Archive for category Mary Leppert
by Cathy Duffy
[Ed. Note: John Taylor Gatto’s book, The Empty Child: A Schoolteacher’s Intuition about the Problem of Modern Schooling, published by Simon & Schuster in 1999, was another powerful milestone by one of the foremost thinkers and social commentators in the alternative education world. Below, is an article by one of the field’s most formidable product reviewers, Cathy Duffy, that introduced this excellent book.]
Scientific behaviorism, the brain child of B.F. Skinner came on the scene at just the right time for such purposes. Schools learned to play their new role as purveyors of “mental health.” Desired responses could be programmed into children by the use of rewards and punishments.
Gatto tells us about Edward Thorndike, who might be considered the founder of educational psychology: “According to Thorndike, the aim of a teacher is to ‘produce and prevent certain responses,’ the purpose of education was to promote ‘adjustment.’ In [Thorndike’s book] he urged the deconstruction of emphasis on ‘intellectual resources’ for the young, advice that was largely taken by school people over the years.”
Gatto admits to being a past student and purveyor of behaviorism —you’ll find a story or two in the chapter titled, “The Empty Child” —which clearly taught him some unintended lessons about real people and the ways they act.
After demolishing educational theories that assume that man is little more than an animal, Gatto turns to the alternative: The spiritual side of man. His chapter titled “Absolute Absolutism” is a significant investigation into the nature of man, free will, and ultimate purpose. A key paragraph will give you an idea of where this leads: “The ancient religious question of free will marks the real difference between schooling and education. Education is conceived in Western history as a road to knowing yourself and through that knowledge arriving at a further understanding of community, relationships, jeopardy, living nature, and inanimate matter. But none of those things has any particular meaning until you see what they lead up to, finally being in full command of the spectacular gift of free will: a force completely beyond the power of science to understand. With the tool of free will, anyone can forge a personal purpose.”
Gatto labels the godless, behavioristic schools as “psychopathic.” The language sounds a little strong until you consider the events of the past eight years or so, beginning at Columbine High School in Colorado: A perfect example of psychopathic behavior. Having witnessed years of social pathology in schools —some of which he shares in vignettes about different students — Gatto speaks with the authority of experience when he lists eight pathological results of modern schooling (which I list in greatly abbreviated form):
1) “children indifferent to the adult world of values and accomplishment,”
2) “children with almost no curiosity” and short spans of attention,
3) “children with a poor sense of the future . . . who live in a continuous present,”
4) “children with no sense of the past,”
5) “children who lack compassion,”
6) children who can’t stand intimacy or frankness and masquerade behind fabricated personalities,
7) materialistic children,
“dependent children who grow up to be whining, terrified, dependent adults. . . ”
Gatto describes the results of pathological schooling as a “conspiracy against ourselves.” In one of the most significant insights of this book, Gatto charges those who believe that the system is “fixable” with being part of the conspiracy: “Before you can reach a point of effectiveness in defending your 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 the values you cherish 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 improved is to have kids eat, sleep, live and die there.”
Gatto opens his chapter on “The Politics of Schooling with a quote from Elwood Cubberly: “Each year the child is coming to belong more to the State and less and less to the parent.” He then proceeds to demonstrate how this came about. He identifies three categories of “players in the school game”: government agencies, active special interests (e.g., Carnegie and Ford Foundations, Businessmen’s Roundtable), and the knowledge industry (e.g., teacher-training colleges, researchers, testing organizations).
For all these players, schooling is an excuse to raid the public pocketbook to push their own agendas. They do this through the political process. Such efforts have resulted in conscious, carefully-orchestrated manipulation of society. Manipulation and control actually prove that schools have been successful in achieving the goals for which they were designed in spite of opinions among the general population to the contrary. As Gatto says, “The system isn’t broken so no amount of repair will fix it.”
Gatto’s stories about Benson and Walden, small towns in Vermont, serve as living proof that schooling exists to support agendas other than those of parents and local communities. He tells about the forced elimination of one-room schools that were both efficient and effective, in favor of a more expensive, centralized school in Walden.
In Benson, taxpayers revolted over outrageous costs of education in their new modern school; they weren’t pleased with supporting at least 18 full-time staff to teach 137 children. Political manipulation and dishonesty were used to create schools in both instances, which probably has something to do with the fact that Vermont’s per capita cost for education (in 1995) was well above average for even government schools at $6,500.
At the end of this chapter Gatto says, “As schooling encroaches further and further into family and personal life, monopolizing the development of mind and character, children must become human resources at the disposal of whatever form of governance is dominant at the moment. That in turn confers a huge advantage on the leadership of the moment, allowing it to successfully reproduce itself and foreclose the strength of its competitors.” I suspect that if you have any lingering doubts about the folly of allowing government to be involved in schooling, you will have abandoned them by the time you finish this chapter.
Homeschoolers have already answered the question posed in the chapter titled, “What is an Education?” Gatto uses many illustrations from the Amish to applaud real education that supports one’s own view of life and its purpose. The next chapter is a continuation on this theme, addressing the role of teachers. Gatto says, “Teachers are agents…they sell ritual procedures and memorization as ‘Science’ to kids who will never know any better. A different kind of teacher would set out to help kids design original experiments, test hypotheses, predict from theory, search for truth. Imagine millions of children unleashed to follow the road to discovery in millions of uniquely personal ways, a breathtaking image. Of course, any teacher who really did that would be hunted down like a wild animal and shot.”
He goes on to describe real teachers as teachers who teach “who they are,” helping children to learn important things about themselves and about life.
Gatto continues with encouragement to “break out of the trap.” Dropping out of school might actually be a good thing. If Gatto is correct, schools are purposely keeping young people in suspended immaturity to keep them out of the job market and complete their indoctrination.
He addresses fears about “earning a living” with stories of people he knows who defy all classical stereotypes —young people and adults who found better ways to learn what they needed to know than what schools told them.
Gatto quotes Bertrand Russell (from his book Authority and the Individual) to make a point that summarizes a key theme of this entire book. “. . . [P]resent tendencies toward centralization may well prove too strong to be resisted ‘until they have led to disaster.’ Perhaps, said Russell, ‘the whole system must break down, with all the inevitable results of anarchy and poverty, before human beings can again acquire that degree of personal freedom without which life loses its savor. I hope that this is not the case, but it certainly will be the case unless the danger is realized and unless vigorous measures are taken to combat it.”
Gatto ends with a list of 13 radical suggestions for changing the direction of schooling and a challenge: We can follow the lead of the English General Braddock to a “regression to a royal destiny we escaped three lifetimes ago” by rejecting freedom and choosing the authoritarian security and control of the State. Or we can follow the example of George Washington who rejected the lure of Empire and control, choosing freedom and self-responsibility.
He relates stories of true community —the old lady who wasn’t afraid to scold young John for shooting a bird with his BB rifle, and earned his respect in the process. Learning moral values was the result of “rubbing shoulders with men and women who cared about things other than what money bought….” He says, “They talked to me. Have you noticed nobody talks to children in schools?” Impersonal, instrumental commands take the place of real interaction between adults and children in schools.
Gatto’s own classically dysfunctional family, the uncertainty and occasional unheralded uprootings that he experienced, surprisingly, serve as evidence of the importance of true community in helping children develop a moral base. Gatto strenuously challenges the impersonal, government-directed “village” as a substitute for real-life communities.
Gatto learned some of his most important life lessons in the real world. Because of that, he rebelled against the artificiality and rigid control of the school system in favor of trying to teach kids as individuals.
Gatto’s ideas about schooling are sometimes ambivalent. A year spent at Xavier Academy, a Jesuit boarding school, revealed the contrast between the “watery brain diet of government schooling” and education that assumes children have the dignity, free will, and power to choose right over wrong. Gatto writes, “Materialistic schooling, which is all public schooling even at its best can ever hope to be, operates as if personality changes are ultimately caused externally, by applications of theory and by a skillful balancing of rewards and punishments. The idea individuals have free will which supersedes any social programming is anathema to the very concept of forced schooling.” At the same time, Gatto recognizes the harshness in some of his experiences at Xavier Academy, especially for a seven and eight-year old boy. Weighing the “good and the bad” he says, “Had it not been for Xavier I might have passed my years as a kind of freethinker by default, vaguely aware an overwhelming percentage of the entire human race did and said things about a God I couldn’t fathom. How can I reconcile that the worst year of my life left behind a dimension I should certainly have been poorer to have missed?”