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John Taylor Gatto’s The Empty Child

by Cathy Duffy

John Taylor Gatto’s long-awaited book The Empty Child: A Schoolteacher’s Intuition about the Problem of Modern Schooling is published by Simon & Schuster. It will be on the market sometime in 1999. In the meantime, here is a teaser for you!

"I don’t mean to be inflammatory, but it’s as if government schooling has made people dumber, not brighter, made families weaker, not stronger...has ruined formal religion with its hard-sell exclusion of God, has set the class structure in stone by dividing children into classes and setting them against one another, and has been midwife to an alarming concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a fraction of the national community."

Maybe John Taylor Gatto doesn’t intend to be inflammatory, but if you care at all about children and education, you’ll be livid as you read through his latest book. Gatto takes us on a journey, tracing his own experiences and the development of his thinking about government schooling, including his realization of the tremendous harm done to children by government schools. The above-mentioned "damages" are only a few of those exposed by Gatto.

Through a series of related essays, Gatto puts together the "whole story of schooling"—the hidden agendas, the true believers who crusaded for their educational theories, the increasingly heavy hand of government, the dumbing down of curricula, elitism, racism, and other key factors that contribute to the evil monstrosity that many people view as "crucial to the survival of democracy in America."

This is an important book which everyone should read. Unfortunately, it might still be some months before the book is actually available for purchase, so I’ll risk "giving away the story line," to pass on to you some of Gatto’s ideas as best I can. I’m borrowing numerous quotes from his book so that you’ll know the power of his writing and be anxious to read it yourself.

In Chapter One: "A Short, Angry History of Modern Schooling," Gatto begins with an expose of the racist, elitist mindset of those who would conform all people to their own worldviews and value systems. Many of these elitists were closely tied (or were themselves part of) the industrial revolution overlords. Important to their own personal success was the development of a compliant working class to labor in their factories.

Gatto describes the birth of The Education Trust, a group of movers and shakers representing such money interests as Rockefeller and Carnegie. He describes their agenda: "At first, the primary target was the tradition of independent livelihoods in America. Unless Yankee entrepreneurialism could be put to death, at least among the common population, the immense capital investments mass production industry required for equipment weren’t justifiable. Students were to learn to think of themselves as employees competing with one another for the favor of management, not as Franklin or Edison had once regarded themselves, as self-determined free agents."

To accomplish this goal, scientists and educational zealots joined forces, with the financial and power backing of the giant foundations, to design an education system that views people as human capital to be psychologically manipulated into desired patterns of behavior. Education became, according to the definition of the Federal Education department, "a means to achieve important economic and social goals of a national character."

Those important economic and social goals are reflected in the results of government schooling. Gatto claims, "Schools train individuals to respond as a mass. Boys and girls are drilled in being bored, frightened, envious, emotionally needy, generally incomplete. A successful mass production economy requires such a clientele. A small business, small farm economy like the Amish have requires individual competence, thoughtfulness, compassion, and universal participation; our own requires a managed mass of leveled, spiritless, anxious, family-less, friendless, godless, and obedient people who believe the difference between ‘Cheers’ and ‘Seinfeld’ is a subject worth arguing about."

Eugenics and forced sterilization also figure in this brutal picture early on, but I’ll leave you to discover how by reading this chapter yourself. You’ll meet more of the eugenics movement in later chapters as well.

Government compulsion was essential to the educational system the elitists had in mind. In chapter two, Gatto explores the genesis of compulsory schooling in various historical and geographic settings. He makes a keen observation: "... one of history’s grand ironies is that orderly Anglican Virginia and post-Puritan Massachusetts were the prime makers of a revolution which successfully overthrew the regulated uniformity of Britain. And in neither the startling Declaration of Independence which set out the motives for this revolution nor in the even more startling Bill of Rights in which ordinary people claimed their reward for courageous service, is either the word "school" or the word "education" even mentioned. At the nation’s founding, nobody thought school a cause worth going to war for, nobody thought it a right worth claiming. You want to think long and hard about that."

Although there has been a relentless push toward more and more centralized, government control of schooling in America, Gatto challenges the very notion that it is necessary and inevitable. He makes a marvelous analogy to driving: Consider how dangerous a weapon an automobile is in the hands of many a driver. Yet, we allow many questionable drivers on our roads with only an extremely minimal course in "driver training." The complexity involved in the actual task of controlling a ton or more of such a dangerous, flammable or even explosive vehicle begs for extensive training and oversight. Still, we trust that the majority will figure out how to safely control their vehicles without years of training and constant oversight. Gatto says, "Carefully analyzed, driving is as impressive a miracle as walking, talking or reading, but this only shows the inherent weakness of analysis since we know almost everyone learns to drive well in a few hours."

We used to place the same sort of trust in people to obtain education without government coercion and oversight. The results of freely-obtained education far surpassed present-day results. You can’t miss the irony!

In the next chapter, Gatto tackles the dumbing down of curriculum. From his own experience, he relates his discovery that over-simplified texts were not created because they were all that students could handle; he found his eighth grade class ("including the dumb ones") responded better to reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a very challenging read, than to their assigned texts. This led him to conclude that real books are generally more effective learning tools than school texts.

Others have pointed this out, also, but Gatto goes beyond to uncover some of the reasons for dumbed-down education. He attacks the "Bell Curve" mentality that attributes learning ability to genetic inheritance. The result of bell curve thinking has been a caste-type approach to education that allots minimal literacy to the "lower classes" and full literacy only to those at the top who need to "run the show."

Bell Curve thinking needed some sort of genetic evidence to support itself. Phrenology, a scientific "rage" at the turn of the century, was the "brainchild of a German physician named Francois Joseph Gall. Gall, in working with the insane, became convinced he had located the physical site of personality traits like love, benevolence, acquisitiveness, and many more so precisely he could provide a map of their positions inside the skull! These faculties signaled their presence, said Gall, by making bumps on the visible exterior of the cranium!" Phrenology then became a "scientific" way of predetermining social policy, including forms and content of education, for individuals.

Once assumptions are accepted that certain people have limited mental potential, then schools lowered their expectations. Methodology followed. Sight reading was introduced as a way to sidestep the "dull and tedious" methods in favor of quick word memorization so that children could jump right into "See Spot run!" The fact that sight reading retards the growth of decoding ability and vocabulary, limiting lifetime literacy, seemed either irrelevant or to good purpose to those making such decisions for all school children.

Some of the elitists who designed American schooling believed that people are truly "empty," just waiting to be "filled" with the proper data for their role in society. Such thinking is revealed in comments such as that of the University of Wisconsin’s Edward Ross who, in 1906, described people as "little plastic lumps of human dough."

The view of people as pliable lumps of dough doesn’t account for all those who seem to have been "written off" by the system as "wasted material" within some of our inner city schools. Gatto relates his early school-teaching experiences beginning with his first day as a substitute at what he called "a perfectly horrible place" that had been nicknamed "the death school." Assigned to teach a typing class at this Harlem junior high, he was issued work orders for the day: Students must not type! "Under no circumstances are they allowed to type without the regular teacher present....They break the machines." The inanity of trying to teach 75 kids typing without allowing them to type probably colored Gatto’s entire teaching career. (Of course, he let the kids use the typewriters that day. He reports, "All the machines survived unscathed.")

This experience was only one of the many curious mysteries of government school systems where so many things happen that are contrary to common sense. Gatto continues: "Twelve years of legal school confinement keeps self-knowledge at bay. School deprives us of language and metaphor needed to regard such things. It curtails the raw experience out of which our natures concoct private recipes to endure. Where does the principle of sitting 75 teenagers in front of typewriters and telling them they can’t type arise? Don’t say it’s crazy until you can answer such questions. There are defensible reasons for doing such things, however revolting the spirit which conceives them."

Gatto supplies one of the those "defensible" reasons: "Let me begin the discussion by suggesting the real purpose of all true education in the world of illusion inflicted upon us since the advent of coal power is to shatter the conditioning and noble lies which prevent us from understanding our personal predicament and learning to face it with courage. Schooling is a numbing injection, a poison drop to help you roll from womb to tomb nearly asleep."

A period of rapid turnover in Gatto’s school’s superintendents and principals was critical in determining the directions he took. Lack of oversight left teachers pretty much on their own to do whatever worked. With surveillance at a minimum, he felt like he had a "blank check." He began to experiment, gradually figuring out that children are individuals with vastly different dreams, wishes, talents, and goals. Gatto likens real education to a helix sport: "...one of those wonderful undertakings like seatless unicycle riding over broken wilderness terrain, a sport that avoids rails, highways, tracks, and too-programmed confinement.... In a helix sport participants search for a new relationship with themselves. They are prepared to endure pain, discomfort, expense, and even considerable risk to achieve this goal. Helix sports are free of expert hierarchies....a revolt against predestination and planning, timetables, schedule, the excessively planned journeys."

In contrast he says, "Process your kid like a sardine, even at a good cannery, and don’t be surprised when he comes out oily and dead."

Teachers suffer from some of this deadening process also as they struggle within a system that plays them off against each other, while failing to reward or encourage excellence or worthy innovation. Teachers who buck the system, no matter how effective they are in helping students learn, find themselves relegated to the lowest, dirtiest assignments — nudging them towards "early retirement."

Gatto fans will especially appreciate the next chapter, where he reveals much about his own disturbing childhood. It’s really a story about how children generally learn life’s important lessons from people who touch their lives in some meaningful way. He tells us, "My best teachers in Monongahela were Frank Pizzica, the high-rolling car dealer, old Mr. Marcus, the druggist wiser than a doctor, Binks McGregor, psychological haberdasher, and Bill Pulaski, the fun-loving mayor. All of them would understand my belief that we need to be hiring different kinds of people to teach us, people who’ve proven themselves at life by bearing its pain like free spirits.... No one who hasn’t known grief, challenge, success, failure, or In my opinion, this is one of the most important books on education ever written. Its importance stretches even beyond the realm of education because Gatto presents his "critique" of education within the much larger context of societal influences and ideas. I especially appreciate Gatto’s treatment because, even though it’s accusatory at times, it recognizes that people operate out of personal motivations which they perceive to be good. Nevertheless, the elitist ideas of those who would impose their own agendas on others has created most of the problems of modern society.

I’ll resume my review with Gatto’s "visit" to Chautauqua, a grand example of elitist manipulation.

"Chautauqua" should be part of our common vocabulary, but most of us likely never heard of the place. Chautauqua was the scene of a nineteenth century utopian experiment. ". . . Chautauqua did a great deal to homogenize the U.S. as a nation. It brought to the attention of America an impressive number of new ideas and concepts, always from a management perspective . . . even a partial list of developments credited to Chautauqua is impressive evidence of the influence of this early mass communication device. . . For instance, we have Chautauqua to thank in some part for the graduated income tax, for slum clearance as a business opportunity, juvenile courts, the school lunch program, free textbooks, a ‘balanced diet,’ physical fitness, the Camp-Fire Girls, the Boy Scout movement, pure food laws, and much, much more."

Chautauqua created a new orthodoxy among societal "shapers." They could perfect society by scientific management. However, it would require detaching people from human, emotional ways of dealing with things. Schooling was a form of "social machinery" to shape utopian citizens.

According to Gatto, many of the reformers were childless men who saw no problem with asserting the State’s role as primary parent of all children. Families have become "conditional entities" —they remain together as long as they fulfill State views on family nurturing. Destruction of families can be viewed as a positive development seen through utopian eyes.

Gatto uncovers evidence for purposeful emasculation of young men. Massachusetts schools in the mid-1800s purposely worked to replace male teachers with female, primarily by paying women higher wages than men! They believed that young men "need the softening and refining influence which woman alone can give. . . " in their influential role as school teachers.

Another interesting sidenote to utopian attempts to shape society has to do with children’s literature. Gatto says, "Through children’s books, older generations announce their values, declare their aspirations, and make bids to socialize the young. . . In the 30-year period from 1890 to 1920, the children’s book industry became a creator, not a reflector of values." Individualism and personal needs came to replace "God-consciousness" as themes in children’s stories.

Utopian goals have been realized to a large extent in America. "Like a black hole it grew, although no human being flourishes under such a regime or rests easily inside the logic of hundreds of systems inter-meshing into one master system, all demanding obedience from their human parts. This is a religious vision, Ezekiel’s wheels within wheels, a nightmare come to life."

Gatto decries utopian ideas as a small group of elitists’ desire to control humanity. School is a major part of the control mechanism. "What should make you suspicious about School is its relentless compulsion. Why should this rich brawling, utterly successful nation ever have needed to resort to compulsion to realize a social ordering of people into school classes —unless advocates of force-schooling were driven by philosophical beliefs not commonly shared?"

Utopianism is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Much of it traces its roots back through history, with European history a rich source of utopian ideas. Gatto uncovers a major (if not the major) underlying rationale for controlled societies: the use of coal power, mechanization, and the need for people to work the factories. "Enthusiasm for schooling is closely correlated with a nation’s intensity in mechanical industry, and that closely correlated with its natural heritage of coal." Coal-based industries required families to leave their farms and reorganize their lives around the needs of the factory rather than the family.

Gatto shows how "coal power" birthed what he calls "administrative utopias" to control people’s lives. The need became pressing in the 1800s and early 1900s with the huge influxes of immigrants, particularly the Irish and Italian Catholics. Industry needed cheap labor, but cities were overwhelmed with so many people of different cultures and religious beliefs. Protestants joined with Horace Mann and other utopians to protect their culture, not realizing that secular schools would eventually turn on them and undermine their own worldviews.

Digging deeper, Gatto discovered that inferior schools are actually essential to the industrialized society of the utopians: ". . . scientifically efficient schooling. . . does build national wealth and it does lead to endless scientific advances. . . The truth is that America’s unprecedented global power and spectacular material wealth is a direct product of a third-rate educational system, upon whose inefficiency in developing intellect and character it depends. If we educated better we could not sustain the corporate utopia we have made. Schools build national wealth by tearing down personal sovereignty, morality and family life. It’s a trade-off."

Poorly-educated workers are less likely to challenge the powers that be. Gatto summarizes the government position as stated in the U.S. Bureau of Education’s Circular of Information, published in April 1872: ". . . ‘inculcating knowledge’ teaches workers to be able to ‘perceive and calculate their grievances,’ thus making them ‘more redoubtable foes’ in labor struggles." The Circular goes on to say, "We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes."

Also, children needed to be removed from and restrained from the workplace because mechanization reduced the number of laborers needed. Jobs needed to be reserved for adults, so school became a place to occupy children.

Here is where Gatto’s handling of the subject matter really shines. While discussing the horrific results of industrialization and schooling, he does not characterize those who managed such societal changes as evil, corrupt people, but as true believers who saw no other way to accomplish what they viewed as bringing about the best for society. While disagreeing with their motivation and understanding of human nature, he credits them with an earnestness to "do good." Yet, there is a certain flavor of inevitability. Gatto summarizes, ". . . why school after Coal had to become the way it did: To prevent overproduction of brains and character, to create a mass population in harmony with the capacities of mass production, to protect the war-making power and wealth-making power from labor disruption, and to diffuse the revolutionary potential of science upon which the whole edifice was built."

Remember the movie, Cheaper by the Dozen? Mr. Gilbreth, the father in the movie was actually a real-life character who was a devotee of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management, also known as Taylorism. Gilbreth managed his children with a stopwatch and machine-like efficiency. Taylor’s ideas focused on the primacy of the system over individuals. People must be made to fit the system, even if that meant psychological manipulation. Scientific management was quickly adopted by businesses, shortly followed by schools.

The goals of education changed under the influence of scientific management. An 1893 report from the "Committee of Ten" stated that "the purpose of all education is to train the mind." But, in 1911 and 1918, NEA reports attacked the "bookish curricula" that gave children "false ideas of culture." Drills were a better method of learning than reading; social studies more useful than history. According to Gatto, the latter of these reports, "Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education," now declared "that human behavior, health, and vocational training were the central goals of education. Not mental development." Larger, centralized schools; standardized tests; students moving between classrooms for different classes; and bells signaling time to move were all products of scientific management.

The large foundations (Rockefeller, Carnegie, et. al.) come closest to being labeled as the evil behind the scenes. They financed and controlled education reform to such an extent that it became a matter of passionate discussion in Congress. The January 26, 1917 Congressional Record recalls the words of Senator Works of California who said, "These people . . . are attempting to get control of the whole educational work of the country."

By the way, fans of standardized testing will be dismayed to know that these were created as tools to "teacher-proof" education. Teachers whose performances are judged by student test scores seldom stray far from the prescribed curricula.

Control issues are also the subject of a chapter, appropriately titled "The Crunch." It focuses more closely on immigration and attempts to protect cultural hegemony. Some of the ugliest secrets of our country’s history stem from fear of foreigners. Gatto focuses on racism and the eugenics movement, reactions to those fears.

A host of social engineering strategies were spawned. Gatto tells us, "Besides destroying lesser breeds (as they were routinely called) by abortion, sterilization, adoption, celibacy, two-job family separations, low-wage rates to dull the zest for living, and, above all schooling to dull the mind and debase the character; other methods were clinically discussed in journals and private clubs including childlessness induced through easy availability of pornography."

Such measures were required to prevent racial suicide. Evolutionary thought fully supported efforts to improve genetic bloodlines by encouraging reproduction of only the superior races.

Did you know that the phrase "melting pot" isn’t a recent phrase, but derived from propaganda events after W.W.I where a huge black pot served as a prop for processions of costumed immigrants to enter the pot and emerge as identically-dressed "real Americans"?

Frances Kellor, founded the "Committee for Immigrants in America," which "proclaimed itself the central clearinghouse to unify all public and private agencies in a national spearhead to ‘make all these people one nation.’ When government failed to come up with money for a bureau, Miss Kellor’s own backers —who included Mrs. Averill Harriman and Felix Warburg, the Rothschild banker, did just that, and this private entity was duly incorporated into the government of the United States!" becoming the Division of Immigrant Education.

Gatto tells us, "Immigrant education meant public school education, for it was to compulsion schooling the children of immigration were consigned, and immigrant children, in a reversal of traditional roles, became the teachers of their immigrant parents, thus ruining their families."

Kellor had a very large vision. In a book she wrote, published in 1916, "she called for universal military service, industrial mobilization, a continuing military build-up, precisely engineered school curricula, and total Americanization . . ." Concerned about the "Red Menace," Kellor worked with the major employers who used foreign labor, warning them of potential revolutionaries in their midst. "Kellor proposed a partnership of business and social work to ‘break up the nationalistic, racial groups.’" One of the prime ways to do so was to weaken family life.

Gatto is remarkably broad in his inclusion of many key players in this drama, but in the next chapter he focuses in on upper class society in America, how it came into being, what its goals were, and how schools became the vehicle for its goals. Gatto paints a fascinating picture of the Anglican mindset which dominated in such circles. He explains the genesis of ideas about the Aryan race, its origins and descendants, raising some very troublesome questions about the entire notion.

A number of books were written to buttress the ideas of superior races, many of them challenging the notion that democracy was a good thing. Gatto writes of a particular book as an example: "It charged there was no connection between democracy and progress; in fact, it claimed the reverse was true. Maine’s account of racial history was accepted without question. It admirably complemented a torrent of scientifically-mathematicized racism pouring from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and virtually every bastion of high academia right through the W.W.I period and even beyond, scientific racism which determined the shape of government schooling in large measure and still does."

The welfare state was another natural outgrowth of this mindset. The elite who controlled the major industries were naturally concerned about maintaining civic order —difficult to do when people are dependent upon jobs that can suddenly disappear when a factory or mine closes.

Welfare was a way to take care of the lower classes, meeting their most basic needs, as well as keeping them from causing trouble. Gatto quotes Alan Pifer, president of the Carnegie Corporation, who in a 1984 document wrote concerning the possibility of social rest that might endanger "the survival of our capitalist economic system." Pifer went on to say, "Just as we built the general welfare state . . . and expanded it in the 1960s as a safety valve for the easing of social tension, so will we do it again in the 1980s. Any other path is too risky."

If some people are considered inferior, then they probably need direction for their lives. It’s easier to get people to do what you’d like them to do if you use psychological manipulation.

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 recent event at Columbine High 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, 8) "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?"

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media