Monday, July 12, 2010

Book review: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto

I just want to say...

I am a product of the American public school system, and I owe a whole hell of a lot to all the teachers who taught me, and whose patience and thoughtfulness guided me or set an example I could follow. My experience with public school teachers has overwhelmingly been that they care about their students far beyond what their paychecks warrant. I hope it is clear that the criticisms I offer are with the higher school leadership, with flaws inherent to the architecture of the system, and with historic decisions which I have led the institution away from the altruistic intentions of teachers. (And for what it's worth, my grandmother was a public high school librarian!)

The same old song and dance?
You probably think you know what's coming:
1) America ranks embarrassingly low among nations on standardized math tests.

2) "High school science class in Europe is like college science class in America."
(It is. I was an exchange student for a year in Germany, and my physics class there was harder than in America. In fact, it was about like the Physics 101 course I took in college.)

3) American history textbooks propagate worldviews ranging from mildly Eurocentric to downright racist.

4) American schools don't teach foreign languages very well, don't teach classical Greek or Roman literature enough, and with rare exceptions, don't teach Latin or Greek at all.

5) "New Math" (am I dating myself? Is this still out there?)

6) And of course:
Pink Floyd The Wall
There's some legitimacy to these observations, and there's also room for some nuance. (American schools are not all the same- math scores at the better schools are quite competitive with other nations') But these are all part of the same old conversation we aaalllllways have about public school. I wouldn't be recommending this book if it didn't contribute something new.

History lesson
The earliest public education was in India, and was devised as a mechanism to condition students to accept and propagate the caste system. Later, Prussia adopted the system- partly to gain a military quality advantage over its neighbors, but also as a forum for military and other types of indoctrination. Limited community-based education has existed in America since the colonial days, but in the late 1800's, Robber barons- with plenty of money to spend, dreamed of ways that public education could be harnessed to their benefit. Like the Prussians, they saw ways that an educated (with other peoples' money) American workforce might impart a potential competitive benefit. More ominously, they imagined ways that a captive American youth could be indoctrinated with social and political ideas beneficial to big business. As explored and documented quite thoroughly by the 1954 Congressional investigation (a.k.a. the Reece Committee), the Fords, Rockefellers, Morgans, and other blueblood families expended money and influence for over sixty years to gain power over public school curricula. In the late 1800's, they pushed to expand the mandatory hours and years kids must spend in public school. (perhaps not a bad thing, but motivated in this case by malicious intent) In the early 1900's, they acquired possession of the major textbook publishing houses. From this point onward, the quality of content became subservient to the advancement of Rockefeller-driven social and political programs (e.g. the recurrent promotion of banker-dominated supranational bodies such as the League of Nations, and the United Nations) Math and science performance has gone down over the decades- as banks recognized that it was more profitable to keep Americans ignorant of some concepts- particularly basic financial skills. Sure, some schools have classes that teach kids to balance checkbooks, etc... but rarely do they address very real subjects like how derrivatives or escrow work, and never do social studies classes instruct how the Third World is kept in perpetual servitude through crushing debt at the hands of international private banks. Over time, budgets for the teaching of traditional subjects has declined, while training programs to indoctrinate teachers and students alike with social conditioning has expanded. (e.g. history taught in a manner most favorable to international banking interests: championing highly centralized and interdependent social and economic systems over less centralized, more self-sufficient systems; promoting "international" agencies such as the United Nations and World Bank while demonizing ideas of protectionism or self-sufficiency)

Enrichment programs of all sorts (music in particular) struggle to remain funded, yet Gatto shows how millions of dollars are wasted on new math books which are substandard teaching on math concepts, but which promote various Rockefeller social views. In one stunning example, a word problem to calculate how far Columbus sailed on his journey of discovery to America is accompanied by an entire paragraph of racially divisive commentary about the Indians and Europeans. As always, there is an element of truth to some of what is said, but a favorite game of Elites such are the Rockefellers is keeping the public at each other by stoking any divisive issues, and downplaying our common interest in removing the corrupt elements from our leadership. The new books keep students uninformed consumers by removing math lessons which show how compound debt is calculated. (a valuable lesson that would potentially prevent students from becoming future debt-slaves to the Rockefeller-dominated Chase Manhattan Bank)

Moving from specifics of the curriculum to more general observations about the entire school experience, Gatto shows how school has become very much focused in recent decades on conditioning students to learn and accept the place in society which the school predicts for its students. Schools in impoverished communities rarely promote entrepreneurship in their students. Guidance councilors in the inner city generally don't tell kids to start their own businesses, they tell kids to get a paying job at the local factory. This isn't to say that excellence isn't rewarded, or that kids are not encouraged to reach their fullest potential, but intentionally or not, these schools construct a limiting mindset. "Fullest potential" is lowered from striving to become upper class to striving to be comfortable middle management/ middle class. While independence is downplayed, the ability to follow orders and take direction have been more and more overtly advanced. Sure, everybody needs to learn how to follow instructions, etc, but the difference between rich and poor schools in this regard is striking. Some impoverished schools have no student government. (and yes, student government is a charade in real terms, but it does foster leadership skills in the kids who participate) Likewise for projects like Model U.N. which is really only seen in schools over a certain socio-economic threshold. Model U.N., parenthetically, conditions upper class kids to accept the idea of global government at the hands of the Rockefeller-dominated United Nations as desirable, and in fact inevitable! Private schools for upper-crust kids are far richer in leadership development and love of the treasonous United Nations.

On one hand, none of this may be surprising: "Of course poor schools don't have the resources for student government, they're probably struggling just to keep kids from killing each other in class.!" What's appalling is how Gatto shows these mechanisms have been put in place by intention- and without the consent of the public who actully fund the schools.

No more teachers' dirty looks
Millions of kids have attended public school over the past hundred years since the Robber barons' infiltration, so it to be expected that Rockefeller and Ford have left their mark on school discipline. Gatto demonstrates convincingly how the approach to discipline over time has evolved towards conditioning students of different socioeconomic groups to take their appointed places in life. Poor and middle classes have obedience and respect for hierarchical power structures instilled to a much greater degree than the wealthy. The comparisons to Alphas and Deltas of [book:Brave New World|5129] are apt, but Alpha and Delta are determined not by ability, but by socioeconomic provinence.

Born into it

Present Day
By the time Gatto finally turns his eye to present-day public schools, it comes as no surprise what the true nature of the system is. There are probably a lot of ways to say it, but the unvarnished idea is that schools are factories designed to produce subservient drones, trained just enough to become low-level functionaries in corporate and government circles. Faux rebellion may be tolerated, but true questioning of the order is not. Imagination and creativity are permitted only in forms that can be channeled to the purposes of the reigning regime. The very most promising students may be groomed for higher positions up the pyramid. (of course never the VERY top; these old robber baron families believe in bloodline succession for the highest positions of leadership) For the rest, school is meant to dumb us down, keep us from asking questions, keep us paying our taxes, and slowly sink us into a sort of debt-slavery.

Before you write this off...
as an anti-education screed, please note that Gatto shares with us a very compelling alternate view of what education COULD be. He is quite fair-minded in his criticisms (and praises) of teachers, principals, and others at the bottom who run the system without really understanding its nature. It seems extremely unlikely this was written to grind an axe. For one thing, the information is independently verifiable, and well-reasoned. For another: he was not scorned by the system; he enjoyed New York State's highest honor, State Teacher of the Year, in 1991. This is a "must-read", and I hardly ever say that.

Suppose you read this book and decide for yourself that Gatto’s criticisms are legit. Now what are you supposed to do?
A few bold or zealous souls out there might actually decide to home school their children. Real die-hards teach their kids a full curriculum in-house... but Man! who has the time or confidence to do that?? Did you know that you can pick and choose certain subjects for home schooling? Teach some subjects at home, and then send the child to school for others. As long as you meet the state requirements, you're good. Actively learn the content of your kids' instruction. Maybe you'll find some subjects are taught in a manner you find perfectly acceptable, while others are objectionable. Just teach the bad ones at home, and then send the kids to school for the rest. OR, send your kids to school, but augment their instruction with additional lessons at home. A simple search will show the internet is loaded with home school materials. (buyer beware, as always!) Some communities have private schools or other institutions you can send your kids to for instruction in individual subjects. My friends send their kids to a local Hindu community center to learn Gujarati... I'm not saying that specific example fits your childrens' needs; I'm telling you to look at who else in your community besides the local public school offers instruction that might enrich your children.

Finally, the obvious yet difficult advice (you knew this was coming): get involved. Join the PTA, but more than that, attend your local school board meetings. Public schools are taxpayer funded, and should be open to the public. If they aren't where you live, make a fuss! Challenge officials about the quality and content of instruction. Going further, make education a campaign issue in local and state elections. Don't sit around and hope somebody good gets elected; participate actively in the process. Volunteer for the campaigns of candidates whose view of education fits your own. Better still, run for office yourself. Yes, yes... this all sounds like a lot of work, and it would be easier to say "I'll just let the school handle it...", but judging from Gatto’s book, that's exactly what you're supposed to say.
Dumb and Dumber

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