalized New World Order—a term coined by Hitler—with perhaps the most powerful psychological weapon in the public school arsenal i.e. behaviorism. And the Holy Grail of Behaviorism is Socialization.
Socialization is the central argument against home-schooling and we are led to believe that if it weren’t for the compassionate concern of educational psychologists as evidenced in the objectives of social skills, we’d be a nation of social misfits. This is one of the most dastardly deceptive lies that has been perpetrated upon the public. Children learn social skills in a myriad of places and situations. Some examples are when playing with neighborhood kids, at church, after school sports programs, clubs, with their brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, etc. The hidden agenda behind socialization is the conditioning of students so they will become submissive and docile employees, consumers, and patriots.
“Behavioral theory demands endless recorded observations and assessments in the face of mountainous evidence that interruptions and delays caused by such assessments create formidable obstacles to learning—and for many derail the possibility entirely.” (pg. 269)
In short, this shift to behaviorism for the last century has been very good for the newly emergent pseudo-science of behaviorism but has caused more harm than good to our students. I say it has been harmful because it has drained millions if not billions of dollars from our schools which could’ve been used to lure better teachers into the profession by offering more competitive salaries, purchase of more & better textbooks, and the building of more schools so as to reduce class sizes. The obsession with behaviorism has been and continues to be distracting and interrupts the real business of schools which lo and behold should be teaching not playing psychologist/scientific observer.
“To say that various psychologies dominate modern schooling is hardly to plow new ground. The tough thing to do is to show how that happened and why—and how the project progresses to its unseen goals. The Atlantic Monthly had this to say in April 1993:
‘Schools have turned to therapeutic remediation. A growing proportion of many school budgets is devoted to counseling and other psychological services. The curriculum is becoming more therapeutic: children are taking courses in self-esteem, conflict resolution, and aggression management….As a result, the mission is the psychologizing of American education.’ ” (pg. 274)
Now you may argue that we need more psychologists in our schools not less due to the increased level of violence in our schools as evidenced in the killings at Columbine. I contend that psychoanalyzing our students is a band-aid approach and if we truly want to reduce the level of violence in our youth and in our culture, we need to address the deeper issues starting with public education, health care, and unemployment. Many studies have been done on the correlation between illiteracy and incarcerated people, and as has been said, it’s much cheaper to give students a college education than to lock them up in prison which averages $25,000 per year. As educated citizens they can be useful, contributing members to society rather than a financial drain on it. Consider that in 1942, the literacy rate of guys entering the military was 96% but by 1973, it had dropped to “…73% but a substantial chunk of even those were only barely adequate; they could not keep abreast of developments by reading a newspaper, they could not read for pleasure, they could not sustain a thought or an argument, they could not write well enough to manage their own affairs without assistance.” (pg. 52)
It is not merely a coincidence that in Vietnam, the majority of our young men who were there fighting were Hispanic, Black, and poor Whites. This is a national disgrace and clearly reveals the class lines or divisions perpetuated by our public schools. The military is far too often the only option for the poor and for minorities because of the inferior education they receive in inner-city schools. And this is closely related to another shameful part of our public educational system’s history i.e. the Eugenics movement.
“Between 1890 and 1920, the percentage of our population adjudged ‘feebleminded’ and condemned to institutional confinement more than doubled. The long contemplated hygienic form of social control of 18th century German social thinker Johann Frank, ‘complete medical policing,’ was launched with a vengeance. Few intimidations are more effective than the threat of a stay in an insane asylum. Did the fraction of crazies really double in those three decades? The answer given by one contemporary was elliptically Darwinian: ‘Marriage of these inferiors is a veritable manufactory of degenerates.’ It could no longer go unchecked.” (pg. 222-23)
Gatto took a little swipe at the theory of evolution here—as all good fundamentalists believe it their sacred duty to do—but nonetheless, we do have a sordid history of trying to weed out the ‘inferiors’ amongst us. I never saw any handicapped students all my years in public school as a student and as an adult, I have worked with the multi-handicapped for nearly 15 years and know only too well the contempt not only the general public but also of many teachers and school administrators towards these generally gentle souls. I believe the contempt is usually a cover for people’s fear of what they don’t understand or know about these people. I also think the rich fear the poor and perhaps that’s a factor in why they have also tried to selectively breed people like myself out of their ‘fine stock?’
“One of the ideas that ‘empty child’ thinking led directly to was the notion that human breeding could be enhanced or retarded as plant and animal breeding was—by scientific gardeners and husbandmen. Naturally the time scale over which this was plotted to happen was quite long. Nobody expected it to be like breeding fruit flies, but it was a major academic, governmental, and even military item generously funded until Hitler’s proactive program (following America’s lead) grew so embarrassing by 1939 that our own projects and plans became more circumspect. Back at the beginning of the 20th century, the monstrously influential Edward Thorndike of Columbia Teachers College said that school would establish conditions for ‘selective breeding before the masses take things into their own hands.’ ” (pg. 59)
I know these are some pretty harsh charges against our public school administrators, educational psychologists and so on but, do your own research and determine for yourself if there is any merit to these charges if they anger you or if you simply care about our students and the future of our country. Gatto asserts several times in his book that he’s not claiming this has all been the product of a vast conspiracy but more of a convergence of ‘interests’ with a few petty conspirators. I have wrestled with this question at great length and feel it’s more useful to acknowledge the hand we’ve been dealt—however it came about—and get on with correcting it.
Here are a few more of the concrete particulars and steps we can take to remedy these obstacles to learning. By the way, the ‘empty child thinking’ mentioned above is a reference to John Locke’s ‘tabula rasa’ concept that children are ‘blank slates’ just waiting for teachers to write on them and has been one of the most pernicious educational theories to come down the pike.
In addition to the harmful results of Locke’s theory was and is the practice of standardized testing. “Another major architect of standardized testing, H. H. Goddard, said in his book Human Efficiency (1920) that government schooling was about ‘the perfect organization of the hive.’ He said standardized testing was a way to make lower classes recognize their own inferiority. Like wearing a dunce cap, it would discourage them from breeding and having ambition. Goddard was head of the Psychology Department at Princeton, so imagine the effect he had on the minds of the doctoral candidates he coached, and there were hundreds.” (pg. 59)
Standardized testing is basically unfair because they use as their standard of measuring all students’ intelligence, the intelligence level of affluent students who have had the benefits of being raised in a two parent home by usually college-educated parents who read regularly to their children, exposed them to classical music, symphonies, plays, museums, etc. It’s not that the affluent’s children are brighter than those raised in the ghettos but simply that they had the good fortune to be born into families they were born into. Ignorance, like poverty and violence is a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle that is damn hard to break out of because of so many environmental factors arrayed against you.
Next on what should be our ‘hit list’ are the pathetic textbooks teachers are forced to use and are expected to somehow make palatable to their students.
“Looking back on the original period of school formation in her study of American history textbooks, America Revised, Frances Fitzgerald remarked on the profound changes that emerged following suggestions issued by sociologists and social thinkers in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. The original history of our institutions and the documents which protect our unique liberties gradually began to be effaced. Fitzgerald raises the puzzle of textbook alteration:
‘The ideology that lies behind these texts is rather difficult to define….it does not fit usual political patterns….the texts never indicate any line of action….authors avoid what they choose to and some of them avoid main issues….they fail to develop any original ideas….they confuse social sciences with science….clouds of jargon….leave out ideas….historical names are given no character, they are cipher people….there are no conflicts, only ‘problems’…. (pg. 60-61)
Equally important, Gatto conveniently leaves out the fact that many who sit on the textbook selection committees and school boards are on the Christian Right or are conservatives with their own agendas and these two groups are well-organized and vocal in this country and in the textbooks selected and approved for our public schools. When you denude textbooks of any and all controversial subject matter, is it any wonder that students are bored to death?
Perhaps the single greatest blow to our traditional educational system and by extension, the gravest harm done to generations of Americans was the replacement of teaching kids to read by using phonics with the ‘sight reading method.’ “Something strange has been going on in government schools, especially where the matter of reading is concerned. Abundant data exists to show that by 1840 the incidence of complex literacy in the United States was between 93 and 100%, wherever such a thing mattered. Yet compulsory schooling existed nowhere. Between the two world wars, schoolmen seem to have been assigned the task of exterminating our universal reading proficiency.” (pg. xvi)
What’s the old adage, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it?’ Then why did they eliminate phonics? Could having a dumber work force have better suited the likes of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, & J.P. Morgan? Food for thought. The lack of reading proficiency is clearly extremely detrimental to the working poor and the middle class though because all the other subjects one needs to study to realize their potential is dependent on the ability to read well. Back around 1988 or so, I heard that the average high school graduate had an 8th grade reading level. By the way, not to brag but to illustrate, in 6th grade they told me I was reading at the 11th grade, 6th month level yet I never received any counseling all my remaining years to take courses to prepare for college and the high school I went to didn’t even offer them. Okay, back to the subject. I also heard that either 2 or 3 out of every 5 high school graduates couldn’t even make change and places like Mc Donald’s had to put pictures on the cash register keys to assist their young employees. A pretty sad state of affairs I’d say. And on the subject of history, Jonathan Kozol, a brilliant educational critic, said that a good understanding of history is important because it is the bedrock of so many other disciplines. Kozol also stated that the U.S. ranks about 50th in terms of literacy among the nations belonging to the United Nations.
I don’t mean to depress you but the time is long overdue for us to pull our heads out of the sand because our public school’s failures and problems aren’t simply going to vanish. Consider the following lest you still need convincing that our educational system is seriously flawed and is making the majority of America’s workers permanently redundant. By the way, I heard recently that the head of Hewlett-Packard said that they were going to have to move to India because that’s where the educated workers are.
“The National Adult Literacy Survey represents 190 million U.S. adults over age 16 with an average school attendance of 12.4 years. The survey is conducted by the Educational Testing Services of Princeton, New Jersey (they create the tests for the SAT, graduate school, law school, teacher certification, etc.). It ranks adult Americans into five levels. Here is its 1993 analysis:
1) 42,000,000 Americans over the age of 16 can’t read. Some of this group can
write their names on Social Security cards and fill in height, weight, and
birth spaces on applications.
2) 50,000,000 can recognize printed words on a 4th & 5th grade level. They can
not write simple messages or letters.
3) 55 to 60 million are limited to 6th, 7th, & 8th grade reading. A majority of this
group could not figure out the price per ounce of peanut butter in a 20-ounce
jar costing $1.99 when told they could round the answer off to a whole number.
4) 30,000,000 have 9th & 10th grade reading proficiency. This group (and all pre-
ceding) cannot understand a simplified written explanation of the procedures
used by attorneys & judges in selecting juries.
5) About 3.5 % of the 26,000—member sample demonstrated literacy skills
Adequate to do traditional college study, a level 30% of all U.S. high school
Students reached in 1940, and which 30% of secondary students in other
Developed countries can reach today. This last fact alone should warn you
How misleading comparisons drawn from international student competitions
Really are, since the samples each country sends are small elite ones, un-
Representative of the entire student population. But behind the bogus super-
Iority a real one is concealed.
6) 96.5 % of the American population is mediocre to illiterate when deciphering
print is concerned. This is no commentary on their intelligence, but without
ability to take in primary information from print and to interpret it they are at
the mercy of commentators who tell them what things mean. A working de-
nition of immaturity might include those who excessively require others to
tell them what things mean.” (pg. 61-2)
Could this be why some have referred to America as a ‘Nation of Sheep?’
Am I being too insensitive? Too sharp in my criticisms? Well, I mean to shake you from your slumber because not only our future as Americans depends on our rousing from this long, national daydream, but the fate of the rest of the world hangs in the balance as well because we are the most powerful nation on the face of the earth and our global corporations affect every square inch of the planet just about!
In conclusion, ponder this little gem for awhile: “From the beginning, there was purpose behind forced schooling, purpose which had nothing to do with what parents, kids, or communities wanted; but instead was forged out of what a highly centralized corporate economy and system of finance bent on internationalizing itself was thought to need; that, and what a strong, centralized political state needed, too. School was looked upon from the first decade of the 20th century as a branch of industry and a tool of governance. For a considerable time, probably provoked by a climate of official anger and contempt directed against immigrants in the greatest displacement of people known to history, social managers of schooling were remarkably candid about what they were doing. This candor can be heard clearly in a speech Woodrow Wilson made to businessmen before the First World War:
‘We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.’
By 1917, the major administrative jobs in American schooling were under control of a group referred to in the press of that day as ‘the Education Trust.’ The first meeting of this trust included representatives of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Harvard, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the National Education Association. The chief end, wrote Benjamin Kidd, the British evolutionist, in 1918, was to ‘impose on the young the ideal of subordination.’ ” (pg. 38)
I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions from this bit of ‘candor’ but, I will say that we have a very interesting double-standard in present day America. If any of us on the Left of the political spectrum dare to use the word ‘conspiracy,’ we are immediately marginalized yet those on the Right have been whining for decades about a mythological bias or conspiracy of the Left or liberals in our mass media? And of course whenever we criticize them for their assaults on the social welfare programs for the needy, we are accused of waging class warfare. We’re not suppose to notice or speak about their continuous undermining of every liberal principle this country was founded upon and as the quote from President Wilson demonstrated.
In brief, I recommend what I’ve advised family and friends for years, and that is quite simply to study what the rich and privileged study. A good place to start is at the top i.e. the curriculum for Rhodes Scholars—the highest academic honor a student can earn. It basically boils down to The Classics in history, philosophy, political science, and literature. As in a foot race, the tougher your opponent, the harder you’ll have to work and the more you’ll improve or grow for having competed against a worthy opponent. Wrestling with the greatest minds of Western and Eastern civilization is exhausting and exhilarating. The humanities humanize and the liberal arts liberate! (I said that)
Furthermore, I recommend specifically that you buy and work through with a friend or two, Problem Solving and Comprehension by Dr. Arthur Whimbey & Clark, I believe? And Analytical Reading & Reasoning by Dr. Whimbey alone. An excellent encyclopedic set of the Classics was put out by Encyclopedia Britannica which Mortimer Adler edited and wrote what he called a Syntopicon for. It is a fantastic source you can use to cross-reference the Classics. It can cost upwards of $2,000 but if you’re patient and shop around, you may find a deal like I did at $175?
In addition, I urge you to become very familiar with the informal logical fallacies and to read the international press to get a more objective view of world events. The Guardian of London is a good newspaper source to check out. More generally speaking, I’d suggest debating or arguing politely with family, friends, and strangers on political, economic, social, and etc. matters. Form study groups. Mentor others. Write letters to the media. Recharge your batteries by socializing with like-minded individuals. Dance! Travel! Laugh! Cry! Be Angry! Be Passionate! Be Compassionate and sensitive to others who may not understand as much as yourself.
Most important of all, learn to trust in your own wisdom. Gatto does mention many books in his book but fails to provide a formal and scholarly bibliography or footnotes. He could have a hidden agenda—I believe it to be a Christian fundamentalist one—and I too, could have a secret agenda. I sincerely believe my intentions are noble and honorable but I could be deep in denial and maybe I’ve selectively chosen only the quotes that support my agenda? I believe that the closest we can come to the ever elusive ‘truth,’ is to check out a person’s credentials to see whether they are in fact qualified to speak on whatever subject they’re claiming expertise in—this is what drove Socrates’ opponents crazy—and then check out what the other ‘experts’ in the particular field under scrutiny have to say about this particular expert or scholar. Finally it boils down to trusting your own judgment and heart!
I interpret Sir Francis Bacon’s wonderful maxim written in 1597 ‘Knowledge is Power,’ to mean that knowledge increases our power to defend ourselves, others, and the environment. And in our world of today which is run by global corporations trying to manipulate and use us 24/7, never has the empowerment that knowledge can provide us with been more critical to our survival!
ADDENDUM —I almost forgot a very important piece which is teacher certification. I believe this is a tremendous obstacle in terms of keeping a lot of good or great teachers out of the profession many times simply due to a lack of funds and/or the time to pursue the certificate. I have heard many teachers over the years admit that most of the educational courses they had to take for their certificate were a total waste of time. And if our certificate requirement were effective, then why do we have so many obviously unqualified teachers working? Yes, they were able to jump through the bureaucratic hurdles but that doesn’t mean they have a love of learning and therefore they aren’t able to inspire students because they lack the fire. And Gatto agrees with me on this. Near the very end of his book he lists several assumptions about public schooling which we need to recognize as false in his opinion; “The certified expertise of official schoolteachers is superior in its knowledge of children to the accomplishments of lay people, including parents. Protecting children from the uncertified is a compelling public concern. Actually, the enforced long-term segregation of children from the working world does them great damage, and the general body of men and women certified by the State as fit to teach is nearly the least fit occupational body in the entire economy if college performance is the standard.” (pg. 384) And, “Break the teacher certification monopoly so anyone with something valuable to teach can teach it. Nothing is more important than this.” (pg. 387) To corroborate this from my own experience, when I was a substitute teacher at the secondary level in Los Angeles for four years, several times, students said to me that they wished I was their regular teacher because I was more helpful or had more ideas. I want to end with paying proper respect to Mr. Gatto even though I don’t agree with his Christian fundamentalist point of view. He was a teacher for over 30 years in New York City and was named Teacher of the Year for the city a couple of times and Teacher of the Year for the entire state once!