A short time ago I took $70 and sent a twelve-year-old girl from my class, with her non-English-speaking mother, on a bus down the New Jersey coast to take the police chief of Seabright to lunch and apologize for polluting his beach with a discarded Gatorade bottle. In exchange for this public apology I had arranged with the police chief for the girl to have a one-day apprenticeship in small town police procedures.

A few days later two more of my twelve-year-old kids travelled alone from Harlem to West Thirty-first street where they began an apprenticeship with a newspaper editor; later three of my kids found themselves in the middle of the Jersey swamps at six in the morning, studying the mind of a trucking company president as he dispatched eighteenwheelers to Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Are these "special" children in a "special" program? Well, in one sense yes, but nobody knows about this program but myself and the kids. They're just nice kids from central Harlem, bright and alert, but so badly schooled when they came to me that most of them couldn't add or subtract with any fluency. And not a single one knew the population of New York City or how far New York is from California.

Does that worry me? Of course; but I am confident that as they gain self-knowledge they'll also become self-teachers -- and only self-teaching has any lasting value.

We've got to give kids independent time right away because that is the key to self-knowledge, and we must reinvolve them with the real world as fast as possible so that the independent time can be spent on something other than abstraction. This is an emergency; it requires drastic action to correct.

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What else does a restructured school system need? It needs to stop being a parasite on the working community. Of all the pages in the human ledger, only our tortured country has warehoused children and asked nothing of them in service of the general good. For a while I think we need to make community service a required part of schooling. Besides the experience in acting unselfishly that it will teach, it is the quickest way to give young children real responsibility in the mainstream of life.

For five years I ran a guerrilla school program where I had every kid, rich and poor, smart and dipsy, give 320 hours a year of hard community service. Dozens of those kids came back to me years later, grown up, and they told me that the experience of helping someone else had changed their lives. It had taught them to see in new ways, to rethink goals and values.

Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.

What's gotten in the way of education in the United States is a theory of social engineering that says there is one right way to proceed with growing up. That's an ancient Egyptian idea symbolized by the pyramid with an eye on top that's on the other side of George Washington on our one-dollar bill. Everyone is a stone defined by position on the pyramid. This theory has been presented in many different ways, but at bottom it signals the worldview of minds obsessed with the control of other minds, obsessed by dominance and strategies of intervention to maintain that dominance.

It might have worked for the Pharaohs but it certainly hasn't worked very well for us. Indeed, nothing in the historical record provides evidence that any one idea should dominate the developmental time of all the young, and yet aspirants to monopolize this time have never been closer to winning the prize. The humming of the great hive society foreseen by Francis Bacon and by H. G. Wells in The Sleeper Awakes has never sounded louder than it does to us right now.

The heart of a defense for the cherished American ideals of privacy, variety, and individuality lies in the way we bring up our young. Children learn what they live. Put kids in a class and they will live out their lives in an invisible cage, isolated from their chance at community; interrupt kids with bells and horns all the time and they will learn that nothing is important; force them to plead for the natural right to the toilet and they will become liars and toadies; ridicule them and they will retreat from human association; shame them and they will find a hundred ways to get even. The habits taught in large-scale organizations are deadly.

On the other hand, individuality, family, and community are, by definition, expressions of singular organization, never of "one-right way" thinking on the grand scale. Private time is absolutely essential if a private identity is going to develop, and private time is equally essential to the development of a code of private values, without which we aren't really individuals at all. Children and families need some relief from government surveillance and intimidation if original expressions belonging to them are to develop. Without these, freedom has no meaning.

The lesson of my teaching life is that both the theory and structure of mass-education are fatally flawed; they cannot work to support the democratic logic of our national idea because they are unfaithful to the democratic principle. The democratic principle is still the best idea for a nation, even though we aren't living up to it right now.

Mass-education cannot work to produce a fair society because its daily practice is practice in rigged competition, suppression, and intimidation. The schools we've allowed to develop can't work to teach nonmaterial values, the values which give meaning to everyone's life, rich or poor, because the structure of schooling is held together by a Byzantine tapestry of reward and threat, of carrots and sticks. Working for official favor, grades, or other trinkets of subordination; these have no connection with education -- they are the paraphernalia of servitude, not freedom.

Mass-schooling damages children. We don't need any more of it. And under the guise that it is the same thing as education, it has been picking our pockets just as Socrates predicted it would thousands of years ago. One of the surest ways to recognize education is that it doesn't cost very much; it doesn't depend on expensive toys or gadgets. The experiences that produce it and the self-awareness that propels it are nearly free. It is hard to turn a dollar on education. But schooling is a wonderful hustle, getting sharper all the time.

Sixty-five years ago Bertrand Russell, probably the greatest mathematician of this century, its greatest philosopher, and a close relation of the King of England to boot, saw that mass-schooling in the United States had a profoundly anti-democratic intent, that it was a scheme to artificially deliver national unity by eliminating human variation and by eliminating the forge that produces variation: the family. According to Lord Russell, mass-schooling produced a recognizably American student: anti-intellectual, superstitious, lacking self-confidence, and with less of what Russell called "inner freedom" than his or her counterpart in any other nation he knew of, past or present. These schooled children became citizens, he said, with a thin "mass character," holding excellence and aesthetics equally in contempt, inadequate to the personal crises of their lives.

American national unity has always been the central problem of American life. It was inherent in our synthetic beginnings and in the conquest of a continental landmass. It was true in 1790 and it is just as true, perhaps even truer, two hundred years later. Somewhere around the time of the Civil War we began to try shortcuts to get the unity we wanted faster, by artificial means. Compulsory schooling was one of those shortcuts, perhaps the most important one. "Take hold the children!" said John Cotton back in colonial Boston, and that seemed such a good idea that eventually the people who looked at "unity" almost as if it were a religious idea did just that. It took thirty years to beat down a fierce opposition, but by the 1880s it had come to pass -- "they" had the children. For the last one hundred and ten years, the "one-right-way" crowd has been trying to figure out what to do with the children and they still don't know.

Perhaps it is time to try something different. "Good fences make good neighbors," said Robert Frost. The natural solution to learning to live together in a community is first to learn to live apart as individuals and as families. Only when you feel good about yourself can you feel good about others.

But we attacked the problem of unity mechanically, as though we could force an engineering solution by crowding the various families and communities under the broad, homogenizing umbrella of institutions like compulsory schools. In working this scheme the democratic ideas that were the only justification for our national experiment were betrayed.

The attempt at a shortcut continues, and it ruins families and communities now, just as it always did then. Rebuild these things and young people will begin to educate themselves -- with our help -- just as they did at the nation's beginning. They don't have anything to work for now except money, and that's never been a first-class motivator. Break up these institutional schools, decertify teaching, let anyone who has a mind to teach bid for customers, privatize this whole business -- trust the free market system. I know it's easier to say than to do, but what other choice do we have? We need less school, not more.

This article is excerpted from:

Dumbing Us Down, ©1992,
by John Gatto.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New Society. http://www.newsociety.com

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About the Author

John Gatto has been a teacher for 30 years and is a recipient of the New York State Teacher of the Year award. His other published titles include A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling (Berkeley Hills Books, 2001), and The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher's Intimate Investigation into The Problem of Modern Schooling (Oxford Village Press, 2000), and more.