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
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 light-duty military training. Religious
schools and some other kinds of private schools know this, but nobody is
compelled to go to these schools by the government. Their student bodies
are like a volunteer army. Without a willing attitude, training is a dark
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 began
in spotty fashion around 1900, but it had little growth potential until
James Bryant Conant, a long-time Harvard president and all-round big cheese
evangelized the form in the U.S. back in the early 1950s.
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
It’s hard to blame them.
The visible imperatives of our American Columbines, like tracking and standardized
testing, are such a bald-faced endeavor to create a class society like Britain’s
it’s little wonder kids catch on and get mad. School robs them of hope.
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.
He has been writing and talking about alternatives ever since. Visit his
website to learn more. This
article was published in the first issue of Life Learning Magazine, in March