How Public Education Cripples Our Kids, and Why
|by John Taylor Gatto
I taught for thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan, and in some of the best, and during
that time I became an expert in boredom. Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as I
often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: They said the work was stupid, that it
made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting
around. They said teachers didn't seem to know much about their subjects and clearly weren't interested in
learning more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as bored as they were.
Boredom is the common condition of schoolteachers, and anyone who has spent time in a teachers' lounge can
vouch for the low energy, the whining, the dispirited attitudes, to be found there. When asked why they feel
bored, the teachers tend to blame the kids, as you might expect. Who wouldn't get bored teaching students who
are "rude" and interested only in grades? If even that. Of course, teachers are themselves products
of the same twelve-year compulsory school programs that so thoroughly bore their students, and as school
personnel they are trapped inside structures even more rigid than those imposed upon the children. Who, then,
is to blame?
|By the time I finally retired in 1991, I had more than enough reason to think of our schools - with their
long-term, cell-block-style, forced confinement of both students and teachers - as virtual factories of
childishness. Yet I honestly could not see why they had to be that way. My own experience had revealed to me
what many other teachers must learn along the way, too, yet keep to themselves for fear of reprisal: if we
wanted to, we could easily and inexpensively jettison the old, stupid structures and help kids take an
education rather than merely receive a schooling. We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness -
curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight - simply by being more flexible about
time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids to truly competent adults, and by giving each student what
autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then.
But we don't do that. And the more I asked why not, and persisted in thinking about the "problem"
of schooling as an engineer might, the more I missed the point: What if there is no "problem" with
our schools? What if they are the way they are, so expensively flying in the face of common sense and long
experience in how children learn things, not because they are doing something wrong but because they are doing
something "right"? Is it possible that George W. Bush accidentally spoke the truth when he said we
would "leave no child behind"? Could it be that our schools are designed to make sure not one of
them ever really grows up?
Do we really need school? I don't mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a
week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what?
Don't hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because two million happy homeschoolers
have surely put that banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn't, a considerable number of well-known
Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all
right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be
sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever "graduated" from a
secondary school. Throughout most of American history, kids generally didn't go to high school, yet the
unschooled rose to be admirals, like Farragut; inventors, like Edison; captains of industry like Carnegie and
Rockefeller; writers, like Melville and Twain and Conrad; and even scholars, like Margaret Mead. In fact,
until pretty recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren't looked upon as children at all. Ariel
Durant, who co-wrote an enormous, and very good, multi-volume history of the world with her husband, Will, was
happily married at fifteen, and who could reasonably claim that Ariel Durant was an uneducated person?
Unschooled, perhaps, but not uneducated.
||We have been taught (that is, schooled) in this country to think of "success" as synonymous
with, or at least dependent upon, "schooling," but historically that isn't true in either an
intellectual or a financial sense. And plenty of people throughout the world today find a way to educate
themselves without resorting to a system of compulsory secondary schools that all too often resemble prisons.
Why, then, do Americans confuse education with just such a system? What exactly is the purpose of our public
Mass schooling of a compulsory nature really got its teeth into the United States between 1905 and 1915,
though it was conceived of much earlier and pushed for throughout most of the nineteenth century. The reason
given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions was, roughly speaking, threefold: 1)
To make good people. 2) To make good citizens. 3) To make each person his or her personal best. These goals
are still trotted out today on a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or another as a decent
definition of public education's mission, however short schools actually fall in achieving them. But we are
dead wrong. Compounding our error is the fact that the national literature holds numerous and surprisingly
consistent statements of compulsory schooling's true purpose. We have, for example, the great H. L. Mencken,
who wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not:
"...to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence... Nothing could
be further from the truth. The aim... is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe
level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in
the United States... and that is its aim everywhere else."
Because of Mencken's reputation as a satirist, we might be tempted to dismiss this passage as a bit of
hyperbolic sarcasm. His article, however, goes on to trace the template for our own educational system back to
the now vanished, though never to be forgotten, military state of Prussia. And although he was certainly aware
of the irony that we had recently been at war with Germany, the heir to Prussian thought and culture, Mencken
was being perfectly serious here. Our educational system really is Prussian in origin, and that really is
cause for concern.
|The odd fact of a Prussian provenance for our schools pops up again and again once you know to look for
it. William James alluded to it many times at the turn of the century. Orestes Brownson was publicly
denouncing the Prussianization of American schools back in the 1840s. Horace Mann's "Seventh Annual
Report" to the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1843 is essentially a paean to the land of
Frederick the Great and a call for its schooling to be brought here. That Prussian culture loomed large in
America is hardly surprising, given our early association with that utopian state. A Prussian served as
Washington's aide during the Revolutionary War, and so many German-speaking people had settled here by 1795
that Congress considered publishing a German-language edition of the federal laws. But what shocks is that we
should so eagerly have adopted one of the very worst aspects of Prussian culture: an educational system
deliberately designed to produce mediocre intellects, to hamstring the inner life, to deny students
appreciable leadership skills, and to ensure docile and incomplete citizens in order to render the populace
It was from James Bryant Conant - president of Harvard for twenty years, WWI poison-gas specialist, WWII
executive on the atomic-bomb project, high commissioner of the American zone in Germany after WWII, and truly
one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century - that I first got wind of the real purposes of
American schooling. Without Conant, we would probably not have the same style and degree of standardized
testing that we enjoy today, nor would we be blessed with gargantuan high schools that warehouse 2,000 to
4,000 students at a time, like the famous Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. Shortly after I retired from
teaching, I picked up Conant's 1959 book-length essay "The Child, the Parent and the State", and was
more than a little intrigued to see him mention in passing that the modem schools we attend were the result of
a "revolution" engineered between 1905 and 1930. A revolution? He declines to elaborate, but he does
direct the curious and the uninformed to Alexander Inglis's 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education,
in which "one saw this revolution through the eyes of a revolutionary."
Inglis, for whom a lecture in education at Harvard is named, makes it perfectly clear that compulsory
schooling on this continent was intended to be just what it had been for Prussia in the 1820s: a fifth column
into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give the peasants and the proletarians a voice at
the bargaining table. Modern, industrialized, compulsory schooling was to make a sort of surgical incision
into the prospective unity of these underclasses. Divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant
rankings on tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind,
separated in childhood, would ever re-integrate into a dangerous whole.
Inglis breaks down the purpose - the actual purpose - of modem schooling into six basic functions, any one
of which is enough to curl the hair of those innocent enough to believe the three traditional goals listed
The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to
authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the
idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can't test for reflexive
obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.
The integrating function. This might well be called "the conformity function,"
because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and
this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.
The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student's proper
social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As
in "your permanent record." Yes, you do have one.
The differentiating function. Once their social role has been "diagnosed," children
are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits - and
not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.
The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin's theory of
natural selection as applied to what he called "favored races." In short, the idea is to help
things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit
- with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments - clearly enough that their peers will
accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That's what all
those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.
The propaedeutic function. The societal system implied by these rules will require an elite
group of caretakers. To that end, a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this
continuing project, how to watch over and control a population deliberately dumbed down and declawed in
order that government might proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient labor.
That, unfortunately, is the purpose of mandatory public education in this country. And lest you take Inglis
for an isolated crank with a rather too cynical take on the educational enterprise, you should know that he
was hardly alone in championing these ideas. Conant himself, building on the ideas of Horace Mann and others,
campaigned tirelessly for an American school system designed along the same lines. Men like George Peabody,
who funded the cause of mandatory schooling throughout the South, surely understood that the Prussian system
was useful in creating not only a harmless electorate and a servile labor force but also a virtual herd of
mindless consumers. In time a great number of industrial titans came to recognize the enormous profits to be
had by cultivating and tending just such a herd via public education, among them Andrew Carnegie and John D.
||There you have it. Now you know. We don't need Karl Marx's conception of a grand warfare between the
classes to see that it is in the interest of complex management, economic or political, to dumb people down,
to demoralize them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them if they don't conform. Class may
frame the proposition, as when Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, said the following to
the New York City School Teachers Association in 1909: "We want one class of persons to have a liberal
education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class, of necessity, in every society, to
forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual
tasks." But the motives behind the disgusting decisions that bring about these ends need not be
class-based at all. They can stem purely from fear, or from the by now familiar belief that
"efficiency" is the paramount virtue, rather than love, liberty, laughter, or hope. Above all, they
can stem from simple greed.
There were vast fortunes to be made, after all, in an economy based on mass production and organized to
favor the large corporation rather than the small business or the family farm. But mass production required
mass consumption, and at the turn of the twentieth century most Americans considered it both unnatural and
unwise to buy things they didn't actually need. Mandatory schooling was a godsend on that count. School didn't
have to train kids in any direct sense to think they should consume nonstop, because it did something even
better: it encouraged them not to think at all. And that left them sitting ducks for another great invention
of the modem era - marketing.
Now, you needn't have studied marketing to know that there are two groups of people who can always be
convinced to consume more than they need to: addicts and children. School has done a pretty good job of
turning our children into addicts, but it has done a spectacular job of turning our children into children.
Again, this is no accident. Theorists from Plato to Rousseau to our own Dr. Inglis knew that if children could
be cloistered with other children, stripped of responsibility and independence, encouraged to develop only the
trivializing emotions of greed, envy, jealousy, and fear, they would grow older but never truly grow up. In
the 1934 edition of his once well-known book Public Education in the United States, Ellwood P.
Cubberley detailed and praised the way the strategy of successive school enlargements had extended childhood
by two to six years, and forced schooling was at that point still quite new. This same Cubberley - who was
dean of Stanford's School of Education, a textbook editor at Houghton Mifflin, and Conant's friend and
correspondent at Harvard - had written the following in the 1922 edition of his book Public School
Administration: "Our schools are ... factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and
fashioned .... And it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid
|It's perfectly obvious from our society today what those specifications were. Maturity has by now been
banished from nearly every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work at
relationships; easy credit has removed the need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment has removed the
need to learn to entertain oneself; easy answers have removed the need to ask questions. We have become a
nation of children, happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial
blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy televisions, and then we buy the things we see on the
television. We buy computers, and then we buy the things we see on the computer. We buy $150 sneakers whether
we need them or not, and when they fall apart too soon we buy another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie
that they constitute a kind of life insurance, even when we're upside-down in them. And, worst of all, we
don't bat an eye when Ari Fleischer tells us to "be careful what you say," even if we remember
having been told somewhere back in school that America is the land of the free. We simply buy that one too.
Our schooling, as intended, has seen to it.
Now for the good news. Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are
fairly easy to avoid. School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and
adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently.
Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they'll
never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature,
philosophy, music, art, economics, theology - all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid.
Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct
inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant
companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired
and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.
First, though, we must wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young
minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves
children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants. Don't let your own have their
childhoods extended, not even for a day. If David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as
a pre-teen, if Thomas Edison could publish a broadsheet at the age of twelve, if Ben Franklin could apprentice
himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale
senior today), there's no telling what your own kids could do. After a long life, and thirty years in the
public school trenches, I've concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because
we haven't yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is
simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.
? John Taylor Gatto. All rights reserved.
John Taylor Gatto is a former New York State and New York City Teacher of the Year and the author, most recently,
of The Underground History of
American Education: A School Teacher's Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling.
See also: Why Schools Don't