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Friday, September 05, 2003
Last night I read an article in Harper's entitled "Against School," written by a former NYC schoolteacher named John Gatto. And man, I gotta say, it's simply one of the worst pieces of scholarship I ever read.

In a nutshell, the author wants to prove that not only DOES the American public school system (APSS, let's say, as I am lazy) train kids to be uncreative beaten-down automatons, it was DESIGNED this way. His proof for this? A 19th-century Prussian pamphlet saying as much--which he uses not a single actual quote from--which was referred to as the basis of the APSS by no less than Mencken, who as we know was never anything less than totally serious. (Which, to be fair, the author acknowledges, but then ignores.) He then says that the founders of the APSS used the Prussian school system as their model, and so therefore their goals must have been the same, even if he can't find a single quote from any of these people saying as much. Interestingly, he never mentions Dewey or some of the other major proponents of the APSS. He also says Carnegie and his fellow industrialists understood these lessons well, but does not actually quote anything saying that they understood these lessons well, or that Carnegie's philanthropic support for libraries and educational institutions was based on a desire to encourage American children to grow up to be productive little workers. (He does quote Woodrow Wilson saying some monumentally stupid things, but since Wilson doesn't come up at any other point in the essay, it's hard to see what relevance this has.)

But it goes on! So, having not actually established his basic point, he goes on to further flights of fancy I'm used to seeing only among aging codgers on the internet with a prelidiction for conspiracy theories and too much time on their hands to post to message boards. Because the APSS teaches everyone the same thing and forces kids to sit in rows and do things according to schedule, you see, this is all just--just!--training them to be consumers. It wasn't anything as silly as economic conditions brought on by WWII that produced the modern consumerist state; it was the APSS, deviously turning our citizens into continuous children! Apparently the 40 or so centuries of human existence the APSS wasn't around for contained nothing but free-thinkers, "genius as common as dirt," people not having been conformist or stupid before the advent of this system.

Here, let me just quote a section so you can get a feel for this:

Maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work at relationships; easy credit has removed the need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment has removed the need to learn to entertain oneself[1]; easy answers have removed the need to ask questions[2]. We have become a nation of children, happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy televisions, and then we buy the things we see on the television. We buy computers, and then we buy the things we see on the computer. We buy $150 sneakers whether we need them or not, and when they fall apart too soon we buy another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie that they constitute a kind of life insurance, even when we're upside-down in them. And, worst of all, we don't bat an eye when Ari Fleisher tells us to "be careful what you say," even if we remember having been told somewhere back in school that America is the land of the free. We simply buy that one too. Our schooling, as intended, has seen to it."

I suppose there's something almost admirable about this; most scholarly pieces taking roughly this view nowadays--i.e., the view the most people are idiots who are easily controlled by insidious commercial conspiracies--are wise enough to couch their views in a lot of high-flying language about "subversion" and "hierarchies" and so on. This just comes right out and says it, don't it? And it's especially hilarious because it's in Harper's and so I'm sure there's no one who reads this and says, "My God, that's exactly what I do! I buy everything I see advertised on flashing banner ads and I unquestioningly accept what politicians tell me!" Nope, if they agree with it at all, the only thing they can say is, "Yeah, other dupes sure do that, but I'm too smart too!" But honestly, do you know ANYONE who does, let's say, more than two of these things? (I'll give him the SUV thing.) And weren't there a few million people who disbelieved what Ari Fleisher had to say? Were all of these people home-schooled, or what? Even if we grant that the picture he paints of modern American society is accurate, as I sort of smartassedly point out here, he doesn't actually show that any of this is differerent than it was two hundred years ago, and he definitely doesn't show that mandatory education caused it.

So the guy's basic point about the APSS may have some validity, but the scholarship is just so wretched that it's totally discounted. I mean, for the love of Jimmy, he ends the essay with a story about wisdom his old granndad imparted. Sweet baby Jesus.

[1] Ignoring the fact that leisure time became a widespread social phenomenon only in the last century or so, i.e. the same time period he's dealing with, so maybejustmaybe you can attribute this "easy entertainment" to the fact that for the first time people other than overeducated upperclassmen are being entertained.

[2] I don't even know what this means.