Bootie Zimmer's Choice
Bootie Zimmer's Choice
By John Taylor Gatto
CONFERENCE ON PRIVATE INITIATIVES IN EDUCATION
Indianapolis, Indiana November 13/14, 1992
Sponsored by: Educational Choice Charitable Trust, The Philanthropy Roundtable,
Texas Public Policy Foundation, and the State Policy Network.
Attended by educators, legislators, corporate executives and other interested parties from 25 states
and the U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.
KEYNOTE SPEECH: John Taylor Gatto
Author, Educator, Teacher of the Year (New York, 1989), Lecturer.
The government began to compel us all to send our children to school in 1852 in the state of Massachusetts, and from that state the compulsion spread south, west, and north. But did you know that in 1818, 34 years before compulsion laws began, Noah Webster estimated that over 5 MILLION copies of his Spelling Book had been sold? That's pretty good in a population of under 20 million, don't you think? And every purchase decision was made freely, by an individual or a family, and there were no federal, state or city tabs to run bulk purchases on - each decision was made privately, and in each somebody forked over some cash to buy a book.
That would seem to suggest that most folks don't have to be compelled to learn, they do it on their own, because they want to.
Here's another 5 million copy fact. Did you know that between 1813 and 1823, a fellow named Water Scott sold 5 million copies of his novels in the United States? That would be about equal to a writer selling 60 million books today, but we all know that could never happen. The puzzle becomes even denser when you pick up a Walter Scott novel and try to read it. Let me quote from the opening of Quentin Durward, published in 1823, and read by a lot of kids back then?
"The latter part of the fifteenth century prepared a train of future events that ended by raising France to that state of formidable power which has ever since been the principal object of jealousy to the other European nations. Before that period she had to struggle for her very existence with the English, already possessed of her fairest provinces, while the utmost exertions of the King, and the gallantry of her people, could scarcely protect the remainder from a foreign yoke. Nor was this her sole danger..."
That's pretty heady stuff, isn't it? I've never read an adequate explanation in John Dewey how an unschooled agricultural mob could manage such material, but I assure you the sales figures are accurate and drawn from the research of a well-respected American historian, Merle Curti. And remember, there was no compulsion then so the readers had to pretty much want to tackle stuff like that in between plowing and strangling the chicken.
It seems almost unfair to tell you that there was another writer beloved of common Americans before we had government compulsion schools, but there was; he was a man from upstate New York who sold millions and millions of books, and who currently has a box-office bonanza movie on the boards called The Last of the Mohicans. His name was James Fenimore Cooper and he wrote material like this for ignorant, unschooled Americans:
"The incidents of this tale occurred between the years 1740 and 1745, when the settled portions of the colony of New York were confined to the four Atlantic counties, a narrow belt of country on each side of the Hudson, extending from the mouth of the falls near its head, and to a few advanced neighborhoods on the Mohawk and the Schoharie...A birds eye view of the whole region east of the Mississippi must then have offered one vast expanse of woods, relieved by a comparatively narrow fringe of cultivation along the seas... In such a vast region of solemn solitude..."
Well, I'm sure you get the picture. Such attention to detail would take an ambitious college professor to attend to these days, a mere lecturer wouldn't have the span of attention for it. A transplanted Englishman, John Bristed, wrote in 1818 that the mass of Americans excelled every other people in the world in shrewdness of intellect, general intelligence, versatility and readiness to experiment with untried things. William Cobbett on his return to America in 1817 observed that every farmer was a reader, unlike the European peasant. How on earth did that come to pass and why isn't it true in our well-schooled era?
You and I are confronted with a great mystery: we had a perfectly literate country before 1852 when, for the first time, we got government schooling shoved down our throats. How we achieved this amazing literacy is wrapped up in the secret that reading, writing and numbers are very easy to learn - in spite of what you hear from the reading, writing and number establishments. We aren't in the mess we're in today because we don't know how to do things right, but because "we" don't want to do them right. The incredibly profitable school enterprise has deliberately selected a procedure of literacy acquisition which is pedagogically bankrupt; thousands of years ago Socrates predicted this would happen if men were paid for teaching. He said they would make what is easy to learn seem difficult, and what is mastered rapidly they would stretch out over a long time.
The first thing that an effective system of school choice would demonstrate is that our children have been held captive by a method of literacy transmission that ignores reality - and makes a very large fortune each year doing so. Eventually, with choice, the present system would run head-on into efficient competition that would destroy it. That would be inevitable because profitability would vanish once literacy is managed correctly.
Let me guide you to a few private businesses where literacy is managed correctly right now - at a fraction of the public school cost. Before I do I want to caution you that the two places I'll cite use radically different methods from each other, are based on radically different theories - but the outcome in both places is very impressive. We'll start at 8801 Stenton Avenue in Philadelphia in a place called The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential which has been teaching babies to read, and teaching mothers t teach their own babies to read, since shortly after the Second World War. Babies. By the time these kids are 4 what they can do would cause you to think murderous thoughts about your local government school. And what is diabolical is that the kids have a great deal of fun learning. Study sessions only last a few minutes, and the kids learn all the mathematical operations, too, fluency in several languages - and the violin!
Well, don't believe me - you have the address - write them a letter and go see for yourself. IAHP isn't going anywhere, it's been there for decades. You might want to ask your local school superintendent why you haven't heard of this place - presuming you're as impressed as I was.
Place number two is 20 miles West of Boston, a few miles from Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous Wayside Inn on the outskirts of Framingham. It's the beautiful Sudbury Valley School, in the old Nathaniel Bowditch cottage, which looks suspiciously like a mansion to 20th century eyes. A place ringed about with handsome outbuildings, private lake, woods, and acres and acres of magnificent grounds. This place is a private school, of course, with a tuition of $3,500 a year - about 63% cheaper than a New York city public school seat costs.
Sudbury teaches a lot of things, but two things it does not teach anybody is reading and numbers - and its kids range in age from 4 to 18!
Kids learn reading and calculation at Sudbury at many different ages (but never as babies), but when they are ready to learn they teach themselves. Every kid who has stayed for long at the school over the past 25 years has learned to read and compute, about 2/3rds of them go on to college without ever taking a standardized test or getting a report card, and the school has never seen a case of dyslexia. The don't even believe such a condition exists outside of a few physically damaged kids and the fevered imaginations of compulsion school reading specialists.
They don't teach reading and yet all the kids eventually learn to read and even to like it? A frustrating puzzle for many observers, but no more frustrating than trying to explain how Thomas Paine's Common Sense sold 600,000 copies in the year 1776 to a nation of two and a half million people, about 70% of whom were African slaves or indentured servants. It just boggles the mind to see today's graduate students in political science seminars wrestling with Paine (no pun intended) when young farmers whizzed through it with exhilaration over 200 years ago.
One final, more or less modern, example of how easy it is to learn to read well - is myself. In 1941 when I went to first grade in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, a borough of Pittsburgh, at the age of 5, I could read fluently. For the first 200 years of our history most schools wouldn't accept children who couldn't read and count, so they must have learned it where I learned it, and where the Human Potential Institute children learn it - at home. My first grade teacher, Miss Dane, came to our home on Calumet Street shortly after the term began to protest: "Mrs. Gatto," she said, "your son reads, I would guess, on the 6th Grade level. He is ruining my class an I want you to make him shut up, keep his hand down, and not to answer any questions in class." How's that for pedagogy? I loved Miss Dane, who was a wonderful woman, so I'm not telling this story to insult her, just to give you something to think about.
I suppose the skeptical among you are wondering who this miracle woman was who taught me to read so well before I went to school at the age of 5? Well, her name was Frances "Bootie" Zimmer, and she graduated from Monongahela High School in 1929, the same high school that Joe Montana, the great San Francisco quarterback came out of about a half century later. There wasn't enough money to send Bootie to college but nobody despaired about that in those days because the country seemed to run very well without college graduates.
Did Bootie know some secret method of teaching that could have made her a fortune if she turned professional? I don't think so. What she knew was how to read to me every single day from the time I was 2 years old - read to me with me on her lap and her finger running under the words - read to me from increasingly difficult stuff, none of which seemed hard because I was having so much fun. She read real fairy tales, not scientifically simplified ones; she read real history books and real newspaper stories and real grown-up storybooks including some tales from The Decameron. What she didn't read were scientific readers of any sort, the books with 364-word sanitized vocabularies and a lot of pictures.
Well, there we have the raw material for a revolution: the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, the Sudbury Valley School, Frances "Bootie" Zimmer...these are important clues to how deep the mess we are in really is, clues to what its nature is. Here is evidence that we already possess the engineering know-how we need to revolutionize schooling. And if you look closely, here too is a warning that the trouble we are in is not what it appears to be (an avalanche of dumb kids), but instead an avalanche of kids who have been deliberately dumbed down by an industry that will not stop what it has been doing just because it is killing us. When we consider the course 20th century government schooling has taken deliberately it is clear we are in the presence of no simple mistake in engineering but that of a powerful ideological agenda, one so passionately and grimly held by its proponents we might almost see it as a religion.
To understand how this happened, a brief tour through history is essential, otherwise you may continue to think that some tinkering or, God forbid, some more money will cure the disease of bad schooling. Come back with me then to 1812, when one of the founders of the immense DuPont fortune, a man named Pierre DuPont deNemours, published a book called Education in the United States. DuPont was many things but no one knew him as a soft-hearted fellow used to flattering people, so we can assign some credibility to his amazement at the phenomenal literacy he saw all around him compared to the European models he was familiar with. 1812. Forty years in advance of the passage of our first government compulsion school laws. Mr. DuPont said that less than 4 people out of every thousand in the new nation could not read and do numbers well. He saw a world in which nearly every child was trained in argumentation (*the old fashioned term for "critical thinking'). How would that be possible, do you suppose, without forced schooling?
And yet two decades later a French aristocrat named deTocqueville wrote a book that's still in print, Democracy in America, in which he characterized us as the best educated people in history. And in 1838, still 14 years before the militia began marching recalcitrant children to school, another French aristocrat, Michael Chevalier, wrote a book that ranked the American farmer with the immortals of history, a book which said in effect that the farmer went into the field with his plow in one hand and Descartes in the other.
So from 1776, when Common Sense was selling up a storm to unschooled colonists, until 1838, when farmers were observed reading Descartes, the American people seemed to be doing fairly well for themselves educationally, making their own education decisions, using, inventing, or substituting for schooling - as Ben Franklin did - as best they saw fit. Individuals made their own decisions, not government experts. This was America, after all, not Prussian Germany.
How on earth did they do it? Almost immediately after the effective start-up of government factory schooling before the first World War it was obvious to anyone who cared to look closely that literacy was not what they were about, but that a redefinition of growing up was what was afoot. Growing up was not to be a socialization of the future labor force to suit some bureaucratic design determined by political experts. As the earlier lightly schooled America had proven, competency was not a scarce thing however you measured it - but the world of the government monopoly school set out to make it so. But the earlier, catch-as-catch-can entrepreneurial form of instruction offered abundant choices of useful ways to grow up, useful ways to read, write and think. Earlier schooling was about literacy, and that is why it succeeded. Literacy isn't very difficult to learn when the child perceives that the adults about him think that it's something important.
I want you to consider the frightening possibility that we are spending far too much money on schooling, not too little, as schooling people contend. I want you to consider that we have too many people employed in interfering with the way children grow up - and that all this money and all these people, all the time we take out of children's lives and away from their homes and families and neighborhoods and private explorations - gets in the way of education!
That seems radical, I know. Surely in a modern technological society it is the quantity of schooling and the amount of money you spend on it that buys value. Surely. And yet last year in St. Louis I heard a vice-president of IBM tell an audience of people assembled to discuss the process of redesigning teacher certification that in his opinion this country became computer-literate by self-teaching, not through any action of schools. He said 45 million people were comfortable with computers who had learned through dozens of non-systematic strategies, none of them very formal; if schools had preempted the right to teach computer use we would be in a horrible mess right now instead of leading the world in this literacy.
MIT said a few years back that formal equipment seemed to play almost no role at all in scientific discovery and that inventors presented with state of the art equipment usually went sterile from then on! So MIT and IBM, which are both tied to being judged on outcomes, think one way, and compulsion schools which are tied to rhetoric about inputs, think another. If you're input-paralyzed you tend to stare at your abstract system when trouble arises, but if you care about results you tend to look at what makes Joe do best and you don't make the mistake of thinking that Joe is Sally.
Now think about Sweden, a beautiful, healthy, prosperous and up-to-date country with a spectacular reputation for quality in everything it produces: Sixteen million people in a nation that makes its voice heard all over the planet to such an extent that if you didn't know it was so small you'd swear it must be a world power. It makes sense to think their schools must have something to do about it.
Then what do you make of the fact that you can't go to school in Sweden until you are 7 years old? The reason the unsentimental Swedes have wiped out what would be first and second grades here, is that they don't want to pay the large social bill that quickly comes due when boys and girls are ripped away from their best teachers t home too early. Does that sound radical, or is what we do the radical thing? It just isn't worth the price, say the Swedes, to provide jobs for teachers and therapists if the result is sick, incomplete kids who can't be put back together again very easily. The entire Swedish school sequence isn't 12 years either - it's 9. Less schooling, not more. The direct savings of such a step in the U.S. would be 75-100 BILLION dollars, a lot of unforeclosed home mortgages, a lot of time freed up with which to seek an education.
Who was it that decided to force your attention onto Japan instead of Sweden? Japan with its long school year and state compulsion, instead of Sweden with its short school year, short school sequence, and free choice where your kid is schooled? Who decided you should know about Japan, and not Hong Kong, an Asian neighbor with a short school year that outperforms Japan across the board in math and science? Whose interests are served by hiding that from you? Isn't that the question we should be asking?
One of the principal reasons we got into the mess we're in is that we allowed schooling to become a very profitable monopoly, guaranteed its customers by the police power of the state. Systematic schooling attracts increased investment only when it does poorly, and since there are no penalties at all for such performance, the temptation not to do well is overwhelming. If that sounds like a shocking contention, it derives from a conservative reality that school staffs, both line and management, are involved in a guild system; in that ancient form of association no single member is allowed to outperform any other member, is allowed to advertise, or is allowed to introduce new technology or improvise without the advance consent of the guild. Violation of these precepts is severely sanctioned - as Marva Collins, Jaime Escalante and a large number of once-brilliant teachers found out.
The structure of American schooling, 20th century style, began in 1806 when Napoleon's amateur soldiers beat the professional soldiers of Prussia at the battle of Jena. When your business is selling soldiers, losing a battle like that is serious. Almost immediately afterwards a German philosopher named Fichte delivered his famous "Address to the German Nation" which became one of the most influential documents in modern history. In effect he told the Prussian people that the party was over, that the nation would have to shape up through a new Utopian institution of forced schooling in which everyone would learn to take orders. I don't know how much you know about Prussia, but it's instructive to consider that Prussia began to police the female womb in the year 1735, long before the French and Indian wars. In Prussia unmarried women whose menses ceased had to register with the police.
So the world got compulsion schooling at the end of a state bayonet for the first time in human history; modern forced schooling started in Prussia in 1819 with a clear vision of what centralized schools could deliver:
1) Obedient soldiers to the Army.
2) Obedient workers to the mines.
3) Well-subordinated civil servants to government.
4) Well-subordinated clerks to industry.
5) Citizens who thought alike about major issues.
School should create an artificial national consensus on matters which had been worked out in advance by leading German families and the heads of institutions. Schools should create unity among all the German states, eventually unifying them into Greater Prussia.
Prussian industry boomed from the beginning. She was successful in warfare and her reputation in international affairs was very high. Twenty six years after this form of schooling began the King of Prussia was invited to North America to determine the boundary between the United States and Canada. Thirty-three years after that fateful invention of the central school institution, at the behest of Horace Mann and many other leading citizens, we borrowed the style of Prussian schooling as our own.
You need to know this because over the first 50 years of our school institution, Prussian purpose - which was to create a form of state socialism - gradually forced out traditional American purpose, which in most minds was to prepare the individual to be self-reliant.
The Prussian purpose was collective: the American purpose, as it had come down from history, was singular. In Prussia the purpose of the Volksschule, which educated 92% of the children, was not intellectual development at all, but socialization in obedience and subordination. Thinking was left to the Real Schulen, in which 8% of the kids participated. But for the great mass, intellectual development was regarded with managerial horror, as something that caused armies to lose battles. For Prussia the ideal model society was not intellectual Greece or muscular Rome but solid, settled Egypt - a pyramid of subordination where only the top leadership understood the big picture. Below this class were descending service classes, each larger than the one directly above it, each knowing less than the one above it until at the bottom almost nothing was known except how to do a small part of a larger task only dimly understood.
Prussia concocted a method based on complex fragmentations to ensure that its school products would fit the grand social design. Some of this method involved dividing whole ideas into school subjects, each further divisible: some of it involved short periods punctuated by a horn so that self-motivation in study would be muted by ceaseless interruptions. There were many more techniques of training, of course, but all were built around the premise that isolation from first-hand information, and fragmentation of the abstract information presented by teachers, would result in obedient and subordinate graduates, properly respectful of arbitrary orders. "Lesser" men would be unable to interfere with policy markers because, while they could still complain, they could not manage sustained or comprehensive thought. Well-schooled children cannot think critically, cannot argue effectively.
One of the most interesting by-products of Prussian schooling turned out to be the two most devastating wars of modern history. Let me cite two German thinkers on that subject. Erich Maria Remarque, in his classic, All Quiet on the Western Front, tell us that the first World War was caused by the tricks of schoolmasters, and the famous Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the second World War was the inevitable product of good schooling. It's important to underline that Bonhoeffer meant that literally, not metaphorically - schooling after the Prussian fashion removes the ability of the mind to think for itself. It teaches people to wait for a teacher to tell them what to do and if what they have done is good or bad. Prussian teaching paralyzes the moral will as well as the intellect. It's true that sometimes well-schooled students sound smart, because they memorize many opinions of great thinkers, but they actually are badly damaged because their own ability to think is left rudimentary and undeveloped.
We got from the United States to Prussia and back because a small number of very passionate ideological leaders visited Prussia in the first half of the 19th century, fell in love with the order, obedience and efficiency of its system, and relentlessly proselytized for a translation of Prussian vision onto these shores. If Prussia's ultimate goal was the unification of Germany, our major goal, so these men thought, was the unification of hordes of immigrant Catholics into a national consensus based on a northern European cultural model. To do that children would have to be removed from their parents and from inappropriate cultural influence.
In this fashion compulsion schooling, a bad idea that had been around at least since Plato's Republic, a bad idea that New England had tried to enforce in 1650 without any success, was finally rammed home through the Massachusetts legislature in 1852. It was, of course, the famous "Know-Nothing" legislature that passed this law, a legislature that was the leading edge of a famous secret society which flourished at that time known as "The Order of the Star Spangled Banner", whose password was the simple sentence, "I know nothing." - hence the popular label attached to the secret society's political arm, "The American Party".
Over the next 50 years state after state followed suit, ending schools of choice and ceding the field to a new government monopoly. There was one powerful exception to this - the children who could afford to be privately educated. They could avoid the American version of Volksschule if their families were prosperous or canny enough to catch on to the new game. By 1990 88% of all our children were being "public" schooled.
Three major ideas were transferred almost intact from Prussia and slowly worked into the final structure of our national schooling. Each of these ideas had, of course, to overcome major resistance. This seldom was done by direct confrontation but instead by a gradual process of wearing away the opposition. It was not until the conclusion of the first World War that the last avenue of escape from the trap was closed.
The first of this triumvirate of Prussian principles was the very sophisticated notion that State schooling did not exist to offer intellectual training, but to condition children to obedience, subordination and collective life. These social theorists included some of the greatest minds in history, including the most influential philosopher since Lord Bacon, Frederich Hegel. Each in his own way taught that general intellectual development will make central political control impossible, hence it is to be avoided. The will in children must be broken in order to make them plastic material. If the will could be broken all else would follow. Keep in mind that will-breaking was the central logic of child-rearing among our own Puritan colonists and you will see the natural affinity that existed between Prussian seeds and Puritan soil. Will-breaking had been carefully studied from time to time in European history, so to a leadership inclined that way, various devices proven in action were available - best known of these was the English practice of "boarding-out" where children were sent to live with and work for strangers at an early age - the constant stress of adapting to strange customs and practices usually produced a compliant, surface personality, easily manageable.
In the Prussian system, imposed over 50 years by the new State Education Departments, a Prussian management concept heretofore unknown in the U.S. was adopted. Children were not to be taught to think, but to memorize. They were to be discouraged from assuming responsibility for each other, because that weakened the grasp of authority, and they were to be intimidated away from the pursuit of their own natural interests for the same reason. Henceforth, teachers would define what their interests were. From this new logic of school management arose the need to eliminate the familiar one-room schoolhouse, the main vehicle of schooling during the first 40 years or so of the new government monopoly. The one-room school invested too much responsibility in the children themselves - from such practices too much of the old, self-reliant, neighborly ways would be preserved.
The second important discovery of the Prussian method was that extreme fragmentation of thinking into subjects, fixed time periods, sequences, units, externally imposed questioning, etc. would simplify the problems of leadership. Thoughts broken into fragments could be managed by a poorly trained, poorly paid teaching force; could be memorized even by a moron who made the effort; and lent themselves to the appearance of precision in testing and delivered beautiful distribution curves of "achievement". This form as curriculum (suggested by machine operation) was beginning to permeate Prussian factory operations, mining, and military life. It brilliantly solved the historical dilemma of leadership dependency on skilled craftsmen, too. A simplified workforce could be replaced quickly without damage to production. Such a workplace creates great psychological and social problems for the workers, true, but worker welfare was not a factor in this scheme.
That we have created such a workforce in the United States through our schools was never better illustrated than in the strike of the air traffic controllers some year back. These supposedly "highly skilled" men and women were replaced overnight without any increase in accidents through the system. The social costs of such a system, in alcoholism, suicide, broken homes, violence, despair, etc. are not, as I inferred earlier, factored into the balance sheet.
The third premise of Prussian schooling is that the government is the true parent of children - the State is sovereign over the family. In Western law that idea is known as the Parens Patriae power, I think, and at the most extreme pole of this notion is the idea that biological parents are really the enemies of their own children, not to be trusted. You can see this philosophy at work in court decisions which rule that parents need not be told when schools dispense condoms to their children, or consulted when daughters seek abortion.
What is the evidence that a Prussian system of dumbing children down took hold in American schools? Actually the evidence is overwhelming. Thousands and thousands of young men from prominent American families journeyed to Prussia and other parts of Germany during the 19th century and brought home the PhD degree to a nation in which such a credential was unknown. These men preempted the top positions in the academic world, in corporate research, and in government, to the point where opportunity was almost closed to those who had not studied in Germany, or who were not the direct disciples of a German PhD, as John Dewey was the disciple of G. Stanley Hall at Johns Hopkins.
Virtually every single one of the founders of American schooling had made the pilgrimage to Germany, and many of these men wrote widely circulated reports praising the Teutonic methods. Horace Mann's famous '7th Report" of 1844, still available in large libraries, was perhaps the most important of these, but Calvin Stowe's report, and Dallas Bache's report, Henry Dwight's report, and Henry Barnard's report, the reports of Dr. Julius and Drs. Smith, Griscom and Woodbridge all sent the same signal: Follow Germany.
By 1889, a little over one hundred years ago, the crop was ready for harvest. In that year the U.S. Commissioner of Education, William Torrey Harris, assured a railroad magnate, Collis Huntington, that American schools were "scientifically designed" to prevent "over-education" from happening. Harris is dead now, so we can't ask him what he meant by "over-education", but we can make a shrewd guess because Mr. Harris was among the leading German scholars in the nation. The average American would be content with his humble role in life, said the Commissioner, because he would not be tempted to think about any other role. My guess is that Harris meant he would not be able to think about any other role.
In 1896 the famous John Dewey, then at the University of Chicago, said that independent, self-reliant people were a counter-productive anachronism in the collective society of the future. In modern society, said Dewey, people would be defined by their associations - the groups they belonged to - not by their own individual accomplishments. In such a world people who read too well or too early are dangerous because they become privately empowered, they know too much, and know hot to find out what they don't know by themselves, without consulting experts.
Dewey said the great mistake of traditional pedagogy was to make reading and writing constitute the bulk of early schoolwork. He advocated that the phonics method of teaching reading be abandoned and replaced by the whole word method, not because the latter was more efficient (he admitted it was less efficient) but because independent thinkers are produced by hard books, thinkers who cannot be socialized very easily. By socialization Dewey meant a program of social objectives administered by the best social thinkers in government. This was a giant step on the road to state socialism, the form pioneered in Prussia, and it is a vision radically disconnected with the American past, its historic hopes and dreams.
Dewey's former professor and close friend, G. Stanley Hall, said this at about the same time, "Reading should no longer be a fetish. Little attention should be paid to reading." Hall was an important intermediary in the birth of modern American systematic schooling, one of the three men most responsible for building a gigantic administrative infrastructure over the classroom. How enormous that structure really became can only be understood by comparisons: New York State, for instance, employs more school administrators than all of the European Economic Community nations COMBINED!
G. Stanley Hall is a name to conjecture with in many ways; he was the first American PhD out of Wilhelm Wundt's psychometric laboratories in Germany and subsequently a major eminence grise in the rise of American behaviorism, as the American promoter who brought Sigmund Freud to the United States to promote his theory that behavioral problems in later life can be traced to bad parenting and alleviated by expert interventions. Hall is also an important reason we have standardized testing in our schools.
But back to Dewey. Learning to read too well, said Dewey, caused children to turn inward and made them competitive and independent. The phonics method of teaching reading provided no motives to follow a teacher's lead for very long; it was selfish, even if it did work. It only appealed to the intellectual aspect of our nature - the desire to get control of our own mind.
Reading, writing and arithmetic were not the purpose of this new form of American schooling, a form which substituted memorization for thinking and which we still have with us. In 1923 Dr. Cattell, of "The Psychological Corporation", a private entity composed of the inner circle of American schoolmen like John Dewey, announced the purpose of schooling to its clientele who were expected to support its enterprises in testing and teacher training. Dr. Cattell said this about the purpose of government schooling in 1923: "The scientific control of conduct is what schools are about. The scientific control of conduct is of greater economic importance than the use of electricity or steel."
Once you think that the control of conduct is what schools are about, the word "reform" takes on a very particular meaning. It means making adjustments to the machine so that young subjects will not twist and turn so, while their minds and bodies are being scientifically controlled. Helping kids to use their minds better is beside the point.
Somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, making people dumb for their own good became the point of our national forced schooling exercise. If you find that hard to believe, use the evidence of your own eyes and ears to confirm it. Do you think you can find a better way to teach? You're right, of course you can -but not a better way to teach obedience. Throughout the 19th century to a crescendo achieved at the turn of the 20th century, a small band of very influential people, substantially financed by money and ideas from the Rockefeller foundations and the Carnegie foundations, introduced a system of state socialism into our national education picture. Privately they had determined that this was the best course for the American democracy and with little wasted motion, and no public discussion, they pointed our nation toward that end.
Bertrand Russell once observed that American schooling was among the most radical experiments in human history, that America was deliberately denying its children the tools of critical thinking. When you want to teach children to think you begin by treating them seriously when they are little, giving them responsibilities, talking to them candidly, providing privacy and solitude for them, making them readers and thinkers of significant thoughts from the beginning. You keep the games and songs and pretty colors in balance with the soberer purpose. That's if you want to teach them to think. There is no evidence that has been a State purpose since the start of compulsion schooling.
When Frederich Froebel, the inventor of kindergarten in 19th century Germany fashioned his idea he did not have a "garden for children" in mind, but a metaphor of teachers as gardeners and children as the vegetables. Kindergarten was created to be, and was quietly celebrated as, a way to break the influence of mothers on their children once and for all. I note with interest the growth of day care in the U.S. and the repeated urgings to extend school downward to include 4 year olds. The movement toward state socialism I've been speaking to you about today is not some historical curiosity but a powerful dynamic force in the world around us. It is fighting for its life against those forces which would, through vouchers or tax credits, deprive it of financial lifeblood, and it has countered this thrust with a demand for even more control over children's lives, and even more money to pay for the extended school day and year that its control requires. Herr Froebel disliked his own family intensely, a fact that may be useful to you when you come to regard the encroachment of school institutions on infancy.
A movement as visibly destructive to individuality, family and community as government-system schooling has been might be expected to collapse in the face of its dismal record, coupled with an increasingly aggressive shake-down of the taxpayer, but this has not happened. The explanation is largely found in the transformation of schooling from a simple service to families and towns to an enormous, centralized corporate enterprise.
While this development has had a markedly adverse effect on people, and on our democratic traditions, it has made schooling the single largest employer in the United States, and the largest grantor of contracts, next to the Defense Department. Both of these low-visibility phenomena provide monopoly schooling with powerful political friends, publicists, advocates and other useful allies from positions apparently outside the loop until an analysis map of special interest is drawn. This is a large part of the explanation why no amount of failure ever changes things in schools, or changes them for very long. School people are in a position to out-last any storm and to keep short-attention-span public scrutiny thoroughly confused.
An overview of the short history of this institution reveals as pattern marked by intervals of public outrage, followed by enlargement of the monopoly in every case. The net result of public alarm has been to diminish worthwhile alternatives, surely the richest of all the ironies, a cosmic reversal testifying to the secret systems of nourishment available to schooling, exactly as it is.
After nearly 30 years spent inside a number of public schools, some considered good and some bad, I feel certain that management cannot clean its own house. The structure is too brilliantly designed to allow that. It relentlessly marginalizes all significant change, or degrades it, and no watchdog mechanism exists to effectively combat how that happens - nor is it possible, in my opinion.
Teaching the way children learn involves a dynamic too complicated to bureaucratize. Failure to see that simple truth, or our simple inability to act upon it in a monopoly situation when it is seen, dooms all in-system reform to trivialization. There are no incentives for the "owners" of the structure to reform it, nor can there be without outside competition. Indeed, I'm afraid that competition too tightly monitored from a central point, as it would be in a national test situation (which involves wildly incorrect assumptions about learning that are too complicated to go into in this essay), will not touch the existing monolith.
What is needed for several decades is the kind of wildly-swinging free market we had at the beginning of our national history. It cannot be overemphasized that nobody of theory exists to accurately define the way children learn, or which learning is of most worth. By pretending the existence of such we have cut ourselves off from the information and innovation that only a real market can provide. Fortunately our national situation has been so favorable, so dominant through most of our history, that the margin of error afforded has been vast in a material sense. We all eat whether we do this school thing right or not.
But the future is not so clear. Perhaps materially a case can be made that our position of advantage is too great at this point to squander, but when we enter the arena of emotional capital, of simple satisfaction with life and joy in living, our relative position has been slipping for many years. That holds true whether we compare ourselves to certain other nations or to standards we set for our own lives based on values, traditions and myths.
Violence, narcotic addictions, divorce, alcoholism, loneliness...all these are but tangible measures of a poverty in education. Surely schools, as the institutions monopolizing the day-times of childhood, can be called to account for this. In a democracy the final judges cannot be experts, but only the people.
And the courtroom of the people is the free market. Over 50 years ago my mother, Bootie Zimmer, chose to teach me how to read. She had no degrees, no government salary, no encouragement, yet her non-expert choice has given me a wonderful and interesting life. I have never been a public charge.
Trust the people, give them choices, and the school nightmare will vanish in a generation.