Friday, November 18, 2005

The Underground History of American Education - Discussion #1



So I just finished the prologue and first two chapters of Gatto's book, The Underground History of American Education, and it's been quite a ride. I honestly didn't expect this much jam-packed into one book. But it's good information, with well-told stories. And the book is also challenging you to really wonder about how education ought to be--occasionally I'm having flashbacks to Plato's Republic (a famous philosophical work that also deals with the question of education).

Anyways, I'll try to get this discussion going by sharing some of the important things that stood out to me early on...

First of all, since chapters 1 and 2 are primarily historical analyses--though there are plenty of juicy tidbits, quotes, and ideas contained in them--I'm going to limit this discussion "starter" to the prologue. I do this particularly because I think it provides some good general information that should actually lead into chapters 1 and 2 during our discussion here, and also because I'm going to be making a long enough blog post as it is!

That being said, before getting into Gatto's criticisms and history of education, I think it's important to point out his assessment of the present situation in schools:
It’s not so much that anyone there sets out to hurt children; more that all of us associated with the institution are stuck like flies in the same great web your kids are. We buzz frantically to cover our own panic but have little power to help smaller flies.
Yes, he sees problems in the system, but he's clearly not necessarily pointing fingers at individual people. I thought that worth pointing out. On a related note, I appreciated his honesty and humility in admitting this work to be just what he's personally come to uncover in research, basically implying that it is up to us (and the scholars) to test its veracity:
By now I’ve invested the better part of a decade looking for answers. If you want a conventional history of schooling, or education as it is carelessly called, you’d better stop reading now. Although years of research in the most arcane sources are reflected here, throughout it’s mainly intuition that drives my synthesis.
Whether his ideas will survive passing through the fire, we must wait to see. I for one am looking forward to the test though.

[By the way, before moving on, since he mentions it in passing here, and we'll probably be getting into it soon enough, did everyone catch his distinction between "education" and "schooling" in history?]

Now, I'm honestly not too sure how to faciliate or get one of these discussions going, so I'll simply end with two prologue excerpts (the first a bit lengthy, the second very short) that each delve into a lot of what the first two chapters covered:
Somehow out of the industrial confusion which followed the Civil War, powerful men and dreamers became certain what kind of social order America needed, one very like the British system we had escaped a hundred years earlier. This realization didn’t arise as a product of public debate as it should have in a democracy, but as a distillation of private discussion. Their ideas contradicted the original American charter but that didn’t disturb them. They had a stupendous goal in mind. The end of unpredictable history; its transformation into dependable order.

From mid-century onwards certain utopian schemes to retard maturity in the interests of a greater good were put into play, following roughly the blueprint Rousseau laid down in the book Emile. At least rhetorically. The first goal, to be reached in stages, was an orderly, scientifically managed society, one in which the best people would make the decisions, unhampered by democratic tradition. After that, human breeding, the evolutionary destiny of the species, would be in reach. Universal institutionalized formal forced schooling was the prescription, extending the dependency of the young well into what had traditionally been early adult life. Individuals would be prevented from taking up important work until a relatively advanced age. Maturity was to be retarded.

During the post-Civil War period, childhood was extended about four years. Later, a special label was created to describe very old children. It was called adolescence, a phenomenon hitherto unknown to the human race...
And a great one to finish this start to discussion:
The shocking possibility that dumb people don’t exist in sufficient numbers to warrant the careers devoted to tending to them will seem incredible to you. Yet that is my proposition: Mass dumbness first had to be imagined; it isn’t real.

7 Comments:

At 11/21/2005 12:42:00 PM, Anonymous Sarah Jane said...

I haven't read the book and have no interest in reading the book. If I want to know why we're all going to hell in a handbasket, all I have to do is call my dad.

But I do wonder about Gatto's assessment in your first quotation, that public schooling come into being as a non-democratic institution with the goal of extending childhood.

It's my understanding that public education is (among other things) intended to feed democracy by producing a society of thoughtful and well-educated citizens who are capable of making good choices for the nation as a whole. You'd be hard-pressed to argue that our current system succeeds in that, but I do think that the intent was/is there. In addition, can Gatto really separate the visionary ideas of a relatively few post-war thinkers from the visionary ideas of the relatively few Enlightenment thinkers who we traditionally call our Founding Fathers? From what you've posted here, I'm not convinced that these ideas are patently un-democratic in nature.

In addition, I'm confused as to why anyone would want to intentionally delay adulthood. However, it's true that longer periods of direct dependence have traditionally gone hand in hand with higher levels of education. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that well-educated people of nearly all historical times have entered traditional adulthood at a later age than their less-educated counterparts. In many cultures, this is one reason why older men have traditionally married younger women; because men were formally educated and women were not, women were ready for "adult" life in their mid-late teens, while men often were not ready for another 5 or 10 years after that. It seems like a system for mass education would almost automatically create generations of adults who enter the "adult" world later than had been the norm.

It seems to me -- and this is from only a couple of excerpts and not a lot of additional information from you, who have read more of the book -- that Gatto is confusing causes with effects, and perhaps is also over-simplifying some of these situations. Having read more, what's your take on things?

 
At 11/22/2005 12:02:00 PM, Blogger Meggers said...

All I could help thinking when first considering Gatto’s comparison to modern day school children to our nation’s founding fathers was to wonder where I or my peers would be if it were not for the public education we participated in. I also thought of the Gospel of Jesus teaching in the temple at the age of 12, and one of the things that many are amazed at in our age is how young He was when he began teaching. When compared to the lives of early Americans such ambition at such a young age no longer seems unusual. It makes the large amount of schooling modern Americans are subjected to seem unnecessary. A society of educated peoples does not necessarily mean year after year of schooling.

One quote that particularly struck me is one taken from Woodrow Wilson in chapter 2:

We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

Now in our day, some of the masses are trained in difficult manual tasks, others are trained in difficult mental tasks, such as engineering or medicine, but these fields are trained much like vocations needing less mental effort. Yes, some engineers and doctors go on to invent new devices or cure new diseases; however, the majority is simply trained to do the tasks in the job description. There is no training in the liberal arts for engineers or doctors, because it is not required for them to do their jobs. I’m sure most of us have heard the joke:

Engineering
“How will it work?”
Science
“Why will it work?”
Management
“When will it work?”
Liberal Arts
“Do you want fries with that?”

When someone educated in a public school hears jokes and stereotypes such as this, it discourages them from a liberal arts college education, because it is not economically feasible. I know that this is not always the truth, but I’m sure it discourages some.

I will be interested to see if Gatto has anything to say about schools driving consumerism; the average American life revolves around the near worship of money through consumerism. Is it all due to television commercials and highway billboards, or do schools also have their part?

I think Wilson’s quote in part answers Sarah’s question concerning the democratic value of the school system sought after and built by post-war thinkers. There is a clear delineation between the upper class and the masses, which denies the Declaration of Independence’s statement that all men are created equal. If all men are created equal, shouldn’t all parents have the right to choose a liberal education for their children if they so desire?

 
At 11/22/2005 07:14:00 PM, Anonymous Sarah Jane said...

Meggers --

I guess I'm not quite sure what point you're arguing here. Are you in favor of public schooling, or do you consider it to be a waste of time? Do you see education as contributing primarily to a person's vocational skills, or to his/her ability to think and assess critically? Those seem like really different goals, and they require different methods of schooling.

I don't think anyone would argue that the benefit of a liberal arts education is to make a lot of money or to be at the top of a given field, although there are certainly plenty of wealthy and successful individuals with a liberal arts background. Instead, the goal of a liberal arts education is to help an individual become well-rounded and conversant in a number of different disciplines; in other words, to create a modern-day Renaissance Man or Woman.

On the other hand, vocational and professional schools focus on preparing their students for a specific career in a highly specialized field. They don't concern themselves with offering a wide variety of gen-ed courses, because their emphasis is not on creating a well-rounded individual, but on providing intense, job-specific training.

You can make bad jokes about liberal arts schools, but you have to judge them based on what they set out to do.

Money is a big issue for nearly everyone who goes on to further education after highschool. Whether it's med school or cosmetology, a significant commitment of time and money is required to further one's education. Some folks deal with that by choosing a field with lots of job openings and the potential for a large income in entry-level jobs. Others deal with it by working their way through college and minimizing student loans. Some pursue scholarships right and left; others choose a less expensive school. I don't think it's an issue confined only to liberal arts institutions, but rather a consideration that everyone has to make across the board.

Finally, I'm not sure what you mean when you say that Woodrow Wilson's quote answers my question. I don't think that the existance of a class system necessarily indicates a lack of equality, at least not in the sense that our Founding Fathers intended the word. After all, that seemingly glorious phrase "all men are created equal" excluded the vast majority of the American population in 1776: women, slaves, indentured servants, Native Americans, and many more. The necessary manual labor of our Founding Fathers' time was done by the "non-equals" of their society, just as today's hard manual labor is also done by those who have not been afforded educational opportunities: minorities, immigrants, transients, and those living below the poverty line.

I don't know that we can blame our public educational system for that, though. You'd be hard-pressed to find any nation or culture that does not contain some kind of social hierarchy. Perhaps Wilson's quote is not particularly kind or optimistic, but I'm also not sure that it's particularly hateful or un-democratic, either. The fact is that we don't all have equal opportunities, and we aren't going to. There are many ways that we can try to even the playing field for those who start out at a disadvantage: financial aid, merit-based scholarships, and affirmative action programs come to mind. But the truth is that if "equal" means "identical" then it's simply not going to happen.

If, however, "equal" means that a ditch digger is afforded the same respect in his community and the same voice in his government as a CEO, then I think we stand a chance. While we cannot make anyone identical -- God himself made us all different! -- we can treat people with equal respect and afford them equal dignity.

That, I think, is the point of democracy. And I think it's one of the greatest benefits of public schooling -- that rich kids and poor kids learn side-by-side for thirteen of the most formative years of their lives. Most public school kids make friendships that cross socio-economic boundaries, and are given a chance to learn about people who live very differently from their own families. I think that's a powerful equalizing force in a society where the gap between wealth and poverty is increasing.

Just my thoughts.

SJ

 
At 11/22/2005 09:12:00 PM, Blogger Meggers said...

I think Blogger ate my comment the first time, so here it is again, sorry if it's a duplicate.

I think that education should first enable a person to think and assess critically, and then, if the need exists, it should educate toward a vocation. But I think everyone should have the ability to think critically as a baseline, otherwise, how are they to decide upon their vocation properly and rationally? Based upon this emphasis, I think that our modern system fails; therefore, I would have to say I am against it.

If I came off as insulting a liberal arts education, I apologize, because that was not my intent. I graduated from a relatively highly esteemed engineering university wishing my university education were better rounded. I feel that I missed out on something by going to a school limited to technical teaching.

I agree that money is an issue for everyone and I applaud those who do not make all of their decisions based solely on the desire to get rich as quickly as possible, because I believe that money is the cause of problems much more often than it is the solution. I also believe that our society encourages people to esteem to the point of worshipping money, and I wonder if our system of schooling has any influence in that societal emphasis.

The politicians, the CEOs, the people who make decisions that the rest of us must live with, are those who people like Wilson believe should be entitled to a liberal education. The sons and daughters of rich persons, who are likely the leaders of tomorrow, are often put in private prep schools where the children are actually given a liberal education, they are not left to a public education. Why do the rich parents opt to pull their children out of public education if it is not because they feel that it is lacking in some way?

My high school US history teacher told his class that his job as a US history teacher was to educate us so that we would be intellectually capable of performing our duty as Americans of being able to assess and decide who to vote for in elections when we turned 18. That is a logical end to education in democracy, the question is, is that being achieved across the board, and is that even the aim of schools nationwide?

 
At 11/23/2005 02:43:00 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Sarah,

First of all thanks for your questions and comments. I wish you had the time to read the book though, as I think it would clarify many of the issues you bring up. I'll do my best to summarize what I think would be Gatto's response to what you said...

Part I.

It's my understanding that public education is (among other things) intended to feed democracy by producing a society of thoughtful and well-educated citizens who are capable of making good choices for the nation as a whole. You'd be hard-pressed to argue that our current system succeeds in that, but I do think that the intent was/is there.

You are right that this was intent in the eyes of many. Gatto's point is that the primary pushers (and supporters financially) of mass public education systems early on (in the United States and in Europe) were industrialists and elitists who wanted to keep classes separated (though they sincerely believing this would bring about the best society).

Basically, the system came primarily from England first (in the late 1700s and early 1800s), the country that first industrialized, and their system was adapted from Hindu schooling, which clearly maintained the caste system. British imperialism was what allowed for Englishmen to discover the "value" of this Hindu schooling system.

Then this new system was adapted and modified by Prussia (early to mid 1800s), not solely for industrialization, but also for military purposes. After Prussia was going strong militarily speaking in the mid to late 1800s, other countries began to imitate the model. The Prussian education system became the standard, and was very different from the classical liberal arts and humanities educations.

The new method was primarily driven by the hope to prepare the child for work for an industry or for the state, with little to no concern for the individual's self-betterment. It also was intended to coerce people into their proper "roles" in society. This is all tied up with eugenics and the other "utopian" projects of select elite (the "philanthropists) in power during the late 19th and early 20th century as well.

And as I said earlier, this new system would not have come into existence if it hadn't had such a strong backing by the industrialists and financiers of the period.

Gatto's gives a fair amount of historical evidence to support what he's saying. Here are a few good quotes:

"[Schools are to be factories] in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products... manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from government and industry." --Ellwood P. Cubberley, 1905

"In our dreams...people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [intellectual and character education] fade from our 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 among 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 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 mission statement, 1906

"We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks." --Woodrow Wilson, speech to businessmen

I'll provide more information if you'd like, but I highly recommend giving the book a try as well.

[Meggers, feel free to add anything important that you think I left out.]

 
At 11/23/2005 02:58:00 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Part II.

In addition, I'm confused as to why anyone would want to intentionally delay adulthood.

The short answer from Gatto (I think, at least) is that industrialists wanted to delay adulthood, because they saw schooling as such an effective way of forming young people into what they desired--the longer they could do so, the more molded these young people would be to fit the needs of industry and the nation.

The long answer can be found, amongst others places in Gatto's book, in the following two sections (please at least try to read these!):

"Extending Childhood"
"An Enclosure Movement For Children"

Part III.

It seems to me -- and this is from only a couple of excerpts and not a lot of additional information from you, who have read more of the book -- that Gatto is confusing causes with effects, and perhaps is also over-simplifying some of these situations. Having read more, what's your take on things?

As I hope the above makes clear, I don't think he's doing too much oversimplifying, nor is he confusing causes with effects. There is plenty of documentation for what he is arguing, yet it also doesn't contradict what you describe to be the intent of public education in the minds of many. Unfortunately, the many often just aren't the ones in power.

Let me know what you think of these responses.

 
At 11/23/2005 03:11:00 PM, Blogger Chris said...

I suppose I should have read all of the comments before replying. I see now that I just repeated some of what Meggers already said. Hopefully the history I added is helpful.

Now, Meggers said,
"All I could help thinking when first considering Gatto’s comparison to modern day school children to our nation’s founding fathers was to wonder where I or my peers would be if it were not for the public education we participated in."

I completely agree. The information regarding education in early America was very surprising, even to me, who has a minor in history, and spent half a year teaching American History to high school kids.

Sarah,

I also agree with your points about equality and the Founding Fathers. The difference however, is that the people of the late 19th and early 20th century thought they had the power (and right, I suppose) to mold people into what they thought was best...in there case, what was best for their corporation, or the national interests they represented. In light of that, I think that the understanding of these elites was far worse than that which most of our Founding Fathers held, even in their skewed understanding of "equality". Btw, it's worth noting that not all founding fathers wanted to continue slavery, nor had a degrading view towards women.

 

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