Thoughts on "The Underground History of American Education"
Tuesday, December 21, 2010 3:06:57 PM
In my previous post, I linked to John Taylor Gatto's book, The Underground History of American Education. I did note that I hadn't actually gotten around to reading it, though.
So, I decided, now's as good a time as any to start reading it. And, I thought I'd remark on what I was reading. I'm going to jump around a lot, though.
This is going to be a long wall of text, just like my last post. So, everything's after the break.
So, here's a basic summary (glossing over quite a few details) of my understanding of his argument:
Various interests - some of them honestly believing that this would be better, some of them with strong profit motives, and some of them with racist intent - pushed for compulsory schooling done in a manner that would prevent most students from learning too much, making an underclass that could be molded into parts of a machine, without competing against the machine, or worse, revolting against it. Part of how this was accomplished was by replacing religion with "science," part of it was by using the new religion of Science to justify certain arguments, part of it was by editing history to fit the desired viewpoint, and part of it was simply by force. This was necessary to create the coal and oil economies, and modern medicine. Once that set in, the bureaucracy started to grow all on its own, and feed itself, justifying itself.
He also argues that this has resulted in our current consumerist culture, the destruction of democracy in the US, short attention spans, and many of the social ills that affect us today.
I'll start with impressions based on his point of view, because these stood out the most to me, at first.
I'll note that a few of my first major impressions about Gatto's point of view, as I began reading the book, were that Gatto was speaking out against atheism, science, and technology - science because it led to justifications for dumbing down the populace, atheism because science called for religion to be stomped out, and technology because it required a caste system, with the dumbed down populace that science justified.
As I read, he actually did address my concerns relating to technology and science - although he did mention that modern technology wouldn't be where it is today without an industrialized culture, he also mentioned Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial spirit, and the disruptive power of the Internet as ways that will help us get out of the trap we're in. Science, he later made the distinction between Science as a religion, and science as a tool. As for religion, though, I felt that he brought religion too far into it - claiming that without religion, we'd need another source of morals that would be fed by corporate interests, and we'd treat them as a religion. Of course, given that it's the parent's and possibly community's job to instill morals into children, and it's possible to have morals while being atheist... I think he's wrong on that one.
He also claims that modern medicine and some modern technology wouldn't be possible without the massified society that exists today... not so sure about that. Production would be more difficult, and consumption less, making economies of scale all screwed up... but there would be even more innovation, and possibly even the skills to make the goods would be dispersed widely.
Of course, there's another point I want to bring up... he mentions the beginnings of forced education involving the state deciding that it knows better than parents, and making it legal for government to take children away from their parents, if the government decides that parents are improperly parenting. Here's the thing, though... there really are cases where parents are being harmful to their children. I'll take his argument that forced school is hurting children (and therefore, parents deciding to determine what their children learn should be completely legal) at face value, it's certainly believable enough, and there's plenty of evidence that his argument is true. However, how do you handle child abuse, or neglect? Gatto mentions a member of his community that would beat people who abused their spouses or children... but really, that's acting quasi-governmental in nature, too.
Another thing, on the whole forced schooling thing... Gatto himself mentions an early forced school that was turning out quite brilliant students, because they didn't get the memo that forced schooling was supposed to dumb down students, and was instead educating them. (This isn't an argument for forced schooling, mind you, it's just pointing out something interesting that he mentioned.)
He's arguing that modern schools are designed to get apparent results quickly, socially engineer children into being dependent entirely on authority figures (and not their parents,) stunt their mental growth so that they're not willing to learn and are docile in a mass production society, and train them to have a short attention span, and be dependent on rewards for doing anything - not just doing things because they're right.
And, honestly... I think he's right on that front.
So, what's the answer?
He argues for homeschooling at least through second grade, not using "funny animals, dancing alphabet letters, pastel colors, and treacly music" (most children's media,) and when children want to play, translate that into learning real work, rather than pure games all of the time. He also mentions socialization with all ages, and reading to be important.
Before I continue, I'll note that I don't work with children - I'm not a parent, an educator, or any of that. I have worked in a school, but as a sysadmin, not a role that involved much contact with the students. So, my opinion is weak.
However, based on the evidence he presents, I can see that working - basically, give children the tools to learn on their own, give them a guide as for which direction to go with their life, and then provide them with the resources they need to help them learn.
He also mentioned the disruptive power of the Internet... it can be a HUGE tool, if used properly (not as a babysitter, although encouraging learning when children want to learn.) It's a huge resource for learning outside of the school system, and provides quick access to a lot more material, so I think it's critical for accelerating learning.
I don't think religion is necessary, but disseminating a moral code might be necessary. Given "proper" morals, people will behave in a "good" manner - there's plenty of atheists that have morals.
Of course, the entrenched system will fight this every step of the way... not exactly sure how to fight that. Still, educating people as much as possible outside of the system - if people are willing to learn outside of school, the damage that school can do is drastically reduced - is likely the best way to go. Once enough people are independent and educated, the system will naturally start to crumble.