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Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Underground History of American Education

The Underground History of American Education
I've just begun reading this book online, so I can't give a proper review just yet. I can say that the prologue and opening chapters are firing up the old hemispheres, so regardless of the ultimate merits of the author's position, I can safely recommend it as a meditation.*

From the prologue:
Exactly what John Dewey heralded at the onset of the twentieth century has indeed happened. Our once highly individualized nation has evolved into a centrally managed village, an agora made up of huge special interests which regard individual voices as irrelevant. The masquerade is managed by having collective agencies speak through particular human beings. Dewey said this would mark a great advance in human affairs, but the net effect is to reduce men and women to the status of functions in whatever subsystem they are placed. Public opinion is turned on and off in laboratory fashion. All this in the name of social efficiency, one of the two main goals of forced schooling.

Dewey called this transformation "the new individualism." When I stepped into the job of schoolteacher in 1961, the new individualism was sitting in the driver’s seat all over urban America, a far cry from my own school days on the Monongahela when the Lone Ranger, not Sesame Street, was our nation’s teacher, and school things weren’t nearly so oppressive. But gradually they became something else in the euphoric times following WWII. Easy money and easy travel provided welcome relief from wartime austerity, the advent of television, the new nonstop theater, offered easy laughs, effortless entertainment. Thus preoccupied, Americans failed to notice the deliberate conversion of formal education that was taking place, a transformation that would turn school into an instrument of the leviathan state. Who made that happen and why is part of the story I have to tell.
As one who respects public education as a gem of a social contract, one who wishes to expand free education to university levels, one who is troubled by the stratification of society by the very availability of private education for the moneyed**, these words from Mr. Gatto give me trepidation.

I have a feeling I will have a few things to say when I am through with his thesis. And as much as this reads as an attack upon collectivism, I have hope that the author's position will be somewhat more nuanced than that. Or I may even have a come-to-Jesus moment that sets my thoughts upon their head.

As I say, a good read. Buy it here, or read it for free online.

*I am also anxious to get OBL's picture off of the top of this blog.

**Not incidentally, I also object to the mix of public/private health care as well. As with education, as long as the moneyed have an alternative, serious resources will never be pressed upon the public system.


  1. I have not actually read Gatto, so my comments can be taken with several pounds of salt, but I get nervous about claims that education in the US went all to hell in the 1960s, because that's when integration kicked in. The claims of "an instrument of the leviathan state" have more than a slight stink of racism to them.

    It doesn't help that many homeschoolers praise Gatto in terms that make it obvious that they're homeschooling because it keeps their unique special snowflakes away from "those people."

    It could be simply an extraordinary coincidence here, but when I look at the text you quoted it doesn't give me a good feeling about the man's intent.

  2. Wow, orc - nice to see you 'round these parts!

    Your reservations are exactly mine, for the most part. I'm only through the first two chapters at this point (so many things to read!), but his target predates the '60's. He's going after the Industrial Revolution, and he's making some good purchase there.

    There is an eyebrow-popping assertion that modern group education is modeled on an Hindu system that explicitly needed to keep the lower castes (95% of the Indian populace) ignorant except in the most technical and utilitarian ways. He makes some provocative historical connections to the genesis of the 19th century British schools - when the agri-peasantry was deliberately impoverished to create factory hands - and eventually American public schools.

    I shall see if he makes his case, but I have to say that the characterizations of our school system in popular comedies (Ferris Bueller, etc.) rely heavily on the universal acceptability of those characterizations. Those comedies simply would not work if they had to "sell" the audience on the counterproductive vapidity that these institutions often display.

    I will give this a fair airing when I am through. Thanks for visiting my place.


I welcome all reactions and points of view, so comments here are not moderated. Cheerfully "colorful" language is great. I'll even tolerate some ad hominem directed against me... each other, not so much. Racist or excessively abusive comments (or spam) will be deleted at my discretion.