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Guerrilla Curriculum

by John Taylor Gatto


What’s in a name? Kids lucky enough to have an education which pushes them to read books as penetrating as Machiavelli’s, or plays as wise as Shakespeare’s, know. These kinds of kids found out centuries ago that language has hidden agendas, that it speaks on many levels simultaneously –something no short-answer test has ever been capable of measuring.

They knew also that the concealed sub-texts of Formal Discourse can only be detected by those who have learned special ways to question what they hear,

Finally, in the study of rhetoric, they learned how words could be loaded so as to communicate attitudes to the ignorant, even against their will; or loaded to send messages around an in-group, under the noses of the mob.

The term "a quality education" came into general use not innocently, but as just such a bi-level communication. What it seems to mean, and the purposes it was intended to achieve, are at dramatic cross-purposes with one another. Its actual purposes have long since been achieved, but I thought it might serve as a useful corrective against placing too much faith in strangers to educate your kids to tell you something of the strange career of the locution "a quality education."

People who grew up before WWII, as my mother did, never heard a whisper of the deceptive term. Yet once launched after the war, few notions as ambiguous as this one ever did more heavy-duty lifting to change our way of life. Once rolled out by an unexpected partnership between government social engineers and particular business interests, that team, in conjunction with the institution of forced schooling changed.

The landscape of American family life, the American workplaces, and American eating habits were also radically transformed, Tough case to prove? Be patient.

Nothing can give us a clearer map to the hidden thoroughfares of collusion between the managers of our political life and the managers of economy than a hard look at where the post-WWII vision of a quality education actually came from. And why.

Americans first began to hear about "quality education" on a regular basis in the middle to late 1950’s. A decade later the notion was everywhere: in journalism, in political specifying, in parents meetings, at school board meetings, everywhere. And most prevalent of all was its presence in real estate advertising and public relations. Just exactly at the moment when what one might imagine was signified by the expression –academic education –lost ground significantly, the advocates of quality education were in the driver’s seat all over.

If I characterize what was going on as "Orwellian," it’s because I’m reminded of George Orwell’s brilliant essay in novel form, 1984, published just about the time "a quality education" was beginning its forceful career as a factor in home building and home buying. In the book, 1984, when the chocolate ration is to be lowered, the media always announce it is being raised (to the new, lower quantity).

You see my comparison, I hope? At just the instant procedures that the past would have identified as education were being deliberately drained from the system –things like hard reading, constant writing, tough math, the rules of argument, the rules of evidence, etc. –and were being replaced by various forms of habit-training and behavioral adjustment, a stress on quality education emerged. But from the very sources which had deconstructed what most people thought of as education!

Here was a strange game afoot, indeed, one that I’ve already referred to as "Orwellian." In Orwell’s 1984, a totalitarian state of the future has improved upon the Nazi and fascist models of governance, which only insisted upon comprehensive control of behavior. The real pursuit of lasting human mastery, as 1984 understands, is through thought control. Traitors to the system must be brought to love the system and denounce their traitorous associates before they can safely be disposed of. You see what I mean by the difference?

Actually, Orwell wasn’t writing about remote dictatorships at all, but about the strange political destination he saw the western democracies headed for through their commitment to industrial and social efficiency – a commitment to scientific management which, through its perfect command of information, including personal information, need fear no disobedience from its citizenry.

Orwell, writing over a half-century ago, was peculiarly sensitive to what was being talked about in the right clubs and the right drawing rooms. He enjoyed a bit of insider access to such places and listened hard to the passionate themes of conversation among leading academics, press lords, industrialists, politicians, and spokesmen for prominent interests. Orwell knew these people were fascinated by the control achieved by the great, if transient, dictatorships; he knew they believed that with advances in psychological and political technology a managerial utopia was within their grasp. A world in which authority was never challenged.

It was widely held that the key to reaching this condition was through official ownership of language, and its meanings. More than a century of psycho-political experimentation undertaken –not in laboratories or universities –but by governments operating on real people and real situations, was thought to have demonstrated conclusively that the truth could be whatever a government said it was, only provided that it was willing to assault the brains of its subjects with enough inversions of truth distortions attested to as true by authorities. Authorities, that is, with the power to confer carrots on the compliant and blows on the obstreperous.

The forward edge of this productive research had come from the Germanies, in particular from Prussia, Saxony, and Hanover. The method of psychological control used there was astonishingly sophisticated, philosophically based in the philosophy of Plato. Principal among its tools was embedding young people, through early schooling, in nearly continuous abstractions and fantasies. This was the best way to prepare a future citizenry to live in utopia. As Plato said, before the work of utopia-building could begin, the slate must be wiped clean.

That meant reducing the influence of families and other forms of non-state authority like religions. It could be done through violence, of course, but that often seemed, historically, to have back-fired. Much better was to perform the operation through seduction, seducing children away from duty, responsibly, self-sufficiency (and even the urge toward that), and independence, through the constant application of kindness from strangers, songs, games, tasty food, and play. Organized play, that is.

In such environments, habits of response could be cultivated in private, without the subject being any the wiser about what was actually transpiring, let alone its loved ones.

When plans for America’s version of German forced-schooling left the drawing board, one thing policy voices (divided on much) seemed largely agreed upon: Schooling here would follow German models. It would lock young people into endless tutelage by strangers, it would dilute their study hours with fantasy, with low-level abstractions, with irrelevance.

This is what I meant earlier by repeated inversions of truth as the method. The truth of young people is that they must take on heavy responsibilities, make profound commitments, take daring risks, bear the heavy burden of educating themselves – or it is likely they will come to grief a thousand ways when the brief time of youth is over. Trivialize their lives through the routines and soft texts of this kind of schooling – even in kindergarten – and you risk consigning them to triviality for ever and ever. A great deal for managers, but not so sweet for the victims.

When the legendary American school figure, James Bryant Conant, high commissioner of the American zone in Germany after WWII, president of Harvard for thirty years, father of the comprehensive American high schools like Columbine, said – in the year 1984 was published –"Education is what a school delivers," he was inadvertently illustrating what Orwell realized was happening to us. A professional elite of social managers had reconstructed the language for the express purpose of controlling thought – with the full cooperation of political authorities.

The war-cry of "a quality education" was not the product of educators, but the invention of the real-estate industry. At least that business can be thought of as the principal distributor of the educational hysteria which flooded across America from the 1950s onward. The first rush of its advertising/public relations initiative was spearheaded by realtors, too. It might almost stand as a testament to the unexpected consequences of large-scale commercial events – that it changed schooling and other matters in ways you’re about to learn -- except for the fact that its fall-out was hardly unexpected, and can be said to be the actual purpose of the campaign.

For behind the sanctimonious appeals to sacrifice for one’s children, the real point of the quality education campaign was to raise the cost of public schooling through the roof! For reasons I still must defer awhile from explaining, the real estate industry’s need for product, and the government’s need to centralize the food industry in America, could both be answered most efficiently by raising the cost of schooling. There were other reasons, too, some of them major, but I feel certain that if we can concentrate on this bizarre part, you’ll find it relatively easy to continue with the analysis on your own.

Hidden behind the drive for quality in education was an Orwellian redefinition of what both quality, and education, actually meant. In this new vocabulary, good schools would now be measured by the magnitude of their non academic investment: Things like illuminated football fields, trainers, and coaching assistants, marching bands and band uniforms billed to the taxpayer (instead of paid for by fund-raising), huge cafeterias, bus systems large enough to meet the needs of a city, though used only a few hours a day, costly standardized testing and prep, sent from a company far away, hugely-enlarged administrative staffs, specialist teachers and counselors, and much more.

These would be what a quality education was to consist of in the new school order. It was certain to impact heavily on property tax bills, with consequences largely unanticipated by the average citizen, even the average home-owner who might have to pay much more, but who was told over and over that it was for the good of his children, and therefore he should feel virtuous about paying.

The real-estate industry had a bonanza to gain by aggressively backing and peddling this new kind of schooling, a schooling full of counselors and swimming pools, social clubs and other costly paraphernalia, and with abundant behind-the-scenes government help it moved to claim its treasure.

What bonanza, you may well ask? The answer is a vastly magnified number of housing plots to sell, those that could be created by subdividing farms close to the city, those farms which would be bankrupted by a steeply rising tax rate. The productive soil could then be turned into ticky-tacky homesteads. How’s that you say?! It’s true. Simply by breaking the back of the small farmers which the institution of big government had found to be a fatal obstacle in its path, the real-estate business would boom.

Here’s how it worked: Recall that the principal stream of school revenue in America comes from property taxes. Raise the cost of schooling, you inevitably raise property taxes. Now think of that dense ring of small farms around the cities of mid-twentieth century America, the very way we fed ourselves in cities, then, before the supermarket revolution took hold fully.

Direct delivery from farms to individual consumers was hardly uncommon into the 1950s: Meat, eggs, milk, fresh produce, etc. I personally knew a half-dozen farmers by name myself, as late as 1954, because they delivered directly to my mother on a weekly basis in the small city where we lived in western Pennsylvania. The farmers markets of today are pale ghosts of what once was, not so very long ago.

But virtually all these family farms were small proprietors, they operated only modestly above subsistence level, providing fine, even enviable lives to family members, but seldom lives with much cash money to spare. Of necessity they were sensitive to costs of operation, mortally sensitive to tax increases and to onerous, unfounded government mandates to farm this way or that way – pay for the demanded changeovers or get out of business.

The old farm/city food-distribution arrangements would still be with us, I feel certain, because of the higher quality of food and of life they made possible, but for the shadowy partnership between two powerful forces: 1) Social engineering plans of our post-war government, which involved centralizing the food supply in the interests of managerial efficiency, and 2) The natural ambition of real-estate folk to increase the supply, and turnover, of product. Both advanced behind the banner "quality education"; each had its own motives to do so, but agreed on one thing -- small farm culture had to be pushed to the margins.

Let me bring us face-to-face with that elusive government motivation first, because I’ve been beating around the bush about it for twenty minutes, and also because it’s far more interesting that the real-estate industry’s. Government’s motivation exposes a vein of public policy thinking utterly unknown to most folks who walk the dog and mow the grass, but somehow have missed graduating from Harvard. Talk about thought-control, you’re actually about to see what that eerie term means in real life.

You’ll remember I said that the genesis of the concept of quality education, which resembled nothing that history would have recognized as that, came superficially from real-estate developers. Only superficially because the idea actually was the joint product of the inner-ring of policy advisers to the political management of the country. Specifically, I’m referring to a combination of think tanks, private foundations, research universities, corporate officers, and other agencies like key media and advertising interests which have long served as a government behind the visible government in our country.

It would take years to tease out the actual threads of relationship which led to the postwar redefinition of a quality education, and I hope you understand that I hardly mean to suggest a perfect monolith—certainly there were debates unheard by the public, certainly those debates continue -- but fortunately for the modest purposes of this debates continue -- but fortunately for the modest purposes of this essay, it will suffice to illuminate the tools used to achieve the government purpose under analysis -- to pave the way for factory farming, closely held among relatively few hands.

Factory farms could be held hostage, by continuing material inducements (or penalties), to fall in line with government wishes. A dazzling variety of subsidies, sweetheart purchasing arrangements from government agencies, discouragement of competitors through intolerable regulations, and so on, could be offered to enhance the deal.

The mystery of why anyone should want to do this will be partially dispelled when you become privy to a chilling bit of recent history. About a half century before the fatal changes in tax policy that doomed the small farmer were become law, a policy idea began to circulate around the Teddy Roosevelt administration, an idea championed by Roosevelt himself, an idea he had borrowed from the social managers of Britain and Germany -- the latter his particular inspiration. It was the belief the central government should hold control of the national food supply.

In European lands that could be accomplished by custom, legislation of privileges, elite social class solidarity, state influence over religious life, and in a host of other interesting ways. But given American history, law, and tradition, it couldn’t be achieved in the same ways here. The most promising alternative route lay in the possibility of vesting ownership of the food supply in huge farms organized around the model of industrial corporations. Such ownership would place control within easy reach of political managers.

Food was, after all, the ultimate tool of efficient political management. Everybody had to eat. Put crudely, if management could decide who eats what, where, when, at what price, its ability to keep rebellion in the social order dampened down would be vastly enhanced. And the habits of feeding and nutrition, induced indirectly as part of the package of forced schooling, would extend themselves lifelong -- providing all manner of useful by-products.

Obviously, such benefits would be out of reach if millions of family farms continued to exist. In this regard the extermination of the kulaks by the Soviet government was highly instructive: The trial society in Russia could not go forward while prosperous small farmers and their families continued to exist. And if the Slavic way was to shoot them, while the Anglo-Saxon only to dispossess them, in the end, from a managerial standpoint, the results looked the same.

Food as a weapon is at least as old as the Roman Empire -- one need only read Gibbon -- and in truth it is doubtless as old as human society. But the reliable technology of food in this regard, a catalogue of its uses, is the legacy to our leaders from the enclosure experience of England’s rulers. An entire peasantry was there broken and reduced to tenancy by the middle of the 18th century, and factory farming was astonishingly well organized by the early 19th. It is also the legacy of Prussia, where the Junker class presided over both the army and the food.

These two national experiences, so intimately involved with the creation of our own, provided an exhaustive set of data about how to manage food politically. What boggles my mind is the simplicity of understanding this idea, when that simplicity is coupled to the certainty that not a single public school boy or girl will ever get even a hint of such goings-on, despite their importance to understanding the dangers implicit in strong governments.

Since our own government was unable to take the same road to this desirable destination as the Germans and English had done, the strategy hit upon would be through taxation, through a fantastic series of school tax increases whose cumulative effect in a relatively short time would prove unbearable to farmers operating, as I’ve said, only modestly above subsistence.

As they staggered and fell, they would be approached by friendly real-estate scouts making attractive bids for the acreage, bids which could hardly be turned down. And if they were, it was only a matter of time, and a few hostile visits by the government agricultural agent to issue warnings about illegal practices, before the land would be acquired in tax sales.

I know how radical and inflammatory all this sounds, and it makes me sad to have to say it, but in a minute I hope to show you that the tax schedule actually imposed between 1965 and 1993 can hardly be explained any other way than as a deliberate assault on the existence of small farmers, disguised as a push for "quality education," when it was nothing of the sort. The reverse, in fact.

Between 1945 and 1965, school taxes rose only 12 percent nationally, quite a small hit spread over two decades. Then suddenly the love affair with small farm America was rudely ended. Between 1966 and 1975, farm taxes more than doubled!

As farmers reeled from the blow, taxes tripled from this new high-altitude base between 1977 and 1993! Better than a 600-percent tax increase in less than three decades. Try to explain that any other way than deliberate social engineering.

More than a million agricultural properties were dumped on the housing market to be broken into tens of millions of housing plots. The feeding functions of the defunct farms was quickly absorbed by explosive expansions in corporate factory farms, whose increase was made inevitable by generous government subsidies and contracts. The strange career of post-WWII public education, what had been, until then, only a thinly-realized utopian dream to indoctrinate children into habits and attitudes congenial to a designing group’s plans, gave way to something far more sinister: It converted the forced-schooling institutions into a regular weapon of political and economic management—just as it had been in Prussia a century before.

For years afterward it was unheard of to encounter a school board without at least one member representing real-estate interests, often the loudest voice calling for "a quality education for our kids."

However prosperous they were in comparison to the farmers they displaced, the rootless people who accumulated on once-productive farmland -- for the most part corporate commuters who had learned to subordinate family ties and tradition to productivity -- came quickly to have a real need for their local schools to become total environments, asylums offering feeding, recreation, socialization, heath care, life counseling, The new people had many other fish to fry besides child-rearing. And in any case, were themselves leading proponents of specialization in child-rearing, as in industry -- having learned that in their colleges.

These new people who replaced farmers offered little resistance -- as farmers might have -- to further centralization of school governance. Step by step the new people were relegated to a minor role in the rearing of their own children, effectively disenfranchised from any real influence over school management. A management no longer local, but one compelled to answer first to an invisible management far away in the state capitals, which in turn was answerable to a variety of management’s even more remote and unknown to the public.

It was the Prussian formula translated into an American technocratic idiom, a formula which displaced social and economical management from local communities to professionalized, bureaucratic hierarchies and employed the schools in preparing children to become human resources in such a management system.

Don’t think of it as a conspiracy -- it was a managerial revolution which continues to this day, an exercise in utopia building in which all the major presumptions are based upon a very low opinion of human nature and human destiny.

I remember the words of poor, big-eared, Ross Perot, who told us the truth when he said, "They’ve stolen our country from us." Indeed they have. It is no longer either a democracy or a republic but something else which looks suspiciously like an empire. What Ross missed seeing was the nature of the tools used to do it and the reason why it was done. He missed, too, the ongoing role that captive children play in the process.

In my recent book, The Underground History of American Education, I’ve tried to supply the missing details about how we gradually had the idea of fundamental education taken away -- and the idea of quality education, and education run by officially-certified specialists and experts, put in its place.

All of us, that is, but the homeschoolers. J.T.G.

Copyright © 2001 by John Taylor Gatto. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media