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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Gatto's Conspiracy Theory

Marrx's imaginary bugbear, the rich capitalist

One problem with John Taylor Gatto's Underground History of American Education is that it does not account for why the factory model of the public school is found throughout the developed world, not just in the USA. This is what first smells wrong. Then, he finds no “smoking gun,” no clearly stated plan to turn the schools into agents ot social control and repression. Then, the whole thing is based on a conspiracy theory, in the end, and it would have to be a conspiracy so big it is wildly improbable. It is intrinsically improbable that it could all be done without the general public twigging to what was going on, and resisting.

It is probably based on a Marxist model—an imagined elite keeping the masses down. As Donald Akenson points out, qhile it is clear and a truism that schools are there for social control, it is entirely reasonable to suppose that this control is agreed upon by almost everyone, simply “a commonly shared set of values and beliefs” that people in general want to pass on to their children,

Most likely, schools did not evolve in this way based on a definite ulterior plan, including one to keep the lower classes down. Which is to say, if the schools are oppressive and counter-productive, it is the devil's work, not that of any individual or identifiable group. It is the result of a lot of people pursuing selfish interests instead of the general good. It looks planned and deliberate because the devil is a coherent intelligence.

Here is a quote from Woodrow Wilson that you often see; it is the closest thing to a smoking gun Gatto and others seem to come up wit, for which reason it is often quoted,

“We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks” (Gatto, p. 59).

This does seem to express the spirit of progressivism as it existed in the early years of the 20th century. In the name of scientific efficiency, influenced by the success of innovations like the assembly line, it looked very much to “experts,” a scientific or pseudo-scientific priesthood, to command and control society to everyone's benefit. And no doubt this philosophy entered the schools. Schools being by their nature a very conservative institution, it is patently in large part still there. One certainly seems to see it in English public schools, and in the assimilation of what should be the most humanistic of pursuits to social science.

But did Wilson then introduce the factory school? Unlikely, since education was a state matter, not within the powers of the federal government. This call for scientific efficiency was a general tendency, supported by most folks, not just a small elite. It continues today in the desire of many if not most parents to see their kids interest themselves in STEM fields—in order to get a good job. They do not see it as simply bowing to the needs of industry.

Here is another quote Gatto digs up from “progressives” of that day:

Ellwood P. Cubberley, dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education:

“[R]aw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from governments and industry” (Gatto, p. 61; Cubberley, dissertation, 1905).

Gatto also cites the Rockefeller Foundation's “Occasional Letter Number One.” The subject is a plan to introduce high schools to the poor rural US South. There is certainly at least a tone of condescension towards the lower classes:

“In our dreams … people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions 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 [note the exalted company given educators]. 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 us 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.”

A second baleful wave, as Gatto notes without apparently distinguishing the two movements, hit with the behaviourism of the Thirties through the Sixties. I caught the last years of this in the Sixties, and was horrified. To me, and I think to many, the Sixties counterculture was a reaction against it.

But, oddly, I cannot find any of Gatto's damning, inflammatory quotes about the schools in the document he cites, “The Behavioural Science Teacher Education Project” (1967). The actual document is preoccupied with practical details. In any case, it is from Michigan State University, not the federal or even state government, although it received federal government funding. It is unfortunate, however, in proposing that the instruction of teachers be primarily based on insights obtained by the behavioural sciences. Not only are there no such insights; Noam Chomsky had pretty exploded the behaviourist theory by this time. The behaviourist or audio-lingual method of language learning, embraced en masse by the US military during and after WWII as the new scientific way to learn, had by this time been disproven by studies and abandoned, And behaviourism is profoundly dehumanizing; strict behaviourists hold that there is no soul, no free will, no interior life. It is also even more elitist than progressivism: all power is put in the hands of the practitioner, and the students are mere objects.

It is also unfortunate, but typical of the time, that the BSTEP document calls for educational policy to be closely coordinated with the findings of futurists. All very scientific, of course. Must keep up with the Russians and Sputnik. Unfortunately, futurists are almost always wrong; it is pure pseudo-science. Peak oil, global warming, population bombs, environmentalism, all that nonsense.

GM Futurliner, New York World's Fair, 1939

As Stephen Dudner, co-author of Freakonomics, points out, “experts”who predict the future have a worse track record than the average man in the street, and a worse record than flipping a coin. This is because there is a natural bias to say things are going to change. To experts, either the future is utopia or the sky is always falling. If an expert does not do this, nobody is interested in his or her predictions, nobody cares, nobody will pay him or her. But in the real world, things go on as they are far more often and for a much longer time than they dramatically change.

So it is a sucker's game to listen to futurologists. For education and the schools, it gives well-paid employment to a self-appointed professional elite at the expense of the students.

More to come...

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