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Government compulsion was essential to the educational system the elitists had in mind. In chapter two, Gatto explores the genesis of compulsory schooling in various historical and geographic settings. He makes a keen observation: ... one of historys grand ironies is that orderly Anglican Virginia and post-Puritan Massachusetts were the prime makers of a revolution which successfully overthrew the regulated uniformity of Britain. And in neither the startling Declaration of Independence which set out the motives for this revolution nor in the even more startling Bill of Rights in which ordinary people claimed their reward for courageous service, is either the word school or the word education even mentioned. At the nation's founding, nobody thought school a cause worth going to war for, nobody thought it a right worth claiming. You want to think long and hard about that.
Although there has been a relentless push toward more and more centralized, government control of schooling in America, Gatto challenges the very notion that it is necessary and inevitable. He makes a marvelous analogy to driving: Consider how dangerous a weapon an automobile is in the hands of many a driver. Yet, we allow many questionable drivers on our roads with only an extremely minimal course in driver training. The complexity involved in the actual task of controlling a ton or more of such a dangerous, flammable or even explosive vehicle begs for extensive training and oversight. Still, we trust that the majority will figure out how to safety control their vehicles without years of training and constant oversight. Gatto says,
Carefully analyzed, driving is as impressive a miracle as walking, talking or reading, but this only shows the inherent weakness of analysis since we know almost everyone learns to drive well in a few hours.
We used to place the same sort of trust in people to obtain education without government coercion and oversight. The results of freely-obtained education far surpassed present-day results. You cant miss the irony!
In the next chiller, Gatto tackles the dumbing down of curriculum. From his own experience, he relates his discovery that over-simplified texts were not created because they were all that students could handle; he found his eighth grade class (including the dumb ones) responded better to reading Herman Melville's Moby Dick, a very challenging read, than to their assigned texts. This led him to conclude that real books are generally more effective learning tools than school texts.
Others have pointed this out, also, but Gatto goes beyond to uncover some of the reasons for dumbed-down education. He attacks the Bell Curve mentality that attributes learning ability to genetic inheritance. The result of bell curve thinking has been a caste-type approach to education that allots minimal literacy to the lower classes and full literacy only to those at the top who need to run the show.
Bell Curve thinking needed some sort of generic evidence to support itself. Phrenology, a scientific rage at the turn of the century, was the brainchild of a German physician named Francois Joseph Gall, in working with the insane, became convinced he had located the physical site of personality traits like love, benevolence, acquisitiveness, and many more so precisely he could provide a map of their positions inside the skull! These faculties signaled their presence, said Gall, by making bumps on the visible exterior of the cranium! Phrenology then became a scientific way of predetermining social policy, including forms and content of education, for individuals.
Once assumptions are accepted that certain people have limited mental potential, then schools lowered their expectations. Methodology followed. Sight reading was introduced as a way to sidestep the dull and tedious methods in favor of quick word memorization so that children could jump right into See Spot run! The fact that sight reading retards the growth of decoding ability and vocabulary, limiting lifetime literacy, seemed either irrelevant or too good a purpose to those making such decisions for all school children.
Some of the elitists who designed American schooling believed that people are truly empty, just waiting to be filled with the proper data for their role in society. Such thinking is revealed in comments such as that of the University of Wisconsins Edward Ross who, in 1906, described people as little plastic lumps of human dough.
The view of people as pliable lumps of dough doesnt account for all those who seem to have been written off by the system as wasted material within some of our inner city schools. Gatto relates his early school-teaching experiences beginning with his first day as a substitute at what he called a perfectly horrible place that had been nicknamed the death school. Assigned to teach a typing class at this Harlem junior high, he was issued work orders for the day: Students must not type! Under no circumstances are they allowed to type without the regular teacher present.... They break the machines. The inanity of trying to teach 75 kids typing without allowing them to type probably colored Gatto's entire teaching career. (Of course, he let the kids use the typewriters that day. He reports, All the machines survived unscathed.)
This experience was only one of the many curious mysteries of government school systems where so many things happen that are contrary to common sense. Gatto continues: Twelve years of legal school confinement keeps self-knowledge at bay. School deprives us of language and metaphor needed to regard such things. It curtails the raw experience out of which our natures concoct private recipes to endure. Where does the principle of sitting 75 teenagers in front of typewriters and telling them they can't type arise? Don't say it's crazy, until you can answer such questions. There are defensible reasons for doing such things, however revolting the spirit which conceives them.
Gatto supplies one of the those defensible reasons: Let me begin the discussion by suggesting the real purpose of all true education in the world of illusion inflicted upon us since the advent of coal power is to shatter the conditioning and noble lies which prevent us from understanding our personal predicament and learning to face it with courage. Schooling is a numbing injection, a poison drop to help you roll from womb to tomb nearly asleep.
A period of rapid turnover in Gattos schools superintendents and principals was critical in determining the directions he took. Lack of oversight left teachers pretty much on their own to do whatever worked. With surveillance at a minimum, he felt like he had a blank check. He began to experiment, gradually figuring out that children are individuals with vastly different dreams, wishes, talents, and goals. Gatto likens real education to a helix sport: ...one of those wonderful undertakings like seatless unicycle riding over broken wilderness terrain, a sport that avoids rails, highways, tracks, and too-programmed confinement.... In a helix sport participants search for a new relationship with themselves. They are prepared to endure pain, discomfort, expense, and even considerable risk to achieve this goal. Helix sports are free of expert hierarchies....a revolt against predestination and planning, timetables, schedule, the excessively planned journeys.
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