SepCon '98: Mass-Producing Children
A Review of John Gatto's Presentation
by Ari Armstrong, January 1999
John Gatto would be an impressive speaker even for someone who doesn't understand the language, I suspect. His large, commanding form and his somber yet urgent yet also compassionate voice nearly mesmerizes. Gatto's insights into the history of our culture, however, are what prove riveting.
Gatto's theme for his closing talk was simple: government schools exist to create mindless consumers.
Government schools create mindless consumerism in three broad ways. First, they perpetuate unecessary industries which feeds on the government system. The drug industry puts out ritalin to tranquilize behavioral problems. School psychologists, the schools which train the psychologists and the teachers, the local politicians, and the bureaucrats all profit from the system.
More importantly from the perspective of the students, schools train children for "whimsical purchasing" of useless and even harmful material products. Schools contract with cola companies to sell and advertise pop in the schools. Businesses provide propaganda materials to students as if it were "course work." One example given by Gatto was a coloring and language book put out by a butter company and used in government school. The book asks the child to color two pictures of an adult man, representative of the child's father. One father "got his butter," the other did not. The book asks the child to color the buttered father with healthy skin tones and eye colors, while it asks the child to color the father who hadn't eaten butter in grotesque colors, with green hair, black teeth, and so forth.
The deeper criticism, though, is that children are trained in government schools (and the private schools which emulate them) to mindlessly perform meaningless tasks in order to hold a steady job and buy useless products.
The historical background Gatto provides is powerful enough to make even the severe skeptics pause. According to the history cited by Gatto, government schools were quite purposefully directed toward the end of "dumbing us down" (which is the title of Gatto's book) and creating a compliant, robotic work force.
In the late 1800s, reported Gatto, the young US Department of Education said that the "general ability to read" was creating problems for maintaining a "controllable work force." In 1888, the US Senate wrote, "We believe that education is the principal source of discontent" among the work force.
According to Gatto, such US business leaders as Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan saw education as the enemy of the "Empire of Management." Smitten with the ideas of social-Darwinism, which held that some "strains" of people are inherently superior to others, these leaders promoted a government school system which would keep the "genetic dead-ends" in their place and in which children would be, in the words of a commentator of the time, "manufactured like nails."
In Fritz's March 1997 Education Liberator, Edwood Cubberly said, "Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials, children, are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life." Edward Ross wrote about earlier government schools, "The role of the schoolmaster is to collect little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and shape them on the social kneading board according to the specifications laid down."
Gatto's presentation suggests that the unnaturally compartmentalized subjects of government schools, the well-regulated bell ringing, the anti-conceptual "learning" techniques like "look-say" reading and "new math," the teacher-controlled classrooms, the compelled and continual submissiveness of the students, the constant tone of commands - all these are a part of a system aimed to create a compliant, rather than an educated, populace.
I found Gatto's presentation compelling. Notably, for much of Gatto's lecture, I felt like I could just as well have been sitting in at a socialist conference rather than a libertarian one. Socialists, too, decry the corruptive influence of "big business" and the infatuation with useless material goods. How do Gatto's remarks mesh with libertarian theory?
Libertarians must admit to themselves that freedom, though a necessary condition for a healthy culture, is certainly not a sufficient one. Libertarians cannot simply argue that the State is the cause of everything wrong with culture, because this omits consideration of what caused and perpetuates the State, which is the same culture.
In terms of education, even a market system is susceptible to corruption. However, the market cannot entrench corruption the way a government system can (and has). Once the government system had created a bureaucracy and a host of other special interest groups dependent on the forced transfer of tax dollars, the structure became very rigid and difficult to change. Also, with the top-down, centrally controlled government, the system is monolithic and unresponsive to grass roots needs.
Government education did not begin in the early 1850s on the models of scientific management and social-Darwinism. Back then, the goals were the less lofty ones of suppressing religious minorities. However, with the structure in place, the social engineers had little trouble seizing control of the levers of power later in the century. The general observation that power tends to corrupt is an important part of the libertarian critique of the State.
On the other hand, it's not as if the entire education establishment moved with one will. Most of the teachers, though affected by political pull, didn't alter their teaching styles or methods of interacting with the students, just because a few important men wanted them to train up a generation of obedient worker-soldiers. Similarly, many teachers in today's government schools continue to do an excellent job, despite the political nonsense going on around them
Today, just about everyone has given up the utopian vision of creating a malleable labor force through social engineering. The information age has smashed all conception of a bee-hive society. People -- all people -- need to think for themselves again, and this fact is abundantly evident. The rulers of the government schools are no longer driven by a desire to re-shape society according to their plans. Now, they would be very happy to get the public to stop complaining, to raise their students' SAT scores, and to get subversives like me to shut up about it already. The current problems with the government system arise from the legions of paper pushing bureaucrats and the continual fads that sweep through the schools every other year or so, tearing away at what little remains of a sound pedagogy with every cycle. There is no coherent evil plan; there is no coherent plan for anything. There are just plans -- plans and tons of plans that no one even cares about anymore.
Gatto, then, describes only one part of the education elephant. Today's children are not purposely trained to be "mindless consumers," though they may learn the attitude from the mindless school systems of which they are a part. If some students learn to go through life just accepting, just "getting along," just following through with meaningless activities, perhaps they are learning this behavior from the adults around them. But not all young people follow this course: my younger brother nearly flunked out of high school, and in a quite conscientious manner. I used to get on him for his low grades, but now I respect him for keeping his soul intact. He is now quite happy, financially responsible, and a complete success by his own standards. I earned high grades in high school, but I made my own paths doing so.
If Gatto captured only part of the story of education, he also touched on only one aspect of "consumerism." I wish that Gatto would draw a clearer distinction between "mindless consumerism" and "mindful consumerism." My Randian sentiments lead me to romanticize productive work a bit, and rightly so, I believe. Just like education, production and consumption can be either authentic or heartless. Endless products make a real, positive difference in the quality and length of human life. Wealth enables us to pursue art, literature, and intellectual discussion more fully. (The computer on which I am presently typing comes immediately to mind.) While too many people of all ages lose their minds in front of the television, others use technology as a tool, as part of a full, thoughtful life.
Despite the limitations of his talk, Gatto perhaps as much as any other person has caused people to think about fundamental issues in education and about the very idea of "school." If a revolution in education succeeds, it will do so largely because of Gatto's work.