Archive for May, 2009

Education, Schooling, and John Gatto

“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.” — Woodrow Wilson

Education and school have been the subject, direct or tangential, of a number of posts lately.  Most notably this fantastic, honest piece about Antigone’s school experience.  Government schooling is an emotionally charged subject since most of us attended school every non-summer weekday for 12+ years.  Many of us are sending or planning to send our children to this institution for the same duration.

The “public education” narrative is that the fabric of our civic society is founded on universal, compulsory education.  According to this narrative, the difficult and time consuming job of distilling curricula and applying it to individuals and groups of children in a scientifically validated manner should be left to state-certified professionals, freeing the parents for work more suited to their specific talents.  Deviating from this model will result in a society in which only the sufficiently wealthy and privileged will receive the education to succeed in life while the poor will not have access to the tools to remove themselves from poverty.  Additionally, many adults will not be capable of critical thought, but will instead learn about gods, ghosts, creationism, and a worldview supporting racism, nationalism, sexism and homophobia.  As with most state-centered narratives, the consequences it claims will inevitably occur are already manifest all around us.  State education has been, if not wholly responsible, at least a large component in creating the reality that we’re told we should fear.

The purpose of this post is to introduce and wildly recommend the works of John Taylor Gatto.  He was a teacher for 30 years, was awarded New York City teacher of the year 3 times and retired after winning New York State teacher of the year in 1991.  He’s got a handful of books–an online version of one is available via the prior link–plus he and his former students have been covered fairly regularly in mainstream’ish media.

My prescient partner Alisa got me a collection of his essays, A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling, during my brief stint as a high-school math teacher.  I expected it to be a motivational, Lean on Me style book.  Instead it was The People’s History of the United States, shredding everything I had previously been taught and understood about the role of state education in society.  Anyone who wants to speak authoritatively about education reform and definitely anyone who is considering how their own children are or will be educated would benefit tremendously from Gatto’s experience and research.

Well, that’s kindof it for the post–more of a slightly-too-large-for-a-comment-comment.  I am comforted by the fact that, should you read a few dozen pages of his work, your mind will be sufficiently blown to justify this recommendation.

I will leave you with  a couple sample passages with links to the relevant resources to tempt your palette:

There were vast fortunes to be made, after all, in an economy based on mass production and organized to favor the large corporation rather than the small business or the family farm. But mass production required mass consumption, and at the turn of the twentieth century most Americans considered it both unnatural and unwise to buy things they didn’t actually need. Mandatory schooling was a godsend on that count. School didn’t have to train kids in any direct sense to think they should consume nonstop, because it did something even better: it encouraged them not to think at all. And that left them sitting ducks for another great invention of the modem era – marketing. — Harper’s Magazine (easier to read in this reprint)

Something in the structure of schooling calls forth violence. While latter-day schools don’t allow energetic physical discipline, certainly they are state-of-the-art laboratories in humiliation, as your own experience should remind you. In my first years of teaching I was told over and over that humiliation was my best friend, more effective than whipping. I witnessed this theory in practice through my time as a teacher. If you were to ask me now whether physical or psychological violence does more damage, I would reply that slurs, aspersion, formal ranking, insult, and inference are far and away the more deadly. Nor does law protect the tongue-lashed. — The Underground History of American Education (the entire book is available online)

I will tell you this – a kid who learns to read at five, and a kid who learns to read
at 9, will be indistinguishable to each other at the age of fourteen, assuming
they both like what they’re doing. On the other hand, we can say its too
inconvenient, or too expensive, to allow that and impose a learning curve in
first grade that produces this wonderful bell, we can then assign the people on
the fringes of the bell to special ed and the people in the middle of the bells
– the walls of the curve – to the dull classes and so on. And we will create a
class system by simply doing that. Inside of a year or two, the kids will impose
that kind of class system on themselves! It’s a phenomenally intricate, but
rather easy to unravel puzzle there – reading is pathetically easy to teach, you
assume that once you assemble 30 people in a room, and do it in the same
routines, that you’ll fail to teach it to some of them, that this bell will
appear, and the atmosphere in the classroom is that the humiliation of being a
dull reader or bad reader will never wear off. You can predict the rise of a
giant remediation industry.  — Interview with Jerry Brown

Following Orders from things that Don’t Exist has Negative Results

Thank you Pew Research Center for doing the legwork to confirm things that we already knew: in this case, the inverse relationship between human decency and church attendance.

The survey asked: “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?”

Apparently, “Hey dumbass, torture isn’t used to gain ‘important information,’ it’s used to force false confessions to justify state violence.” wasn’t an option.

One other interesting note: 25% said it was never justified, which means 1 in 4 Americans is not stone-cold evil!  That’s a start.

It might seem surprising, on the face of it, that religious cults founded on the teachings of Jesus would be such hotbeds of inhumanity.  By that I mean you might be surprised if you were from another planet and had never encountered an evangelical.

In fact, the beauty of Christianity, from the perspective of enslaving one’s fellow humans, is that any message or commandment imaginable can be supported or refuted within it’s framework.  You don’t even have to use the bible.  If you’re too lazy to read it over and find where it matches your vision of what others should do for you, you can simply have a chat with God and write down what s/he says: Mohammad/Joseph Smith style.

The larger pattern of leading others around by the nose is this: 1.  make up an abstract concept; 2. designate serving it the highest moral good; 3. claim to have a unique understanding of or ability to communicate with the concept; 4. profit.

God is the classic abstract concept for this purpose.  Everyone’s already been taught by their parents that s/he’s perfect and morally flawless.  Plus God never interacts with anyone possessing an ounce of sanity.  If you can convince enough people that you can hear clear messages from God, you’ll never have to work another day in your life.  If you can convince enough people that you can, through devotion and scholarship, reasonably interpret the will of God, you only have to work Sunday mornings.  Either way, it’s a great racket.

Humans who believe that God is the highest moral authority can be relied on to accept as “good” or “evil” whatever their flavor of clergy so designate.  If the lunatic behind the pulpit says God wants the United States to be safe at all costs and that the president is the righteous tool of the lord, then torture is on.

Combine this with the fun wingnut fact* that most churches are organized as 501c3 tax-exempt religious organizations, and the sick really gets rolling.  Now clergy, who speak for a non-existent god cannot speak in a partisan manner.  God must always be in non-partisan support of the state and its activities.  This church-state connection is much less pronounced in the current political environment compared to, say, the Crusades or the 100 years war.  But the fact that God loves America and America loves God has a profound effect on the evil shit that the agents of the state can perpetrate in this world.

It’s easy to beat up on religion–it’s so old.  Let’s take a look at other abstract concepts that serve a similar morality-reversing purpose and the asshats who claim spokespersonship for them.

The Race is another oldie that can be relied on to command people.  What does it mean to take action in the best interest of the race?  In reality, it means nothing, race doesn’t exist–it’s an abstract concept with as much to do with reality as god.  Acting for the good of the race means doing what some fuckwit, often in a military uniform, says to do.

Do it for your nation!  It’s like the race, but bigger and more progressive.  Who knows what’s good for the nation?  Nobody.  Nations do not exist.  They’re just lines on maps that assholes with armies have agreed to after having sent kids to kill and die to push the line a few miles one way or the other.  The nation is a concept.  It can’t be good or evil.  It has no interests.  If X wants something “for the national interest,” it probably benefits X in some way.  In this case, again, X is often a violent jerk in a uniform, though in many instances s/he may be wearing a suit.

Fighting in solidarity with your class was my favorite.  What should the good class-conscious warrior do?  Throw off his/her chains, seize the means of production, relinquish control of said means to a violent jerk in a military uniform (fewer suits among komeraden), and show up for work the next day–unless there’s a war on, in which case, fight to liberate your class brethren/sistren in other lands–often without bullets because centrally planned war machines break down alot.

The public good/greater good is the abstract concept most in vogue at the moment.  Class and race are pretty much done for now, though I’m sure they’ll cycle back through since we’ve not learned those lessons yet.  Many people are pretty sure that the National interest is bullshit too, but that could be revitalized given further economic turmoil or a sufficiently traumatizing “national” emergency.

Right now, the public good is where it’s at.  If you know what’s good for the public, and can make a case to the suits and uniforms (hint: cut them in on the loot your plan generates), you have a profitable future in the public sector.  What constitutes the public good?  Nuclear power?  Clean coal?  Increased/decreased regulation of the financial sector? Assurances that Iran or N. Korea will denuclearize?

Altogether now: “Nobody knows–the public good doesn’t exist except as an abstract concept.”  Each individual has millions of needs prioritized in a way that s/he may not even be fully conscious of.  The idea that anybody, even a smart guy with a really cool computer simulation, has access to any insight about the collective subjective wants, desires and needs of 300, much less 300 million people is hubris on par with claiming to know the will of of an omnipotent God.

And so we come full circle.  The native human understanding which attends being raised in non-abusive circumstances is that “good” means respecting other people and accepting their equality to yourself.  It takes some true warping of a mind–typically over a dozen or so years–to teach the supremacy of abstract concepts in defining right and wrong.  Once that task is accomplished, however, any variety of human nightmares can be unleashed.

Next week’s Pew Research Center poll result: Swine flu fears vary proportionally with the number of years you lived in your parent’s basement.

* Wingnuts, for all their wingnuttiness, do a remarkable amount of research, reading, Freedom of Information Act requests etc.  While their conclusions are often suspect (in this case, that 501c3s incorrectly put one non-existent abstract concept’s will over another ) they can be entertaining and sometimes informative sources.