John Taylor Gattos Presentation Remarks
On The Fourth Purpose Film Series
For A New School of Thought
Project Introduction, May 15th 2003
Im here to ask you to support the film, The Fourth Purpose, with money, ideas, work, and prayers, but without the money first, the rest of this airplane wont fly. What we are after in this film is the destruction of the pernicious school myth, which has paralyzed social justice in the United States for a century. Schooling as we know it, is a powerful expression of the sickness of this society, not a cure for that sickness. While the myth lives, we will never revive the libertarian America most of us prefer in place of the present empire.
This will be an outrageously entertaining film about schooling, with the entertainment part carrying the audience in and out of the tunnels of outrage. We aim to make a film that will permanently change the way the school debate is conducted. Bold, funny, astonishing, funny, intelligent, funny, informational, and transformational. And funny.
The model for reference is Ken Burns Civil War. When Mr. Burns approached the potential backers of his epic documentary, there had already been hundreds of films made about that war, and thousands of books written. Put yourself in the place of the folks listening to his opening argument:
A 12-hour Civil War filmexclusively using still photographs, maps, and talking-head interviews
to go onto the huge heap of other coverage of that conflict. Wouldnt sound promising to me. Yet enough people had faith that Burns could make us see the old chestnut in a new way, that he got his funding.
And 2.5 million American homes bought the Civil War series videotape, after the public broadcasts, to use it as a reference for themselves and their children. Every college and library in the land did, too.
Well today, 30 million American homes have children of school age, and every single one of us, or pretty nearly, went to school. Its no idle ambition to say that we intend to end up in as many homes as Mr. Burns did, or that we expect to rival Shrek or Chicken Run with our animated history of schooling: two-hour segment alone.
The time for pussy-foot measures with the forced schooling institution is long past. Its had over a century to prove itself and it is a ghastly failure.
What justice cries out for to break this logjam is shock treatment. Only a shocking bill of charges will wake the public up to the extent that the school argument will recover center stage. I know that shocking sounds irresponsible, but in this instance youd be misled if you thought disrespectful exaggeration and parody were the only ways to shock. Where schools are concerned there are mountains of shocking data of which the public is utterly unawareaccurate information, which is inherently destabilizing, subversive in the best sense. Within the past month, for instance, the admissions director of Harvard stated publicly to The New York Times, that Harvard turns down 80 percent of the valedictorians who apply because
Because Harvard only takes in kids with a track record of distinction. And being valedictorian doesnt constitute evidence of distinction.
Grades not a mark of superiority? Imagine telling millions of school classes this at the beginning of each school year, posting a handbill to this effect on every bulletin board. And when the rioting died down, imagine what the teachers would say when asked, "Well, then, what is evidence of distinction?" How many could answer, do you suppose?
Now imagine dozens and dozens of pieces of similarly disquieting news, all true, communicated dramatically, even memorably, until a powerful tapestry is woven to reveal the degree to which our schools are a liars world. Imagine these kids and their families on the Internet, alerting everyone to the existence of such a treasure trove of truth, truth that reveals the inner logics of the school institution so that people are finally freed to think for themselves.
Laughing all the way, The Fourth Purpose will laugh this bizarre institution into tears. It will constitute an indigestible lump of laughter and well-earned scorn, which can neither be swallowed nor spit out by Schools. We shall pin the tail on this donkey once and for all. This dangerous donkey, I should say.
But think of our film as more thoughtful than humorous, more deadly serious than mocking.
Institutional schooling begins in this country in Boston, in 1851, in imitation of the Prussian model of 1819. From some measures there have been seventeen separate reform movements nationally since thenevery one of which has left forced schooling bigger, richer, and more dominant over the upbringing and future prospect of children.
To understand what defeats reform efforts, you have to peel back the layers of romantic rhetoric, the propaganda, the myths, and stare directly into the hearts and minds of those benevolent architects who gave us this radical institution. In the public mind, schools exist for three distinct purposes: 1) To make good people 2) To make good citizens 3) To make good lives by helping young people strive to be their personal best.
But since the Prussian school experiment, whose design has encompassed the totality of American government schooling since 1918, schools, stripped of the veils of romance, exist to facilitate the needs of a managerial utopia, a utopia whose ambition is nothing more nor less than social efficiency.
If you went back to the decades just before and just after WWI, youd hear the term social efficiency so often and from so many quarters: industry, commerce, religion, military, colleges and universities, that its meaning would hold no mystery. But these days you need a translator, so allow me. Hiding behind this technocratic metaphor is the simple idea: All of us are to be made perfectly and dependably manageable, using every trick of psychology, social pressure, or brute force known to history. Also, to make us more dependably predictable, in the interests of an economy of very big business, a tightly layered social order like Englands, and a big government whose agencies will coordinate and schedule just about everything in the life of the utopia.
To bring about such a result requires that most of us have to be infantilizedmade childishlifelong if possible. School has been the training laboratory for this project for between fifty and one hundred years, depending on the location. It is the most ambitious piece of social engineering in modern history, and has been a brilliant success in reaching its goals. Of course, these are hardly the goals of ordinary citizens, of families, of religions, or of cultures, but they most certainly are the goals of management, whether of business, army, or government.
As powerful and well funded as this monster is, it is at the same time, ironically, very delicate. Locally, it only takes a few determined people with staying power to temporarily grind these engines to a halt, sending reverberations of dissonance into every level of the system. Think only of the multi-billion dollar standardized testing aspect of the thing; with relatively little investment of time or money a well-orchestrated campaign to sabotage these instruments could be launched and prosecuted over the Internet. You need only think back to the mass of teenagers who brought the war in Vietnam to a premature conclusion, to see that an essential lynchpin of the fourth purpose systemtestingcould quickly be destroyed. The fallout from such a termination would rock systematic schooling with unpredictable results for the stability of the institution.
But it would take a shelf full of books and journal articles to bring ordinary citizens who mow the grass and walk the dog and root for the Pittsburgh Steelers (Doesnt everybody?) into a fully fleshed contextual understanding of this nightmare project to which they are, at present, inadvertently and unknowingly committed. And yet a film whose scenes would live in the imagination, one which could be invited home in video or digital form for repeated private showing, could go a long way in one shot to form the spirit of a resistancea film which would know how to ask the right questions and pierce the smokescreen of illusion, which protects forced schooling.
And now you know our motives in trying to get this film made. We see our story unfolding in four parts: First, a comprehensive look at the Anomalies of Schooling, those contradictions which suggest either stupidity at work, or a purpose unstated; Second, an Animated History of the School Institution, culminating in the historical moment when the traditional purposes were derailed and the track preempted by The Fourth Purpose Express; Third, an eye-opening consideration of how the knowledgeable, the wealthy, and the powerful school their own children (in order, among other reasons, to be able to present evidence of distinction to Harvard!). At present, its our hope that this section will be written, produced, and directed by Lewis H. Lapham, editor of Harpers Magazine, from whom we have a tentative commitment; and finally, Fourth, Breaking Out of the Trap, a focused consideration of various (already) working alternatives, which receive relatively little attention from the press.
For all the well-deserved criticisms that can be leveled against American political and economic management, it seems to me crucial to acknowledge that this is still the principal place on earth where serious criticism can be spoken without fear of prisonand with a decent chance of being heard and of making a difference.
Forced institutional Fourth Purpose schooling constitutes the major barrier on the road to a better society. By pre-empting the training of the young, and then mis-training those young deliberately, it guarantees social and economic stability at the cost of our chance to be better and of the very liberty promised in our founding papers. The price is too high. Fourth Purpose schooling must be locked back up in the Prussian box from which it escaped a century ago. Help us make this film to give courage, and a battle plan, to those who must undertake that struggle.
Continued Remarks by John Taylor Gatto
About Roland Legiardi-Laura, The Fourth Purpose
film series director: Who Is This Guy?
Rolandwhere to begin? Ive known him for more than thirty years. And he can do anythingmake miracles. Let me illustrate, let me prove this to you.
Look at his home all around you. This is his home. It used to be the dormitory of one of the Newsboys Lodging Houses, made famous by Horatio Alger
When Roland and a small group of his buddies got this place, it was a wreck. It looked like a place slated for demolition. Now its a registered city landmark building and Roland didnt contract out the work; he couldnt afford that. He personally did the plumbing, wiring, plastering, windows, and all the rest with his own bare hands. (And I wish hed do mine!)
If you look out the windows over there, youll see beautiful little Tompkins Square Parkwith one of the last stands of elm trees on the East Coast. Ten years ago that park was a disaster area, the trees in jeopardy. Then Roland and a few friends rolled up their sleeves and made the parks rescue their own responsibility. Now look at itan oasis.
If you turned left at the park and walked south a few more blocks, youd be at the Nuyorican Poets Café, a world-famous venue for poetry, drama, and film. At least today it is. A dozen years ago it wasnt much of anything, just a wreck of a building near the Hells Angels Headquarters, which once, back in glory days of the 1970s, had resonated with fresh voices and fresh dreams. Those dreams had gotten sidetracked. Roland played a vital role in giving this city back a unique institution, and he has served as a Poets Café Director for fifteen years. He invented a new art form at the Café, which is now imitated worldwideThe Fifth Night Screenplay Seriesevery week, for the past eight years, an original film script is read to a live audience by the best actors in New York City. Forty of these original scripts have already been made into films or optioned.
Each one of these prodigious accomplishments seemed impossible before he took them on. Just like his idea to make a film about poetry in Nicaragua, in the middle of its civil war, seemed impossible, even nuts. Well, Im proud to say I gave him his first fifty bucks toward that crazy project, and even prouder to say that it won nine international film awards.
This guy comes by his interest in the film honestly, and personally, too. His uncle was Mischa Auer, the legendary lounge lizard, the houseguest from hell, in the great Hollywood comedies of the late 1930s and early 1940s, and his father directed the chariot race scenes in Ben Hur , while his mother played a slave girl. A decade before the Bolshevik Revolution, his great-grandad conducted the 3,000-piece orchestra of Nicholas II, the last Russian czar.
I hope youll help us raise the money for this film, because what Roland will direct will be a masterpiece.