The Awful Truth of the American Education System

26 Feb

The education system of America has become a tool of the powerful, and not a liberating force as so many people believe. I walked away from a career in teaching because of these kind of facts. Here is a speech from one of the most profound voices in exposing the truth of American education. 

John Taylor Gatto
Speech to the
Vermont Homeschooling Conference

(Note: John Gatto is the former New York State Teacher of the Year who renounced the government school system in his landmark book DUMBING US DOWN. He is constantly in demand as a public speaker.

As a bit of background, the industrial titans of the 1890’s began to think that not only could the production line be engineered, but people’s lives could be engineered as well, in order to work like homogeneous robots with the machines. Rockefeller and Carnegie gave huge sums to prominent academics to see if this could be realized through the educational system. They found that to a considerable extent it could, and it is still being done today as evidenced in the Congressional Record during the Clinton administration. This is the story that John Gatto has to tell.-DB)

What I intend to talk to you about this afternoon is what I understand you are aware of — the positive goals and values that you seek as homeschoolers. But I want to talk about the specifics of what you’re fleeing, because what you’re fleeing is alive and well in the green state of Vermont. Perhaps Vermont is one of a half-a-dozen states that the U.S. Department of Education uses as testing grounds. I believe they picked Vermont because they understand that you people are so reasonable that you’re always willing to negotiate. Anyway, I have some information to bring to you on a different outlook on what the intention of schools is. The title of this talk is:


Between 1967 and 1974 teacher training in the US was covertly revamped through the coordinated efforts of a small number of private foundations, certain universities, global corporations and several other interests working through the U.S. Department of Education and through key state education departments, one of which is the state of Vermont.

Three critical documents in this transformation are Benjamin Bloom’s multi-volume TAXONOMY OF EDUCATIONAL OBJECTIVES. That was the first. The second was a many-state project begun in 1967 called DESIGNING EDUCATION FOR THE FUTURE, and it was set forth in an enormous manual of nearly 1000 pages and finally the BEHAVIORAL TEACHER EDUCATIONAL PROJECT which came in a manual of over 1000 pages. These were inserted into every state education department in the country and moneys were inserted there to pay faculty salaries a certain range of bribes for the school districts that would pioneer the use of these things.

Let me start with the DESIGNING EDUCATION FOR THE FUTURE papers. They were the collusion with the federal education department and the presumably independent state agencies. They redefined education after the 19th century Germanic fashion as (quoting now from the document) “as a means to achieve important economic and social goals for the national character” — and I would hasten to add that none of those goals included the maximum development of your son or daughter. State agencies would henceforth “act as Federal enforcers insuring compliance of local schools with Federal directives”. The document proclaimed that ( I’m quoting again), “each state education department must be an agent of change”, proclaimed further “change must be institutionalized”. I doubt if an account of this appeared in any newspaper in the state of Vermont or for that matter any newspaper in the country (U.S.). Education departments were (I am quoting a third time) “to lose their identity as well as their authority in order to form a partnership with the Federal Government”.

The BEHAVIORAL TEACHER EDUCATIONAL PROJECT outlines specific teaching reforms to be forced on the country, unwillingly of course, after 1967. It also sets out, in clear language, the outlook and intent of its invisible creators. Nothing less than quoting again “the impersonal manipulation through schooling of a future America in which few will be able to maintain control over their own opinions”, an America in which (quoting again) “each individual receives at birth, a multipurpose identification number which enables employers and other controllers to keep track of their [underlings]”, (underlings is my interpretation, everything else came out of the document), “and to expose them to the directors subliminal influence of the state education department and the federal department acting through those whenever necessary”.

Readers learned in 1967, of course you and I were not among those readers, that chemical experimentation on minors would be normal procedure in the post 1967 world. That is a pointed foreshadowing of the massive Ritalin interventions which would accompany the student body of the future. Teachers were expected to function as government change agents and their trainers, ( this the first time reading this document that I realized that the expression “teacher trainer”, like animal trainer, is an odd locution) the teacher trainers, were notified that behavioral science would henceforth replace academic curriculum in schools. The project identified the future as one (again I’m quoting) “in which a small league would control all important matters, one in which participatory democracy would largely disappear”. Children would be made to see that their classmates, and indeed the average man or woman were so inadequate, were so irresponsible that they had to be controlled and regulated. The tremendous rise in school violence and general chaos in the late 1960’s, a period when teachers and schools across the land were stripped of their ability to discipline children, might be seen as a convenient public justification for sharp constrictions of traditional liberty. Each outburst resonated through the press like a billboard for emergency measures.

According to the BEHAVIORAL TEACHER EDUCATIONAL PROJECT, post modern schooling would focus, (I quote directly from the document), “on pleasure cultivation and interpersonal relationships and other attitudes and skills compatible with a non-work world”. It makes sense of course, doesn’t it? That irresponsible semi-illiterate people could not be trusted with much responsibility so in the new change agentry schooling, which is called for by this national teacher training document, the teacher is a therapist, translating the prescriptions of the social psychologists into practical action research in the classroom.

The third critical gospel signaling a great transformation at hand, to those in the know, was Bloom’s TAXONOMY OF EDUCATIONAL OBJECTIVES, which has, since its publication, spawned a number of descendant forms, like “mastery learning”, “outcome based education” and “school to work”  business-government-economic projects. Dr. Bloom’s compilation was a tool, (I’m quoting from Dr. Bloom), “a tool to classify the ways individuals are to act, think or feel as the result of participating in some unit of instruction”. I would be dubious if any parent in the U.S. would send their children to schools under these auspices if they were thinking people. In this fashion, children would learn proper attitudes and have their improper attitudes (brought from home) remediated. In all stages of the school manipulations testing would be essential to locate the child’s mind on an official continuum.

But why is all of this being done? One large piece of the answer can be found in the current edition of FOREIGN AFFAIRS MAGAZINE, which will be in all your libraries. It is surely one of the most influential periodicals in the U.S., perhaps in the world, which extols the American economy with its massive lead over Europe and Asia, and an article written by the owner of U.S. News and World report in the New York daily news by Mort Zukerman. Zukerman attributes our superiority which he claims can not be lost in the 21st century, so huge is it, to certain characteristics of the American worker and the American workplace. If you read between the lines of this article it’s quite easy to see that the advantage that Zukerman boasts of can only come from our training of the young. What does the advantage consist of then?  According to Zukerman in the first position, the American is a pushover, dominated by management, with little to say about what happens. By contrast says Zukerman, Europe suffers from a strong crafts tradition which demands a worker voice in decision making. Asia is even worse off: their tradition, religion, and government interferes with what business could do. The Islamic world is so far behind, so crippled by religion that Zukerman doesn’t even bother to mention it.

His analysis makes further telling points about the American worker and the American consumer. Like nowhere else, he says “workers in America live in a constant state of panic, a panic against being left out, they know that companies owe them nothing, there is no power to appeal to for management’s decisions. Fear is our secret supercharger, it gives management the flexibility other nations will never have”. Zukerman says that even after 6 years of economic expansion, American workers including management workers fret they might not survive. He is boasting of course – this is not a critical article, this is a laudatory article. In 1996 almost half the employees of large firms feared being laid off. This is double the number fearful of being laid off in 1991 when things were not nearly as good as they are now. This keeps wages under control.

And finally, our endless consumption completes the golden circle. Consumption driven, says Zukerman, by an astonishing American addiction to novelty which provides American businesses with the only domestic market in the world. Elsewhere in hard times, business dries up — here we continue to shop till we drop, mortgaging our futures to keep the flow of goods and services coming. Remember this is not in any way a critical article. There can be no doubt that the fantastic wealth of American big business is a direct result of school training. Schools training a social lump to be needy, frightened, envious, bored, talentless and incomplete. The successful mass-production economy demands such an audience. It isn’t anybody’s fault. Just as the Amish small business, small farm economy requires intelligence, competence, thoughtfulness and compassion, ours needs a well managed mass — level, anxious, spiritless families, godless and conforming; people who believe that the difference between Coke and Pepsi is matter worth arguing about. The American economy depends on schooling us that status is purchased and others run our lives. We learn there that sources of joy and accomplishment are external, that the contentment comes with the possessions, seldom from within. School cuts our ability to concentrate to a few minutes duration, creating a life-long craving for relief from boredom through outside stimulation. In conjunction with television and computer games, which employ the identical teaching methodology, these lessons are permanently inscribed. We become fearful, stupid, voiceless and addicted to novelty.

The secret of American schooling is that it doesn’t teach the way children learn — nor is it supposed to. Schools were conceived to serve the economy and the social order rather than kids and families — that is why it is compulsory. As a consequence, the school can not help anybody grow up, because its prime directive is to retard maturity. It does that by teaching that everything is difficult, that other people run our lives, that our neighbors are untrustworthy even dangerous. School is the first impression children get of society. Because first impressions are often the decisive ones, school imprints kids with fear, suspicion of one another, and certain addictions for life. It ambushes natural intuition, faith, and love of adventure, wiping these out in favor of a gospel of rational procedure and rational management.

About a month ago, the New York Times sent a reporter to three daycare centers in Houston, Texas, one for white kids, one for black kids, and one for Hispanic kids. To everyone’s surprise, he found that all three were identical, they were wonderful places, they were very well appointed, they were clean, bright, they were colorful. All looked fine. But according to the reporter, each gave only token personal attention to individual kids, because mathematically no more than that was possible. Communication was by cheerful admonitions like “Don’t do that Wilma” or to-whom-it-may-concern statements like “it’s line-up time!”. Workers saw their goals more as managing children than interacting with them. Managing children is what professional childcare is about in America. Schools are part of the professional child care empire and education has nothing whatsoever to do with it.

Behind the melodrama of lurid school headlines, hammer attacks on pregnant school teachers, paramilitary assaults on elementary schools by students whose cheeks have never felt a razor, pass the red herring — the falling or rising of S.A.T. scores. What seems clear to me after 30 years inside the business, is that school is a place where children learn to dislike each other. What causes that? The self hatred, ineptitude, and generalized antagonism are certainly the justification for a managed society that deviates from the founding documents of this nation, which conferred sovereignty on ordinary people, not on experts.

The U.C.L.A. study done recently of a 1000 public schools found that the teachers” averaged 7 minutes daily in personal exchanges with students. Divided among 30 kids, that is a total of 14 seconds each. The constant scrambling for attention and status in the close confines of the classroom., where those are only officially conferred by an adult who lacks both the time or the information (to be fair), teaches us to dislike and distrust each other. This continuous auction of favors, has something to do with our anger, and our inability to be honest or responsible, even as grown-ups. Yet, ironically, irresponsibility serves the management ideal much better than decent behavior ever could. It demands close management, it explains all those lawyers, all those courts, all those policemen and all those schools. Now either we are structurally undependable, necessitating constant policing, or somehow we have been robbed of our ability to become responsible.

Consider the strange possibility that we have been deliberately taught to be irresponsible and to dislike each other for some good purpose. I am not being sarcastic or even cynical. I spent 19 years as a student, and 30 more as a school teacher and in all that time I was seldom asked to be responsible, unless you mistake obedience and responsibility for the same thing, which they certainly are not. Whether student or teacher, I gave reflective obedience to strangers for 49 years. If that isn’t a recipe for irresponsibility then nothing is. In school your payoff comes from giving up your personal responsibility, just doing what you’re told by strangers even if that violates the core principles of your household. There isn’t any way to grow up in school, school won’t let you. As I watched it happen, it takes three years to break a kid, 3 years confined to an environment of emotional neediness, songs, smiles, bright colors, cooperative games, these work much better than angry words and punishment. Constant supplication for attention creates a chemistry whose products are the characteristics of modern school children — whining, treachery, dishonesty, malice, cruelty and similar traits. Ceaseless competition for attention in the dramatic fishbowl of the classroom, I have never seen this dynamic examined in the public press — not in 50 years of reading the public press. Ceaseless competition for attention in the dramatic fishbowl of the classroom, reliably delivers cowardly children, toadies, school stoolies, little people sunk into chronic boredom, little people with no apparent purpose, just like caged rats, pressing a bar for sustenance, who develop eccentric mannerisms on a periodic reinforcement schedule.  Those of you who took rat psychology in college will know what I’m referring to — just like the experience of rat psychology, the bizarre behavior kids display is a function of the reinforcement schedule in the confinement of schooling to a large degree. I’m certain of that. Children like this need extensive management.

Suppose that producing incomplete beings is the purpose of modern schooling. Further suppose, there is a rational defense for doing it, Suppose a century ago, far sighted men and women, although they were largely men, saw that to realize the potential in machinery and fossil fuel, that the bulk of the population would have to be dumbed down and made dependent — not to hurt people — but because only in this fashion could a population of producers, which surely characterizes the American scene then, be turned into the consumers required by a commercially intense economy. That the labor force could be made sufficiently adaptable to endure modern machinery which must rapidly evolve for ever and ever. This specific engineering problem confronted this key group of business people and philosophers at the beginning of the 20th century. How could a proud liberty-loving nation of independent families and villages be turned from its historic tradition of self-reliance and independence? Grown ups were unlikely to be tractable. The history, the highly personalized practice of local schooling, offered another possibility. Social thinkers have speculated for millennia, that a political state which successfully seizes control of the young could perform economic miracles. That idea is at least 2300 years old. And while the only instrument adequate for such a project, forced schooling, had never been more than a freak in the western world, it had been successful in one place, the military-theocracy of Prussia and the Germanies. Horace Mann’s pilgrimage to Prussia in the 1840’s became a harbinger of our future set in motion. The 20th century ends with mass schooling threatening to capture early childhood too — in a round of forced kindergarten exercises. And even after a century of victorious laws of schooling, inspired by Horace Mann’s love of Prussia, there is no agreement on what an educated American should look like. School is still a police activity at the end of the 20th century — as it was at the beginning. And education for Americans remains a slippery concept.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the power to determine what education meant was vested in the managers of the new forced school institution. It was exactly as if in winter an Eskimo gave over meat to a polar bear for safekeeping. “Here you big bear, watch this seal meat until I get back”. In the first decades of the new school century the group of famous academics symbolically led by Edward Thorndike (he is the Thorndike of the Thorndike/Barnard dictionary), and John Dewey of Columbia’s Teacher’s College and their industrialist allies, decided to bend government schooling to business and the political state just exactly as it been bent in Prussia. A higher mission would exist too. Schools would serve as “instruments of managed evolution, establishing conditions for selective breeding before the masses take things into their own hands” (now I quoted that from a published essay by Edward Thorndike at Columbia Teacher’s college in 1911). Standardized testing would separate those fit to breed and those fit to work and those unfit. Back before WW1, educational psychology, which was the creation of Edward Thorndike, had established that certain kinds of mental training in history, in philosophy, in rhetoric, for instance, made students resistant to manipulation because it developed independent intellect, it reduced their plasticity. That knowledge coupled with the new German directive to serve corporation and government, provided a sufficient motive to dumb instruction down.

Between 1906 and 1920, a handful of world famous industrialists and financiers, together with their private foundations, hand picked University administrators and house politicians, and spent more attention and more money toward forced schooling than the national government did. Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller alone spent more money than the government did between 1900 and 1920. In this fashion, the system of modern schooling was constructed outside the public eye and outside the public’s representatives. Now I want you to listen to a direct quote, I have not altered a word of this, it’s certainly traceable through your local librarians. From the very first report issued by John D. Rockefeller’s General Education Board — this is their first mission statement: “In our dreams, people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present education conventions of intellectual and character education fade from their 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 men of learning or philosophers, or men of science. We have not to raise up from them authors, educators, poets or men of letters, great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, (he’s really covering the whole gamut of employment isn’t he?) statesmen, politicians, creatures of whom we have ample supply (whoever the pronoun we is meant to stand for there). The task is simple. We will organize children and teach them in an perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way”.

Now you might say that is quoting out of context and I would speculate what the context of such a statement could possibly be, but in any case, if you want to get the whole thing, that’s OCCASIONAL LETTER NO.1. OF THE GENERAL EDUCATION BOARD, which I told you was spending more money than the Federal Government on education of the first two decades of this century.

The real purpose of modern schooling was announced by the legendary sociologist Edward Roth in his manifesto of 1906 called SOCIAL CONTROL. Your librarian will easily be able to get a copy of this book. In it Roth wrote, (I am quoting) “plans are underway to replace family, community and church with propaganda, mass-media and education (of course he meant schooling)…people are only little plastic lumps of dough”. Another insider, H. H. Cadard, chairman for the Psychology Department at Princeton, called government schooling approvingly — “the perfect organization of the hive with the anthill”. Cadard wrote further, “standardized testing would cause the lower classes to confront their biological inferiority, sort of like wearing a dunce cap. In time that would discourage reproduction of the ants on the anthill”.

The first curriculum was dumbed down, then national testing was inserted, next morality was weakened and finally between 1970 and 1974, teacher training in the U.S. was comprehensively and covertly revamped. In 1971, the U.S. Office of Education, now committed to gaining access to your private lives and thoughts, granted contracts for seven volumes of change agent studies to the Rand Corporation. Change agent training was launched with Federal funding under the EDUCATION PROFESSIONS DEVELOPMENT ACT. Soon afterward, a book appeared called THE CHANGE AGENT’S GUIDE TO INNOVATION IN EDUCATION. Grants were awarded to colleges for the training of change agents while further Rand documents like FACTORS AFFECTING CHANGE AGENTS PROJECTS continued to pour forth for implementation of teacher training courses. Machievelli had been modernized.

Using schools as the principal forge, the building blocks for a self-perpetuating ruling dynasty, organized on scientific principles, moved into place during the first 5 decades of the 20th century. Obstacles like religion, tradition, family, the natural rights guaranteed by our founding documents were steadily beaten back. Schools slowly became, after WW1, a huge reconstruction project conducted with the enthusiasm of an evangelical religion. The traditional God was banished entirely before 1950 to be replaced by psychological missionaries in a social-work priesthood. Public school was transmuted into a social laboratory without public knowledge or public consent. Think of what happened as a second American Revolution, striking down those perverse founding documents which granted sovereignty to ordinary people.

School was a lie from the beginning and continues to be a lie. You hear a great deal of nonsense these days about the need of a high tech economy for a well educated people, but the truth staring you in the face is that it requires no such thing. As our economy is rationalized into automaticity, and globalization, it becomes more and more an interlocking set of subsystems coordinated centrally by mathematical formulae which simply can not accommodate different ways of thinking and knowing. Our profitable system demands radically incomplete customers and workers to make it go. Educated people are its enemies, so is any nonpragmatic morality.

To get better schools that actually served us instead of suffocating us, we would need to successfully challenge certain scholastic and corporate assumptions. We would need to abandon, entirely, the idea that any such reality as mass-man actually exists. We would have to believe what fingerprints and intuition tell us — that no two people are alike, that nobody can be accurately described by numbers, that trying to do this sets up a future chain of griefs. We would have to accept that there is no such thing as a science of pedagogy, nor is one possible — that each individual has a private destiny. We would need to transfer faith to such principles and behave as if it were true. We would have to come to our senses and admit that knowledge is not a substitute for wisdom. We would have to believe each American has the right to live as he or she deems wise providing only they do no harm to others. And if the way individuals chose to live means disaster for global corporations, as the Amish way of life embraced by too many would surely mean disaster, the fateful choice would still have to be honored because it is protected by the only contract that defines us — our founding documents and natural law. The brilliant dialectical balance struck by our founders was a way to keep power weak and off-balance. The official power and popular power both. Government would check popular tyranny over minority rights. This constant confrontation, this un-winnable war between two permanently flawed collectivizing principles, coercive government and bullying public opinion, produces liberty for those who want it. In the stalemate liberty escapes.

Lately what has happened is this: in an effort to avoid the damnable arguments of the people and to become more efficient, management has wrecked the political balance. It has made us all prisoners of management systems. School is it’s vital ally. What we have built, mass forced schooling, cannot be reformed, it must be bashed. It was created by people, people can take it apart.

Thank you very much. (Applause)…

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Posted by on February 26, 2012 in Uncategorized


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