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A Conspiracy Against Ourselves


by John Taylor Gatto

[This is an excerpt from Mr. Gatto’s book “The Underground History of American Education”. To purchase this excellent book please see his website, http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/.]

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 proletariat’s exasperation at finding its painful efforts at self-improvement were not sufficient. –Arnold Toynbee, A 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, * that the institution is indifferent to them as individuals. The rhetoric of caring contradicts what school procedure and content says, 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 eceonomy 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 architect to get launched.

I’ll bring this down to Earth. Try to see than 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, film makers, 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 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 English system, which once depended on a shared upper-class culture for its coherence. Ours would be subject to a rational framework of science, law, instructions, and mathematically derived merit.

When J.P. Morgan reorganized the American marketplace into a cooperating world of trusts at the end of the nineteenth century, he was creating 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 step of it was purchased with coin and a keen understanding of human nature. 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, an historic part of the American genius. School had instead to train them for their role in the new over-arching 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. The real conspirators were ourselves. When we sold our liberty for the promise of 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.

The Fear of Common Intelligence
The fear of common people learning too much is a recurrent theme in state records around the world. The founder of the Chinese state, the Emperor Ts’in She Hwang-ti, burned the work of the philosophers for fear their ideas would poison his own plans. The Caliph Umar of Syria wrote instructions to destroy the perhaps apocryphal library at Alexandria, using this airtight syllogism:  If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Book of God they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed.

Literary bonfires in Nazi Germany are often invoked as a vivid symbol of the deepest barbarism of the twentieth century, but extensive public reporting of those actions forced them to stop by causing worldwide unease. Much more effective have been those silent blast furnaces used by public library systems and great American universities to dispose of three million excess books yearly because of a shortage of shelf space. Why aren’t they given to schools?

There are other ways to burn books without matches. Consider the great leap forward undertaken in the modern Turkish state under Kemal Ataturk. Unlike Hitler, who burned only some of the past, Ataturk burned it all without fire by radically changing the Turkish national alphabet so that all the vital writings of the past were entombed in an obsolete symbol system. Not a single Turk voted to have this done, yet all accepted it.

From 1929 on, all books and newspapers were printed in the new alphabet. All documents were composed in it. All schoolchildren were instructed in it and no other. The classics of Persia, Arabia, and Turkey vanished without a trace for the next generation. Obliterate the national memory bound up in history and literature, sift carefully what can be translated, and you open a gulf between old and young, past and present, which can’t be crossed, rendering children vulnerable to any form of synthetic lore authorities deem advisable.

Turkish experimentation is echoed today in mainland China where a fifth of the population of the planet is cut off from the long past of Chinese literature and philosophy, one of the very few significant bodies of thought on the human record. The method being used is a radical simplification of the characters of the language which will have, in the fullness of time, the same result as burning books, putting them effectively out of reach. Lord Lindsay of Birker, a professor at Yenching University outside Bejing where I went recently to see for myself the effects of Westernization on the young Chinese elite, says the generation educated entirely in simplified characters will have difficulty reading anything published in China before the late 1950’s. First, said Plato, wipe the slate clean.

There are many ways to burn books without a match. You can order the reading of childish books to be substituted for serious ones, as we have done. You can simplify the language you allow in school books to the point that students become disgusted with reading because it demeans them, being thinner gruel than their spoken speech. We have done that, too. One subtle and very effective strategy is to fill books with pictures and lively graphics so they trivialize words in the same fashion the worst tabloid newspapers do—forcing pictures and graphs into space where readers should be building pictures of their own, preempting room into which personal intellect should be expanding. In thius we are the world’s master.

Samuel Johnson entered a note into his diary several hundred years ago about the powerful effect reading Hamlet was having upon him. He was nine at the time. Abraham Cowley wrote of his “infinite delight” with Spenser’s Faerie Queen—an epic poem that treats moral values allegorically in nine-line stanzas that never existed before Spenser (and hardly since). He spoke of his pleasure with its “Stories of Knights and Giants and Monsters and Brave Houses”. Cowley was twelve at the time. It couldn’t have been an easy read in 1630 for anyone, and it’s beyond the reach of many elite college graduates today. What happened? The answer is that Dick and Jane happened. “Frank had a dog. His name was Spot.” That happened.

The Cult of Forced Schooling
The most candid account of the changeover from old-style American free market schooling to the laboratory variety we have under the close eye of society’s managers is a book long out of print. But the author was famous enough in his day that a yearly lecture at Harvard is named after him, so with a bit of effort on your part, and perhaps a kind word to your local librarian, in due time you should be able to find a hair-raising account of the school transformation written by one of the insiders.

The book in question bears the soporific title Principles of Secondary Education. Published in 1918 near the end of the great school revolution, Principles offers a unique account of the project written through the eyes of an important revolutionary. Any lingering doubts you may have about the purposes of government schooling should be put to rest by Alexander Inglis. The principal purpose of the vast enterprise was to place control of the new social and economic machinery out of reach of the mob.

The great social engineers were confronted by the formidable challenge of working their magic in a democracy, least efficient and most unpredictable of political forms. School was designed to neutralize as much as possible any risk of being blind-sided by the democratic will. Nelson W. Aldrich Jr., writing of his grandfather Senator Aldrich, one of the principal architects of the federal Reserve System which had come into being while Inglis’ cohort built the schools—and whose intent was much the same, to remove economic machinery from public interference—caught the attitude of the builders perfectly in his book Old Money. Grandfather, he writes, believed that history, evolution, and a saving grace found their best advocates in him and in men like him, in his family and in families like his, down to the close of time. But the price of his privilege, the senator knew, “was vigilance—vigilance, above all, against the resentment of those who never could emerge.” Once in Paris, Senator Aldrich saw two men “of the middle or lower class,” as he described them, drinking absinthe in a café. That evening back at his hotel he wrote these words:

As I looked upon their dull wild stupor I wondered what dreams were evolved from the depths of the bitter glass. Multiply that scene and you have the possibility of the wildest revolution or the most terrible outrages.

Alexander Inglis, author of Principles of Secondary Education, was of this class. He wrote that the new schools were being expressly created to serve a command economy and command society, one in which the controlling coalition would be drawn from important institutional stakeholders in the future. According to James Bryant Conant, another progressive aristocrat from whom I first learned of Inglis in a perfectly frightening book called The Child, The Parent, and the State (1959), the school transformation had been ordered by “certain industrialists and the innovative who were altering the nature of the industrial process.”

Conant himself is a school name that resonates through the central third of the twentieth century, president of Harvard from 1933 to 1953. His book, The American High School Today (1959), was one of the important springs that pushed secondary schools to gigantic size in the 1960s and forced consolidation of many small school districts into larger ones. His career began as a poison gas specialist in WWI, a task assigned only to young men whose family lineage could be trusted, with other notable way stations on his path being service in the secret atomic bomb project during WWII and a stint as U.S. High Commissioner for Germany during the military occupation after 1945.

In his book Conant brusquely acknowledges that conversion of old-style American education into Prussian-style schooling was done as a coup de main, but his greater motive in 1959 was to speak directly to men and women of his own class who were beginning to believe the new school procedure might be unsuited to human needs, that experience dictated a return to older institutional pluralistic ways. No, Conant fairly shouts, the clock cannot be turned back! “Clearly, the total process is irreversible.” Severe consequences would certainly follow the break-up of this carefully contrived behavioral-training machine:

A successful counterrevolution…would require reorientation of a complex social pattern. Only a person bereft of reason would undertake [it].

Reading Conant is like overhearing a private conversation not meant for you yet fraught with the greatest personal significance. To Conant, school was a triumph of Anglo/Germanic pragmatism, a pinnacle of the social technocrat’s problem-solving art. One task it performed with brilliance was to sharply curtail the American entrepreneurial spirit, a mission undertaken on perfectly sensible grounds, at least from a management perspective. As long as capital investments were at the mercy of millions of self-reliant, resourceful young entrepreneurs running about with a gleam in their eye, who would commit the huge flows of capital needed to continually tool and retool the commercial/industrial/financial machine? As long as the entire population could become producers, young people were loose cannon crashing around a storm-tossed deck threatening to destroy the corporate ship; confined, however, to employee status, they became suitable ballast upon which a dependable domestic market could be erected. How to mute competition in the generation of tomorrow?

That was the cutting-edge question. In his take-no-prisoners style acquired mixing poison gas and building atomic bombs, Conant tells us candidly the “was in the process of formulation” as early as the 1890’s. By 1905 the nation obeyed this clarion call coast to coast: “Keep all youth in school full time through grade twelve.” All youth, including those most unwilling to be there and those certain to take vengeance on their jailers. JTG

Copyright 2012 by John Taylor Gatto. All rights reserved.

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