What Have We Become?

One could hardly call me a conspiracy theorist;  I don’t put much stock in Area 51 theories, alternate possibilities of the JFK assassination, or any such popular underground thoughts.  But I do believe that American Public Education has been usurped.

John Taylor Gatto‘s "Some Lessons From The Underground History of American Education" appeared in the 2002 edition of Everything You Know Is Wrong (EYNIW).  The EYNIW synopsis outlines the original intent of education and the historical (widely secret) events that have shaped what we now consider education’s purpose to be.  Educational institutions began as places where intellectual curiosity, worldliness, and spirituality were explored, fed, and cultivated.  Yes, they were bastions for the elite and public schools originally were established to counter the elitists.  But something went very wrong in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Gatto writes that public education had become the vehicle for social management and the premiere institution for societal construction where the commoner was to be kept common.  Since Reconstruction, public education has become merely an extension of both private industry and government.  Gatto utilizes the words of famed educators like Ellwood P. Cubberely, Edward Thorndike, and Benjamin Bloom and others to make his case.  To maximize his point that public education was forged into a social engineering tool for the commoners, Gatto provides some startling quotes:

"Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata,careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow, the prescribed custom.  This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual." ~ William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education 1889-1906

"…We shall not try to make these people [the lower and middle classes] or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science.  We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets, or men of letters.  We shall not search for the embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply.  The task we set before ourselves is very simple… we will organize children… and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way." Rockefeller’s General Education Board, Occasional Letter Number One, 1906.

These men, their publications, and the reform movements birthed from their ideas has essentially taken education to a place that centers on creating good common citizens, productive workers, and contributors to the status quo.  If you think otherwise, just read your district’s – or any public school district’s – mission statement.  Is the phrase "productive citizen" or the word "citizen" present? These are the remnants of said philosophies.

Gatto’s work (available online) resonates with me and many others who have a deep sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the aim of our public education system.  Those of us who reject the idea that schools are to first and foremost produce good citizens and skilled workers are increasingly being marginalized by the "great machine" –  a term I use for the seemingly unstoppable train of political movements, think tanks, boards of education, and state organizations who seek to hold schools accountable (particularly high schools) as training grounds and indoctrination camps.  A close-to-home case in point:

The New Jersey High School Redesign Steering Committee is "…composed of the
leadership of New Jersey’s major education organizations, is working to
build public awareness and support for a more rigorous high school
experience, one that allows students to succeed in the workforce or in
pursuing higher education.
.. The Steering Committee grew out of the New Jersey Education Summit on
High Schools convened in 2005 and supports the work begun at the
National Education Summit on High Schools held in Washington, DC in
February of that year. The Steering Committee
is co-chaired by New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine, Prudential
Financial Chairman and CEO Arthur F. Ryan,
and Montclair State
University President Susan A. Cole and is composed of the leadership of
New Jersey’s major education organizations."

The Committee was formed a few years ago to address the perceived inadequacies of NJ high schools as preparatory institutions for the workplace.  The Committee claims that though NJ high schools may be graduating over 90% of their students, have  "good" SAT scores, and have a high number of students going on to  post-secondary education, we are not producing good workers.    They tell the public (at their numerous public meetings) that NJ businesses are facing certain outsourcing of jobs – not because of the economic realities of the "flat world" – but because our students are not skilled enough.  The Committee’s aim is to hold high schools to a higher industrial standard; produce better workers, produce a better middle class, produce better earners.  The Committee has a plan – to institute Regents-style exit exams in math, science, and language arts and to have students partake in workplace readiness activities in high school. 

As a high school administrator in NJ, this is my new professional reality.  This is what my government says my new mission as an educator is to be.  I should not think of creativity, of cultivating a love of learning and life for my students, of offering my students opportunities for personal and spiritual growth.  I am to make good workers of them.  I am to foster a stronger middle class.  I am to produce producers – not inspire or lead students to self actualization… not unless the leading leads to a good job.

Public education has been hijacked.  Not in this generation, but many moons ago when compulsory education was legislated.  The public scorn for mandatory education was so strong, Bruce Curtis, in his book Building The Education State 1836-1871, notes that:

schools were burned to the ground and teachers run out of town by angry
mobs. When students were kept after school,  parents often broke into
school to free them. At Saltfleet Township in 1859 a teacher was locked
in the schoolhouse by students who "threw mud and mire into his face
and over his clothes,"  according to the school records—while parents
egged them on."

As a result of generations of social engineering, it is no wonder the homeschooling movement has become so popular.  Many parents have rejected the government’s means to and end and the end to those means.  Private schooling, too, is an alternative for the disenchanted – though, admittedly, many private schools are also guilty of the same sins of public education.

As and education leader, I face a dilemma.  How do I swim in the current of the public school agenda while holding true to my deepest convictions about children, learning, and the point of learning?  How do you?

– Mike Parent, guest blogger

12 Responses to “What Have We Become?”

  1. Wow. I can’t wait for the comments to start flowing.

    As for your ending questions, your swimming analogy is very accurate, so reformers must be able to garner every social, academic, technological, and emotional tool life has given them.

    Be ready to be tired every night.

    I did some cursory work on the psychology of whistle blowers a while back. Every one of them said it was a mistake to have done their whistle blowing, but then, amazingly, every one of them said they would not hesitate to do it again if the opportunity arose. THAT is what is required so that the school moments we have don’t become Irrelevant.

  2. Wow what an incredible post! You are right about early education in the Middle ages having a different point of view and purpose. Of course there was no concept of a secular education until well after the Enlightenment. The Church, specifically the religious orders and local Cathedral began formal education. This remained predominately the bastion of the elite – yet education served a purpose beyond that of forming noble citizens. The Catholic philosophy included a search for truth for truth’s sake. To rise to a higher plain. The Church may be criticized for being overly dogmatic but a classical liberal arts education has at its core the search for truth and meaning. All disciplines point towards these truths or show signs of them.

    Our U.S. public system from the beginning exists to create a citizenry that shares a common educational experience. From its earliest days the system focused on producing laborers with refined school sets.

    The whole world of Catholic schools in the United States is a reaction to this lack of a higher purpose in education.

    That being said public education is vitally important to the success of our nation. How it recaptures its soul and begins to teach students to think critically, live humanely, and lead boldly I do not know. But I would imagine in starts with a committed few. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has…” – Margaret Mead. It starts with being deliberate about mission.

  3. Great post, but what is the purpose of education? This is something I continue to struggle with. What is wrong with my goal for my students to be part of a strong middle class? I would love them to be able to achieve that amount of success. The funny thing is, I know that the way the school system works, there is very little chance for them to succeed. I am pushing them to work beyond those boundaries so they can compete to be middle class.

  4. Your post coincides with a book I’m reading right now called Unencorporating Education (yes, it’s spelled with an “e”) by Dr. William J. Cook Jr. I’ve already made two posts about it and I’m just through a quarter of the book. This is an excerpt from post 1: http://ricktanski.wordpress.com/2008/02/11/unencorporating-education-the-purpose-of-schools-part-1/

    The thesis of the book as found on the inside flap and on the website reads,

    “The thesis of this book is simple: the nation’s fundamental institutions, by intent or by default, have abandoned the historical Western idea of education and thus have opened the door for a hostile takeover by corporate America. The result is an educational system, if it may be so called, that has been robbed of its essential human nature (educare) and turned into a rationalized process designed to produce profitable workers, according to industry specifications. The individual is diminished to servitude; true democracy rendered impossible.

    There is no correcting the existing system. It cannot be reformed, reinvented, restructured, or salvaged. It must be utterly destroyed and new systems of learning and teachings created -systems worthy of human beings. The suggestions offered here are an attempt to begin the action.”

    Post 2 follows up with an unexpected wrinkle that left me wondering about the connections to Corporate America…Let me know what you think. http://ricktanski.wordpress.com/2008/02/14/unencorporating-education-the-purpose-of-schools-part-2/

  5. Rick- I am hooked on your blog. I added you to my reader. I am intrigued by the book you are reading. I’ll get it for my Kindle.

    Regrading post 2, it certainly seems that corporations are being poised to take over education (think about GREEN DOT who just took over in Los Angeles). I don’t think the Gates foundation helps the matter either. His direct link to business and his notion that schools should prepare for workplace is bothersome.

    Your hunch is right. We do need to crush the current system. How do we do that and feed our families? How do we build anew when the conventional thought about what school should be is clearly aligned with the corporate paradigm? Ask many parents and they will tell you that what worked for them will work for their kids. We are an island unto ourselves Rick. I fear our educational system is too large, too well funded, too embedded in the psyche of Americans for us to change. But I will press on (as you will) on classroom at a a time, one teacher at a time, one school at a time. Remembering what my first principal taught me: I am but a farmer planting seeds waiting for harvest.

  6. Charlie-

    My oldest son is enrolled in a Catholic school (as will my two other sons when the time comes). We love the education he is getting, because, as you say, “The whole world of Catholic schools… is a reaction to this lack of a higher purpose in education.”

    As a high school administrator, many of my teacher colleagues ask about my kids being in Catholic schools. I tell them, without a care of their feelings, “I will never let me kids attend a school run by a labor union.” They wince, then walk away. But I should also add to my comment, ” I want my sons to be independent and find meaning in learning.” I like throwing zingers at union hacks.

    In the end, I find that Catholic education is indeed more meaningful. But so is the Montessori schooling. I like them too. The problem with those schools is that the call for a lot of transitioning; most Montessori’s only range three years or so. The students must transition from one school to another far too much.

    Keep the faith Charlie! If Catholic education could pay my bills, I’d get off this Titanic!

  7. I appreciate this article. Had to read it three times to take it all in.

    I want to add that you can extend your criticism to junior colleges and universities. For almost everybody higher education is only to get a better paying job. And the quasi-colleges that have sprung up – the tech centers, training centers, and online course providers for continuing education or certification in all kinds of fields. Sometimes education just looks like one big racket.

    Society has an interest in turning out better workers, but to me this takes advantage of parents’ anxiety for the success of their children. For a lot of people public school is the only option. They can’t afford private schools. So they send their kids to school because schools are supposed to prepare kids for work or college. That’s the deal.

    In Europe there is still a little of the sense of education should enlighten one and expand one’s horizons. I taught English over there, and some of my students’ parents told me they wanted their children to speak English to have access to more knowledge – not just to go to an American graduate school. I’m afraid the experience for American schoolchildren is only going to be more utilitarian. An education that really produces a well rounded, thinking, creative person is going to be restricted to the very rich who can afford prep schools.

  8. AS to your final question, I would say for most mere mortals it’s elementary. The more “to-thine-own_self-be-true” , the less likely you are to be fully employed as an educator.

    Good night and good luck!

  9. I don’t know how you can answer your question but I have to say that as a homeschooling parent I really appreciate what you’ve written.

    People outside the homeschooling world often don’t take my criticisms of public schooling (or my Gatto quotes) seriously. I’m a wacky radical who’s turned her back on the system afterall. It really helps to be able to point out that my thoughts are very often similar to the thoughts of people working IN the system.

    My hope is that those of us who homeschool also help those in the system. That by homeschooling we’re helping to create space for a real discussion about education.

  10. krankknark – thanks man. I know my days are numbered. As someone I work with says to me daily, “Michael, you’re thinking again – you better stop before “they” stop you.”

    Dawn – I admire your devotion to homeschool your children. My wife and I wish we could do it. I actually had an idea of asking local homeschoolers to sit in curriculum design meetings for courses and reviews. I was denied, but then again, it ain’t my school. When I become a principal or Super someday (maybe soon) I will do this to try and bridge the divide.

  11. I read that Gatto book a few years back around the time I decided to homeschool my kids. It really opened up my eyes.

    So, How do I swim in the current of the public school agenda while holding true to my deepest convictions about children, learning, and the point of learning?

    For now, I make sure the kids I have get the best possible start in life with a home based education. Later, when they are in college and after, I work to improve the education of all kids, everywhere.

    I believe in public education, and feel it can be fixed. I am not willing, however, to expose my kids to it in its present state.

  12. Great posts. I taught in a public school on an Indian reservation. The whole school was run by white guys who knew nothing about Indians. (These guys never butchered an Elk or cleaned a Salmon) For example my principal had a rock band in the school with students called viking metal. He had never heard of Russel Means, but we had a Martin Luther King day celebration. In this diabetic community soda was given out a pep rallies etc. The superintendant smoked (legal on the rez) in the restaurant across the street from the school surrounded by students in other booths. When I allowed my students to choose their own projects my principal chastised me saying, “They will not be able to make their own choices in the work world so you must assign projects in school.” I swear to god this was the most Alice in Wonderland experience I have ever had. To top it all off most of the Indians on the street were way more savey than the administrators. People at the school were nice but it was just a thinly veiled conspiracy to harvest FTE’s(full time equivalents, the money paid by the state for each student). Teachers from other towns far away commute to get fat pay checks (in poor communities a master gets you $10,000 extra) That is more than most of the families get by on. So the money is hauled away from the community by these folks. It creates a giant sucking sound. They hire a few native workers and teachers but the native teachers are treated worse than the whites. If you want to understand what its about read PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSED chapter 2 pgs. 54-57. These amazingly creative kids were labeled as spec ed. Many were considered to be idiots. But when they got into shop class they were focused, creative, self motivated, beyond my wildest dreams. Apparently this was embarasing in a failing school, so I was let go. The whole thing is mixed up but, the bottom line is these Indian kids are really smart and it takes a lot of schooling to make them dumb. We continue to try to destroy this culture that we will desperately need. These people are the cultural/environmental code talkers for the next millennium.

Leave a Reply