libraryIn my recent post on rebuilding the American civic state I argued that one of the five key requirements to do so is re-educating the public — about the issues facing the world, about history, geography, civics, economics, and the workings of government. It’s not the first time I’ve suggested that education reform, if not a panacea, is at least a necessary condition for meaningful social change.

Recently however several bloggers have suggested that, far from being part of the solution, our education system is part of the problem. Most recently, Emma at Late Night Thoughts wrote:

There is something monstruously evil in children going hungry in the world’s wealthiest nation…We know that well-nourished children do better in school, but the first thing to go during budget cuts are school meal programs. We know that healthy children are more likely to grow up to be productive adults, but we skimp on pre-natal and children’s care. We know that children who have access to interesting activities are less likely to become delinquents, yet art, music, and after-school clubs are now rare as dodo’s eggs in the American educational system…

We are told that in this global post-industrial economy, the most important assets for a nation are its workers. We are told that an educated, creative workforce is the key to maintaining national economic growth. But actions indicate that we want exactly the opposite, and that makes no sense. Unless, of course, we accept my friend’s theory. I don’t want to. But it’s beginning to make a sick kind of sense: It doesn’t matter if children can’t learn, if most of them are not meant to do much with their lives.

What set Emma off were two articles that suggest that’s exactly what the education system is designed to do: To separate and elevate the elite, and sedate and restrain the majority. This article from Russ Kick citing the work of John Taylor Gatto describes the history of the American education system and those that had responsibility for its design and administration. Some excerpts:

In his 1905 dissertation for Columbia Teachers College, Elwood Cubberlyóthe future Dean of Education at Stanfordówrote that schools should be factories “in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products…manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from government and industry.”

Several years later, President Woodrow Wilson would echo these sentiments in a speech to businessmen: “We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

[This philosophy continues to direct the American educational system to this day]. In other words, the captains of industry and government explicitly wanted an educational system that would maintain social order by teaching us just enough to get by but not enough so that we could think for ourselves, question the sociopolitical order, or communicate articulately. We were to become good worker-drones, with a razor-thin slice of the populationómainly the children of the captains of industry and governmentóto rise to the level where they could continue running things.

Although Gatto may be a little too quick to see conspiracy theories everywhere, the sheer mediocrity of the education system, and its effectiveness at dumbing down young people and making them mindless consumers and conformists, despite the efforts of mostly well-meaning educators, are sobering.

Emma also cites a new 60 Minutes report on the explosion of poverty in America, and how it especially affects children:

Almost half the people fed by these lines are kids. The Agriculture Department figures that one in six children in America face hunger. Thatís more than 12 million kids. Nationwide, children have the highest poverty rate.

Looking at the [long Ohio food bank lineups, that start every day at dawn and often run out of food before the line is exhausted], Bob Garbo says, “This is it, and youíll see this pretty well all over the country…Weíve gone backwards. This is what I heard from my mom and dad. This is what it was [like] during the Depression era. That people stood in line to get government commodities. We havenít come very far, have we?î

In Ohio, the lines continue to grow. In the first three months of this year. The lines jumped by nearly 20 percent with over 200,000 more families standing in line for food.

It’s an effective combination for sedating and subjugating a nation: ‘Educate’ people when they’re young — to be uninformed, to feel inferior, and to value themselves by what they consume — and then, when they get into the workplace, fill them with fear of unemployment, hunger, and deprivation, so they willingly work for next to nothing, and expect and demand nothing of their employer. Then add the final clincher: make them feel as if their failure, their poverty, their unemployment and underemployment, is their own fault, so they feel guilty and blame themselves for not thriving when “any American can rise to become President or a captain of industry”.

Perhaps it’s not an accident that the people at the Dean MeetUps, at the anti-globalization rallies and the anti-war protests, are generally well-to-do, highly educated people. They’re the only ones that have so far escaped the noose of suppression and despair, the only ones who have had the opportunity to learn what a great nation can be, and still have the hope that one day theirs could be one again.

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  1. Doug Alder says:

    THat’s interesting Dave. I’ll have to do some research and see if I can find an article that I read many many years ago when I was studying the history of education in North America – it might have been something by Ivan Illich – can’t remember that was 30 years ago :-)Anyway the main thrust of the article was that contrary to common belief that the US’ school system was a hangover from when they were a British colony and thus based on the British school system, it was instead a system conceived of by Americans and deliberately based on the Prussian military schools. Why? Well Prussian schools existed for one reason – to train cannon fodder for the Prussian military machine – officers who would, without question accept orders and never think for themselves. And that is exactly the type of person the new emerging industrialist robber barrons needed.It’s a long shot me finding that document but if I do I’ll send it to you.

  2. Jon Husband says:

    Bravo and thanks for this post. No doubt you’re aware of the current Harper’s, the lead article titled “Against Schools – Why America’s education system is crippling children” (not sure I have the sub-title verbatim). The article is by JT Gatto.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Doug: Yes, I’d like to see that, though I’m wary of getting too carried away with this — I know too many dedicated and idealistic teachers in both Canada and the US. But it’s very possible the system was ‘rigged’ long ago and by starving it and relying on inertia it could continue to serve this diabolic purpose remarkably well despite the best intentions of teachers. Jon: Yes, I think the Harper’s article by Gatto is what stirred some blogosphere interest in his work, which is what got Emma and some others onto it. BTW, I find Gatto’s website too strident for my tastes — as unhelpful to the cause of education reform in its style as Moore’s book is for political reform. Overstatement and conspiracy theories tend to make me skeptical rather than stirred up. Nevertheless I think the message warrants some careful attention.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    Not a well-thought through question on my part, but…how different is allusion to a conspiracy theory from pretty clear policy and practice (gerrymandering, a fraudulent US election, preemptive doctrine, and so on) aimed at keeping and reinforcing the power of hegemony and an active and growing plutocracy ?

  5. Doug Alder says:

    Dave – first off you can’t have a conspiracy if everything is out in the open from the start – as it has been with he formation of public education system. What all these people are writing about is not news – it has been known, right from the start what the purpose of a public education system was for.There is no conspiracy here just that the general public themselves lost track of what was going on. I think the interesting questio here is why is it starting to gwet so much prominence now? What is it in our societies that has brouhgt this to the foreground?Regarding that article I was going to try and find – I didn’t find it but found soething just as good at

  6. Rob Paterson says:

    May not be a conspiracy but it is surely what is happening. School is a cream separator. Most are whey and a few are cream. What a waste!Why now are 30% of boys on drugs at school? Becuase they can no longer be slaves

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    OK, I accept that maybe the conspiracy was real when the system was set up, and continues today of its own momentum. And Doug, thanks for the great link that reinforces this. Would you accept, though, that today’s teachers on the front line (perhaps like today’s workers on the front line in industry) really think they’re doing the right thing, and are trying to give the children in their care the best and broadest possible education? And if so, what’s the solution? My concern about home schooling is that it can deprive children of different points of view to controlling parents’. If it takes a village to raise a child, where and how does education fit into the village’s role?

  8. Shaunna McGrath says:

    For an extremely thorough examination of these issues, check out Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 book “Savage Inequalities,” which studies the vast inequalities found in America’s public school system. I just finished this book myself and am truely horrified. After visiting some of the poorest districts in the nation, as well as the rather well off districts often located just minutes away, he concludes that it is very much in the interest of those in the better off areas to make sure that their children have an obvious advantage than the often children of color in the poor districts nearby. This book really dispells the myth that we’re all supposed to be given a fair shot at being able to one day own the means of production rather than just show up to operate the machinery.

  9. Doug Alder says:

    Dave – I fully accept – never stated otherwise – that the majority, or at least a significan minority, of today’s teachers are very dedicated to their profession and are doing their level best to give the kids a good education and that they feel they are doing the right thing within the constraints, fiscal an policy, that are laid on them from above.The problem is the system – it was designed to reward mediocrity. It was never a conspiracy – it was very clear what the designers of the system intended – they openly stated it – that’s not a connspiracy :-) reprehensible yes, conspiracy no. :-)

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Shaunna — I’ve ordered that book. If you have your own blog or website would you be willing to write a summary of the book that I could link to in my planned follow-up article? And if you don’t have your own site would you consider e-mailing me your summary and I’ll post it here, with attribution of course?Doug: Got you. Now all we need is a plan for re-making the system.

  11. Yule Heibel says:

    Interesting post, I just found you via Wood’s Lot and visited Doug “Dynamic Driveler,” too: liked the Illich references and historical background, thanks for that. I’ve got an axe to grind in regard to schooling, so let me swoop in here with my opinionated opinions. First, I suspect that many of the problems in schools today are due to the system’s unacknowledged but *primary* role as custodian of children. Parents need the schools to get the kids off their backs, out of their hair, out of sight: whatever it takes so that stressed parents can hold down the 2-4 income household (make money) and better-off parents can pursue “self-fulfilment,” i.e., go shopping and spend money. What would happen if schools closed down tomorrow? Children would be stupid? Don’t believe that for a second. What would happen is economic collapse in wide areas of society: stores would stop selling as much junk, workers would have to spend less time at their workplaces, everyone would cut back.What does that have to do with education? A lot, I think. Children aren’t dumb. They know they’re being sent off and gotten rid of, and *that* knowledge — and all it’s connected to — affects and infects the climate within schools. The tv has more time every day for the kids than many of the (overworked) parents do. It’s a social problem, but meanwhile, the teachers are supposed to deal with it all. Everyone keeps talking about fixing education, when it’s much bigger: it’s a problem of no one else wanting the kids around during the day. And it’s not just that the kids have no choice; it’s also that the parents have no choice: they need the school to be the custodian, the cheap babysitter. As for schools being social equalizers or the places where kids get exposed to alternate viewpoints: most of that is bs, imho. As Gatto put it, the people who need the most practice in learning to speak (children) are precisely the ones who are kept from speaking, and the role of speaker instead goes to the sole adult in the classroom. Second, how would you feel if you were told that from now on you would only be allowed to interact with people precisely your age for 6-7 hours of the day? No one older or younger, just age-mates. You’d probably say wtf is that all about? But that’s what we do in schools (factory schools). That’s supposed to be a model of socialization? I don’t think so! I don’t think homeschooling is a panacea, but the homeschoolers I have met (and we do it ourselves) are a wide-ranging lot whose kids are exposed to many community activities and many age groups. They are typically especially good at looking out for the little guys, the kids who are younger. And they’re not afraid of the older kids. So many kids in regular schools have phobias about the older kids, and they loathe the little ones for being “babies” — there’s nothing like a totalitarian system for instilling ruthless hatred of the weaker elements, as well as sucking up to the more “powerful.” The factory school isn’t a conspiracy, but it’s a little totalitarian hell in microcosm. I’m honestly surprised not that there *is* violence in the schools, but that there isn’t more of it. Maybe that’s where the pharmaceutical industry comes in, with its Ritalin and such.Finally, people are so freaked out (especially in the US) about *individualism* (much more so than in Canada, where it seems to be less of an issue; in the US it’s too much a part of the national mythology) that even if they didn’t have to send their kids to school tomorrow, they would still do it because most of them have a horror of their children “not fitting in.” My neighbours in Massachusetts worried endlessly about their kids “fitting in” (and being popular) and while there’s enough of that in BC (where I’m again living), it’s *far* less intense. The fitting in business in turn is tied to economics and competition (again, far more intense in the US, at least in the Boston area), because if you haven’t fitted yourself in properly, you run the risk of material ruin immediately or a little later down the road. And in that sense, a less socially Darwinian society would perhaps be the first prerequisite for fixing schools.

  12. Jon Husband says:

    Yeah…I think that 90+% of teachers MUST be good people, well-intentioned, even driven to enact their calling,and make a positive difference in people’s lives. As Doug points out, it’s “the system” that mitigates the intentions having more consistently good outcomes.And that ‘system” is everywhere – I’ve called it wrestling with the boa constrictor that is our organization. As a once-and-sometimes consultant, with many friends and acquaintances in the profession, I have long been struck by the expressed love, delight, en-joyment many consultants have when engaged with consultants, a reasonably widespread awareness of systemic issues that often prevent “talking about the real issues”, and thence a slow sideways pirouette to fitting some solution, program or other response to the politically-correct “desired outcomes”.I think people at work everywhere feel like this. And I think, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows…), from the CD “The Future”.The laws of capitalist countries, and the various “checks-and-balances” aspects of their societies are, I think, pretty clearly and openly manipulated to maintain the general structure and stability of this system – to wit, the FCC, the Supreme Court (witness always the money and political styling that goes intop new appointments), “regulation” (so to speak) of Wall Street, the tax cut charade (the effects of which will take our lifetimes to address in any positive and socially-constructive way).See Dave’s previous post re: How to Change Anything.

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