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In 1909 a factory inspector did an informal survey of 500 working children in 20 factories. She found that 412 of them would rather work in the terrible conditions of the factories than return to school.
Helen Todd, "Why Children Work," McClures Magazine (April 1913)
In one experiment in Milwaukee, for example, 8,000 youth...were asked if they would return full-time to school if they were paid about the same wages as they earned at work; only 16 said they would.
David Tyack, Managers of Virtue (1982)
An Arena Of Dishonesty
I remember clearly the last school where I worked, on the wealthy Upper West Side of Manhattan. An attractive atmosphere of good-natured dishonesty was the lingua franca of corridor and classroom, a grace caused oddly enough by the schools unwritten policy of cutting unruly children all the slack they could use.
Student terrorists, muggers, sexual predators, and thieves, including two of my own pupils who had just robbed a neighborhood grocery of $300 and had been apprehended coming back to class, were regularly returned to their lessons after a brief lecture from the principal. All received the same mercy. There was no such thing as being held to account at my school. This behavioral strategyleveling good, bad, ugly into one undifferentiated lumpenproletariat1may seem odd or morally repugnant in conventional terms, but it constituted masterful psychological management from the perspective of enlightened pedagogy. What this policy served and served well was to prioritize order and harmony above justice or academic development.
Once you know the code, the procedure is an old one. It can hardly be called radical politics except by the terminally innocent. If you spend a few hours with Erving Goffmans work on the management of institutions, you discover that the strongest inmates in an asylum and the asylums management have a bond; they need each other. This isnt cynical. Its a price that must be paid for the benefits of mega-institutions. The vast Civil War prison camp of Andersonville couldnt have operated without active cooperation from its more dangerous inmates; so too, Dachau; so it is in school. Erving Goffman taught us all we need to know about the real grease which makes institutional wheels turn.
A tacit hands-off policy pays impressive dividends. In the case of my school, those dividends were reflected in the neighborhood newspapers customary reference to the place as "The West Sides Best-Kept Secret." This was supposed to mean that private school conditions obtained inside the building, civility was honored, the battlefield aspect of other schools with large minority populations was missing. And it was true. The tone of the place was as good as could be found in Community School District 3. It was as if by withdrawing every expectation from the rowdy, their affability rose in inverse proportion.
Not long after my transfer into this school I came into home room one morning to discover Jack, a handsome young fellow of thirteen, running a crap game in the back of the room, a funny looking cigarette in his mouth. "Hey, Jack, knock it off," I snapped, and like the surprisingly courteous boy he was, he did. But a little while later there was Jack undressing a girl fairly conspicuously in the same corner, and this time when I intervened harshly he was slow to comply. A second order got no better results. "If I have to waste time on this junk again, Jack, you can cool your heels in the principals office," I said
Jack looked disappointed in me. He spoke frankly as if we were both men of the same world, "Look, Gatto," he told me in a low, pleasant voice so as not to embarrass me, "it wont do any good. Save yourself the trouble. That lady will wink at me, hold me there for eight minutesIve timed her beforeand dump me back here. Why make trouble for yourself?" He was right. Eight minutes.
How could such a policy produce hallway decorum and relative quiet in classrooms, you may ask? Well, look at it this way: its tailor-made to be nonconfrontational with dangerous kids. True, it spreads terror and bewilderment among their victims, but, happy or unhappy, the weak are no problem for school managers; long experience with natural selection at my school had caused unfortunates to adapt, in Darwinian fashion, to their role as prey. Like edible animals they continued to the water hole in spite of every indignity awaiting. That hands-off modus vivendi extended to every operation. Only once in four years did I hear any teacher make an indirect reference to what was happening. One day I heard a lady remark offhandedly to a friend, "Its like we signed the last Indian treaty here: you leave us alone; we leave you alone."
Its not hard to see that, besides its beneficial immediate effect, this pragmatic policy has a powerful training function, too. Through it an army of young witnesses to officially sanctioned bad conduct learn how little value good conduct has. They learn pragmatism. Part of its silent testimony is that the strong will always successfully suppress the weak, so the weak learn to endure. They learn that appeals to authority are full of risk, so they dont make them often. They learn what they need in order to be foot soldiers in a mass army.
Psychopathic. An overheated word to characterize successful, pragmatic solutions to the control of institutional chaos. Isnt this process a cheap and effective way to keep student entropy in check at the cost of no more than a little grief on the part of some dumb animals? Is it really psychopathic or only strategic sophistication? My principal, lets call her Lulu to protect the guilty, once explained at a public meeting there was little she could do about the unfortunate past and present of these kids, and she acknowledged they probably didnt have bright prospects for the futurebut while they were here they would know she cared about them, no one would be unduly hassled. Nobody in the audience took what she said to be insincere, nor do I think it was. She believed what she said.
Psychopathic. The word summons up flashing eyes and floating hair, men hiding gasoline bombs under their coats in crowded subway cars on the way to Merrill Lynch for revenge. But set aside any lurid pictures you may associate with the term. Im using it as a label to describe people without consciences, nothing more. Psychopaths and sociopaths are often our charming and intelligent roommates in corporations and institutions. They mimic perfectly the necessary protective coloration of compassion and concern, they mimic human discourse. Yet underneath that surface disguise they are circuit boards of scientific rationality, pure expressions of pragmatism.
All large bureaucracies, public or private, are psychopathic to the degree they are well-managed. Its a genuine paradox, but time to face the truth of it. Corporate policies like downsizing and environmental degradation, which reduce the quality of life for enormous numbers of people, make perfectly rational sense as devices to reach profitability. Even could it be proven that the theory of homo economicus has a long-range moral component in which, as is sometimes argued in policy circles, the pain of the moment leads inevitably to a better tomorrow for those who survivethe thing would still be psychopathic. An older America would have had little hesitation labeling it as Evil. Ive reached for the term psychopathic in place of Evil in deference to modern antipathies. The whole matter is in harmony with classic evolutionary theory and theological notions of limited salvation. I find that congruence interesting.
The sensationalistic charge that all large corporations, including school corporations, are psychopathic becomes less inflammatory if you admit the obvious first, that all such entities are nonhuman. Forget the human beings who populate corporate structures. Sure, some of them sabotage corporate integrity from time to time and behave like human beings, but never consistently, and never for long, for if that were the story, corporate coherence would be impossible, as it often is in Third World countries. Now at least you see where Im coming from in categorizing the institutional corporation of school as psychopathic. Moral codes dont drive school decision-making. That means School sometimes decides to ignore your wimpy kid being beaten up for his lunch money in order to oil some greater wheels. School has no tear ducts with which to weep.
1Except for a small fraction of Gifted and Talented Honors kids sequestered in a remote corner of the third floor, who followed different protocols, although a good deal less different than they knew.
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