Public Schools Have Wrecked America
The Way It Used To Be
by John Taylor Gatto
Chapter 1 of The Underground History of American Public Education
Whoever controls the image and information of the past determines what and how future generations will think; whoever controls the information and images of the present determines how those same people will view the past.
~ George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
Take at hazard one hundred children of several educated generations and one hundred uneducated children of the people and compare them in anything you please; in strength, in agility, in mind, in the ability to acquire knowledge, even in morality – and in all respects you are startled by the vast superiority on the side of the children of the uneducated.
~ Count Leo Tolstoy, “Education and Children” (1862)
A Nation From the Bottom Up
Fifty children of different ages are teaching each other while the schoolmaster hears lessons at his desk from older students. An air of quiet activity fills the room. A wood stove crackles in the corner. What drove the nineteenth-century school world celebrated in Edward Eggleston’s classic, The Hoosier Schoolmaster, was a society rich with concepts like duty, hard work, responsibility, and self-reliance; a society overwhelmingly local in orientation although never so provincial it couldn’t be fascinated by the foreign and exotic. But when tent Chautauqua with its fanfare about modern marvels left town, conversation readily returned to the text of local society.
Eggleston’s America was a special place in modern history, one where the society was more central than the national political state. Words can’t adequately convey the stupendous radicalism hidden in our quiet villages, a belief that ordinary people have a right to govern themselves. A confidence that they can.
Most revolutionary of all was the conviction that personal rights can only be honored when the political state is kept weak. In the classical dichotomy between liberty and subordination written into our imagination by Locke and Hobbes in the seventeenth century, America struggled down the libertarian road of Locke for awhile while her three godfather nations, England, Germany, and France, followed Hobbes and established leviathan states through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Toward the end, America began to follow the Old World’s lead.
For Hobbes, social order depended upon state control of the inner life, a degree of mental colonization unknown to the tyrants of history whose principal concern had been controlling the bodies of their subjects. But the sheer size of an America without national roads or electronic networks ensured that liberty would be nurtured outside the ring of government surveillance. Then, too, many Americans came out of the dissenting religious sects of England, independent congregations which rejected church-state partnerships. The bulk of our population was socially suspect anyway. Even our gentry was second and third string by English standards, gentlemen without inheritances, the rest a raggle-taggle band of wastrels, criminals, shanghaied boys, poor yeomanry, displaced peasants.
Benet, the poet, describes our founding stock:
The disavouched, hard-bitten pack
Shipped overseas to steal a continent
with neither shirts nor honor to their back.