Chris Acheson writes "John Taylor Gatto is a former New York City school teacher. During his 30-year career, he has taught at 5 different public schools, has had his teaching license suspended twice for insubordination, and was once covertly terminated while on medical leave. He has also won the New York City Teacher of the Year award three times and the New York State Teacher of the Year award once during the final year of his career. The whole time he has been an outspoken critic of the school system. Nine years after leaving his career, he published The Underground History of American Education (full text available here), in which he puts forth his insider's vision of what is wrong with American schooling. His verdict is not what you'd expect: the school system cannot be fixed, Gatto asserts, because it has been designed not to educate. Skeptical? So was I." Read on for the rest of Acheson's review.
The true purpose of schooling, according to Gatto, is to produce an easily manageable workforce to serve employers in a mass-production economy. Actual education is a secondary and even counterproductive result since educated people tend to be more difficult to control.
Over the course of the book, Gatto exposes many of the individuals, organizations, and crises (both real and manufactured) that helped to make our public school system what it is today. Such architects as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, and a handful of teaching and management experts sought to benefit directly from a dumbed-down citizenry. Others contributed in a naive attempt at Utopian social engineering, mostly unaware of the harm that they were doing. There was never any master plan, though. The author puts it best:
Gatto maintains throughout the book that all individuals have an innate curiosity and desire to learn. Examples are given in the first chapter of prominent historical figures who prospered with little or no formal schooling. But I found the examples of desire for substantive education on the part of "the masses" to be most compelling:With conspiracy so close to the surface of the American imagination and American reality, I can only approach with trepidation the task of discouraging you in advance from thinking my book the chronicle of some vast diabolical conspiracy to seize all our children for the personal ends of a small, elite minority.
Don't get me wrong, American schooling has been replete with chicanery from its very beginnings: indeed, it isn't difficult to find various conspirators boasting in public about what they pulled off. But if you take that tack you'll miss the real horror of what I'm trying to describe, that what has happened to our schools was inherent in the original design for a planned economy and a planned society laid down so proudly at the end of the nineteenth century. I think what happened would have happened anyway-without the legions of venal, half-mad men and women who schemed so hard to make it as it is. If I'm correct, we're in a much worse position than we would be if we were merely victims of an evil genius or two.
The real function of the school system is not to empower people by giving them knowledge, but to crush this instinct toward self-improvement before it makes the workers too independent and troublesome. Another compelling example is the "Jewish Student Riots" described in chapter 9:When a Colorado coalminer testified before authorities in 1871 that eight hours underground was long enough for any man because "he has no time to improve his intellect if he works more," the coaldigger could hardly have realized his very deficiency was value added to the market equation.
Thousands of mothers milled around schools in Yorkville, a German immigrant section, and in East Harlem, complaining angrily that their children had been put on "half-rations" of education. They meant that mental exercise had been removed from the center of things.
The book does have a few problems. Gatto is by his own admission somewhat casual about citing his sources. This is important because there are some assertions made that many will find dubious. For example:
This would be a great fact to toss out when trying to convince someone that schooling is unnecessary. But where does this statistic come from? What does "wherever such a thing mattered" mean? Some readers may be willing to simply take Gatto's word for it and accept this assertion, but skeptics will be left unsatisfied. According to historical census data from 1840, the national average literacy rate for white adults was indeed approximately 93%, and the literacy rate for white adults living in Connecticut was 99.67%. Why not simply say that the statistic refers to white adults? The omission hurts the author's credibility in the eyes of a skeptical reader.Looking back, abundant data exist from states like Connecticut and Massachusetts to show that by 1840 the incidence of complex literacy in the United States was between 93 and 100 percent wherever such a thing mattered.
The other thing that I found disappointing is that Gatto doesn't discuss solutions to the schooling problem as thoroughly as I wanted. Throughout the book examples are shown of educational methods which have worked well. As I read, I mulled these over, and anticipated that the final chapter (titled "Breaking Out Of The Trap") would be a comprehensive look at these methods and ways to promote their implementation. But that final chapter is mostly a collection of anecdotes. Gatto does provide a short list of positive suggestions and a promise to cover solutions more fully in a future book.
The picture that Gatto paints for us of our school system and society is frightening, but I also found it comforting to see evidence that ignorance and apathy are not the natural state of humanity. I found hope in the fact that things were once different. Having a clearly defined problem that can be solved is preferable to having a vague suspicion that something is wrong, but no clear idea what it is.
The ideas presented in Gatto's Underground History have the potential to change our society and our individual lives for the better. Even when we are trapped within the system, knowing how it works and what it is really up to can help us retain our wit and our humanity. If you are a student, if you are a parent, if you know or care about anyone who is in school, or even if you are just concerned about corporate and government control versus individual freedom, you need to read this book.
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