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Schools to Violence to Children and Society by John Taylor Gatto

Schools Do Violence to Children...And Society
By John Taylor Gatto

If you’ll allow me to call the mass outpouring of anger and incivility which characterizes our institutions of public schooling these days, “the Columbine Phenomenon” – and I want to include not just the dramatic instances of carnage and arson, drugs, and sexual assaults, but the whole gamut of generalized hostility which passes before a teacher’s eyes – then I think a great part of the responsibility for our Columbines is attributable to the infrastructure of schooling itself. Schools are workshops of disrespect.

We took a wrong road, big-time, in schooling about a hundred years ago when we made its disciplines forced. And when we put the burden of instruction principally in the hands of professionalized strangers. After that, mistake was piled on mistake. We overemphasized, and still do, the quality of training that school can deliver; we rang bells in children’s ears as if they were mice or pigeons being trained in a cage, we extended childhood further and further into the most vigorous period of life, infantilizing the commonality, we mathematically segregated kids according to the alchemy of standardized test scores, although cynically we had become aware that these tests correlate with nothing important, not even with what they are purported to measure, and finally, we committed the worst mistake of all – we yoked the world of work to the world of schooling, forcing a connection which simply shouldn’t exist.

When we come to transcend our Columbines it will be because we’ve snapped awake from our self-induced nightmare, and begun to act on two bedrock principles: I) that nobody can educate you except yourself and good teaching is only a small fraction of the task, and 2) that over-organization precipitates entropy. That’s a principle of thermodynamics which, translated into everyday words, means that craziness increases steadily in closed systems cut off from the outside.

For more years than most of us are aware, inmates in schools have been shooting each other, committing arson, planting drugs on their teachers, and avoiding the common standards of decent behavior in a number of other ways, all in order to express their hatred of these places (and often of their own parents for confining them there).

As schools became institutional analogues to factories in the half-century between 1910 and 1960, the whole school enterprise became a colossal works project, one in which passing out jobs became an end in itself. Often the jobs that exist in schools have only the most tenuous connection to the needs of young people. School as training for work, or as training to be a consumer (but never an independent producer), schooling to sustain an established jobs pyramid, requires tight central control to quash unwanted personal initiatives by local people. It requires top-down management.

The difficulty is that education, as opposed to schooling, cries out for self-management. The only conceivable reason to seek an education is to reach the goal of self-management, self-direction; if it’s only a job you’re after, trade schools, school-to-work places like medical school or plasterer’s school, will do just fine. I’m not trying to play word games here. You can be trained from outside, but only educated from within; one is a habit of memory and reaction, the other a matter of seizing the initiative. We have a world drowning in well-schooled people, yet clearly we are short on educated ones.

We seldom think of it, but mass institutional schooling is compelled to follow a corporate model. If an educated man or woman is the output desired, we run squarely into a dilemma: There isn’t any known way to bulk-educate, it’s all custom work. For one thing you can’t be educated without a huge dose of primary experience, but confinement schooling can’t let you get that. Confinement schooling has to substitute abstract exercises – call it “ virtual experience” – for the real thing. We need some of that, of course, but the current situation is too unbalanced and there isn’t any way to correct it, not really, without dismantling mass forced schooling.

The particular kinds of damage that lack of experience inflicts are loss of confidence and independence, and the growth of some crazy notions about how the world works and how people get along with each other. Depriving children of experience and responsibility brings out certain undesirable aspects of human nature which have always characterized weak people.

Schooling has its own value apart from education, of course. I learned to take a military rifle apart and put it back together again, blindfolded, all 50+ parts, in about two hours. By rehearsing the moves in my mind, I was able to do the trick weeks later to graduate from basic training. So did almost everybody else. I’m not good at stuff like that, so I was amazed.

School training ought to be, for best results, something like that. Education, on the other hand, is best thought of as a helix sport. Helix sports are things like gliding or sailing alone out of sight of land, like cross-country skiing over broken wilderness terrain. Helix sports require a significant personal investment. They push individuals to maximum limits, but here’s the rub: They don’t offer rules for every contingency. Part of the game you have to make up as you go along.

Unlike baseball or chess, the players in a helix sport are usually indifferent to records or competition. What they search for is a new relationship with themselves, a new relationship with the world. They endure discipline, pain, and risk to achieve these goals. One person’s helix sport, like one person’s education, isn’t another’s; in a helix sport participants do most of the work and take most of the risks, and coaching is only a small part of it. Rules and fixed training will take you only part of the way. Only the individual knows his or her own limits, so it’s futile to expect a formula for progress.

Corporate schooling can’t allow the freeform routines and heavy responsibility of a helix sport to many, because that leads to rapid growth, and here the paradox kicks in: Personal growth makes people hard to manage – they want to produce their own lives, not consume the lives and imaginations emblemized by corporate products. But the corporate nature of our economy demands well-schooled men and women trained in habits of uncritical consumption. What could a soda pop company or a cigarette company make of an educated clientele?

Isn’t it only good business to seek to create the customer you need? What is market research, after all, but a search for ways to overcome consumer resistance? And let’s not beat up on Joe Camel or Coca-Cola exclusively. Think instead of Microsoft, which some high-tech analysts believe has set back computer progress a full decade with its superior marketing clout coupled with a grotesquely error-prone Windows system. Should Microsoft prefer a knowledgeable, sophisticated consumer, or just the opposite? I mean, get real.

Warehousing children deprives them of significant encounters with reality, with older people, with the world of public affairs, with their own parents, and to these incubators of childishness, many kids lose interest in encounters with reality. They create cultures of immaturity in which to hide themselves away from growing up.

It’s hard to blame them. School is like a sick joke: Doing well in these places does you in as often as it does you good. In the nature of that paradox, school personnel are given no choice but to become liars and either believe their own lies or to do what is worse: Smear their own cynicism and bitterness across the children, and let them know they have no prospects.

Lies? Why, what could I mean? Try this one: If high SAT scores are truly an honest passage to the rewards of our land, how did George Bush become president with a mediocre 550 on his verbals; how did Bill Bradley become a Senator with an embarrassing 480? How did one graduate from Yale, the other from Princeton? Raise your hand if you know Al Gore flunked out of college.

School robs children of hope. Think of hope as the boundary phenomenon separating free men and women from drones, the hope-ful from the hope-less. The shooters at Columbine had everything – respectable parents, plenty of pocket money, intelligence, health, agreeable appearances – except hope. School was a minefield in which the mines were daily humiliations.

If we are just parts of an enormous social machine – homo economicus – we should expect more and more Columbines. Think of Columbine as the canary chirping in the coal mine, as evidence we are still alive; when there are no more Columbines to warn us something is wrong Orwell’s prophecy will have come to pass.

All the money in the world couldn’t buy the Columbine assassins an education; at age seventeen, they had reached the end of the line. That’s why they killed themselves. What the newspapers didn’t tell you is that Littleton, Colorado had long been a national leader in teenage suicide – a top ten venue. The whole nation wears that crown, too. Suicide is pretty much a habit of prosperous kids. They seem to catch on to the lies faster than poor kids.

Learning to think, learning to have the courage to think, becomes difficult these days, thanks to school. School creates the chemistry which produces most of the common characteristics of modern schoolchildren: indifference, dishonesty, boredom, malice, treachery, cruelty, whining, self-pity, boasting, greed, a short attention span.

The most destructive dynamic in schools, which protect the interests of an orderly, predestined society, is the same thing that causes caged rats to develop eccentric and even violent mannerisms when they press a bar for food, not realizing that the delivery mechanism has been deliberately programmed to release food on a random schedule. The rat has no way to tell that its activity is irrelevant. The reward will come when the invisible master ordains it, more accurately when the mechanism built by the invisible master reaches a point on a schedule utterly independent and unaware of the rat’s hunger.

In such a system the rat seeks the key through irrational behavior, it presses the bar faster, it indulges in truly weird gyrations, creating a record of despair logged pornographically by its observers – who literally have decided they have nothing better to do with their own lives than to torment rats.

Much of the weird behavior kids display in school is a function of the insane and dishonest reinforcement schedule of pedagogy which rewards children for acting against their own best interests, for betraying their parents, cultures, traditions, and indeed their own humanity, in order to please the strangers who control them, whether near-at-hand or remote. This temple of lies along with the endless confinements, bells and bell curves, the ugly and stupefying environments, slowly drive kids out of their minds.

Trapped children, like trapped rats, need close professional management. If you seek self-management you need to avoid public school. I wish that wasn’t true, but it is.

John Taylor Gatto is the author of Dumbing Us Down, The Exhausted School, A Different Kind of Teacher, and The Underground History of American Education. Formerly a three-time New York City Teacher of the Year and New York State Teacher of the Year, he “dropped out” of teaching in 1991 via an article in the Wall Street Journal, claiming he was no longer willing to hurt children. This article was published in the first issue of Life Learning Magazine, in March of 2002.

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