5 martie 2012

CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES


THE TYRANNY OF COMPULSORY SCHOOLING
by John Taylor Gatto
 

Reprinted from The Sun:
Twenty-six years of award-winning teaching have led John Gatto to some troubling conclusions about the public schools.
 
A seventh-grade teacher, Gatto has been named New York City Teacher of the Year and New York State Teacher of the Year. Praised by leaders as diverse as Ronald Reagan and Mario Cuomo, he's a political maverick whose views defy easy categorization.
 
Gatto is also a local legend on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where he grows garlic, plays chess, writes songs - and once won a Citizen of the Week Award for coming to the aid of a woman who had been robbed. A collection of his essays - Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum Of Compulsory Schooling - was published earlier this year by New Society Publishers.
 
Gatto has appeared twice before in The Sun: "Why Schools Don't Educate" [Issue 175] and "A Few Lessons They Won't Forget" [Issue 186]. Nothing else we've printed has generated as many reprint requests.
 
Let me speak to you about dumbness because that is what schools teach best. Old-fashioned dumbness used to be simple ignorance: you didn't know something, but there were ways to find out if you wanted to. Government-controlled schooling didn't eliminate dumbness - in fact, we now know that people read more fluently before we had forced schooling - but dumbness was transformed.
 
Now dumb people aren't just ignorant; they're the victims of the non-thought of secondhand ideas. Dumb people are now well-informed about the opinions of Time magazine and CBS, The New York Times and the President; their job is to choose which pre-thought thoughts, which received opinions, they like best. The élite in this new empire of ignorance are those who know the most pre-thought thoughts.
 
Mass dumbness is vital to modem society. The dumb person is wonderfully flexible clay for psychological shaping by market research, government policymakers; public-opinion leaders, and any other interest group. The more pre-thought thoughts a person has memorized, the easier it is to predict what choices he or she will make. What dumb people cannot do is think for themselves or ever be alone for very long without feeling crazy. That is the whole point of national forced schooling; we aren't supposed to be able to think for ourselves because independent thinking gets in the way of "professional" think-ing, which is believed to follow rules of scientific precision.
 
Modern scientific stupidity masquerades as intellectual knowledge - which it is not. Real knowledge has to be earned by hard and painful thinking; it can't be generated in group discussions or group therapies but only in lonely sessions with yourself. Real knowledge is earned only by ceaseless questioning of yourself and others, and by the labor of independent verification; you can't buy it from a government agent, a social worker, a psychologist, a licensed specialist, or a schoolteacher. There isn't a public school in this country set up to allow the discovery of real knowledge - not even the best ones - although here and there individual teachers, like guerrilla fighters, sabotage the system and work toward this ideal. But since schools are set up to classify people rather than to see them as unique, even the best schoolteachers are strictly limited in the amount of questioning they can tolerate.
 
The new dumbness - the non thought of received ideas - is much more dangerous than simple ignorance, because it's really about thought control. In school, a washing away of the innate power of individual mind takes place, a "cleansing" so comprehensive that original thinking becomes difficult. If you don't believe this development was part of the intentional design of schooling, you should read William Torrey Harris's The Philosophy of Education. Harris was the U.S. Commissioner of Education at the turn of the century and the man most influential in standardizing our schools. Listen to the man.
 
"Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred," writes Harris, "are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom." This is not all accident, Harris explains, but the "result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual." Scientific education subsumes the individual until his or her behavior becomes robotic. Those are the thoughts of the most influential U.S. Commissioner of Education we've had so far.
 
The great theological scholar Dietrich Bonhoeffer raised this issue of the new dumbness in his brilliant analysis of Nazism, in which he sought to comprehend how the best-schooled nation in the world, Germany, could fall under its sway. He concluded that Nazism could be understood only as the psychological product of good schooling. The sheer weight of received ideas, pre-thought thoughts, was so overwhelming that individuals gave up trying to assess things for themselves. Why struggle- to invent a map of the world or of the human conscience when schools and media offer thousands of ready-made maps, pre-thought thoughts?
 
The new dumbness is particularly deadly to middle and upper-middle-class people, who have already been made shallow by the multiple requirements to conform. Too many people, uneasily convinced that they must know something because of a degree, diploma, or license, remain so convinced until a brutal divorce, alienation from their children, loss of employment, or periodic fits of meaninglessness manage to tip the precarious mental balance of their incomplete humanity, their stillborn adult lives.
Listen to William Harris again, the dark genius of American schooling, the man who gave you scientifically age-graded classrooms:
 
The great purposes of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places than in beautiful halls. It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.
 
Harris thought, a hundred years ago, that self-alienation was the key to a successful society. Filling the young mind with the thoughts of others and surrounding it with ugliness - that was the passport to self-alienation. Who can say that he was wrong?
 
 
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