Universal Education by John Taylor Gatto

By John Taylor Gatto

2 November, 1998
Reprinted from: Yes Magazine

Instead of fitting people into the pigeonholes offered by the economy, how might education help students become self-confident, reflective, and creative adults?

Let me tell you about Stanley, a young man I met while teaching in New York City. Stanley only came to school one day a month and got away with it because I was his homeroom teacher, and I covered for him. I didn’t do it to be a lawbreaker, but because Stanley explained to me where he was spending his time, and I agreed with him it was more educational than what went on in school.

It seems Stanley had five aunts and uncles, all in business for themselves before they were 21 – he wanted to follow in their footsteps. One was a florist, one an unfinished furniture builder, one a deli owner, one had a little restaurant, and one owned a delivery service. What Stanley did when he cut school was to work for no pay for all these uncles and aunts, one after another. He was passed from store to store doing free labor in exchange for the opportunity to learn the business.

“Hey, Mr. Gatto,” he said to me, “this way I get a chance to decide what business I want for myself. You tell me what books to read, I’ll read them, but I don’t have time to waste in school unless I want to end up like the rest of you – working for somebody else.”

After I heard that I couldn’t in good conscience keep him locked up. Could you?

Education for the masses

The secret of American schooling is not that it doesn’t teach the way children learn. It’s that it isn’t supposed to teach about being a strong, self-directed man or woman.

School was engineered to serve a modified command economy and an increasingly layered social order. It wasn’t made for the benefit of kids and families, as those people would define their own needs. School is the first impression children get of organized society. Like most first impressions, it lasts.

The dynamics that make forced schooling poisonous to healthy human development aren’t difficult to spot: the work in classrooms isn’t significant work; it fails to satisfy real needs pressing on the individual; it doesn’t answer real questions experience raises in the young mind; it doesn’t contribute to solving problems encountered in actual life. The net effect of making all work external to individual longings, experiences, questions, and problems is to render the victim listless.

This phenomenon has been well understood at least since the time of the British enclosure movement, which forced small farmers off their land into factory work. Growth and mastery come to those who vigorously self-direct. Initiating, creating, doing, being alone, reflecting, free associating – these are precisely what the schooling is set up to prevent.

Schools train individuals to respond as a mass. Boys and girls are drilled in being bored, frightened, envious, emotionally needy, generally incomplete. A successful mass production economy requires such a clientele. Small business and small farm economies, like those of the Amish, require individual competence, thoughtfulness, compassion, and universal participation. Our own economy requires a managed mass of levelled, spiritless, anxious, family-less, friendless, godless, and obedient people who believe the difference between Coke and Pepsi is a subject worth arguing about.

The extreme wealth of American big business is a direct result of school training in certain attitudes like a craving for novelty. That’s what the bells are for. They don’t ring so much as say, “And now for something different, thank god.”

The History of Scientific Schooling

Between 1896 and 1920, a small group of industrialists and financiers, together with their private charitable foundations, subsidized university chairs and researchers, and school administrators spent more money on forced schooling than the government itself did with the aim of bending schooling to the service of business and the political state. Carnegie and Rockefeller themselves, as late as 1915, were spending more than the state. In this laissez-faire fashion, a system of modern schooling was constructed without public participation.

The motives for this involvement were undoubtedly mixed, but it will be useful to read this excerpt from the first mission statement of Rockefeller’s General Education Board, from a document called “Occasional Letter Number One”:

“In our dreams … people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions fade from their minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk.

“We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have an ample supply.

“The task is simple. We will organize children and teach them in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.”

Another insider of modern schooling, H.H. Goddard, chair of psychology at Princeton, said in 1920 that government schooling is “the perfect organization of the hive.” He wrote that standardized testing would cause the lower classes to face their biological inferiority (sort of like wearing a public dunce cap)., which would discourage their reproduction.

The NEA in 1930 sharpened our understanding by specifying in a resolution of its Department of Superintendence that what was being served was an “effective use of capital” through which our “unprecedented wealth-producing power has been gained.”

School is best seen as the critical terminal on a production line to create a utopia resembling EPCOT Center, but with one important limitation: it isn’t intended for everyone.

Out of Johns Hopkins in 1996 came this chilling news: The American economy has grown massively since the mid 1960s, but workers’ real, spendable wages are no higher than they were 30 years ago.

That’s from the book Fat and Mean, about the significance of corporate downsizing. During the boom economy of the 1980s and 1990s, purchasing power rose for 20 percent of the population and actually declined about 13 percent for the other 80 percent. Indeed, after inflation is factored in, purchasing power of a working couple in 1995 is only 8 percent greater than for a single working man in 1905; this steep decline in common prosperity over 90 years has forced both parents from many homes and deposited their kids in the management systems of daycare and extended schooling.

Despite the century-long harangue that schooling is the cure for unevenly spread wealth, exactly the reverse has occurred – wealth is 250 percent more concentrated at century’s end than it was at its beginning.

Learning, Schooling, & Education

Let’s get it clear in our minds that schooling is not education – you can easily compensate for lacking a schooling, but there is no way to make up for the damage that occurs without an education. Without that you are smaller than you would have been.

Plenty of brilliant and famous people have lacked a schooling – George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Admiral Farragut, Thomas Edison, Margaret Meade and many more – but all of them had a fine education.

Schooling takes place in an environment controlled by others, through procedures and sequences more or less controlled by others, and for the purposes of others. There’s a value to this when the teachers are people who care for you and struggle to understand you, but schooling is never enough.

Education describes efforts largely self-initiated for the purpose of taking charge of your life wisely and living in a world you understand. The educated state is a complex tapestry woven out of broad experience, grueling commitments and substantial risk taking.

In our own society, schooling can help or hinder learning, encourage or discourage education.

What Private School parents want

Now let’s take a look at what parents at the finest private schools want from schooling. I’ve been studying their expectations for nearly 20 years in order to compare them with my own goals. I’m talking about the 20 ritziest private boarding schools in America – schools like Groton, St. Pauls, Deerfield, Kent.

I’m going to ask you to note that none of the principles these parents seek cost a penny to develop. Everybody could do one or all these things with their kids just as well as Exeter or St.Paul’s could. What these elite private school parents want schools to teach their children, in no particular order of importance, are:

• good manners and to display those manners to everyone without thinking, because they know in this way their children will be welcome everywhere.
• hard intellectual knowledge, undiluted, but in simple English so no specialized jargon interferes with understanding the fundamental ideas.
• love and appreciation for the land and the natural world of plants and animals, because without this understanding, life becomes lonely, barren, and abstract.
• a public sense of decorum so that they can adapt naturally to every setting they find themselves in without provoking anger and opposition.
• a common core of western culture so that all the generations can be comfortable with a shared set of tastes and values.
• leadership; they aren’t interested in their children being part of a managed herd.
• self-discipline.

A major concern of private school parents is that the schools understand the partially invisible qualification system that provides access to key positions in the economy. These parents expect schools to qualify their children to move freely through the economic system. But don’t we all want this?

Private school parents also demand individualized attention for their children, small classes, continuous pressure on their children to stretch individual limits, exposure to many different theoretical and practical aspects of life, exercises to develop self-reliance and self-confidence.

To be educated is to understand yourself and others, to know your culture and that of others, your history and that of others, your religious outlook and that of others. If you miss out on this, you are always at the mercy of someone else to interpret what the facts of any situation mean.

The Amish

Now let me tell you something about the Old Order Amish, a group of 150,000 very prosperous people who came to America with little more than the clothes on their back. Everyone’s heard about the Amish but few people know the astonishing details. Here they are:

• Virtually every adult Amisher has an independent livelihood as the owner of a farm or a business.
• There is almost no crime, no violence, no alcoholism, no divorce, no drug-taking in the group.
• They accept no government help with health care, old-age assistance, or schooling after 8th grade. (They were forced by the government to accept first through eighth-grade schooling.)
• The success rate of Amish in small business is 95 percent compared to the rate nationally in the US of 15 percent.
• All Amish children have a chance to take an expense-paid sabbatical year away from Amish life when they arrive at the verge of adulthood to decide if they want to remain in the community and meet its customs. Eighty-five percent of all grown children prefer to remain in the community, a principal reason the group has grown 3000 percent in the 20th century.

Almost all members when interviewed by outside investigators report satisfaction with their lives.

Donald Kraybill of Johns Hopkins studied a thousand Amish businesses for a book published in 1995 called Amish Enterprise. He had this to say:

“They challenge a lot of conventional assumptions about what it takes to enter business. They don’t have high school educations, they don’t have specialized training, they don’t use computers, they don’t use electricity or automobiles, they don’t have training in how to create a marketing plan.

But the resources they transfer over from the farm are: an entrepreneurial spirit, a willingness to take risks, innovativeness, a strong work ethic, a cheap family labor pool, and high standards of craftsmanship. One of their values is smallness. They don’t want their shops and industries to get large. This spreads entrepreneurship widely across the whole settlement.”

This also is a big part of the Amish definition of education. I’ll add a little more:

The Amish are legendary good neighbors, first to volunteer in times of outer-world need. They open their farms to ghetto children and frequently rear handicapped children from the non-Amish world nobody else wants. They farm so well and so profitably without using tractors, chemical fertilizers, or pesticides, that Mexico, Canada, Russia, France, and Uruguay have hired them as advisors on raising agricultural productivity.

You can figure out a lot about what the Amish believe an education is from the things they fought the government about – and won – when the Supreme Court ruled they had to go to school from first through eighth grade.

The Amish realized the new government schools were social separators built on the principle of mechanical milk separators, whirling the young mind about until both the social structure of the parents and coherent consciousness are fragmented. Schooling separates people from the daily content of life, dividing the world into disciplines, courses, classes, grades, and teachers who remain strangers to their children in all but name. Even religion is studied, analyzed, and eventually separated from family, history, and daily life. It became just another subject for critical analysis.

And the constant competition would destroy many, leaving a multitude of losers, humiliated and self-hating, a far cry from the universal strength Amish community life requires. The Amish wanted no part of that.

They demanded that:

• schools be located within walking distance of home.
• there be no large schools where pupils are sorted into different compartments and assigned different teachers each year.
• school decisions be under parents’ control.
• the school year be no longer than eight months.
• teachers be knowledgeable in and sympathetic with Amish values and rural ways.
• their children be taught that wisdom and academic knowledge are two different commodities.
• every kid have practical internships and apprenticeships supervised by parents.

Education for unique people

What can we learn from Stanley, the private school parents, and from the Amish? We hear endless talk about school reform, but real school reform would have to defeat the belief that any such reality as “mass man” actually exists. We would have to believe instead what our fingerprints and our intuition tell us – no two people are alike, nobody can be accurately profiled by numbers and graphs.

To have a kind of education that served individuals, families and communities we would need to abandon forever the notion – learned in school and reinforced through every institution – that ordinary people are too stupid, too irresponsible, too childish to look out for ourselves.

We need to admit finally that knowledge is a useful thing but that it is a far cry from wisdom and without wisdom we wander like lost sheep. We need to honor our founding documents and founding ideas, to acknowledge that each of us has the right to live as we deem wise. And if the way we choose means disaster for global corporations as the way of the Amish embraced by too many surely would, then that fateful choice must still be honored.

I want to leave you on a hopeful note. We have ample evidence from the experiment of American history that ordinary people, trusted to be sovereign, can do extraordinary things. We have abundant examples around us in the form of determined groups like the Amish, and determined individuals like Stanely that despite a discouraging political climate for writing one’s own script, it is still possible to do so – only a little courage is needed. I wish you that courage. We shall change this thing in time if we deny it our cooperation, affirming what our hearts and history tell us is true.

John Taylor Gatto wrote this article in November 1998 for YES! Magazine. Gatto was a New York State Teacher of the Year. An advocate for school reform, Gatto’s books include Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, Weapons of Mass Instruction, and A Different Kind of Teacher.

YES! Magazine encourages you to make free use of this article by taking these easy steps. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.


Universal Education by John Taylor Gatto

Leave a Reply